AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #91 : R.E.M.

IT’S CRAZY WHAT YOU COULD’VE HAD

rem

I’ve not done all that many ICAs in recent times, preferring to leave such posts to guest contributors. Those of you who have taken the time to submit an ICA will know just how time-consuming an exercise it is, not just in getting your thoughts down on paper but having the pleasure of listening again to the back catalogue of a singer or band in the effort to find that perfect running order knowing fine well you’ll probably change your mind within a few minutes of hitting the send button.

I have the same dilemma and find that if I get myself immersed in an ICA I struggle to come up with the required daily postings to keep this place ticking over, but given that next week will see a series of guest postings while I’m off enjoying myself in Toronto I have no excuses but to have another go. But I’ll make it easy for myself by going for R.E.M.

Actually, thanks to a slight sleight of hand I have made it much easier than it should be. Those of you who recall The Fall ICA from August 2015 will know that I restricted myself to selecting only from singles released in the UK. Today, I’m restricting myself to album tracks that weren’t released in the UK as a 45…..and they had to come from an album on which Bill Berry featured………which in turn meant 10 studio LPs released between 1983 and 1986……….which led me to go with one from each of them (with one exception)

Believe me, without these bye-laws for this ICA I’d still have been writing the piece come this time next year. So here is what I’ve called It’s Crazy What You Could Have Had.

Side A

1. Begin The Begin (from Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986)

This ICA opens with the opening track from the band’s fourth studio LP which, looking back, can be seen as taking the first serious steps away from being a cult indie/college band towards world domination within five years. The album tackled a range of political and ecological issues and its release seemed to coincide with Michael Stipe finally getting comfortable with the idea of the front man being seen by so many, fans and media alike, as the spokesperson albeit he was often singing lyrics penned by one of the other members – such was the joy of having all compositions attributed to Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe.

Begin The Begin has always been a band favourite, being played extensively at gigs and long after most of the other songs from the IRS years had been dropped to accommodate the ones the arena and stadium audiences had paid good money to hear – y’know, the 19 singles lifted from the first four albums from the 90s which have come to define the band in the eyes and to the ears of so many. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – and indeed if I hadn’t imposed bye-laws for the ICA many of those 19 singles (and indeed a number of the earlier 45s) would have made the cut. But I would still, no matter what, have opened up the ICA with what Stipe has described as an act of ‘personal, political activism’. It was the right note to strike at exactly the right time in history.

2. Driver 8 (from Fables Of The Reconstruction, 1985)

One of the hardest things in pulling together any ICA is getting the best possible running order. I know some contributors have dodged this simply by putting it together in chronological order which, after all, is what many record labels do when compiling a ‘Best of’ or ‘Greatest Hits’ effort. By deciding not to feature any of the singles – most of which would fall into the upbeat and catchy categories – this particular ICA is not the most commercial release that would ever be put together. But in my mind, it’s always important to start things off in a way that appeals most to a casual listener to draw them into listening to the rest of the record. It’s a common approach as can be evidenced by so many albums opening with singles as the first two tracks on Side A.

Driver 8 is a cracking example of very early listenable and danceable R.E.M. and its inclusion here is only possible as it wasn’t released as a single in the UK.

3. New Test Leper (live acoustic version) (from New Adventures In Hi-Fi, 1996)

New Adventures In Hi-Fi is a wild beast of an album.  It’s way longer than anything else the band had done before or indeed have released since. It was as if it had been recorded specifically to cater for a CD release, coming in at just under the maximum length permissible under that format. It has its flaws, as indeed would just about any 14-song LP no matter who released it, and yet it is probably my favourite album by the band. Maybe that’s down to it marking the end of an era with Berry moving on at its conclusion, and yes, I too found it hard to reconcile that it all happened 20 years ago. But by any account it is incredibly bold and ambitious LP in its aims, including of course the fact it was recorded in many parts during soundchecks for the arena gigs in the world tour to support the release of Monster.

New Test Leper is a sad and haunting song with its meaning open to various interpretations. Is it told by someone with an obvious physical deformity or someone whose lifestyle has led to be a mental breakdown or debilitating illness? I’ve always taken it as being from the viewpoint of someone with AIDS trying their best to explain to an unsympathetic and non-listening world that their illness neither makes them a bad person nor a threat to anyone.

