‘Dead Letter Office II': Our Picks for an R.E.M. Rarities Sequel
Back in 1987, R.E.M. released Dead Letter Office, the college rockers’ first assemblage of b-sides and rarities. Like the best “odds and sods” compilations, the collection revealed extra colors in its band’s sound – goofy rave-ups (“Windout”), drunken silliness (“Walters Theme”) and covers of songs by R.E.M.’s heroes (including three Velvet Underground tunes).
While Dead Letter Office arrived near the end of the group’s I.R.S. years, chronicling some of the best extraneous material from the early days, there was never a true equivalent compilation for R.E.M.’s Warner Bros. era. The bonus disc for 2003’s hits CD In Time came close, but eschewed notable covers for live and alternate versions of familiar songs. The 2014 digital dump, Complete Rarities: Warner Bros. 1988-2011, was too unwieldy (at 131 tracks) to be a true successor to Dead Letter Office – and remained incomplete, contrary to its title.
But don’t lose your religion over this oversight. We've compiled the appropriate counterpart to Dead Letter Office – Dead Letter Office II: The WB Years. Up for consideration: any of R.E.M.’s b-sides, fan club singles, soundtrack entries and tribute album contributions that saw official release during the 23 years the band was under contract at Warner Bros.
In keeping with R.E.M.’s first installment, which was divided into sides marked “Post” and “Script,” imagine that these 15 tracks are split into an “After” side and a “Thought” side. Meanwhile, we’ll do our best to match the quality of guitarist Peter Buck’s wry liner notes from the 1987 album. Here we go.
After signing to Warner Bros., R.E.M. sent their fan club members an annual Christmas single – sometimes containing holiday tunes, live stuff and covers. The first edition featured a sloppy version of “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” backed with this charging take on a Television classic. R.E.M. trade the original’s angular precision for frantic excitement, with Michael Stipe slinging his voice to the rafters and Bill Berry pushing the pace. The chaotic finale is pure, house party excitement.
During the sessions for Accelerate, R.E.M. tackled two Beat Happening covers (which both ended up as b-sides). Their version of “Indian Summer” is lovely, but it can’t compare to the “Peter Gunn”-like slink R.E.M. adds to “Red Head Walking.” A garage rock organ surfs the back alley strut while – in a very Dead Letter Office kind of moment – Stipe shreds his vocals, then reacts, “Ow, that hurt!”
Deemed somehow unsuitable (Too weird? Too goofy?) for Out of Time, this off-kilter gem was limited to appear as a U.K. b-side and an entry on the Coneheads soundtrack. Mike Mills is the MVP of “It’s a Free World Baby.” His bass plays zone defense on the ricky-tick verses while his candy-coated vocals send the chorus aloft. Weird, goofy and off-kilter – these are qualities appreciated at the Dead Letter Office.
This was R.E.M.’s attempt to write a theme song for Batman Returns – complete with Stipe’s high-pitched squeals of “Batman!” in the background, a nod to the famous TV series theme. Director Tim Burton rejected the piano-driven tune, which was somehow both too silly and too elegant for the film. And so “Winged Mammal Theme” became a b-side, as well as the occasional soundtrack choice of the Weather Channel’s “Local on the 8s."
The band were denied an appearance on one Batman soundtrack, but showed up on a later one – albeit with a song not tied to the Caped Crusader, but mid-’90s politics. Stipe sings, “Oliver North is running for Senate / Bomb the abortion clinic” as R.E.M. growl through this Monster leftover. Possibly the band’s most brazen rocker, “Revolution” must have been fun to play, because the band did just that every night of the ’95 tour.
As R.E.M.’s career progressed, the band became increasingly likely to designate instrumentals for b-sides. Buck and Mills also appeared to take a serious interest in cutting tracks that could be mistaken for vintage surf rock. That’s what you get with “165 Hillcrest,” including a beachcomber beat, Mills’s California organ and Buck’s “Pipeline” runs and glimmering twang.
