THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Parts 44 & 45)

Very long post alert………………………..

It wasn’t supposed to be me this week…..in fact, the original plan had been for The Robster to take you through to the end of the journey, mainly as I don’t have any of the very late-period R.E.M. singles in the collection, and so would be unable to offer up any thoughts or view on the b-sides.  I was still buying the studio albums, if not the compilations, but this was more out of a sense of duty than anything else as I was getting bored with things and feeling let down constantly by one or more hacks excitedly writing that the new record was a return to form when it was anything but.

So, why the change of mind?  It was all down to me feeling that my partner-in-rhyme had already suffered enough for our art with his review last week of the first two singles from Around The Sun, and it was only right that I should share the pain.  The Robster was able to fire over some mps3 in a file and allow me to make myself familiar with the material.

Let’s cut to the chase.  Around The Sun is an appalling album.  A collection of songs that would have been laughed out of the house a decade or so earlier.  As for the 80s, I don’t think any of the band would have risked the ridicule of taking any of the demos near a studio.

Despite this, it didn’t stop me buying tickets to go see the band in a huge tent in a park in the centre of Glasgow in June 2005, some nine months after the release of a record I had listened to once.  I remember, after an energetic opening, albeit one in which the sound was never quite spot on thanks to the acoustics involved in playing under a canvas, that I got quite bored by the show, thinking that Buck, Mills and Stipe, were going through the motions and fulfilling the contractual obligations.

Looking back at the set-list, it’s now obvious the mid-show sag was a combination of them playing the songs from Around The Sun, interspersed with some of the big hits which, in the setting, simply became crowd sing-alongs drowing out the sounds from the speakers. Even my beloved Electrolite got the lighters-in-the air treatment and the out-of tune singing with closed eyes from a group of pissed friends of both sexes right behind us.

Oh, and that’s the other memory.  Loads of drunk folk, out for an occasion rather than a gig, many of whom were constantly heading off, barging their way through the crowd for a comfort break, and returning with handfuls of more booze, the contents of which were quickly consumed leading to the vicious circle…….

OK. This isn’t meant to be a gig review, but 14 June 2005 at Glasgow Green was when I knew I wouldn’t ever see the band play live again.  It had become unbearable.

Single #3 from Around The Sun got played that night.  Single #4 did not. I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies (as I’ll come to in due course).

Electron Blue is the song which Michael Stipe has said is his favourite track from the album, and indeed was the inspiration for his stage appearance during the promotional tours of 2004 and 2005 with a blue band pained across his eyes.

It starts off with some bent-notes played on a synth for about ten seconds before becoming, to my ears, something akin to an out-take by the Electric Light Orchestra….maybe I’m getting confused by the common one word in the song titles, but the music just before Stipe comes into start singing reminds me of the dreadful Mr Blue Sky.  It turns out that Electron Blue then slows right down but only to turn itself into a keyboard-driven dirge. It’s just dull and dreary beyond words (and for the Glasgow Green gig, it was slipped into the set after Everybody Hurts and right before Electrolite – let’s just say it’s been one of very very very few occasions when I’ve been grateful that the audience were speaking over the top of the performance.

mp3: R.E.M. – Electron Blue

It was released in March 2005.  There was a 7″ single on blue vinyl, and two CDs.  And, as had been the case with the previous two singles from the album, they were packed with live tracks as b-sides.  This one was common to the vinyl and CD1:-

mp3: R.E.M. – What’s The Frequency Kenneth (live)

A track that had previously been released as a live version on the Tongue single back in 1996.  Almost a decade on and R.E.M. prove they are capable of sucking the life totally out of some of their most exciting rock songs.  This is from the October 2004 show in Atlanta, on the first leg of the Around The Sun Tour. The sound is muddied with the vocals way out in front of everything else.  It’s just plain ugly.

The live track on CD2 was recorded in Cincinnati a few days after the Atlanta show.

mp3: R.E.M. – Sweetness Follows (live)

While it was good that one of the lesser known tracks from Automatic For The People was being played live, it proved to be an infrequent happening.  Being the sad statto, I looked things up and found that across the 114 shows on the various legs of the tour between October 2004 and July 2005, Sweetness Follows was aired just 17 times.  But, given how much of a struggle it is for Michael Stipe to deliver the notes in the way he should, maybe that’s a blessing.

