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

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 27)

The more I listen to these songs from ‘Monster’, the more I love them. 26 years have passed since its release, but I don’t find myself tiring of them one little bit, unlike many of those on the preceding two R.E.M. records. This week’s track was the fourth single from ‘Monster’ and arguably the album’s most obvious single.

On first listen, you could be forgiven for thinking that Strange Currencies is essentially a re-working of Everybody Hurts. Indeed, it nearly didn’t make the cut for ‘Monster’ owing to its similarity to the former hit. But Stipe’s melody was deemed to be too good to eschew, so the rhythm section was redone. There are still obvious parallels – the 6/8 time signature, and Buck’s arpeggios, but if you listen hard enough, there’s a lot more going on here. There’s swathes of feedback floating in and out of the background, the guitars are dirtier, and of course, the emotion of the vocal and subject of the lyrics, couldn’t make this song more different than EH.

Here, Stipe sings of a longing for someone he simply cannot reconcile. His role is ambiguous – is his would-be paramour aware of his adoration, but unwilling to reciprocate? Or is there something more sinister afoot? There’s an air of desperation in his words, and his emotions seem to be getting the better of him. He’s pleading for a sign – “I need a chance, a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance, a word, a signal, a nod, a little breath, just to fool myself, catch myself, to make it real”. It’s a beautiful line, one of Stipe’s best in my view. But… Peter Buck once explained the song is sung from the point of view of a stalker, which obviously puts a completely different spin on things. The opening line “I don’t know why you’re mean to me / When I call on the telephone” makes complete sense in that regard. In both cases though, it’s a song of (unhealthy?) obsession, and as such, it’s very much a Monster song, and nothing whatsoever like Everybody Hurts.

Musically, it actually sounds like a classic doo-wop or Motown ballad. Listen to the chorus – the syncopation between the vocal and the bass/drums, especially – and you can easily hear a group like the Temptations performing it. (By the way, I can’t take credit for that observation – I read it in a fan forum once, but it stuck with me because it surprised me how true it was.) I also love the bridge – so simple, but oh-so effective in lifting us to a near-crescendo before dropping us back to earth for the final verse.

There will always those who cannot hear beyond the Everybody Hurts comparisons. That’s fine. But to me, Strange Currencies is one of the band’s finest moments, a complex mix of beauty and ugliness, gentleness and brutality, subtlety and brazenness.

While Strange Currencies was played live at every show on the massive Monster Tour, it was then laid off until 2003 when it made occasional appearances. As a single though, it reached #9 in the UK charts, the band’s fourth Top Ten hit. It was released on three formats. The 7” was a numbered limited edition on rather lurid fluorescent green (almost yellow) vinyl and came packaged with a Monster bear-head tie pin-type badge. Along with the cassette, it included an instrumental version of the a-side.

mp3: R.E.M. – Strange Currencies
mp3: R.E.M. – Strange Currencies (instrumental)

The CD single continued the solar-powered concert for Greenpeace that the previous three singles started. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Drive was performed twice so that a good recording could be provided for a Greenpeace charity album. The version that opened the show was not put out as one of these b-sides, so what you’re hearing here is the second version, which is ever so slightly better. Both are radically different to the album version on ‘Automatic For The People’.

Funtime is, of course, the Iggy Pop/David Bowie song that R.E.M. originally recorded for the b-side of Get Up in the States. And Radio Free Europe needs nothing written about it, other than this is a terrific, loud version which closed the show with a bang! And, perhaps as expected, Stipe really cannot remember the words…

mp3: R.E.M. – Drive (live, Greenpeace)
mp3: R.E.M. – Funtime (live, Greenpeace)
mp3: R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe (live, Greenpeace)

And here’s your bonus remix, probably the best of the entire Monster Remix project. This is utterly, utterly gorgeous. Yes, it’s very similar to the original, but my goodness, how the subtle differences transform it! The keyboard part in the final verse is brought closer to the foreground, and Stipe’s vocal is actually a different take than the one used for the original, and it floors me! Without a doubt, Monster [2019 Remix]’s finest moment…..

mp3: R.E.M. – Strange Currencies (remix)

The Robster

THE FESTIVE SINGLES OF R.E.M (Part 2 of 2)

The posting from last Sunday should have given you all the backstory you need, but I should add that the singles usually came with a few other things in a special package.  For instance, the 1996 Fan Club Package included a 7″ single, a greetings card in an envelope, a 1997 Fan Club calendar, a New Adventures In Hi-Fi sticker & beer mat, all in a specially designed cardboard envelope.

1993 (black vinyl): pressing of 6,000

A: Silver Bells
a song associated with Christmas, popularised in the United States by Bing Crosby‘s duet with Carol Richards (1950)

B: Christmas Time Is Here
an instrumental version of a song from the TV show A Charlie Brown Christmas, first aired in 1965

1994 (black vinyl) : pressing unknown, but it did come in three different-coloured sleeves

A: Sex Bomb
a cover of a song by San Francisco-based hardcore punk band Flipper from their album, Generic (1982)

B: Christmas In Tunisia
a track written by R.E.M., described as a Middle-Eastern influenced instrumental

1995 (black vinyl): pressing unknown, but it did come in two different-coloured sleeves

NB: The first of the giveaways NOT to have a Christmas-themed song on at least one side of the vinyl and thus, setting the theme for the next few years

A: Wicked Game
cover of the 1990 hit single by Chris Isaak

B: Java
cover of a 1963 hit instrumental single for Floyd Cramer, originally written by New Orleans writer and producer Allen Toussaint

1996 (black vinyl): pressing unknown

A: Only In America
originally recorded by Jay & The Americans in 1963; written by legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weil.

B: I Will Survive
Yup.  The very song as made famous by Gloria Gaynor (and which was covered by your humble scribe, live at the Glasgow Pavilion in 1990 – as recalled here)

1997 (black vinyl): pressing unknown

A: Live For Today
previously unreleased original R.E.M. song

B: Happy When I’m Crying
previously unreleased original song written and performed by Pearl Jam

Yup.  A further move away from tradition, with just one side of the vinyl coming from R.E.M. and the other from Eddie Vedder and co. in what, I’m sure is their first-ever appearance on the blog

It’s back to normal next Sunday with Part 27 of the R.E.M. singles series as released here in the UK.  We’re still in the era of Monster……

JC

THE FESTIVE SINGLES OF R.E.M (Part 1 of 2)

It was back in 1988 that R.E.M. hit upon the idea of doing what The Beatles had done back in the 60s and giving out something a bit special for free to members of the official fan club. In what would become a great tradition, a gift, most often a 7″ single, was sent out every Christmas some of which have become among the most sought-after pieces of vinyl in the back catalogue.

The gifts went out for 24 years in a row. The first ten releases, from 1988 – 1997, were 7″ singles. The 1998 gift was a VHS video featuring two joint performances with Radiohead, while the following year it was a CD with two joint performances with Neil Young. The vinyl made a one-off comeback in 2000 before the final eleven gifts between 2001 and 2011 were CDs or DVDs.

It was a fabulous gesture, but please don’t go thinking that the songs on offer, certainly in the early years, were among their very best or had been afforded top-level production values. Indeed, what they did, for the most part, was offer a unique take on a song/carol/piece of music closely associated with Christmas and on the flip side offered a cover from the punk/new wave era.

Over the next two Sundays, I’m going to bring you all the songs released up to, and including 1997. I don’t actually have any of the singles, but I have picked up at some point a CD bootleg with all of them….(and please note, I’ve taken the numbers of pressings from Discogs and hav no idea how accurate the figures actually are!)

1988 (green vinyl): pressing of 3,000

A: Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers
a song associated with Christmas, popularised in the United States by bandleaders Paul Whiteman (1923) and Larry Clinton (1939)

B: See No Evil
cover of a song from New York-based new wave band Television‘s 1977 debut, Marquee Moon

1989 (black vinyl) : pressing of 4,500

A: Good King Wenceslas
traditional holiday song about St. Stephen’s Day (December 26)

B: Academy Fight Song
cover of a song by Boston band Mission of Burma

1990 (black vinyl): pressing of 6,000

A: Ghost Reindeer In The Sky
adaptation of Ghost Riders In The Sky, made famous at various times by the likes of Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, Burl Ives and Gene Autry.

B: Summertime
cover of the George & Ira Gershwin song from the opera Porgy & Bess

1991 (black vinyl): pressing of 4,000

A: Baby Baby
cover of a song by UK punk band The Vibrators from their album, Pure Mania (1977)

B: Christmas Griping
a track written by R.E.M., but it’s hardly a stab at making something that would air among the festive perennials….

1992 (black vinyl): pressing of 6,000

A: Where’s Captain Kirk?
cover of 1979 single by UK new wave band Spizzenergi.

B: Toyland
another song associated with Christmas, popularised in the United States by Doris Day (1964).

I’ll be back next week with the next 5 years worth of Christmas ‘Crackers’.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 26) : THE COMPANION PIECE

A GUEST POSTING FROM TWO COOL DUDES IN SANTA MONICA

Jonny the Friendly Lawyer writes: – As part of the popular REM singles series I asked JC if it would be okay for TVV-supporter and Hollywood good guy Vincent Landay to offer some thoughts about the video for ‘Crush With Eyeliner’, which Vincent worked on with his friend Spike Jonze.

JC responded, “You have asked a very daft question.” I took that to mean yes, so here’s what Vincent had to say about it over a beer in my backyard (garden).

JTFL: What was the general idea for the video?

Vincent: Spike had the idea that there’d be a teenage band performing a song. It’s supposed to be set in Asia and it’s supposed to be their song. They were to perform the song as if it was their own, not REM’s.

J: Where was it shot?

