Sometimes, no matter how much it pisses you off that they came up with a new ploy to find ways of having fans part with money, you have to admire the way the marketing gurus at Warner Bros went about things when it came to R.E.M.
The Robster mentioned a few weeks back that Find The River, a sixth single lifted from Automatic…, had bombed by only reaching #54, the first such failure since the release of Losing My Religion. Such an outcome would surely have stopped the idea of a fifth single being lifted from Monster, especially when so many critics and fans were failing to really warm to the album; but on 17 July 1995, just as the band was about to arrive in the UK for a week of outdoor stadium gigs they pulled off a masterstroke by branding the 7″ edition of Tongue as a ‘Limited Edition 1995 Tour Souvenir’, complete with a 12-page booklet of photos and quotes from all the band members about how much of a joy it was to be playing live again.
It led to plenty of fans, including many without a turntable on which to play the single, going out and making a purchase, thus helping to propel it to #13 in a week where it was impossible to escape REM-mania across the UK media in all its forms.
Before turning to the single, it’s worth mentioning, in passing, the bands who were on the undercard for these shows as it’s almost a full house in the emerging Britpop stakes, along with a couple of alt acts from the States:-
23 July: Cardiff – Del Amitri, Belly, The Cranberries
25 July: Huddersfield – The Beautiful South, Belly, Magnapop
26 July: Huddersfield – Echobelly, Terrorvision, The Beautiful South
27 July: Edinburgh – Belly, Spearhead, The Cranberries
29 July: Milton Keynes – Magnapop, Belly, Blur
30 July: Milton Keynes – Sleeper, The Cranberries, Radiohead
But what of Tongue itself?
It’s the slowest slow song on Monster, but it is as far removed from the ballads that had gone down a storm on Automatic. It’s sung in a falsetto, very unlike any other Michael Stipe delivery prior to this. It’s sung over a very slow, almost soulful tune with both a piano and organ being most prominent – there’s barely a hint of any guitars for the most part.
It is, without any question, one of the most disturbing lyrics that he has ever penned, particularly the opening verse:-
Call my name, here I come
90 to nothing, watch me run
I am ashamed to say
Ugly girls know their fate
Anybody can get laid
You want a room with a fire escape
I want to tell you how much I hate this
Stipe has faced a lot of questions regarding the song over the years, and while he has often been reluctant to go into much detail about any of his compositions, he wanted to make sure nobody got ambiguous with this one. It is from the perspective of someone who recognises that they are in an abusive relationship in which they would, without hesitation, meet up for casual and, what always turned out to be, unfulfilling sex. I don’t think he has ever said it was specifically from the perspective of a woman but I think Peter Buck once said that it was, which is why the vocal was delivered falsetto.
The lyrics don’t get any easier as the song progresses – listeners can use their imagination about how messy the sex is and can draw their own conclusions about why it has the title of Tongue when the word isn’t used in the song.
Despite all this, the song was one of the first that I thought could be considered memorable on the initial listens of the album, primarily as it was so unlike any other R.E.M. song, allied to the fact that it was a fabulous and understated tune. But, I’d never have imagined it being issued as a single…..
mp3: R.E.M. – Tongue
As you’ll have seen from the most recent entries in this series, the previous singles from Monster had all been filled with instrumental versions on the b-side of the 7″ vinyl while the CD versions contained live tracks taken from the Greenpeace benefit concert held at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia in November 1992. The problem for the CD of Tongue, and this is another reason why I think it was never a long-term plan to issue it as a single, was that all the songs from that gig had now been used. In other words, the well was dry. But Warner Bros had friends in the entertainment industry who proved willing to help out:-
mp3: R.E.M. – Tongue (instrumental)
mp3: R.E.M. – What’s The Frequency Kenneth (Saturday Night Live)
mp3: R.E.M. – Bang and Blame (Saturday Night Live)
mp3: R.E.M. – I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (Saturday Night Live)
The band had appeared on the iconic show on Saturday 12 November 1994, as part of the initial promotion of Monster, the first time they had played live together, in public, in over a year.
As for the bonus remix…..well Scott Litt didn’t really have too much to play with given how little was going on with the original version. But he makes the sound a bit less muddy and brings the guitar notes higher up in the mix, as well as adding some backing vocals as if to emphasise that, deep down, Tongue is a soul number at heart, albeit a very sad one:-
mp3: R.E.M. – Tongue (remix)
The end result is a lovely and enjoyable listen which I find myself preferring to the original, possibly as it sounds as if could have fitted perfectly onto New Adventures In H-Fi, the next album that would be released by R.E.M. and which, if pushed, I’d say was my particular favourite, which often seems to surprise folk when I say that.
Robster is back next week with a brief overview of the album along with the first of its singles.