Episode 124: Longbox

R.E.M.’s  Out of Time is the most politically significant album in the history of the United States. Because of its packaging.

In 1985, the pop charts were full of Prince and Sheena Easton and the youth of America were being corrupted. Tipper Gore and other elite women of Washington formed the “Parents Music Resource Center” (PMRC) to put pressure on the creators and distributors of “objectionable” music.

There were Senate hearings, and eventually those little black and white Parental Advisory stickers started appearing on albums.

1280px-Parental_Advisory_label.svg

This set off a wave of censorship across the country.

In 1990, a Federal district judge in South Florida ruled that the rap group 2 Live Crew’s album “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” was so obscene that it couldn’t be sold or performed within his jurisdiction in South Florida. Three days after the ruling, 2 Live Crew played a show in a county within his jurisdiction, and afterwards two members of the group got arrested.

When Jeff Ayeroff, an executive at Virgin Records, watched this all play out on TV, he felt offended. Not by the raunchy lyrics or the twerking on stage, but by the arrests and the blatant censorship of the artists’ work. Shortly thereafter, he got the idea for “Rock the Vote.”

The idea behind Rock the Vote was simple: get young people to vote for politicians who wouldn’t censor music. Ayeroff got about sixty people together in a Los Angeles hotel to talk about launching Rock The Vote. Frank Zappa was there, past and present California Governor Jerry Brown was there, as well as a bunch of record executives, including Jeff’s friend, a record executive  at Warner Brothers named Jeff Gold. Gold’s major project at the time was trying to figure out how to package CDs.

Compact Disc packaging was the hot topic in the record world of the late 80s and early 90s. CDs had been around for a few years, but record stores still didn’t have a good way to display them, because their shelves were formatted to display 12” vinyl LPs. The solution was to package CD jewel cases inside of cardboard boxes that were just as tall as a vinyl album but half as wide. This allowed the shelves to fit two “longbox” CDs side-by-side on an LP rack.

REM_LONGBOX_PHOTO front(Front of R.E.M.’s Out of Time)

Artists, however, objected to the wastefulness of the longbox. In 1991, R.E.M. had a record coming out, and they did not want millions of trees cut down just to create this extra packing. The Warner Brothers sales department knew that this album absolutely had to come out in a longbox if it was going to do well in retail, and that’s when Jeff Gold realized that he could merge the two projects he was working on. Jeff Gold realized that he could convince R.E.M. to use a longbox if they could use the CD longbox to advance the Rock the Vote campaign.

Jeff Gold needed a concrete political cause to connect it to, and Jeff Ayeroff brought him just the thing: the “Motor Voter” bill, which been bouncing around Congress since the 1970s. If passed, Motor Voter would allow people to register to vote at the DMV when they got a driver’s license. It also allowed citizens to register by mail, or when they applied for social services like welfare or unemployment. Basically, the Motor Voter bill would make it easier for lots of people,  including young people, to register to vote. By 1991 a few states had already adopted it, but Congress had never been able to get it passed nationally.

R.E.M.’s longbox, printed with a petition in support of the Motor Voter Bill, became a piece of political machinery.  When Out of Time hit the record stores on March 12th, 1991, the petitions started rolling in. After 3 weeks, they had received 10,000 petitions, 100 per senator, and they just kept coming in in droves.

REM_LONGBOX_PHOTO back(Back of R.E.M.’s Out Of Time, complete with Rock The Vote petition).

About a month after R.E.M. released the album, Rock The Vote’s political director, along with members of the hip hop group KMD, wheeled a shopping cart full of the first 10,000 petitions into a senate hearing.

In May of 1992, after thousands of petitions and the Senate testimony, the Motor Voter bill passed Congress. Then President H. W. Bush, in the middle of his re-election campaign, vetoed it. Bush’s opponent, Bill Clinton, took up Motor Voter as a talking point, and after he won, he signed it into law as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

The National Voter Registration Act went into effect in 1995. From that year to 2012, the percentage of the population that is registered to vote went from 69.5% to 79.9%, and over 150 million voter registrations have been filled out at the DMV.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why no album in the history of recorded music has had as large an effect on politics in the United States as R.E.M’s Out of Time.

Reporter Whitney Jones spoke with Jeff Ayeroff and Jeff Gold about the creation of Rock The Vote and the death of the longbox. A version of this story originally appeared on his podcast, Pitch.

Pitch’s pilot episode, “The Clearmountain Pause” is a work of art.