V: The interiors were mostly shot in the Japanese restaurant Yamato in the Century City Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Then other scenes were shot in downtown LA, little Tokyo, and the subway, which was pretty new at the time and didn’t have many passengers yet. We had no permits so the cop who shows up in the video was actually on the job; he came up to say we’re not allowed to film in the subway. There are also several scenes of the kids driving at night in the Second Street tunnel, which just feels like a modern Asian city.

J: Where did those kids come from?

V: They were individually cast. They weren’t an actual band. I don’t know if any of them knew each other before the shoot. They’re local LA kids, and almost all were about 17 at the time.

J: How long was the shoot?

V: One full day in the restaurant and another night with the kids running around town.

J: How involved were REM?

V: They were super supportive of the idea. They loved it and the fact that they only had cameo appearances. They liked playing the roles of people at a club watching another band. It’s probably one of the most understated appearances by a band in their own video—other than the Oasis video we shot in London but never quite finished. (Ed.: It is featured on the Spike Jonze Director’s Label DVD compilation as “The Oasis Video That Never Happened”).

J: What did the band have to say about the video after it was finished?

V: They loved it or they wouldn’t have let it out. They bought into the idea, and that’s what makes them so cool. Other bands need to be front and center all over the place, and instead they were cool with the idea of totally unknown teenagers starring in a video of their song, as if it was the kids’ song. They looked at their brief appearances like Alfred Hitchcock showing up in his own films. This was back in 1994 – the cameos were like “Easter Eggs” before there was such a thing.

Afterwards Michael Stipe got really interested in filmmaking and formed a production company. His producing partner, Sandy Stern, would frequently send scripts to Spike but none that Spike was especially into. After he had turned down a number of scripts, Sandy told Spike that Michael really wanted to do a film with him; was there anything he was actually interested in? In fact, Spike liked a Charlie Kaufman script for “Being John Malkovich.” It was a spec script, meaning that it was simply intended to show that Kaufman could write a screenplay as he had only written for television up to that point. Charlie didn’t think anyone would ever make it. But Michael and Sandy found out that it hadn’t been optioned yet and obtained the rights. The rest is history, as the saying goes.

J: Anything crazy or surprising about the shoot?

V: It was low budget and guerilla, like it was the kids themselves making the movie. It was shot on super 8, which is a risky format to use because we were shipping Kodachrome film to somewhere in Dallas to be processed. That’s not what you do when you make a video for a major artist. We had no idea how the footage would look until it was developed. And that’s the feel we were going for, that it was coming from the kids.

J: Super 8 handheld cameras?

V: They were actually like my parents’ cameras, the ones they used to make home movies. I remember sitting in our living room at home watching our family movies projected on the wall. I wondered, is that what we’re going to get back?

J: Who else was on the shoot?

V: Lance Acord was the cinematographer and he put together a great lighting team. Lance went on to become a director and his team are now all really successful cinematographers, working on major American shows: Jim Frohna on Transparent, Kris Kachikis on The Unicorn and Shane Hurlbut on big features like Terminator Salvation.

J: Terminator Salvation? Is Shane Hurlbut that guy who Christian Bale infamously threw a tantrum at on set?

V: Same guy. Nothing like that happened on our shoot.

J: Lastly, one of the esteemed contributors to this venerable blog wrote about REM that “Mills is an okay bassist and a crap singer. Berry is at best a passable drummer.” Would you agree?

V: No. Whoever wrote that is an idiot.

JC adds.…..It was so good of Jonny to come up with the idea of asking Vincent if he wanted to come on board, and I’m really thrilled that he did so.  It offers a great and unique insight into R.E.M. when they were at the height of their fame.

I do recall that here in the UK, the video wasn’t aired on Top of the Pops in February 1995.  Instead, we were treated to the band, ‘live’ from Tokyo (the latest location on the world tour) in which everyone paid homage to the video and the image that adorned the sleeve of Monster:-

The folk inside the dancing bears costumes were none other than the members of Grant Lee Buffalo, the support act for the initial part of the world tour. And, as I always like to have a least one song per day on the blog, here’s a very fine track from the album Mighty Joe Moon, released in 1994:-

mp3: Grant Lee Buffalo – Mockingbirds

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 26)

I’m with The Robster on the things he’s written about Monster these past two weeks. It’s worth remembering that it was released at a time when R.E.M. were the biggest contemporary musical act on the planet and its contents were greeted by some with a sense of disbelief.  Some music critics were scathing of what had been written, recorded and put out into the shops:-

Monster is so much of a reaction to its predecessors that it can’t help but come across as something of an academic exercise in having fun.  It’s this that distinguishes Monster from recent REM opuses. That, and the steak of disingenuity, make it a hard album to love unreservedly.

The words of Keith Cameron, reviewing the album for NME in September 1994. (It’s worth noting that the same writer had given Automatic for The People a 10/10 review in Vox magazine a few years earlier).

The thing is, from the perspective of the label, it really didn’t matter what the critics thought as the tickets for the world tour shows during 1995 sold out within minutes of being made available – old and new fans alike couldn’t wait to see the band again after such a long hiatus and Monster went straight in at #1 on the back of the mania.

Thinking back to its release, my first listen did bemuse me greatly.  I had assumed the lead-off single to be something of a curveball, a comeback single to throw folk off-guard, and that the album would offer a blend of this was the occasional nod to the recent back catalogue.  Not one bit of it, as it proved to be an all-out attack on the senses.  Even when the tempo slowed to ballad time, the results left the listener feeling a tad unclean and uneasy (but I’ll come to that in Part 28 of this series in the new year!!).

As ever, with any new record, initial listens are accompanied by reading the sleeve notes, although in the era of CDs, the joy was diminished somewhat by the way things were now printed up.  Indeed, so little info was contained with Monster that it could be consumed in the time it took to listen to the opening track which just happened to be the lead-off single, What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? but what caught my attention was this under the heading of additional players

Thurston Moore (Crush W.Eyeliner)

The appearance of the joint-leader of Sonic Youth was genuinely one to look forward to. Just two years earlier, they had come up from the underground in the UK thanks to the album Dirty which had gone Top 10 and had been much played during my daily commute between Glasgow and Edinburgh (one which came to an end a few weeks after the release of Monster as I landed a new job in my home city).  And while Sonic Youth’s own 1994 album, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, hadn’t quite provided the same sort of impact, I was thrilled that the second track on Monster was sure to pay a nod to loud guitars

mp3: R.E.M. – Crush With Eyeliner

I was quite blown away by it, to the extent that I was waiting for the rest of the songs to live up to it, all of which meant I was left bemused as it felt the album had opened with two great songs that the rest hadn’t quite matched. But, as with so many genuinely great albums, the reward comes from repeated listens, and while it might have taken maybe six months or so (the change of job and circumstances meant that I wasn’t quite listening to music as much as I would have liked as the new job also meant that myself and Rachel could now go house-hunting!), by the summer of 95 I was smitten……but not enough to overcome my adversity to outdoor gigs and go see the band at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh when the tour eventually reached Scotland for a sole date.

The thing is, I never thought of Crush With Eyeliner as being an obvious single. Indeed, I didn’t see there being too many singles on the album, but the fact that they were proving to be such big hits only goes to show what little I know….or perhaps fans really just wanted to get their hands on yet more live tracks from the Greenpeace benefit show, as well as the instrumental version of the single made available on 7″ orange-coloured vinyl:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Crush With Eyeliner (instrumental)
mp3: R.E.M. – Fall On Me (live)
mp3: R.E.M. – Me In Honey (live. Greenpeace)
mp3: R.E.M. – Finest Worksong (live, Greenpeace)

At least with Me In Honey, something a bit different was made available as a b-side and to be fair, the band does sound in very good form on all three tracks.

And finally to the 2019 remix.

I’m not a fan when bands do this sort of thing and I avoided going out and purchasing the 25th-anniversary reissue of Monster until I saw a vinyl copy on sale a few months ago, not long after I got myself the new turntable, amp and speakers. I was very pleasantly surprised by everything, to the extent that it actually felt like a whole new, perhaps previously ‘lost’, REM album had emerged blinking in the sunlight from the vaults.

The mix of Crush is one of those which is quite different…..the harsh edge has been removed and the lyric is much easier to pick up. Indeed, it is quite radio-friendly and kind of loses something as a result.

mp3: R.E.M. – Crush With Eyeliner (remix)

It was actually one of the few disappointments on the remix album, but it’s a disappointment of a very mild kind.

Please tune in tomorrow for a special companion piece to this one.  That’s all I’m prepared to say for now, but I reckon you’ll all like it….

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 25)

Bang And Blame was the first song that really jumped out at me on ‘Monster’. It’s no surprise it was a single considering the album doesn’t have any of those horrid novelty songs I’ve bemoaned throughout this series. It has the quietLOUDquiet dynamic like every American alternative rock song of the period, which of course made it very MTV-friendly, but being R.E.M. it was somewhat restrained.

The song’s subject matter is debated. Some say it was written by Stipe as a lament to his relationship with actor River Phoenix who died the year before. Others have said it’s about domestic violence, with Stipe’s character trying to stand up for himself while being aware of his passivity and likelihood of being abused once more. One of the best summations I’ve come across is by a fan who wrote:

“…simmering rage and disgust mixed with two-faced empathy and sly manipulation laced with guilt. Sonically, it all explodes and then calms down panting with sexual grief. Then a teaser at the end, like a feather against your skin.”

I’ve no idea if any of these are right, or even close, but it is worth noting that River Phoenix’s sister Rain is one of the voices singing backing vocals in the chorus (along with Stipe’s own sister Lynda), so maybe that’s a hint? Whatever, as far as the music goes, the delay effect on the guitars give the song its identity, and there are some interesting layers among the overall recording. The aforementioned backing vocals, for instance. Short, sharp bursts of “bang” and, wait for it… “blame” don’t so much echo Stipe’s repeating of the words, to me they are scornful, taunting, a disparaging retort to the protagonist’s accusation. “Bang? Waddya mean ‘bang’? I don’t ‘bang’!” The sort of thing an arrogant abuser might use as a flimsy defence. I might have got completely the wrong end of the stick, mind. “And if I blame you it’s because it’s your own fault!”

