“Nightswimming” is a song by REM and released in 1993 as the fifth single from the group’s album Automatic for the People. The song is a ballad featuring singer Michael Stipe accompanied only by bassist Mike Mills on piano and with a string arrangement by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and an oboe played by Deborah Workman in the latter part. Stipe sings about a group of friends who go skinny dipping at night, which draws from similar experiences in the band’s early days.
Mike Mills recalled he was playing a piano riff at John Keane’s studio in the band’s hometown of Athens, Georgia. While he almost discarded the melody, it attracted the interest of singer Michael Stipe. Mills said, “I never thought it would amount to much because it was just a circular thing that kept going round and round and round. But it inspired Michael.”
While the song was not included on the Out of Time album which they were recording at the time, the demo recorded during those sessions was used for Automatic for the People. Mills has also claimed he recorded the piano part at Criteria Studios in Miami, on the same piano used by Derek and the Dominos on the recording of “Layla”.
“Michael listened once, nodded his head to hear it again, and on the second pass he sang the lyrics. It was “Nightswimming,” exactly like the record we would record a year later,” explained Peter Buck in 2003. “I was standing in the corner, dumbfounded.”
The inspiration for the song has been debated by the band members. Mills said, “It’s based on true events”, explaining that in the early 1980s REM and its circle of friends would go skinny dipping after the Athens clubs closed at night. “We’d go to parties, we’d go to the clubs and we’d go to the Ball Pump, and there would be any number of these same 50 people, so it was a very tight circle of friends.” Peter Buck holds a similar interpretation. However, Stipe has denied that that is the topic of the song; rather, Stipe says the song is about a “kind of an innocence that’s either kind of desperately clung onto or obviously lost.” Stipe said there are autobiographical elements to the song, but insists most of it is “made up.”
The music was written by Mike Mills and Michael Stipe wrote the words but the song is credited to the whole band as was their custom at the time.
This version of the song was recorded on the “Later… with Jools Holland” show on 14th October 2003.
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