THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 58)

Only kidding!!!!!

The series did come to a halt last Sunday, but as The Robster promised, anybody needing their weekly fix of R.E.M. will be looked after over at his place, Is This The Life?

Click here to be magically transported.

This here blog you’re currently visiting will have a new Sunday series kicking off next week, one which it is hoped will provide just as much joy as provided by R.E.M. and fingers are crossed that there will also be a similar amount of interaction via the comments section.  It’s also going to be a series in which guest contributions will be made very welcome.

For now, I’ll just leave you with a cover:-

mp3: Editors – Orange Crush

After an unusual and quiet intro, it’s a fairly faithful interpretation.  Trust me, it’s worth a few minutes of your time.

JC

 

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Parts 52-57)

The Robster writes…..

And so we’ve made it – the final chapter. This week we round up the odds and sods of the digital-only singles released in the last few years of R.E.M.‘s existence. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge of stuff, so let’s not hang around…

Back in 2006, between Around The Sun and Accelerate, R.E.M. were asked to contribute a track to Instant Karma, an album of John Lennon covers in aid of Amnesty International’s Campaign to Save Darfur. I never thought of R.E.M. as a band who would cover Lennon, but they decided to take on #9 Dream and don’t make a bad job of it, though they have remained fairly faithful to the original. It was the first of four singles released from the album and it was the second track on the tracklisting. The first? Instant Karma! by U2. I mean, in what universe do R.E.M. follow U2 for fuck’s sake? Even R.E.M. at their worst is better than anything Boner and his pompous chums could ever come up with.

Anyway, #9 Dream was released as a download worldwide on 13th March 2007. Most significantly, the line-up on this track included a certain drummer bearing the name Bill Berry! Yes, the first time he’d featured on an R.E.M. recording since New Adventures in Hi-Fi in 1996. That alone makes this track worth having, doesn’t it?

mp3: R.E.M. -#9 Dream

In addition to the three physical singles released from Accelerate, a couple of digital singles were put out too. In the UK, Until The Day Is Done was chosen. I really like this one. It’s the quietest track on the album, being mainly acoustic-led, and sounds a lot like Low Desert from New Adventures, and a little bit like Drive from AftP. It may not have sounded out of place on either of those records. Released on 14th November 2008, it’s that rarest of things – a digital single with a b-side. Houston is Accelerate’s shortest song, and this version is a bit rough in truth – right from the off there’s a dodgy keyboard chord in there.

mp3: R.E.M. – Until The Day Is Done
mp3: R.E.M. – Houston (single version)

I mentioned last week how Collapse Into Now is rather inconsistent and uneven. Here we get that illustrated perfectly. The first single from the album was released at the tail-end of 2010. It wasn’t a great way to introduce the final record in R.E.M.’s 31 year career. It Happened Today is an embarrassment, Stipe’s lyrics in particular are just dreadful. The opening lines “This is not a parable / This is a terrible / This is a terrible thing” made me wince when I first heard them. But that’s nothing compared to the chorus.

“It happened today / Hooray, hooray
It happened / Hip-hip-hooray.”

From southern poet and storyteller to composer of nursery rhymes for toddlers. What a sad comedown. Before we get 2 minutes in, Stipe appears to give up on the lyrics altogether and the rest of the song is just a choir of vocalists singing ohs and ahs. Apparently Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam is in there somewhere.

mp3: R.E.M. – It Happened Today

And yet, the album itself starts with an absolute belter. Discoverer is one of my favourite late-period R.E.M. songs. It was chosen as the album’s FIFTH single, but really ought to have been the first in place of It Happened Today. It’s a huge rousing rocker in a What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? kind of way. Stipe describes this as his first overtly autobiographical song. He’s certainly put himself in a good light.

mp3: R.E.M. – Discoverer

Seven months after Collapse Into Now was unleashed, a brand new, previously unheard song hit the shelves….erm, the digital music sites. Recorded during the Collapse Into Now sessions, it was a song that the band felt should be held over as a parting gift to the fans who had stayed with them. We All Go Back To Where We Belong is a string-laden ballad with some lovely brass turns and a wonderful twangy guitar sound from Peter Buck. It sounds like something Burt Bacharach might have done, but like the album it was Jacknife Lee at the helm.

mp3: R.E.M. – We All Go Back To Where We Belong

Released on 17th October 2011, We All Go Back… featured on the compilation album Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011 and was to be the last time we’d hear new material from R.E.M.

