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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – Near Wild Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – Pop Song ’89 (live)

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

There was one other track on the 12″:-

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

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

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

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

JC

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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – Shiny Happy People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – Forty Second Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

JC

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

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

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

The Robster writes……

Picture the scene:

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – Losing My Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Robster

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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – Orange Crush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Robster

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

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

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

mp3: R.E.M. – Stand

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

mp3: R.E.M. – Memphis Train Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 11)

As it turned out, a little bit of miscommunication resulted in both myself and The Robster thinking we had responsibility for pulling together a piece on the eleventh single to be released in the UK.  Rather than have anything go to waste, we felt it would be worthwhile giving you two for the price of one.

The Robster

The One I Love may have been the first R.E.M. song I heard, but it would only have been on the radio in the background so I wouldn’t have taken much notice of it. It was another track that was the first that I heard properly. In March 2014, I wrote about the revelatory moment when a mate at college lent me a copy of ‘Document’ when I was just 16, thus kickstarting a two-decade obsession with a band who would become responsible for me meeting and marrying the love of my life.

The full article is here [http://isthis-thelife.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-college-years-part-two-document.html] but if you don’t have the time/can’t be bothered, I’ll summarise parts of it here.

Nils Horley was a guy who fed my music obsession, blasting blues and rock at me whenever I visited his bedsit. One Friday afternoon in December, he approached me and asked: “Ever heard any R.E.M.?” “Errr, no,” came the reluctant reply.  I so wanted to say yes and sound cool, but I couldn’t tell a lie. “Listen to this,” he said as he handed me a cassette. “I bought it for my brother for Christmas so can I have it back on Monday?” And thus the seed was sown.

What Nils lent me was a copy of R.E.M.’s fifth album ‘Document’. Before I even played it, I was intrigued, just by the curious artwork alone. At 4pm, I boarded the bus outside the college, slipped the cassette into my Walkman and hit play. POW! There were a number of things that hit me between the eyes immediately. The opening snare hit, the distorted, single-note guitar line backed by the drums, eventually giving way to a voice the likes of which I’d never heard before – its reedy, almost sneering resonance disconcerted me for a bit. It was something I clearly needed time to get used to. It took about 40 minutes.

“The time to rise has been engaged,” Stipe sings as the album’s opening lines. To a 16-year-old raised as a working-class socialist through the god-awful Thatcher years, this was an inspiration; a call-to-arms, a rallying cry. “What we want and what we need has been confused.” Another line that still resonates 33 years later. Those first 20 seconds of ‘Document’ woke me from my teenage slumbers. I already sensed I was listening to something special, even if it did take a little longer to realise just how special R.E.M. were.

The journey home from college that day was like no other. ‘Document’ was my soundtrack not just for the bus ride, but most of that entire evening and throughout the weekend. I don’t think I played anything else. It has since become one of the most important records in my life, if not the most important. It was certainly a game-changer of gigantic proportions.

That opening song which thrust me headlong into the world of R.E.M. was Finest Worksong, and by the time it was released as the third and final single off ‘Document’ in March 1988, I had become North Devon’s biggest R.E.M. fan and had already started seeking out their back catalogue. It also became the first R.E.M. single I bought. There was a 7” released in the UK and Europe which contained the album version, but the global 12” release featured two alternative versions.

The first of these was the first R.E.M track to get the remix treatment for a 12” and as 12” mixes go it’s OK. I’ve heard a lot worse. Both mixes included an added horn section. The ‘Other Mix’ was initially intended as the official single version, but for some reason the album version was preferred for the 7”. It later appeared on the compilation ‘Eponymous’ retitled the ‘Mutual Drum Horn Mix’. To this day I’m undecided exactly what the horns add to the song. They’re not bad or anything, they’re just… there. Whatever – Finest Worksong reached number 50 in the UK charts, the band’s highest placing to date.

The b-side of all formats was the real treat though. Recorded live in Holland during the 1987 Work Tour, Stipe and Buck run through a medley of three songs in the quietest, tenderest, most utterly spellbinding finale to a show you’ll ever hear. Buck gently chimes on his Rickenbacker to two songs from ‘Reckoning’Time After Time and So. Central Rain – hyphenated by a brief interpretation of Peter Gabriel’s Red Rain, while Stipe sings delicately, as if the songs were lullabies, before allowing his voice to soar towards a climax.

It’s 8+ minutes of perfection, and a breathtaking conclusion to the ‘Document’ period. In fact, it was the end of the band’s indie status as less than 8 months after the single’s release, the first R.E.M. album for a major label would appear. A new chapter would begin and nothing would be the same for Athens, GA.’s finest ever again.

JC

You’ll have gathered by now that the release of R.E.M. singles was very much hit and miss, with I.R.S not really sure what to do.

The third and final single lifted from Document almost, on its own, made up for all mishaps over the previous years.  I’ve written previously about this single, with its first appearance being on the old blog as long ago as June 2007, the words of which I was able to find in the archives and re-post in September 2013.  But, if the record label can get away with repeat re-releases, then I’m going to follow its example and re-produce the words which have appeared previously.

