This week’s words are courtesy of The Robster:-
One thing that is noticeable when you study R.E.M.’s discography is how many amazing songs were not released as singles. But perhaps more baffling is the list of tracks they DID put out as 45s and how many of them are considered among the weakest in the band’s canon.
Following the critical success of their first two records, R.E.M. took a drastically different approach to the recording of their third. Relocating to London, they chose to work with English producer Joe Boyd rather than Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. It rained nearly every day, the band grew increasingly homesick, and by the time it was released they were reputedly close to breaking up. Yet I consider ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’ one of R.E.M.’s best albums.
It marked a turn in the band’s songwriting style. Musically, it drew on southern folk music, and Boyd’s experience in the folk genre probably helped the sound to evolve on record. There was also a shift in Michael Stipe’s lyrics, moving away from the unintelligible, esoteric nature of the early songs to that of a more storytelling bent, words you could actually make sense of. There was a real sense of beauty in these songs in spite of what was happening internally at the time.
So it seems strange, looking back, why the label chose to release the least representative song on the record as its first single. Cant Get There From Here (no apostrophe – deliberate) opened side two and to say it sounds out of place would be an understatement. It has a kind of pseudo-funk feel, a horn section, and Stipe almost sounding like Elvis in places. It’s a real oddball song, unlike anything the band recorded before or since. They didn’t even play it live after 1986.
It’s a shame really, as there were so many other great songs on ‘Fables’ that would have served as better introductions to the album. In the US, both Driver 8 and Life And How To Live It were put out (the latter admittedly only as a promo). If it were down to me, I’d have picked Maps And Legends. But no, we got the album’s novelty tune, which when thinking about how Rockville was the band’s previous single, makes me wonder how exactly did the label view R.E.M.? For all the amazing songs they had at this stage, it’s the almost comedy moments that were chosen to highlight the band to the public. And it didn’t end here – we come to Stand and Shiny Happy People at some point in the future, and they were for a different label entirely.
Did the label think the band took themselves too seriously? Did the band insist on these songs as singles in order to dispel that very myth? Whatever way you look at it, Cant Get There From Here will not be remembered as one of R.E.M.’s finest moments, it’s nothing more than a disposable, jokey pop song.
The 7” release featured an edited version on the a-side, while the b-side contained another lighthearted moment, the really rather silly Bandwagon. In the sleevenotes of ‘Dead Letter Office’, Peter Buck described it thus: “This song was originally called ‘the fruity song’ because of all the stupid chord changes. Still one of the funniest songs we’ve written.”
As for the 12”, well the cover misled us into thinking we were getting an ‘extended version’ of Cant Get There From Here, which was rather naughty as what we actually got was the bog-standard LP version. Bandwagon also featured on the flip along with a track Charity Chic featured recently in his Heaven/Hell series – Burning Hell. Yet another in- joke, it’s the band’s attempt to make a heavy metal song. It’s not very good at all, as most of the commenters to CC’s piece seemed to agree on.
This could go down as one of R.E.M.’s worst single releases, even as fond as I am of Bandwagon. None of the songs can be taken seriously or as representative of R.E.M. or the ‘Fables’ album, which probably didn’t help people’s perception of it at the time or since.
mp3: R.E.M. – Cant Get There From Here (edit)
mp3: R.E.M. – Bandwagon
mp3: R.E.M. – Burning Hell
mp3: R.E.M. – Cant Get There From Here (12″ release)