Sunday, 6 June 2021

An R.E.M. Summer: The Imaginary 7"s - part 1

Yes! I'm back! Re-engergised, re-invigorated and, more importantly, re-inspired. The stint I've spent over at The (New) Vinyl Villain over the past 12 months has really fired me up, especially as it was spent writing articles about R.E.M., arguably the most important band in my lifetime. The responses I've had from JC's kind readers have played a large part in me deciding to resurrect Is This The Life?, even if for just a few months.

Despite the number of pieces I wrote, I feel I'm left with some unfinished business, so I'm going to indulge myself and, well, finish it right here over the summer months. There will be a short series re-imagining some of the band's albums at a later point, but first I'm going to cover a subject that came up a few times over at T(N)VV - that of the often neglectful choices of singles from R.E.M.'s 15 studio albums.

What I'm going to do here each Sunday is, in chronological order, offer up some thoughts of tracks that were not released as singles but perhaps should have been. I'll then state my final selection along with a b-side and some cover art. An Imaginary 7" if you like. Thanks JC! I'm going to TRY not to waffle on too much, but I can't make any promises. 

One simple rule I've invented: all A-Sides must be less than 4-minutes long, meaning I may need to perform a homemade radio edit or two. Don't vilify me, it makes it more interesting! To kick things off, the band's first two studio releases 'Chronic Town' and 'Murmur'.

#1: An Imaginary 7" from 'Chronic Town' (1982)

Firstly, you may wonder why I'm even bothering with choosing a single from a 5-track EP. It's practically a single anyway, right? Well, first off, 'Chronic Town' wasn't released in the UK until it was tacked onto the end of the 'Dead Letter Office' CD as bonus tracks in 1987. Two or three songs were put out as b-sides in 1983/4 but what if it had been different? What if the plan was to launch R.E.M. in the UK before they recorded their debut album? What if 'Chronic Town' was going to be put out over here and the label wanted a single to promote it?

Well, for me, there are two contenders and they are the opening tracks Wolves, Lower and Gardening At Night. Both stood out to me when I first heard them, particularly the latter. I love Stipe's quiet, reflective voice on Gardening At Night, he's really singing within himself even more than usual. I think that's why it wouldn't make a great single though - it was perhaps a little too understated for 80s radio, even for the underground stations who heralded R.E.M's arrival early on.

Therefore, it's got to be Wolves, Lower hasn't it? That wonderful chiming Rickenbacker in the intro, Stipe's soaring vocal just before the chorus (the bit that goes "In a corner garden / Wilder, lower wolves") which is perhaps the earliest sign of what he was capable of. Then there's Mike and Bill's "House in order" vocals displaying their natural chemistry which would provide some of the most brilliant harmonies of the 80s and 90s.

Talking of Bill Berry, aren't his drums amazing on this? He really gives the song a jittery, uneasy sort of feel during the verses, like a wolf's prey constantly being on its guard, reacting to every sound and being ready to make a run for it when the hunter pounces. There's more than an air of tension running throught the song, but I think Bill accentuates it wonderfully.

So, there it is - R.E.M. Imaginary 7" #1 is Wolves, Lower. There's a minor edit for running time purposes, but you'll barely notice it. Honest. Now, how about a b-side? From the first session recorded at John Keane's Drive-In Studio in North Carolina in October 1981 which would yield the songs that ended up on 'Chronic Town', here's an early version of Shaking Through. The quality here isn't quite so top notch - this recording was never mixed or mastered as it was never considered for 'Chronic Town' so this is the raw version straight from tape. It would be redone for the debut album during sessions in 1982/3.

An Imaginary R.E.M. 7" #1

A: Wolves, Lower [edit]
B: Shaking Through [Drive-In demo]

side A: from the EP 'Chronic Town'
side B: previously unreleased

(click sleeve art to enlarge)

There's also a video for Wolves, Lower which strengthens its case for a single release...

#2: An Imaginary 7" from 'Murmur' (1983)

The one problem with 'Murmur' is that it has so many potential singles on it. I have a shortlist of five, so let's start by dispensing with two of those for obvious reasons. Sitting Still was the b-side of the original Radio Free Europe single and sounds almost identical to the album version despite being re-recorded. Shaking Through was considered too, but I've just used a version as the b-side to Wolves, Lower, and it was also an actual b-side to the Talk About The Passion single in the UK, so it's ruled out on those grounds.

So that leaves me with three other possibilities. Catapult has obvious single credentials - a strong melody and a punchy chorus. Personally though, I get a little bored of it halfway through. Not every time, just sometimes, which sounds weird but it's true. Perfect Circle on the other hand is just gorgeous and a huge fan favourite. But perhaps contentiously, I'm going to go for Pilgrimage which is my personal favourite on 'Murmur'. I like the way it builds to the chorus with Stipe's ascending vocal: "The pilgrimage has gained momentum." Then that triple-vocal attack in the chorus with Stipe, Mills and Berry playing off each other effortlessly like they'd been doing it for 30 years rather than less than 3. A brilliant song from one of the greatest debut albums of all time. Is there anyone who doesn't like 'Murmur'? 