Except…

They love a good charity project you know. In 2019, the band unearthed a lost song to benefit Mercy Corps’ Hurricane Dorian relief and recovery efforts in the Bahamas. Originally recorded for Reveal, Fascinating was on the original master version of the album before being cut at the very last minute. They recorded it again – in the Bahamas – in 2004 for Around The Sun, but once again it never made the final cut.

It’s not one of their better songs in truth, but then when you consider the era it was recorded it’s hardly surprising. To be fair, I like it more than anything on Around The Sun. The band released Fascinating themselves on 12th September 2019 as a one-off single on Bandcamp. While it’s not considered to be their official swan song, it’s worthy enough to be included here.

mp3: R.E.M. -Fascinating

You still here? If so, then JC and I must give a HUUUUUUUUGE thank you to everyone who has endured this series through thick and thin. Extra special thanks to those who left some lovely kind comments. It’s been tough going in parts, but hugely enjoyable.

Which brings me to one last little thing to mention. If, after almost one whole year of R.E.M. Sundays, you still crave more, then as of next week, I will be running a (thankfully much shorter) follow-up series examining those R.E.M. songs that should have been singles. There will be special versions, unreleased b-sides and even cover art for your delectation. I’d love to see you there. You know where I am… http://isthis-thelife.blogspot.com/

JC (with the final words)

I really don’t have all that much to say, except to go on record with an enormous ‘THANK YOU’ to The Robster for his incredible support in making all this possible; similarly, to everyone who has dropped in to add their own thoughts, views and opinions via the comments section, your continued involvement really helped spur the two of us on, giving us the confidence to push ahead with things.  You only need to look back at how tentative we were early on in the series, certainly compared to how we were going about things in the latter stages, to see that we were very much responding to all the things you were saying.

I’ve had a couple of Zoom calls with The Robster recently in which he’s shared with me his plans for the next few weeks for those who might still need that R.E.M. fix, and not only that, but he’s going to get me involved a wee bit further down the line.  So please, tune in to Is This The Life? as I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

As for the Sunday slot on TVV to replace R.E.M?  I think what’s next might put a smile on some faces……. 

 

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Parts 49 – 51)

While touring throughout 2008, R.E.M. knew they had a decision to make. Their contract was up with Warners and the question was ‘what happens next?’. Stipe remarked that: “I need to be away from this for a long time.” Buck suggested: “How about forever?”

“Oddly enough,” said Mills later, “I think that independently we all arrived at the conclusion that this was such a great opportunity to walk away on our own terms, that we thought why not take advantage of it?” So it was that in the spring of 2009, the band went into a local studio in Athens, GA. to start recording demos for the songs that would form their 15th and final studio album. Over the next 18 months, they would record in Portland, Nashville and New Orleans in the States, before decamping to Berlin for the final sessions. It was there, in the grand Meister Halle in the world-famous Hansa Studios, that reality set in.

“We tried to enjoy it and make it as fun as possible,” recalled Mills, “But we’re not super-sentimental people in that sense. The only time we got really poignant was when we were in Berlin where we recorded seven or eight songs. There was no one there really except some friends, family, and significant others, and we knew that was probably the last time we would ever play together as R.E.M. That was a pretty fraught day. But it was fun.”

Collapse Into Now is a deliberately more varied and expansive record than its immediate predecessor. It included special guest appearances by Peaches, Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye, and referenced their past at numerous points while also showing their comfort with where they were at the time, ready to draw a line under a stellar 30 year career. It’s not a particularly consistent record – it doesn’t really hang together terribly well to me – but it has some very fine moments.

Of its five – FIVE – digital singles, three were given a physical release in the UK in the form of a triple-pack of 7” singles for Record Store Day. Collectively titled ‘Three’, it kind of displays the various moods and reference points the album gives us.