“Yesterday (20 June 2007), I picked up second-hand copies of a couple of 12″ singles from the IRS days.

This single was released in April 1988, a full 7 months after the album Document came out, and so it was given a different recording and mix featuring a horns section. A shorter version of this was later put on the compilation LP Eponymous, but to the best of my knowledge, the track in all its glory is only available on the 12″ single. The band left IRS two days after the UK release of Finest Worksong and signed for Warner Brothers.

The b-side to the Worksong single is a live medley taken from a recording made by Vara Radio in Holland of the band’s concert in Utrecht on 14 September 1987. According to the set-list reproduced in the book Adventures In Hi-Fi : The Complete R.E.M. by Rob Jovanovic and Tim Abbott (Orion Publishing 2001), the three-track medley, which comprises Time After Time, Red Rain (a cover of the Peter Gabriel song) and So. Central Rain was the fourth and final encore of the show. Much of it is Michael Stipe singing acapella, with Peter Buck seemingly the only other band member on stage. It’s a very quiet recording, so you may have to crank up your volume for best effect.

The other track on the b-side of the 12″ was this. more or less, the version of Worksong that was later included on Eponymous.”

I said at the outset that the release of this single by I.R.S. almost made up for previous mishaps.  By that I mean we finally saw the band get the remix treatment and while the addition of the horns for the full 12″ version, reaching to just under six minutes, is just a bit much, the other mix does give what was already an outstanding song that little bit more oomph and there are days I sometimes think of it as being superior to the original….and then I come to my senses!!

I am, however, very grateful for the live medley getting to see the light of day. It’s very very lovely.

mp3: R.E.M. – Finest Worksong (Lengthy Club Mix)
mp3: R.E.M. – Finest Work Song (Other Mix)
mp3: R.E.M. – Time After Time etc.

And with that, we have reached the end of the I.R.S. era.  The Robster will be flying solo for the next three weeks to guide you through the initial installments of the major years.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 10)

As mentioned last week, first heard on the radio and the clincher to me asking for Document to be a Xmas present in 1987.

At the time It’s The End Of The World….was sinking without a trace in the UK, the release over in America the same week in August 1987 of The One I Love was a game-changer. It took the band into the Top 10 and paved the way for the major labels to come looking to entice R.E.M. with a mega-sized contract.

It made sense to give the single a release here in the UK and across Europe, which duly happened in November 1987. The release of Document had been to near-universal acclaim from the critics, and indeed all four of the UK’s main music papers were talking up R.E.M. as the saviours of guitar music. It got some airplay, but not a huge amount on the daytime shows – maybe producers had cottoned onto the fact that this was not the straightforward love story that it first appeared from hearing the refrain of it going out to the one who was loved.

It reached #51 in the UK charts which was progress but not as much as perhaps was hoped for given the success it had enjoyed back home. Indeed, despite the praise heaped on Document, it had spent only three weeks in the album charts before falling out, and so for all that the critics talked the band and the songs up, the sales weren’t really being generated over here.

mp3: R.E.M. – The One I Love

I won’t waste time going on about how The One I Love is among the most misunderstood lyrics ever penned, I think we all know that.

Instead, I’ll get to the b-sides, again from a second-hand copy of the 12″ (which wasn’t in the greatest condition as you’ll soon spot)

mp3: R.E.M. – Last Date
mp3: R.E.M. – Disturbance At The Heron House (live)

Last Date is an instrumental, written in 1960 by Floyd Cramer, one of the pioneers of piano playing in country music. It’s worth remembering that Document had been recorded in Nashville and this tune, which has been covered by dozens of performers over the years, was probably heard on numerous occasions when the band was out relaxing in bars away from the studio. It wasn’t, however, recorded during the Document sessions, dating instead to early September 87 when they convened in a studio back home in Athens, to rehearse for the upcoming tour of four European dates followed by two exhausting months on the road to all parts of America.

You’d be hard pushed to identify it as a performance by R.E.M. without knowing in advance, but it does demonstrate the abilities of Berry/Buck/Mills as musicians capable of turning their hand to a multitude of genres. Last Date would enjoy an American release in January 1988 as the b-side to It’s The End of The World….which was selected as the follow-up to The One I Love.

Disturbance At The Heron House became the third track to receive an official release from the McCabe’s Guitar Shop show. Again, it was one of the tracks performed across both sets – this is taken from the first set with just Peter Buck on acoustic guitar while Michael Stipe sings. It’s worth remembering that it was a new and unreleased song at the time of this performance (May 87) and that is a reasonable excuse for a couple of bum notes, singing and playing.

Eleven months later, and with R.E.M. having left I.R.S. for a new home at Warner Bros, their old label re-issued The One I Love in the UK, with a different sleeve and featuring two old singles – Fall On Me and So. Central Rain – as the b-sides on the 12″. It was an attempted cash-in but the single failed to chart.

Fast forward to September 1991 and R.E.M. are at a new peak of popularity with the record-buying public in the UK. The old label went for another cash-in, releasing The One I Love for the third time. No 12″ release this time, but it was put out on 7″ and in CD format, with two versions of the latter.

