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R.E.M. Every year during their eight-year existence, The Beatles issued a Christmas record for their fan club. These flexi-disc singles were mainly spoken greetings to their devoted followers and were pressed in strictly limited quantities. Thus, they are now highly collectible and, consequently, have been widely bootlegged (read more). Perhaps inspired by the Fab Four, R.E.M. has pursued a similar strategy, issuing an eclectic string of fan club singles featuring mainly Christmas songs and punk rock covers. The R.E.M. series has also grown exceedingly rare, sometimes fetching fetching exorbitant sums on eBay and elsewhere. And, like the Beatles, the renown of Athens, Georgia's favorite sons is formidable enough to spark some bootlegging, albeit on a much less common basis.

One such bootleg is Fan Club Singles 1988-1999 (KAS, pictured). I own a copy, and it's a merely adequate document - a no-frills, 2-CD set containing all the songs from all the singles - though the series continued through 2011. Later, another bootleg - the abysmally-packaged (though better-mastered) Complete Christmas Singles 1987-2003 - passed through my collection, as well.

Bootlegs being what they are, your chance of finding a copy of either is not good. And, if you do, it's likely to be a copy of a copy of a copy, or, for better or worse, an entirely different edition altogether - and, regardless, bootlegs are something of an anachronism in this age of peer-to-peer networking. Either way, despite guitarist Peter Buck dropping hints in 2013, R.E.M. has yet to release these songs to the general public, so happy hunting - but be warned, they are very expensive on the collectors' market.

R.E.M. Now, I like R.E.M. as much as the next guy - particularly their startlingly original early work on I.R.S. Records - but on the whole I avoid bootlegs. I already spend too much time obsessing about music, and I gotta draw the line somewhere. But, I obsess about Christmas music more than anything else, so I took the plunge - it was certainly cheaper than chasing down all those fan club singles. What I found is both more and less impressive than the band's usual stuff.

What's more impressive is the raw aggression R.E.M. brings to their covers of songs by punk bands like the Vibrators ("Baby Baby"), Flipper ("Sex Bomb"), and Spizzenergi ("Where's Captain Kirk"). More germane to the present discussion, however, is the offbeat humor with which R.E.M. approaches the Christmas songs. Now, both of these qualities are evident in regular R.E.M. songs - you just have to look awfully hard to find it. If ever a rock band could be described as inscrutable, R.E.M. is the one.

What's less impressive about the fan club singles is the lack of craft R.E.M. affords the productions. Some of the tracks - the Christmas songs in particular - sound as if the band didn't bother to learn the song, let alone rehearse. Which may be the point. Given the attention to detail Michael Stipe and company normally lend their projects, they probably viewed their Christmas singles as a busman's holiday, a chance to do what they love minus the heavy expectations - from an adoring public, the exacting rock press, and themselves. In that light, the R.E.M. holiday singles succeed wildly - even when they amount to little more than a lark.

R.E.M. R.E.M.'s Christmas catalog kicked off, actually, not with a single but with a track on a lavish, 2-LP promotional album called Winter Warnerland (1988) featuring artists from the Warner Brothers stable. The R.E.M. contribution, "Deck The Halls," is really just a glorified "holiday ID," one of those little teasers radio stations play around Christmas. In fact, their brief instrumental rendition of the old carol concludes with the boys intoning flatly, "Best of the season from R.E.M."

At the end of the year, the band released their first-ever fan club single, a green vinyl 7-inch spotlighting their off-the-cuff version of "Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers," a song that dates as far back as 1923 when Paul Whiteman took it to #1. More than anything, R.E.M. sounds like they're imitating NRBQ - another band with a penchant for improvised Christmas performances. The flipside features a fiery reading of "See No Evil," a song by Television, a guitar-driven new wave band that made a huge impression on R.E.M. - or at least young Peter Buck.

