THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 28)

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
You call
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.

JC

11 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 28)

  1. Went to the Milton Keynes gig . Magnapop, we’re so forgettable , I literally have no memory . Then again I thought Blur were totally unsuited to stadium gigs after seeing them here so what do I know

  2. Went to the Cardiff gig. I remember a lot of people enjoying the cranberries who i guess were at the top of their game then whereas i preferred belly. Had seen REM previously at Wembley Arena and whilst that isn’t my favourite venue i felt that was about as large a place as i wanted to see REM in. When it got to stadiums (like many bands) it gets to that point where you feel the crowd only know the hits so something like ‘let me in’ goes straight over their heads. Lost a bit of interest after that tour but did enjoy new adventures in hi-fi..

  3. Terrific post.

    I was at that second Milton Keynes date. What a day, and Christ, it was hot. Sleeper, Cranberries and Radiohead was quite sn undercard. During their set, Michael Stipe got Louise Wener back up on stage and orchestrated the crowd in singing Happy Birthday to her.

  4. Okay, here’s where this awesome series gets really interesting for me. I had already stopped listening to the band when Monster came out, so basically everything going forward is new. I doubt I ever heard ‘Tongue’ before because it’s so unusual. Not sure I could even tell it was Stipe singing. It’s kind of a disturbing song, but a good listen. And you say it was a single? Curious. Great write up, JC. I was a snob to part with the band so it’s time to get over myself and get reacquainted.

  5. I was at on of the Huddersfield days – The Beautiful South were late replacements for Oasis, who dropped out. Would have made it even more of a Britpop full house.
    One of the Milton Keynes gigs was on the BBC (and now a live album?)
    Second and last time I saw REM. Loved it. And enjoyed my cassette of the BBC show.

  6. A fascinating read, JC. I’ve only heard Tongue because I bought the ‘In View’ best of DVD many years later, but I’d never paid attention to the lyrics. I was living in cramped bedsits by this points, surrounded by boxes of stuff (mostly music, books & comics) that followed me from one place to another, broke most of the time and spending most of my money on going out and having a good time, very little on music. I had no time (or money) for R.E.M. at this point. Having followed this series, I really wish I had bought Monster at least.

  7. Thanks JC, you got me interested in hearing the song and it’s remix. Like JTFL, R.E.M. were well in my rear view mirror by Monster. I had many friends who couldn’t understand my disinterest, feeling the band were at the height of their musical powers at this point. R.E.M. had just gone in a different direction than my listening preferences – so did so much Rock and Roll at this point. Tongue sounds like a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song to me – that’s not a bad thing at all. I agree that Scott Litt did a lot to the song’s production in the remix. The lyrics take on a much stronger point of view when the vocal is so out front.

  8. Wasn’t even aware that this had been released – combination of vinyl and having given up on the singles by this time due to paucity of decent extra tracks. Although Monster remains one of my favourite REM albums, Tongue never stood out to me for its quality, only for its unusual sound. A strange choice to release in many ways -unlike REM in many ways – , but perhaps that was the point. Interesting to read the background as well. As ever, a great post in an endlessly fascinating (so far for all the right reasons) series. And JTFL – don’t beat yourdelf up about having given up on REM. You were just a few albums early! Probably saved you from enduring some of the forthcoming albums.

  9. Just to be clear – not including New Adventures in Hi-Fi in that. You definitely made a mistake in missing that!

  10. I’m am going to be such an outlier as this series progresses . There seems a general consensus that from now on in its all down hill with New Adventures the bridge between good REM and crap REM. I love the later lps and singles . Admittedly rarely touch the complete highs and at times sound like and a different band ( which as a 3 piece I think they were or as REM by numbers . Feel I’m going to be a bit of a lonely voice for the defence going forward

  11. I had no idea this was a single, so was interested to
    read JC’s post. Remarkable that it charted so high,
    being the fifth release and all. Looking forward to
    the next adventure in this series.

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