The wording inside the first CD, which also came with a detailed bio of the band, stated:-

THIS IS THE FIRST IN A SERIES OF TWO LIMITED EDITION CD’S TO BE RELEASED FOR ‘THE ONE I LOVE’ SINGLE. EACH ONE INCLUDES TWO LIVE SONGS NEVER PREVIOUSLY AVAILABLE ON COMPACT-DISC. TOGETHER THEY WILL FORM A UNIQUE RECORD OF R.E.M. LIVE

The only thing, however, is that all of the live performances collected on the 2xCDs had been made available before on vinyl across various singles and so there was nothing new for the long-term fans to experience. But the ploy worked as the 1991 release of The One I Love went to #16, which was three places higher than had been achieved by Losing My Religion seven months earlier.

Tune in next week for something different on the third and final single to be lifted from Document.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 9)

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake
Birds and snakes, and aeroplanes
And Lenny Bruce is not afraid

Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn
World serves its own needs
Don’t mis-serve your own needs
Speed it up a notch, speed, grunt, no, strength,
The ladder starts to clatter
With a fear of height, down, height
Wire in a fire, represent the seven games
And a government for hire and a combat site
Left her, wasn’t coming in a hurry
With the Furies breathing down your neck

Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped
Look at that low plane, fine, then
Uh oh, overflow, population, common group
But it’ll do, save yourself, serve yourself
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed
Tell me with the Rapture and the reverent in the right, right
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam fight, bright light
Feeling pretty psyched

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine

Six o’clock, T.V. hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn
Lock him in uniform, book burning, bloodletting
Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate
Light a candle, light a motive, step down, step down
Watch your heel crush, crush, uh oh
This means no fear, cavalier, renegade and steering clear
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline

It’s the end of the world as we know it (I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine (time I had some time alone)
I feel fine (I feel fine)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine (time I had some time alone)

The other night I drifted nice continental drift divide
Mountains sit in a line, Leonard Bernstein
Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs
Birthday party, cheesecake, jellybean, boom
You symbiotic, patriotic, slam but neck, right, right

It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine (time I had some time alone)

And when played live, the audience to a man, woman and child take great delight in chanting, on cue and in time, ‘Leonard Bernstein’.

A song that has always been one of the most-loved and most popular in the entire back catalogue. It appealed immediately to the fans of old (or so I understand from reading contemporary reviews) and it has always found favour with those who would discover R.E.M. in later years. And it’s the song that got me interested in the band.

I wasn’t doing much in terms of music in 1987. My personal life had been falling to bits in some ways and my drastic solution was to look to settle down and get married. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight it was doomed from the outset as we had, outside of a similar sense of humour, not a great deal in common – and most obviously when it came to music. So, I was going through a period of trying to fit in with the mainstream and not paying attention to what was happening out there – the subsequent gaps in my education would later be filled by the efforts of a few people, but mainly Jacques the Kipper, a work colleague at the time and now a lifelong and valued friend.

The radio was playing in the kitchen of Sunday evening when I was sitting in the house where my fiance lived with her parents – everyone else was watching a TV drama and I was catching up on some reading of papers for a meeting at work the following day. All of a sudden, I’m distracted by an upbeat tune accompanied by the delivery of a nonsensical lyric at breakneck speed. The DJ, Annie Nightingale, then said she had just played the new single by R.E.M. that had been requested by someone from somewhere I’ve forgotten. I hadn’t quite caught the name of the song but assumed it was called And I Feel Fine.

A couple of months later and I hear another song by R.E.M. on the radio. It’s a love song, of that I’m sure, but it’s played again at a breakneck speed with a memorable guitar riff and solo. I’m not buying much in the way of new music but I decide I’m going to get my hands on the new album, which I’ve seen in the shops, but as it’s now not that long till Christmas, I decide to wait and add it to the list of presents from Santa.

25 December 1987. The first time I ever owned anything by R.E.M. You never forget your first time which is why Document will always be my favourite album of theirs, without question.

Years later, I’m long divorced, re-married (happily!!) and I’ve got this new music blog going that has rekindled a love for vinyl. I’m constantly in and out of second-hand shops seeking out, in the main, the sort of stuff I missed out on in the late 80s. Any R.E.M. singles, especially on 12″ are grabbed without hesitation – and that’s why I have a number of them now sitting proudly in the cupboard (all the while kicking myself that I went down the CD singles route in the early 90s for the later releases).

It was still a huge thrill to get my hands on the vinyl and I couldn’t wait to get home and give it a spin. It was originally released in the UK in August 1987 but once again proved to be a failure in terms of sales. I don’t think anyone at IRS was too worried as the different single that had been released over in the USA in August 1987 was proving to be a monster hit and was making stars out of the band members – and that’s me setting up the scenario for the next installment of this series!! But let’s return to today, as there’s still quite a back story to be told.

