When Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones Offered R.E.M. a Key Assist
Members of R.E.M. were skeptical about the commercial potential of their eighth album, Automatic for the People. It was a testament to their immense popularity and sharp songcraft that the lush, brooding LP replicated the success of its 1991 successor Out of Time, climbing to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and selling over 4 million copies in the United States.
Released on Oct. 5, 1992, Automatic for the People further cemented R.E.M.'s status as alt-rock visionaries and superstars, yielding half a dozen singles including the sparse tone-setter "Drive" and the heartrending ballad "Everybody Hurts." In their quest to craft a tender, timeless opus, they enlisted the help of someone who knew a thing or two about making opuses: John Paul Jones.
R.E.M. producer Scott Litt reached out to the Led Zeppelin alum about arranging strings for "Everybody Hurts" and three other Automatic tunes: "Drive," "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" and "Nightswimming." After hearing the demos, Jones happily obliged.
"Doing the string arrangements for that album was a great experience, actually," he told Uncut in 2014. "They sent me the demos of their songs, and we went into a studio in Atlanta, with members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. They were great songs, something you can really get your teeth into as an arranger – and I've been good friends with them ever since."
Watch R.E.M.'s Video for 'Drive'
The collaboration was mutually enjoyable. "John Paul Jones was great to work with," guitarist Peter Buck said in Reveal: The Story of R.E.M. "He knows his way backwards and forwards on just about every instrument. He's a great arranger and a super sweet guy."
Drummer Bill Berry argued that "John Paul Jones really added an extra element to this record that the last one didn't have, even though it had strings. Those were basically our string parts that we kinda hummed along to the symphony and they kinda struggled with it," he said in a promotional video for Automatic for the People. "But John Paul Jones came in with, you know, charts and definite ideas – and he really directed that portion of the record."
The move paid off, as the Jones-produced "Drive" topped Billboard's Alternative Airplay (then
Modern Rock Tracks) chart. "Everybody Hurts" tapped out at No. 21 on Alternative Airplay and No. 29 on the Hot 100, but still became one of the band's best-known and most enduring songs.
Jones and R.E.M. would cross paths more than once over the next several decades. Buck and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills joined Jones onstage in Norway in 2015 to cover Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks." Jones and Buck teamed up again just two months later at the Todos Santos Festival, performing alongside members of Wilco and Sleater-Kinney.
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