Bang And Blame was one of the band’s most successful singles globally, making the top 40 in many countries, even becoming their only number one in Canada. In the UK it reached number 15. In spite of its chart success, it was not included on either of the band’s compilation albums ‘In Time’ or ‘Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage’. In fact, each only contain a solitary track from ‘Monster’ – What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? – which remains a tragedy. It was also a favourite during the Monster Tour in 1995, being played at nearly every show, but was never played again thereafter.

Anyway, in the UK, it was released in just three formats. All contained an ‘edit’ of the a-side, although in reality, it was actually the album version shorn of the short instrumental interlude tacked onto the end. The 7” and cassette contained the instrumental version (or the K Version as it was billed).

mp3: R.E.M. – Bang and Blame (edit)
mp3: R.E.M. – Bang and Blame (K version)

The CD had the next three tracks from the Greenpeace benefit show as mentioned last week. The first one is, well, it is what it is – the third live version of Losing My Religion to feature as a b-side. It wouldn’t be the last. Country Feedback is my favourite R.E.M. song and I’ve yet to hear a poor version of it. And Begin The Begin has some nice guitar sounds in it, maybe thanks to guest member John Keane, a long-time friend of the band and studio engineer. He played the pedal-steel on Country Feedback.

mp3: R.E.M. – Losing My Religion (live, Greenpeace)
mp3: R.E.M. – Country Feedback (live, Greenpeace)
mp3: R.E.M. – Begin the Begin (live, Greenpeace)

Last week we mentioned that we’d be including the 2019 remixes of the singles. The new mix of Bang And Blame isn’t radically different to the original (bar the backing vocals gaining way more prominence) until about halfway, after the bridge. Here, Scott Litt has made the bass and percussion the focus of attention, Bill Berry’s bongos especially. In the latter half of the song, the keyboard sound that flutters away almost unheard in the original is turned up. The overall mix is just that little bit brighter, I think. It is a little shorter too, even with the added interlude. I like it. Better than the original? Hmm, the jury is out…

mp3: R.E.M. – Bang and Blame (remix)

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 24)

When it was announced that R.E.M.’s ninth album was going to see a return to the rock guitar sound of their mid-late 80s period, I breathed a sigh of relief. Not that I didn’t like the acoustic-led format of the previous two records, but I craved something more from them this time, something different. Little did I know that Monster would be a very different-sounding R.E.M. record – loud, distorted and effects-swathed guitars in abundance, and Michael Stipe sounding more confident than he’d ever been before.

To introduce us to the new album, What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? was released as the lead single on 27th September 1994. The opening chords put a smile on my face when I first heard it. This was exactly what I’d been hoping for. It also helped that the song was immediately catchy, but lyrically obscure as hell. Stipe’s explanation is that it’s about the Generation X phenomenon in contemporary mass media, sung in character as an older critic whose information consists exclusively of media products.

“I wrote that protagonist as a guy who’s desperately trying to understand what motivates the younger generation, who has gone to great lengths to try and figure them out, and at the end of the song it’s completely fucking bogus. He got nowhere.”

The song’s title – quoted in the opening line – is inspired by an incident involving US news anchor Dan Rather. In 1986, while walking to his apartment in Manhattan, Rather was attacked and punched from behind by a man who demanded to know “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” while a second assailant chased and beat him. As the assailant pummeled and kicked Rather, he kept repeating the question.

If you listen carefully, you may notice the song slowing down as it approaches its conclusion. For years, I thought there was a fault with the CD pressing, but I’ve since realised it’s present in all subsequent issues and formats. The reason, according to Peter Buck?

“The truth is, Mike [Mills] slowed down the pace and we all followed, and then I noticed he looked strange. It turned out he had appendicitis and we had to rush him to the hospital. So we never wound up redoing it.”

The song became one of the band’s biggest worldwide hits, and their third top 10 single in the UK, peaking at #9. It was issued in three formats – 7”, cassette and CD (though a 12” was put out overseas). All formats contained a radio edit of Kenneth, which is identical to the album version save the very last line which replaces the lyric “Don’t fuck with me” with “the frequency”. The 7” and cassette both featured a ‘K version’ of the a-side. The ‘K’ stands for that dreaded word Karaoke, so, therefore, it’s an instrumental version!

mp3: R.E.M. – What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? (radio version)
mp3: R.E.M. – What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? (K Version)

As you’ll discover, all the singles from Monster contained live songs on the CDs. Many of them were recorded at the same concert which, when compiled, create the almost full set of a show the band played for Greenpeace at the 40 Watt Club in the band’s hometown of Athens, GA. on 19 November1992. I say “almost” as the set opener was played twice and one of the versions appears on a later release, which means for this single, tracks 2, 3 and 4 from the set make up the CD. The originals all appeared on the then current LP ‘Automatic For The People’.

mp3: R.E.M. – Monty Got A Raw Deal (live – Greenpeace)
mp3: R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts (live – Greenpeace)
mp3: R.E.M. – Man On The Moon (live – Greenpeace)

It’s worth noting that fans like myself already had the full concert in bootleg form. Such good quality it was that the same source recording was used for the official release on these singles, as well as the (almost) complete show’s official album release in 2017.

Last year, Monster was reissued as a 25th Anniversary edition which included brand new mixes of every song.

JC and I decided that we would include the new remixes of the singles as bonus tracks in this series. Scott Litt did the remix honours, having long been dissatisfied with the job he did on the original. Some of the new mixes are incredible, and you’ll hear a couple of them in due course. But some don’t quite do it for me. The new version of Kenneth, for instance, removes some of the guitars and takes away some of the original’s uniqueness. Stipe’s vocals have been pushed out front and overall it has more of a live feel. In fact, it wouldn’t sound out of place on the follow-up album New Adventures In Hi-Fi, but I still prefer the original. It’s also 20 seconds shorter, with the closing refrain clipped.

mp3: R.E.M. – What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? (remix)

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 23)

I remember back in either 1999 or 2000, when I was active on newsgroups (remember them?) the rec.music.rem group ran a readers poll of the best R.E.M. song. The winner was Find The River. I was a bit miffed. I never disliked Find The River, but it never struck me as being among the band’s very best work.

October 1993: a year after ‘Automatic For The People’ came out, Warners were still releasing singles from it. Find The River, the album’s closing track, was single number six. SIX! I used to balk at four singles being released off an album, but six? Talk about milking it. If I’m being honest, I don’t think Automatic has six singles on it. Maybe three, four at a real stretch. But never six.

What Find The River has going for it is its chorus, in particular the backing vocals. They are stunning, and probably the last great group vocal on an R.E.M. record. Well, until At My Most Beautiful any way. It was, apparently influenced by a much earlier song. “Harborcoat has got me and Michael and Bill all doing completely unrelated things, and yet it works together,” explained Mike Mills. “We tried it again on Find The River. I had the idea that Bill and I would go in and do some harmonies without listening to each other. It’s great because mine is this incredibly angst-ridden emotional thing, and Bill’s is this really low-key sort of ambling part. They’re two opposite ends of the spectrum but they’re both on there, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

He’s so right. Stipe’s lead is good, but he’s completely overshadowed by Mills and Berry, the former’s high vocal at the back, with the latter’s deeper voice nearer the front. That’s what makes Find The River for me, particularly from the second chorus on. It’s what makes Find The River one of Automatic’s better tracks, and a wonderful album closer. A single though? Hmm, still not convinced.

mp3: R.E.M. – Find The River

It’s clear the record-buying public weren’t convinced either. That or they’d just had enough of the record by then. It peaked at a lowly #54 in the UK, the band’s least successful single for more than four years. To be fair, there wasn’t much to entice fans to buy it. The 7” and cassette featured a live version of Everybody Hurts recorded just the month before the single’s release at the 1993 MTV Awards. It’s actually a more than decent performance which features a French Horn. But for some reason, it fades out. I have no idea why. So we don’t even get the full track!

mp3: R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts (live – MTV Awards)

The only other format was a CD single which added, for some bizarre reason, an instrumental version of Orange Crush.

mp3: R.E.M. – Orange Crush (instrumental)

As good a song as Find The River is, it was a completely unnecessary single. No one wanted it, it certainly wasn’t needed to promote the album, and there was nothing on it to sell it to anyone but the most hardcore fans. It signaled the end of the Automatic For The People Era. The next time we heard from R.E.M. they’d taken an altogether different path, but a not unwelcome one.

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 22)

There’s been a few lengthy articles in recent weeks.  I want to keep this one short(ish) and simple.

I wrote these words when offering some thoughts re Man On The Moon:-

Stipe was now in his early 30s, held up by many, in the American music press in particular, as the most important lyricist of his time and this was his very conscious effort to compose something which acknowledged his days of carefree youth were behind him…

Here’s surely another example.

mp3: R.E.M. – Nightswimming

The fifth(!!) single to be lifted from Automatic. It’s a beautiful piece of music with a lyric that could easily qualify for the Songs as Great Short Stories series. It is, arguably, the stand-out track on Automatic For The People but I don’t believe that anyone ever imagined it would make for a single, and it wasn’t released in that format in America.

But, as Jonny has pointed out previously, the UK and European markets put a much higher importance on that format and so, from the record company’s perspective, it was important to have some product on the back of Everybody Hurts, which was still getting loads of airplay months after its release as a single, and so why not another soft-ballad that would possibly appeal to the as yet not fully committed admirers of R.E.M.?