It’s The End Of The World.……was issued in 7″ and 12″ format. It wasn’t changed or edited from the album version.

mp3: R.E.M. – It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

The b-side of the 7″ had one live song and the 12″ had two-live songs, both taken from an acoustic set played at Mccabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica on 24 May 1987. This particular show happened while the new album was being mixed in Los Angeles (it has been recorded in Nashville); it was seen, at the time, as a one-off, organised to raise funds for a friend who was fighting a costly legal battle. R.E.M were billed at the top but it was very much a collective effort involving a number of kindred spirits and friends – Steve Wynn and Kendra Smith (The Dream Syndicate), Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs), Jenny Homer (Downey Mildew), Peter Case (ex-The Nerves) and David Roback (The Rain Parade, and later, Mazzy Star). Indeed, it was Steve Wynn who opened the show, playing his own material and covers, followed by Natalie Merchant and eventually one or more of Stipe, Mills or Buck would join the revolving cast- being an acoustic show in a tiny venue, Bill Berry’s talents weren’t able to be utilised.

The show was bootlegged and cassette copies were soon readily available. The band liked what they heard and decided that part of it should be given an official release via b-sides, which happened on both sides of the Atlantic, thereby creating an unusual situation that the b-sides were the same but the a-sides were different!

mp3: R.E.M. – This One Goes Out (live – McCabe’s Record Shop)
mp3: R.E.M. – Maps and Legends (live – McCabe’s Record Shop)

Yup, the first of the songs was carrying that title in May 1987 – it would become The One I Love later on in the process as the band completed the mixing and began to pull the artwork together. It was the seventh song to be aired at McCabes and the first in which Michael Stipe took lead vocal. Oh, and the guitar part is not the work of Peter Buck, but is played by Geoff Gans who was the art department boss at I.R.S. Records who, prior to establishing himself in graphics, had played guitar with local bands in LA.

It was the only song on which Gans played at the show, with Buck coming on board right after.

Here’s the other thing worth mentioning – McCabes was actually two sets in the one show. The first set closed with the ensemble getting together for a bunch of covers played back-to-back, and following an interval, a second set followed a similar format with Steve Wynn opening proceedings in advance of the members of R.E.M. taking to the stage. I only mention this as this new song. This One Goes Out, was aired again during the second set but this time with Peter Buck on guitar – and yet, the decision was taken to go with the version from the first set.

Maps and Legends was aired during the first set with just Stipe and Buck on stage at the time.

Apologies for the length of today’s post, but there was just so much to write about in connection with this particular single, both from a personal standpoint and from the fact that this, at the time, unheralded live show in a guitar shop, would point the way for R.E.M. in later years.

It’s me again next week with some thoughts on The One I Love.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 8)

First of all….a really big thanks to everyone who has come in on the back of each of the previous postings with thoughts, observations and comments.  It’s always appreciated and I do hope of all, or at least most of you, will stick with us on this epic journey which is likely to last the best part of a year all told.

The Robster was right with his assessment that July 1986 saw the release of one of R.E.M.’s best-ever singles.

Fall On Me was everything you would expect from a band who were being increasingly put forward, in the USA at least, as the saviours of guitar-pop with an independent bent.  The subsequent album hit the stores two weeks later, and ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ continued the happy trend of each new album initially selling more copies than its predecessor.

September – November 1986 saw the band out on the road in North America playing 64 shows in 82 days, in ever-increasing sized venues, leaving no real opportunity for any promotional activities around any follow-up single, of which there were three or four strong candidates, especially from the first side of the latest album which was as strong and consistent as anything they had ever released to this point.

The second side of LRP, however, was a pointer to the fact that the band had almost exhausted itself of material with two tracks from 1980 being resurrected in the studio along with the decision to add an obscure cover to take the number of songs on the album up to twelve with a running time short of 40 minutes. IRS was, nevertheless, determined to make sure there was some new product to coincide with the tour and on 4 November, in the same week as the band was set to play two sell-out shows in New York, they released a second single from LRP in the shape of Superman.

The same single would then receive a UK release in March 1987.

On the face of it, releasing a second single from an album isn’t really a crime.  IRS, however, was quite perverse in going with Superman as it was the cover version that had been tagged onto the end of the album to prevent any fans feeling they were being short-changed.  It was also a track on which Mike Mills and not Michael Stipe sang lead vocals……..

Superman dates from 1969, released as a b-side by The Clique, a pop band hailing from Houston, Texas.  Its introduction to the R.E.M. canon can be traced back to early 1986 when, having come off a gruelling tour the previous year, the band took some time away to do their own projects.  In the case of the rhythm section, Mike Mills and Bill Berry hooked up with three friends to form The Corn Cob Webs, a covers band whose aim was to play in small venues around their home town of Athens.  In the end, there was just the one show, but among the tunes they rolled out was Superman, with Mike taking lead vocal duties as he was the only one who knew the words.

Fast forward a few months and everyone is in the studio recording songs for the new album and possible b-sides.  A run-through of Superman confirms that it would make for a decent enough b-side in the near or far future.  They get to the mixing stage and there’s a late change of plan to now add it to the album, but as something of a hidden track that wouldn’t be listed on the sleeve.  It was also decided to give it a quirky introduction by recording a Japanese toy Godzilla….