As fans of Richard Thompson and purveyors of jangly rock, R.E.M. were perfectly suited to cover the British singer-songwriter’s carnival-as-life portrayal “Wall of Death” on a mid-’90s tribute disc. Stipe and Mills sing warmly, taking the places of Richard and Linda, while R.E.M. lean on their more bucolic tendencies – pedal steel and acoustic strumming. Plus, the band pays homage to Thompson’s original nod to “Like a Rolling Stone” (in his guitar solo) with a piano interlude.
The live version of this Automatic for the People standout is R.E.M.’s most radical reworking of their own material. Peter Buck replaces his prickly, ghostly acoustic guitar with distorted electric blasts which blurt in tandem with a squealing organ. The track, recorded in 1992, serves as a bridge between the melancholic mystery of Automatic and the blown-out churning of Monster.
Named for the type of bass Mills used to record it, “Fretless” also could be an allegory for the unmoored despondency conveyed in the dark sound and lyrics. Another Out of Time outtake of incredible quality, this dirge was relegated to b-side/soundtrack status simply because it didn’t suit the album. R.E.M. thought highly enough of the song to perform it during their 1991 MTV Unplugged taping, although it didn’t make it to air.
R.E.M. didn’t just cover Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan,” they rescued it. Cohen’s version is slathered and slandered in synth-pop, but the boys from Athens imbued the sinister song with hushed menace in the form of midnight guitar, wafting organ and a double-tracked vocal from Stipe that allows him to both intone the words and wail them. It might be R.E.M.’s best cover.
It’s difficult to resist the temptation of following up Dead Letter Office’s selection of “Rotary Ten” with 1991’s “Rotary Eleven.” But the reality is that R.E.M. crafted at least a half-dozen better instrumentals during their Warner Bros. era, chief among them “Fruity Organ.” Stipe apparently didn’t have lyrics to match this sunny track, which actually features two organs that occasionally duel. It’s a bouncy, melodic nugget, probably too much bouncy for Automatic for the People.
Another fan club rarity, the buzzy “Live for Today” was, at the time, the last R.E.M. recording to feature Berry, who quit after 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. R.E.M. released the fuzzed-up, electronic-tinged tune as a double-b-side, teaming up with Pearl Jam, who contributed “Happy When I’m Crying” on the flipside. The fan clubs of both bands received the same single in ’97, although with different packaging.
The guys in R.E.M. are suckers for ’60s/’70s pop (see “Love is All Around,” “#9 Dream”), so it’s not a shock that they’d take on this Tommy James chestnut in the name of the first Austin Powers sequel. The boys play the druggy song relatively straight, with some subtle enhancements (Buck’s shimmering guitar, extra percussion, a dragged-out, hazy coda). It was something of a preview to the summery sounds of R.E.M.’s next LP, 2001’s Reveal.
It’s fair to say that “Shiny Happy People” is the most reviled song in the R.E.M. catalog – by the band, by fans, by people who turned to devil worship just to counteract the song’s unrepentant sunniness. But it all became worthwhile when R.E.M. parodied their own song on Sesame Street in 1999 (complete with a Kate Pierson Muppet!). With Buck on banjo, Mills on upright bass/vocals and Stipe leading the charge, “Furry Happy Monsters” became a song about emotions. And thus, a cloying pop song turned into the silly, joyful children’s tune it was destined to be.
R.E.M. closed Dead Letter Office with a drunken, mumbled version of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” so it’s only fitting that the sequel would also finish with a country tune. Stipe loves great, old country songs, as evidenced by his gentle and genuine turn on “Wichita Lineman,” written by Jimmy Webb and made famous by Glen Campbell. At the height of R.E.M.’s prowess, the band wasn’t afraid to display its unironic devotion to classic country – something that seemed perfectly out-of-place amidst Monster aggression and arenas stocked with grunge-loving fans.