THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 39)

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And so on to the third and final single from the tragedy that was/is Reveal, the absolute nadir of R.E.M.’s career at that point. To be fair, there wasn’t a great deal to choose from, and whatever was picked wasn’t exactly going to reignite interest in the album among fans old or new. So on 19th November 2001, the six-minute I’ll Take The Rain was released in the UK.

I know some R.E.M. fans who adore this song. I also know others who hate it intensely. The haters point to what they deem to be a somewhat lackadaisical sound, like the band were weary and couldn’t even be arsed to try. They may also argue it sounds like the type of power ballad R.E.M. resolutely avoided throughout their career, and of the lyrics being banal and trite. The lovers, on the other hand, accuse the haters of missing the point, of not understanding the raw emotion of the song, its understated approach coming from the vulnerability of the protagonist being asked to make a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Of course, being me, I’m neither a lover nor a hater. When I first heard Reveal, this was one of only two songs that really stood out as being likeable (the other, if you were wondering, was I’ve Been High, which remains one of the band’s very best post-Berry moments IMO). It’s certainly a better single than the other two and infinitely superior to the songs that bookend it on the album – the dreadful Beachball and Chorus And the Ring (two of the very worst moments of R.E.M.’s entire career).

It’s a nice enough song, if you’re willing to forgive the use of the word ‘nice’ – not a word I ever use to describe music in a positive manner – but it is. I’m willing to accept it’s too long though, which is why I’m offering up the rare radio edit for you today – never commercially issued.

mp3: R.E.M. – I’ll Take The Rain [radio edit]

No real surprise here that the single only reached #44 in the UK charts, but it certainly wasn’t helped by the choice of formats available. The only real draw for hardcore collectors (and at this point I still bought the singles) was the promise of an unreleased track on one of the two CD singles issued. Except that with a title like 32 Chord Song it sounded like it would be yet another throwaway instrumental studio jam that was never considered worthy of finishing.

Wrong.

Worse than that, it’s merely a demo of the track that would appear on Reveal as Summer Turns To High. So not a new or unreleased track at all, just an early version of an average album track (from a below average album) with its working title.

mp3: R.E.M. –  32 Chord Song (aka Summer Turns To High [demo])

Two live tracks graced the other CD, both songs from Reveal. One of them was the aforementioned I’ve Been High. The album version is a beautiful, keyboard led ballad with a sweet, lilting melody that Stipe really puts his heart into. It’s a very un-R.E.M. song which, at this point in their career, was probably not a bad thing at all. This live version recorded in Sydney, Australia for music TV station Channel V, is, well, OK. It’s basically Stipe singing over Buck’s acoustic guitar. The unique loveliness of the album version is absent, but it’s still passable.

mp3: R.E.M. – I’ve Been High [live]

Finally, recorded live at the Museum of Television and Radio, NYC, She Just Wants To Be.

This was, along with The Lifting, one of two Reveal tracks played regularly during the Up tour two years earlier. On the album the verses are stripped back to voice, acoustic guitar, bass and drums with the chorus throwing all that other muck that Reveal suffered from into the mix, which totally ruins what could have been a half-decent mid-tempo song. Live, thankfully, it’s kept much simpler, and this version isn’t very different to what we heard on the previous tour.

mp3: R.E.M. – She Just Wants To Be [live]

So there we have it, a rather understated way to soundtrack the formal ending of my love affair with R.E.M., at least in the passionate, loyal sense that it used to be. I’ll Take The Rain was a song about making a very difficult choice, neither option of which the protagonist could take with any real optimism. I didn’t have that problem. Both R.E.M. and The White Stripes made it very easy for me. As I settled into a new life in Wales, Jack and Meg moved in with me to soundtrack my early years as an Englishman in Newport. I’d left R.E.M. behind. Or so I thought. There was still a bit of flirting from my old flames in the years to come…

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 38)

I’ll be brutally honest – if I didn’t have the company of The Robster for this journey, I might well have been tempted to get off the train and simply give you a list of all the R.E.M. singles from 2001 onwards; but his knowledge of the band, and his willingness to be open and honest about what he considers to be a number of failings and disappointments throughout their lengthy and often stellar career, has been and will continue to be the reasons for sticking with us in the last few weeks…

The end of the 20th Century had been a strange time for long-time fans, to say the least. It had been difficult enough to embrace the electronica of Up, but it did contain a handful of songs, none of which were released as singles, to make it an occasionally interesting listen.  Three years later and the fingers, toes and every other possible part of the anatomy were crossed that the new album, Reveal, would re-ignite the passion.

As The Robster highlighted last week, the advance single, Imitation of Life, had been a hit.  My comrade-in-arms was a tad scathing last week in saying that the very familiarity of the song was a let-down as it felt like something from a bygone era when he had always thought of R.E.M. as a band which only looked forwards.

I actually quite like Imitation of Life.  I hoped that it would signal the new album being some sort of return to the poppier side of the band, one which they would take the charts by storm and have all the songs on heavy rotation on whatever radio stations the demographic now listened to. Turned out not to be the case…..

I’m going to use some words from the writer Garry Mulholland who, as part of an Uncut Magazine looking back at the career of R.E.M., had the task of doing the retrospective for Reveal:-

“Reveal reveals exactly where the band as a collective where in 2000-2001, and why they would stay together for another 10 years.  For the first time, R.E.M. do not sound like a group striving for something. They sound content.

Trumpeted, at the time, as a return to former glories…..it’s an elegant melding of the synthetic textures of Up and the quality songwriting style they had developed and gradually perfected over 20 years.

The guitars no longer jangled.  The rhythms refused to drive along the dusty roads of a semi-mystical southern Rockville. The temp was relentlessly slow.  Synthesisers and orchestras overwhelmed those primary drums-bass-guitar colours.  Here were three guys in their forties dealing with a calm after a storm, having come so close to destroying the band that had defined their adult lives.”

It’s a lot of words to describe an album that, quite frankly, is boring for the most part.  And in some places, simply terrible.  For the first ever time, R.E.M. were inessential.  The second single from the album kind of captures what I’m getting at:-

mp3: R.E.M. – All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)

It’s a song that is slow to get out of the blocks and the pace never picks up.  It was released in July 2001, a couple of months after the album, and it came in at #24. before plummeting to #48 and then #71 before its short stay in the charts was over.  Thank goodness for small mercies.