I think all of the above indicates that having the song issued as a bonafide single was the last thing on the band’s collective minds.

mp3: R.E.M. – Superman

The single flopped on release in the USA.  Unsurprisingly, it did the same in the UK come March 1987.

Here’s the b-sides

mp3: R.E.M. – White Tornado
mp3: R.E.M. – Femme Fatale

The latter was only available on the 12″ release. It sees the band, for the third time, offer a take on a Velvet Underground song.  The recording dated back to 1984 from the same semi-drunken sessions as Pale Blue Eyes which had, if you recall, been used a b-side to So. Central Rain.

But it was the song on the reverse of the 7″ as well as the 12″ that was the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped.

White Tornado is a throwaway surf-style instrumental that dated back to the very beginning of the band, written at the same time as songs such as Radio Free Europe.  The version offered up on Superman was from a session recorded in April 1981.

The relationship with IRS was souring and work was about to get underway on the songs for the fifth studio album, after which the band would be free to go elsewhere.  R.E.M. could now put themselves into a shop window if they so chose.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 7)

After a few questionable choices of singles, 1986 saw the release of what was arguably one of R.E.M.’s best-ever singles. Fall On Me was a prelude to the band’s fourth album ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ (no apostrophe again), though in many ways it didn’t tell the whole story of what that record would sound like.

In terms of what Fall On Me is about, you just need to read the Wikipedia article as it sums it all up nicely. I want to talk about my personal thoughts of the song and where it stands among R.E.M.’s canon. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_on_Me_(R.E.M._song)

In one of my many musings on R.E.M. over at my place, I mentioned that ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ was the second R.E.M. album I ever heard, shortly after ‘Document’. I was struck by the quality of the songs which I found to be more accessible and melodic than much of what I’d heard previously. It was an album I listened to for months and months on end, even though it was getting on for two years old at the time. I had copied my friend’s cassette of it, and had it on one side of a C90.

(The other side was ‘Strangeways Here We Come’ by The Smiths, in case you were wondering. I had a Walkman practically surgically implanted onto my hip and for quite a while I only listened to those two albums on repeat.)

After the loud rush of the opening two numbers, Fall On Me came into play. I was yet to discover the wonders of the first three R.E.M. albums so I wasn’t to know that this song was probably the most similar to those earlier recordings. The one thing that struck me immediately though was the vocal, or rather the vocals, plural. Fall On Me has what could be the best interaction between Stipe and Mills of all. The harmonies and counter melodies were divine and I’d argue probably never bettered by the band over their next 25 years.

I might contradict that last sentence a few times in future articles.

It remains one of my favourite R.E.M. songs. Whenever I attempt to sing along, I find myself alternating between the lead and backing vocals, especially during the closing refrain. I even sing Bill Berry’s parts. Hopefully you never have to hear that.

In the UK, where the band was building an ever-growing following but had still to crack any mainstream outlet, Fall On Me didn’t chart. Which is quite incredible, when you think about it. In the US however, it made the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100, while also rising to the dizzy heights of #5 in the Mainstream Rock charts, meaning it was the fifth most-played song on US rock radio stations during that week.

mp3: R.E.M – Fall On Me

R.E.M. were not the greatest b-side band, often presenting unused demos, live tracks, covers and nonsense songs on their flips. Fall On Me was no exception. The 7” in all territories included the jazz-tinged instrumental Rotary Ten, a short, inessential throwaway item. Of more interest was the bonus track on the 12”, a cover of Aerosmith’s Toys In The Attic. This was R.E.M. properly rocking out, Stipe sneering Stephen Tyler’s lyrics with real attitude and Buck doing a bonafide rock guitar solo. It’s good fun and was played live quite a bit during the Reconstruction and Pageantry tours.

mp3: R.E.M – Rotary Ten
mp3: R.E.M. – Toys In The Attic

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 6)

After a two-week hiatus during which The Robster has more than capably filled in for me, I’m back with the latest chronological installment of the R.E.M. singles, as released here in the UK.

It’s worth mentioning at this juncture that while myself and The Robster came to R.E.M. at similar times with Document being the first album we both picked up on, he very quickly looked to discover the back catalogue which I chose not to do on the ground of it being expensive (it was an era of CDs being stupidly priced and vinyl was no longer an option on the grounds of lack of storage space in a small flat).

This means that the early material and the posts I’m pulling together are written from the perspective of a being a very late arrival to the party and hearing the songs for the first time many years after their release.  It also means the two of us pulling this series together (independently of one another as we don’t share the pieces until they are ready to be published) will likely come at some things from different angles.  It might even mean that we disagree on some things…which I know from an e-mail exchange is certainly the case in terms of the songs on offer today!

As was mentioned by The Robster just last week, IRS had a bizarre habit of making strange choices as singles and I’ll add my opinion that further evidence to back this up emerged in October 1985.

One of the many books written about the band is Adventures In Hi-Fi : The Complete R.E.M. in which authors Rob Jovanovic and Tim Abbott provide an incredible amount of factual detail including the setlists from all the show of which there were a great many in 1985.  Using their work, along with the info available on the online setlist.fm website, it can be seen where previous single Cant Get There From Here was aired at just about every one of the 115 shows that year, the closing track from the new album Fables of The Reconstruction was played just three times.

