THE ALBUM I.R.S. SP-70044 RELEASED APRIL 14, 1984 CHICA PREVIOUSLY UNRELEASED
AT THE ARAGON BALLROOM R LIVE GO, IL, JULY 7, 1984
Femme Fatale Radio Free Europe Gardening at Night 9-9 Windout Letter Never Sent Sitting Still Driver 8 So. Central Rain 7 Chinese Bros. Harborcoat Hyena Pretty Persuasion Little America Second Guessing (Don't Go Back To) Rockville
Conventional wisdom has it that second albums pose a problem,
especially for those acts whose debut releases have enjoyed unanticipated success. But R.E.M. were never much concerned with following convention, and Reckoning, their 1984 follow-up to Murmur, served both to reinforce that record's remarkable sense of promise and to confound expectations. For where Murmur had downplayed itself with acoustic instrumentation and purposefully complex arrangements, Reckoning revealed itself instead, for the most part, as a gloriously rambunctious representation of the live set at a time that the group could be found playing, on average, every other night. At the same time, by including the group's first true ballads, Reckoning captured a deeply expressive melancholia that hinted at the act's artistic depth. Its variety but one of its many virtues, Reckoning was hailed upon release as another - but markedly different - instant classic, and confirmed R.E.M. as the most exciting new band of their American generation. Certainly, had they stopped long enough to think about it, the stakes were high for Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe as they approached their second album in late 1983. Only thirty months had passed since the quartet had gathered in the back of a small, dilapidated church in their college hometown of Athens, Georgia, to play a set of assorted cover versions and derivative “originals” before a crowd of equally drunken friends for a birthday party. Something had clicked that night - not just something musical, but a fortuitous balancing of personalities, an equal distribution of distinct talents - and it propelled R.E.M. to overnight status as the biggest band in a musically thriving town. From there, thanks to the committed efforts of a loose network of college radio stations, print fanzines, and a slew of self-sufficient groups who saw poverty-stricken backwoods touring not as a duty but a privilege, R.E.M. had enjoyed rapid recording progress, from the independent single “Radio Free Europe,” to a deal with I.R.S. and the Chronic Town EP of 1982. The following spring delivered Murmur, a debut of almost unconditional beauty, and one that, to the profound surprise of the group itself, sold in the six figures on its way to the Top 40 of the American album charts. The stakes would have been higher still had R.E.M. waited until the New Year to start work on Reckoning, for in the interim, the American music media hailed Murmur as the best, or damn-near-to-it, album of 1983. Rightly so, one could argue (especially from the benefit of 25 years' hindsight), but a crown laced with potential thorns nonetheless. Fortunately for all concerned, by the time such honors were bestowed, R.E.M. had Reckoning all but mixed and mastered. “We were writing tons of songs,” said Peter Buck, looking back on this period of excessive activity just a few years later and looking forward, unwittingly perhaps, as he acknowledged that “everyone I know, the longer they write, the less songs they write.” In other words, the R.E.M. of 1983 barely gave expectations a second thought. “I knew when we walked in on the first day,” said Bill Berry, “that the songs were better than the ones on the first album, so I wasn't worried at all.”
The process proved almost embarrassingly painless. Basic tracks were recorded during a week's worth of on-off work prior to Christmas, overdubs and mixing completed during another week in early January. The band took time out to play a farewell show in neighboring Greensboro at Friday's, one of the ad-hoc venues (in this case, a pizza bar) at which they'd built their reputation; spent a day in the studio filming the video for “So. Central Rain,” Michael Stipe singing live to tape in (short-lived) protest at the MTV-driven trend for lip-synching; and devoted a full evening and night-time to the recording of various covers and novelties direct to two-track, many of which would show up on subsequent b-sides and compilations. As Mitch Easter later observed, it was much like he imagined the Rolling Stones made records in the early days; you either got it right or you didn't. R.E.M. got it right. Mike Mills' and Bill Berry's rhythm parts typically made it onto tape in just two or three takes, a result of the former marching band partners' increasingly innate understanding of each other. Peter Buck's Rickenbacker guitar overdubs - and there were usually several of them - followed with equal ease, his arpeggiated riffs weaving around Mills' contrapuntal melodies in a manner that soon became an R.E.M. trademark (and later, something of a burden). The comfortably loose live feel could be heard in such diverse tracks as the off-kilter opener “Harborcoat,” the enervating three-year old rocker “Pretty Persuasion,” and the cautiously melodic “Letter Never Sent.” At a time when click tracks, gated drums and booming snares were the norm, it was especially refreshing to hear every component of Berry's acoustic kit being played in unison. As for Michael Stipe, Reckoning found him not only trying to balance his “extreme shyness” with the glare of public recognition, but simultaneously forced to defend his reputation for vocal obfuscation. Pop lyrics, declared the same conventional wisdom that expected R.E.M. to falter in the studio second album around, should be clearly enunciated, and preferably to reference familiar, obvious subject matter. Stipe, whose distinctly yearning delivery and the initial mystery of his mumbles - had contributed so much to R.E.M.'s popularity, felt otherwise. “You write words to a song unlike you would speak a sentence and unlike you would speak a sentence off a page,” he told one interviewer at the time. Ironically, if there was a single theme running through Reckoning, it was that of communication. The title to “So. Central Rain” was taken from a headline on television: the group had been in California earlier in 1983 when parts of Georgia became flooded, bringing down phone lines and preventing members from checking in on their families. And the finale “Little America” was what Buck called their “year in review,” a look at their world from the vantage point of the road - replete with close-ups of generic “Magic Marts,” wide-angle references to the country's “empty wagon,” and the immediately infamous shout-out to then manager, “Jefferson, I think we're lost.”
