During R.E.M.’s 31-year run, the band released occasional compilations, live albums, and reissues, but since they called it quits in 2011, the number of releases culled from vault-digging has increased at a rapid clip. Earlier this year, the band issued Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions, which was followed by the surprise release of the Complete Warner Bros. Rarities 1988-2011, a 131-track treasure trove of B-sides, bonus tracks, and rarities available on iTunes.
Now, just in time for the holidays, the band is releasing two new packages. First up is REMTV, a six-DVD set compiling their performances on MTV — as well as sister networks VH1, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon — over their career, as well as the new feature-length documentary R.E.M. by MTV. (The documentary will be screened in select cities this week and will air on VH1 Classic and Palladia on Nov. 22). It’s due Nov. 24 from Rhino.
That’s followed by 7IN — 83-88, a boxed set of the band’s singles complete with the original picture sleeves, originally released by I.R.S. Records, that includes two U.K. releases issued for the first time as 7-inch singles in the U.S. That’s out on Dec. 9.
R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck — who founded the band with vocalist Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry — says the idea for these latest new releases came from different sources. Capitol Records, which controls the I.R.S. catalog, came up with the idea for the singles box, while the band conceived the idea for the DVD box after realizing how much footage of it was in the MTV vaults.
"It’s all stuff we’re interested in," Buck says, "but during the time we were working, nobody really wanted to go back and look at this stuff. We were more forward thinking. Personally, I love the I.R.S. stuff," he adds. "I love 45’s."
Buck isn’t kidding. Since R.E.M.’s end as an active band, he’s released two solo albums and a recent EP on vinyl only through the tiny, Portland-based Mississippi Records. The cover of his latest release, the Opium Drivel EP, features a photo of Buck, wine glass in hand, listening to a green vinyl Cramps bootleg of sessions produced by Alex Chilton on a portable turntable.
"On a personal level, when the band ended, I made a list of all the things I liked about playing music and all the things I didn’t like," Buck explains. "The list of things I liked was about four things, and they all involved playing music. The other list was about four pages long and that was everything else. One of the things on there is CD and MP3 sound quality. I still listen to them, but it doesn’t mean I like it. So, I always try to make sure that records come out on vinyl and the that the vinyl stays available. It’s kind of exciting for me to have the 45’s out again, as they were originally intended. You can buy them used in some places, but there weren’t that many of them. It’s not like they sold 10 million copies."
The band’s 1981 debut single of “Radio Free Europe” b/w “Sitting Still,” released by the tiny Hib-Tone label, isn’t included in the box, because Buck says the band wanted to focus on its I.R.S. years. “Both sides of that single have been on various compilations,” he says. “I hadn’t thought of that, but that would be fun to do someday. We still have the masters.”
Instead, the box kicks off with the re-recorded 1983 version of “Radio Free Europe,” which was included on Murmur, the band’s debut full-length album. Featured on the B-side is the band’s cover of “There She Goes Again,” originally recorded by the Velvet Underground.
"I love the idea of buying records that have B-sides that aren’t on the album," Buck says. "Some of my favorite things are weird B-sides, like that Dion song ‘Daddy Rollin,’ the B-side of ‘Abraham, Martin, and John.’ It was amazing this piece of music that was on the B-side of this million-selling single and I doubt anyone even turned it over. We always thought, ‘Here’s some value for your money.’ We wanted to have something that wasn’t on the album."
Other B-sides featured in the set include a mix of covers (Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” Pylon’s “Crazy,” and Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date”); album-worthy originals (“Bandwagon,” ‘Burning Down,” and “Ages of You”); live versions (“Catapult,” “Maps and Legends,” and “Time After Time”), and instrumentals (“Rotary Ten” and “White Tornado.”)
"It was just stuff that didn’t fit on the albums that we would gave away," Buck says. "And fans thought it was really cool that there were some interesting songs, so did critics. People would make cassettes of that stuff."
Although it wasn’t necessarily by design, with some of the choice covers, R.E.M. turned its fans — including this writer — onto some of its heroes, including the Velvet Underground. “That was stuff we loved,” Buck says. “And it’s hard to believe, that in the early ’80s, there wasn’t a Velvet Underground record in print that I can remember — or you couldn’t find them. Everyone thought ‘There She Goes’ and ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ [which the the band released as a B-side on a 12-inch single], because they fit in pretty well with what we were doing at the time and they did influence a lot, so we thought it would be cool to have those on there. Now that there’s like eight Velvet Underground boxed sets, it’s not so revolutionary, but at the time, people would kind of have to make tapes of those Velvet Underground records because you just couldn’t find them.”
As for picking the A-sides of singles, Buck says there was always a discussion between the band and the label. “In those days, there would be physical singles and they’d also work other songs to radio, so you might have three different songs that were being pushed for radio play and one was actually a physical single,” Buck says. “None of our physical singles really ever sold much in the I.R.S. years.”
While waxing nostalgia about those releases, we asked Buck if he ever goes back and listens to those records “You know, I’m not even 100 percent certain I have all the R.E.M. records, in my various moves, but every now and then I’ll hear something and I’ll be pleasantly surprised,” he says. “I was in Peru about four years ago and they were having a big ’90s flashback weekend and I heard ‘Shiny Happy People’ in the back of a taxi and it sounded great — and I don’t particularly like that song.”
