And so, The Robster having offered up his thoughts on the breakthrough hits, decides that this is the week he needs a rest and hands the baton to me for a song that every single member of R.E.M. detests with a passion. A song that would eventually reach #6 in the UK singles chart – a position higher than any of the next 14 singles would manage to achieve!!
That last sentence alone tells you all you really need to know about Shiny Happy People; in short, it proved to be an R.E.M. song for people who don’t like R.E.M.
mp3: R.E.M. – Shiny Happy People
It was released on 6 May 1991. Losing My Religion was still hovering on the fringes of the Top 75 and, if anything, was enjoying even more daytime radio play than before. Out of Time had already gone into the album charts at #1 on its first week of release. The decision not to tour and rely increasingly on television appearances/performances was also working a treat, as those who were now finally latching onto the band were mopping up everything on mainstream and specialist channels. MTV, in particular, were all over things.
It made perfect sense for Warner Bros to go with something that was tailor-made for radio, especially on warm and hot summer days when people would flock to beaches and parks, complete with their fast-melting ice-creams, looking for that bit of escapism and enjoyment. Shiny Happy People offered the perfect soundtrack, helped too by the goofy, colourful and incredibly cheery promo that was made for it. It’s no surprise that it entered the UK charts in May and stayed there till the end of July.
The video looks and feels like something from a children’s TV show, which is perfect as itthe song could easily pass as a nursery rhyme, with all concerned (except Peter Buck who clearly wishes he was somewhere else) eager enough to deploy over-exaggerated movements and facial expressions. The band may have since tried to disown the whole thing, but the dancing, handclapping and smiling during the promo make me think they doth protest too much.
One of the reasons put forward to back the idea that it was hated from the outset is that it was never played live in concert and it was left off most of the subsequent greatest-hits collections. But think about it – the strings are essential to the sound of the song and therefore it would be impossible to play as is in the live setting*. Nor was it one that could be easily adapted to fit in with the acoustic sets that were to the fore in the early 90s.
*The Robster kindly offered up a correction when I shared an advance draft of this post. R.E.M. did perform Shiny Happy People live – just the once – on Saturday Night Live in the States. And as he also said, nobody should ever forget the version they did for Sesame Street a few years later, Furry Happy Monsters, in which Peter Buck very nearly cracks a tiny smile, you’ll see a Kate Pierson muppet, and if you don’t smile at the clip, you have a heart of stone.
I think Shiny Happy People is a fabulous and memorable pop single. I also accept that in 1991, it was something which horrified many long-time fans who couldn’t quite believe what they were hearing and seeing. And I’d been there folks….listening to and watching Johnny Marr play with Bryan Ferry on The Right Stuff had been excruciating.
But, on the other hand, I’d long been a fan of the B52s and the guest vocal from Kate Pierson is an absolute joy.
The Robster made mention last week of the multi-formatting that existed around Losing My Religion, and it was much the same for the follow-up which came out on 7″, 12″, CD and cassette.
mp3: R.E.M. – Forty Second Song
This was common to all the releases. It’s another real oddity – it’s 82 seconds long and it sounds like an unfinished demo that the band couldn’t work up into anything more substantial. The folk who loved the a-side probably played it once and ignored it thereafter. Any long-time fans who were hoping for something more substantial to justify shelling out on the new single to keep the collection going wouldn’t have been surprised by it.
mp3: R.E.M. – Losing My Religion (live acoustic version)
As found on the 12″ and CD single. I reckon making this available also had a lot to do with the high sales for Shiny Happy People as the world had gone insane for any take on Losing My Religion.
Again, as with the previous single, a ‘Collector’s Edition’ Cd was released about a week after the initial product had hit the shops and it again came with three live songs, recorded during the Green tour.
mp3: R.E.M. – I Remember California (live)
mp3: R.E.M. – Get Up (live)
mp3: R.E.M. – Pop Song ’89 (live)
There would be two more singles from Out of Time…..both will be looked at by myself with the next being a 45 that wasn’t issued in the USA; as Jonny said the other week, Americans have never really paid much attention to singles while it’s a whole different story over here as my bulging shelves of old vinyl and CDs can testify.
The Robster adds a bonus for the completists. The only live performance of the song:-
mp3: R.E.M. – Shiny Happy People (live, SNL)