That R.E.M. were spoiled for choice was evident by the demos recorded in early November in San Francisco with Neil Young's producer Elliot Mazer: twenty-four songs - a double album's worth - in just one day. A week later they were in Europe for the first time, where British audiences, generally cynical at the time about American “new wave” acts of the era, were quickly set straight by a live TV appearance and two London club shows of unbridled energy, not to mention rare length (by British club band standards) and the inclusion of five as yet-unrecorded songs.
But then with “Camera,” Reckoning's stand-out ballad, the lyrics were more a matter of metaphor: the group had recently lost a close friend, their photographer Carol Levy, in a car crash, and the pain showed - even if the details remained hidden - in Stipe's evocative imagery. Elsewhere, “Harborcoat,” “Pretty Persuasion” and “Time After Time (Annelise)” would forever be shrouded in mystery, and that was fine by the vocalist. “To give away everything is never good, at any time,” he said at the time of Reckoning's release.
Despite the session with Mazer, there was rarely any doubt that R.E.M. would return to the source of Murmur's success when it came time to commit those songs to vinyl. And so, in early December, they drove the two hundred miles up Route 85 to Charlotte, North Carolina, where co-producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon were waiting for them at Reflection Sound Studio. Much of Murmur's famed murkiness had been the result of that duo's painstakingly deliberate studio techniques, but Reckoning was intended all along as something of an antithesis, a chance to turn up the volume, tear up the rule book, and capture instead R.E.M.'s on-stage mojo as instinctively developed over the course of so much touring.
Like his playing partners, Stipe captured several of his vocal performances close to the first take, but on both “Camera” and “7 Chinese Bros.,” he engaged in some light combat with the producers. Perhaps recognizing the intimacy of the former song, Easter and Dixon kept pushing for a definitive delivery, until Stipe pushed back and insisted that they had it already. (“That's the one you hear,” said Easter, “and I think it's the best one too.”) The latter song's vocal only came together after Dixon handed Stipe a gospel album off the shelf, and suggested he loosen up by reading the sleeve notes; a recording of that unlikely take, “Voice of Harold,” later showed up on the compilation Dead Letter Office.
