Sunday, 22 August 2021

An R.E.M. Summer: An Imaginary Debut Album

A change of plan. There was going to be a fourth REiMagined album, but JC and I couldn't muster up the enthusiasm to finish it, so instead I'm bringing this post forward by a week.

By the time R.E.M. released debut album ‘Murmur’ in April 1983 (three years and seven days after their very first gig), they had written and discarded a heap of songs. Those chosen for the album showed a depth of songwriting quite extraordinary for a young band. It is a record that remains, 38 years later, full of mystique and intrigue, many of its songs sounding not just unlike anything else around at the time, but pretty much ever since.

Of its 12 songs, several had been written and performed more than two years earlier, surviving the numerous culls the band had made to their set over time. Songs like Radio Free Europe and Sitting Still, which comprised their debut single in 1981. Shaking Through, Laughing and 9-9 were also live staples by the end of that year too.

Other songs we’ve all become familiar with can be traced right back to R.E.M.’s embryonic period. All The Right Friends, Gardening At Night, Rockville and Just A Touch all date from the first few months of the band’s existence and ended up on R.E.M records in some form or other over the years, while Pretty Persuasion and an early version of What If We Give It Away were also performed as early as January 1981. Other songs such as Narrator, Baby I, Action and I Can’t Control Myself – all performed at their first show as an unnamed act – fell out of favour before 1981 was out and were never heard of again. Well, other than on bootlegs, of which there are many.

One thing I’ve often mused about over the years is, what if instead of recording the ‘Chronic Town’ EP, R.E.M. decided to do a full-length album? What songs would it include? And how different would it have sounded to ‘Murmur’? So to complement this run of articles on hypothetical R.E.M. releases, I decided to stop thinking about this “pre-debut” album and actually try and get a version down. Now, I’m not going to pretend that this record would ever have existed. There are no indications whatsoever that R.E.M. ever planned an album before ‘Murmur’, so this really is just a silly exercise in compiling a fantasy record that never was. I thought it might be interesting. And it has been.

So where to start... I do have to give credit to the incredible website that is The R.E.M. Timeline, an exhaustive source of every known gig, setlist and significant event in the career of R.E.M. from pre-formation through to the present post-breakup years. No self-respecting R.E.M. fan should be without it permanently bookmarked in their browser, trust me. I used this wonderful site to research what songs the band was playing around the time they ventured into Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio in North Carolina in October 1981 to record what would become ‘Chronic Town’. This was my benchmark. At their last gig before recording started, they played a hometown show at Tyrone’s in Athens, GA., a regular haunt for them in the early days. The set that night (23rd September) was:

Just A Touch / Ages Of You / 1,000,000 / Get On Their Way / There She Goes Again / Action / Wait / Sitting Still / Permanent Vacation / Mystery To Me / White Tornado / I Can't Control Myself / Burning Down / Shaking Through / Laughing / Romance / Pretty Persuasion / That Beat / Stumble / Radio Free Europe / Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars) plus an encore of The Lion Sleeps Tonight - Stranded In The Jungle - Ska / Gardening At Night / Windout / 9-9

Two nights after the final recording session in January 1982, the band played a show in Hoboken, New Jersey. This was the setlist:

Ages Of You / Catapult / Shaking Through / Gardening At Night / 9-9 / Windout / Laughing / Romance / Sitting Still / Pretty Persuasion / That Beat / 1,000,000 / Wolves, Lower / Radio Free Europe. There was also an encore comprising four cover versions before culminating with Stumble.

Between these two shows, the band was already incorporating many new songs we’d hear on subsequent releases in the place of older songs that fell out of favour. For instance, both Just A Touch and Get On Their Way were gone by the time 1982 rolled around and wouldn’t be heard of again until they were revived for the ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ album more than four years later. Action and Wait also bit the dust during this period.

Of the newer songs, Catapult was the baby of the family, having only been performed for the first time a few days before the final session at Drive-In Studios. An initial attempt to record it failed, though a few weeks later it was successfully captured during demo sessions for RCA.