You’ll have picked up that the b-sides were proving to be problematic with all the studio snippets of jammed pieces of music having been used up and a real unwillingness of Warner Bros, to offer up songs from the IRS era. It was inevitable that, yet again, live songs would be forced into use.

The b-side to the 7″ and the cassette delivered this

mp3: R.E.M. – Losing My Religion (live – Charleston)

Yup…..give the people exactly what they are looking for!! Not the first time the breakthrough single had been pressed into service as a b-side, nor would it prove to be the last. This version was recorded at the 800-capacity Capital Plaza Theatre in Charleston, West Virginia on 28 April 1991, in a show that was akin to the London Borderline shows from Match 1991,  that have been mentioned in previous editions of this series. It’s worth mentioning in passing that a few days later, various members of R.E.M. would go into a studio back home in Athens, Georgia, along with Billy Bragg, for songs that would later appear on his album, Don’t Try This At Home.

There was just the one CD single to pick up this time, with a further three songs taken from the same show in Charleston:-

mp3: R.E.M. – World Leader Pretend (live – Charleston)
mp3: R.E.M. – Belong (live – Charleston)
mp3: R.E.M. – Low (live – Charleston)

In saying that, I’m indebted to The Robster for the info that a 12″ picture disc of Nightswimming was released in the UK, with all four songs playing at 33.33 rpm on one-side. It was the first 12″ release since Radio Song and it proved to be their last, certainly here in the UK.

I’ve just had a look back at the chart stats for the band back in 1992/93. Drive entered the UK singles chart at #14 on 3 October 1992. Nightswimming left the chart on 28 August 1993. That was a total of 46 weeks, and Warner Bros. must have been happy that 38 of those weeks had seen an R.E.M. single in the Top 75; The parent album had entered the charts at #1 on 10 October 1992 and 46 weeks later it was still sitting at #6 in the album charts, having spent only three of those weeks outside the Top 10.

Clearly, the marketing strategy was working, and you shouldn’t, therefore, be shocked that a sixth single (from an album with 12 tracks including an instrumental) would be issued. The Robster will be back next week with that one.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 21)

Something different this week.  The main part of the post, in italics, will consist solely of phrases which I have cut’n’pasted from different articles or reviews associated with Everybody Hurts.

It was released as a single in the UK in April 1993, and in reaching #7, provided R.E.M. with their then biggest chart success outside of Shiny Happy People. It is a track that, in 2003, was ranked by Q magazine at #31 in its list of the 1001 Best Songs Ever.

It is worth mentioning that credit for the song, musically, lies with Bill Berry, which is ironic given the beat is largely kept by a drum machine. The strings, which are very much at the heart of the completed version were arranged by John Paul Jones, best known as the bass player with Led Zeppelin.

“Everybody Hurts has a comforting melancholy, benefitting from a smoothly caressing guitar. It has been lauded as the best song on Automatic for The People and, as the Q ranking suggests, one of the band’s best songs ever. It is emotionally moving and deeply affecting, but a ballad that would stray into the maudlin if it wasn’t sung with such conviction. The string arrangements complement the vocal delivery, with the song being held up as the Bridge Over Troubled Water for the ’90s with Michael Stipe as Simon & Garfunkel rolled into one. It is virtually beyond words. It will have non-REM maniacs in hysterics with its delicate Spector structure and childlike message (“everybody hurts, everybody cries…when you think you’ve had too much of this life, hang on…”). It will make everyone else cry. It really is that straightforward.”

I won’t swim against the tide. I’m not a huge fan of ballads, but the very best of them have always been at the heart of popular music going back centuries before rock’n’roll was invented. Sad songs are remembered and loved by billions of people for all sorts of different reasons. Perhaps it can be traced back to the very early days of the most basic and traditional of music, running ever since through history – for instance, the best bits of opera always seem to centre on tragedy, and it is those folk songs recalling sad or unhappy events that have more often been passed down through the generations.

Everybody Hurts is an absolute classic of its kind. It might not be what any early fan of R.E.M. would ever have anticipated, but songs of this nature and tempo were inevitable when the loud instruments had been put aside, temporarily, for a while.

As with Man on The Moon, it was a slightly edited version of the song that was issued on the 7″:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts (single version)

As with the previous singles from Automatic, the b-side of the UK 7” and cassette was a track from ‘Green’. This time it was the most ridiculously upbeat number, one which had been a flop single in the US:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Pop Song ’89

Talk about ying and yang on two sides of a piece of plastic. It was also the fourth occasion that a version of Pop Song ’89 had been used as a b-side to a single…..

Again there were two versions put out on CD. You’ll have picked up that the barrel was already being scraped with what was being added to the earlier singles from the album. It got worse with this, the fourth 45 lifted from Automatic, with both CDs now being labelled as ‘Collector’s Editions’. No wonder many were despairing at how Warner Bros were trying to extract as much from fans as possible – these CD singles retailed at £3 or £4 a pop and the titles of the two tracks on CD1 say it all:-

mp3: R.E.M. – New Orleans Instrumental #1 (long version)
mp3: R.E.M. – Mandolin Strum

The marketing folk had the cheek and nerve to state that the latter was ‘previously unreleased’. One listen is all you need to understand why that should be.

CD2 was another con in that it included Dark Globe, the Syd Barrett cover that had previously been issued on the 12″ of Orange Crush back in 1989. The blurb from the marketing people for CD2 was that ‘it was currently not available on any other CD’ The other track is another oddity.

mp3: R.E.M. – Dark Globe
mp3: R.E.M. – Chance (dub)

An electronic number with a part-spoken, part-sung lyric. I kind of like it, but I hate it. I kind of like it because it is a bit different, but I hate it as it’s clearly a work in progress that shouldn’t have really seen the light of day, far less been the one bit of music which forced completists to fork out a fair amount of money for – it’s only right, however, to point out that I am far from a completist when it comes to R.E.M. – it’s not like they are The Twilight Sad or anything – and I’ve relied partly on The Robster for some of the tracks while others have been tracked down and sourced from other blogs.

Michael Stipe’s final words at the end of Chance are “Guys, this is very tedious. Stop”

Which seems a good place to sign off this week.  But we’ll be back, as usual, next Sunday.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 20)

The Robster writes…..

I’m going to come out right away and say it now. I cannot stand The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite. It is a bloody terrible song that should never have been allowed to see the light of day. There, I’ve said it.

‘Automatic For The People’ was undoubtedly a success beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. R.E.M. were now firmly entrenched in the mainstream. An obscure college indie band a decade before, they were now fast becoming an act that could (and would) sell out stadiums around the world. And what’s more, they were doing it on their own terms. But they still had the odd chink in their armour.

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite was an oddity on AFTP, as Peter Buck explained: “We included this song on Automatic in order to break the prevailing mood of the album. Given that lyrically the record dealt with mortality, the passage of time, suicide and family, we felt that a light spot was needed. In retrospect, the consensus among the band is that this might be a little too lightweight.” He’s not kidding. Whereas there is an argument that the execrable Shiny Happy People had a valid place on ‘Out Of Time’ owing to its upbeat nature, the same cannot be said of Sidewinder. It’s one of those novelty songs that always seemed to be released as singles. Sadly, it’s also the one awful commercial radio stations insist on playing several times a day every day. I know. I’ve had to endure it whenever I’ve been in the office. Which is why I’m so enjoying working from home now!

mp3: R.E.M. – The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite

The song was based on The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which for some reason, the band paid for the rights to use. Mike Mills told Melody Maker in 1992 that the song was about: “somebody that doesn’t have a place to stay. Part of it is also about what man can do that machines can’t. The rest of it – I don’t have any idea what it’s about.” He later said: “Half of the song is about somebody trying to get in touch with someone who can sleep on his floor. The other half – you’re on your own.”

Stipe laughs while singing “or a reading from Dr. Seuss” as he always pronounced Seuss as “Zeus” despite several attempts.

Some other facts for you:

1) In 2010, a survey in the UK named Sidewinder the number one most misheard lyric. The line “Call me when you try to wake her up” is heard as “Calling Jamaica”.

2) The song reached number one in Iceland. NUMBER 1! In Iceland, where they usually have such impeccable music taste!

3) R.E.M. never played Sidewinder live. Thank goodness for small mercies…

I’m done with the facts. The song really isn’t worth this amount of space on such an esteemed blog. So let’s move onto the b-sides. As with the previous singles from Automatic, the b-side of the UK 7” and cassette was a track from ‘Green’. This time it was Get Up, an equally upbeat number but 100,000 times better than the a-side.

mp3: R.E.M. – Get Up

Again there were two CD singles. As part of the deal the band brokered to obtain the rights to The Lion Sleeps Tonight was a clause that they had to record a cover of the song. I suppose this was because Sidewinder was attributed to Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe as writers, so the authors of Lion may have felt entitled to a cut. Which I suppose is fair enough and the band obliged and put it on CD1. It’s not the best cover you’ll ever hear, but then it was never the best song you’ll ever hear. But it’s OK for curiosity value.

mp3: R.E.M. – The Lion Sleeps Tonight

It’s the third track on CD1 that is the real gem though. I referred to Fretless in my piece on Drive a couple weeks ago. It’s one of the songs the band recorded for Out Of Time but jettisoned. You have to ask yourself ‘Why?’ I don’t know a single R.E.M. fan who would argue against it being on OoT in place of, say, Endgame or Shiny Happy People. Certainly the band has rued that decision over the years. It would also have been a good fit on Automatic, but it ended up on a soundtrack – Until The End Of The World – where it would have languished in obscurity were it not for this single. Hey, did I just say something positive about Sidewinder? Anyway, it’s a beautiful song, probably the saddest Kate Pierson ever sang on too. This song would always make it onto an R.E.M. mixtape. Sidewinder wouldn’t.

mp3: R.E.M. – Fretless

CD2 had the de rigeur disposable instrumental. Organ Song was one of many demos the band made but never pursued. It’s played on a church organ (or a keyboard with a convincing church organ sound) and goes absolutely nowhere throughout its overly long 3½ minutes. One of the most pointless b-sides in the band’s catalogue, and there have been a few! The final track was a demo of Star Me Kitten which, well, sounds like a demo. Not sure why this was included either, as it doesn’t have much to offer that the album track doesn’t do much better. The version with William S. Burroughs that appeared on an X-Files inspired compilation some years later beats this one hands- down. Not the best of “Collectors’ Edition” releases, it has to be said.

mp3: R.E.M. – Organ Song
mp3: R.E.M. – Star Me Kitten (demo)

Let’s take Fretless with us and forget the rest ever happened, OK?

