Sunday 27 June 2021

An R.E.M. Summer: The Imaginary 7"s - part 4

#7: An Imaginary 7" from 'Green' (1988)

In spite of the major label signing, the choice of singles from 'Green' was still a little odd. Warners were convinced Stand would be a massive hit - so much so they released it twice! It flopped twice. Orange Crush did make the top 30 though, R.E.M.'s first big UK hit. But that was it for 'Green'. An opportunity missed, I reckon. So let's address that.

In the States, both Get Up and Pop Song 89 were released as singles. They were obvious choices, Get Up especially. While they were not UK singles, 7"s do exist as imports (I have them) so they're out of the running. I also have a 7" of Turn You Inside-Out as it was released as a promo in Spain. A big shout-out to JC for this one. He knows why.

You Are The Everything is a quite stunning song and the first we heard of what would become quite a familiar R.E.M. sound over the next few years. But I'm not sure it's really single material. Which brings me to our final contender which, to be honest, was always the front-runner. World Leader Pretend is not only my favourite song off 'Green', but one of my very favourite R.E.M. songs full-stop. It doesn't sound like anything they'd released up to that point, yet it sounds so much like where R.E.M. were coming from at that point in time. There's no question in my mind that this is the single that should've been.

For the b-side, I've reached for some unreleased demos. None of the 'Green' demos have ever been released, but I have pretty much the complete set. As well as the songs from the album, there were a few other instrumental pieces that remained unfinished. The one I've picked here is a bit of an in-joke. Before the band started work on 'Green', Michael Stipe asked his bandmates not to write "any more R.E.M. songs", feeling that they were in danger of repeating themselves. The Last R.E.M. Song, therefore, is what the band felt was too-typical of them, so they gave it a tongue-in-cheek title and promptly ditched it.

As for the artwork - I riffed on the orange theme of 'Green' (which makes more sense than it sounds). I doctored a detail of a photo of some ferns, then overlaid the text which is in a very similar font to the one used for the original album artwork (though not the actual font which I'd have had to pay for - I used a free one instead).

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

A: World Leader Pretend [edit]
The Last R.E.M. Song

side A: from the album 'Green'
side B: previously unreleased demo

(click sleeve art to enlarge)

I wasn't going to post the Tourfilm video of this, but then I remembered seeing R.E.M. on the Green Tour in 1989 in London. World Leader Pretend was probably my highlight that night with Stipe striking a drumstick on a chair and introducing the song with an acapella verse of Gang of Four's We Live As We Dream Alone. The Tourfilm video captured so much of what made that tour so very special, so here's World Leader Pretend live on the Green Tour. Absolutely phenomenal!

#8: An Imaginary 7" from 'Out Of Time' (1991)

After an album a year since 1983, we had to wait almost three years between their 6th and 7th albums. But 'Out Of Time' was a completely different beast. Well, kind of. The acoustic instruments that came to the fore in a few of 'Green''s songs became front-and-centre on 'Out Of Time'. For the first time, four singles were released from an R.E.M. album in the UK, but once again a trick was missed.

In hindsight, no one can argue about Losing My Religion being the first single. It has taken on a life of its own, even though the record label wasn't sold on it initially. And while the band and most fans hate Shiny Happy People, it's such an obvious single from that album. The other two singles - Near Wild Heaven and Radio Song - are not quite up to scratch though. So what should they have been?

While Country Feedback is my #1 R.E.M. song ever, it's the most un-singleworthy track you'll ever hear. Which means it would probably be the perfect R.E.M. single actually, but I'd rather keep it as a deep cut. I also love Belong which, along with Low, I first heard played on the Green Tour two years earlier. Again though, not a single really. Me In Honey, on the other hand, has all the right ingredients - a catchy melody, an infectious, almost irritating bassline, and vocals from Kate Pierson. What's not to like? But... I've gone for a song that is a longstanding fave of both band and fans alike. It's one I've grown even more fond of over the years, and I don't think there will be many arguments about this one. It's got to be the beautiful Half A World Away, hasn't it? (What's that Martin? Too obvious? Perhaps, but its great though, isn't it?)

The b-side is a demo from the 'Out Of Time' sessions. It was not included on the set of demos with the 25th Anniversary edition, so remains unreleased. I posted a couple of other ultra-rare demos from the same sessions waaaaay back here, but not this one. It's called Night Swim and has nothing to do with the similarly-titled song that appeared on the next album. The artwork is pretty simple. Two of 'Out Of Time''s actual singles featured Michael Stipe on the cover, so I decided this one would too.

