The Second Disc

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Back Tracks: R.E.M. – The I.R.S. Years

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Today, the 25th anniversary reissue of R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction hits stores. Athens, Georgia’s favorite rock band has spent the past five years or so establishing their place in the pop-rock firmament: since 2006, the band’s early recordings for I.R.S. Records – a six-year span between 1982 and 1987 – have been the center of much catalogue attention from EMI and Universal (each has a piece of the I.R.S. catalogue). The four members of the band – vocalist Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and (now-retired) drummer Bill Berry – were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, their first year of eligibility. But the band hasn’t rested on their haunches amid all the adulation; 2007’s Accelerate marked a bit of a critical resurgence in the years since Berry left the group, and the band commenced recording their latest LP – their fifteenthjust months ago.

But catalogue enthusiasts should take note: although these new 25th anniversary editions of Murmur, Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction are stuffed with plenty of goodies in nice deluxe packages (unreleased live content for the first two and a hefty set of demos for Fables), these are far from the first reissues of these records. Chalk it up to R.E.M.’s long-standing influence in the rock world – or the fact that I.R.S. wanted a piece of the action when the band signed to Warner Bros. – but all of these LPs have been expanded in some way before.

To that end, your humble catalogue correspondents at The Second Disc present a look back at the reissues of R.E.M.’s early years, from compilations to collectors’ editions. If you’re confused about where to start, have some time alone after the jump, and you’ll feel fine.

Murmur (I.R.S., 1983 – reissued EMI, 1992/Universal, 2008)

R.E.M.’s first long-player already had all the pieces of the R.E.M. sound firmly in place. Buck’s guitar tones were as jangly as they came, and Michael Stipe was vocally strong and lyrically oblique – no different nearly 30 years later. Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise; the album was preceded by an independent single for Hib-Tone Records (the first version of “Radio Free Europe”) and an EP, Chronic Town (1982) on I.R.S. Curiously, none of those tracks ended up on the first re-release of Murmur, part of the “I.R.S. Vintage Years” series (all entries in this series, it should be noted, were imports). Instead, fans got a non-LP B-side (a cover of The Velvet Underground’s “There She Goes Again,” released on the flip of the I.R.S. version of “Radio Free Europe”) and three live tracks, most of which were actually recorded while on tour for the band’s next record (and released as B-sides to “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville,” a single from the next album. The 2008 deluxe edition presented a live set from the Murmur tour recorded at Larry’s Hide-Away in Toronto. It boasted a set list that featured some songs that wouldn’t be committed to an R.E.M. album for three years; the disc itself has a bit of a surprise to those who scan back to the negative space on the first track, too.

Reckoning (I.R.S., 1984 – reissued EMI, 1992/Universal, 2009)

Working again with producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, R.E.M. crafted a disc that’s a bit crisper than its predecessor, featuring one of the best singles the band ever put out, “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry).” The production is a bit trippy at times, thanks to the use of binaural recording (Reckoning is a record made for headphones). The album was a surprising success beyond the already-receptive college-radio audience, hitting Billboard‘s Top 30 and going gold. The I.R.S. Vintage Years edition added five outtakes, including a cover of “Moon River” and “Windout,” from the Bachelor Party soundtrack. Like Murmur‘s deluxe reissue, the 25th anniversary version of Reckoning included another live disc recorded at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.

Fables of the Reconstruction (I.R.S., 1985 – reissued EMI, 1992/2010)

Fables was another batch of firsts for R.E.M. – the first with a different producer (Joe Boyd, best known for his work with Nick Drake), the first LP recorded away from Charlotte, North Carolina’s Reflection Sound (this set was recorded in Livingston Studios in London) and perhaps the first lyrics of Stipe’s that grasped toward the political (this, as with every R.E.M. lyric, is debatable – it could be that the band just liked railroads at the time of recording). I.R.S.’ Vintage Years edition included nothing but B-sides: three non-LP tracks and two live cuts, all of which appeared on a single from Fables (except one, the live version of “Maps and Legends” from the single of “The One I Love”). The newly-released deluxe edition of the record has demos recorded in Athens of all 11 songs from the LP, plus demos of the B-side “Bandwagon,” the song “Hyena” (to be heard on the group’s following album) and a never-before-heard song, “Throw These Trolls Away” (alternately titled “When I Was Young,” the lyrics of which appeared in the original liner notes to the record without any explanation).

Lifes Rich Pageant (I.R.S., 1986 – reissued EMI, 1993)

A bit more upbeat than its predecessor (thanks to a more rhythm-focused production by Don Gehman, who produced all of John Mellencamp’s hits in the ’80s, not to mention some more positive, conscious lyrics by Stipe), Pageant continued the band’s streak of success, just missing the U.S. Top 20. Key tracks included the environmentally-friendly “Fall on Me” and the obscure cover of “Superman,” a song by a Texas rock band named The Clique. The 1992 reissue included two B-sides, two previously unreleased tracks and two songs previously released on the cassette only soundtrack to the documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out, chronicling the band’s hometown music scene in 1987.