These sets give us a pretty good idea of where R.E.M. were at the time, but it is by no means definitive. Permanent Vacation (not the Aerosmith song!) and Mystery To Me were still in the live set right up to the last show before those final sessions with Easter in mid-January 1982, but while they may have continued to be played thereafter, they don’t appear on the known setlists shown on The R.E.M. Timeline, so they may have been dropped shortly after. Other old favourites also became redundant during this period: Dangerous Times, Body Count, Burning Down, Different Girl, even (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville fell by the wayside.

So taking all this into account, and considering the gigs inbetween, plus the songs recorded during the ‘Chronic Town’ sessions themselves, I compiled a list of songs that, hypothetically, might have been in the running for a debut album for release in Spring 1982:

Ages Of You
Carnival Of Sorts
Gardening At Night
Mystery To Me
Permanent Vacation

Pretty Persuasion
Radio Free Europe
Shaking Through
Sitting Still
That Beat
Wolves, Lower

It’s realistic to assume all five songs that made it onto ‘Chronic Town’ would have been included, along with both sides of the debut single (though with the band’s choice of mix of RFE rather than the one that was issued). I have, however, made some completely subjective decisions. I didn’t want this to be a basic compilation of officially-released early tracks. I wanted to include some songs most people had never heard before, songs that captured the very early R.E.M. sound, the fast, energetic rock ‘n’ roll that made them such a frenetic live act at the time. So I’ve taken some liberties.

I’ve omitted 1,000,000 and Stumble. Both made it onto ‘Chronic Town’ but they are my least favourite tracks on it. I’ve also dispensed with Catapult as I think it was way too new to ever be a serious contender. 9-9 was just a bit weird to fit in with the rest of the songs, and while Laughing may well have fit, I wanted to steer away from ‘Murmur’ as much as possible and let it stand alone. Pretty Persuasion ended up being passed over for both ‘Chronic Town’ and ‘Murmur’, instead appearing on ‘Reckoning’ where it remains an undoubted highlight, so again I sidelined it for that reason.

That left 12 songs to sequence, so the next job was to source decent quality versions of them from both official and unofficial releases. Not that difficult, but not as easy as I’d hoped either, and it’s where we can kiss bye bye to any idea of consistency. The recordings I’ve used range from 1981 to 1986 so they are a bit all over the place sonically. But like I said at the start – I’m not going to pretend this is what any such record would have ever sounded like. It’s more a collection of songs that might have made the cut. So forgive the seemingly haphazard nature of the final product – just enjoy it for what it is.

The artwork features St. Mary's Episcopal Church at 396 Oconee Street, Athens, GA. Of course, you all know this was the abandoned church where R.E.M. played their very first gig back in April 1980. All that remains of the building today is the steeple (not visible in this picture) which has in recent years been undergoing renovations in order to preserve it, hallowed site that it is.

Oh, and I haven’t come up with a title, I’ve just called it R.E.M. but if you have any suggestions, I’ll rethink it and may re-title it if you impress me. Here goes:

Side One
1. Radio Free Europe (1981)
Mix taken directly from the ‘Cassette Set’ demo tape. It’s the one the band wanted as the single, but ended up being remixed by the label boss. This original version is also the one incorrectly labelled as the Original Hib-Tone Mix on ‘Eponymous’.
2. Romance (1983)
Rough mix from the ‘Murmur’ sessions, but never made it to the final mixing stage.
3. That Beat (1983)
Recorded live to two-track during the ‘Murmur’ sessions at the same time as the version of There She Goes Again used for the b-side of the re-release of Radio Free Europe, and the version of All The Right Friends which featured on the European re-issue of ‘Dead Letter Office’.
4. Mystery To Me (1986)
Demo recorded for ‘Lifes Rich Pageant, one of many early songs revived for that project. Later issued as part of the LRP 25th Anniversary re-issue in 2011.
5. Shaking Through (1981)
From the first demo sessions for ‘Chronic Town’ at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio. This is, incidentally, the same recording I used in my recent Imaginary 7" series.
6. Windout (1983)
Recorded for ‘Reckoning’, but ended up on the Bachelor Party soundtrack. Later compiled on ‘Dead Letter Office’.
segue:  Jazz Lips (segment) (1981)
A snippet of an experimental piece recorded during the demo sessions at Drive-In. This would act in a similar way to the untitled, unlisted pieces at the end of Shaking Through on ‘Murmur’ and Little America on ‘Reckoning’.