There were, again, three formats.  CD/cassette/DVD.

There were three tracks that made up the various b-sides, consisting of an instrumental, a cover and a live track.

mp3: R.E.M. – 165 Hillcrest
mp3: R.E.M. – Yellow River
mp3: R.E.M. – Imitation of Live (live)

For once, the instrumental has something to offer. It’s R.E.M as a surf-band and the whole thing is done and dusted in 95 seconds. Just time enough to appreciate it and before it becomes too repetitive. It’s one of those tracks that you’d likely need 20 or 30 goes (at least) before guessing who was behind the music.

The cover version is tragic. It’s R.E.M as a cabaret band on the bill at The Wheeltappers and Shunters Club. And it has Mike Mills on vocal.

The live version at least showed the band’s hearts were still in the right place as it was taken from a live free gig at Trafalgar Square, London on 29 April 2001, at which they were the main musical attraction at the South African Freedom Day, organised to mark the seventh anniversary of free elections. The star of the show, however, was Nelson Mandela…..

There was a third single lifted from Reveal. Feel free to pop-in next week to get The Robster’s thoughts on it.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 37)

The previous decade had seen R.E.M. rise to previously unfathomable heights before tailing off. While ‘Up’ signalled a downturn in R.E.M.’s commercial fortunes, hopes were still high among fans for the band’s 12th album ‘Reveal’, released late Spring 2001. Preceding it by a few weeks was its lead single:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Imitation Of Life

For some fans who were still tuning in, Imitation Of Life was reassuringly familiar. But I had a big problem with the song when I first heard it, and I still do 20 years on. The fact it sounds like it could have fitted on Automatic For The People may have had something to do with it. R.E.M. was never a band who looked back, only forwards, but his song felt a bit like a Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite moment, and you know how I feel about that one!

Of course, R.E.M. being the environmentalists they were, loved to recycle, but this is basically a (badly) rehashed Driver 8 – same chords, same tempo. It’s almost as if they deliberately set about to write a template R.E.M. song, which was NEVER something they’d ever strived for previously.

On first listen though, it wasn’t even the fact it sounded so derivative. To me, Imitation Of Life sounds like two totally different songs they couldn’t finish, so they welded the verse of one to the chorus of the other and Hey Presto! Instant hit! That last, elongated syllable in the verse kind of gives it away to me. “Hold it there Michael, we just need to find a way to link the two bits together…”

Talking of Stipe, this really has one of the most annoying lyrics you’ll ever hear from him. Again, it sounds like Stipe is actually trying to write lyrics that only Michael Stipe would write. They sound like a parody, especially the excruciating line: “You want the greatest thing / The greatest thing since bread came sliced.” All of a sudden, Stand sounds somewhat existentialist.

And then… just as you get to grips with the fact that this really isn’t one of R.E.M.’s greatest works, you have to contend with the mix. It’s just so sludgy and crammed so full of stuff, you can barely breathe. Acoustic guitars, electric guitars, keyboards, electronic gadgetry, strings… all of it thrown in without measure and stirred until it resembles something you’d repair a road with. So even if there was a half-decent song to be made out of Imitation Of Life, the mix pretty much killed it stone dead.

No surprise then that it became another big hit – the band’s 9th top ten smash – reaching #6 in the last April chart of 2001. There were three formats – the CD single contained alternative versions of songs that would appear on the new album. Despite the a-side, I had quite high hopes for Reveal on hearing the ‘original version’ of The Lifting (a prequel to Daysleeper, apparently). It struck me as being far superior to Imitation of Life, so I hoped it was more representative of the album as a whole. Sadly, the album version was appalling – another shockingly bad mix and sped up. This is definitely the version you want/need.

mp3: R.E.M. – The Lifting [original version]

Also on the CD was a demo of Beat A Drum. This version is also less cluttered than its album take, and sounds more sombre and sad. To be honest, this is the first time in years I’ve listened to either version and I’m no more taken with them now as I was when I first heard them, but if I had to pick between them, needless to say this demo version wins out.

mp3: R.E.M. – Beat A Drum [Dalkey demo]

In what I believe was a first for R.E.M., a DVD single was also released. Now there’s a format we all wanted and needed, said absolutely no one ever. Alongside the quite brilliant Imitation Of Life video (a single 20-second shot playing backwards and forwards repeatedly, zooming in on different characters throughout) and the audio of The Lifting, it also contained an unreleased studio track called 2JN.

Yep, you’ve guessed it, it’s one of those silly instrumental oddities they insisted on foisting upon us. 2JN also appeared on the third format released in the UK, the dreaded cassette single.

mp3: R.E.M. – 2JN

In spite of my dislike of the lead single, I went into Reveal hopeful and open-minded. I bought it on the day of its release and played it that evening. When it finished, I said: “Well. That was shit!”

MrsRobster gasped. I was angry. I felt completely let down by the band that had meant so much to me for nearly 14 years. I’d stood by them, defended them, godammit, I still LOVED them even when things were getting tough. But that was the moment I knew I needed a break; I needed someone other than R.E.M. in my life. The spark was no longer there. We’d drifted apart – but it wasn’t me, it was them. And it was around that time that an exciting, young, good-looking duo from Detroit made eyes at me in a local record shop…

A few weeks later, I heard the strains of Imitation Of Life coming at me through my TV. No, it wasn’t a music show, it was an ad break, and Paul Gambaccini was telling me that R.E.M.’s new album Reveal was a “stunning return to form.” And that merely confirmed it for me – if Paul Gambaccini does an ad telling me something is “stunning”, I’ll most definitely pass, thank you very much!

The Robster

PS : For those who haven’t seen the promo :-

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 36)

It’s interesting to ponder whether the 1999 film Man On The Moon would have been given the green light by Hollywood if it hadn’t been for the fact that R.E.M. had enjoyed a huge hit single some seven years earlier, and in many ways re-igniting interest in the comedian, Andy Kaufman.