Against all this, one song stood out as an anomaly. “(Don't Go Back To) Rockville” had first appeared in the live set in 1980 as something of a poppunk thrash, but had subsequently been dropped and never seen the inside of a studio. This may have been because the words - written by Mike Mills (who also composed the melody) as a straight-faced plea to Athens friend Ingrid Schorr not to return to her Maryland hometown - jarred alongside singer Stipe's increasing poeticism. Yet when the group slowed it down to a country pace at Reflection, as a favor for their legal advisor (and later manager) Bertis Downs, they inadvertently created an anthem. It mattered not that the “Rockville” in question was a specific place, or that the song's subject was a particular person; listeners took the generic town name to signify Anyplace, U.S.A., and frequently saw a part of themselves in the lyrics. The title itself could even be read as a musical metaphor, and as a result of all these interpretations, along with its easy melody, rousing chorus, and heartfelt arrangement - never, despite some naïve media accusations, a parody - “(Don't Go Back To) Rockville” became a rallying call for the new, fiercely independent American music scene. R.E.M.'s refusal to be sucked in by the mainstream at this time revealed itself in several other ways, not least the album artwork. In America at least, Reckoning eschewed use of that title on the sleeve and placed as much importance on the spinal note “File Under Water,” a wry reference both to the band's lack of easy categorization as well as one of the album's recurring lyrical themes. LP sides were labeled “L” and “R” rather than “1” and “2,” and the back cover featured black and white photos of the band members, placed askew as if laid out for a fanzine, not a potential chart album. The front cover itself was a distinct (and distinctly non-commercial) painting by Georgia folk artist Howard Finster of a two-headed serpent engrained with the song titles. In a further commitment to local artists, R.E.M. then recruited Athens painter James Herbert to film them walking through the nearby whirly-gig gardens of sculptor Bill Miller, to which Herbert then applied his “rephotography” method for the unlikely, twenty-minute promo clip entitled Left of Reckoning. Given all this, it was impossible for reviewers not to focus their own word cameras on R.E.M.'s southern accent - but then groups always should evoke a sense of place, of coming from somewhere other than just a recording studio. R.E.M. were from Athens, Georgia, and proud of it. Not that they saw much of their home town in 1984, instead spending almost the entire year traversing the States (twice), Europe (twice), Mexico and Japan. On July 7, the “Little America” tour stopped in at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom, for a concert broadcast at the time by WXRT Radio and included here as a bonus disc that shows the depth and breadth of a live set that changed, literally, every night. The group not only touted its two hit albums but included songs that had yet to make it into the studio (“Hyena” would not show up on record until 1986). But that was the nature of a group determined to rewrite America's rock rule book. Not only did R.E.M. hand-pick its support acts, but the sets sometimes featured songs by contemporaries The Replacements and Jason and the Scorchers. “We like to think of ourselves as the tip of the iceberg,” Buck told European journalists initially bemused by news of a burgeoning American scene, before going a step further and penning articles for leading music magazines on the subject while simultaneously decrying what, on an MTV special painfully entitled The Cutting Edge, he famously described as the “cheese whiz” that passed for typical video fodder at the time. All of which resonated with the group's increasingly committed following. Released in April 1984 to unanimously glowing reviews, Reckoning quickly made the American Top 30, on its way to highly impressive Stateside sales of a quarter-million. It has remained a fans' favorite ever since, capturing for many the moment when R.E.M. rode highest their youthful crest of self-confidence. Reckoning can be viewed, in the big picture, as but the second of six annual album releases, a remarkably prolific period of musical and commercial growth that would continue all the way through to 1988's Green. But it can also be seen, in close-up, as a freeze-frame of a year otherwise spent in constant motion, best summed up in the simple but stridently self-assured chorus line to the exuberant “Second Guessing”: “Here we are.” And emphatically so.
-- Tony Fletcher Tony Fletcher is the author of Remarks Remade: The Story Of R.E.M. and All Hopped Up and Ready To Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927-77. He has also written biographies on Keith Moon, and Echo & The Bunnymen. British born, he now lives in New York's Catskill Mountains.
THE ALBUM I.R.S. SP-70044 RELEASED APRIL 14, 1984
harborcoat 7 chinese bros. so. central rain pretty persuasion time after time (annelise) second guessing letter never sent camera (don't go back to) rockville little america Deluxe Edition Supervised by Dana G. Smart Deluxe Edition Compiled by Sig Sigworth Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, New York Archive engineer: Pete Doell at Universal Mastering Studios West Project Assistance: Michael Plen, Norm Winer & Barry Korkin Design: Chris Bilheimer & Michael Stipe Band Photos: Ed Colver
R LIVE AT THE ARAGON BALLROOM CHICAGO, IL, JULY 7, 1984 PREVIOUSLY UNRELEASED BROADCAST ON WXRT-FM, CHICAGO
femme fatale radio free europe gardening at night 9-9 windout letter never sent sitting still driver 8 so. central rain 7 chinese bros. harborcoat hyena pretty persuasion little america second guessing (don't go back to) rockville
Coordinated for release by Monique McGuffin Newman
all songs by berry/buck/mills/stipe except “femme fatale” by lou reed, Oakfield Avenue Music (BMI)
UMe thanks Bertis Downs, Kevin O'Neil, Randy Aronson, Beth Lopez-Barron, Kristen Bensch, Andy Skurow, Bill Waddell, and the staffs of the Universal Music Tape Library and Universal Mastering Studios.
recorded by timothy powell courtesy of 93.1 fm wxrt / chicago
© 2009 I.R.S. Inc. Manufactured by A&M Records. B0013032-02