Wendell Gee was not one of the band’s favourite collective moments and it wasn’t a track they shared with the enthusiastic crowds who were coming in increasing numbers to their gigs at home and in Europe. And yet, this is the one that IRS decided to issue as the band’s sixth UK single, a decision made even more baffling by the fact it wasn’t released as a stand-alone 45 in the USA.

It might work well enough as a downbeat and slow-paced number to close off an album, albeit my own view is that it is the dullest and among the least memorable of the songs on Fables.  It certainly has nothing going for it as a 45 – especially from a band still searching for that elusive breakthrough hit.

mp3: R.E.M – Wendell Gee

It was released in 7″ and 12″ form (with the blue background on the cover as shown at the top of this posting) along with a special as a 2×7″ release which came with the same photo but with a light green background.

One song was common to all three releases:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Crazy

A cover of a song by Pylon, another band to emerge out of Athens, GA in the late 70s/early 80s and who were very much at the heart of the scene when the four members of R.E.M. all found themselves in the town there for one reason or another.  There’s a few folk out there who are fans of the band, and if anyone wants to write up any sort of appreciative post, then please feel free to do so.  On the evidence of this underwhelming cover version, I haven’t been the least bit interested in seeking out anything else they have recorded.

The 12″ and double pack one song in common

mp3: R.E.M. – Driver 8 (live)

This was taken from a show at Music Hall, Seattle on 27 June 1984.  The reasonably high-quality production reflects that the gig was taped for a radio broadcast. It’s a rendition of a song that I’ve long thought could have provided a breakthrough hit for the band, especially if it had been released in the summer of 85 when they were headlining their own tour of the UK as well as appearing on the bill of a large one-day festival in Milton Keynes at which U2 headlined and from which footage was broadcast on Channel 4.

Two previously unreleased tracks formed the second piece of vinyl in the double pack:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Ages of You
mp3: R.E.M. – Burning Down

As the sleevenotes on the compilation Dead Letter Office would later reveal, the two songs are in fact kissing cousins.

Ages Of You is one of the first band compositions, dating back to 1980, rising from the ashes of an existing song called Burning Down.

Peter Buck offers these thoughts:-

When we got tired of Burning Down, we kept the two pieces that we liked and rewrote the rest to come up with Ages of You. We got tired of that one, also.”

There had been some thought to include Ages of You on the Chronic Town EP back in 1982 but it was removed at a fairly late-stage on the basis of there not being a lot of love for it among the band or the new bosses at IRS Records in the process, with Wolves, Lower brought on board as its replacement. Both the versions on show today are taken from Dead Letter Office (a collection of b-sides and outtakes) rather than the single itself.

The Robster is back next week with Part 7.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 5)

This week’s words are courtesy of The Robster:-

One thing that is noticeable when you study R.E.M.’s discography is how many amazing songs were not released as singles. But perhaps more baffling is the list of tracks they DID put out as 45s and how many of them are considered among the weakest in the band’s canon.

Following the critical success of their first two records, R.E.M. took a drastically different approach to the recording of their third. Relocating to London, they chose to work with English producer Joe Boyd rather than Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. It rained nearly every day, the band grew increasingly homesick, and by the time it was released they were reputedly close to breaking up. Yet I consider ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’ one of R.E.M.’s best albums.

It marked a turn in the band’s songwriting style. Musically, it drew on southern folk music, and Boyd’s experience in the folk genre probably helped the sound to evolve on record. There was also a shift in Michael Stipe’s lyrics, moving away from the unintelligible, esoteric nature of the early songs to that of a more storytelling bent, words you could actually make sense of. There was a real sense of beauty in these songs in spite of what was happening internally at the time.

So it seems strange, looking back, why the label chose to release the least representative song on the record as its first single. Cant Get There From Here (no apostrophe – deliberate) opened side two and to say it sounds out of place would be an understatement. It has a kind of pseudo-funk feel, a horn section, and Stipe almost sounding like Elvis in places. It’s a real oddball song, unlike anything the band recorded before or since. They didn’t even play it live after 1986.

It’s a shame really, as there were so many other great songs on ‘Fables’ that would have served as better introductions to the album. In the US, both Driver 8 and Life And How To Live It were put out (the latter admittedly only as a promo). If it were down to me, I’d have picked Maps And Legends. But no, we got the album’s novelty tune, which when thinking about how Rockville was the band’s previous single, makes me wonder how exactly did the label view R.E.M.? For all the amazing songs they had at this stage, it’s the almost comedy moments that were chosen to highlight the band to the public. And it didn’t end here – we come to Stand and Shiny Happy People at some point in the future, and they were for a different label entirely.

Did the label think the band took themselves too seriously? Did the band insist on these songs as singles in order to dispel that very myth? Whatever way you look at it, Cant Get There From Here will not be remembered as one of R.E.M.’s finest moments, it’s nothing more than a disposable, jokey pop song.

