The All-Time Best R.E.M. Obscurities

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Today is the 30th anniversary of R.E.M.’s debut album Murmur, an anniversary that surely warrants celebration, even if it does make us feel, well, old. Listening to the album this morning sent us down something of an R.E.M. rabbit hole — first Murmur, then its associated b-sides, then weird early studio outtakes, then… Well, anyway, we thought we’d celebrate this de facto R.E.M. day with a feature that takes you down the rabbit hole with us: a collection of our favorite R.E.M. obscurities, b-sides and outtakes. As ever, let us know if you have any to add.

“That Beat”

This studio outtake from the Murmur sessions rather presages the direction the band would follow a few years later — it’s decidedly upbeat, and Stipe’s vocals are placed front-and-center in the mix, rather than being buried under layers of abstraction. You can see why the band decided to leave it off their debut — it didn’t really fit the mood of the album — but it’s a fascinating listen nonetheless. It’s also interesting to see how much it resembles…

“Ages of You”

An even earlier outtake, from the sessions for R.E.M.’s debut EP Chronic Town. Apparently it got canned because the band members got sick of it — it was one of the first songs they wrote, and went through several incarnations before settling into the form you hear above. It also features some of Stipe’s most impenetrable lyrics: “Postcard stowaway within/ Pristine indigo without/ Banded ottoman as such/ Sofa seated one too much.” Um, OK, if you say so.

“Voice of Harold”

This Reckoning outtake was the result of Stipe continually making a mess of vocal takes for “Seven Chinese Brothers.” Exasperated, he gave up and started reading the liner notes to a Christian record that happened to be sitting around the studio. The result is curiously compelling in its own way, and eventually made its way onto the b-side of the “So. Central Rain” single, and thence to mid-’80s non-album track compilation Dead Letter Office. (Also, apparently the original “Seven Chinese Brothers” is about “breaking up a couple, and then dating both of them, a man and a woman, which is a terrible thing to do, but I was young and stupid,” which… wow.)

“Fretless”

The great lost Out of Time-era track, this song was quite the sought-after rarity before it surfaced on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. Quite why this was left off Out of Time is unclear — it’s way better than “Shiny Happy People.” (The title refers to the fretless bass that Mike Mills plays on the recording, if you’re wondering.)

“Leave” (alternate version)

The arresting synth loop that underpins the album version of this New Adventures in Hi-Fi highlight always seemed to be disguising the fact that the song was in essence a really gorgeous ballad. This rather pretty alternate version proved this to be the case — it was the band’s contribution to the A Life Less Ordinary soundtrack, and these days you can find it on the bonus disc that came with the In Time best-of compilation.

“It’s a Free World, Baby”

Another curiously discarded Out of Time-era song, and one that sounds like it would have fit seamlessly onto that record. Instead, it appeared on the b-side to Automatic for the People single “Drive,” and later on the In Time bonus disc.

“Moon River”

R.E.M. used to cover Henry Mancini’s classic regularly in their early years, and eventually set down a recorded version, which you can find on Dead Letter Office the IRS CD reissue of Reckoning. That version isn’t on YouTube, but you can make do with the live version above, which is really rather lovely, even if it sounds like Stipe gets momentarily thrown by whatever it is a bro in the crowd shouts at him about halfway through.

“Bandwagon”

This mid-’80s track found Stipe lampooning people keen to leap on, well, bandwagons. Word on the street back in the day was that it was a subtle jab at U2 and their whole white flag/Live Aid schtick, although as ever, Stipe’s lyric is obtuse enough to invite any number of interpretations.

“King of the Road”

The band themselves apparently hate, or at least are embarrassed by, this version of Roger Miller’s classic — in the liner notes to Dead Letter Office, Peter Buck suggested dryly that “If there was any justice in the world, Roger Miller should be able to sue for what we did to this song.” Sadly, the band’s record label don’t want you to hear it on YouTube, but if you have Spotify, listen away.

“Star Me Kitten” (feat. William S. Burroughs)

And finally, a curious piece in which the ancient Burroughs reads Stipe’s portrait of a relationship sinking into a mire of mutual disinterest and ennui, and does a pretty great job of it. Quite how the collaboration came about we can’t tell you, but it appeared on the 1996 X-Files-centric album Songs in the Key of X.