It did therefore make sense that the moguls turned to the band to work on the score to accompany the movie, with the fruits of their labour appearing as orchestral music on a soundtrack album in November 1999, alongside contributions from Kaufman himself and Jim Carrey as Kaufman.

It’s worth interjecting at this point that Man on The Moon is more than a decent watch, but whether you love it or loath it will largely depend on two things;

(i) does the surreal/childish/challenging humour utilised by Kaufman make you laugh or cringe? ; and

(ii) do you think Jim Carrey is a genius or a dickhead?

The latter is important as he really is at the centre of the film, in just about every single scene.

What I will say, is that you should make time to watch Jim & Andy – The Great Beyond, a 2017 documentary which basically is a behind the scenes look at the making of Man on The Moon. Without giving too much away, Carrey remains in character as Kaufman at all times, leading to all sorts of manic behaviour and chaos on the set and the surrounding environs. Michael Stipe makes an appearance in the documentary, clearly bemused by what he was finding during a visit to the set. It’s available on Netflix.

In addition to the score, the band wrote one entirely new song, which would feature (as these things tend to do) as the credits rolled.  It was included on the soundtrack, and in late January 2000 just after the Xmas market had died down, it was issued as a single.  Incredibly, this stand-alone effort provided R.E.M. with their biggest ever hit  in the UK, coming in at #3, eventually spending ten weeks in the Top 75:-

mp3: R.E.M. – The Great Beyond

This chart performance was in complete contrast to the singles lifted from Up, with The Robster over the past few weeks highlighting that even those which did chart tended to drop out pretty quickly.

The reason is quite simple in that The Great Beyond remained part of the radio playlists for weeks as this was the R.E.M. that the producers and DJs wanted, and given the fact it sold consistently for a couple of months, it was what the public wanted.

Let’s face it. The Great Beyond is Man On The Moon (the hit single) Part 2. It had the same sort of feel, sound, energy and sentiment about it. It really was R.E.M. for the masses, yeah yeah, yeah, yeah.

I mentioned previously that I’m not a huge lover of Man On The Moon and likewise, I’ve the same ‘meh’ feeling about The Great Beyond. It kind of sounds as if the three remaining members of the band, having listened to the criticism given to Up, decided to prove just how easy it would be to go back to the Automatic era and churn out something with one hand tied behind their collective backs and with their eyes closed. The interesting thing was whether this would be the sort of songs to appear on the next studio album or would they go back to the more challenging and experimental stuff? That’s all for the next three editions of this series……..

Incidentally, I thought that the #3 result for The Great Beyond was partly down to it being tied in with the release of the film, and that people might be buying it after a visit to the cinema. I was very wrong as Man On The Moon, while released in theatres in the USA at the end of 1999, didn’t premiere over here until May 2000, by which time the single was long out of the charts.

Nor was it the result of multi-formatting. One CD and one cassette release only, each with the same bonus tracks, aimed straight at those who hadn’t bought any R.E.M. since the early 90s but still went along to the gigs to hear the old stuff:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts (live at Glastonbury, June 1999)
mp3: R.E.M. – The One I Love (live at Glastonbury, June 1999)

95,000 singing along…..it really was a far cry from the IRS days.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 35)

With Up yielding not just one, but TWO top 10 hits, and a sold-out World tour in full swing, Warners decided to capitalise with the release of a fourth single from Up. They really shouldn’t have bothered – to say it backfired is an understatement.

While Up may not be described as the most ‘user-friendly’ record in R.E.M.’s discography, it nonetheless had some wonderful songs on it. For a fourth single, how about the uplifting Walk Unafraid, without a doubt one of the Up Tour’s live highlights? (here, here!!! – JC)

Or The Apologist with its “I’m sorry” refrain referencing the early classic So. Central Rain? Or even, as a real curveball, Up’s best moment in my opinion, the Krautrock-inspired Leonard Cohen pastiche Hope? (agreed….the best song on the album, but so unlike R.E.M. -JC)

But Warners thought “No, what we need is an utterly forgettable 5½-minute dirge that no one will play on radio and no fans will feel the need to buy again.”

And that’s exactly what transpired. Released on 28th June 1999, Suspicion became the first R.E.M. single in more than a decade not to chart in the UK. That is perhaps the only significant thing I can say about it. Both formats (for there were only two) contained the full-length album version of Suspicion

mp3: R.E.M. – Suspicion

Not even the b-sides can save this one. More live tracks I’m afraid. In this case, more from that Jools Holland special from the previous Autumn. The main CD release included these:

mp3: R.E.M. – Electrolite [live on Later… With Jools Holland]
mp3: R.E.M. – Man On The Moon [live on Later… With Jools Holland]

The collectible 3” CD contained a live in the studio take of Suspicion (though not the same one that appeared on the Lotus single), plus an early fave taken from that Jools show.

mp3: R.E.M. – Suspicion [live at Ealing Studios]
mp3: R.E.M. – Perfect Circle [live on Later… With Jools Holland]

Not the most inspiring way to sign off the Up era, but perhaps in some way fitting considering what was to come over the next few years…

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 34)

R.E.M.’s songs have provoked a lot of discussions over the years as to their meaning and inspirations. At My Most Beautiful has been interpreted in various ways, but for perhaps the only time in the band’s entire catalogue, there is nothing at all to interpret here – it’s just so blindingly obvious.

mp3: R.E.M. – At My Most Beautiful [radio remix]

At My Most Beautiful is a love song, pure and simple. Lyrically, for the first time, Stipe wrote from the point of view of being head over heels in love with someone who is also in love with him. It all started when the line “I’ve found a way to make you smile” popped into his head. “I just thought that’s the most beautiful thing in the world”. It took him a year to finish the lyrics while he tried to figure out what those ways to “make you smile” were. After a conversation with Patti Smith one morning, he eventually completed the lyrics in 45 minutes. He had grown tired of writing what he termed “ironic love songs” and set out to pen “the most romantic song I’d ever written”. And he did, the resulting lyric being playful and – dare I say it – “cute” (ugh! Pass the sick bucket), but devoid of the usual horrid clichés such songs usually resort to.