CD2 also had a video clip, of Leaving New York as recorded at the gig in Helsinki on 29 January 2005. This would have been in the depths of a hard Finnish winter, and so you’ll be relieved to learn the gig was an indoor one, at the 12,000 capacity Hartwall Arena.  Sadly, we haven’t been able to track down an audio clip of the performance.

Electron Blue came in at #26.  The following week it fell all the way down to #61 before disappearing from view.  Proof that the average shelf-life of an R.E.M. single wasn’t much more than a carton of fresh-milk.

The Around The Sun tour ended with a massive show at Hyde Park, London on 16 July 2005.  It was actually a week later than scheduled as London has been shut down the previous weekend after 56 people had lost their lives during a series of bombs that had targetted the public transport network.  84,000 people made their way to the park and by most accounts, the band played a crowd-pleasing barn-stormer of a set, one which helped the capital heal itself.

A fourth single was lifted from the album and released two days after Hyde Park.  It came in at #27 in the first chart afterwards before dropping to #55 and then out of sight.  Quite clearly, it was only the most loyal of fans who were spending their cash on the singles.

mp3: R.E.M. – Wanderlust

I’m not sure what The Robster’s take on Wanderlust is*, but I’m quite prepared to go on the public record and state that Wanderlust is, easily, the worst 45 of REM’s career…..with the irony being that it was their 45th single in the UK.

*Actually, I shared the proposed contents of this post in advance with The Robster, and he kindly offered me his take on the single:-

Now, picture the scene. Around The Sun is finished, the band and associates are in the studio to hear the final mix. At some point, someone from the label pipes up: “God, this record is boring. Don’t you have anything more upbeat?” After some awkward shuffling and mumbling, one of the band sheepishly mutters: “Well, there’s a song called ‘Wanderlust’…”

“Oh dear god no, that’s embarrassing,” someone else retorts.

“Well, let’s hear it,” says label guy.

The mixing desk guy plays it. Everyone cringes at how awful it is. Everyone that is, except record label guy.

“Guys, that’s this record’s ‘Sidewinder’, it’s got goofy single written all over it,”he exclaims. “Put this on and we’ll get the album out.”

“It’s only a rough take though, it’s not finished…” explains band member #2.

“And we don’t have time to finish it,” says band member #3.

“It’s good enough as it is guys,” insists the label imbecile. “I mean it’s crap, but it hasn’t sent me to sleep…”

A resigned sigh emanates around the studio…

 And that, my friends, is the story of how Wanderlust came to be on Around The Sun. Well, that’s the story in my head, anyhow. I may have made some (all) of it up, but I don’t have any other logical explanation as to how an album of such awfulness is made even worse by this horrific, unwelcome specimen barging its way into it halfway through.

I know that Jonny has said he’s enjoyed hearing some of these later singles as he’s not been familiar with them at all, and if nothing else, has offered the opinion that the distinct vocal delivery of Michael Stipe is capable of lifting things to a bearable level.  I wonder, however, if my learned legal friend can mount a defendable case for this piece of crap?

Again, there was a 7″ single, this time on red vinyl, and two CDs.   The 7″ had a track lifted from the album as its b-side:-

mp3: R.E.M. – The Outsiders

Unbelievably, it’s a song which makes Wanderlust almost passable.  And then, just as it fades out to what sounds like its natural end at the 2:48 mark, a snare drum kicks in and a spoken/semi-sung contribution from the rapper Q-Tip, from A Tribe Called Quest, takes us through  the next minute or so before the tune meanders to its close just after four minutes.  It bored me then, and it bores me still…..a total waste of what, on paper, should have been an interesting and fruitful collaboration.

A different version of The Outsiders was included on CD2. It’s one of those that didn’t sound all that different on the initial listen, but maybe that’s just me as I wasn’t ever giving the original take all that much attention.  But then….just as I was expecting to hear Q-Tip, it is instead Michael Stipe who takes the song through to its conclusion:-

mp3: R.E.M. – The Outsiders (alternate version)

Sadly, it doesn’t do anything to change my mind that this is the sort of tune and lyrics that Phil Collins would have churned out in his late 80s pomp.