The curiously-titled Mine Smell Like Honey is a rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on Accelerate. Its understated verses give way to a rousing chorus that has R.E.M. written all over it. Überlin sounds like Drive, a song that 20 years earlier opened the band’s biggest-selling and best-known album, the one that made them global megastars. It’s probably the most intriguing song on the record. Stipe explained: “I wanted to picture an almost blunt outsider’s perspective – the experience of a guy who is walking through a city that is completely new to him and still very unfamiliar. I just tried to figure out the mind of this outsider. The city could as well be New York. In each of these big, great cities, you can be completely alone. This is the guy up to the last verse, when he finds somebody and says: ‘Let’s try to make something happen. Tonight. Right now.’”

Oh My Heart has another protagonist going to a city, only this time s/he is returning home to New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. The brass instruments lend an almost funereal feel to the song, while Buck’s trusty mandolin returns to lend another air of Automatic For The People to the proceedings.

mp3: R.E.M. – Mine Smell Like Honey
mp3: R.E.M. – Überlin [edit]
mp3: R.E.M. – Oh My Heart

The b-sides were all recorded live during their last ever tour in 2008, featuring songs from very different points in the band’s career. Supernatural Superserious, from their then-current album, was captured in North Carolina; Harborcoat, from 1984’s Reckoning, is from a show in Riga, Latvia; and What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? comes from Oslo in Norway. All three presented here were ripped by yours truly from the 7” singles.

mp3: R.E.M. – Supernatural Superserious [live]
mp3: R.E.M. – Harborcoat [live]
mp3: R.E.M. – What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? [live]

I always felt Collapse Into Now was a slightly underwhelming way for the band to bow out, mainly due to its inconsistency. Nevertheless, it’s still very listenable and does contain a few songs I’d still put on a highlights playlist.

Next week, we bring this whole shebang to a close as we tie up some loose ends and bring you R.E.M.’s swansong. I’ll also have some news for those of you who still need an R.E.M. fix every Sunday morning…

The Robster

 

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Parts 47 & 48)

Accelerate is a very good album, a real blast. Each time I listen to it I get really into it. Just when R.E.M. had singlehandedly killed their career, they pulled off what was undoubtedly their best record in a dozen years. It’s the sound of a band who suddenly remembered where they came from, why they started a band in the first place and why people took to them from the get-go.

After the uplifting introductory track Supernatural Superserious, Hollow Man was released as the album’s second single on 2nd June 2008. It was the fourth track on Accelerate and starts as a bit of a come down after the high intensity of the opening triptych of songs, opening with Mike Mills at piano and Michael Stipe’s plaintive opening lines: “I’ve been lost inside my head / Echoes fall on me.”

Those last three words can’t be lost on you. Just like Lifes Rich Pageant, Accelerate is a short record and its opening tracks come at you with a ferocity you can’t escape from. Then they bring things down a notch. On LRP, the slower track is… well, you know.

Thing is, Hollow Man doesn’t stay down for long. It comes to life in the chorus in which Stipe pleads with us to reassure him that he’s not quite the lost soul he thinks he is:

“Believe in me, believe in nothing
Corner me and make me something
I’ve become the hollow man
Have I become the hollow man I see?”

mp3: R.E.M. – Hollow Man

For a mournful ballad, it’s a loud one! Another example of what Accelerate stood for – a band going back to its roots, eager to show they still cared and could produce the goods when required.

Hollow Man was the last time R.E.M. graced the UK singles charts. Well, that is if you count reaching number 200 as gracing the charts. And I don’t, actually. But it’s not important. There was just the one CD single. It included a live-in-the-studio track recorded in Vancouver. Horse To Water is one of Accelerate’s shortest, noisiest, fastest songs and this version rocks like the proverbial bastard. This could very well be the angriest, punk-sounding song R.E.M. ever made.

mp3: R.E.M. – Horse To Water [live]

Apparently a second CD was planned for release in Europe (which as per previous releases usually included the UK), but for some reason it was cancelled. It would have included another Beat Happening cover, this time a track from their second album Jamboree. The original was sampled by Massive Attack for Teardrop and is rather Velvet Underground-esque in its minimalism and simplicity. R.E.M. turn it into a hazy, hypnotic trip, a sun-drenched psychedelic jam that sounds even more like the Velvets, especially during their extended coda. One of their best covers, one of their best b-sides. Such a shame it was never released.

mp3: R.E.M. – Indian Summer

JC interjects……The Robster supplied the mp3s when he fired over the words he’s written for today. This was the first time I ever heard the various songs not on the album.  Indian Summer is already barging its way high up into my list of all-time favourite R.E.M. recordings.  It’s really a relief that they stayed together for Accelerate and beyond as it would have been a tragedy to have bowed out after Around The Sun.