That set the template for the next few years: a Christmas song on one side, a punk rock cover on the other. Generally, the singles were pressed on black vinyl in numbered runs of approximately 5000 and packaged in deluxe, custom-designed sleeves. As the series progressed, the band strayed far from their initial formula, performing fewer and fewer Christmas songs and switching to digital formats. [see detailed discography]

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R.E.M.At any rate, the songs were fun, if not always, well, good. "Good King Wenceslas" (1988) sounds like something out of the Wizard of Oz, while "Ghost Reindeer In The Sky" (1990) adapts an old western fable ("Ghost Riders In The Sky") originally performed in 1948 by Vaughan Monroe and Gene Autry. "Christmas Griping" (1991) is perhaps the pick of the litter - a droll pastiche of tired holiday clichés set to Bill Berry's best jungle beat - and one of just two wholly original Christmas songs the band performs. Listen closely for a Syd Straw cameo....

Following Michael Stipe's straightforward reading of "Toyland" in 1992, R.E.M. recorded two Christmas songs for their 1993 fan club offering - the only time they would do so. "Christmas Time Is Here" finds someone (Peter Buck?) doing his best Vince Guaraldi imitation on piano, while "Silver Bells" receives an over-the-top country treatment - with vocals by Mike Mills (I think).

After "Christmas In Tunisia" (1994), an odd, exotic (and original) instrumental, R.E.M. took a five-year hiatus from holiday music. When they returned to the subject in 2000, they chose a fitting vehicle - a Beatles tune from one of those storied fan club flexi-discs. "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)" is the closest the Beatles ever came to recording an actual Christmas song - though it consists of just one verse repeated ad infinitum. R.E.M.'s ramshackle interpretation is dominated by virtually shouted vocals and nearly random brass and woodwinds - amusing, perhaps, but annoying.

R.E.M.After skipping 2001, the band hit the holiday again in 2002. Sung by an earnest Mike Mills, "Jesus Christ" is a cover of the 1975 Big Star song - which is something of an anthem among rockers of, shall we say, a certain age. Two years later, Mills performed the song again, this time with singer Sally Ellyson (from the New York band Hem) as a benefit for the Red Apple Foundation - briefly (but no longer) available on iTunes. Then, as they did during the late 90's, R.E.M. stopped recording Christmas songs - which is perhaps what prompted bootlegs like Complete Christmas Singles 1987-2003.

The R.E.M. fan club singles continued, though - mainly on CD and consisting largely of live versions of previously released songs and collaborations with R.E.M. disciples like Wilco. Finally, they picked the holiday habit back up in 2007 with a spirited cover of Slade's 1973 anthem "Merry Xmas Everybody," perhaps the biggest rock 'n' roll Christmas song England has ever produced. This was followed in 2009 by "Santa Baby" (first recorded by Eartha Kitt in 1953) and 2010 with "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," the 1963 Phil Spector-produced Darlene Love classic that certain astute critics have chosen as the #1 Christmas single of all time.

In 2011, R.E.M. announced their break-up. "It's not because we have to or we can't stand each other or we suck," Mike Mills told Rolling Stone. "We're happy. But we're done." Nevertheless, the band released one more fan club package - two 2008 live recordings of old songs R.E.M. songs - concluding the series with a whimper, not a bang. [see complete discography]

Perhaps one day, the band will collect all their Christmas singles on an album, but I remain skeptical despite Peter Buck's aformentioned speculation. As a group, these songs form a pretty flimsy statement, but I cherish them for the same reason I cherish the occasional Christmas songs of artists as diverse as Elton John, Pearl Jam, and Prince. Such seasonal tangents give artists of great stature and/or import a chance to poke holes in their own over-inflated egos, a chance to burn themselves in effigy, a chance to demonstrate that they, too, can have a little fun. R.E.M., it turns out, are just like us - only talented and rich. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (2010)
  • Christmas Griping (1991)
  • Christmas In Tunisia (1994)
  • Christmas Time (Is Here Again) (2000)
  • Christmas Time Is Here (1993)
  • Deck The Halls (1988)
  • Ghost Reindeer In The Sky (1990)
  • Good King Wenceslas (1989)
  • Jesus Christ (2002)
  • Jesus Christ (Mike Mills & Sally Ellyson, 2006)
  • Merry Xmas Everybody (2007)
  • Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers (1988)
  • Santa Baby (2009)
  • Silver Bells (1993)
  • Toyland (1992)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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