The word ‘smile’ wasn’t lost on Stipe either. All I knew was The Beach Boys had a record called Smile so I was like, ‘Well, this will be my gift to Peter, Mike and Bill’ [who were all Beach Boys fans].” Mike Mills wrote the basic piano track and immediately thought it sounded like something Brian Wilson might have written. When Peter Buck heard it, he thought the same. So they deliberately set about creating a Beach Boys homage. And that’s a point worth making: there are no pretensions here; if you think it sounds derivative, it’s really meant to be. And it’s not just the piano and vocals that are referenced. Buck plays drums on At My Most Beautiful, using legendary session drummer (and BB collaborator) Hal Blaine as direct inspiration.

For me, despite all those Beach Boys allusions (and maybe, in some ways, because of them), this is one of R.E.M.’s very best songs. It’s so straight-forward and honest, and beautifully arranged, it’s almost impossible to find fault with. Those vocal harmonies are absolutely divine. It would always make an R.E.M. mixtape/playlist where many other singles would not. I knew this from the first time I heard it and that’s not changed in 25 years.

For the single a remix of sorts was devised. However, you’d be hard-pressed to spot the differences. I think (to my ears, anyway) that as the intention was for the song to gain radio play, it was mixed so all the sounds were consolidated to be heard across both channels simultaneously. For instance, if you listen on a good pair of headphones, you may be able to notice that on the album version, the bass guitar is mainly on the left, while in the right ear you can hear bells. That distinction isn’t quite so clear on the so-called ‘radio remix’. But now I’m beginning to sound rather nerdy…

Released on 8th March 1999, At My Most Beautiful became the second top 10 hit off Up (the band’s 7th overall in the UK) when it landed squarely at #10 the following week. The usual three formats were on offer but the well was dry in terms of unreleased songs, so the live archives were plundered. Around the time of Up’s release, R.E.M. were the subject of a special episode of Later… With Jools Holland on the BBC in which they were the only band appearing. They played a set of 13 songs featuring 6 from Up, another half dozen from their back catalogue plus a cover version. For the b-sides of the final singles from Up, this show was sourced. So the cassette and standard CD included that cover, the second Iggy Pop song the band had issued in recent years:

mp3: R.E.M. – The Passenger [live on Later… With Jools Holland]

The CD also included a version of my all-time favourite R.E.M. song. I don’t actually care how often Country Feedback has been put out, you can never have too many versions of it!

mp3: R.E.M. – Country Feedback [live on Later… With Jools Holland]

The collector’s 3” CD eschewed the single version of the title track in favour of a version recorded just two days prior to the Jools show as part of a BBC radio session for none other than John Peel. It also included a classic oldie from the Jools Holland performance.

mp3: R.E.M. – At My Most Beautiful [live Peel Session, BBC Radio One]
mp3: R.E.M. – So. Central Rain [live on Later… With Jools Holland]

In spite of the commercial success of At My Most Beautiful, and the fact it was such a good song, sales of Up continued to falter, becoming the band’s least successful record since Document. The signs were that R.E.M. had not just reached their peak, but that they had begun their descent…

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 33)

Up is an album unlike anything R.E.M. ever made before or would ever make again. It was certainly their most experimental with all kinds of things going on. You won’t find a more diverse mix of styles on any of their records like you get in the first six songs on Up. Some of those styles were never revisited (in the case of Hope, that’s such a shame) while others became the R.E.M. sound of the early noughties.

It’s certainly an odd one, and whereas the album’s first single gave us something we might have expected from R.E.M. a few years earlier, the next track was a one-off. Lotus appears as track two on Up, immediately following the ethereal, ambient electronica of Airportman, surely one of the most un-R.E.M. songs they ever made. But then, Lotus is also rather off-kilter. Built around a funky groove led by Mike Mills’ organ, Lotus is somewhat restrained in its arrangement while at the same time flaunting its glitzy, glammy sexiness for all to see. It screams: “I’m a hit single! Release me, release me!”

That is until you get to grips with Michael Stipe’s lyrics. The song’s protagonist is a troubled soul, struggling with depression, longing for a more peaceful state of mind. The second verse illustrates this best of all:

Storefront window, I reflect
Just last week I was merely heck
Tip the scale, I was hell
It picked me up, then I fell
Who’s this stranger?
Crowbar spine
Dot, dot, dot, and I feel fine
Let it rain, rain, rain
Bring my happy back again

The Lotus of the title may therefore be a reference to the lotus flower, believed to produce calming, psychoactive properties when ingested. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus inadvertently lands on an island where the primary food is the fruit and flower of the lotus plant. It caused the inhabitants to sleep peacefully and forget everything. Stipe’s lotus eater may be trying to reach that state in order to relieve his torment. The lotus here, therefore, may be anti-depressant medication, or illegal narcotics like heroin or meth. I’m not hopeful for the poor wretch, either way.

There’s all sorts of things going on in Lotus that you don’t necessarily pick up on straightaway. Buck’s guitars are laced with swirling psychedelic effects, Stipe’s vocals are delivered rhythmically as opposed to melodically, and there are lots of little bleeps and buzzes on the backing tracks that perhaps fill the sound out more than you think they would. Grab your headphones and turn the volume up for this one. And of course, you’ll have noticed the reference to an old classic in those lyrics too…

mp3: R.E.M. – Lotus

Lotus opened more or less every show on the subsequent Up tour. It was released as a single on 7th December 1998 and reached a disappointing #26 in the UK charts. As much as it screamed and screamed, it clearly wasn’t as big or important as it thought it was. There were three formats; the cassette and standard CD included a throwaway instrumental like those they always insisted on including on such releases.

mp3: R.E.M. – Surfing The Ganges

The CD also gave us a remix of the title track. I’m not quite sure what anyone hoped to achieve here, but this remix doesn’t really offer a great deal more than the original does. Sure, it sounds quite different in places, but it’s ultimately the same song with some bits turned up, some bits turned down, a couple of extra effects thrown in here and there… Am I being unkind here, or could Lotus have yielded something so much better from a remix?

mp3: R.E.M. – Lotus [weird mix]

The collectible 3” CD contained the title track and a live, in the studio take, of another song from Up, Suspicion, the track which follows Lotus on the album. As you’ll find out in a couple of weeks, this is not my favourite R.E.M. moment.