The version included here is one of the b-sides to Bittersweet Me; it demonstrates just how good they were at picking up their instruments and belting out a tune (although belting isn’t quite what they do in this instance)

4. World Leader Pretend (from Green, 1988)

For highly personal reasons, this is up there among my all-time favourite songs by anyone, far less by R.E.M.

Let’s just say that it gave me inner strength and self-belief at a time when I was going through a lot of turmoil, not really sure if I had the ability to break out of a relationship in which I found myself trapped. There’s also an amazing live performance captured on Tourfilm in which the song’s opening is amended to namecheck a song by Gang of Four. (see bonus footage below)

5. Country Feedback (from Out Of Time, 1991)

The LP which spent 109 weeks on American album charts, including two separate spells at #1 spot; it also was part of the UK album charts for 183 weeks (that’s nearly 3 ½ years FFS!!) with just a single week at #1.

It has many outstanding tracks including this, named simply to describe its music – country rock (with pedal-steel guitar) and some feedback thrown in. It’s a rambling, slighty insane lyric which has since been claimed as coming from a single-take in the studio in which Stipe had only some prompt words written down on a piece of paper with much of it being improvised. If this is the case, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, it is simply as extraordinary a song as has ever been written and recorded.

Side B

1. Pretty Persuasion (from Reckoning, 1984)

One of the band’s earliest songs and to many involved from the outset a bit of a surprise omission from their debut album, albeit it was soon earmarked for its follow-up. Another of the upbeat numbers that made their sound so attractive to the college radio networks which played such a major part in breaking the band. This could have easily been a single and indeed there’s every likelihood that if either of So, Central Rain or (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville had somehow charted then IRS would have rush-released this as a cash-in. It’s still astonishing to realise that the two singles were flops but then again, if they had propelled the band into the spotlight it would have been well before they were truly ready and would in all likelihood led to them breaking up before they realised their full potential.

2. Disturbance At The Heron House (from Document, 1987)

The LP in which the world began to really pay attention thanks to it spawning a Top 10 single (and the most misunderstood wedding song of all time!!)

It’s an album in which the singles are by far the strongest and most enduring songs, albeit they are a long way removed from the R.E.M. that early fans raved about and obsessed over.

Here’s a song that kind of harks back to the older material in sound and complexity but which opens with what seems to be a blatant rip-off of Born In The USA. On the surface, it sounds like another agitprop number expressing concern about the politics and politicians dominating the American landscape at the time. But there’s another really intriguing explanation that I came across on the internet a while back:-

“According to (Stipe) it was a song about how Athens was being promoted as the new “it” scene for music due to the popularity of themselves and other bands such as the B-52’s coming in to fashion. This of course led to a lot of musicians and bands, or “grunts and hirelings” as the song labels them, coming to Athens to try and make it big and claiming it as their own. Much like Seattle in the early 90’s.

These “followers of chaos out of control” were obviously distasteful to the real and authentic Athenian musicians who had worked hard to build their careers only to have these “monkeys” imitating (aping) their style and pretending to be from Athens. Apparently a music magazine was doing a cover story on the Athens scene and as a cover shot for the issue there was a picture of all these so-called Athens bands gathered at a local monument “they’re meeting at the monument” which seemingly did not include any of the authentic Athens bands at the time. This, of course, sickened and infuriated Michael and company and so they wrote this bitterly scathing song to describe the event.

When given this context it is indeed one of the most straight forward songs he has written and the line “when feeding time has come and gone, they’ll lose their hearts and head for home” is one of the most delicious F.U.’s that has ever been delivered in a song.”

Make of that what you will………………

3. First We Take Manhattan (b-side to Drive, from Automatic For The People, 1992)

The LP that spawned six singles and sold 18 million copies worldwide. The LP packed with strings-laden or piano-led ballads. The LP with a song that later spawned a Hollywood movie starring one of the most famous American comedy actors to emerge in the late 20th century.

Let’s be frank…..there’s not really all that much left when you exclude the singles; the remaining tracks do include ballads and political rants but they just aren’t in the A-list of R.E.M. songs. Nor did I feel they fitted in well at any point of this ICA. So I’ve gone for this cover version – originally recorded for the tribute album I’m Your Fan – and then included as a b-side to the lead single off Automatic For The People. The band have always been great at acknowledging their heroes and influences with cover versions, many of which sadly often appear a bit lacklustre and half-hearted….almost as if the band don’t consider they can bring anything new or better to the song. But that’s not the case in this rockist take on a Leonard Cohen number….