JC writes….

I’m very conscious of the fact that my piece last week re Man on The Moon was overly long and so I’ll do my best to keep this brief.

I like The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.  Peter Buck gives the reasons as to why it was recorded and included before backtracking by saying it was a little too lightweight.  I feel it comes in at just the right spot on the album. We’ve had the intensity of Drive and the sadness the deathbed song that was Try Not To Breathe.  Coming up next is Everybody Hurts, an intensely sad song that will be looked at further next week as it is the next single.  The album would have just been too much to take without breaking things up a bit, and given the various snippets we have offered up via the instrumental b-sides which in effect were demos that weren’t progressed, I think it’s fair to say that the tune for Sidewinder beats them all.

It’s been turned into a novelty song by the attitude of the band since the release of Automatic and the critical reaction.  Let’s not kid ourselves, right up to the days before it went to press, R.E.M. could have vetoed the inclusion of Sidewinder but stayed quiet on it, obviously wanting something upbeat at that juncture of the album.

There’s also the fact that the promo video for Sidewinder was filmed on 21 September 1992 – a full two weeks before Automatic was released in the UK and USA, which is a clear indication of an agreement with Warner Bros that is was a likely single at some point in the future.  The backtracking started when some reviewers not only wrote that it jarred but questioned why R.E.M. would lower themselves to cover something so lightweight and frivolous.  It strikes me that the band members decided that rather than take on such viewpoints and defend what they did, the best course of action was to disown it.

Sidewinder is no better and no worse than songs like Stand or Pop Song 89 or Shiny Happy People or Underneath The Bunker (a disposable and fun number on Life’s Rich Pageant), and was a continuation of R.E.M.’s efforts on almost all albums to include a song that was out of the norm and not to be taken too seriously – which was obviously OK to do until the serious journos questioned the motives.

Anyway, since you made it this far, how about a bonus song?   Here’s the William S. Boroughs collaboration for the X-Files soundtrack mentioned in passing by The Robster.

mp3: R.E.M – Star Me Kitten (feat. William S Burroughs)

PS: It’s me next week with a look at Everybody Hurts.  It’ll be a short piece, you’ll be relieved to hear!

PPS: Robster is bang-on with his thoughts on Fretless.  It’s a hidden gem.

The Robster and JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 19)

(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville has long been one of my favourites of all the R.E.M. songs, partly as I think they were a band who sounded particularly good when they turned their hands to mid-tempo rock music.  By rights, Man On The Moon should be up there as another favourite, but I’m sorry to say that this is one where the over-exposure kicks in, both from the time it was released as the second single from Automatic For The People in November 1992 and then some seven and-a-bit years later when the Andy Kaufman movie biopic was released (an event either myself or Robster will turn to later in this series). But the real kicker came when a version was released in 2005…..which I’ll reflect on at the end of this posting.

In saying all that, it was a song I felt was a highlight on first hearing the album, a real earworm with its incessantly catchy chorus and its verses with the constant use of “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”.  Oh, and the promo video is a fantastic piece of film making, albeit it is a bit too literal in places.

I think, at this juncture, it is worth handing over to Mike Mills and an interview he gave to the online NME in November 2017 to mark the 25th Anniversary of the release of the single in which he revealed how a demo called ‘C To D Slide’ nearly remained as an instrumental – until the inspiration of Andy Kauffman and conspiracy theories.

“Bill Berry is still a very a good songwriter. He had a lot of musical ideas, then he and Peter fleshed the rest of it out musically. It was a song that me, Pete and Bill really loved and had musically finished right up to the last day of recording and mixing in Seattle, and we’d been leaning on Michael very heavily for some time trying to finish it. He was like ‘oh, it’s an instrumental’ and we were like ‘it is not an instrumental – you need to finish it because it’s a story that needs to be told. Whatever that story is, you need to tell it’.”

“So Michael worked very hard towards the end and came up with this beautiful lyric that encompasses doubt, belief, transition, conspiracy and truth. Then at the very end of the last day Michael came back and said ‘I’ve got something’. He sang it, we loved it, we put the harmony vocals on it and it was done.

“Andy Kauffman was a performance artist. He wasn’t a comedian, he wasn’t a comic, he was a performance artist. Some of what he did was funny, some of it was annoying, some it was irritating – but it was always provocative. As such, as someone that you couldn’t really pin down in terms of what he was and what he was not. Was he dead? Was he faking?

“He’s the perfect ghost to lead you through this tour of questioning things. Did the moon landing really happen? Is Elvis really dead? He was kind of an ephemeral figure at that point so he was the perfect guy to tie all this stuff together as you journey through childhood and touchstones of life.”

It’s a song that has been written and talked about like no other in the whole REM canon. I think there’s a keyword in all that Mills said and that is ‘transition’. Stipe was now in his early 30s, held up by many, in the American music press in particular, as the most important lyricist of his time and this was his very conscious effort to compose something which acknowledged his days of carefree youth were behind him but while he was prepared to move on, there remained a number of unanswered questions in his head.

Or maybe it should just be taken at face value, with Stipe was simply wanting to pay homage to someone who had given him an enormous amount of pleasure and entertainment as he was growing up.

The Robster has previously pointed out that a single, to qualify for the charts back in 1992, was restricted to a maximum of four formats. There was a 7″ single which offered up an edited version of the album version – its some 33 seconds shorter and the difference comes after the four-minute mark with a few instrumental bars removed:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Man On The Moon (single version)

As with Drive, the 7″ and cassette versions went with a b-side taken from Green, with the CD offering up a cover version

mp3: R.E.M. – Turn You Inside Out
mp3: R.E.M. – Arms Of Love

It’s almost as if Warner Bros. was apologising belatedly for the singles taken from Green by putting some of its better songs as b-sides. The cover in this instance is a Robyn Hitchcock song, a long-time friend of the band who had been part of the line-up at the legendary Borderline Club shows in London in March 1991.

I’m willing to be corrected on this, but from what I can gather from looking things up on t’internet, Robyn Hitchcock didn’t release his own version of Arms of Love until its appeared on the Respect album, which came out in February 1993, a few months after Man On the Moon had been issued as a single. I’m not familiar with the song other than the R.E.M. take which itself is a more than passable acoustic number with a very light production.

The second CD, which again was marketed as the ‘Collectors Edition’, offered up the album version of Man On The Moon along with the cover of Arms of Love, and two ‘Non-LP’ tracks:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Fruity Organ
mp3: R.E.M. – New Orleans Instrumental #2

The former is an instrumental based, you won’t be surprised on a tune played on an electronic organ….one which very early on seems to rip off Hello, I Love You by The Doors before becoming the sort of thing that sounds as if the three musicians in the band were trying to work up something that might have just catch the ear of their lyricist to work his own brand of magic on it. It’s a real oddity among loads of other oddities that have appeared as b-sides over the years – it truly was one for the collectors/completists only.

New Orleans Instrumental #1 made it onto Automatic For The People. The only thing this b-side has in common with the album cut is that it is also an instrumental number written while the band was in the Kingsway Studios in New Orleans in late-February to mid-March 1992 (a session that also saw the earliest work on Drive). It is another totally forgettable effort and the fact it was included as a b-side to what was just the second single from the new album shows how little material was still out there unused.

Finally…..one of the main reasons I find it hard to enjoy Man on the Moon stems from its inclusion on a free CD given away with a particularly loathsome UK tabloid newspaper in July 2005. The CD was issued on the day when the UK was hosting the G8 summit, at Gleneagles, a five-star hotel resort about an hour or so north of Glasgow as part of that paper’s call to ‘Make Poverty History’. I could go on for pages and pages about the irony of such a wretched paper latching on to a people-driven campaign but given it is the biggest selling paper in the country, it’s no surprise that the multinational major record labels were happy to have some of their biggest acts offer up a song, but R.E.M. was by far the biggest name. A live version of Man on The Moon was put forward, recorded in 2004 at a gig in London aimed at raising funds for Oxfam, an occasion when they are, in due course, joined on stage by Chris Martin of Coldplay. You can probably work out just where by the way the crowd goes wild……

mp3: R.E.M (feat. Chris Martin) – Man On The Moon (live)

Once heard, you’ll never forget it. And it’ll put you off the original forever. You’ve been warned.

Apologies for the lengthy nature of this week’s effort.  The series will take a one-week break as there’s a special ICA lined up for next Sunday, after which myself and the Robster will offer up another dual-pronged offering on R.E.M.’s 20th UK single.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 18)

R.E.M. had finally hit the so-called big time with Out Of Time, a largely acoustic album of love-inspired songs that showcased the band’s penchant for melody, harmony and intelligence. So how to follow it up? Why, release one of the most downbeat songs of the band’s career as the lead single to an album about death, of course!

mp3: R.E.M. – Drive

JC and I (and numerous commenters) have mentioned the bizarre habit of releasing the most unlikely or unrepresentative songs as singles that plagued R.E.M. throughout their career. I mean, even their debut single wasn’t the mix they wanted! When I heard Drive, the first taste of the band’s eighth studio album, I was horrified, yet at the same time, not entirely surprised. This was as dark and maudlin as the band had ever sounded. Yet, after a couple listens, it had grown on me hugely.

