On the road to mandolin (again): review of R.E.M. deluxe reissue no.6 – Green

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In consideration of previous two-disc reissues on I.R.S. Records of Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant and Document, I here assess the latest in R.E.M.’s series of 25th anniversary edition albums, this time in the shape of major-label breakthrough Green, marked by a progression to louder drums, a song written from the perspective of a dog, and Peter Buck’s newfound fondness for a plucked string instrument related to the lute.

5-star-rating

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From left to right: Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills – in their Green days

Back in November 2008, I wasted little time in purchasing the deluxe 25th anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s enigmatic and highly original debut, Murmur, little expecting that I would be doing the exact same thing for the band’s subsequent five albums, including last month’s re-release of Green, while donating my tatty original editions to my 18-year-old nephew, in the vain hope that one day he will come to appreciate the seminal Athens band (being more of a Muse fan at present, or as my dad prefers to call them, ‘The Muse’). And yet, on reflection, it is little wonder that I should have collected each and every one of these reissues, for in R.E.M.’s output from Murmur in 1983 until Automatic for the People in 1992 we find a remarkable run of an initial eight formula-defying masterworks that rate amongst the very finest albums in rock history, unmatched in terms of the variety, scope, opaque lyrical depth and daring virtuosity of the songs on offer – though I will concede that their cover of Wire’s ‘Strange’ on Document is a bit naff. With such an immaculate catalogue, the band can certainly be forgiven for releasing less-than-brilliant works thereafter, while beginning to stagnate and repeat themselves on later, post-Bill Berry albums such as 2004’s Around the Sun and 2008’s Accelerate, respectively, before their split at the end of 2011.DSC02721 Furthermore, any bonus material to be found on the so-far-available deluxe reissues to complement their classic material – typically, a giant fold-out poster, postcards of individual members of the band, new liner notes, a shiny remastered version of the original album, and a CD of contemporary live stuff or demos – is, to my mind, worth investing in.

While one could argue that a fold-out poster and the like merely constitute fluff, I must say that I have been wholly impressed with the bonus CDs so far released during the course of R.E.M.’s reissues. Accompanying the Mitch Easter-produced Murmer, I was pleased to find a concert of the then newly signed band at Larry’s Hideaway in Toronto from July 1983, documenting a group supremely confident in their early sound, dominated by Peter Buck’s highly distinctive Byrds-influenced arpeggio guitar style and Michael Stipe’s equally distinctive mumbling vocals, where we are, in fact, treated to added mumbling in the form of the singer’s indecipherable in-between-song remarks. With Reckoning (1984), an album defined by a more structured and song-based form of mid-paced, melancholic folk rock (if you will), I once more admired Buck’s impeccable playing during a live CD from Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom (the man doesn’t put a digit wrong REM-early[1]anywhere!), where the band as a whole proved definitively that they relied little in the way of production flourishes in the studio. Yet I was probably more intrigued by The Athens Demos accompanying their third album, on which we hear R.E.M. rehearsing what were probably their most Southern-sounding, earthy and understated songs, helping us to appreciate, therefore, the method by which rootsy Fairport Convention- and Nick Drake-producer Joe Boyd merely polished this sound for what became Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), or, if you prefer, Reconstruction of the Fables – depending on your mood, I suppose!

I was glad to acquire another era-specific Athens Demos with the newly politicised, urgent and angry-sounding R.E.M. on Lifes Rich Pageant (1986), a bonus disc that throws up a heap of curiosities, not least a different verse arrangement on the astounding ‘Fall On Me’ to what we are used to, an early recording of ‘Bad Day’ that illuminates Stipe’s rubbish harmonica playing to full effect, a rough version of ‘Cuyahoga’ during which the singer appears to wander off half-way through, and an impressive lost song in the form of ‘Two Steps Onward’, together with some lengthy humming (good humming, mind) on a tryout of ‘I Believe’ and some whistling on a couple of other tracks. Finally, with Document, an LP consisting of angry political songs and a straighter rock sound (with Scott Litt replacing Don Gehmen in the producer’s chair), I welcomed a  September ’87 live set from Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht, Holland, notable, I thought, for Stipe’s fearless (and successful) attempt to run through the gloriously verbose lyrics to new song ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’.

Up to now, it has been an intriguing exercise to listen to R.E.M.’s I.R.S. reissues in chronological sequence at the intervals of their release (something I never did with the original albums), in order to fully appreciate the band’s rapid creative progression. However, I never expected there to be a similarly packaged deluxe reissue of Green, simply because it was with this album that Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe broke from their indie record label and college-rock beginnings by signing a deal with Warner Bros, at which point they became an entirely different prospect, losing all affinity with the Southern-sounding folk-rock-oriented R.E.M. of old. But I am pleased to find that Green, as probably their most experimentalDSC02722 album, follows the exact same 25th anniversary pattern as its predecessors, being released, via a label called Rhino Records, in a clamshell box that notably includes a 21-song live CD recorded at the band’s penultimate gig on the 130-date Green World Tour from 10 November 1989 at Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina, together with some historic liner notes by Allan Jones, the editor of Uncut magazine.