mp3: R.E.M. – Suspicion [live in the studio]

From a purely personal point of view, I’ve always liked Lotus. In fact, the first time I heard it I grinned from ear to ear. While it’s not the novelty some previous singles have shown themselves to be, I can’t say it has aged terribly well – it’s very late-90s. It also wasn’t the best track from Up. In fact, the next single would prove to be one of the finest of R.E.M.’s entire career…

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 32)

And so we reach what can be described as R.E.M.’s “difficult period”. Sessions began on the band’s 11th album in 1997, but during the early rehearsals, drummer Bill Berry quit. Bill had fallen seriously ill during the Monster tour and no longer wanted to travel. He retired and became a farmer, leaving Buck, Mills and Stipe to continue as a trio. But Berry wasn’t just R.E.M.’s drummer – his part in the band’s overall sound and creative process was just as important as that of the other members, and many feel his departure signalled the start of a downward spiral for the band.

Apparently though, the early Up sessions already incorporated the electronic elements that were embedded in the finished record’s sound. The band have stated that even if Bill had stayed, Up would have sounded much the same. But despite this shift in dynamic, the album’s lead single sounded familiar and warm.

mp3: R.E.M – Daysleeper (single edit)

Daysleeper revolves around Peter Buck’s acoustic guitar and Mike Mills’ harmonium (or synth with a harmonium setting), and is a song about someone who sleeps during the day. Whoever said Michael Stipe’s lyrics were esoteric? “I was in New York… walking down the steps of this building. I come to a door and there’s a sign on it that says ‘Daysleeper’, and I walked a lot more quietly down the steps, thinking about that poor person who’s trying to sleep, and me and my big old boots interrupting her sleep. So I wrote this song about a daysleeper that’s working an 11–7 shift and how furious the balance is between the life that you live and the work that you have to do in order to support the life that you live.”

My initial reaction was one of indifference – it was pretty much R.E.M. by numbers as far as I was concerned – but repeated listening paid dividends. Having recently revisited the song, I think it really is a bit of a gem melodically and one of Up’s more memorable moments. It even yielded a prequel; the band’s next album Reveal opened with The Lifting which features the same character.

Released on 12th October 1998, Daysleeper became R.E.M.’s sixth Top 10 hit, peaking at number 6 one week after its release. It came in three official formats, all of which contained the single edit of the title track (basically it was the album version with the few seconds of intro at the very beginning cut). The cassette and CD single included the instrumental track Emphysema, a light, bossanova rhythm with keyboards and badly-played accordion over the top. Another of those disposable b-sides you really don’t need.

mp3: R.E.M – Emphysema

The CD also contained a version of another of Up’s highlights, Why Not Smile. This version is much shorter, more sparsely arranged, and is utterly gorgeous. Buck’s acoustic arpeggios and Mills’ organ hold it together while Stipe sings to someone so utterly despondent, he feels his words just cannot get through. Regardless, he reassures this person that he is there for them. That snarly feedback bit that comes in at the second verse is apparently Stipe’s debut on guitar! This version of Why Not Smile originally featured a few months earlier on a sampler CD with the southern literary magazine Oxford American, hence the title.

mp3: R.E.M – Why Not Smile [Oxford American version]

The third format was, sadly, not vinyl (though as had been the trend with the previous album, jukebox editions were pressed) but a 3” collectible CD. As well as Daysleeper, it included a live, in the studio take, on another Up track Sad Professor, an altogether cleaner-sounding version than the feedback-drenched album track. I much prefer the album version personally, but it’s never been a big fave.

mp3: R.E.M – Sad Professor [live in the studio]

Up sounded nothing like any other R.E.M. album. Stylistically it was all over the place, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have some great, great moments on it. Its main fault is its length. There are too many songs on it in my opinion and a third of them are average at best. I have my own 10-track alternative version which I really like much better than the real thing. And yes, Daysleeper is included.

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 31) : THE COMPANION PIECE

A GUEST POSTING FROM TWO MORE COOL DUDES IN CALIFORNIA

Jonny the Friendly Lawyer writes: – It was fun talking with Vincent Landay about his work on REM’s ‘Crush With Eyeliner’ video with Spike Jonze. I knew Spike was involved with the video for ‘Electrolite’, too, so I thought we’d give it another go. But when I asked Vince about it he said, “I had nothing to do with that one and Spike was only second camera. Peter Care directed that video.” Vince, being Vince, knows everyone in the business and connected me with Peter straightaway.

Vince described Peter as “a friendly and charming Brit—you’ll love him.” Of course, Vince was spot on. Peter and I chatted for nearly an hour and the interview went like this:

JTFL: How’d you first meet REM?

Peter: I’d done a number of music videos earlier in my career but had gone on to make tv commercials. I hit a brick wall with that and wanted to get back to more interesting work. I knew Warner Bros.’ video commissioner so I called to ask her if there were any bands I might work with. She suggested REM and, after some excruciating phone tag with Michael Stipe, we ended up working together on ‘Radio Song.’ It was a fantastic experience that began a long and rewarding friendship with the band.

J: What do you like about working with them?

P: REM have a certain sophistication about film-making and culture. They also always had a lot of ideas, or kernels of ideas to run with.

J: For example?

P: Doing a crowd surfing video for “Drive,” and doing “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” as a straight performance, things like that.

J: Is that different from the other acts you’ve worked with?

P: Every band is different. Some are just concerned about how much screen time they’re going to get. Or, they might come up with ideas that are so over budget there’d be no way to do them. Other bands were just not as interested in the craft of making videos. Then there are artists who know how to work with a director to get what’s best for the music. Tina Turner, for example, was a joy to work with.

REM are unique in that they’re highly professional about filmmaking and understood and enjoyed the process. Something really clicked between me and the band. We developed a sort of shorthand way of communicating and there was a lot of trust between us. We were comfortable critiquing each other’s ideas.

 

J: What was the thinking behind ‘Electrolite’?

P: We’d done a number of different things by that point. Highly stylized black and white videos like ‘Man on the Moon’ and so on. This time they just wanted to do something stupid. “Stupid” is the actual word we used.

