THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 5)

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 seriesBurning 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)

The Robster

9 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 5)

  1. My views on this track have softened over the years. It was such a shock when I first heard it on Fables jarring with the overall feel as you say. Fables remains my favourite REM album and perhaps this means that I have come to accept the track more. But a single? I bought it of course – 12″ naturally – and was as disappointed as you by the b-sides. I think the question of why the single releases appear (in my and it would seem your eyes) to be such unrepresenattive and poor choices is oneto really muse upon. Did the record company listen to the album(s) and decide that they were such an uncommercial band that they should try to release the only danceable track? Was it a band decisionto release unrepresentative tracks, imagining the confusion on the faces of people expecting an album of poppy indie dance and being confronted with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”?
    Great piece Robster. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this sseries (and nodding vigorously when it gets to Green and Out of Time.

  2. Great article. Thank you. Could never understand this single. I’ve gone back to Fables and discovered what a great record it actually is.

  3. CGTFH isn’t representative of the rest of Fables but I always liked it. When REM arrived they were appealing but a bit opaque. It was impossible to tell what Stipe was singing about. They didn’t appear in videos. No one even knew where the hell Athens, GA was except that the B-52s and Pylon came from there. So this song was welcome in that it was poppy, upbeat and a bit goofy in a way that showed the band weren’t taking themselves too seriously. Singles were not as important in the States (and weren’t marketed) so the song was just part of the LP for us Yanks and we accepted it as part of the whole, if a somewhat incongruent part.

  4. I loved Reckoning so much that I bought Fables despite not liking CGTFH. I played the song again just now to see if my opinion had changed in the years since I last heard it. Nope – it still isn’t that good. To me, Driver 8 — which got both a U.S. single release and (more importantly in those years) a music video — is the best song on the album. But I still prefer both Reckoning and Life’s Rich Pageant to Fables.

  5. A great read. It seems I’m in the minority but I like Can’t Get There From Here and didn’t/don’t get a sense of it negatively impacting on the LP. A case of horses – courses. I don’t think the other songs on the 12″ represented value for money (they did feel like outtakes and demos) but I enjoyed what I perceived as playfulness and also maybe a sense of a band not attempting to be too cool. I could be wrong, of course.

    I will say the caterwauling on Burning Hell always raises a smile. Maybe it was value for money afterall?

  6. I’ve never had a problem with CGTFH per se, but it isn’t one of their memorable moments, just a memorable song because of just how much airplay it got. The record company (and maybe band) were justified in the end as Urban Alternative Radio stations ate up CGTFH.
    The song on Fables that is, for me, one of their most important musical moments is Feeling Gravity’s Pull. That track still makes me stop whatever I am doing to listen to it. It is a masterpiece which benefits greatly from the influence of Joe Boyd. I feel Boyd allowed R.E.M.’s sound to break its more insular confines. I know that it was supposed to be a very difficult recording session, but there is so much beauty in the darker sound that the album explores. There are feelings of Southern Folk/Country in many of the songs but they don’t sound like songs sung under a blooming magnolia tree, more like while wandering in the dark in a moss dripping swamp, or running down an old abandoned railroad track.

  7. This is emerging as a great series and a very enjoyable read each time. Interesting consensus and dissent also in the comments too. I have to say the album is, on many days of the week, my favourite of r.e.m.’s lengthy and usually very highly reputed canon. I agree this single was never one of my favourites (despite having the “extended” 12″), though it did not irk me quite so much as others such as Radio Song, Pop Song 89, Stand, or Shiny Happy Peopel, which also come from very strong albums. Point well made about odd choices for singles mid-career. My favourite two tracks from this album are Feeling Gravity’s Pull, and Wendell Gee (which no one has mentioned here yet though I suppose they will upcoming in a future single in the series, as I note I have the 12″ for this as well.

  8. Really enjoying this series. No R.E.M. expert here – at all –
    but certainly familiar with the Fables LP. To me it’s an album
    with no completely obvious single choice.

    CGTFH? I suppose I can understand why it was given the nod although,
    as stated eloquently in other posts, it’s not representative of the
    LP’s overall sound.

    Great shout-out from Douglas McLaren for Wendell Gee: a magnificent
    song, and a terrific ending to the record.

  9. Oh dear. I think you’ll be less than happy with my take on the next instalment of the series this coming Sunday…..

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