In a strange way, this is a review of the new reissue of R.E.M.'s Life's Rich Pageant album from 1986. The album itself has been reviewed a few million times, and so I won't bother with that, but what concerns us here is the second disc in the set. The demos. This got me to thinking about that strange object of coveted desire, the bootleg.
I don't know where it came from but I developed the collector bug early on. If I was fascinated with something, I explored it to its fullest. Film directors, writers, bands, artists, it's almost all the same. You can only seemingly know something after you've examined it completely. It only gets strange when the need is greater than the supply of material.
Say, with writers, you can go further, collecting rare appearances in magazines. Two examples of which may already be familiar to you- J.D Salinger's "Hapworth 16 1924" from the June 19 1965 issue of The New Yorker. It's never been collected and now exists as a curious, nearly secret phenomenon. Charles Bukowski readers have probably rarely ventured into the catacombs of the groundbreaking Grove Press anthology, The Evergreen Review for the short story supplement to his Post Office novel. If you haven't read that little gem, you don't really know Post Office. A publisher with any real foresight would have added that material to subsequent additions. This is just an example of the collector mentality.
With bands, there are five areas of exploration for those with deeper needs. Usually single b-sides are the first step of the journey. I spent a small fortune on Siouxsie and the Banshee singles in my early youth. I had already owned the albums and had spied a discography that listed songs I had never heard of such as "Voices" and "Red Over White". The only way to get them was to buy the 7" singles which may or may not have been issued in the U.S. I went to record conventions and would buy them one by one with my meager finances. It was treasure hunting, no doubt about it. When I finally got their debut non album single, "Hong Kong Garden", I was a happy bastard for sure. The b-side, "Voices" was a completely weird, contorted, and fantastic swirly mess. Hot damn. Gold. The history of the song is great too. That made the hunt that much more wonderful. Obviously, many bands put complete shit on their single flipsides or worse, tracks already on the full length album. How boring.
I was already fully immersed into the punk rock by high school and in the late eighties until the late nineties existed the world of the seven inch single. Songs by bands that would vanish as fast as they appeared. There's a goldmine of buried culture just waiting to be unearthed, but the reason I bring it up is that maybe it made me more aware of the search. A couple of my favorite still uncollected singles are Lungfish's "10 East"(with an amazing painted sleeve) and Red Eye's Resevoir 7". Some others that I still love are Air Miami's "Airplane Rider", the Stacatto Reads 7", Flex Lavender, the Hoover/Lincoln split, Unwound's "Totality", the Slant 6/Make Up split, The early Crownhate Ruin singles, and anything by Indian Summer. I play those for guests every now and then. I'll usually sprinkle in one of my more lucky finds, that bizarre Van Dyke Parks Datsun commercial that was on a late 60's Warner Brothers compilation, or that beautiful face melting version of "Lullabye of the Leaves" by Ethel Azama buried on an Arthur Lyman album called Leis of Jazz. These aren't b-sides or singles, just further examples from the hunt. Both of those last examples were bought at antique/rummage sales. Sometimes it pays to take a chance. Before I forget, I lost one of my favorite b-sides, an instrumental version of "Skintight" originally written by funk band The Ohio Players, performed live by R.E.M. during the Green Tour. That was on one of those German 3inch cd singles. I stepped on it. I curse myself for that one every now and then. Goddamnit.
After b-sides come studio outtakes, radio sessions, demos and live recordings. These are nearly endless caves for exploring. Radio sessions are fun, the Kinks have some great ones, the Animals have an infamous 4 song BBC session ("Monterey", "When I was Young", "Paint It Black", and "San Franciscan Nights"). They're fantastic. They smoke the normal studio versions easy, yet they aren't there for purchase. Velocity Girl have a nice partially collected one on a Sub Pop comp, and the Smiths, Cure and Banshees have a million good ones. Some of them available, some not. The Cure have a fantastic rare song from that sweet drug drenched period 1982/1983, a song called "Ariel". It's not the same one used on the re-issue of the Top. This one is weirder, more frail and surreal. Oh yes, The Hoover WGNS live recording was also one of my favorites. There was this amazing (and at the time still unreleased) song called "Breather Resist" that had been put on a comp. It sounded like a studio recording. When The Roman Invasion Suite went on tour in 1997 and recorded our album in Washington D.C., I asked one of our hosts, a member of Hoover if there was more where that came from and he very nicely made me a tape of that radio session. He put some extra things on there too. Why we didn't ask him to play guitar on our album still baffles me.
Oh yes. Nearly lost my point. All this to say that all of this seeming surplus existed and if you were in the right place and time, some of it was available to you. In 1989, I had exhausted completely the whole of the R.E.M. purchaseable catalog. I then saw in the LP section of my favorite record store three albums I had never seen before. They looked weird. The song titles were familiar, they were songs I may have already had, just in a strange order or hanging out next to songs from other periods. I was intrigued. This was my first encounter with a bootleg. I bought two them and reasoned that I'd come back for the third if these other two checked out. The one I left behind was called "Ripe, Goergia Peaches". Never did see that one again. Shit. Lost my chance. Anyway, I put on the first and best bootleg called "Mumble". Whoa. What the fuck. Whoever sequenced this thing had a great sense of humor. At the time I was horrified. The sound was muffled. A million layers of shag carpeting seperated the listener from the recording. The first song on there was the demo version of "Underneath The Bunker". Very, very strange. Not only did it not sound like the album version, it sounded perverse, alien. I hated it and loved it all at once. Messages from the phantom zone. It continued. Tortured hellscapes followed. These next songs weren't demos but live recordings. They sounded desperate and frantic, musicians clawing their way out of some burning void. "Gardening At Night", "9-9", "Windout", "White Tornado", and "Pretty Persuasion" followed. I've never heard them sound like that. It was a violent recording. Unhinged. Demented. Raw. Maybe it was from 1985. Probably the ass end of 1984. Mike Mills is playing his Rickenbacker. You can tell from those deep tones. I don't think he used it in 1985. Side one ends with another 1986 demo, "PSA", later to be known as "Bad Day". There are three versions of this song. The new recording, the old one from their "I Feel Fine" comp and finally this one. The real one, ie; the one I first heard. It's complete with shit harmonica solo. And that side ends. Side two is not nearly as good, though you do hear a third Pageant demo of "Cuyahoga". It's half finished. Sounds great that way. The chicken cluck of Pete Buck's guitar rings true without the missing vocals. It's eerily beautious.
Fast forward a million years. Three of those tracks are now available on the second disc of the Life's Rich Pageant reissue, along with 16 that I hadn't heard. It's weird. The fidelity is clean, and I appreciate that, it's funny though, I do miss that sonic murk. Before I close, let me mention that Peter Buck is a huge fan of music and usually his best interviews are when he hips people to the albums or bands he's just checked out. I found out about Mission of Burma, Gang of Four and Wire from those interviews. Nobody else was talking about them (in 1987/88). Anyways, he also collects R.E.M. boots and should they ever think of it, he could probably curate the best alternate history archive series that could blow some minds.