An Imaginary R.E.M. 7" #8
'Half A World Away'

A: Half A World Away
B: Night Swim

side A: from the album 'Out Of Time'
side B: previously unreleased demo

(click sleeve art to enlarge)

And here's the official video:

Next week, imaginary singles from the two albums that contained 11 real singles between them. What's left for us?

Sunday 20 June 2021

An R.E.M. summer: The Imaginary 7"s - part 3

#5: An Imaginary 7" from 'Lifes Rich Pageant' (1986)

I've long felt that the opening four songs on 'Lifes Rich Pageant' form as good a sequence of songs as you'll find on any record anywhere ever. For all those fans who came into LRP from any of the first three albums it must have been a bit of a shock to hear something so loud and brash from a band who had been tagged as 'folk-rock'. For me, it was the second R.E.M. album I heard, having worked back from 'Document', so it was of no surprise to me.

For the really early fans though, perhaps the biggest surprise was the inclusion of a number of the band's oldest songs. Were they already struggling for material? Did they have to look to the past in order to move forward? Maybe, maybe not. Whatever, it didn't stop them releasing one of their finest ever songs (Fall On Me) as the album's first single. A shame the second single (Superman) was a cover version tacked onto the end of the album at the last minute. For me, there were three better choices.

Cuyahoga is a wonderful song, but perhaps a little too similar in tone to Fall On Me, while I Believe was an immediate fave of mine, maybe helped by that frantic banjo solo in the intro. But there can be no disputing that in Begin The Begin we have a song that smacks you square between the eyes from the off. Buck's riff, Berry's pounding drums, screeching feedback, and a snarling, sneering Stipe. This was R.E.M. as they'd never been heard before - and to this day it sounds incredible. That's why it's my imaginary single #5.

The b-side is an outtake that remained unreleased for 20 years before it appeared on the limited edition 2-disc version of the 'And I Feel Fine...' compilation. An earlier demo also appeared on the 25th anniversary edition of 'Lifes Rich Pageant'. Theme From Two Steps Onward is regarded by fans as a bit of a lost gem which, considering the brevity of the album and the seeming lack of new material, really ought to have been included in the set.

The sleeve is a segment of a larger picture I found featuring Michael Stipe and a friend. The original also shows Peter Buck on the other side of the road. I added some colour and a couple filters to give it a kind of LRP-type feel.

An Imaginary R.E.M. 7" #5

A: Begin The Begin
Theme From Two Steps Onward

side A: from the album 'Lifes Rich Pageant'
side B: outtake from 'Lifes Rich Pageant' sessions

(click sleeve art to enlarge)

No video for this one, so I've gone for the performance of it captured on The Green Tour a few years later, as released on Tourfilm, arguably one of the greatest concert films ever made.

#6: An Imaginary 7" from 'Document' (1987)

For once R.E.M. (or the record label - whoever was pulling the strings) got it right and released the three most obvious tracks from 'Document as singles. This was the record that started it all for me, a life-changing record in fact, and that's no exaggeration. I therefore wanted to choose a song that was worthy of being an imaginary fourth single from it.

As well as the obvious ones, the song that struck me immediately on first listen was King Of Birds, opening with Peter Buck playing a dulcimer (which ultimately led to him picking up the mandolin for the next album). It's a completely different-sounding song with its marching rhythm. It's one I even recorded myself one weekend after borrowing a neighbour's four-track. I played acoustic guitar, mandolin and some random things I could hit as percussion instruments which may or may not have included a cardbord box. You will never hear it. N.O. No!

But despite my affection for King Of Birds, I've gone for Disturbance At The Heron House, one of my favourite R.E.M. songs of the IRS era. It's probably one of their most overtly political songs and draws comparisons to Orwell's 'Animal Farm', though you'd not really get that from Stipe's rather obtuse lyrics. Still a great song though, a big sound and another one I love to play on guitar.

In the spirit of the b-sides from the first two 'Document' singles, I've chosen another track from the McCabe's Guitar Shop benefit show from May 1987, three months before the album came out. To my knowledge, it's never been officially released. And the sleeve art is a photo I saw when looking for potential things to use. It stood out as such a great shot to me. Unfortunately I saved it before noting who the photographer was and typically I can't find it again so if he wants a credit, just get in touch!

An Imaginary R.E.M. 7" #6
'Disturbance At The Heron House'

A: Disturbance At The Heron House
B: Finest Worksong [live at McCabe's]

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

(click sleeve art to enlarge)

Next week, imaginary singles from the first two Warner Bros. albums 'Green' and 'Out Of Time'. What do you think they should be?

