THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 4)

JC writes:-

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.

mp3: R.E.M. – (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville (live, Tyrone’s 1980)

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’.

mp3: R.E.M. – (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville (7″ edit)
mp3: R.E.M. – Catapult (live, Seattle 1984)

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.

mp3: R.E.M – (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville (12″ version)
mp3: R.E.M. – Wolves
mp3: R.E.M – 9-9 (live, Paris 1984)
mp3: R.E.M. – Gardening At Night (live, Paris 1984)

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.

mp3: R.E.M – (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville (live on VH1 Storytellers, NYC, 23rd October 1998)

The Robster

14 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 4)

  1. Thanks The Robster. Always remember listening to DGBTR and thought that sound was more commercial. Everything up to then had been a bit more mysterious and hard to get a grip on whereas this was a more ‘straight-forward’ pop song and was surprised it didn’t do a bit better in the charts…

  2. As I said in the intro, I’m chuffed that Robster is helping out with this…it’s a marathon series and there’s nobody I know better qualified to write-up some pieces (and he’s already supplied eoyb s number going forward)

    The really interesting thing is the different perspective. I would have gushed all the way through about Rockville; I’ve never thought of it as a novelty number (although I accept fully the case offered up by Robster), and love everything about it, tune, tempo, danceability and lyrics. So much so, that on a business trip to Washington DC some 20 years ago, I got excited when I saw Rockville on a transit map and made time during the trip to hop on the train and pay it a visit in honour of the song. I liked it…it had a handful of fine old buildings to admire, including a Post Office where I imagined some letters would have been posted to Mike Mills down in Athens GA.

  3. ‘Rockville’ was a bit more straightforward than the other LP tracks (and those on Murmur) but I never thought of it as a novelty tune. REM arrived fully formed, with an instantly distinguishable vocalist and a recognizable sound. I thought of it as a progression of their guitar-forward arrangements, with heavy reliance on alternation between major and minor chords. When I first heard it it became one of my favorite of the band’s tracks and still is. Wouldn’t call it a ‘danceable’ number but I remember many nights howling “Don’t go back to law school!” over the chorus with my drunken classmates

  4. All music is danceable, Jonny. Some, I admit, is easier to dance to than others, but I’ve thrown shapes to Rockville a few times over the years.

  5. Interesting to read someone else view “Rockville” as somewhat novelty-ish. The country sound was certainly not the kind of sound I enjoyed from Murmur and I did feel it could have confirmed many people’s view of any band form Georgia inevitably being rather backwards looking.
    Time has mellowed my attitude towards it, but it still feels a rather inconsequential track. Mind you, the tracks selected as singles did often feel that way. After all, look what’s coming – one o fmy all time favourite albums and they chose to releae “Can’t Get There From Here”!

  6. Lovely song. The REM 12″ singles always struck me as being like the Talking Heads
    ones- not much extra bang for your buck/pound. Whenever I saw them and money was tight I’d always put them back in the rack. Regret it now of course, as you don’t see them so often.

  7. HI DAM. Next week’s posting has already been written….I think you’ll be interested to read what The Robster has to say!

  8. I grew up about 10 miles south of Rockville, and I’ve worked there for many years (well, until I switched to working from home back in March). The “downtown” part that JC would have seen, near the Metro station, does indeed have some charm – some nice Victorian houses and the area around the courthouse and county office buildings. However, that part of Rockville is surrounded by miles of subdivisions and office parks and strip malls that make it the kind of place that teenagers long to escape. That’s what made the song so evocative for me when I first heard it as a 19-year old. On the bright side, though, Rockville is now a great place for Asian food (Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai). Washington DC has a “Chinatown,” but there are many more Chinese people in suburbs like Rockville.

    Marc

  9. (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville as a novelty or as a Country song….hmmm. Neither of those things ever really occurred to me. I will wholeheartedly admit I am more a fan of early R.E.M than the later Warner Bros. years – not that they didn’t make some amazing music after leaving I.R.S. Rockville is one of those songs that always comes to my mind when any type of discussion of R.E.M. comes to pass. It seems too complex and too emotionally charged to be the Country Music I have always known. The guitars are much more ‘Rock’ (a horrible way to describe them, really), in my mind than Country.

  10. Very much looking forward to more of this series,
    powered by the twin engines of JC and The Robster.

  11. Hi JC. I don’t really mind CGTFH that much. It was a bit of a shock but perfectly reasonable. At least they didn’t choose to release a cover version of an obscure sixties track is it? Oh…

  12. My UK 7″ copy has Wolves as the B-side rather than the live version of Catapult. Was it released more than once? The version I have is listed on Discogs as a UK release. I did spend a few weeks in Germany during 1984, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy it there.

  13. @thegreatgog. Hands up, I admit it, I think I made a boo-boo. The UK 7″ does indeed have Wolves on the flip. How do I know? Because I have a damn copy of it myself! (Purchased at Sister Ray in Soho for the princely sum of £12 back in the early 90s when I had disposable income for a few years…) WHY DIDN’T I CHECK?

    It was the US 7″ that had Catapult – dunno what I was thinking. Humble apologies, I’ll double check all my other facts for the upcoming articles…

  14. It must be a nightmare fact-checking the articles. I’ve on occasion had to fact-check comments I’ve made just to make sure my memory isn’t playing tricks on me! I should also have said that I was in West Germany – as it was back in 1984.

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