Dead Letter Office (I.R.S., 1987 – reissued EMI, 1993)

The band’s first B-sides compilation (plus an unreleased alternate version of B-side “White Tornado”) would have been a cheap cash-in if not for a few genuine rarities (the CD version is the only place you can find the Chronic Town EP on compact disc) and some admittedly funny track-by-track liner notes written by Peter Buck. The material itself isn’t bad, showing off the band’s disparate influences (three Velvet Underground covers and one of Aerosmith’s “Toys in the Attic,” not to mention a drunken run-through of “King of the Road”), and although roughly half of the disc overlaps with those 1990s reissues, it’s still an essential part of the R.E.M. oeuvre. The reissue includes two tracks that were entirely unreleased, an acoustic version of “Gardening at Night” from Chronic Town and an outtake called “All the Right Friends,” which the band would later re-record for the film Vanilla Sky.

Document (I.R.S., 1987 – reissued EMI, 1993/Capitol, 2005)

R.E.M. became a mainstream rock act with this final release on I.R.S., thanks to a smash hit – the Top 10 “The One I Love” – and the enduring, stream-of-consciousness tune “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” The album – their first with producer Scott Lit, who’d work with them for the next nine years – went platinum, which was more than enough incentive for Warner Bros. to sign them the next year, where they remain today. Four live tracks, a non-LP B-side and two remixes of “Finest Worksong” round out the EMI reissue of Document; audiophiles should note that the label also commissioned a 5.1. surround mix of the record released on the late DualDisc format a few years ago.

Eponymous (I.R.S., 1988)

The quartet’s official final act for I.R.S. – released just a month before Green, their first LP for Warner Bros. – was a compilation of the band’s biggest hits at the time. Collectors should note a few rarities are present on this set, including an alternate mix of “Gardening at Night,” the single remix of “Finest Worksong,” a song from the soundtrack to Made in Heaven and – perhaps most notably – the original Hib-Tone single version of “Radio Free Europe,” the band’s first-ever release.

The Best of R.E.M. (I.R.S., 1991) / Singles Collected (I.R.S., 1994) / In the Attic: Alternative Recordings 1985-1989 (EMI/Capitol, 1997)

These first two, U.K.-only, non-band-approved compilations were the last R.E.M. releases before I.R.S. went under in 1996. None of them have anything that hasn’t been released elsewhere, although the format of Singles Collected is kind of neat, including every 7-inch A and B-side (including the original single edits) on one disc. In the Attic, the first mining of R.E.M.’s I.R.S. catalogue after it was fully acquired by EMI (rather than simply distributed) also includes nothing that wasn’t already on the 1990s reissues of the original LPs, but it’s definitely a cheaper, easier-to-find alternative to searching for all those imported copies of the Vintage Years reissues.

And I Feel Fine: The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 (Capitol, 2007) / When the Light is Mine (Capitol, 2007)

Arguably the best overview of the I.R.S. period, this set collates not only the hit singles but a good chunk of favored album cuts as well, making this a true “best-of” set. A deluxe edition has an additional set of songs hand-picked by Stipe, Buck, Mills and Berry and a good chunk of rare or unreleased material, including both sides of the Hib-Tone single, a handful of live cuts and quite a few demos (including the demo of “Hyena” on the reissue of Fables and an early version of “Bad Day,” which was the lead single of Warner’s most recent compilation In Time: The Best of 1988-2003). Also worth checking out is When the Light is Mine, a DVD chronicle of the same period; the band rarely did traditional music videos at this stage in their career, but there’s a heap of live footage, including performances on The Tube and The Old Grey Whistle Test in the U.K., several long-form videos like the Left of Reckoning project and footage from MTV’s The Cutting Edge, an alt-rock show sponsored by – who else – I.R.S. Records.

Written by Mike Duquette

July 13, 2010 at 12:01

Posted in Compilations, Features, Reissues, REM

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6 Responses

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  1. This is an awesome set, except for the packaging. I wish they would have used the same Deluxe Edition packaging they used for Murmur and Reckoning. I HATE spending $30 on cds, and then having to put the cds in blank cases because they just gave me cheap cardboard sleeves that offer no protection at all. Let’s hope the matter is fixed for Life’s Rich Pageant.


    July 13, 2010 at 20:16

  2. I don’t recall the early 90’s EMI reissues–were they released in the US or only overseas?


    July 13, 2010 at 22:28

    • They were import-only reissues. The article mentions this as well. What is notable is that the 1993 editions are NOT remasters. The new deluxe edition series is the first time the I.R.S. recordings have been remastered. What we need now is a boxed set, preferably one that includes some of the early tracks, like “Narrator,” “Permanent Vacation,” and “Body Count.”


      July 14, 2010 at 01:59

      • Chris is right on both counts (non-remastered imports – pressed in The Netherlands, of all places). Hopefully they’ll do some sort of box set that collates those other tracks (releasing Murmur without the Chronic Town EP at least appended to the end of Disc 1 was kinda weird, I always thought). The only trick seems to be EMI and Universal (which each have distribution rights to parts of the I.R.S. catalogue, it seems) mutually agreeing on such a set.

        Mike Duquette

        July 14, 2010 at 11:33

  3. I am guessing/hoping that there will be a 2 disc version of Dead Letter Office, and the 2nd disc will include more non-album stuff, Narrator, Permanent Vacation, and Body Count to be included. I love Dead Letter Office, and would happily pay for a remastered version.


    July 15, 2010 at 21:04

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