It was March 1991. I was 17 and had just saved up for my very first walkman, ready to take on a school skiing trip to France. As well as the walkman I bought an early copy of Q magazine, and on the cover were an American alt-rock band from Athens, Georgia promoting their new album, Out of Time. They were, of course R.E.M. I had heard Losing my Religion on the radio, and I decided to buy the CD on the basis of that song and the review in Q. Just in time to take it to France I taped it on to a C60, and the rest is history.
R.E.M. have stayed with me ever since. I started by buying their entire back catalogue, when funds would allow. I have seen them live three times, once they finally toured again after not putting either Out of Time or Automatic for the People on the road.
When I first heard about the release of R.E.M. at the BBC, I wasn’t sure what to think. In recent years there has been a series of releases plundering many of their rarities and live performances. There are already three or four live albums available, depending on how you count them, each with a different twist. Unplugged 1991/2003 charts the development of the band from their commercial peak to a more reflective period and is really two albums, including rare performances of songs from ‘Out of Time’. R.E.M. Live was released in in 2007 and is taken from two shows in Dublin from the Around the Sun tour and finally Live at the Olympia is a collection of songs from a 5 night residency in Dublin and was a series of working rehearsals for Accelerate. In addition to these releases there are numerous live performances on various re-issues of their earlier albums.
With all this in mind, is there space for yet another live release?
Let’s start by looking at the track listing. The performances on this 8 CD set are taken from a variety of sessions and live recordings chronologically beginning with a full set from Nottingham Rock City recorded in November 1984 to a Radio 2 live set in September 2004. There is a notable bias towards their later career, which reflects the increased coverage they received once the breakthrough happened, however, I think it’s a shame that the Rock City gig is the only content from the IRS years. There is nothing from the Fables of the Reconstruction, Life’s Rich Pageant, Document or Green tours, which is arguably the band most important period as they made the sometimes uncomfortable transformation from a college band to stadium headliners.
There are two performances which stand out for me – one because I felt like I was there, and another because I actually was there. The first was an ‘Into the Night’ session recorded in March 1991, right at the time I first discovered the band, which I listened to live and recorded onto tape – I hate to think how many times I have heard it. The second was the full set from the National Bowl in Milton Keynes in 1995 – one of two shows from the Monster tour that I was lucky enough to get to, a gig notable because their support was an emerging indie rock band known as Radiohead…
Listened to back-to-back, the three full gigs – the two mentioned above plus their 1999 Glastonbury set are a good summary of the band’s evolution, albeit with a chunk missing in the middle. The Nottingham Rock City set is wonderful, it’s fast, energetic and packed with many of their brilliant songs from the Murmur and Reckoning. Two of my highlights come from elsewhere – a great performance of 9-9 is followed by a rambling rendition of Hey DIddle Diddle which kicks straight into a blistering version of Windout, which would later be released as a bonus track on a 1992 reissue of Reckoning. The other standout is Wendle Gee, a beautiful, swooping song which would be included on their next album – Fables of the Reconstruction. There are four other songs which would make it on to later albums, a real indication of the confidence the band had in their material, released or unreleased, if it’s good enough it’s on the set list. Michael Stipe is in typically enigmatic form, at one stage apologising for their incumbent president, Ronald Reagan – sometimes I think it’s a good thing they’re no longer performing…
The second full set, from Milton Keynes documents (pardon the pun) the bands switch back to rockier arrangements following the subtler arrangements of Out of Time and Automatic for the People. The set is very biased towards Monster, which is not my favourite album, but the energy is undeniable. Highlights include a swirling version of Undertow, with Mike Mills stunning backing vocals really driving the song along and a great performance of Strange Currencies which is so much more powerful than the recorded version. Stipe plays the reluctant frontman with ‘Here’s another song’ preceding almost every song. Listening to it back again has really rekindled my memories of a special gig – it was a beautifully hot July day and despite the less than promising setting of a field in the middle of a new town, there was a real festival vibe.
The Glastonbury performance is brilliant. The reluctant stadium band is nowhere to be seen – Stipe is on great form, engaging with the crowd throughout. It’s clear that Glastonbury was a rite of passage for the band, and they celebrate it with one of their very best performances, culminating in a chaotic, joyous chorus of It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine). In terms of a live act, this is R.E.M. at their very peak – a great setlist from throughout their catalogue, celebrated at an iconic festival, a perfect combination of time, location and performance.
Away from the full concert live sets there are a selection of live sessions and one-off gigs. A Radio 1 public Peel session from October 1998 features a number of songs from Up alongside a few of the regular favourites. Many of these really come alive away from the original album, and Daysleeper stands out. Another highlight is the closing three songs from a Radio 2 gig at St James’ Church London from 2004 – Leaving New York, Imitation of Life and Man on the Moon are all cut from the same cloth, but put together towards the end of the band’s life, they represent the depth and quality of the band’s work.
If you’re looking for new tracks or rarities, there’s not a lot on offer, although there are a couple of interesting tracks. The cover of Editors’ Munich is really strong. It’s a song which suits Stipe’s voice well and he delivers it with real menace. Thom Yorke’s presence in the Patti Smith role on E-bow the letter is also worth a listen – for me it’s an intersection between two of the most influential bands of the last 30 years and is a nice point back to the Milton Keynes gig when they shared the same stage.
Taken as a whole, R.E.M. at the BBC is a great representation of their existence and their presence as a live band. The only disappointment is the void between 1984 and 1991 when they were at their most active. Despite this I’m glad this set has been put together, and I’ve really enjoyed dipping in and out of over the last few weeks.
**** – 4/5