The 7” release featured an edited version on the a-side, while the b-side contained another lighthearted moment, the really rather silly Bandwagon. In the sleevenotes of ‘Dead Letter Office’, Peter Buck described it thus: “This song was originally called ‘the fruity song’ because of all the stupid chord changes. Still one of the funniest songs we’ve written.”

As for the 12”, well the cover misled us into thinking we were getting an ‘extended version’ of Cant Get There From Here, which was rather naughty as what we actually got was the bog-standard LP version. Bandwagon also featured on the flip along with a track Charity Chic featured recently in his Heaven/Hell seriesBurning Hell. Yet another in- joke, it’s the band’s attempt to make a heavy metal song. It’s not very good at all, as most of the commenters to CC’s piece seemed to agree on.

This could go down as one of R.E.M.’s worst single releases, even as fond as I am of Bandwagon. None of the songs can be taken seriously or as representative of R.E.M. or the ‘Fables’ album, which probably didn’t help people’s perception of it at the time or since.

mp3: R.E.M. – Cant Get There From Here (edit)
mp3: R.E.M. – Bandwagon
mp3: R.E.M. – Burning Hell
mp3: R.E.M. – Cant Get There From Here (12″ release)

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 4)

JC writes:-

I am thrilled, delighted and honoured that this new series is going to benefit from regular contributions by The Robster, one of the biggest and most knowledgable R.E.M. fans on the planet, as can be seen from various postings over the years at his excellent, albeit now occasional blog, Is This The Life?

He’s onboard this and next week, with more offerings in the pipeline for later on. Here’s his take on the fourth single to be released in the UK.

—————-

Before I start, I’d like to thank JC for offering me the chance to contribute to this series. He knows of my love and passion for one of the most influential bands in my life and I hope I can live up to the extremely high standard he has already set. I promise not to be too much of an anorak, and give JC the right to jettison any superfluous material, especially if he feels I’m ever being boring or just showing off – because I am more than guilty of that from time to time. Anyway…

R.E.M.’s earliest songs were simple, energetic rock and roll songs. While their songwriting dynamic took a couple years to gel, they did come up with a few songs that would grace their later repertoire. Look at ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’, for instance. Released in 1986, it contained no fewer than three songs composed way back in 1980: Just A Touch, Hyena and What If We Give It Away (at the time titled Get On Their Way). All The Right Friends, written by Buck and Stipe before they’d even met their future bandmates, was also demoed for Pageant, eventually turning up on a movie soundtrack in 2001.

While the band’s second album, 1984’s ‘Reckoning’ contained mainly brand new material, there were two songs that also dated from their earliest period – Pretty Persuasion and (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville. The former was an undoubted highlight of the album, but it was Rockville that was put out as the second single; a strange move considering it sounded like nothing else the band had put out to that point.

Rockville was written by Mike Mills as a plea to his then girlfriend Ingrid Schorr to not leave Georgia and return to her native Rockville, MD. In its earliest incarnation, it’s described by Peter Buck as “kinda like how Buddy Holly would’ve played it.” This live version, captured at Tyrone’s in the autumn of 1980 (as far as I’m aware, the earliest known recording of the band) bears that out. And before you ask, I don’t know who Paul was.

mp3: R.E.M. – (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville (live, Tyrone’s 1980)

By the time 1984 swung around, Rockville had been made over. During studio sessions for ‘Reckoning’, the band gave it a country feel as a light-hearted nod to their country music-loving manager Bertis Downs. It always seemed destined to be a single, but the initial intention was not to include it on the album, instead to release it as a standalone single between ‘Reckoning’ and its follow-up. It did, however, make the final cut, but I can’t help but feel its placing – after the fragile, plaintive Camera, and before the politically-charged closer Little America – reduces it to a mere novelty.

The UK 7” featured an edited version of Rockville with a live version of Catapult, recorded in Seattle in 1984, on the flip. This live track appeared later as a bonus track on European CD reissues of ‘Reckoning’.

mp3: R.E.M. – (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville (7″ edit)
mp3: R.E.M. – Catapult (live, Seattle 1984)

The 12” featured the full-length album version of Rockville, two more live tracks and Wolves, Lower from the ‘Chronic Town’ EP (though here its title was shortened to simply Wolves). The live songs on the 12”, 9-9 and Gardening At Night, were recorded in Paris on Good Friday 1984. Two different live versions of these songs were also included on that European CD reissue of ‘Reckoning’ but, despite various listings to the contrary, they were recorded in Boston, MA. and were not the Rockville b-sides.

mp3: R.E.M – (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville (12″ version)
mp3: R.E.M. – Wolves
mp3: R.E.M – 9-9 (live, Paris 1984)
mp3: R.E.M. – Gardening At Night (live, Paris 1984)

In the band’s later years, Mike Mills took to singing the lead vocal of his song. This gorgeous abridged version, performed solo on VH1 Storytellers, is probably my favourite.

mp3: R.E.M – (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville (live on VH1 Storytellers, NYC, 23rd October 1998)

The Robster

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 3)

Since coming back to vinyl, inspired by taking up this blogging nonsense back in 2006, I’ve picked up some second-hand early singles by R.E.M., all for nothing more than £1 or £2 as that was back in the days when folk were still looking to clear homes of what they regarded as useless junk. Besides, all the tracks, including b-sides could be found on compilation CDs as IRS did everything they could think of to cash in on the world-wide fame that had come in the early 9os with the albums on Warner Bros.