4. Let Me In (from Monster, 1994)

The LP that caught everyone out. As far removed from the smash-hit Automatic as could be imagined and chock-full of loud and often distorted guitars with lyrics that veer from angry to bemused to creepy to scary to scared. It’s an album that was dismissed by many at the time and yet it is one that in many places has stood the test of time and still maintains the ability to surprise all these years later.

Let Me In is Stipe’s heartfelt and ultimately futile plea to his good friend Kurt Cobain with the lyric based on one of their final phone calls before the Nirvana frontman committed suicide.

5. Perfect Circle (from Murmur, 1983)

A song that so perfectly captures so much of what made R.E.M. so special in so many different ways. Always had this down as being the one to close any ICA, even one which included the singles.

So there you have it. My first ICA in a long while and one that putting together could have been an impossible task without me bringing a few one-off rules into place.

The links can be downloaded individually. I’ve also made the two sides of the ICA available.

Side A

Side B

Enjoy.

Oh and I nearly forgot……

15 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #91 : R.E.M.

  1. Wow! As the biggest R.E.M. fan you probably know (the second biggest being MrsRobster), may I salute you. This is a fecking awesome piece of work. Starting with Begin The Begin is a masterstroke worthy of praise in istelf, but to also include New Test Leper, World Leader Pretend, Heron House, Let Me In AND their best ever song Country Feedback is, quite frankly, genius. Tears in eyes, here…

    And First We Take Manhattan is one of my top 3 covers of all time too.

  2. Layer upon layer of compiling genius at work here – starting with the title of the ICA, which just about says it all. Absolutely delighted that the acoustic ‘New Test Leper’ made the cut, which got me wondering if there’s scope for an all b-side REM ICA one of these days? My one and only minor quibble is ironically the very song that Robster so richly praised, ‘First We Take Manhattan’ – I’ve always found REM’s performance a little…flat, but that’s just me. I’d personally go with their cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s ‘Arms of Love’, which I consider superior even to the great man’s original – I can’t believe I just said that!
    I acknowledge that I’m a man who issues superlatives far too freely at times, though I’m rarely known to use the word ‘awesome’. In this case however, I wholeheartedly agree with Robster – this is a fecking awesome piece of work JC.

  3. Man, you don’t shy away from the tough ones! My interest in REM was strong up through Green, but I couldn’t pick less than 30-40 tunes from the first 6 LPs, let alone just 10. ‘Fall on Me’ and ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ would have made it, tho.

  4. An R.E.M. ICA is a pretty daunting task. But I know mine would have to include So. Central Rain, Pretty Persuasion and the song every college radio listener in the U.S. got to know the band by – Radio Free Europe. I might go as far as to say the first four R.E.M. albums are essential listening.

  5. I’m one of those fans you mentioned that didn’t stick around past the first four albums, but I’m ready to give the later songs a go. Thanks for the opportunity. I know you must have done well. You received stamps of approval here from the biggest supporters I know.

  6. Fantastic ICA. JC. An almost impossible task so you were right to impose those rules. Maybe you can cook up a Vol. 2 that inverts those rules – because, y’know, it’s not like you’re busy or anything. Have a corking holiday.

  7. We had a mini-discussion over at my place a while ago about what our favourite R.E.M. tune was (conclusion: impossible to say, there’s so many wonderful songs there it changes regularly), and I’d popped over here and been surprised to see nobody had done an ICA for them yet. I had it in mind to do one myself, but when I buckled down, found it too daunting a task. Maybe I should’ve set some parameters too. Anyway, I don’t think I could have done a better job than you have here, JC. The only one I’d change (although I may change my mind as soon as I hit send) would be swapping “First We Take Manhattan” for Automatic’s “Find The River” (a song I want played at my funeral). And you’re on the money about “New Adventures…”; a much under-rated album, especially when you consider the conditions under which it was recorded. And as for that live version of World Leader Pretend: I was lucky enough to witness it first hand back on the Green tour and it was even more powerful in the flesh.

    Wait, I’ve changed my mind again: King of Birds needs to be in there.

    And *presses Send*

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