THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 40)

Reveal hadn’t gone down too well with fans or critics and Warner Brothers were getting edgy about the multi-million dollar/multi-album deal they had signed with the band in the mid 90s. It was time to recoup some cash and so, in October 1993, a Greatest Hits package was put into the shops, perfectly timed for the Xmas market.

In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988 -2003 pulled together 18 songs, with a running length almost precisely what could be fitted onto a single CD. Fifteen singles, one song previously only available on the soundtrack to the film Vanilla Sky and two new songs made up the package. There was a limited two-disc edition which offered up some b-sides and rarities, while there was also a DVD featuring all the promos. I believe there was also a limited edition double-album vinyl version.

It all added up to a huge success in that In Time went to #1 and indeed in just two months sold enough copies in the UK to be the tenth best selling CD of 2007.

I’m assuming all, or at least most of you, visit the blog for more than this long-running but hopefully informative look back the R.E.M. singles. If so, you will know that I’ve been pulling out old reviews from bygone days, composed by professionally paid writers and looking to see if their opinions/views/thoughts have stood up well in later years. I’m going to perform the same service today, with a fairly scathing review by Stephen Dalton in the NME; I’ve edited it down a bit as it was a considerable length, but the last line is intact and is one I remember distinctly as I wished, when reading it, that I’d come up with it:-

“The borderline between evergreen alt-rock elder statesmen and deathless careerist dinosaurs is often very hazy. R.E.M. were certainly a vital cultural force when they first signed to a major label 15 years ago….

When the mainstream US media was awash with mullet-haired metal clowns, Stipe and co offered a genuine antidote to Reagan-Thatcher macho triumphalism that was intelligent, bookish, sexually ambivalent and steeped in a quasi-literary Americana.

When grunge raged and howled, R.E.M. went eloquently quiet, applauding the punk spirit while retreating even deeper into rootsy Americana. Two landmark stadium-folk albums in the early 1990s became multi-million-sellers and clarion calls for incoming president Clinton’s vision of a caring, sharing superpower.

Stipe was iconic, intriguing, untouchable.

But then came – what? Overexposure? Flimsy rebel credentials tamed by success? Retreat into wealth-cushioned playboy-liberal bohemianism? Just as the prosaic realpolitik of Clinton diluted R.E.M.’s mildly left-leaning edge, so the death of Kurt Cobain pulled the alt-rock rug from under them.

A massive $80 million contract renewal in 1996 and drummer Bill Berry’s departure in 1997 further strained R.E.M’s image as the Last Indie Noblemen. And their output was becoming pleasantly inessential tunes, from the opiated lullaby ‘All The Way To Reno’ to the swooning waltz of ‘Daysleeper’, but they were now firmly entrenched as official poster boys for Nick Hornby-reading, Middle Youth suburbanites. Even people with the most conservative musical and political tastes bought R.E.M. by the bucketload.

‘In Time’ is inevitably a selective history,annoyingly so at times. There’s no ‘Near Wild Heaven’, no ‘Radio Song’, and only those who snap up early copies with the patchy limited-edition bonus disc of B-sides and rarities will get an acoustic ‘Pop Song ‘89’ and a live version of ’Drive’ . Most perverse of all is the glaring absence of ‘Shiny Happy People’. The band dislike it, but hey – Radiohead hate ‘Creep’, Underworld are ambivalent about ‘Born Slippy’. Big deal. Get over it. Don’t treat your listeners with indie-snob contempt.

Even the two new tunes are minor, déjà vu affairs.

Peter Buck’s farcical outburst of mid-air yoghurt rage in 2001 shattered any remaining alt-rock godfather cred that R.E.M. once possessed. Respect is due for helping to reshape the mainstream, but Stipe’s journey from America’s Morrissey to Kurt’s Big Brother to Thom Yorke’s Oddball Mate has been mostly taken in downward steps. Since 1988, pop has progressed in mighty leaps while R.E.M. have hardly moved.

‘In Time’ is a two-thirds decent compilation, but also a revealing overview of a once-vital supergroup in mid-life stagnation. They should have called it ‘Losing My Direction’. “

The same week that In Time was released saw one of its new tracks, Bad Day was issued as a single as part of the promotional efforts. It entered the charts at #8 before dropping down rather quickly and out of the Top 40 just three weeks later.

The irony of it being the lead single, and something not picked up by Dalton, or as far as I know by any other reviewers a the time, was Bad Day wasn’t exactly a brand new song, as can be seen from the fact it was credited to Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe, despite Bill Berry having long been away from the band.

The roots of Bad Day can be traced back to 1985, and the pre-Warner days when the band were signed to IRS. New material was being tested out on the road and in the studio for possible inclusion on what would become Lifes Rich Pageant, the album released in mid-1986. A song called PSA, seemingly an abbreviation of Public Service Announcement, aired occasionally on stage and recorded in demo form didn’t make the cut….but nearly 20 years later, it was picked up from the floor, given some new/additional lyrics and, ta-da, released as a single:-

mp3: R.E.M – Bad Day

Dalton’s review describes it as ‘a pleasingly vigorous country-punk torrent of allegedly politicised spite, but it’s characteristically vague and strongly reminiscent of the ancient standard ‘It’s The End of The World As We Know It’.