The band’s third UK 45, from March 1984, is my oldest single. It’s the lead-off from the sophomore album, Reckoning, which was released the following month (not that I was paying attention at the time – I was obsessed with The Smiths)

mp3: R.E.M. – So. Central Rain

A song so timeless and enduring that the band was performing it as part of the live sets until almost the very end. It’s hard to imagine, but the very distinctive and memorable opening few notes were only added at a very late stage in the recording process. The band knew they had a classic on their hands but as Peter Buck would later explain:-

“[Producers] Mitch Easter and Don Dixon had the idea that the intro was weak — which it was. They came in early one day, and Don took a little guitar hook out of the chorus and stuck it on the front of the song. In those days, you physically had to cut the tapes up and splice them back into a new position, so it wasn’t quite as simple as it is now. When we came in, they played it to us, and we went, ‘Wow! That’s great!’ ”

It’s a song whose title doesn’t appear in the lyric, and this the reason why the sleeve advised that the name of the track was So.Central Rain (I’m Sorry), just in case any unassuming would-be purchaser wasn’t entirely sure of what they were trying to track down.

The 7″ and 12″ releases came with different b-sides, and again there was a reliance on cover versions:

7″

mp3: R.E.M. – Walter’s Theme/King Of The Road

The former is a short, 90-second long instrumental, aside from a couple of spoken/sung lines and yelps from Michael Stipe that leads immediately into a country-band style cover of the Roger Miller classic that seems to be been captured live in the studio, possibly from a jam. Worth mentioning that the 7″ refers to it as being just the one song:-

12″

mp3: R.E.M. – Pale Blue Eyes

Voice of Harold features the same tune as 7 Chinese Bros., the second track on Reckoning. I’m not sure if it is an earlier effort with the tune or it was just the band having a bit of fun in the studio as the lyric on the b-side is Stipe simply reading out, in time with the tune, the notes that appear on the back of The Joy Of Knowing Jesus by The Revelaires, a gospel album that happened to be in the studio in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The second track is another Velvet Underground cover, not quite as shambolic as There She Goes Again, but again, it’s nothing all that special.

JC

THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 2)

SWC has provided some outstanding entertainment over the past few months but it is now time for Sundays to be returned to its traditional slot of looking at the UK singles released over the years by a singer or band.  The spotlight was most recently shone on The Auteurs/Luke Haines, while previous efforts have included Simple Minds, Marc Almond, Paul Haig, Grinderman, New Order, XTC, Undertones, Buzzcocks, Cinerama, The Clash, The Style Council, The Jam, Altered Images, and James.

It’s fair to say that some efforts have been better received than others and a few suffered from fatigue in that they covered too long a period and/or some 45s were pretty sub-standard.  There’s a chance that by deciding to go with R.E.M. that something similar will happen, but hopefully not for a long while.  This will, all being well, run for over a year…..

And the reason it is kicking off with Part 2 is all down to the fact that Radio Free Europe, featured, very recently, as part of the great debut singles feature.

The Hib-Tone version of Radio Free Europe was released in July 1981 and was a USA-only release.  The same was true for the next piece of vinyl, the Chronic Town EP in August 1982.  A year later, the band re-recorded the debut single for inclusion on the LP Murmur, and new label, IRS, decided to issue it as a single.  It charted at #78 at home but didn’t do anything in the UK.  For the sake of completeness, and to bring this long and rambling into to a merciful conclusion, here is its b-side:-

mp3: R.E.M. – There She Goes Again

It’s a rather perfunctory cover of The Velvet Underground song.  This was one of the first songs I ever heard by R.E.M. and I thought it was so dismal that it put me off them for a long time – it would take until the release of Document in 1987 before I began to pay proper interest.

Let’s quickly move on to November 1983.

IRS issued Talk About The Passion as a promo-only 12″ single in the USA with the two b-sides, Catapult, and Sitting Still, similarly taken from Murmur.  Here in the UK, the track was given a proper, if somewhat limited release, on 12″ vinyl with Shaking Through, also from Murmur, included while the flip-side offered up two of the tracks from the otherwise unavailable Chronic Town EP:-

mp3: R.E.M. – Talk About The Passion
mp3: R.E.M. – Shaking Through
mp3: R.E.M. – Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)
mp3: R.E.M. – 1,000,000

I can now totally understand why the early singles and debut album had such an impact on those who picked up on the band at the very beginning, but I still feel that ‘Passion’, after an amazing instrumental opening and initially mesmeric vocal delivery, folds in on itself after about two minutes and becomes repetitive and I find myself switching off.

The b-sides are all reasonable enough without really setting any heather on fire.  I certainly don’t think they were, or are, as memorable and timeless as many of the UK singles from indie-guitar bands that I was more familiar with back in 1983.

Bring on the brickbats………

JC