For the b-side, an early version of Romance. Tried out for 'Murmur' and a part of the band's live sets for a good couple of years by this point, it never made the cut. Years later, a new version popped up on some second-rate movie soundtrack and, subsequently, on the 'Eponymous' compilation. This is the version recorded during the original album sessions and has never been officially released. You'll recognise the abandoned railway trestle on the artwork. It's also shown on the back of the 'Murmur' LP and is a must-visit landmark for anyone on an R.E.M. pilgrimage to Athens, GA.

An Imaginary R.E.M. 7" #2

A: Pilgrimage [edit]
B: Romance (outtake from 'Murmur' sessions)

side A: from the album 'Murmur'
side B: previously unreleased

(click sleeve art to enlarge)

Next week, imaginary singles from 'Reckoning' and 'Fables'. Make your suggestions below!


  1. middle aged man6 June 2021 at 06:59

    Its got to be 'Feeling Gravity's Pull

  2. Harborcoat was probably the first song I ever hear by REM and is still my favourite to this day. Great series BTW

  3. I love Shaking Through, been meaning to post it for a few weeks but haven't got round to it. Chronic Town is a joy. I bought it on cassette some time c 1987/8. 1, 000, 000 is one of my favourite R.E.M. songs- the pace and guitar riff and Stipe's lyrics/ vocals, all those words only really coming into clear view for the 'I could live a million/ I could live a million years'. Really special. Pilgrimage makes a good choice for a Murmur single.

    Reckoning- got to be Harborcoat.
    Fables- as Middle Aged Man says Feeling Gravitys Pull makes sense but I'd be tempted to go for Life And How To Live It. Or Good Advices.

  4. Mills and Berry sound really good together singing background on Wolves. Not sure why Berry got lost in the mix over time.

  5. Magic as a kid discovering this music around 1983, amazing and different, and then live the where the worlds best Pub band!

  6. I'd agree that "Gardening at Night" is probably the standout track. I heard it long beofre getting the Ep when it appeared in a different mix on the Jamming album "A New Optimism" But your reasons for not having it as a single are sound. Not sure I'd have gone for "Wolves...". What do you have against "Carnival of Sorts"?
    As for "Pilgrimage" Yes!
    For the future, "Pretty Persuasion"? And much as I love "Felling Gravitys Pull" - best album opener they managed - I can't really see it as as a single. "Maps and Legends" maybe? "Green Grow the Rushes". Basically, anything except 2 of the 3 singles they did put out.

  7. A great start to the series, Robster. I'd struggle to pick a single from Carnival Of Sorts but your rationale is good and, taken alone, Wolves,Lower does work. Pilgrimage? No question. A special mention for the B-sides and 7" sleeves as well, excellent work! Another vote for Harborcoat and Life And How To Live It from me.

  8. Pleased as can be to see something up at your place, Robster. You're back to the time period when I was a big fan. I should be able to stick it out for at least a few weeks before I won't know what you're talking about. If I have to pick one from the EP, today I would go with your choice. Would probably be Gardening at Night tomorrow. I can't tackle a new single from Murmur. They're all singles to me.

    Quick question. You mentioned John Keane's Drive-In Studio. Is that right? Mitch Easter had Drive-In Studio in Winston Salem, NC during the time period you mentioned ('81). Did Keane have something to do with the studio as well? I know Keane had a studio in Athens around '81. Not trying to be a pain. I'm a huge Easter fan wondering if I'm getting some info I didn't know about. Thanks.

    As for next week, Harborcoat always sounded like a single to me, but I do think the actual singles chosen for Reckoning were good picks. Rare moment in R.E.M. history, huh? May need to come back for Fables. That's a little tougher. Driver 8 was mentioned in an above comment, but that was a single on this side of the Atlantic. Ah, I'll go Feeling Gravitys Pull.

    1. Brian - of course it's Mitch Easter's studios. I can't fathom where I got John Keane from, nor that I didn't pick it up after proof-reading this piece twice! Thanks for pointing it out.

  9. Great idea for a series, and hard to argue with the chosen tracks, all fantastic. And love the sleeves.

    Choices from Reckoning? Well, virtually anything would get my support, it's one of my favourite albums, by anyone, ever. But I reckon 7 Chinese Bros or Little America would make fine singles. The contemporaneous Wind Out would make a fun B-side.

    As for Fables, that's much harder, as the obvious single choices were singles. So another vote for Life And How To Live It from me, although it will need a tiny edit or faster fade to make it under your 4-minute limit.

  10. Coming over via Vinyl Villain. As someone who lived in the southeast USA and had the pleasure to see them in small bars/venues during this early period, I am always thrilled to hear these songs from the pre-WB releases.
    I think this is a terrific approach. Not that the A side would be too difficult, but I am quite interested to see what you pick for the B-Sides without relying too much on live tracks. Next up choices:
    Fables?: Feeling Gravity's Pull
    LRP?: Cuyahoga (That's a no brainer, should have a single)

  11. Thank you so much. This is awesome. I've never heard either of your b-sides. I love early REM so much. I started seeing them live between Reckoning and Fables in Berkeley, California. Can't wait for next post.

  12. I'd instinctively have gone for 'Gardening At Night' from 'Chronic Town', but your excellent case for 'Wolves, Lower' led me to re-listen to the song with fresh ears - and what a cracker it is. As for 'Murmur', I started flicking through the album to refresh my memory and ended up listening to the whole darned thing! What a remarkable debut. I clearly remember playing it for the first time when it was released and not quite grasping it all to start with, although I did have 'We Walk' stuck in my head for days after!