THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 6)

After a two-week hiatus during which The Robster has more than capably filled in for me, I’m back with the latest chronological installment of the R.E.M. singles, as released here in the UK.

It’s worth mentioning at this juncture that while myself and The Robster came to R.E.M. at similar times with Document being the first album we both picked up on, he very quickly looked to discover the back catalogue which I chose not to do on the ground of it being expensive (it was an era of CDs being stupidly priced and vinyl was no longer an option on the grounds of lack of storage space in a small flat).

This means that the early material and the posts I’m pulling together are written from the perspective of a being a very late arrival to the party and hearing the songs for the first time many years after their release.  It also means the two of us pulling this series together (independently of one another as we don’t share the pieces until they are ready to be published) will likely come at some things from different angles.  It might even mean that we disagree on some things…which I know from an e-mail exchange is certainly the case in terms of the songs on offer today!

As was mentioned by The Robster just last week, IRS had a bizarre habit of making strange choices as singles and I’ll add my opinion that further evidence to back this up emerged in October 1985.

One of the many books written about the band is Adventures In Hi-Fi : The Complete R.E.M. in which authors Rob Jovanovic and Tim Abbott provide an incredible amount of factual detail including the setlists from all the show of which there were a great many in 1985.  Using their work, along with the info available on the online setlist.fm website, it can be seen where previous single Cant Get There From Here was aired at just about every one of the 115 shows that year, the closing track from the new album Fables of The Reconstruction was played just three times.

Wendell Gee was not one of the band’s favourite collective moments and it wasn’t a track they shared with the enthusiastic crowds who were coming in increasing numbers to their gigs at home and in Europe. And yet, this is the one that IRS decided to issue as the band’s sixth UK single, a decision made even more baffling by the fact it wasn’t released as a stand-alone 45 in the USA.

It might work well enough as a downbeat and slow-paced number to close off an album, albeit my own view is that it is the dullest and among the least memorable of the songs on Fables.  It certainly has nothing going for it as a 45 – especially from a band still searching for that elusive breakthrough hit.

mp3: R.E.M – Wendell Gee

It was released in 7″ and 12″ form (with the blue background on the cover as shown at the top of this posting) along with a special as a 2×7″ release which came with the same photo but with a light green background.

One song was common to all three releases:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Crazy

A cover of a song by Pylon, another band to emerge out of Athens, GA in the late 70s/early 80s and who were very much at the heart of the scene when the four members of R.E.M. all found themselves in the town there for one reason or another.  There’s a few folk out there who are fans of the band, and if anyone wants to write up any sort of appreciative post, then please feel free to do so.  On the evidence of this underwhelming cover version, I haven’t been the least bit interested in seeking out anything else they have recorded.

The 12″ and double pack one song in common

mp3: R.E.M. – Driver 8 (live)

This was taken from a show at Music Hall, Seattle on 27 June 1984.  The reasonably high-quality production reflects that the gig was taped for a radio broadcast. It’s a rendition of a song that I’ve long thought could have provided a breakthrough hit for the band, especially if it had been released in the summer of 85 when they were headlining their own tour of the UK as well as appearing on the bill of a large one-day festival in Milton Keynes at which U2 headlined and from which footage was broadcast on Channel 4.

Two previously unreleased tracks formed the second piece of vinyl in the double pack:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Ages of You
mp3: R.E.M. – Burning Down

As the sleevenotes on the compilation Dead Letter Office would later reveal, the two songs are in fact kissing cousins.

Ages Of You is one of the first band compositions, dating back to 1980, rising from the ashes of an existing song called Burning Down.

Peter Buck offers these thoughts:-

When we got tired of Burning Down, we kept the two pieces that we liked and rewrote the rest to come up with Ages of You. We got tired of that one, also.”

There had been some thought to include Ages of You on the Chronic Town EP back in 1982 but it was removed at a fairly late-stage on the basis of there not being a lot of love for it among the band or the new bosses at IRS Records in the process, with Wolves, Lower brought on board as its replacement. Both the versions on show today are taken from Dead Letter Office (a collection of b-sides and outtakes) rather than the single itself.

The Robster is back next week with Part 7.

JC

11 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 6)

  1. Too bad they couldn’t have waited just a little bit longer and used that cover of Crazy as a B-side for Fall on Me around the globe, but I’m sure Vanessa and the gang didn’t mind it showing up on the less successful singles Driver 8 in America and Wendell Gee in the UK. The fellas were obviously big fans, and you have to respect them for recording a local band that must have meant a lot to them in their youth. Of course, Pylon’s bigger payday came when it was included on Dead Letter Office which is cool.

