THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 8)

First of all….a really big thanks to everyone who has come in on the back of each of the previous postings with thoughts, observations and comments.  It’s always appreciated and I do hope of all, or at least most of you, will stick with us on this epic journey which is likely to last the best part of a year all told.

The Robster was right with his assessment that July 1986 saw the release of one of R.E.M.’s best-ever singles.

Fall On Me was everything you would expect from a band who were being increasingly put forward, in the USA at least, as the saviours of guitar-pop with an independent bent.  The subsequent album hit the stores two weeks later, and ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ continued the happy trend of each new album initially selling more copies than its predecessor.

September – November 1986 saw the band out on the road in North America playing 64 shows in 82 days, in ever-increasing sized venues, leaving no real opportunity for any promotional activities around any follow-up single, of which there were three or four strong candidates, especially from the first side of the latest album which was as strong and consistent as anything they had ever released to this point.

The second side of LRP, however, was a pointer to the fact that the band had almost exhausted itself of material with two tracks from 1980 being resurrected in the studio along with the decision to add an obscure cover to take the number of songs on the album up to twelve with a running time short of 40 minutes. IRS was, nevertheless, determined to make sure there was some new product to coincide with the tour and on 4 November, in the same week as the band was set to play two sell-out shows in New York, they released a second single from LRP in the shape of Superman.

The same single would then receive a UK release in March 1987.

On the face of it, releasing a second single from an album isn’t really a crime.  IRS, however, was quite perverse in going with Superman as it was the cover version that had been tagged onto the end of the album to prevent any fans feeling they were being short-changed.  It was also a track on which Mike Mills and not Michael Stipe sang lead vocals……..

Superman dates from 1969, released as a b-side by The Clique, a pop band hailing from Houston, Texas.  Its introduction to the R.E.M. canon can be traced back to early 1986 when, having come off a gruelling tour the previous year, the band took some time away to do their own projects.  In the case of the rhythm section, Mike Mills and Bill Berry hooked up with three friends to form The Corn Cob Webs, a covers band whose aim was to play in small venues around their home town of Athens.  In the end, there was just the one show, but among the tunes they rolled out was Superman, with Mike taking lead vocal duties as he was the only one who knew the words.

Fast forward a few months and everyone is in the studio recording songs for the new album and possible b-sides.  A run-through of Superman confirms that it would make for a decent enough b-side in the near or far future.  They get to the mixing stage and there’s a late change of plan to now add it to the album, but as something of a hidden track that wouldn’t be listed on the sleeve.  It was also decided to give it a quirky introduction by recording a Japanese toy Godzilla….

I think all of the above indicates that having the song issued as a bonafide single was the last thing on the band’s collective minds.

mp3: R.E.M. – Superman

The single flopped on release in the USA.  Unsurprisingly, it did the same in the UK come March 1987.

Here’s the b-sides

mp3: R.E.M. – White Tornado
mp3: R.E.M. – Femme Fatale

The latter was only available on the 12″ release. It sees the band, for the third time, offer a take on a Velvet Underground song.  The recording dated back to 1984 from the same semi-drunken sessions as Pale Blue Eyes which had, if you recall, been used a b-side to So. Central Rain.

But it was the song on the reverse of the 7″ as well as the 12″ that was the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped.

White Tornado is a throwaway surf-style instrumental that dated back to the very beginning of the band, written at the same time as songs such as Radio Free Europe.  The version offered up on Superman was from a session recorded in April 1981.

The relationship with IRS was souring and work was about to get underway on the songs for the fifth studio album, after which the band would be free to go elsewhere.  R.E.M. could now put themselves into a shop window if they so chose.

JC

12 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 8)

  1. Thanks for the background information JC – it almost makes the release comprehensible. Yet another entry into the “You chose to release THAT!” of REM singles. If it hadn’t been for the release of “Fall on Me” it would be easy to claim that the band (or record label) were being deliberately contrarian, releasing such weak singles as a ploy to maintain the band’s cult status by allowing all non-believers to discmiss them having heard the singles. It would have made more sense to release “Underneath the Bunker” – all one and a half minutes of it.