Side Two:
1. Wolves, Lower (1981)
First version recorded at the Drive-In Studio. It’s slightly faster than the one that ended up on ‘Chronic Town’ and is known as the “fast version”.
2. Sitting Still (1981)
The version featured on the ‘Cassette Set’ demo tape, also issued as the b-side of Radio Free Europe on Hib-Tone.
3. Gardening At Night (1981)
Original vocal take as featured on ‘Eponymous’, recorded for ‘Chronic Town’ on which a different vocal take was used.
4. Ages Of You (1981)
Original mix, recorded at Drive-In for ‘Chronic Town’. Remixed version used as b-side to Wendell Gee single and 'Dead Letter Office' compilation.
5. Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars) (1981)
Recorded during first Drive-In Studios demos session
6. Permanent Vacation (1981)
I don’t have a studio recording of this, so this is a live version captured at Tyrone’s in Athens on 10th April 1981. My copy is from the legendary vinyl bootleg ‘So Much Younger Then’.

compiled by TheRobster

1. Radio Free Europe
2. Romance
3. That Beat
4. Mystery To Me
5. Shaking Through
6. Windout

7. Wolves, Lower
8. Sitting Still
9. Gardening At Night
10. Ages Of You
11. Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars)
12. Permanent Vacation

Grab it here

What’s that you say? An Imaginary 7”? What a brilliant idea, wish I’d thought of that. OK, so how about Ages Of You? I’ve always liked it, and to promote ‘Dead Letter Office’, a 12” promo was issued in the States for it. Never a 7” in any country though, and certainly not the mix included here. For the b-side, I’ve returned to the ‘So Much Younger Then’ boot which has lots of those early songs that never made it onto official releases. Body Count is one of the band’s most interesting early songs in that it is possibly their first attempt at an overtly political lyric. An anti-war song that explicitly references Vietnam, the subject would be raised again in 1988 on Orange Crush. It’s also by far their longest track from the period.

The artwork is based on a photo of a sculpture in Rev. Howard Finster's 'Paradise Garden'. Finster, as you probably know, was an artist whose work with R.E.M. spanned a number of years. The band filmed the video for Radio Free Europe in Paradise Garden; Stipe and Finster co-designed the artwork for 'Reckoning'; and Maps And Legends was written as a homage to Finster. He can also be seen in the 'Athens, GA. Inside/Out' documentary.

A Bonus Imaginary R.E.M. 7"

A: Ages Of You
B: Body Count [live at Tyrone’s]

side A: from 'R.E.M.', an Imaginary pre-‘Murmur’ debut album
side B: previously unreleased

(click sleeve art to enlarge)

And a video for you... captured live at The Pier, Raleigh, NC. on 10th October 1982 here's a sadly incomplete but still utterly compelling clip of Ages Of You. Stipe is having a great time, grinning throughout, Mike Mills looks about 12 years old, and Buck and Berry are just coolness personified.


  1. I'm looking forward to listening to this one
    Thanks Robster

  2. How about 'Honor Marches On' for the title...ref to lyrics on new album..?

  3. This is great Robster- Ages Of You is a favourite of mine, the stand out when I first heard Dead Letter Office back in 87 or 88. I love 1, 000, 000- can't explain why, it just does it for me.

  4. For me, the tops from a long list of your R.E.M. posts. Thanks for your passion and for the investment.

  5. Wow. What a curation/explanation. Bodycount is still a personal favourite from their early years. Shame they never recorded a studio version.