Review: R.E.M. – The Best Of R.E.M. At The BBC
A triumphant chronicle of US alt-giants R.E.M.’s enduring relationship with the Beeb. Gary Walker bemoans the lack of a vinyl boxset.
What better way to retell the enduring relationship between one of America’s greatest bands and a UK audience that grew exponentially across 24 years than this celebration of their performances on the BBC?
With the comprehensive Deluxe 8CD and DVD edition offering a full Peel session, and live sets from Nottingham’s Rock City (1984) a Monster tour date in Milton Keynes, an invitation-only 2004 show at London’s St James Church, 21 songs from Glastonbury 1999 and an entire 1998 episode of Later… With Jools Holland devoted to the band, the 2LP version could be seen as a mere appetiser and may leave some fans under-fulfilled.
Split between two discs – one covering sessions and the other live broadcasts – the earliest material comes from a gig at the humble Rock City in November 1984, broadcast by the Beeb and much bootlegged. It finds Michael Stipe given a generous helping of reverb and in typically endearing form, asking “if anyone has a nine-and-a-half size shoe that I could borrow?” after the heel comes off his boot.
At the start of Radio Song, recorded for Nicky Campbell’s Session Into The Night on Radio 1 in 1991, Stipe asks whether “you want me to rap?”. A trio of songs from that set appear here, not least a faultless rendition of Losing My Religion released on seventh album Out Of Time just a day previously. There’s sadly only a pair of songs from the 1998 Peel Session on the vinyl version, with At My Most Beautiful every bit as achingly charming as the album version on Up.
Bad Day, from the Mark And Lard show, threatens to career off the rails but is nonetheless triumphant, Stipe chuckling heartily at its conclusion before some thrilling guitar work lights up Orange Crush. The same day, Radio 2’s Drivetime broadcast Man On The Moon and the sublime Imitation Of Life.
By 1999 the Athens, Georgia band are delivering the first of their two great Glastonbury Pyramid Stage headline sets to an enormous crowd; the whole gig is included on the 8CD version, with the vinyl set pared down to a towering Everybody Hurts and the ramshackle break-neck closing It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).
The juxtaposition between that 1984 show in Nottingham, Glastonbury, and the rip-roaring What’s The Frequency Kenneth? in front of a huge crowd at Milton Keynes Bowl 11 years later encapsulates the band’s incredible ascent in the intervening decade, although a reworked chugging version of Drive lacks the brooding majesty that made it the lead single from Automatic For The People.
Their final BBC appearance, in Radio 1’s Live Lounge in 2008, is marked by Supernatural Superserious from Accelerate.
Throughout the whole 2LP set, spanning two decades, Stipe’s voice barely wavers, belying the fact that this a collection of live sessions and broadcasts and reminding us that he was an untouchable vocalist. It’s a fine document of the band arriving on these shores as alternative cult- heroes and becoming global giants, then calling time without sacrificing a shred of integrity. There’s not a wasted song here – it’s just a shame the Deluxe version couldn’t have become a vinyl boxset.
Written by Gary Walker. Released on Craft Recordings.