SOME SONGS ARE GREAT SHORT STORIES (Chapter 43)

A couple of days ago, the latest instalment of the R.E.M. singles series made reference to the acoustic version of New Test Leper that had featured as one of the b-sides to Bittersweet Me.

I got thinking that perhaps not everyone will be familiar with the songs which appeared on New Adventures In Hi-Fi, and given that the original version of New Test Leper is such an outstanding piece of work, I’ve decided to feature it as part of this series:-

I can’t say that I love Jesus
That would be a hollow claim
He did make some observations
And I’m quoting them today
“Judge not, lest ye be judged”
What a beautiful refrain
The studio audience disagrees
Have his lambs all gone astray?

Call me a leper
Call me a leper
Call me a leper

“You are lost and disillusioned”
What an awful thing to say
I know this show doesn’t flatter
It means nothing to me
I thought I might help them understand
What an ugly thing to see
“I am not an animal”
Subtitled under the screen

Call me a leper
Call me a leper
Call me a leper

When I tried to tell my story
They cut me off to take a break
I sat silent five commercials
I had nothing left to say
The talk show host was index-carded
All organized and blank
The other guests were scared and hardened
What a sad parade
What a sad parade

Call me a leper
Call me a leper
Call me a leper
Mmmm
Mmmm

mp3: R.E.M. – New Test Leper

There’s a whole page on wiki devoted to the song:-

“It was recorded at Bad Animals Studio in Seattle, Washington, in March 1996, four months after R.E.M. completed their 1995 world tour in support of their previous album, Monster. On the track, Bill Berry plays drums and shaker; Peter Buck plays guitar; Mike Mills, bass and organ; and Michael Stipe provides the vocals, which were penned during moments of downtime at the studio.

The following month, on April 19, the band recorded an acoustic version of the song at the same location. That version was released as a B-side to the “Bittersweet Me” single. The video of the performance, directed by Lance Bangs, was used as the video to the album version of the song in the Bonus Videos section on the band’s In View DVD, released in 2003.

The first line of the song contains the lyrics “I can’t say that I love Jesus”, attracting some controversy. Peter Buck clarified the matter to Q magazine’s Tom Doyle in 1996: “It’s written from the perspective of a character that Michael saw on TV on a talk show. But are people going to think Michael’s talking about himself not liking Jesus? I don’t think that people will take us that seriously. It’s not like we’re tearing up a picture of the Pope on television.” He was referring to Sinéad O’Connor‘s 1992 Saturday Night Live incident.

“‘New Test Leper’ is something that we only played at soundcheck, like, twice,” Buck explained in another interview, this time to Addicted to Noise’s Michael Goldberg, also in 1996. “And for some reason, we just forgot about it and never really played it. I don’t know why. Michael just happened to luckily enough have it on tape. He says, ‘I’ve got this great stuff for that song and none of us even remember playing it.’ So we cut it here in Seattle when we did the record. I think it’s probably the most R.E.M.-ish sounding thing on the record. Literally, Michael was watching one of those talk shows and I think the subject was ‘People judge me by the way I look’ or something. Whereas I, when I have the misfortune to look for two minutes at one of those Oprah, Geraldo things, I just get revolted at everyone concerned: the audience, me. Michael actually looked at it and felt like, ‘Gosh, what if someone’s actually trying to communicate something to these people and this person who’s in this awful, tacky, degrading situation?’ So it’s written from that perspective. And I think probably having done press conferences in the past and being in those kinds of situations, there might be a little empathy from experience that we’ve had.”

According to Darryl White’s R.E.M. Timeline, “New Test Leper” received its first live airing on May 31, 1997, at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta during the final show of The Magnificent 7 vs. The United States’ tour. The “Magnificent 7” was composed of Peter Buck, Mark Eitzel, Justin Harwood, Dan Pearson, Barrett Martin, Scott McCaughey and Skerik Walton, with other people performing occasionally. Buck’s R.E.M. bandmates were present, and the guitarist left Eitzel to perform the last encore to go backstage and talk with the trio. Berry, however, had already departed and was on his way home. “Bill phoned me after the show to tell me he’d loved it,” explained Buck. “But he had to leave halfway through because he was scared he’d be asked to play. It had taken him two hours to drive there; he stayed for forty minutes, and then drove home so he wouldn’t be asked to play one R.E.M. song.” The remaining threesome put together a short set and took to the stage.

During R.E.M.’s performance on VH1 Storytellers in 1998, Stipe explained the background of the song he described as his “crowning achievement”: how he initially (and, thankfully for him, erroneously) thought he’d stolen the song’s “biggest line” – What a sad parade – from his friend Vic Chesnutt; how he wanted to write a follow-up to the only other song he knew that contained the word Jesus in the first line – namely Patti Smith‘s re-working of Van Morrison‘s “Gloria” (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”); how he “wanted to write a song that was in the 6/8 polka kind of thing, but wanted the vocal to be contrapuntal; and how he quoted his favorite movie in the second verse (“I am not an animal,” from The Elephant Man, a movie that Stipe says also inspired R.E.M.’s “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)”, amongst others).”

And, just to round things off……

I reckon this illustrates perfectly just what The Robster has been saying this past couple of weeks about how different NAiHF would have been regarded if certain other songs had been released as singles.

JC

 

5 thoughts on “SOME SONGS ARE GREAT SHORT STORIES (Chapter 43)

  1. Wonderful, thanks for sharing, JC. I’ve got the In View DVD, which may explain why I always assumed New Test Leper had been a single. Certainly should have been.

  2. Thanks JC. Very nice post. Being a Chronic Town / Murmur initiate to REM, I lost the excitement in their work as the years progressed. But it was songs like NTL and Country Feedback which kept me coming back. In the pseudo-puritanical USA, NTL was unlikely to be the song which did the heavy lifting for the album. We are still upset at a british band claiming they were bigger than jesus and here, no matter the explanation, no matter the lyrics afterwards, the song starts with a line which would be unacceptable to hear for the moral police.

  3. Really interesting, and a great addition to the series, JC.
    I’d often wondered if the “I am not an animal” line was
    borrowed from ‘The Elephant Man’. Mystery solved.

  4. Certainly a far better choice of single – if the aim was to help promote the album. Didn’t know the background to song so. as always, an entertaining and informative morning read. Thanks JC.

  5. Thanks Greg….and apologies the comment didn’t appear immediately- for some reason or other, it went into the spam folder.

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