Demos, are the rough draft of any essay, the first run through before the final product is turned in. Often they are filled with fractured sentences and half thoughts as the words in question are still being juggled around in our brains.
For fans of music, demos can often get an early clue into the songwriting process. Typical folks that enjoy these types of things also question liner notes, weird quotes and other statements and well we get off on a particular chorus that is not all the way developed or a verse that is completely different than the version on the album.
My introduction to demos was not actually listening to them but hearing about them via Peter Buck who discussed briefly the validity of “Bootlegs” way back in 1988 on the nationally syndicated show Rockline. There he discussed some of his favorite bootlegs, including “Chronic Murmurings” when he noted that this was special in that it had a version of Bertis Downs and Jefferson Holt doing the vocals for “Windout”.
Chronic Murmurings is just one of the plethora of Demo Bootleg collections available as for R.E.M., demo sessions had been leaked for every album up through Out of Time, with the exception of course of Fables of the Reconstruction.
For R.E.M. this would be the first time the band has released a full-fledged “Demo Sessions” for any album. While there have been songs that have appeared as B-Sides from time to time, this is a true departure.
The demo sessions that are included on the Fables of the Reconstruction 25th Anniversary Re-release include sessions that they did in Athens, Georgia before they left for England to record with Joe Boyd, who recorded such acts as Nick Drake, Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention.
Demos have always had a long and storied history for any popular band. As the band would pass around an early tape of their music, that tape would multiply and eventually end up on some underground bootleg release.
As a longtime fan that has a plethora of their early live shows, my initial feeling was that this would not work. What would be the point of having a set of demo recordings when no short of seven of these would be right off the Reckoning tour. There could not be all that many secrets for half of these songs. Right?
Second, sometimes Demos do not work all that well on an album setting such as this when the songs do not deviate significantly from the album versions. For example, Gardening at Night was recorded during the Reckoning sessions much slower than the version that was on Chronic Town. In doing so it offered something unique that could be placed on an album and believe that it would succeed. Same with the “As Yet Unreleased” version of Catapult that was recorded by Stephen Hague. And while the band of course hated this version and the song, it would be nice to see this song officially released.
The Fables Demos that were recorded in Athens contain all the Fables tracks as well as ‘Bandwagon’, ‘Hyena’ and ‘Throw These Trolls Away’ aka ‘When I Was Young’ which contains similar lyrics to that of ‘I Believe’.
There have been a plethora of posts in terms of the quality of these bootlegs. On the surface, the bootlegs sound pretty outstanding, minus the hiccups in the final engineering of the product. As mentioned earlier, most of the songs on this demos cd produce “Clipping” which is the “Shearing” off the tops of the audio files, which, for the listener creates a high end static sound. This is much more of a problem for listening with headphones vs. speakers, which might crowd out that static. However, it still persists.
Some questions linger whether this was on the master recording itself or just an effect that happened in the mastering/engineering process, however, that question is mute. If this static did exist on the master tapes there is plenty of wizardry that could have been accomplished to take it off, which makes it essentially shoddy work, which is a shame.
Secondly, I would make the argument that these demos are pretty much for diehards only. The appeal of the live concert vs. the demos is, in my opinion treating the subject matter, the album, in different contexts.
For an album such as Murmur, the Larry’s Hideaway show gave listeners both some insight into their early shows as well as showcased the differences between their live sound and the studio work. And while Reckoning was much more stripped down a record, the Aragon Ballroom show included in that deluxe edition showcased the urgency of their sound. Make no mistake, R.E.M. barnstormed this country and sold fans not just on their critically-acclaimed albums but a solid if not outstanding live show from a band that put all they had into every show. Fans would travel up and down the east coast, following them from venue to venue, gathering a small but eager fan base.
The Fables package with the demos, decides to reconstruct this album from the top down. It’s moody atmosphere and production value has been a topic of hot conversation among fans wondering if the “Muddiness” was a preference or an effect of recording across the pond.
Many of songs for Fables had already been performed during the Reckoning tour, which allowed the band to flesh out their live sound and refine it along the way. For example, Driver 8’s original lyrics were “The walls constructed” vs. “The wall were built up”. Other songs included a crazy version of Wendell Gee performed on MTV’s Cutting Edge, which was first performed on acoustic guitar and later on the tour on electric guitar. Other songs making their way to the live shows included Old Man Kensey, Auctioneer (Another Engine) and Hyena (although obviously this was not included on the final Fables album).