I personally feel a greater sense of occasion on buying into this 25th-anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s Green than with any of the group’s previous reissues, because I actually remember charting this album’s rise to prominence in Britain during 1988 and ’89. Sure, I had been vaguely aware of Document’s ‘The One I Love’ entering the singles chart in ’87, but I more accurately recall DJ Simon Mayo remarking on the brilliance of the Green song ‘World Leader Pretend’ on the Radio 1 Breakfast Show at the end of ’88, and playing it repeatedly – surely one of the most politically intense album tracks to achieve such exposure via the ‘Nation’s Favourite’ radio station. I was also conscious of the radio-friendly single ‘Stand’ making an impact on its release in January ’89, notably after reading a favourable review of the song in Smash Hits magazine, where the guest reviewer (perhaps Rick Astley) expressed considerable dismay at Stipe’s distinctive accent on that track. I can confirm, therefore, that it was with such newfound media prominence that R.E.M. toured their new album in England during May ’89, with support from a Bristol band called the Blue Aeroplanes, while I myself embarked upon a coach journey to Italy as part of an A-Level geography field trip to Pompeii.

I mention Pompeii merely because it was while on the road to visit the disaster-struck Roman city (destroyed by the volcano Vesuvius, of course) that I first listened to the whole of Green. On this occasion, my fellow geographers all had tapes that they wanted playing on the onboard stereo system, such as the Stone Roses’ then ubiquitous debut, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, Depeche Mode’s Violator and Prince’s Batman soundtrack, while I personally vied for Billy Idol’s 11 of the Best – to no avail, I might add. However, one particularly curious-looking girl, who sat on the seat behind me, had the required taste (and looks) to achieve her goal with her R.E.M. cassette. On route to the Bay of Naples, therefore, I recall admiring this girl’s attempt to sing along to a mournful mandolin-based track about a lonely boy coming to terms with never having gone outside to play with other children, which I later discovered to be ‘The Wrong Child’, with its lyric: ‘I’m not supposed to be like this, but it’s okay / I’ll try to find a happy game to play’.

I have to admit that it wasn’t until after R.E.M. became one of the biggest bands in the world with the success of their subsequent mandolin-coloured track ‘Losing My Religion’, from Out of Time (1991), that I actually purchased Green. Around this time I also borrowed the Tourfilm video, an audio-visual document of R.E.M. live on the Green tour, through which, at an impressionable age, I witnessed Stipe give the most exhilarating performance as a frontman I had ever seen, cutting an e46855yvr7y[1]absolutely demented figure with his big suit, his eye makeup, his megaphone, his ‘dancing’, and his horrific grebo-style haircut. I subsequently bore testament to R.E.M. becoming ridiculously popular amongst my fellow students at college, when I heard the band reverberate, in one form or another, throughout the corridors of my West London Halls of Residence, while the fierce-sounding ‘Orange Crush’, an anti-war song that referenced the mustard gas used to kill people during the Vietnam war, became an unlikely favourite at the college disco. And over the years I continued to play Green and count it as probably my favourite R.E.M. album, before going on to meet, through a friend, the Stipe-approved singer of the Blue Aeroplanes, Gerard Langley, at the Bristol Folk Festival in January 2005, a figure whose spoken-word performances and monologues on stage had directly influenced Stipe’s vocals, during the Green tour, on a new R.E.M. song called ‘Belong’. I’d like to say that I quizzed Langley extensively on his experiences with R.E.M. during those heady Green days, but, alas, at the time, I had no idea who he was and spoke very little while suffering quite a significant hangover. Oh well.

Someone who is slightly better at interrogating people, in a nice way, is DJ Liz Kershaw, whose 6Music saturday radio show I tuned into the other week in order to catch an interview with retired R.E.M. multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills, as he reflected on the band’sDSC02785 experimentalism on Green a quarter of a century on. The gentlemanly Mills commented on how the album was put together at Ardent Studios in Memphis during a particularly humid summer, as he set about, once more, defending the band’s decision to accept a huge ‘million dollar’ pay cheque from Warners. He elaborated on Stipe’s defensive remark at the time that this was ‘because of Mickey Mouse’ by saying that the band were ‘keen to have broader success overseas’ through achieving better distribution, while at the same time maintaining full creative control. Mills went on to comment that, in these new circumstances, the band felt free to follow Stipe’s instruction to ‘not write any R.E.M. songs’, as they began to pursue a more acoustic direction, with Buck setting aside his electric guitar in favour of a mandolin, and all four members feeling inclined to swap instruments along the way (it being, in fact, drummer Bill Berry who came up with the mandolin riff on ‘Hairshirt’), while adding Mellotrons and strings to the mix.