The third single from Accelerate, released on 11th August 2008, was another stormer. You know, they might finally have gotten the hang of this releasing decent singles malarkey. Man-Sized Wreath takes aim at the shallowness and the “pageantry of empty gestures” that permeate 21st century culture, politics and business. That’s how I hear it anyway. It’s got a quite brilliant couplet in the second verse that even for a songwriter of Michael Stipe’s ridiculously high calibre is quite a magnificent feat:

“Nature abhors dystopia but what’s between your ears?
Your judgement clouded with fearful thoughts, headlights and a deer. Ow!”

I love that lyric. No, I’m not being ironic, I really LOVE that lyric!

mp3: R.E.M. – Man-Sized Wreath

I mentioned last week the ‘working rehearsal’ concerts R.E.M. played in Dublin prior to recording Accelerate. As can be heard on the subsequent live album, Stipe had his doubts about Man-Sized Wreath.

“This next, new song will not be on our next record,” he tells the audience.

Really?” queries a rather perplexed Peter Buck.

“It’s a little early to make that call.” Stipe concedes that point before suggesting it could be a b-side, to which Mike Mills retorts: “There are no b-sides anymore, it’s all MP3s.” Well, that wasn’t strictly true…

Man-Sized Wreath was track two on Accelerate and made up a third of the frenetic opening to the album. It was followed by Supernatural Superserious, but it was preceded by what could very well be the best opening track on an R.E.M. album. And yes, I did write that even after considering Radio Free Europe, Harborcoat, Begin The Begin and Finest Worksong.

Living Well Is The Best Revenge was not a single, and for that alone we should be in mourning, but a live-in-the-studio version was included on the B-SIDE of a 7” single (the only physical format released in the UK), albeit with a different title owing to a daft question posed by Peter Buck at the start which results in much mirth from his bandmates.

mp3: R.E.M. -Living Well Jesus Dog

There. That certainly blew away the cobwebs, didn’t it? WHAT. A. SONG! I mean, jeez – was this really the same band who recorded fucking Wanderlust???

Final proof that Mike Mills was wrong comes in the form of another live track released as the ‘b-side’ to the three-track digital download of the single. Another excellent version of a track from Accelerate.

mp3: R.E.M. – Mr. Richards [live]

It seemed R.E.M. were back at the races. Accelerate had the sound of a band with a new lease of life and many fruitful years ahead of them…

The Robster

 

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 46)

As has been duly noted over the past month or so, R.E.M.’s career was experiencing something it hadn’t done in the first 20 years of their existence. Following the abominable Reveal and Around The Sun albums, long-term, devoted fans like myself were beginning to walk away. It seemed R.E.M. had, against all the odds, become a middle-aged, middle of the road band who were just going through the motions. The energy, the drive and the emotion that once upon a time made them the greatest and most exciting band in the world was seemingly gone, something the band themselves would later acknowledge.

“[Around The Sun] just wasn’t really listenable, because it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can’t stand it anymore.” (Peter Buck, 2008)

By 2008, four years after Around The Sun was inflicted upon us, I was at a musical crossroads. The White Stripes had broken up and there didn’t seem to be much that was terribly exciting going on in the pop universe. At least, nothing I could hang my hat on. I saw that R.E.M. were about to release a new album, so when the lead single Supernatural Superserious was released, I downloaded it mainly out of curiosity. What I heard was unexpected.

Some history first. In 2007, R.E.M. took up residency at the Olympia in Dublin. The plan was to rehearse new material in readiness for a new album. They decided to sell tickets so the fans could give their reactions, although as Michael Stipe insisted during each performance: “This is not a show!” (They preferred the term ‘working rehearsals’.)