For fans that are willing to jaunt into this realm, I recommend picking these up. Some of the highlights in my opinion are as follows:
Feeling Gravitys Pull – The most inventive song on Fables stands out for the insane drumming by Bill Berry. Comparing this to the original highlights an aspect that is often forgotten in the Peter Buck-Guitar Centric minds of R.E.M. fans in what a great drummer Bill was. He is the key to the album Murmur, in my opinion and I would imagine that if the producer on this album was someone other than Joe Boyd, the song might have turned out differently.
Can’t Get There From Here – Not as funky as the finished product as the chorus is still in development and does not contain the flashy horns on the album version.
Kohoutek – The lyrics on this song are still not finished as several inconsistencies occur.
Maps and Legends – This is also a work in progress as we find Michael Stipe’s lyrics on this offer different lyrics for the both the second and third verse. The second verse is almost completely unique minus a line he uses in the finished product and the third verse is similar to the first.
Don’t Throw These Trolls Away – The song that has been titled “When I Was Young” on several bootlegs, is given a proper treatment here. While some of the lyrics will eventually end up on the song “I Believe” here we see a song that is a work in progress. There is no doubt that they made the right decision to abandon this song. I would be curious however, if a version of this came out of the Fables sessions in England. That might be interesting to hear.
Wendell Gee – Instead of focusing on Banjo and Keyboards/Pianos, this version features Peter on electric guitar such as how the band performed during the later part of the tour for Reckoning.
On another level it works as an alternate Fables album and I guess you can rearrange the songs and put them in that order as I had the opportunity to do the first time that I listened to it.
And while I support this release and the fact that the band gave us something that has not been heard yet, I also feel that something is left out. The Fables Tour marks the first time that I believe that Stipe is coming into his own on stage. The Fables Tour acts as part live show and storytelling opportunity that allowed him to begin weaving the tales of the album’s content to the live audience such as the stories about Kensey or even the made up story of “Theme to Two Steps Onward”. Thanks to tapers such as David O. Thomas who recorded amazing bootlegs of these shows, most of them can be found from time to time online.
But for the common fan out there, I can only look back at myself and remember that it was these elements that got me so enamored with R.E.M. in the first place.
From Pop Matters:
Addressing Boyd’s concerns about the lack of a dominant element in the mix, Buck’s guitar and Mike Mills’ bass have had their volumes increased. Unfortunately, poor Bill Berry’s drums remain relegated to the background, ensuring that the whole affair remains R.E.M.’s most dated production from the 1980s.
I would also like to post for post sakes, Murmur.com's Ethan Kaplan on the new rerelease:
Some will complain that the mix is too up front, but you're missing the point. Fables is a rusty railroad spike meant to be tripped over. It was not meant to sit in the background.
And a third opinion from Drew Crumbaugh posted to the REMRing Facebook Wall:
According to the lossless rip I now have of this.... it's super brickwalled. :( Even the demos are squashed. I wouldn't call it a remix as comment#1 implies (increasing volume of Buck/Mills in the mix), rather, the squashed dynamics compress the drum sounds down deep into the overall mix. Yuck. I hear no discernable, "buy this version now" audible ... difference between the remastered album, and the original IRS CD, besides an obvious volume boost with brickwalled limiting. It's really yucky and the demos too have been subject to the same indignity.
Drew has also posted a photo of Driver 8 from Disc 2 of the Demos which shows obvious clipping.
If you note the straight line in the middle of the page, this would indicate that the top of the wavelength in this example has been "Clipped" off.
And while I have not had a chance to personally listen to these myself and judge at this point, the concern that I feel early on is that remastering does not equal better. Stay Tuned!
In my spare time I have been spending time on a comprehensive piece on the Athens Scene in terms of R.E.M. As of course, I have such a detailed history of being down there. . .
(insert laugh track here)
However, when albums such as this pop out of the woodwork they do need some extra listening.
The Method Actors to me were just a name. I had never been able to spend any time actually listening to their music at any real depth and so this album's release came with a bit of apprehension. Am I just buying this album because they came from Athens? My answer to that was 'Yes'. In fact, I failed to read any reviews on it but based my knowledge on the fact that Pylon has posted it on their Facebook fan page.
And getting back to the R.E.M. piece I was writing earlier on their 30th Anniversary gave me a second reason to purchase it. I concluded the purchase was for “Research” which I have now decided is an apt reason to purchase any music whatsoever.
(Not that this has ever been a problem with my own wife as she has always encouraged me to write, write and write some more but for those of you out in the real world looking for a way to purchase more music, what better than to start a blog and tell your significant other that the purchases are blog expenses.)