As for CD1.

mp3: R.E.M. – Low (alternate version)

I’m guessing this was dug out of the vaults as Scott Litt, who hadn’t worked with the band since New Adventures in Hi-Fi, is given production, engineering and mixing credits.  It does sound as if it was a rejected, possibly earlier take, from the Out of Time sessions back in 1991.  It may have been rejected back then, but as you’ll hear, it is way superior to anything that the band were coming out with in 2004/2005.  It’s a powerful, haunting reminder of why the band had grabbed the attention of so many music afficianados at the outset.

The Robster also helpfully pointed out that Wanderlust received a digital release, with a live version made available.  We are nothing, if not completists:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Wanderlust (live)

R.E.M would disappear for the best part of three years after Around The Sun.  The tour had been gruelling and being in their mid-to late 40s meant it took a huge amount out of them physically and emotionally. I think many of us expected an announcement that they had broken up, but they mounted a comeback, of sorts, and The Robster will be here next week to take you thorough the singles of the late 00’s.

JC

15 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Parts 44 & 45)

  1. Wow, JC & Robster, my admiration for you both grows with each instalment. That was a difficult listening experience and 30 minutes I may not wish to repeat again…! There’s very little to love about either of the singles. Swiss Adam has mentioned this before, but the record label cash-grabbing, barrel-scraping choice of live versions has reached an absolute nadir here. Where was the quality control?! As for The Outsiders, the song initially piqued my interest, but JC you’re right in saying that it could and should have ended halfway through. Q-Tip is wasted but having heard the Stipe solo alternate version, you can understand why there was a need to try and make it moderately interesting. Low is, of great, but unsurprisingly inferior to the studio and live versions that have gone before.

    Like so many, it’s the emotional heft of the writing that compels to make this my first Sunday morning read with a cup of tea. Whilst I’ve (increasingly) no regrets that I jumped ship at the end of the 1990s, as far as R.E.M. singles and albums were concerned, I’ve always felt a pang that I didn’t ever see R.E.M. live in concert. Financially speaking, I probably wouldn’t have be in a position to shell out for stadium gigs until the early 2000s. Having read of your experience at Glasgow Green in 2005, I’m now thinking maybe it was a blessing that this period would not have been a good first – and only – opportunity to see R.E.M. live.

    Thanks again to both of you for keeping with this series. Whilst the music has been increasingly disappointing, the writing and comments are anything but.

  2. Would back all of Khayem’s sentiments. First thing on a Sunday catch up with the direness of REM in the 2000’s!
    I guess many of us turn into musical snobs but i only saw REM twice. Green Tour; Wembley Arena and Cardiff Arms Park Monster Tour.
    The first I remember with affection – a band at their height- energetic, different, exciting.
    By Cardiff they were still worth seeing but you could see it wasn’t the same as 5 years before – indeed the noisy drunks who only knew two songs were in attendance; one of them pissing down the back of my mate’s girlfriend’s leg!
    Ultimately they were a great band and kept the standards up longer than any of many of their contemporaries. I often ask my friends about bands who have had 3 great albums…i can never come up with many on that list but I feel REM have but i guess the ‘TVV’ community would dispute which 3 they were…

  3. Despite the obvious lack of quality control by R.E.M. in recent weeks Robster and JC have more than avoided the mire with some excellent pieces of writing – enjoyed with coffee.

    This is a stage in the band’s career that I know nothing of – not because I had any sense of how poor the output was, we had just drifted amicably apart.

    Of this period I recall media photos and tv performances – Stipe with partial blue face. Nothing more.

    Info below also relates to yesterday’s post.

    My first really commercial gig was also at Glasgow Green, in a tent. It was a shocker for many of the reasons JC mentions. Primal Scream strode onto the stage – they were just awful. I was very disappointed. They were saved from being the worst band on the stage by the headliners Stone Roses. They were an absolute car crash. Extremely disappointed. I left the tent while the were still playing but could, unfortunately, still hear them.

    I’ll miss this series when it comes to an end.

  4. ‘reminds me of the dreadful Mr Blue Sky’

    I know music is all about taste and opinions. But Mr Blue Sky, ‘dreadful’? Seriously?

  5. Sorry Paul!!!

    I genuinely have no time for any of the output of ELO. I’ve had many a conversation about ‘Mr Blue Sky’ over the years and realise that I’m out of sync with a lot of opinion, but I just don’t get it….

