“Dear Santa. I’ve been good this year, so I’d like over 100 previously unreleased R.E.M. live recordings, please. But all from England. Oh and in non-chronological order…”
R.E.M. at the BBC is not for the faint-hearted. You need commitment and staying power to wade through eight CDs and a DVD’s worth of tunes by a band who breathed their last, seven years ago. And if you listen carefully, you can hear the alt-rock nerds and record store owning, paisley underground apologists saying (just loud enough for everybody to hear) “I’ve had all this stuff on bootlegs for years.” Well smartypants, you can swap your third-generation cassette copy of “R.E.M. Live, Nottingham Rock City 11 21 84” for a lovely clean digital copy. And a whole lot more besides.
The grande olde institution that is the BBC has had a lengthy relationship with R.E.M. which stretches back as far as November 1984, when it devoted an hour of prime time airspace to a band who had sold barely a handful of records in the UK. Whatever the reasons behind the decision to record the band as they toured the freezing shores of blighty on the back of their second album, we should be happy that this charming and energetic document has emerged. The band romp through their early repertoire like the over-excited teenagers they almost were. This is what you’ll buy this collection for. The rest is gravy. But really tasty gravy.
We get to see and hear almost all the stages of R.E.M.’s woozy path to superstardom on At the BBC. From the alt-rock of the early 1980s to the polished, new millennium pop that they bowed out on, it’s nearly all here. And warts and all. Although, in spite of having a slightly maverick approach to the live stage, they never fail to hit their marks on these recordings.
Unplugged you say? Well, there’s plenty of that sort of thing here. Back in the 1990s, you couldn’t walk a hundred yards in any direction and not hear some musicians desperately trying to promote their latest offerings by attempting to play them on unfamiliar, acoustic guitars, unwieldy acoustic basses and badly struck congas. R.E.M. however had decided to ditch the Rickenbacker guitars in favour of mandolins and dulcimers for their breakthrough album Out of Time and took to this unamplified world like a duck to water.
The first few tracks on this collection showcase this unadorned version of the band and it’s rather beautiful. If you can get through their version of the Troggs’ “Love is All Around” without smiling, then there’s no hope for you. Elsewhere, you get an excellent live recording from the “Monster” tour highlighting the reverse of that coin – loud electric guitars and a pronounced stadium rock flirtation. Although heavy on the track listing for their then current album, the band dip into the back catalogue for an elegant and understated version of “Fall on Me”. Four years later, the band are headlining the prestigious Glastonbury Festival and the BBC are there to document a triumphant performance, with the material from Up – their first album without founder member Bill Berry – sounding fresh and vital. They were without doubt, an outstanding live band.
The DVD which closes this sprawling collection is invaluable. It begins with a couple of songs from one of the UK’s most loved and respected music magazine shows, The Old Grey Whistle Test where, Stipe, Berry, and Mills perform an acapella version of “Moon River”, before ripping into a typically frenetic version of “Pretty Persuasion”. Stipe sports a pre-Raphaelite hairdo and a suit he may have found in a ditch. For reasons known only to him, he whips out a harmonica for some off-key parping, which thankfully is mercifully brief. If you ever wanted to show an alien what college radio looked and sounded like in the early 1980s, this would more than suffice. As an aside, the harmonica does make a spectacular reappearance on the 2003 version of “Bad Day” on this collection. Stipe still can’t play it, but that’s probably not the point.
For the slightly more conservative R.E.M. fan (or those of you unwilling to spend the time or the cash on negotiating your way through hours of R.E.M. live material) there’s a double CD, which bolts together a healthy selection of the archive. But if you’ve read this far, you’re probably the kind of person that’ll end up shelling out for the deluxe version of this thing.
R.E.M. came to symbolise the triumph of the underdog for a while. They stuck at their (initially) unfashionable, low key jangle until the rest of the world caught up with them. Their restlessness meant that they had a go at everything from folk-noir to grunge and all points in between — not all of it was great, but there is a ton of great stuff here. It’s time to retire those hissy bootlegs and remind yourself how great this band were. They took on Bon Jovi and almost won and for that alone, we should be thankful.