Of course this is what happens to music. It is born and has a day and a life whereby it fulfills our fantasies and then we move onto the next one. For these songs they were trapped in time and once again released to a different time and audience. The Method Actors have been trapped in a vacuum waiting for the perfect moment to put their name in the news again.
The Method Actors were a duo consisting of Vic Varney on Guitar and David Gamble on drums. Their sound, however, is in no way minimalist in nature as what they are able to accomplish as a two-piece will astound the listener.
What of course has shocked me from this purchase was that the music was surprisingly good. The list of names that they put together regarding the Athens scene is not just an overblown pile of trash. As I read off the name “Method Actors” they will be firmly supplanted as one of the true treasures of the Post-Punk movement.
It would appear that both Drowned In Sound and Pitchfork would agree.
But in terms of their sound compared to R.E.M., I see that they are much more of an influence especially guitarwise as Peter Buck admits in the liner notes.
The Athens music scene was very vibrant in the late 70s early 80s. Everybody is familiar with the B-52s and REM and to a lesser extent Pylon and Love Tractor, but one of my favorite bands and most innovative was the Method Actors, a band that I must have seen play 100 times.
To me the Method Actors really had it all. Their unique two-man lineup, guitar and drums (both sang—weirdly, marvelously), was unheard of at the time. David Gamble used thunderstick that must have weighed at least a pound each, had the deepest voice I ever heard and looked like a brick shithouse version of Jeff Chandler in boxer shorts; Vic looked like a cigarette with a guitar. Anyone who has seen the White Stripes knows how much can be gotten out of that configuration but at the time it was considered strange and extreme. They were incredibly prolific, with new songs every time you saw them, single releases, European EPs, and new albums consistently.
They were a propulsive live band with a full sound that belied the two-man lineup. And in Vic Varney they had an extremely talented guitar player who rewrote the rules on rhythm guitar, at least as far as I was concerned. I stood in front of Vic night after night watching his hands and trying to figure out how he did what he did. In his use of drum notes, broken chords, modal harmonies, and dissonant rhythms, he created a template for some of the things I did later with my band.
These records have been out of print for a very long time. I recently rediscovered them on vinyl and was surprised to see how much of an influence Vic had cast on my playing. I’m extremely happy to finally see these records back in print. They amount to a kind of secret history of the Athens scene and their re-release is something to be treasured. Maybe this release will be a good introduction to the career of Vic Varney, who is still making great records 25 years later. - Peter Buck
Ok, so Peter Buck is a fan. Why should you be a fan? When I hear the first track “Do the Method”, it brings upon all the elements of what I would expect out of the early Athens Dance scene.
In fact, if I was not denied entry of a certain club in Chicago on the night of my Bachelor party, that plays retro 80s music on Thursday night, I would argue that they could just play this album straight through and it would be a rip roaring event.
As you scan through the album on first listen, however, you will notice a plethora of sounds that are not just lined with hooks. We do hear some of the more artsier moments of the Athens scene. ‘You’ slightly danceable awkwardness reminds me more of a band like Pylon.
'Rang-A-Tang' sounds like a song that should have been placed on a John Hughes movie from the 80s. Most definitely the most poppy track on the album, the part of the song is pop bliss before Varney goes into a David Byrne-spiel halfway through before the songs is brought back to form.
This 19 track album is full of other surprises, as pscychaedelica makes it’s appearance later on. On tracks such as ‘Pigeons’, the longest track clocking in at 6:55 that take you back to the late acid rock bands of the 60’s with little vocals and Varney but his rhythm guitar and the persistent drumming of Gamble.
Point being, you should not just get this because it’s from Athens, nor because Peter Buck likes it but rather this is genuinely great music that if you appreciate this scene will no doubt be listing this among the better re-released albums of the year.
I was getting concerned that Pitchfork would not give 'Reckoning' its due, but it came through just before the July 4th holiday, and never too late.
Pitchfork exploded again with giving Reckoning a perfect 10 rating, making plenty of great arguments as to its place as one of R.E.M.'s best albums:
Declaring Reckoning to be R.E.M.'s "best" album sells short just how many different kinds of great albums R.E.M. have released. But, more so than any other R.E.M. record, Reckoning is unified and energized by the very restlessness that has driven the band to explore so many different ideas and identities. It is this paradoxical engine of transparency and mystery that has made the band so unique, regardless of the particular approach they choose to take for a given record. Any way you look at it, this is R.E.M.
While they surely do not have to sell me on this news, a definitive review and perfect score continue to sell the premise of the importance of this album on rock music.