J: Is that why there are several seemingly incongruous scenes?

P: No. The reason for that is I was a little off guard when Michael called me up about doing a new video. It was very bad timing because I had just finished a commercial shoot and was exhausted. So I proposed splitting the video up into four or five different pieces, each of which would be done by a different director, with no continuity between them. I was working with a production company called Satellite then, and asked if any of the people there were interested. In the end Spike agreed, so we did it together.

J: Where was it shot?

P: The opening scene was shot in the lobby and coffee shop of the Ambassador Hotel.

[Jonny notes: check out The Ambassador. A legendary LA hotel opened in 1921. Home of the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub where Hollywood icons (Chaplin, Monroe, Fonda, Sinatra, Hepburn etc.) hung out. The Oscars were held there once. It featured in lots of big budget films, too (Forrest Gump, Almost Famous, The Italian Job, etc.). It was also where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. Sadly, it was demolished in 2005.]

The other interiors were shot on a soundstage. The folks in chains were passersby we filmed in the street or wherever we found them. We shot the dune buggy scene out in the desert. Spike’s scene at the end, with all the special effects, was shot on a giant green screen and green floor in the parking lot of the Ambassador.

J: Spike’s scene?

P: Yes, that’s one of the most popular parts of the video and Spike did it. I’d asked him to get involved and I wanted to give him a lot of room to do what he wanted. So a lot of the budget was reserved for that part. That’s why it’s the one section that’s like its own little film. It has an independent structure within itself.

J: I thought Spike was “second camera” on the shoot.

P: No, he was the co-director and should be credited that way. It’s true that he and I did some of the ‘guerilla’ scenes of the people in chains, which were shot with 16mm cameras. But he directed the parking lot scene at the end.

J: Were any of the chained folks cast?

P: No. Our production assistant just asked whoever happened to be walking by if they’d like to be in an REM video, draped with chains. Completely random. Most people said yes, and that’s who’s in the video.

J: What else was “stupid” about the shoot?

P: Everything. Filming a scene upside down, rubber reindeer suspended from the ceiling. There’s a part where the band appear in silly outfits, as if they’re being interviewed. They weren’t—they were just gibbering on about nothing.

J: The costumes are excellent. Who did you work with?

P: A brilliant costumer called Debra LeClair. I worked with Debra on I can’t remember how many projects, but definitely some high profile ones. Videos for Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and several others.

J: Who else worked with you on the video?

P: The editor was Angus Wall, who was also brilliant. He totally understood what we were after. We deliberately set up ‘bad’ edits that were the complete opposite of what you’d do in a typical music video. So, for example, we keep recutting incongruously back to the same shot of Bill over and over at the beginning. It doesn’t fit the song at all.

J: Why have I heard of Angus Wall?

P: Because he went on to become a highly sought-after film editor. He worked a lot with David Fincher and won Oscars for his editing in The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

J: Oh, that Angus Wall.

P: Yes, that one.

J: I’ve read that the song is sort of an homage to Los Angeles, or to Michael Stipe’s experience of it. He mentions famous actors and Mulholland Drive in the lyrics. Did that have any influence on the video?

P: Not at all.

J: How long did it take to make it?

P: Oh, a couple of days talking with the band, 5-6 days to prep, 3 days of shooting with conventional cameras (and some more time for the handheld camera scenes), 4-5 days to edit. So, about three weeks?

J: What was most fun for you?

P: When I was a young filmmaker I had a fantasy of working with Roger Corman. I never got to do that but I did see some production stills from one of the last films he worked on. The images were of armored knights jousting on dune buggies in the desert. It was such a crazy idea, and that’s how we ended up with the dune buggy scene.

J: Who was in the suit of armor? It’s not one of the band.

P: The guy in the suit of armor was Bono.

J: Are you kidding? That was never Bono!

P: REM shoots always had major celebs visiting.

J: Wow. I wonder how he got the visor down over his shades!

P: *polite silence*

J: Er, 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 agr—

P: That is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.

JC adds.…..This really is beyond any call of duty.  Jonny had no idea how much the song means to me, nor the fact I’ve always loved the video, so when he floated the idea of getting in touch with Peter, I was excited and hopeful in equal measures, but deep down I thought it was a long shot.  I’m still in shock and awe a few days after the email dropped into my inbox.

Peter Care is actually a legend when it comes to making music videos – as far back as 2005, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in the field from the Music Video Production Association. He got noticed primarily through his early pioneering work with Cabaret Voltaire and between 1983 and 2004, he worked with almost 30 different singers/bands, many of whom are no strangers to the pages of this little corner of t’internet. If you like these songs, then go and visit YouTube or the likes and have a look at Peter’s outstanding work

mp3: Cabaret Voltaire – Sensoria
mp3: It’s Immaterial – Ed’s Funky Diner
mp3: PiL – Rise
mp3: Bananarama – Venus
mp3: New Order – Regret
mp3: James – Say Something

As far as R.E.M. goes, Peter has directed seven music videos along with the excellent Road Movie, the 90-minute documentary/concert film recorded in Atlanta, Georgia in 1995 at the end of the band’s world-wide tour to promote Monster.

As I said, he’s a legend, so a huge thanks to Vince for helping out with the initial contact, and of course to Peter for being so generous with his time when Jonny connected with him.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 31)

Up until now, both myself and The Robster have been pulling these pieces together weeks and sometimes months in advance. It’s been an absolute joy to have embarked on this particular adventure in hi-fi and having been lucky enough to read what’s coming up over the next few weeks, all lovingly composed by my better half, the quality is going to be maintained.

It would have been last October or November when I would have insisted that the look back at the 31st UK single from R.E.M. would be my responsibility. At which point I got writer’s block that I’ve only managed to overcome as a result of an impending deadline.

Cards on the table.

Electrolite is my favourite single of them all. Back in 2008, when I pulled together my 45 45s at 45 series, nothing from R.E.M. made the cut, but as a preface to the actual series I did say that the five songs which would have taken things up to #50 were, in alphabetical order, :-

Billy Bragg – Levi Stubbs’ Tears
Morrissey – November Spawned A Monster
REM – Electrolite
Stereolab – Ping Pong
Violent Femmes – Blister In The Sun

This was done to demonstrate just how hard it had been to come up with the final list of 45 singles, all bought at the time of their original release, with only one song per singer/band.

