“I’m only a person, with Eskimo chain
I tattooed my brain all the way
Won’t you miss me?
Wouldn’t you miss me at all?”
My love for R.E.M. has been constant since first seeing the video for ‘Losing My Religion’ on MTV in 1991. I was soon scrimping the cash together to buy the tape of ‘Out Of Time’ and the romance blossomed. A year later and I was the proud owner of the yellow version of the cassette of ‘Automatic For The People’, an album I admired but did not fall for as passionately as its predecessor. Nonetheless, post-‘Automatic’, pre-‘Monster’ I was on the hunt.
I bought pretty much everything I could find whether CD or vinyl, new or second-hand. Despite the fact that R.E.M. weren’t the greatest b-siders out there, and filled a disproportionate amount of space with live versions (always seemed a bit cheap to me…), they did enough to justify the expense.
R.E.M. were experimenters, and that’s something to applaud; the cover versions that they sometimes decorated their b-sides with were occasionally wondrous (see ‘Wall of Death’ from the CD single of ‘E-Bow The Letter’ for example). In this case, R.E.M. definitely got it right, although I wasn’t so convinced when I bought this 12″.
‘Orange Crush’ (W2960T) is taken from their 1988 album ‘Green’, the one where they sowed the seeds for their huge breakthrough success, ‘Out Of Time’. It’s a dense strata of rock in an album that majored in pop and folk: less upbeat and ‘Monster’-like than ‘Turn You Inside Out’, but brighter than the smoke-cloud gloom of ‘I Remember California’, the natural successor to ‘Oddfellows Local 151’ off ‘Document’.
This is a strapping, claustrophobic track: we’re caught in the suffocating grip of Bill Berry’s muscular drumming (hear how hard he hits some of that kit !) and Mike Mills’ thudding bass trios. There’s always something happening in the background to keep your attention and to prevent any space opening up: Michael Stipe’s megaphone declamations, his back-and-forth with Mills’ unusually punchy back-up vocals, the parade ground drills under the bridge, jarring percussion sounds and discordant slashes of guitar. It’s never been my favourite cut from ‘Green’ but Stipe’s angry attack on Operation Ranch Hand is powerful songwriting.
I dismissed ‘Ghost Rider’ back then. It just seemed so dumb. I had no idea who Suicide, the original writers, were. After the first listen i just lifted the stylus right over it and onto ‘Dark Globe’.
Now I’m into it. Yes, this transposed version is in the mould of dumb, surfy rock (certainly compared to the terrifying original) but it is a lot of fun. I’ve just been listening to the Suicide version and I’m not going back to it. On this version Michael Stipe might set out deadpanning it just like Alan Vega but by the end I think you can hear the laughter in his voice as he sings out “b-b-baby, baby, baby he’s a-screaming away”. Given that R.E.M. are a band with such recognisable guitars it’s also great to hear Peter Buck doing something a little different. At times it feels like he’s channelling electricity as he crashes, flashes and distorts around the vocals.
‘Dark Globe’ has to be the main attraction, however. This is one of Stipe’s most remarkable performances. He’s vulnerable, unaffected, uninflected, proud, direct and unfettered. ‘Dark Globe’ in his hands, under his tongue, is stunning. I don’t know whether or not Syd Barrett wrote it about himself but it’s impossible not to imagine so, given the fate that befell him. The interpretation is pure, the tragedy undiluted, my heart is broken every time.