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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 1988-2002 (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 has since continued). Bootlegs being what they are, your chance
of finding a copy is not good. 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. Regardless,
bootlegs are something of an anachronism in this age of peer-to-peer networking.
Either way, R.E.M. has shown no inclination yet to release these songs to the general
public, so happy hunting. (An earlier edition, Fan
Club Singles 1988-1999, is actually more common....)
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.
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
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
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.
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 Fan
Club Singles 1988-2002.
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.
Perhaps one day, the band will collect all their Christmas
singles on an album, but I doubt it. 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]
- 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)
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