So why do I have such a love for Electrolite?

The writer’s block I feel is an illustration that I have a real difficulty putting it into words.

The first time I heard it was as the closing track to the album. I got a real sense of melancholy as the tune and lyrics just seemed to capture a frame of mind I was in…looking back it was a wee crisis of confidence more than anything, but for the first time in my life I actually felt I was about to take a mighty tumble, with hopes and aspirations for my career suffering a setback. There were also a few things going on with friends that were a bit of a concern, although thankfully Rachel (aka Mrs Villain) was proving to be a rock.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi helped me immensely at the tail end of 1996 – a sprawling, ambitious and hugely unexpected record requiring a high degree of dedication to be fully appreciated. Over an hour in length, it was a diverse and, at times, audacious listen, constantly shifting direction and pace. It was a demanding listen, best appreciated through a set of headphones, whether for the loud rock-out moments or the beauty of the quieter songs, some of which, if developed fully, could easily have delivered another hit as monster as Everybody Hurts.

By the time the album rolled around to track 14, the album closer, I’d often be exhausted and exhilarated in equal measures. And then the sound of what I later learned was a guiro would kick in and the song I cannot but think of as a companion piece to (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville would start to wash over me:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Electrolite

A few years short of the millennium and Stipe has composed his farewell to the 20th Century, name checking three of the coolest lead men in Hollywood history, backed mainly by a magnificent piece of piano magic from Mike Mills, but on which there is also the most perfect playing of a banjo, a violin and various pieces of percussion to be found on any CD/record that I’ve ever owned.

I think it’s fair to say that I immediately put this song on a pedestal. Any thoughts that it might ever be removed dissipated around a year later when Bill Berry announced he was leaving R.E.M., which means that this holds its special place in history as the last song on the last album recorded by the four-piece.

Here’s another thing I need to mention.

The series of ICAs that this blog has become ‘best known’ for has long given me a real sense of pride. I don’t know how the other composers go about their work, but with almost every ICA I’ve ever written, I think to myself ‘Is this as good a closer as Electrolite?’ Is it a song that makes me want to immediately go back and listen all the way through the album again?’

Electrolite, like the two other 45s taken from the album, came out in cassette form as well as a standard and ‘Collectors Edition’ CD (the only difference being the packaging) on which you could find two live tracks taken from a gig in Atlanta on 18 November 1995:-

mp3: R.E.M. – The Wake-Up Bomb (live)
mp3: R.E.M. – Binky The Doormat (live)

As The Robster mentioned last week, the former had been the song the record label most wanted as the follow-up to E-Bow The Letter and the live version does demonstrate both how well it would have sounded coming out of radios and how much it would likely appeal to those whose interest in the band was beginning to diminish.

The latter is one of those tracks on New Adventures that grew on me with each listen. I can give it no higher compliment than it wouldn’t have been out of place on Monster, and the live version captures the band at their best, albeit a long way removed from the Murmur/Reckoning/Fables era of less than 15 years previously.

The fourth track was a remix of one of my own favourites from Monster:-

mp3: R.E.M. – King Of Comedy (808 State Remix)

It was wholly unexpected to read of the collaboration on the sleeve notes of the CD single.  I went in with a bit of fear and expecting the worst, but came out with a smile on my face. As Bones might have said in the early days of Star Trek, ‘it’s R.E.M., but not as we know it, Jim.’

And in this case, that’s something to enjoy and appreciate.

Stats wise, Electrolite reached #29 in the UK singles chart in December 1996. It would be almost two full years before the next 45. The Robster will take your hand and guide you through it, as he will with all four singles from Up.

I’ll see you all again in due course. Thanks for your continued support, and hopefully enjoyment, of the series.

JC

SOME SONGS ARE GREAT SHORT STORIES (Chapter 43)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – New Test Leper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, just to round things off……

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

JC

 

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 30)

Continuing on from last week’s theme of New Adventures In Hi-Fi being R.E.M.’s most overlooked record – commercially, the backlash started here. It was becoming clear there wasn’t going to be another Losing My Religion anytime soon, and commercial radio stations and bandwagon-jumping casual fans were not going to be playing new R.E.M. records like they had for the previous few years (despite the fact the band had existed for 10 years and released 6 albums before LMR came out).

One theory about New Adventures’ failure to capture the general public’s imagination is that it was entirely deliberate, that the band was beginning to tire of the fame. The story goes that following the esoteric choice of first single E-Bow The Letter, Warners were pressing hard for The Wake-Up Bomb to be the follow-up. And they had a good point. It was one of the strongest, hardest-hitting songs on the album, one that the critics had almost universally picked up on as a highlight. Fans loved it too. It really was an obvious choice. But the band dug their heels in – they wanted a different track and they got their way. Bittersweet Me was released on 27th October 1996 to a general malaise.

mp3: R.E.M. – Bittersweet Me

I was nonplussed by the decision to release Bittersweet Me. I can name, off the top of my head, at least four songs that would have made better singles – the aforementioned Wake-Up Bomb, New Test Leper, Be Mine, and my favourite track from the album So Fast So Numb. Of the album’s 14 songs, Bittersweet Me would probably have been my 10th or 11th choice. To be fair, it’s not a terrible song like Sidewinder or some of the guff they would conjure up over the next decade, it’s just a bit, well… meh. Unremarkable. Pretty standard quietLOUDquiet 90s alt rock.

Throughout this series we’ve bitched and moaned about the choice of singles from albums, often directing our disdain at the labels. But in this case, it seemed the band was deliberately sabotaging their own career. It’s not even as though they loved the song that much themselves – Bittersweet Me was never played live other than during soundchecks on the Monster Tour (one of which, recorded in Memphis, formed the backing track for the eventual album track/single).