  6. Regarding though ‘The Outsiders’, I don’t remember ever hearing it before, but, hearing it for the first time, I really like it. Really do. Actually, I love it. Have played it four times already this morning…including both versions. It’s dripping with sadness, regret, memories, but also hope, forewarning and encouragement, something solid amongst the haziness. I was surprised by the false-ending and re-start with Q-Tip, but I think it really works. Q-Tip is, admittedly, one of my favourite rappers – I love his unique tone and flow – and his delivery really suits the song. Compare this to Radio Song, with the cringe-worthy rapping from KRS-1. It’s entirely possible that this was the worst of REM…the annoying spoken skit intro, and the pointless ‘uh, uh’ and ‘hey, hey, hey’s, not to mention the cloying ‘meta’ concept of a song about radio, deliberately made to pique interest with radio stations. Can’t bear Radio Song, it’s in the same category as Stand and all those other ‘dumb’ songs for me, whereas ‘The Outsiders’ is one I could / can / will return to.

  7. @Mike – I saw R.E.M. three times in all, the first two times coincidentally were the same shows as you! The Wembley show was mindblowing, despite the venue being truly awful (it was only my second ever gig), and the Cardiff show was where MrsRobster and I met so that is also a special show for very different reasons.

    (The third time was at Earls Court, London on the Up tou, in case you were wondering)

    @Simon Sanders – a fascinating comment. It’s great how different people hear some things so differently. I actually really like how the band played The Outsiders live (apart from Stipe’s rap…). They never officially released a live version, but if you want to hear it, here’s one I have from a bootleg recorded in Germany in 2005:
    https://mega.nz/file/h1An0SDR#KqWfkcG9MUEpu_p_8ioGCc3GIZmdOjBd6AH_0D2OPvo

    And Mr Blue Sky? I’m no fan of it either…

  8. Thank you, i can only echo previous comments. I had lost touch with REM by this stage and nothing you have made available that I’ve now heard makes me regret this, but all credit to you both, awesome writing, incredible dedication particularly as it is with such emotion and love for REM,

  9. Wow. The only good thing I can think of to say about Electron Blue is that at least it doesn’t have Mills singing background. And The Outsiders…didn’t know it was possible to make Q-Tip sound bad. Wanderlust is…lively? Almost like REM trying to cover She’s Electric by Oasis. Doesn’t do a lot for me but to my ears it’s a better song than the other two. Which isn’t saying much. Wow.

  10. Mr Blue Sky leaves me cold too JC, so there’s a least 2 of us. The alternate version of Low is worth hearing and justifies this week’s post alone. The rest of the songs are as the young folk say ‘meh’ (at best).

  11. You’re really putting your backs into aren’t you? Fair play. You relive the demise of REM so we don’t have to. I’m cautious to click on some of these links

  12. And…breathe. The dark days are over. Thanks to JC and Robster for listening to this dross so we don’t have to.
    And there is definately (LoD night!!) a hint of HiHo Silver Lining in the lead to the chorus of “Wanderlust”. NOT a good thing in my book!

  13. This is official point where I stopped buying REM singles it seems, I’ve just been in the loft to check my CD singles, I’ve checked my files and nope I don’t appear to have “Wanderlust” how disappointing. I have to say it been a great series and by and large you’ve both mirrored my journey with REM.

    I can still remember how it all ended between us. It was in the car driving down the M1 to Luton. I’d got the new CD on release the day before and saved it for the journey so I could get some uninterrupted listening in. We started off ok if not a bit slowly then the conversation just became blah, blah, boring blah. When I got to Luton, something wasn’t right, maybe I missed something here. When I’d finished my day’s work head back home so I’d give it another listen and … no I was right the first time, it was a plodding, dull, overlong mess of an album. I even listened to it recently to see if I’ve missed something 20 year on would fix and no it’s still one of my top three shite albums I own.

  14. A wonderful series from start to finish – and it cheered me up to find a few fellow leaving New York appreciators last week . I’m never that big a fan of cover versions and one thing that struck me is I’d always imagined REM to have treated b sides a tad like the Smiths so that’s been a bit of a let down .
    In terms of ELO – they have seen great tracks
    – enough for an ICA . But mr blue sky is an awful thing

  15. Others have already said it better – music: disappointing.
    Post and comments: the opposite. Thanks to JC and Robster
    for sticking with this series. I do like Mr Blue Sky though,
    especially the long instrumental coda.

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