R.E.M. – At the BBC (review)

R.E.M. – At the BBC (Craft Recordings)

Massive set tracks the band’s ascent from college radio darlings to worldwide superstars

R.E.M. were one of the unlikeliest of global rock bands.  Hailing from the college town of Athens, Georgia, the band’s unique blend of 60’s jangle pop combined with a hip aesthetic, quickly grew from word of mouth to commercial success story, and helped usher in the alternative rock movement that would follow into the 90’s.

At the BBC is a brand-new, multi-disc collection that charts this trajectory  – you really hear the band mature right before your ears.

It might seem odd that a band from the southern US would best be summed up in a collection of their recordings from England.  Yet, at closer look, R.E.M.’s wry humor, art aesthetic and (at least initial) aloofness were all closer to British in nature.The earliest concert takes place in 1984 in Nottingham, and this is a real treat for longtime fans.  The band was riding high on the one-two punch of their first two albums, Murmur and Reckoning, and still exuded the punk rawness of their origins.  Listen to the slashing guitar of Peter Buck on “Second Guessing.”  Bassist Mike Mills has always been R.E.M.’s secret weapon – his loping bass is all over the place, especially on the country pastiche “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.”  Vocalist Michael Stipe purposely obscured a lot of his singing at this point – he sounds tentative at times, like on “West of the Fields.”   Other places though, he’s absolutely on fire – like his wailing near the end of “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” while drummer Bill Berry frenetically pounds away.

A couple other highlights from this show include a peculiar medley of “9-9” with “Hey Diddle Diddle” and a snippet of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” where Stipe ad libs in his best Jim Morrison, singing “as I lay me down to sleep.”  The band struggles through the soft ballad “Wendell Gee”  – this sounds light years away from the group that would have a smash with the similar “Everybody Hurts” ten years later.  Ferocious renditions of “Pretty Persuasion” and “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)” end things on a high note. Even this early, the band was taking a stand politically, saying “we’re not proud of our President…we’re sorry.”

Then, we jump eleven years for R.E.M.’s performance at the National Bowl in 1995.  The two discs from this concert come while they were touring for their Monster album.  Buck’s guitar is turned up to eleven and Stipe has developed into the consummate frontman (he would’ve never asked “how’s it going”? to the audience back in 1984).  The tremelo glam of “Crush With Eyeliner” seems 1,000 miles from their Byrds-infused early days.  Even the understated material, like “Try Not to Breathe,” is loud and boisterous.  “Revolution” was a new song that would only make it on the ill-fated Batman & Robin soundtrack.  At one point Stipe says “I want to thank everyone who waited six years for us to tour again.”

We jump only four years for the next two discs, the band’s 1999 performance at the Glastonbury Festival, yet so much has happened in the interim.  Gone is original drummer Berry, and several members had been through medical procedures.  Yet, they seem absolutely electrified by the huge festival crowd, and Stipe gushes about how much fun he’s having throughout the show.    He introduces “The One I Love” with “this is technically known as a crowd pleaser…but we happen to fucking enjoy playing it.”  Then, before “Losing My Religion” he says “I can feel you, I can hear you, I can smell you, I can taste you…and I really, really like it.”

The final, full-length concert is from 2004, for the band’s tour of their 13th album, Around the Sun.  Considering the heavy content of the studio record, it’s not surprising that the performance is a lot more understated.  Stipe is still in good voice, especially on title cut, “Around the Sun.”  The set closes with the Andy Kaufman ode “Man on the Moon,” which at this point, had become their signature song.

Filling in the blanks between the years are an additional two discs of in-studio performances.  Many of these renditions are unplugged and let their softer material really shine, like the underrated “Daysleeper,” or their Troggs’ cover “Love is All Around.”  A 2003 television performance of “Orange Crush” is particularly good, as is a stripped-down “Supernatural Serious” (another underrated song, from 2008).

As if that weren’t enough, there’s also two DVD’s of actual video footage of the band as well.  Couple that with extensive interviews with many of the BBC’s hosts over the years, and you’ve got a set that’s about as thorough as it possibly could be.

Honestly, this is a lot of concert footage, even for the devoted fan – you’ll literally spend hours wading through all the treasures held within.  But, for those wanting a more concise overview, there’s a two-disc version (The Best of…At the BBC), which grabs the highlights of each disc.  What you truly get to see is the maturation of one of America’s greatest bands on the international stage.   It also gives you a better appreciation of just how great R.E.M. was live.  –Tony Peters