    Your appraisal of the two sides of the LP also raises the issue of CD versus vinyl releases. I bought Lifes Rich Pageant on vinyl – it was to be three years before I bought my frst CD – and can see that I would have certainly played side one more than side two.
    Looking forward to the rest of the series from you and The Robster. Not sure if the forthcoming upturn in quality of choices in singles (as I see it) will be easier to write about or harder but I’m sure the quality of debate will be maintained!

  2. I don’t dislike Superman, in fact it is very likable. But to put out a cover version considered for a b-side and only included on the album at the 11th hour purely for running time purposes AS A SINGLE? Yes, the theme continues.

    DAM: Believe me, there are still plenty of clunkers to come. I’ve written up to my share of the Automatic singles so far and there’s still more than enough to write about!

  3. I think this is a great song and a great single. I would describe it as beautiful. Just a couple of years after it’s release this song would make the dancefloor at Level 8, Strathclyde Uni, very busy indeed. Rightly so.

  4. Thanks for the background to the song,, it kinda undersells what is a lovely song, and whilst I didn’t realise it wasn’t Stripe singing , the lines

    I am, I am, I am Superman and I know what’s happening
    I am, I am, I am Superman and I can do anything

    to me seem typical Stripe lyrics

  5. REM was always more than the sum of its parts. They had two over-arching virtues: Buck’s distinctive Rickenbacker guitar lines and Stipe’s singular voice. Mills is an okay bassist and a crap singer. Berry is at best a passable drummer. But they had great band chemistry and transcended their musical limitations with solid songs and unique performances by Buck and Stipe. As I’ve mentioned before, in the US no one paid attention to REM’s singles. The choice of Superman, with Mills bleating out the lyrics through his nose, exemplifies why.

  6. Johnny: “Mills is an okay bassist and a crap singer. Berry is at best a passable drummer.” Erm, are we talking about the same R.E.M. here? Mills and Berry have always been credited with underpinning the R.E.M. sound. Mills’ harmonic basslines are sometimes the most hummable parts of their songs, and his backing vocals in particular have made some very ordinary songs sound great. And it’s no surprise that R.E.M. faltered greatly once Berry quit, with the stand-in drummers really sounding out of place when they’ve played live, especially on the earlier songs. There’s a general feeling amongst many fans that much of the band’s later studio material would not have seen the light of day had Bill still in the band.

    I’m not going to start a fight, but I do want to say that your line (that I’ve quoted above) is possibly the most controversial statement I’ve ever read about R.E.M.

  7. I am a big fan of Superman. As JTFL mentioned, R.E.M. and singles weren’t something anyone I knew were all that bothered about. They held their own on New Wave/Alternative radio across the USA and gained their fans through that and touring. I knew Superman was a cover, but didn’t dig into who The Clique were until years later. Hearing one or two of their songs a long time ago, I thought they were an English group, not from Texas. Interesting that their first single was a 13th Floor Elevators song.

  8. No offense taken. I’m talking from a purely musical standpoint. There are plenty of folks who think a drummer should just keep the beat and not do anything flashy, and that’s Berry for you. But compare him to, say, Pete Thomas or Topper Headon and you hear what a real drummer can do. The first time I saw REM 10,000 maniacs opened for them and their drummer (Jerry Augustyniak) blew Berry off the stage. Mills did come up with a lot of great bass lines (e.g. Radio Free Europe), but I was commenting on his singing. He sounds like a sheep. THAT SAID, there is nothing more important than band chemistry and Berry and Mills had that in spades with their guitarist and frontman.

  9. I’ll sound, appropriately, like a broken record here,
    but another great, informative post in this series.

    Really appreciate the detail from JC and Robster, and
    I always learn something new from the comments.
    Brilliant stuff.

  10. I love Superman. A good song in original form but REM’s version is 100x better. It’s one of those songs that still make me smile when I hear it but that could also b e due to paraphrase Jonathan Richman makes me think of some little girl I once dated. But I loved it from the moment I heard it in Ben’s room when he first played me Life’s Rich Pageant

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