When R.E.M.‘s Michael Stipe Created the Lyrics for “The Voice of Harold” by Riffing on the Liner Notes of an Old Gospel Album (1983)

R.E.M. is one of those bands that just think­ing about can send me into a rever­ie of mem­o­ries of the rooms of friends with whom I lis­tened to “Pret­ty Per­sua­sion,” “Rockville,” and the poet­ry of “7 Chi­nese Bros.”—one of Michael Stipe’s ear­ly, incom­pre­hen­si­ble songs, like “Swan Swan H,” whose cryp­tic lyrics one must seem­ing­ly take on faith. The song must mean some­thing, after all, to Stipe. Maybe the mys­tery of who, exact­ly, the “sev­en Chi­nese broth­ers swal­low­ing the ocean” were to him would be revealed some­day in an inter­view or stray ref­er­ence in a biog­ra­phy….

Now that we live in an age of instant infor­ma­tion grat­i­fi­ca­tion, we can skip the years of won­der and find the answer right away: the song was part­ly inspired, we learn at Song­facts, by a 1938 children’s book called The Five Chi­nese Broth­ers, based on a tra­di­tion­al folk tale of young broth­ers with super­nat­ur­al pow­ers. (It’s also part­ly a trib­ute to pho­tog­ra­ph­er Car­ol Levy, a friend who died in a car crash before the record­ing of Reck­on­ing.) Need­ing anoth­er syl­la­ble, maybe, Stipe changed the num­ber to sev­en, an odd­ly prophet­ic move giv­en that a new ver­sion of the sto­ry, pub­lished ten years lat­er, also fea­tured sev­en broth­ers.

The ref­er­ence shows how many great song­writ­ers work: pick­ing at bits and pieces from their mem­o­ries and what­ev­er cap­ti­vat­ing text hap­pens to be lay­ing around…. And Stipe is one of those singers, like Elton John, who can sell any line, no mat­ter how obscure or absurd.

In ear­ly songs, espe­cial­ly, he showed an uncan­ny abil­i­ty to invest incan­ta­to­ry com­bi­na­tions of words with haunt­ing pathos and urgency. He could sing from the phone book or the back of a cere­al box and make it com­pelling. In fact, the sto­ry of “7 Chi­nese Bros.” involves an almost sim­i­lar feat in the form of “Voice of Harold,” famil­iar to fans as the B‑side to “So. Cen­tral Rain” and part of the 1987 odds and ends col­lec­tion Dead Let­ter Office. What pos­si­ble expla­na­tion could there be for these non sequitur gospel lyrics, sung to the tune of… “7 Chi­nese Bros.”?

Was Stipe a secret Evan­ge­list, hop­ing to win con­verts by extolling “the pure tenor qual­i­ty of the voice of Harold Mont­gomery”? More teas­ing­ly vague themes emerge, along with ref­er­ences to fig­ures like the Rev­erend Bill Fun­der­burk, Charles Sur­ratt, John Bar­bee, and Rhon­da Mont­gomery (“That’s Rhon­da! An artist!”). Instead of “Sev­en Chi­nese broth­ers swal­low­ing the ocean,” the cho­rus intro­duces us to “The Rev­e­laires, A must / The Rev­e­laires / A must.” If you’re one of those who heard this song and thought, “What…?”, you can won­der no more.

The expla­na­tion comes to us from a 2009 inter­view pro­duc­er Don Dixon gave to Uncut mag­a­zine. (For some rea­son, Dixon refers to “7 Chi­nese Bros.” as “7 Chi­nese Blues,” nev­er a title of the song). The sto­ry begins with Stipe feel­ing down in the dumps in a stair­well out­fit­ted as a lounge for him in the stu­dio.

We were work­ing on the vocal for “7 Chi­nese Blues,” but Michael just was­n’t into it. He was down in his stair­well. I hit the talk-back to let him know I was com­ing through to make an adjust­ment… This was just an excuse to take a look at him, see if I could loosen him up a lit­tle. While I was in the attic, I’d noticed a stack of old records that had been tak­en up there to die, local R&B and gospel stuff most­ly. I grabbed the one off the top (a gospel record enti­tled The Joy of Know­ing Jesus by the Rev­e­laires) and as I passed Michael on the way to the Con­trol Room, I tossed it down to him. I thought he might be amused. When I fired up the tape a few sec­onds lat­er, Michael was singing, but not the lyrics to “7 Chi­nese Blues.” He was singing the lin­er notes to the LP I’d tossed him. When Michael began to sing these lin­er notes, he was much loud­er than he’d been ear­li­er and it took a few sec­onds for me to realise what was going on and adjust the lev­els. He made it all the way through the song, work­ing in every word on the back of that album! I rewound the tape, we had a chuck­le and pro­ceed­ed to sing the beau­ti­ful one-take vocal of the real words that you hear on Reck­on­ing. He seemed more con­fi­dent after that day.

Stipe didn’t just sing the words from the back of the album, he impro­vised cut-ups as he went, re-arrang­ing phras­es to fit the meter of the orig­i­nal song. “Voice of Harold” became a fan favorite for much the same rea­son as “7 Chi­nese Bros.” and “Swan Swan H”—it seemed to hide a mys­tery in plain view, its impas­sioned deliv­ery at odds with its non­sen­si­cal nar­ra­tive. Released after Reck­on­ing, it turns a spon­ta­neous moti­va­tion­al tool dur­ing the mak­ing of the album into a cre­ation all its own.

Jim Con­nel­ly explores the rela­tion­ship between “7 Chi­nese Bros.” and “Voice of Harold” even fur­ther in a post at Medi­alop­er, point­ing to the firm con­vic­tion that’s so “chill-induc­ing” in the lat­ter (and that comes through in the for­mer record­ing, made imme­di­ate­ly after­ward). They may be found words, serendip­i­tous­ly picked up and put togeth­er on the spot, but in Stipe’s voice we can tell that “He’s real. He means it,” what­ev­er the hell it is. See a video of “Voice of Harold” with lyrics, at the top, and fol­low along with the lin­er notes on the back of Rev­e­laires’ gospel album The Joy of Know­ing Jesus just above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” Michael Stipe Pro­claims Again, and He Still Feels Fine

Why R.E.M.’s 1991 Out of Time May Be the “Most Polit­i­cal­ly Impor­tant Album” Ever

R.E.M.’s “Los­ing My Reli­gion” Reworked from Minor to Major Scale

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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