Which is fair enough and perhaps explains why I’ve long been fond of Bad Day, considering it a return to somewhat past glories with the hope that Reveal would be the absolute nadir of their career and the next studio album would be a worthy effort. Without giving too much away…..it wasn’t….but we’ll get to those moments in history in a couple of weeks time as there was a second single lifted from In Time, one which The Robster will cast his critical eye over next week.

As I said, Bad Day reached #8 in the UK charts. Not quite the last big chart hit, but near enough.

It was released on two different CD formats as well as a 7” single. CD 1 and the 7” contained a cover of a song that had been on the self-titled debut album by fellow-Georgians Magnapop:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Favorite Writer

CD1 also came with the promo for Bad Day, which was a spoof of the Morning news programmes you can find on ABC/CBS/Fox/NBC in all towns and cities in the USA. It features bad acting…….

CD2 didn’t offer the video, but instead there was a cover of a song from 1970 by American band Three Dog Night along with a new instrumental number

mp3: R.E.M. – Out In The Country
mp3: R.E.M. – Adagio

As cover versions go……Favorite Writer is a lot better than most of Up or Reveal without being totally spectacular, but in an era when truly great songs recorded by R.E.M. were hard to come by, this made for an enjoyable listen. Again, it felt like a throwback to the sort of thing they used to do in the IRS days.

As cover versions go……Out In The Country has Mike Mills on lead vocal and while I don’t know the original, it feels as if it’s a fairly faithful interpretation. It’s not one I’m terribly fond of.

As unreleased instrumental go…….Adagio is an attempt at what the title says….a slow, almost classical piece of music. Very unlike anything R.E.M. had attempted before, or indeed since. I don’t mind it as it is a one-off, and let’s face it, other than the fact it is attributed to Buck/Mills/Stipe, you would never have had any inclination who was actually behind it.

Finally, I mentioned earlier that Bad Day had its roots in the mid 80s. As The Robster pointed out to me the other day, the original demo version was eventually made available on the 25th anniversary edition of Lifes Rich Pageant back in 2011

mp3: R.E.M – Bad Day (Athens Demo)

It really does show demonstrate how prolific they were back in the indie-era, and while it is a tad rough’n’ready, there’s certainly a huge amount of potential in its three-and-a-half minutes. It was a good call to to resurrect Bad Day for the Greatest Hits package….

JC

11 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 40)

  1. That parting shot by Stephen Dalton in NME really says it all, doesn’t it? I actually quite like Bad Day, but I can’t help but compare it unfavourably to It’s The End Of The World… because of the musical similarity. The Athens Demo is definitely the better of the two versions, retaining the energy and spikiness that feels a bit smoothed out in the single/In Time version.

  2. Good write up as ever. I too liked Bad Day quite a lot but I knew it was really an End Of The World As We Know It remake. I was just happy to have some good lyrics back. I think I liked Accelerate more than most but this kept my interest.

    In an aside you’re a special guest character in a major plot point on today’s SFTD post

  3. Great post, as always. I ALSO liked Bad Day, having known it from some bootlegs that, mysteriously, came my way in the early 90’s. The studio version is good, but to hear it live on stage, even if it’s under crackles and recorded to a mono tape machine, is so much better. I didn’t buy the singles back then but now find I missed out on a couple of cracking covers, I’ll have to start searching.

  4. I liked Bad Day and its one of those songs that periodically gets stuck in my head. Does bear a resemblance to ITEOTWAWKIAIFF. Pageant is a superb album, played it this week and got a lot from it, all these years later. These Days especially.

  5. Excellent post as ever. Would be fun to think if REM ever ‘jumped the shark’? I would say about 1997 ..ish…

  6. First tme I’ve heard the demo version of “Bad Day” – makes it feel less like a alternative version of “It’s the End…”. As a a single, it offered a glimmer of hope that things were on an upswing following “Reveal”. Shame how that worked out…

  7. I always think of Bad Day as the template for, or at least a place where, It’s The End Of The World, borrows heavily from. Bad Day, in either it’s frenetic original PSA form or later incarnation, is prime R.E.M. and therefore a great listen.

  8. Excellent post, I have learned quite a bit about my favorite band in this series, thanks for doing this.
    The Athens demo. I totally forgot the shows in the late 80’s where Stipe brought out his harmonica. He probably shouldn’t have. Glad they hid his harmonica from him by the time they re-recorded and had him sing “do do dit dit do wah wa” instead.

  9. Thanks for an enjoyable and informative post, JC.
    Another Bad Day fan here. Not heard it in a while, so
    will fix that today.

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