Sunday 13 June 2021

An R.E.M. Summer: The Imaginary 7"s - part 2

Thanks to everyone for leaving your comments and suggestions last week. I should point out, for the most part these pieces were written some time in advance, so I've already made my mind up as to what tracks are chosen. However, don't let that put you off suggesting them. It confirms whether or not I've made the right choices. On which note, let's see what you think of these...

#3: An Imaginary 7" from 'Reckoning' (1984)

'Reckoning' is a strange record for me. Side 1 is exceptional, side 2 not so much. It's not one of my Top 5 R.E.M. albums but it is the one most other fans will put in their top 3. Nevertheless, there are some very singleworthy songs that were overlooked. Harborcoat is a fantastic opening track with one of the album's strongest melodies. Pretty Persuasion is another really strong contender, cited by many as the second-best track on 'Reckoning' (after the eternally brilliant So. Central Rain, of course). It actually dates back to early 1981 and became a live staple despite being passed over for both 'Chronic Town' and 'Murmur'. I've also long had affection for Time After Time, but while that's a great album track, it's really not a single.

I struggled, really struggled, to decide on 'Reckoning''s imaginary single. I kept flip-flopping between Harborcoat and Pretty Persuasion. Both are equally worthy. I toyed with the idea of making them a double-A side, but that's cheating isn't it? So I tossed a coin (yes, I really did) and it landed on tails. Pretty Persuasion it is then! I wish I could make every decision that way.

The b-side is a live version of Old Man Kensey, a brand new song which would end up on R.E.M.'s next album. The performance captured here is from an appearance on MTV's Rock Influences show in 1984. While the full show is available on numerous bootlegs, it has never been officially released.

The band's friend Jim Herbert made an artsy, surreal film for the first side of 'Reckoning'. The two sides of the LP were labelled 'L' and 'R' - 'Left' and 'Right'. Thus the film's title was 'Left Of Reckoning'. I've included the Pretty Persuasion segment of the film as your video for this week, and I've also used a still from the Harborcoat section for the sleeve art.

An Imaginary R.E.M. 7" #3

A: Pretty Persuasion
B: Old Man Kensey [live]

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

(click sleeve art to enlarge)

#4: An Imaginary 7" from 'Fables Of The Reconstruction' (1985)

'Fables...' is one of my favourite R.E.M. albums. It saw the band move into Southern folk storytelling territory and contains some really wonderful songs. The problem I've had is deciding on an original idea for a single. In the UK, Can't Get There From Here and Wendell Gee were released, while in the US, Driver 8 was the commercial single. So while I'm catering for the UK here, I'm ruling out Driver 8 as it isn't really an Imaginary single as one actually exists (I have a copy), albeit only as an import over here.

I know there's a lot of love for Feeling Gravity's Pull, and for good reason. It's an extraordinary track and one of the band's finest album openers without doubt. But it really isn't single material, is it.

Therefore I've considered my other two favourite songs from the album. Maps And Legends has some lovely vocals in it from Messrs Stipe, Mills and Berry, but if I'm being honest, Life And How To Live It was always my fave. It's based on an apparently true story of a man who split his house in two and would spend some time living in one half, then move to the other half for a while and so on. He wrote a book, published it and kept every copy for himself. The book was titled 'Life And How To Live It'.

The reason I wasn't completely sure about it being here though is because it was put out as a 12" promo in the States with the same b-sides as we got with Can't Get There From Here. But to hell with it! It wasn't released commercially and there was no 7". I've used the text elements and colour scheme from the promo sleeve for my artwork, and added a tweaked still from the Jim Herbert video for the track.

For the b-side, it's a cover of a Creedence Clearwater Revival song. The band was playing Belgium's premier music festival Rock Werchter when the heavens opened. They subsequently played So. Central Rain and Have You Ever Seen The Rain? during the downpour. It's the latter you get here from a bootleg I have.

Oh, and by the way, the edit to the a-side simply removes the opening seconds of the intro to bring it under 4 minutes.

An Imaginary R.E.M. 7" #4
'Life And How To Live It'

A: Life And How To Live It [edit]
B: Have You Ever Seen The Rain? [live]

side A: from the album 'Fables Of The Reconstruction'
side B: previously unreleased

(click sleeve art to enlarge)

Next week, imaginary singles from 'Lifes Rich Pageant' and 'Document'. Make your suggestions below!

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!