PITCH Simple White

 

Music: “Radio Song”- R.E.M.; “Belong,” – R.E.M.; Me So Horny”- 2 Live Crew; “Rhea” – Mux Mool; “Surfing the Ganges”- R.E.M.; “The Blankout Agreement” – Kelpe; “Whirlwound” – Kelpe; “Shiny Happy People”- R.E.M.; “Sitting Still”- R.E.M.; “Vazgone”- Melodium

 

45 thoughts on “Longbox

  1. When all this was going on, I thought tipper ogre was an idiot. Now, with kids of my own, I have more sympathy. I really dislike the fact that my kids are learning about ugly sex – random hookups, prostitution, abusive relationships, sex without self-control – before they are learning about good sex (between two people who actually care about each other). We have actually talked about sec since they were quite young, and I’m not advocating waiting for marriage, etc., but a major pop song on radio, and so pop-hook-filled that it is routinely played in kids venues, that contains the line (roughly) “all he’s gotta do is look, uh, and the panties comin’ off” or twerking with strangers, and the like, does bother me. Ugly and uncivilized and not exactly the healthiest of sexual lives to teach.

    So now, yes, I’d actually like there to be some standards – not to ban music, but to make it not so pervasive that you simply cannot avoid it without going off the grid.

    • I’ve actually taken songs I love, imported them into Protools, and bleeped out the “bad” words so I can play them at the dance parties I have with the kids. You could’ve never convinced the 15 year old punk version of me that I would be doing that later in life.

    • Erica

      Your comment smells very familiar: wait, it’s channeling Tipper and the PMRC.

      I get that you have kids and want to protect them/shelter them from all things bad in the world. If you’re talking to them about sex and more grown up topics at an earlier age, they’ll probably be better human beings because of it.

      Setting standards is a step down the road to censorship of the arts. As a parent, you have a difficult series of choices to make when it comes to this subject. If you shelter them completely, it will likely make them seek it out more. If you talk to them about what they’re hearing/seeing and work to establish the difference between fantasy/reality….

      The kids of rock and roll over the decades (musical styles prior too) have done pretty well. We’ve all weathered the parents fears of “that music” and still turned out solid citizens of the world but we still have strides to make. It is harder to do in this day and age because of different parameters of what “used to be not allowed” and now “passé”.

      Keep talking to your kids. That is the way to make your way through it. Setting standards beyond what is allowed on public radio, television will make things worse.

  2. Great show, and great to hear the inside story on longboxes. I’m 42 and Out Of Time came out when I was in college – I remember the transformation of record stores. Not to get overly nostalgic, but I have fond memories of waiting in line at the record store for midnight releases – Cocteau Twins, Peter Gabriel, and more… new releases don’t have quite the same cachet as they used to for me.

    Anyway, my then-boyfriend, now-husband introduced me to older REM, with a double cassette of Murmer and Life’s Rich Pageant, and I would definitely go with Roman for Murmer being the most important. I always liked LRP better, but my FAVORITE is Green. Heresy perhaps to some old-school REM fans, but those songs move my heart, and Untitled is my favorite REM song of all time, closely followed by You Are the Everything. I listened to all three of those albums on my Walkman while putting in very late night hours at the art studio in college, and those times are forever entwined in my memory.

    • I actually consider Life’s Rich Pageant my favorite and it’s the one I probably go back to the most, but Murmur is right up there.

  3. Although I understand peoples concerns about what children see, censorship hasn’t and never will work. The best thing to do is talk plainly to children about why a Rihanna video is bad and why it demeans women, why swearing is cheap, and why pointless consumerism is indeed, pointless.

    As for REM, that is a brilliant example of using your fame to do something worthwhile. Always had a lot of respect for them, and dare I say it. They are about the only band I can think of where their creative peak was the same as their commercial one.

  4. I sweat, when Roman said “You’re a child, you don’t know anything. Murmur.” I totally cracked up, which, as I was listening through headphones in a cafe at the time, made me the target of many disapproving stares. But he’s right! Murmur is the best one.

    Personal favorite though? Probably Fables of the Reconstruction. I always associate REM big time with the era in my life when I still used a walkman, even though all I carried with me was a tape with Murmur on one side and Fables on the other. I guess they just really straddled that timeline, as far as mediums go? They’re one of the few bands where my collection includes records, tapes, and CDs, and I remember seeing the longbox for Out of Time in used record stores as late as 2006 (in fact, I vaguely remember there being a longbox of sorts for new adventures in hi-fi, way way later).

