R.E.M…I haven’t thought about R.E.M in an age. Of course, I remember them being about, but then I always thought of them as being a little too white bread, a proper MOR band that had some status, but no real verve. They never did anything exotic like U2 did when they almost died of smug embarrassment after Rattle And Hum and then touched heaven with the all-timer Achtung Baby. Of course, Shiny Happy People or Losing My Religion were ok, and everyone on TV seemed to have a cry during a sad montage to Everybody Hurts at least once. They went stratospheric in the nineties, but it says an awful lot about the arctic-temperature excitement factor R.E.M generated within me that, whilst other bands of that decade who found their way onto my mixtape were shoving shotguns in their faces, inciting stadium riots or throwing down at the BRIT awards, the most rock thing anyone in R.E.M did was throw a yoghurt at someone during a wee strop on a plane.
Listen, I was and am foolish to adopt such a facetious stance. I made a mistake that needs corrected. It happened once before, but look, this isn’t that photographer – because I have no regrets there – this is serious: R.E.M were f**king great.
Leaving aside the fact that Shiny Happy People is a really, really bizarre song that scares me a little, some of the performances on this Best Of collection (or the – oooft – 7 and a 1/2 hour boxset) never fall below “amazing”. Michael Stipe, always an assured presence, here is sublime, subtly turning the emotions up or down depending on the material. He is also the glue that nullifies the lag that can occur when a live rendition meets the collective memory of its studio counterpart. The way he attacks What’s The Frequency Kenneth?, or his knowing pause after “I’m not sure these people understand” from the ever-lovely Nightswimming adds some depth to the material that isn’t there on the record. Guitarist Peter Buck’s handiwork , meanwhile, is under-rated, be it sawing its way through Crush With Eyeliner, delivering that deliciously jagged riff on Lotus, or – yes, fine – doing the mandolin thing on Losing My Religion. Their Milton Keynes and Glasto gigs showcase a band on top form during their peak, with their best material on display. The recordings make you appreciate the craftmanship and mastery of the live arena, and you know what – here, with the crowd going wild and clapping along, you can see why Everybody Hurts is a beloved song.
Despite the sometimes barebones recording quality (this does span about twenty years of rock music and recording technology), this is a mighty fine, comprehensive set from a band coming into and then performing at their best, in a country that fully embraced them and for whom the feeling was obviously mutual. The one thing this otherwise excellent set won’t tell you, however, is how good R.E.M were on home turf. If that means another boxset, then we will all be shiny happy….ok, sorry.
Photo courtesy of Anton Corbijn
R.E.M at the BBC is available now, via Craft Recordings.