In spite of its rather gloomy nature, there’s something about Drive that is undeniably catchy. It may be no coincidence that it has been compared to David Essex’s Rock On – the line “Hey kids, rock ‘n’ roll” seems pretty blatant. The truth, however, is that the line was written as a homage to the song Stop It! by Pylon (them again); its entire lyric consists of repetitions of the linesDon’t rock ‘n’ roll, no” and “Hey kids!”

What might also come as a shock is producer Scott Litt’s revelation that Drive’s arrangement was heavily inspired by a band that both Mike Mills and Peter Buck were big fans of – Queen. Yep, THAT Queen. “Queen records, for all their bombast, sounded like each player had a personality,” Litt explained. So, Pylon, David Essex and Queen, then. All of a sudden, Drive becomes one of the most intriguing songs in the R.E.M. canon.

As for those lyrics, well according to Mills: “[it’s] just telling kids to take charge of their own lives. Among other things,” while Buck claimed: “It’s a subtle, political thing. Michael specifically mentions the term ‘bush-whacked’.” He also uses the word “baby” which I’ve always thought is a term you have to be careful of using if you want to be considered a serious songwriter. Maybe Stipe is using it in its more hipster way, where “baby” is everyone rather than the object of one’s affections. That would fit with the song, but I can’t be sure. That aside though, it’s Stipe’s delivery and the rhythm of his vocals that actually make Drive a bonafide pop song, even if it really doesn’t sound like it at first.

With hindsight, it’s easy to understand why Drive was the first choice of single. It certainly introduced the mood of Automatic For The People to audiences, though it remains a mystery why an album whose primary theme is death became one of the decade’s biggest-selling records and the one most people still associate R.E.M. with.

Drive was released in the UK on the 1st October 1992. It entered the charts at #11 in its first week, making it the band’s second-highest position. It dropped the following week and disappeared from the Top 40 altogether before the month was out. In truth most of the sales in that first week was probably due to the plethora of formats and fans like me wanting to own them all.

The 7” and cassette had World Leader Pretend from Green on the flip. Clearly the label was still trying to flog that album to new fans! The standard CD format added the Leonard Cohen cover First We Take Manhattan. This first appeared the previous year on the superb Cohen tribute album ‘I’m Your Fan’. It’s one of the best covers R.E.M. ever did, and arguably one of the best covers of a Leonard Cohen song by anybody (JC adds…..I’ll second that!!!)

For fans, however, the CD single was a tad disappointing as it didn’t contain anything we didn’t already have.

mp3: R.E.M. – World Leader Pretend
mp3: R.E.M. – First We Take Manhattan

The second (so-called “Collector’s Edition”) CD was heaps more interesting. As well as the title track and the Cohen cover were two unreleased songs. It’s A Free World Baby was a song recorded for ‘Out Of Time’, but cast aside. Peter Buck subsequently stated that he cannot understand why they decided not to include it (and Fretless, another song that will be discussed in due course) on ‘Out Of Time’. One theory is that its lyrics never really fit with the album’s overriding theme of love. It’s also a bit quirky in its structure, Mills’ bassline being the dominant instrument. It’s not unlike Belong in my opinion, especially when you get to the uplifting chorus. Maybe that’s why it didn’t get included – two similar songs and Belong was the better fit. Nonetheless, many fans feel this song shouldn’t have been relegated to b-side status, and its subsequent appearances on the soundtracks for Friends and Coneheads further added to our exasperation. And then there’s the use of “baby” again…

mp3: R.E.M. – It’s A Free World, Baby

To round it all off, the second CD also contained Winged Mammal Theme. Now this is one of those R.E.M. b-side instrumentals they often did, only unlike many of the others, this one does deserve at least one listen. It’s like the band is attempting to write their own theme for Batman – it even contains one member (not sure who) singing “Batman” in the background! It’s led by Mills on piano, and while it can’t be said to be any serious attempt at creating an album-worthy song, it’s passable and mildly amusing.

mp3: R.E.M – Winged Mammal Theme

Nerd corner: Finally, my research has revealed that Discogs lists a UK 12” of Drive. There are three reasons why I’m certain no such item exists:

1) I’d have it if it did, and I don’t!
2) I was working in Our Price at the time and made sure a copy of every format was reserved for me!
3) UK singles chart rules permitted a maximum of four formats per single release to be eligible for a placing. With the 7”, cassette and two CDs, a fifth format would have impacted on the chart position as one format would not have been counted.

I therefore conclude that the listed 12” – which purports to contain the same tracks as the standard CD single – was never released in the UK. However, a European release was made on 12”, and I reckon that’s where the confusion lies.

Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 17)

This is the seventeenth week of the UK singles released by R.E.M. More often than not, either myself or The Robster has opened up proceedings by suggesting that the single you are about to hear is very unrepresentative or is untypical of the album from which it has been lifted. Deja-vu?

mp3: R.E.M. – Radio Song

The opening track on Out of Time was released as a 45 in both the UK and the USA in the first week of November 1991. It has a spoken intro and a guest vocal from rapper KRS-One. It then has a few notes that sound as if The Partridge Family are about to burst into song. Micheal Stipe’s opening contribution feels as if we about to be getting a follow-up to an earlier non-hit single:-

“The world is collapsing around our ears”

The thing is, this time he doesn’t feel fine.

There’s a few things that now annoy me about Radio Song, not least that the rap is lame and feels very dated. I know KRS-One was an established name in the hip-hop scene at the time through Boogie Down Productions and had obviously been brought on board with the best intentions but in this instance, he feels more frustrated than genuinely angry. An opportunity to drive home the message of playlists on radio stations being of little or no appeal to much of the demographic was missed.

And yet…..after some thirty seconds when the organ, bass, drums and guitars kick in, it becomes a more than passable tune that bounces along at a decent lick. But it still doesn’t ever feel as if it should be selected as a single, not least for the fact that it would be near impossible for a song that attacks playlists and the music preferences of DJs and their production team sidekicks to get much in the way of airplay.

And yet……Warner Bros. obviously had no worries as the record-buying public in the UK continued to spend substantial amounts of cash on all things R.E.M. and it made its way to #28 in our charts. It bombed in the States…..

Once again, it was made available on 7″, 12″, cassette and CD. The common track was another lifted from the 1 April session for ‘Rockline’.

mp3: R.E.M. – Love Is All Around

At the time, this was a relatively unknown song, with it being a cover of a 1967 single by The Troggs. It’s an acoustic effort in which Mike Mills takes the lead vocal and with the ba-ba-ba-ba stuff going on in the background, it’s a third cousin of sorts to Near Wild Heaven. It’s quite awful.

Three years later, the same song was recorded by Wet Wet Wet as their contribution to the soundtrack of the film Four Weddings and A Funeral. It spent 15 weeks at #1 and was never off daytime radio, to the extent that some DJs, having got tired of it, began to play either the original version by The Troggs or the R.E.M. cover – there’s a certain irony of it being taken from a b-side from a single that has lambasted radio stations and DJs of that ilk….

The 12″ also offered up a rare thing. An R.E.M. remix:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Shiny Happy People (Music Mix)

It comes in at just over a minute longer than the original version and Scott Litt deploys the sort of bog-standard production tricks and techniques so beloved in that era, especially multi-tracked vocals, keyboards to mimic orchestras and electronic drums. It’s listenable but it’s disposable.

The CD came with three live tracks, thus keeping with the formula of the previous three CD singles lifted from Out of Time. The blurb with it stated:-

“This is the fourth in a series of limited edition CDs released alongside singles from ‘Out Of Time’. Each includes 3 live songs, all complementary to those available on the other formats. Collectively they form a record of ‘R.E.M. In Concert’.

And to help you store your new CDs, which if memory serves me correctly all retailed at £3.99, there was a plastic box in which you could put them. The only thing was that Warner Bros. was kind of running out of decent sources to locate material – no way did they want listeners to get the chance of live material from the IRS days and so they turned again to Tourfilm and shows from that era:-

mp3: R.E.M. – You Are The Everything (live) – Miami 29 April 1989
mp3: R.E.M. – Orange Crush (live) – Atlanta 13 November 1989
mp3: R.E.M. – Belong (live) – Greensboro, 10 November 1989

And yes, you have heard that live version of Orange Crush before as we slotted it into the look at the single release of Orange Crush a few weeks back,

Onwards and upwards for R.E.M., arguably the biggest band on the planet at the end of 1991. It would be nine months before the next single and The Robster will be here next week to say a few words.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 16)

Warner Bros was now milking R.E.M. and the ever-increasing fanbase for all it was worth.  No sooner had Shiny Happy People looked like finally slipping out of the Top 75 that plans were hatched for a third single from Out of Time at the beginning of August 1991.

And, as if to demonstrate to the wider world that the band was not just Michael Stipe and a bunch of backing musicians, the decision was taken to release one of the songs on which Mike Mills takes the lead:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Near Wild Heaven

Now, bear in mind that I wasn’t, at the time, aware of Superman having been a previous single. I thought it was quite a brave move by the record label as, and in agreement with a previous observation from JTFL although I will be a tad more diplomatic, I’m not a fan of the bassist taking the lead vocal.  The thing is, they probably did the math and realised that anything with an R.E.M. label in the summer of 1991 was bound to sell well and the brand wouldn’t suffer too much damage.

Near Wild Heaven reached #27.  The following month, the IRS cash-in of the re-release of The One I Love reached #16.