Among the new songs was one entitled Disguised. It wasn’t finished, but it had promise. Before going into the studio, a new chorus was written, the old chorus became the bridge and the title was changed (on the advice of a certain Chris Martin). On 11th February, 2008, it became the first single released from R.E.M.’s 14th album Accelerate.

mp3: R.E.M. – Supernatural Superserious

Could it be? R.E.M. sounding like they still had something left to give? I mean, it wasn’t their best song by a long chalk, but it was way better than anything their previous two albums had yielded, and (Animal aside) was their best song of the decade so far. Supernatural Serious had that energy, that drive, that verve. It also had an infectious tune that hung around in my head for hours after hearing it. This was the sound of a band who actually sounded like they were enjoying themselves again.

But was it to be a false dawn? I approached Accelerate with caution, downloading it (for *ahem* free) rather than rushing out to buy it. But as it turned out, this really was a return to form. For starters, all the electronic mush that plagued their previous two albums was gone – it was a stripped-down, back-to-basics rock & roll record with few embellishments. It was also recorded faster than any album the band had worked on since Green. Most of the songs retained the single’s energy, all aggressive guitars and swagger – the antithesis of Around The Sun. At a mere 34 minutes, it was R.E.M.’s shortest album since Lifes Rich Pageant, their loudest and rockiest since New Adventures in Hi Fi, and their best post-Bill Berry album by a country mile.

As for the single, well the charts in the UK were becoming increasingly irrelevant to proper bands. Albums were now the more important format for serious artists and physical singles were no longer regarded as anything of real importance. Supernatural Superserious charted at #54 in the UK singles charts in its first week on downloads alone. CD singles were released the following week but that didn’t improve the chart position. It was their last significant chart entry in the UK.

Both CDs included a surfy-instrumental track (yes, even 27 years after White Tornado appeared on the band’s first demo tape, they were still churning these silly little pieces out). Airliner is most notable for its writing credits, being the first of only two R.E.M. songs to credit Scott McCaughey as co-writer alongside Buck, Mills and Stipe. The other one? We’ll get to that in a couple weeks…

mp3: R.E.M – Airliner

CD 2 added a cover version of Beat Happening’s Red Head Walking, the closing track from their 1991 album Dreamy. I’m not a fan of the original, so it’s great to hear R.E.M. transform it into a swampy, bluesy, psyche-fused beast of a song. Kind of like how The Cramps would have done it. I love Michael’s scream at the end and his subsequent regret…

mp3: R.E.M. – Red Head Walking

It had been a long time since anyone had put the words ‘R.E.M.’ and ‘fun’ together in a sentence, but this was a sign that maybe, just maybe, they could still pull it off and regain some of the credibility they’d lost in recent years.

By the way, those ‘working rehearsals’ in Dublin were recorded and the highlights released as a 39-track album in 2009 as Live At The Olympia. Nine of the songs that ended up on Accelerate were included along with another two new songs that were never released in any other form. As a bonus for you, here’s the version of Supernatural Superserious that was played, still in its unfinished form with its original title.

mp3: R.E.M. – Disguised [live at the Olympia, Dublin, 2007]

The Robster

JC adds…..I agree 100% with all that The Robster has written for today.  I still give Accelerate a listen every now and again, especially when I was out doing the lockdown walks.  At just 34 minutes in length, and with not really a duff track on it, it very much helped to pass the time in fine fashion.

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

Very long post alert………………………..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – Electron Blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – Wanderlust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A resigned sigh emanates around the studio…

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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – The Outsiders

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

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

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

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

As for CD1.

mp3: R.E.M. – Low (alternate version)

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – Wanderlust (live)

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

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Parts 42 & 43)


So this is the point in the series where we shift things everso slightly. I think you all know what’s coming. There’s no avoiding it, we’re examining the stage in R.E.M.’s career where its mere mention makes most fans cringe uncontrollably. And for that reason, we’re not going to draw things out – two posts, each covering two singles from the sheer calamity that is Around The Sun.

