THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 16)

Warner Bros was now milking R.E.M. and the ever-increasing fanbase for all it was worth.  No sooner had Shiny Happy People looked like finally slipping out of the Top 75 that plans were hatched for a third single from Out of Time at the beginning of August 1991.

And, as if to demonstrate to the wider world that the band was not just Michael Stipe and a bunch of backing musicians, the decision was taken to release one of the songs on which Mike Mills takes the lead:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Near Wild Heaven

Now, bear in mind that I wasn’t, at the time, aware of Superman having been a previous single. I thought it was quite a brave move by the record label as, and in agreement with a previous observation from JTFL although I will be a tad more diplomatic, I’m not a fan of the bassist taking the lead vocal.  The thing is, they probably did the math and realised that anything with an R.E.M. label in the summer of 1991 was bound to sell well and the brand wouldn’t suffer too much damage.

Near Wild Heaven reached #27.  The following month, the IRS cash-in of the re-release of The One I Love reached #16.

I really didn’t have any reason to buy this single. I should also mention that I’m not much of a Beach Boys fan and the song felt rather like a tribute to that sort of sound with the ba-ba-ba-ba-ba harmonies, albeit there’s some neat, if repetitive, guitar work going on in the background. But, and here’s where record label marketing folk earn their crust, I was sucked in by the extra tracks on the CD single.

It was released on 7″, 12″, CD and cassette but this time around, just the one CD which came badged as the Collectors Edition from the outset. The Robster, who if you recall worked in a record store at the time, has helpfully advised that th’e rules had changed in the months between the release of Shiny Happy People and Near Wild Heaven, with just four formats allowed if a single wanted to be eligible for the charts. The double CD was out, for now, as the cassette held its place in the line-up.

R.E.M., earlier in the year, had played two ‘secret’ shows at the Borderline in London. They were billed as Bingo Hand Job. The shows had been attended by many a music journo, all of who had written glowingly about the shows, highlighting the informal and fun-nature of the gigs, and the role played by all the various guests who joined them on stage, such as Peter Holsapple, Robyn Hitchcock, and Billy Bragg. It was actually the fact that I had missed out on Bragg rather than R.E.M. that I was most upset about at the time, and so when it was revealed that songs recorded at the Borderline shows would accompany the release of Near Wild Heaven, I was in!

mp3: R.E.M. – Tom’s Diner (live)
mp3: R.E.M. – Low (live)
mp3: R.E.M. – Endgame (live)

The fact that the audience was having a blast can be heard from the opening seconds of the Suzanne Vega cover as the reaction is loud laughter. Bragg becomes a human beatbox as Stipe butchers the lyrics; Bragg then joins in on unique backing vocals with lyrics from Madness and EMF songs before it collapses in a heap after two minutes. Maybe I was expecting a lot more, but my initial reaction was one of sad disbelief. It was no doubt funny to those who witnessed it in the flesh but it came across as very lame on the CD.

The other two songs, both tracks that could be found on Out of Time, work better. Indeed the initially haunting and then impassioned version of Low is quite outstanding. Endgame does sound as if it was one of those occasions where the band members swapped instruments to not quite show-off their skills but to break what could be the tedium of an all-acoustic show. If not, then Mike Mills and Peter Buck have never sounded so clumsy. (N.B. – The Robster doesn’t think it is a case of them swapping instruments, merely the fact that a new song is very unrehearsed!…..and I will always bow to his superior knowledge on all things R.E.M.)

The 7″ and 12″ each had a further track taken from the Borderline shows:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Pop Song ’89 (live)

Worth mentioning in passing that this was already the third time a version of Pop Song ’89 had been issued as a b-side or additional track.  (Stand and Shiny Happy People had been the earlier occasions)

There was one other track on the 12″:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Half A World Away (acoustic live)

This was recorded on 1 April 1991 as part of a four-song set and interview that went out on ‘Rockline‘, a syndicated radio show that broadcast across the USA. I’m sure it was also that show which provided the acoustic version of Losing My Religion as featured last week.

A quick PS for JTFL….two days later there was another live radio broadcast, this time of a 25-song set which included a load of fun covers of themes from TV shows, that went out on KCRW Snap-FM Radio in your neighbourhood of Santa Monica.

It’s me again next week with the fourth and final single lifted from Out of Time.

JC

8 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 16)

  1. I left it to my friend to get the R.E.M. singles but I think even he skipped this one. I agree that Tom’s Diner is one of those ‘you had to be there’ moments but I’m guessing it was the ubiquity of the DNA remix that prompted its inclusion here? Either way, utterly disposable. Likewise, the live version of Endgame doesn’t really do anything for me, but Low is a stirring version and I enjoyed (yet another) version of Pop Song ’89. As for Near Wild Heaven, I have a strange affection for it and the slightly cracked ‘ba ba ba’s but I think it should have stayed as an album track.

  2. Oh, … I do like a bah bah bah bah bah bah and this is no exception. It’s a song I enjoy but would perhaps suggest it lacked oomph as a single. There is definitely more than a whiff of cash-in and at this point I still don’t begrudge the band it’s long awaited chart success.

    I recall my friend, an R.E.M. devotee, being utterly gubbed when he read of the Bingo Hand Job gigs – cue several weeks haunting the Barras until he got his hand on a bootleg cassette.

  3. Near Wild Heaven was always a bit of a ‘meh!’ moment for me. A nice enough track, but far from single material. The b-sides are a bit of a mess. Tom’s Diner does work better in the context of the full show, as the bootlegs I have of it testify. Maybe putting it as the first of the three tracks wasn’t a good move.

    The inclusion of Endgame is bizarre. It was clearly a rough performance, so why show that off to the masses? There were so many other far better moments from the show they could have chosen. Low, on the other hand, is fantastic.

    Oh, and as for the KCRW show JC mentions, that’s one of my favourite bootlegs.

  4. Such was the ‘indie’ currency of REM at the time that I was a big fan of Robyn Hitchcock but whenever I tried to sell him to my mates they ignored me. When I said he was in ‘bingo hand job’ then they wanted to know more about him.
    Of course by the time of ‘Automatic’ then REM were far too popular and we all had to pretend we didn’t like them anymore…

  5. Rather like The Beutiful South, why when you have one of the most distinctive and original vocalists around in your band, do you let a perfectly adequate but no more singer loose on your tracks? Would this have been improved by Stipe taking the lead? Couldn’t have been duller. As for the b-sides – hmm! I was so underwhelmed that this was actually the final time that I bought any official REM on vinyl. After having purchased every single on 12″ or double pack since Rockville, I was starting to lose faith in the value of them. Mind you, I didn’t start pretending not to like them just yet.

  6. KCRW is in fact our local station. I play soccer with the station manager. It’s become a big deal for an indie station, like KEXP out of Seattle.
    Trying to say something positive…My band played the Borderline during our England tour in 2017?

  7. It’s a nice song. But, as stated a few times above, not especially
    a single. It’s still somewhat shocking to think of four separate
    formats offered for one release.

    I’m sensing that most people conclude that when it comes to singing,
    Mick Mills is a heck of a bassist, but I do like his voice.

    Terrific post as usual, JC.

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