I really didn’t have any reason to buy this single. I should also mention that I’m not much of a Beach Boys fan and the song felt rather like a tribute to that sort of sound with the ba-ba-ba-ba-ba harmonies, albeit there’s some neat, if repetitive, guitar work going on in the background. But, and here’s where record label marketing folk earn their crust, I was sucked in by the extra tracks on the CD single.

It was released on 7″, 12″, CD and cassette but this time around, just the one CD which came badged as the Collectors Edition from the outset. The Robster, who if you recall worked in a record store at the time, has helpfully advised that th’e rules had changed in the months between the release of Shiny Happy People and Near Wild Heaven, with just four formats allowed if a single wanted to be eligible for the charts. The double CD was out, for now, as the cassette held its place in the line-up.

R.E.M., earlier in the year, had played two ‘secret’ shows at the Borderline in London. They were billed as Bingo Hand Job. The shows had been attended by many a music journo, all of who had written glowingly about the shows, highlighting the informal and fun-nature of the gigs, and the role played by all the various guests who joined them on stage, such as Peter Holsapple, Robyn Hitchcock, and Billy Bragg. It was actually the fact that I had missed out on Bragg rather than R.E.M. that I was most upset about at the time, and so when it was revealed that songs recorded at the Borderline shows would accompany the release of Near Wild Heaven, I was in!

mp3: R.E.M. – Tom’s Diner (live)
mp3: R.E.M. – Low (live)
mp3: R.E.M. – Endgame (live)

The fact that the audience was having a blast can be heard from the opening seconds of the Suzanne Vega cover as the reaction is loud laughter. Bragg becomes a human beatbox as Stipe butchers the lyrics; Bragg then joins in on unique backing vocals with lyrics from Madness and EMF songs before it collapses in a heap after two minutes. Maybe I was expecting a lot more, but my initial reaction was one of sad disbelief. It was no doubt funny to those who witnessed it in the flesh but it came across as very lame on the CD.

The other two songs, both tracks that could be found on Out of Time, work better. Indeed the initially haunting and then impassioned version of Low is quite outstanding. Endgame does sound as if it was one of those occasions where the band members swapped instruments to not quite show-off their skills but to break what could be the tedium of an all-acoustic show. If not, then Mike Mills and Peter Buck have never sounded so clumsy. (N.B. – The Robster doesn’t think it is a case of them swapping instruments, merely the fact that a new song is very unrehearsed!…..and I will always bow to his superior knowledge on all things R.E.M.)

The 7″ and 12″ each had a further track taken from the Borderline shows:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Pop Song ’89 (live)

Worth mentioning in passing that this was already the third time a version of Pop Song ’89 had been issued as a b-side or additional track.  (Stand and Shiny Happy People had been the earlier occasions)

There was one other track on the 12″:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Half A World Away (acoustic live)

This was recorded on 1 April 1991 as part of a four-song set and interview that went out on ‘Rockline‘, a syndicated radio show that broadcast across the USA. I’m sure it was also that show which provided the acoustic version of Losing My Religion as featured last week.

A quick PS for JTFL….two days later there was another live radio broadcast, this time of a 25-song set which included a load of fun covers of themes from TV shows, that went out on KCRW Snap-FM Radio in your neighbourhood of Santa Monica.

It’s me again next week with the fourth and final single lifted from Out of Time.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 15)

And so, The Robster having offered up his thoughts on the breakthrough hits, decides that this is the week he needs a rest and hands the baton to me for a song that every single member of R.E.M. detests with a passion. A song that would eventually reach #6 in the UK singles chart – a position higher than any of the next 14 singles would manage to achieve!!

That last sentence alone tells you all you really need to know about Shiny Happy People; in short, it proved to be an R.E.M. song for people who don’t like R.E.M.

mp3: R.E.M. – Shiny Happy People

It was released on 6 May 1991. Losing My Religion was still hovering on the fringes of the Top 75 and, if anything, was enjoying even more daytime radio play than before. Out of Time had already gone into the album charts at #1 on its first week of release. The decision not to tour and rely increasingly on television appearances/performances was also working a treat, as those who were now finally latching onto the band were mopping up everything on mainstream and specialist channels. MTV, in particular, were all over things.

It made perfect sense for Warner Bros to go with something that was tailor-made for radio, especially on warm and hot summer days when people would flock to beaches and parks, complete with their fast-melting ice-creams, looking for that bit of escapism and enjoyment. Shiny Happy People offered the perfect soundtrack, helped too by the goofy, colourful and incredibly cheery promo that was made for it. It’s no surprise that it entered the UK charts in May and stayed there till the end of July.

The video looks and feels like something from a children’s TV show, which is perfect as itthe song could easily pass as a nursery rhyme, with all concerned (except Peter Buck who clearly wishes he was somewhere else) eager enough to deploy over-exaggerated movements and facial expressions. The band may have since tried to disown the whole thing, but the dancing, handclapping and smiling during the promo make me think they doth protest too much.

One of the reasons put forward to back the idea that it was hated from the outset is that it was never played live in concert and it was left off most of the subsequent greatest-hits collections. But think about it – the strings are essential to the sound of the song and therefore it would be impossible to play as is in the live setting*. Nor was it one that could be easily adapted to fit in with the acoustic sets that were to the fore in the early 90s.

*The Robster kindly offered up a correction when I shared an advance draft of this post. R.E.M. did perform Shiny Happy People live – just the once – on Saturday Night Live in the States. And as he also said, nobody should ever forget the version they did for Sesame Street a few years later, Furry Happy Monsters, in which Peter Buck very nearly cracks a tiny smile, you’ll see a Kate Pierson muppet, and if you don’t smile at the clip, you have a heart of stone.

I think Shiny Happy People is a fabulous and memorable pop single. I also accept that in 1991, it was something which horrified many long-time fans who couldn’t quite believe what they were hearing and seeing. And I’d been there folks….listening to and watching Johnny Marr play with Bryan Ferry on The Right Stuff had been excruciating.

But, on the other hand, I’d long been a fan of the B52s and the guest vocal from Kate Pierson is an absolute joy.

The Robster made mention last week of the multi-formatting that existed around Losing My Religion, and it was much the same for the follow-up which came out on 7″, 12″, CD and cassette.

mp3: R.E.M. – Forty Second Song

This was common to all the releases. It’s another real oddity – it’s 82 seconds long and it sounds like an unfinished demo that the band couldn’t work up into anything more substantial. The folk who loved the a-side probably played it once and ignored it thereafter. Any long-time fans who were hoping for something more substantial to justify shelling out on the new single to keep the collection going wouldn’t have been surprised by it.

mp3: R.E.M. – Losing My Religion (live acoustic version)

As found on the 12″ and CD single. I reckon making this available also had a lot to do with the high sales for Shiny Happy People as the world had gone insane for any take on Losing My Religion.

Again, as with the previous single, a ‘Collector’s Edition’ Cd was released about a week after the initial product had hit the shops and it again came with three live songs, recorded during the Green tour.

mp3: R.E.M. – I Remember California (live)
mp3: R.E.M. – Get Up (live)
mp3: R.E.M. – Pop Song ’89 (live)

There would be two more singles from Out of Time…..both will be looked at by myself with the next being a 45 that wasn’t issued in the USA; as Jonny said the other week, Americans have never really paid much attention to singles while it’s a whole different story over here as my bulging shelves of old vinyl and CDs can testify.

JC

The Robster adds a bonus for the completists.  The only live performance of the song:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Shiny Happy People (live, SNL)

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 14)

The Robster writes……

Picture the scene:

It’s Monday, February 19th 1991. Your humble scribe is working for Our Price, at the time the UK’s biggest record store chain. In among the boxes of new releases that day is one particular offering I’d been waiting very eagerly for – R.E.M.’s new single Losing My Religion. I can’t remember if I or someone else unpacked the boxes that day, but I know I had made sure that one copy of each format had been put aside. I so desperately wanted to play it, but R.E.M. were still considered a cult band and not suitable for a busy Monday of new releases, despite most of my colleagues and managers also being fans.

At one point later in the day, I managed to commandeer the CD player and headphones. I squat down behind the counter and played Losing my Religion for the first time. And as I listened, all that enthusiasm drained slowly away. What the hell was this? I mean, I was aware the band was making a more acoustic record akin to the mandolin-led numbers on ‘Green’, but I at least expected a chorus! Didn’t stop me from buying it though. On all formats.

mp3: R.E.M. – Losing My Religion

I played it to death hoping I would warm to it, and I did. But I still didn’t think it would be a hit. I was never one of those fans who didn’t want his favourite band to be successful so I had to share them with other people. No, I wanted R.E.M. to be huge, so I could point at all the others who thought I listened to “weird stuff” and tell them I was right all along! But if R.E.M. were going to be megastars, this wouldn’t be the song to catapult them to that status. I wasn’t the only one to think that.

The band’s label, Warner Bros., was wary about the group’s choice of the song as the album’s first single. Steven Baker (no relation!), vice president of product management at the time, said there were “long, drawn-out discussions” about releasing such an “unconventional track” as the single until the label agreed. The marketing department had similar concerns as did radio programmers. To this day, it’s a mystery how Losing My Religion became the global behemoth that it did.

It started out in life as Peter Buck teaching himself to play mandolin while watching TV. When he listened back to the tapes he made of his attempts “there was a bunch of stuff that was really just me learning how to play mandolin, and then there’s what became ‘Losing My Religion’, and then a whole bunch more of me learning to play the mandolin.” Despite “trying to get away from [writing typical R.E.M] kind of songs”, Buck admitted it was “probably the most typical R.E.M.-sounding song” on the new album. “The verses are the kinds of things R.E.M. uses a lot, going from one minor to another, kind [of] like those Driver 8 chords. You can’t really say anything bad about E minor, A minor, D, and G – I mean, they’re just good chords.”

