I am thrilled, delighted and honoured that this new series is going to benefit from regular contributions by The Robster, one of the biggest and most knowledgable R.E.M. fans on the planet, as can be seen from various postings over the years at his excellent, albeit now occasional blog, Is This The Life?
He’s onboard this and next week, with more offerings in the pipeline for later on. Here’s his take on the fourth single to be released in the UK.
Before I start, I’d like to thank JC for offering me the chance to contribute to this series. He knows of my love and passion for one of the most influential bands in my life and I hope I can live up to the extremely high standard he has already set. I promise not to be too much of an anorak, and give JC the right to jettison any superfluous material, especially if he feels I’m ever being boring or just showing off – because I am more than guilty of that from time to time. Anyway…
R.E.M.’s earliest songs were simple, energetic rock and roll songs. While their songwriting dynamic took a couple years to gel, they did come up with a few songs that would grace their later repertoire. Look at ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’, for instance. Released in 1986, it contained no fewer than three songs composed way back in 1980: Just A Touch, Hyena and What If We Give It Away (at the time titled Get On Their Way). All The Right Friends, written by Buck and Stipe before they’d even met their future bandmates, was also demoed for Pageant, eventually turning up on a movie soundtrack in 2001.
While the band’s second album, 1984’s ‘Reckoning’ contained mainly brand new material, there were two songs that also dated from their earliest period – Pretty Persuasion and (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville. The former was an undoubted highlight of the album, but it was Rockville that was put out as the second single; a strange move considering it sounded like nothing else the band had put out to that point.
Rockville was written by Mike Mills as a plea to his then girlfriend Ingrid Schorr to not leave Georgia and return to her native Rockville, MD. In its earliest incarnation, it’s described by Peter Buck as “kinda like how Buddy Holly would’ve played it.” This live version, captured at Tyrone’s in the autumn of 1980 (as far as I’m aware, the earliest known recording of the band) bears that out. And before you ask, I don’t know who Paul was.
By the time 1984 swung around, Rockville had been made over. During studio sessions for ‘Reckoning’, the band gave it a country feel as a light-hearted nod to their country music-loving manager Bertis Downs. It always seemed destined to be a single, but the initial intention was not to include it on the album, instead to release it as a standalone single between ‘Reckoning’ and its follow-up. It did, however, make the final cut, but I can’t help but feel its placing – after the fragile, plaintive Camera, and before the politically-charged closer Little America – reduces it to a mere novelty.
The UK 7” featured an edited version of Rockville with a live version of Catapult, recorded in Seattle in 1984, on the flip. This live track appeared later as a bonus track on European CD reissues of ‘Reckoning’.
The 12” featured the full-length album version of Rockville, two more live tracks and Wolves, Lower from the ‘Chronic Town’ EP (though here its title was shortened to simply Wolves). The live songs on the 12”, 9-9 and Gardening At Night, were recorded in Paris on Good Friday 1984. Two different live versions of these songs were also included on that European CD reissue of ‘Reckoning’ but, despite various listings to the contrary, they were recorded in Boston, MA. and were not the Rockville b-sides.
In the band’s later years, Mike Mills took to singing the lead vocal of his song. This gorgeous abridged version, performed solo on VH1 Storytellers, is probably my favourite.