On listening to the reissue of Green, the LP’s title signifying the band’s newfound accumulation of U.S. dollars as well as their concern for environmental issues, it is understandable that so many R.E.M. purists felt betrayed on first hearing the album. There is no question that first-track ‘Pop Song 88’ sounds unlike anything they ever did before, being a playful and strident take on the Doors’ ‘Hello, I Love You’, with the drums and guitar turned right up, as Stipe makes sly reference to the US election then taking place: ‘Should we talk about the weather? Should we talk about the government?’ After that, ‘Get Up’ is every bit as surging and euphoric, serving as an apparent essay on the pros and cons of sleep and dreams. It is, however, on ‘You Are The Everything’ that the band’s reinvention appears most glaringly apparent, featuring both a mandolin and a harpsichord, and Stipe at his most vulnerable as he seemingly sings of his fate on an ecologically fragile planet: ‘I’m very scared for this world, I’m very scared for me’. The song is also notable for its baffling line, ‘And you’re drifting off to sleep with your teeth in your mouth’, to make of what you will. ‘World Leader Pretend’ meanwhile is perhaps the best track on the album and a chilling Leonard Cohen-inspired song utilising political and military terminology to express a man’s battle with his inner demons. And then, on the aforementioned and deeply affecting ‘The Wrong Child’, Stipe goes on to adopt the persona of a boy with a severe disability (perhaps Asperger syndrome) who feels unable to interact with other children, while ‘Orange Crush’ and ‘Turn You Inside-Out’ reveal a full-throttle R.E.M. at their most loud and menacing, the latter song riffing on the idea of a messianic leader (perhaps a lead singer?) wielding mind-bending authority over his subjects. Further on, the disconcerting ‘Hairshirt’, again featuring the mandolin, sees Stipe offer the mother of cryptic canine lyrics with: ‘I am not the type of dog that could keep you waiting for no good reason – run a carbon black test on my jaw – and you will find it’s all been said before’. (I think it might be about someone indulging in suffering within a relationship, but I’m not sure.) Whatever the meaning, there is some fantastic jangly-guitar playing to follow, on ‘I Remember California’, to draw the album to a close (prior to the hidden track, that is).

If forced to criticise, you could say that Green is not a particularly unified album and that the drums sound a bit too 80s, despite the (barely discernible) remastered sound. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anything wrong with the bonus CD of R.E.M. live at Greensboro, because it documents the band, in ’89, at their most full-bodied and powerful, as they understandably lay emphasis on the Green songs. ‘Turn You Inside-Out’ sounds particularly visceral, with Stipe going absolutely bonkers, though the band also draw on a well-chosen smattering of their older and more oblique songs. They offer a slightly speeded-up version of the Fables track ‘Good Advices’, for example, proving it to be a massively overlooked gem within their back catalogue. They then go on to finish the show with a stunningly beautiful rendition of early song ‘Perfect Circle’.

In view of another successful reissue, then, I look forward to the deluxe 25th-anniversary editions of Out of Time and Automatic for the People, anticipating a further unearthing of demos and, with any luck on the former, an official audio release of the band’s MTV Unplugged session. I am, however, forced to question how long this lavish series of reissues will continue, for I certainly can’t imagine the massively overlong and slightly boring Up album, for example, being reissued together with any extra material worth getting excited over. However, having six albums alone as worthy of the 25th-anniversary-deluxe-reissue treatment is triumph enough for any band, certainly being enough to place R.E.M. way above any of their contemporaries. I must admit, though, that at the end of it all, I am left wondering as to why we have still not seen a 25th anniversary edition of Billy Idol’s 11 of the Best. Maybe later in the month…

Tracklist:

CD 1: Original Album
1. “Pop Song 89”
2. “Get Up”
3. “You Are The Everything”
4. “Stand”
5. “World Leader Pretend”
6. “The Wrong Child”
7. “Orange Crush”
8. “Turn You Inside Out”
9. “Hairshirt”
10. “I Remember California”
11. “Untitled”

CD 2: Live In Greensboro 1989
1. “Stand”
2. “The One I Love”
3. “Turn You Inside Out”
4. “Belong”
5. “Exhuming McCarthy”
6. “Good Advices”
7. “Orange Crush”
8. “Cuyahoga”
9. “These Days”
10. “World Leader Pretend”
11. “I Believe”
12. “Get Up”
13. “Life And How To Live It”
14. “Its The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
15. “Pop Song 89”
16. “Fall On Me”
17. “You Are The Everything”
18. “Begin The Begin”
19. “Low”
20. “Finest Worksong”
21. “Perfect Circle”

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