In the UK, it charted in its first week at #19 before plummeting to #53 the following week and out of the Top 100 altogether after that. Proof, if any were needed, that the general public had lost interest by now, with only the true fans keeping the band’s chart profile alive. Those of us who did buy it however, were rewarded with some cracking b-sides. No vinyl again, but a pesky cassette single was put out with another fully live version of an album track. Undertow is one of New Adventures in Hi-Fi’s strongest songs, and here it’s even more raucous and dirty than the album version. It’s this version that features in the concert film Road Movie.

mp3: R.E.M. – Undertow [live – Atlanta]

Like last time, two CDs were released, both identical in content, but the so-called ‘Collector’s Edition’ had slightly different packaging. But whatever version you bought, you were in for a real treat. After the first two songs came what was at the time, and remains, a very sad track that makes me enormously happy and glad to be alive. R.E.M.’s take on Jimmy Webb’s classic Wichita Lineman is, frankly, beyond words. I love it so much, probably my favourite of the band’s covers. Just wonderful.

mp3: R.E.M. – Wichita Lineman [live – Houston]

Finally, another live version of a track from the album, but this time recorded acoustically in the studio. New Test Leper really is a highlight, not just on NAiHF, but of the band’s career. An immensely sad tale of character assassination via a TV talk show. You know – the kind that gave us Jeremy Kyle and Jerry Springer. Stipe’s lyrics are so poignant and tragic. This version doesn’t top the album take, but it’s still a bit of a gem. (JC adds….I think both versions are equally magnificent.  If you don’t know the album version, I do recommend you acquaint yourself with it as soon as you can).

mp3: R.E.M. – New Test Leper [acoustic – Seattle studio]

As the casual listener turned its back on the band, the fans took New Adventures In Hi-Fi to their hearts. It really is one of R.E.M.’s career highs and would have been perfect if it were a bit shorter, and more successful if better songs were released from it. There was to be one last single from New Adventures (making it their first album of the decade to contain fewer than four singles), and next week JC has the honour of talking you through it.

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 29)

If any album in modern history has been let down by the choice of singles released from it, it is ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’. Here’s a record which, in hindsight, has become something of a cult favourite. Michael Stipe says it’s his favourite of all R.E.M. albums, Mike Mills includes it in his top 3. Retrospective reviewers of it regularly speak of it extremely favourably, even more so than those at the time of release did, and even then it received more than its fair share of praise. It’s right up there on my personal list of faves too. Over the intervening 25 years, I’ve become even more fond of it. (JC adds……I’ve long-named it as my favourite of all the R.E.M. albums)

And yet, to many, it’s a forgotten album. Well, forgotten to those who knew about it at the time, anyway. Why? Well, in my view, it was chronically undersold. OK, it’s a tad long, but that aside, it has some of the band’s finest songs of their Warner Bros. period. Yet when it came to promotion, it was left floundering. There was never going to be a tour – the Monster tour completely drained the band, to the extent that it nearly killed one of its members and the band came very close to breaking up in its aftermath. So it was left to radio play to help sell it. And with so many great songs, that would be a piece of cake right? So what happened?

I should point out, lead single E-Bow The Letter is a fabulous track, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t sound like anything else the band ever made, despite sounding exactly how an R.E.M. song should sound. Secondly, it featured long-time friend (and major influence on both Stipe and Buck) Patti Smith on vocals. That latter point is enough in itself to make E-Bow a classic. But can anyone honestly, honestly say that E-Bow The Letter, as brilliant as it is, is really a single? And the lead single from a new album at that? Honestly?

mp3: R.E.M. – E-Bow The Letter

Lyrically, the song is about what Stipe describes as a “letter never sent” to his recently deceased friend River Phoenix. It’s full of dark imagery and tension; yearning and regret. There are references to fame, drugs, alcohol, fear. On the surface, it sounds like stream-of-consciousness, but study those words and you can tell they are very carefully constructed. It‘s beautiful, but heavily doused in horror and sorrow.

But it’s the backing track that really makes E-Bow so special. There’s a lot of praise for Mike Mills’ bassline with many citing it as one of his very best. Buck’s use of the e-bow to create the ominous drone that drives the song is the big selling point here. It’s one of his most unique contributions, setting the mood for the song and allowing the emotion of Stipe’s vocal to become highlighted when set against it. To me, this song sounds a bit like a cross between two of Out Of Time’s best songs – Belong and Country Feedback. It actually sounds like neither, yet you can’t deny the similarities. But, sadly, New Adventures would never receive the commercial acclaim of that earlier record.

Perhaps rather incongruously, E-Bow The Letter became the band’s highest-charting single at the time, entering the UK charts at #4 in its first week (it also made top 10 in Ireland, Iceland, Canada, Norway and Poland). A feat perhaps, but by week two it plummeted out of the top 20 altogether, proof if any were needed that the fans were buying it in droves, but few others were interested.

In the UK, vinyl was practically dead by this time, so no 7” or 12” formats were commercially issued here (though I do have a 7” produced for jukeboxes). Instead there was a two-track cassette featuring this instrumental recorded, like many of NAIHF’s tracks, live during a soundcheck whilst on the Monster tour:

mp3: R.E.M. – Tricycle

It’s a surfy guitar-led track in the vein of Rotary 10 and Rotary 11, and in total contrast to the a-side is upbeat. Certainly not the worst instrumental b-side of the band’s career, but nothing to write home about either.

There were also two CD singles issued, one of which was labelled as a “collector’s edition”. Bizarrely, both had identical content, the differences purely being the packaging (the collector’s edition was housed in a jewel case with a four-page insert as opposed to the standard slim case and j-card insert). As well as E-Bow and Tricycle, two additional tracks were included. Departure was to appear on the then-forthcoming album, but the single included a rollicking live version which I really like.

mp3: R.E.M. – Departure (Rome Soundcheck)

A cover of Richard & Linda Thompson’s Wall Of Death rounded things off. Originally released on the Richard Thompson tribute album Beat The Retreat in 1994, it kind of languished unnoticed by most until this single. I really do like the original, but (and I know I’m risking a thumping from the folkie purists here) I actually prefer R.E.M.’s countrified version here. One of their better covers I reckon.

mp3: R.E.M. – Wall of Death

The release of ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ revealed R.E.M. had probably made one of their very best albums, bursting at the seams with good songs. Obviously, they were saving its best track for the next single, right?

The Robster

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