  2. Pylon ICA incoming…..
    I have the double-pack 7″, but it was picked up a few years late. There were several songs that would have been better singles, true, but I don’t dislike Wendell Gee. It’s nice enough, but nothing more than an album track.

    I’ve also got a 12″ promo of Ages Of You which was used to promote the Dead Letter Office b-sides comp, so someone liked it enough to decide that was the song to use.

  3. The weird first single thing continued I think . Both Losing my Religion and Drive I’m hindsight are inspired choices but at the time both felt slightly odd choices for first singles

  4. I think your assessment of it as a decent enough track on the album but not really stand out enough for a single is spot on, continuing the series of strange choices for 7″ releases that I think only really got sorted by Document. How come they picked something worthwhile for the States? Driver 8 would certainly have made a better, and possibly more representative, release here as well. I bought both versions on release – how was I so flush? Starvation diet at uni! The cover of Crazy inspired me to try to find out more about Pylon – not an easy task in the unconnected 80s! Looking forward to the rest of this series (and the Pylon ICA). Thanks JC and Robster.

  5. Thank you for all the great words here.
    “Ages Of You” is one of my top five REM songs. For me it’s a song that has never lost its power to make me do a crazy new wave dance whenever it comes on, traffic stop, dinner party, funeral, etc.
    Also, I think they do a great cover of “Crazy.” To me it sounds strange and minimal and captures something essential of the time and place of early REM. This song has also made it onto any REM mix I’ve put together.
    But not Wendell Gee.

  6. 3 thoughts:
    1. I was a huge REM fan from the start but went off the band totally by the time they left IRS, so this series is a really enjoyable reminder of how good they were back in the day. Getting to rediscover them again after forgotting the first LP tracks is a joy. So cheers to the Robster and JC.
    2. As a rule, Americans didn’t buy singles. They weren’t marketed. You might buy a 12″ version of a dance track for party purposes, but singles weren’t really on our radar. To the extent we did buy them they were UK imports of UK bands. That doesn’t explain the weird choices of songs for REM singles but it’s why it wouldn’t have mattered much.
    3. Pylon were awesome. If there hasn’t been an ICA it’s probably because they only released 2 albums during their original 5-year existence, so the selection is limited. (They did release a 3rd LP in connection with a reformation years later but I don’t know it.) But just imagine if Young Marble Giants were born and raised in a tiny southern US town and you’ll get a sense of what Pylon was about.

  7. I think JTFL largely nails Pylon, I might not go so far as to say awesome but I really liked the LP Chomp (with a 2009 re-release as Chomp More.) The thing about that record is that they very clearly have amazing influences but were either playing around or struggling to settle on an approach or sound. Joy Division is in there, and the Talking Heads, very much Young Marble Giants, but also North Carolina jangle pop (think everything Mitch Easter every produced), hints of Adrian Belew-era King Crimson, and some prescient post-punk quasi-disco. Hopefully, REM made them a little cash with the cover…

  8. I really liked Wendell Gee as a single. It was a favourite of mine in those early REM days. It still is. Without REM I doubt I’d have discovered Pylon.

  9. I like Wendall Gee too. Not sure anyone would have expected it to be a hit in 1985 in the UK. The 12″ b-sides are good too, a time when bands just put other songs they had in the bank/vaults onto records and released them. After a while a band with a back catalogue of 12″ singles gave you the equivalent of another album over time. Like JTFL said, it’s great to be reminded of what a great band REM were on IRS. WE don’t seem to be seeing their likes again.

  10. Wendell Gee sits too close to Country music for my ears, back then and even now 30+ years and with a better appreciation of “Country.” Now if say Carlene Carter had recorded it, I bet it would have charted on the Country charts.
    As for R.E.M. recording Crazy, I wasn’t aware of it until Dead Letter Office came out. It doesn’t have the “life” the Pylon original has, but it is a great song no matter. For me Athens will always mean Pylon and B-52s. R.E.M. are also Athens, but they became much more.

  11. I love Wendell Gee and think it’s both a great
    LP track and a great LP-closer. But it’s not built
    for being a single. Odd choice, despite my love
    for the song.

    Thanks again for this series, all concerned.

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