After the promise shown by the two new (or newish) songs on In Time, I hoped R.E.M. were back on track and would deliver a record far more worthy of their acclaim than the abysmal Reveal. So I went out and bought the lead single Leaving New York on the day of its release and kept my fingers crossed. When I played it, any enthusiasm I had just ebbed away.

mp3: R.E.M. –  Leaving New York

Leaving New York isn’t the worst R.E.M. single ever, but it’s so devoid of pretty much everything that ever made the band great in the first place. This was an R.E.M. song to be played on commercial MOR radio stations for 40-somethings who don’t listen to music anymore. It’s what a middle-aged covers band who play at weddings and bar mitzvahs would include in their set. It’s just… banal. Not their worst single, but maybe the second-worst lead-single to an R.E.M. album ever (after Imitation Of Life).

Maybe I’m being a little harsh and missing the context. Leaving New York is R.E.M.’s post-9/11 song in which the protagonist seems disillusioned with the city, the darkness and grief having taken over from the coolness, the glamour and the awe that used to be associated with the letters NYC. The melancholy now felt is realised in the song and I think that’s what I don’t like about it. It just doesn’t make me feel anything. The song itself isn’t terrible – the chorus is more than pleasant – but the fact it’s the album’s lead single and opening track tells a story. It is, actually, Around The Sun’s best song by some considerable margin.

Leaving New York was the last R.E.M. single I bought before I began plugging gaps in my collection a few years ago. This was the point I bailed.

Three formats were released in the UK on 27th September 2004 which may be the reason it got as high as #5 in the charts after its first week. Having said that, it dropped like a lead balloon after that. It was also the last time they’d get anywhere near the top 10 in the UK. The b-sides were live tracks, which again probably says all you need to know about the quality of material the band was churning out at this time. To be fair, most of Around The Sun was little more than b-side fodder.

There was a 7” picture disc (something I don’t think they’d done before), and a CD single containing a rather rough-sounding version of Rockville recorded in Oslo the previous autumn. Brace yourself Jonny – Mike Mills takes the lead…

mp3: R.E.M. – (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville [live]

A second CD included versions of more songs harking back to better days, captured around the same period. You Are The Everything comes from a soundcheck in Raleigh, NC and really doesn’t do this gorgeous song justice. These Days, recorded in Toronto, is the pick of the bunch, but even so, they’ve played it so much better.

mp3: R.E.M. – You Are The Everything [live]
mp3: R.E.M. – These Days [live]

For the album’s second single, a song that actually could have been something really rather wonderful.

mp3: R.E.M. – Aftermath

Again, not the worst R.E.M. single, but it’s lacking so much – a strong chorus for one – and is bogged down by the weight of an MOR production that made it sound dated even at the time. During my research for this piece, I read a comment from someone who reckoned if Bill Berry was still in the band, he could well have made the difference between Aftermath being merely an adequate album track and it becoming one of the band’s best-loved songs. Whether you agree with this or not, there’s no doubting what Bill brought to the band other than the drums, and I wonder if Around The Sun would have seen the light of day at all if he had anything to do with it.

A shame really, because I really don’t dislike Aftermath, I’m just completely underwhelmed by it. And to be fair, it probably is the second-best song on the album. But that’s not meant to be a compliment.

The single hit the shops on 29th November 2004 in two CD formats backed by more live tracks recorded during rehearsals in the band’s hometown in 2004. The first CD included a version of another Around The Sun song. High Speed Train is a bit of an odd one, I never could make up my mind whether it’s sort-of likeable, or just really boring. I think this take just edges the album version, probably owing to it not being so over-produced.

mp3: R.E.M. – High Speed Train [live]

As for CD 2? So Fast, So Numb is one of New Adventure in Hi-Fi’s real highlights, a bloody excellent song. It’s let down somewhat here by the rather perfunctory drumming and very bored-sounding backing vocals. All The Right Friends is one of R.E.M.’s earliest songs. They recorded it several times over the years but it never made it onto an album. It was revived for a movie soundtrack and was included on In Time, and as such made it back into the band’s live set. Of all the tracks we’ve posted today, this is the one you want.

mp3: R.E.M. – So Fast, So Numb [live]
mp3: R.E.M. – All The Right Friends [live]

While doing this series, I’ve made a point of listening again to each album when we reach that era. Reveal was very tough and I didn’t listen to Beachball because it’s so diabolical, but I did get through the other 11 tracks.

Just.

