(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville has long been one of my favourites of all the R.E.M. songs, partly as I think they were a band who sounded particularly good when they turned their hands to mid-tempo rock music. By rights, Man On The Moon should be up there as another favourite, but I’m sorry to say that this is one where the over-exposure kicks in, both from the time it was released as the second single from Automatic For The People in November 1992 and then some seven and-a-bit years later when the Andy Kaufman movie biopic was released (an event either myself or Robster will turn to later in this series). But the real kicker came when a version was released in 2005…..which I’ll reflect on at the end of this posting.
In saying all that, it was a song I felt was a highlight on first hearing the album, a real earworm with its incessantly catchy chorus and its verses with the constant use of “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”. Oh, and the promo video is a fantastic piece of film making, albeit it is a bit too literal in places.
I think, at this juncture, it is worth handing over to Mike Mills and an interview he gave to the online NME in November 2017 to mark the 25th Anniversary of the release of the single in which he revealed how a demo called ‘C To D Slide’ nearly remained as an instrumental – until the inspiration of Andy Kauffman and conspiracy theories.
“Bill Berry is still a very a good songwriter. He had a lot of musical ideas, then he and Peter fleshed the rest of it out musically. It was a song that me, Pete and Bill really loved and had musically finished right up to the last day of recording and mixing in Seattle, and we’d been leaning on Michael very heavily for some time trying to finish it. He was like ‘oh, it’s an instrumental’ and we were like ‘it is not an instrumental – you need to finish it because it’s a story that needs to be told. Whatever that story is, you need to tell it’.”
“So Michael worked very hard towards the end and came up with this beautiful lyric that encompasses doubt, belief, transition, conspiracy and truth. Then at the very end of the last day Michael came back and said ‘I’ve got something’. He sang it, we loved it, we put the harmony vocals on it and it was done.
“Andy Kauffman was a performance artist. He wasn’t a comedian, he wasn’t a comic, he was a performance artist. Some of what he did was funny, some of it was annoying, some it was irritating – but it was always provocative. As such, as someone that you couldn’t really pin down in terms of what he was and what he was not. Was he dead? Was he faking?
“He’s the perfect ghost to lead you through this tour of questioning things. Did the moon landing really happen? Is Elvis really dead? He was kind of an ephemeral figure at that point so he was the perfect guy to tie all this stuff together as you journey through childhood and touchstones of life.”
It’s a song that has been written and talked about like no other in the whole REM canon. I think there’s a keyword in all that Mills said and that is ‘transition’. Stipe was now in his early 30s, held up by many, in the American music press in particular, as the most important lyricist of his time and this was his very conscious effort to compose something which acknowledged his days of carefree youth were behind him but while he was prepared to move on, there remained a number of unanswered questions in his head.
Or maybe it should just be taken at face value, with Stipe was simply wanting to pay homage to someone who had given him an enormous amount of pleasure and entertainment as he was growing up.
The Robster has previously pointed out that a single, to qualify for the charts back in 1992, was restricted to a maximum of four formats. There was a 7″ single which offered up an edited version of the album version – its some 33 seconds shorter and the difference comes after the four-minute mark with a few instrumental bars removed:-
As with Drive, the 7″ and cassette versions went with a b-side taken from Green, with the CD offering up a cover version
It’s almost as if Warner Bros. was apologising belatedly for the singles taken from Green by putting some of its better songs as b-sides. The cover in this instance is a Robyn Hitchcock song, a long-time friend of the band who had been part of the line-up at the legendary Borderline Club shows in London in March 1991.
I’m willing to be corrected on this, but from what I can gather from looking things up on t’internet, Robyn Hitchcock didn’t release his own version of Arms of Love until its appeared on the Respect album, which came out in February 1993, a few months after Man On the Moon had been issued as a single. I’m not familiar with the song other than the R.E.M. take which itself is a more than passable acoustic number with a very light production.
The second CD, which again was marketed as the ‘Collectors Edition’, offered up the album version of Man On The Moon along with the cover of Arms of Love, and two ‘Non-LP’ tracks:-
The former is an instrumental based, you won’t be surprised on a tune played on an electronic organ….one which very early on seems to rip off Hello, I Love You by The Doors before becoming the sort of thing that sounds as if the three musicians in the band were trying to work up something that might have just catch the ear of their lyricist to work his own brand of magic on it. It’s a real oddity among loads of other oddities that have appeared as b-sides over the years – it truly was one for the collectors/completists only.
New Orleans Instrumental #1 made it onto Automatic For The People. The only thing this b-side has in common with the album cut is that it is also an instrumental number written while the band was in the Kingsway Studios in New Orleans in late-February to mid-March 1992 (a session that also saw the earliest work on Drive). It is another totally forgettable effort and the fact it was included as a b-side to what was just the second single from the new album shows how little material was still out there unused.
Finally…..one of the main reasons I find it hard to enjoy Man on the Moon stems from its inclusion on a free CD given away with a particularly loathsome UK tabloid newspaper in July 2005. The CD was issued on the day when the UK was hosting the G8 summit, at Gleneagles, a five-star hotel resort about an hour or so north of Glasgow as part of that paper’s call to ‘Make Poverty History’. I could go on for pages and pages about the irony of such a wretched paper latching on to a people-driven campaign but given it is the biggest selling paper in the country, it’s no surprise that the multinational major record labels were happy to have some of their biggest acts offer up a song, but R.E.M. was by far the biggest name. A live version of Man on The Moon was put forward, recorded in 2004 at a gig in London aimed at raising funds for Oxfam, an occasion when they are, in due course, joined on stage by Chris Martin of Coldplay. You can probably work out just where by the way the crowd goes wild……
Once heard, you’ll never forget it. And it’ll put you off the original forever. You’ve been warned.
Apologies for the lengthy nature of this week’s effort. The series will take a one-week break as there’s a special ICA lined up for next Sunday, after which myself and the Robster will offer up another dual-pronged offering on R.E.M.’s 20th UK single.