9 – 9 (‘Nine to Nine’) is, appropriately, track number nine on Murmur, the debut album by R.E.M. released June 1983.
Before we get into the musicological, here are some facts about the song.
It was written at some point in 1981 and started to appear in live sets mid-way through the year. It was originally intended to be released via the bands debut E.P., Chronic Town, but was abandoned during the recording sessions. It was eventually recorded & mixed at Reflection Sound Studio A at some point during January-February 1983. This is the version that appears on Murmur.
Following the album release the song was played live extensively, often in between ‘Gardening At Night’ & ‘Windout’, due to the fact that all three songs use the same guitar tuning (more on this below). It continued to be a live mainstay until 1986, but then presumably fell out of favour.
The song opens with a distinctive 2-bar bass phrase from Mike Mills. He plays an A pedal note on the downbeat along with a repeated figure on the D string at the 11, 12 & 14th frets (C#, D, E). This implies a key of A major.
After four bars (~0:14 into the video), the guitar joins on the 2nd beat of the bar. Peter Buck’s guitar is tuned E A D G B D (high ‘E’ string is tuned down a whole step). The ringing open D note that emerges within the riff hints at a Dmaj7 flavour, but some tension is created by the promixity of the F# & G notes in bar two of the phrase. It is this ‘sourness’ that makes his part jump out of the speakers. Buck plays over the bar line to resolve the riff which makes for an interesting rhythmic feel.
Micheal Stipe’s spoken, barely audible lines also contribute to the avant garde nature of the intro. Given all this weirdness, Bill Berry sensibly sticks to a regular kick-drum based pattern and subtle fills.
First up, Mike Mills plays a short pickup phrase that leads the listeners ear into the verse; Berry complements with a brief fill. Mills’ note choice is of the E minor pentatonic variety, which provides the verse with more of an orthodox rock sound and is a great contrast to the intro.
Peter Buck responds with some muted strums before playing a riff that channels his inner Pete Townshend and is built around an E sus chord.
On the album version, following this two bar riff, much weirdness ensues. However, for live performances, during the first verse, Buck would keep the part simple with more muted strums. In subsequent verses he increases the avant gardeness using harmonics, open strings and chord fragments:
On drums, Bill Berry plays a four-on-the-floor kick rhythm bookending the E sus guitar phrase. This provides a steady, reliable contrast during the post-punk shenanigans.
Mills now moves up to the dusty end of the neck and plays a four bar descending phrase built around the root and fifth of each chord: B5, A5 & G5. It is this part that provides the movement to the chorus.
In contrast, Peter Buck aims for a simple consistent arpeggio. This type of eighth note pattern using a combination of fretted and open strings is a distinctive feature of his style and you’ll hear it in many R.E.M. songs. For some additional colour, when playing this I will usually add A and G (with my thumb) root notes, creating a B5 – A6sus2 – Gmaj7 progression.
Probably my favourite segment of the track. Over 16 bars, the band cut loose with less staccato, more open playing. Mike Mills applies a touch of syncopation which adds some spice to his B minor pentatonic note choice.
Buck now takes the arpeggio phrase from the chorus and runs with it. Sliding up and down the neck like a hyperactive Steve Cropper, he plays a series of triple stops and arpeggios before spelling out an E5 chord.
Again, Berry maintains the space, playing a simple kick drum pattern & Stipes contribution here on the recorded version should be noted. He sustains a pedal B then A note (the transition is beautiful) over almost the entire section, then amps up the weirdness even more with what sounds like backward vocals.
Intro (Reprise), Final Verse & Chorus
After the bridge the band launch into the intro again, followed by a verse with some additional vocal harmonies (more like BV’s actually).
The final chorus is a double with some melody changes before ending with – what is possibly the only clearly audible/decipherable lyric during the entire tune – ‘Conversation Fear…’.
That’s an awful lot of musical ingenuity & creativity tightly packed into 2 minutes & 59 seconds. We’ve only mentioned Stipes vocal briefly (that alone could be a whole blog post) but when combined with the inventive playing of Berry, Buck & Mills and the studio-savvy of Easter & Dixon, 9-9 is a mini-masterpiece. It is southern gothic aesthetic post-punk that also happens to be great fun to play.
Be sure to check out some of my other R.E.M-related blog posts if you like this analytical approach to their works.
Also, you can follow me on Instagram or like my Facebook page for more of the same.
 – R.E.M Timeline
Leave a Reply