The band’s ’90s commercial peak, from which “Shiny Happy People” sprang, is well documented on REMTV, which includes the band’s complete 1991 Unplugged taping along with outtakes. Although Buck says some of the early ’80s footage is “cool,” he says Stipe remains in charge of the visual aspect of the band and was more involved in the compiling of REMTV.
While the band went on to have a fruitful relationship with MTV and became friends with some key executives at the network, in R.E.M.’s early days, the band members were not necessarily fans of the network. Some of their early fanclub literature referred to the network as “emTvee.”
"I was just like everybody else," Buck says. "The first time I saw MTV, I just watched it for probably two days straight and then I never watched it again. But there was no music on TV and it was a great way to reach people. We had a lot of friends at MTV and I always liked to document things. I liked doing radio broadcasts, I liked filming things, although I don’t like being filmed, so I love to see it out there."
"Of course, the irony of this is, if we released the first Unplugged [album] in 1993 or whatever, it would have sold 6 million copies,” Buck adds. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”
One highlight of REMTV, Buck says,is the band’s performance in the early ’80s on a Nickelodeon TV show. “Look in the audience,” he says. “The Beastie Boys are there. The audience was trucked in from some sort of performing arts school or upper-class school. It was when ‘Cookie Puss’ came out. You can see the Beastie Boys pretend to new-wave-dance to R.E.M.”
As for future releases, Buck is not sure there will be another massive release from the vaults. “There’s always a few little things,” he says. “But generally, if something didn’t get put it out, they didn’t get put out for a reason. We didn’t do a lot of demos. When did those reissues of the I.R.S. album, the only two records we had demos for were Fables [of the Reconstruction] and Lifes Rich Pageant. But there are some things. There’s tons of live stuff. We are trying to clear the decks as we get older so we won’t have to deal with it later. Coming up next year is the Out of Time reissue and there’s a ton of acoustic shows we did at that time , so we’ll be going through that stuff.”
There is still the possibility of a boxed set, he adds. “We have the fanclub stuff that we’ve never done anything with, so maybe we’ll put that out for a charity or something, but there’s not a great lost album in there or anything like that. There might be a few good things.”
On the charity front, Buck is looking forward to staging his fourth annual Todos Santos Music Festival Jan. 15-17 and 21-24 in Baja Sur, Mexico. “The first year, since R.E.M. had announced breaking up, I just thought, I’ll send some equipment down and we’ll do some shows,” Buck says. “I had some friends down there and it was kind of like having a party. None of the musicians were getting paid and everyone was saying at my house, but then people started getting interested. So then we said, ‘Why don’t we let the locals in free and charge the gringos and we’ll give the money to the local school that teaches kids English?’ As we’ve kept doing it, we’ve kind of expanded it. We’ve helped out with the orphanage and I think we’ve bought some life-saving equipment for the lifeguards,” he adds. “We try to do little things, but it makes a difference.”
In 2014, the festival raised $62,000, which was distributed to several charities in the town. The 2015 edition will benefit disaster relief since the village of Todos Santos was hit hard by Hurricane Odile.
This year’s lineup features the Autumn Defense, Old 97’s, the Jayhawks, and Grammy-winning Latin quartet La Santa Cecilia playing the first weekend. Weekend two will feature Conor Oberst, Dawes, M. Ward, and the Nortec Collective Presents: Bostich + Fussible on the final night. Of course, Buck will be on hand to jam with many of the acts, and there will likely be special guests (Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones showed up in 2014 and jammed with the Dream Syndicate), as well as returning artists such as Kev’n Kinney on both weekends and Steve Wynn on weekend two. Says Buck, “It’s going to be a really good year.”
R.E.M. 7IN – 83-88 tracklisting:
“Radio Free Europe” / “There She Goes Again”
“So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” / “King of the Road”
“(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” / “Catapult” (Live)
“Can’t Get There From Here” / “Bandwagon”
“Driver 8” / “Crazy”
“Wendell G” / “Crazy” + “Ages of You” / “Burning Down” [U.K. double-pack, previously unreleased on vinyl in U.S.]
“Fall On Me” / “Rotary Ten”
“Superman” / “White Tornado”
“The One I Love” / “Maps and Legends” (Live)
“Its The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” / “Last Date”
“Finest Worksong” / “Time After Time” (Live) [U.K. single, previously unreleased on vinyl in U.S.]
REMTV DVD listing:
The Cutting Edge
MTV 10th Anniversary Special
Video Music Awards 1993
Video Music Awards 1995
European Music Awards 1998
European Music Awards 2001
Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction 2007
The Colbert Report 2008
R.E.M. In Dallas
R.E.M. Uplink At Bowery Ballroom
Live In Cologne
Live In Cologne Outtakes
R.E.M. At The Tabernacle, London
MTV Sonic Milan
Rock AM Ring
Rock AM Ring Outtakes
Live At Rolling Stone, Milan
Live At Oxegen Festival
R.E.M. Live In Athens, Greece
R.E.M. By MTV