The original studio take was just Buck, Mills and Berry. Mike Mills found it hard to write a bass line for the song without it sounding derivative, so what was used was apparently influenced by John McVie of Fleetwood Mac. The band felt the song sounded “hollow”, with the high range of Buck’s mandolin set against Mills’ low-end bass. To give it some mid-range, they drafted in former dBs guitarist/vocalist Peter Holsapple to play acoustic guitar. Holsapple remained as an unofficial “fifth member” of the band throughout the recording of the album and subsequent promotional live appearances. Michael Stipe recorded his vocal in a single take, which is quite remarkable when you listen to it.

Losing My Religion became R.E.M.’s biggest hit around the world. In the UK, it only reached #19, but unusually held that position for three straight weeks. The song’s popularity grew the longer it hung around, and years later is one of R.E.M.’s most recognisable songs, probably because of the slew of different live versions that have cropped up on numerous R.E.M. releases ever since. If you’d said that to a 19-year-old Robster squatting behind the Our Price counter he’d have sneered with contempt at such a ridiculous notion!

So, those formats I referred to? Well, the 7”, 12” and standard CD single all included a track entitled Rotary 11, a reference to an old b-side Rotary 10. Like its predecessor, it’s not really worth the effort, being just a daft jazz-tinged instrumental with a surf guitar lead. Of more interest was the extra track on the 12” and CD single, a live version of a Velvet Underground song. Now R.E.M. like the Velvets, as previous renditions of Femme Fatale, There She Goes Again and Pale Blue Eyes demonstrated. After Hours was a song penned by Lou Reed and sung by both Reed and drummer Mo Tucker. R.E.M.’s live version was recorded during the Green Tour in 1989 and first featured on the very highly acclaimed concert movie ‘Tourfilm’. It omits the part of the song Reed sang in the original to keep it short and sweet.

mp3: R.E.M. – Rotary 11
mp3: R.E.M. – After Hours (live)

Also released in the UK was a second CD single, labelled “Collector’s Edition”, in order to make sure people who bought any of the other formats also bought this one, especially as it didn’t hit the shelves until the week after the others! That’s music marketing in the 90s for you.

This CD contained another three songs from the ‘Tourfilm’ soundtrack, namely Stand, Turn You Inside-Out and World Leader Pretend. The originals, of course, all featured on R.E.M.’s previous album ‘Green’, their only other record released by Warner Bros., and clearly aimed to get new fans to buy that one as well!

mp3: R.E.M – Stand (live)
mp3: R.E.M.- Turn You Inside-Out (live)
mp3: R.E.M. – World Leader Pretend (live)*

One final note – Wikipedia lists a second “Collector’s Edition” CD single in the UK, which carried the tagline “Song Of The Year”. However, this was not an official release in the UK, but became available as an import from Europe. Along with the a-side and the 7” b-side, it also contained two other tracks that were released as b-sides in the UK on subsequent singles, so we’ll save them for later.

And one final note – I’m sick to bloody death of Losing My Religion now. I can barely listen to it anymore without wanting to turn it off. A shame, but a symptom of being an uber-fan I think.

The Robster

*JC adds.…..the mp3 provided for World Leader Pretend is not identical as that on the Losing My Religion CD single.  Instead, it’s an extended version which includes the longer introduction where, after the cheering from the previous song has finally died down, Michael Stipe uses a drumstick to hit the side of a chair and recites a few lines from We Live As We Dream, Alone by Gang of Four before the band burst into their own song.  It’s an exceptional performance of what is surely THE stand-out song from Green.

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 13)

As I mentioned last week, the ultra-poppy Stand did not give R.E.M. the super-sized global hit the record company had no doubt been hoping for, despite being released twice. Strange, then, that the most political single the band had put out to date – released in-between the two Stands – saw the band crack the UK Top 40 for the very first time.

mp3: R.E.M. – Orange Crush

Orange Crush had already topped the US Mainstream Rock charts (based on radio plays) for a record-breaking 8 weeks. It saw a physical release on this side of the pond in May 1989 and had by far the biggest impact of any track they’d put out to date. It was also one of their most frenetic. Opening with the rapid machine-gun effect of guitar and drums, the song tackles the controversial use of the chemical nerve gas Agent Orange by the US in Vietnam. Stipe often preluded the song on the Green Tour by dedicating it to the flag of the USA before singing the US Army’s tagline “Be all that you can be in the army.”

mp3: R.E.M. – Orange Crush (live from ‘Tourfilm’)

Rising all the way to number 28 in the UK, it saw the band make their debut on the flagship chart TV show Top of The Pops, where Stipe, with long plaited ponytail, mimed with a megaphone, a prop he used during the Green Tour to sing the chorus of Turn You Inside-Out. In fact, the megaphone was a protest at being forced to lip-synch rather than sing live. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

For the benefit of those overseas or not old enough – Top Of The Pops was one of the tackiest shows on TV, yet at its peak, it was THE show to be on if you had a single out. Usually appearing on it guaranteed an increase in sales and a higher chart position the following week. It was presented by BBC Radio 1 DJs, most of whom were utterly cringe-worthy and shockingly unknowledgeable. Occasionally, if we were really lucky, we might get John Peel, Janice Long or Tommy Vance fronting the show. Unfortunately, on the night R.E.M. appeared, they had Mark Goodier (who had an OK evening show at one time) and someone else I can’t even remember the name of. At the (premature) end of R.E.M.’s performance, nameless bloke, thinking he was being all clever and witty, commented: “Especially nice on a hot day – Orange Crush.” The song was about chemical warfare and this pillock thought it was about a soft drink. Legend has it the band were so upset at the comment, they refused to go on the show again (though they were coaxed back in 1995).

(JC adds…..I did a bit of detective work on this as the pillock was certainly not a TOTP regular and therefore not a Radio 1 DJ. It seems it was Simon Parkin, a continuity announcer with Children’s BBC, a service which broadcast on BBC1 on school days, between 4 and 5.30pm, as he was an occasional guest presenter of TOTP alongside Mark Goodier during 1989).

Unusually, Orange Crush had decent b-sides. Both covers, the 7” featured a version of Suicide’s Ghost Rider, while the 12” included a wonderful take on Syd Barrett’s Dark Globe. Both songs had been played live during encores of some shows throughout 1988 and also made it regularly into the Green Tour sets.

mp3: R.E.M. – Ghost Rider
mp3: R.E.M. – Dark Globe

Stand and Orange Crush were the only tracks put out as singles in the UK. In the States, they had Pop Song 89 and Get Up (the latter of which was a real highlight of ‘Green’). A promo of Turn You Inside-Out was also released in the US and Spain.

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 12)

If ‘Document’ saw R.E.M. move wholeheartedly into the political rock arena, then its successor ‘Green’ cranked it up another gear. Released during the 1988 US Presidential election campaign, the band wore their colours on their sleeves, endorsing the Democrats while heavily criticising the Republican candidate George Bush. Among its main themes was environmentalism, the album title being the giveaway. Musically, the band regard it as experimental following Michael Stipe’s request that they “didn’t write any more R.E.M.-type songs.”

In the UK, it was released with no singles preceding it. I bought it on the day of release (7 November 1988), the first time I’d done that for an R.E.M. record. It wasn’t until late January 1989 that, Stand was issued as the first UK single from ‘Green’. I suppose it was the obvious choice, but it seems to confirm my previous observations in this series about the choice of singles the band (or label) made to promote their albums. This was the first R.E.M. record on a major label, yet the same theme remained. Peter Buck described Stand as “without a doubt the stupidest song we’ve ever written.” Stipe added that his lyrics were deliberately inane to match the “super bubblegummy songs” the band offered up following a discussion about 60s pop groups like the Banana Splits and the Archies.

mp3: R.E.M. – Stand

Does Stand represent ‘Green’? Absolutely not. Does it sound like an R.E.M. single? Totally. In fact, Warners thought it was worthy of releasing twice! First time around, the 7” was backed by a short instrumental called Memphis Train Blues, essentially a mandolin-led blues song. A typically throwaway, non-essential piece.

mp3: R.E.M. – Memphis Train Blues

The 12” added an instrumental version of the album’s closing track. Unlisted on the album sleeve and label, the track was officially known as 11 for copyright purposes. On it, the band switched instruments with Buck on drums, Berry on bass and Mills on guitar. The b-side version was given the title (The Eleventh Untitled Song), was 45 seconds longer and omitted the vocal.

mp3: R.E.M. – (The Eleventh Untitled Song)

This original release stalled at #51, something of a dud when you consider the band’s increasing renown and ever-growing fan-base, coupled with the overtly radio-friendly nature of the song. So it’s perhaps no surprise that, given the next single became R.E.M.’s first UK top 30 hit, Stand was given a second crack at the whip later in the year, with new cover art to boot.

This time, the b-sides were a little more interesting. An acoustic version of ‘Green’’s opener Pop Song 89 graced the 7” format, while a live cover of the Ohio PlayersSkin Tight was added to the 12”.

mp3: R.E.M. – Pop Song 89 (acoustic version)
mp3: R.E.M. – Skin Tight (live)

The re-release coincided with the European leg of the Green Tour, the band’s biggest, most expansive jaunt to date. I had, just a month earlier, seen them for the first time at Wembley Arena in London. Unfortunately, none of this was enough to propel the single to dizzy heights, this time stalling at an only slightly better #48.

Stand was a better track than Cant Get There From Here, no doubt about it, but it still doesn’t rate among the band’s finest songs. It doesn’t rate among the finest songs on ‘Green’, in my opinion (they would be World Leader Pretend, Turn You Inside-Out and You Are The Everything). It did not give the band the super-sized global hit the record company had no doubt been hoping for, but mega-stardom was a lot closer than many people thought…

The Robster