I had to turn Around The Sun off after 8½ songs as it is sooo boring, drab and uninspiring. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it all the way through in a single sitting and this was the first time I’ve tried to get through it in years. It was the first R.E.M. album I never bought. I still don’t own a copy of it, other than in MP3s that I *ahem* acquired at the time. I wasn’t going to pay for it, no way.

And to think, there are still two more singles from the damn thing to come next week……..

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 41)

Despite my falling out of love with R.E.M. following the abysmal Reveal, I still bought their singles and the In Time Greatest Hits package (but only because of the limited CD format). I still held onto a tiny piece of hope, see. The release of the not-very-new-really “new” song Bad Day did lift my spirits a bit. It had a bit of life about it and despite harking back to their indie-guitar heyday (after all it was written in the mid-80s), it felt like maybe they were done with the mid-tempo plodding and not-always-successful experimentation that marred their more recent work.

But In Time held another surprise in the form of a “proper” new track – Animal. And this is where I really thought we’d turned a corner.

mp3: R.E.M. –  Animal [new mix]

Animal is fantastic. OK, maybe not the most immediately catchy tune in the band’s armoury, but it rocked in an entirely different way to how the band had rocked before. And boy did we need R.E.M. to rock again. It kind of sounds like they channelled the spirit of Monster while on LSD and listening to Revolver. In fact, that intro has definite parallels with Tomorrow Never Knows. It’s got that glammy swagger that the louder tracks on Monster had, but goes off in another direction altogether. While Monster wanted to take us to bed, Animal wants to take us into space. Stipe’s lyrics seem to back this up with lines like:

“Point me to the stars I’m up for the chase”
“The future and the truth, on my rooftop. Whoa!”
“I am vibrating at the speed of light / Take my hand, we’ll wind up the night”
“Tell me I’m the anchor of my own ascension / Tell me I’m a tourist in the 4th dimension.”

It’s a song that made me hope this was where R.E.M. were going. It sounded like they were making an effort again, that they actually still cared about making interesting music. But what amazes me is how polarising Animal appears to be amongst fans. It’s a real Marmite song – you either love it or loathe it. I really cannot understand the hate towards it though – it was the sound of a band who proved they still had something to give. They sounded energised and fresh. It was what every R.E.M. fan had been waiting for, surely. Alas no, some people just don’t like it. But that’s fine, some people like Imitation Of Life

(JC interjects ‘Guilty As Charged!’)

Animal was released as a single on 5th January 2004 and peaked at a lowly #33 in the single chart. It was remixed for the single, and to me sounds even better, especially in the chorus. It’s difficult to point out exactly what’s different but if you put a pair of decent headphones on and listen to the two versions back-to-back you’ll hear what I mean. Live, it rocked even harder than in the studio.

Speaking of live versions, what about the b-sides? Well, in the UK, just the one lone format was released – a CD single which included a live version of the Reckoning fave Pretty Persuasion, recorded in front of a small audience in Clinton Recording Studios, NYC. It’s adequate, but not as energetic as they used to it.

mp3: R.E.M. – Pretty Persuasion [live]

The CD was also enhanced with a video featuring a preview of the forthcoming live DVD Perfect Square recorded in Germany the previous year. The song chosen? Yaaaawn…..

mp3: R.E.M. – Losing My Religion [live]

OK, so the UK b-sides were a bit of a disappointment, not for the first time, so here’s a couple of bonus tracks for you. Overseas, Animal came with some different live tracks. In both Europe and Canada, two CDs were released. One of them contained the Pretty Persuasion as featured on the UK release, plus from the same show, this superior version of a Document highlight:

mp3: R.E.M. – Welcome To The Occupation [live]

A two-track CD in these territories gave us this little diamond from a session recorded for Nic Harcourt on LA radio station KCRW:

mp3: R.E.M. – So. Central Rain [live]

No doubt the UK fans drew the short straw…

Just eight months later, a brand new R.E.M. single hit the shelves, a prelude to their 13th studio album. I held my breath for a beautiful reconciliation…

The Robster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stipe was iconic, intriguing, untouchable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M – Bad Day

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

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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – Favorite Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M – Bad Day (Athens Demo)

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

JC

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

R-1245196-1429984335-7347.jpeg

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