    Anyway, yeah, for me? Fables. I don’t know why, it’s not objectively as good as Murmur or Automatic or LRP. I just love that dark, southern gothic mood, I guess.

    Great Show!

  5. The first bit is full of revisionist history and FUD. The parental advisory sticker didn’t trigger censorship, it was intended to defuse a trend towards censorship. People were getting bent out of shape because of explicit content and there was no way for parents to know what might be objectionable. By giving information (stickers) you were taking the wind out of efforts to ban stuff. Zappa et al actually were working against their own interests, but were to full of their own bluster to realize that.

  6. I wholeheartedly endorse Reckoning for phenomenal REM album. I cannot imagine a better album which contains such epic tunes like Rockville, Pretty Persuasion and Harborcoat. Thank you for reminding me. I am off to dig out my record and spin it at neighbor meeting volume right now.

    P.S. Love the episode as Always!

    Kevin Astle

  7. As a 42 year old, I have to say, only because it was my introduction to them, that Document was their best album. I know, I know. At the time everyone was like, “REM sold out!!!” Whatever, I still love that album. Thanks for another great episode.

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  9. I’m impressed with everyone here who can pick just one REM album as their favorite. The best I’ve ever been able to do is narrow it down to 5.

    Thanks 99% team for another great episode. I also appreciate the bit of foreshadowing when you played Underneath the Bunker a few weeks back, I’m assuming that was intentional.

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  11. Murmur- absolutely the best of REM. Full album of songs, not a one-hit wonder, thoughtful. Definitely spoke to me like no other

  12. I’m confused by the record-to-CD conversion at the heart of this story. Cassette tape sales had surpassed vinyl 10 years before 1990. How were they being displayed in record stores that whole time? Were they in long boxes?

    • Good question…
      They were locked into plastic security boxes (at the stores I worked at we called them “shucks”. We kept a key at the counter to unlocked them and re-used the shucks. Some other stores sold cassettes in plastic boxes that stayed on. The Customer had to cut those off with some pretty heavy duty scissors. I remember these being hard to cut through… a deterent to sales as well as theft!

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  14. This really has nothing to do with the episode, but since this has turned into a regular old REM thread in many ways, I feel like I need to let everyone know how surprisingly good the last album was. I had all but given up on them by that point (really, I’m not a huge fan of anything from Monster onwards), but Collapse Into Now was freaking solid. In my opinion, best album wince Automatic.

  15. Great show, thanks a lot! I definitely will check out Pitch when it comes back on.

    One point I don’t agree with is your statement ‘this kind of mobilisation could only have happened in this small interval between LPs and CD display boxes’. It would not have been a problem to put a folded postcard in a jewel case. That would not be a great design of course…
    Nowadays, a pop-up window with a filled-in email form would have to open from inside iTunes.

    What about you guys? Any political agenda that you feel strong enough about to put it on air? Probably much harder for you then it was for the Jeffs. It did not sound as if they risked much in the campaign.
    _________

    For me it is between Lifes Rich Pageant and Green. It depends on the mood: swan swan humming bird VS Get up!

  16. Good episode, as always. For me, the best R.E.M. recording is the 1983 live concert here in Toronto at Larry’s Hideaway. The re-release of Mumur had some cleaned up tracks from that show, but the old version floating around the internet has a more gritty “bootleg” feel to it. Hard to believe it is more than 30 years ago now.

  17. I would probably say Green, but that’s my first one (and my first concert) so I’m pretty biased. Because of this episode I re-listened to Out of Time and wow it does not hold up. Makes me a little sad.

  18. I too am a child (31), and I too laughed pretty hard at Roman’s child comment. Although his dismissive insistence on their first album being the best smacks of hipsterism!

    Green was the first album I heard, Out of Time the first I owned, and the Monster tour was the first time I saw them live. For my favorite I vacillate between Automatic and Eponymous (which I realize is a total cop-out since it’s a comp). But Murmur is really really good. And the IRS years video collection is fantastic.*

    Even though I was a little late to the party, REM remains one of my two favorite bands (them and Black Sabbath, go figure).

    *http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_the_Light_Is_Mine:_The_Best_of_the_I.R.S._Years_1982%E2%80%931987

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  20. Murmur came out the year before I was born. It’s my favourite album. I had a huge smile on my face when Roman said “Murmur” as Sitting Still, my favourite song from the album, started playing.

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