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30 Years Ago: R.E.M. Embark on Work Tour

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When R.E.M. began their 1987 Work Tour, “The One I Love” wasn’t even on the Billboard chart. By the time they finished their fall trek, the quartet were about to score their first Top 10 single. They were on the cover of Rolling Stone, which proclaimed R.E.M. “America’s Best Rock & Roll Band.” And their fifth studio LP, Document, was nearing platinum sales status in the U.S.

Much has been written about Document being R.E.M.’s mainstream breakthrough, but it didn’t happen instantly. All of those new benchmarks of popularity happened after the band had hit the road that September, a couple of weeks following the album’s North American release. As such, R.E.M. and their record label I.R.S. weren’t making outsized plans for the fall tour. This Work Tour wouldn’t be that much different from 1986’s Pageantry Tour, which promoted Lifes Rich Pageant with a three-month trip through theaters in big cities and small arenas on college campuses.

One difference was that this trek began on foreign soil, with a show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on Sept. 12, 1987. Although R.E.M.’s European popularity would eventually eclipse their (considerable) success in the States, at this point, the band were still making inroads on the continent. There were only four European dates (including a show in the Netherlands that would be included on a 25th anniversary edition of Document) that kicked off the Work Tour, so named by frontman Michael Stipe to tie into one of the new album’s themes.

“In America, if you can’t make money, they think it’s because you’re a failure,” Stipe explained to Melody Maker. “The work ethic is really intrinsic to American thought and that has a lot to do with this LP. The idea that you can work and work and get what you want and then try for even more. It’s the American dream but it’s a pipe dream that’s been exploited for years.”

In keeping with the theme, every show on the Work Tour began with the same song that led Document: the thunderous “Finest Worksong.” Bill Berry pounded his drum kit, Mike Mills took giant steps on the bass, Peter Buck created a guitar drone and Stipe sang, “What we want and what we need has been confused.” In giant block letters, the words “Want” and “Need” alternately appeared behind R.E.M., on a screen that would feature murky still and moving images at other points in the show. During the nightly airing of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” a rapid-fire stream of photos seemed to match the song’s rat-a-tat lyrics.

Over the course of the 40-plus concert dates that fall, Document songs featured prominently. R.E.M. played all 11 tracks during the tour, although “Lightnin’ Hopkins” and “Fireplace” were phased out midway. Most of Lifes Rich Pageant continued to feature in the setlists, especially live favorites “These Days” and “Begin the Begin.” And the band lightly mined their back catalog, picking chestnuts from Fables of the Reconstruction, Reckoning and Murmur, not to mention Chronic Town (“Wolves, Lower” showed up during a number of encores).

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A spate of new songs also began to appear during the tour, including a couple of tracks that would become standouts on 1988’s Green. Despite it only being 1987, “Pop Song 89” was debuted on stage during the Work Tour, albeit with a very different vocal approach from Stipe. Early versions of “Orange Crush” – with Berry’s hammering drums, Buck’s ringing riff and the call-and-response vocals between Mills and Stipe – were closer to the song’s finished form. Although “Title” was performed more than a dozen times on tour, the song would never see an official release.

And then there were the cover songs, which ranged from tunes by R.E.M.’s heroes (“After Hours” by the Velvet Underground, “See No Evil” by Television) to rock anthems (Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy”) to songs that dated back decades or even more than a century (“John the Revelator,” “Simple Gifts”). Starting with the North American dates of the tour in October, the band began including a cover of Lou Gramm’s “Midnight Blue” in encores (which usually numbered three). After fans recovered from the shock of listening to the boys rip into the Foreigner frontman’s hit single, Stipe continued to surprise the crowd by singing snippets of other current hits. These included the Psychedelic Furs’ “Heartbreak Beat,” U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” and Michael Jackson’s “Bad” (rendered almost unrecognizable).

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Another change that occurred with the start of the U.S. leg was that the members of R.E.M. began to travel on separate tour buses. After years of packing all four guys into a van, the boys now split between two buses – one that was home to beer drinking and loud music (Berry, Buck and Mills) and one that kept the windows open and remained more sedate (Stipe). Although this perceived extravagance was certainly a sign of R.E.M.’s growing status, the music press suggested that it was indicative of tension in the band, a notion that was dismissed by the members.

“There is a difference, and it’s always been there,” Berry told Rolling Stone. “There’s no doubt that [Stipe is] an eccentric individual, that that’s the way it should be. He is who he is, and R.E.M. is who they are because of who’s in it.”

Stipe emphasized that the switch was merely something that allowed him to relax on tour and hadn’t changed his relationship with his bandmates: “We share so much more in common than most people would ever give us credit for. We’re very much a group.”

Having an extra bus as his disposal also allowed him to spend more time with Natalie Merchant, lead singer for 10,000 Maniacs, who opened all of R.E.M.’s October shows. Stipe and Merchant had befriended one another as socially conscious college rock singers in the mid-’80s and were becoming even closer. That closeness translated to Stipe’s more confident, political bent (complete with Amnesty International and Greenpeace tables set up outside the band’s North American concerts) as well as on-stage collaboration. On tour, Stipe would sing background on “A Campfire Song” with 10,000 Maniacs (as he had on their album) and Merchant would guest on a variety of tunes, including “Swan Swan H,” “We Walk” and a cover of Bill Withers‘ “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

She wasn’t the tour’s only guest star. Will Rigby (of the dB’s, who opened the Work Tour’s November dates) once showed up to play congas on “King of Birds.” Robyn Hitchcock played guitar on five songs to finish off the London show. And, as a member of the Hindu Love Gods with Berry, Buck and Mills, Warren Zevon made a special appearance during one of the encores in Oakland. It should also be mentioned that Buren Fowler, Buck’s guitar tech who would go on to form Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ in 1988, played some rhythm guitar during these shows, as he had in ’86. On future tours, R.E.M. would employ an extra touring guitarist to fill out their live sound.

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In part, Fowler’s on-stage presence was made a necessity by the size of venues that R.E.M. had started to play. Although the band attempted to keep things small and appear in venues in which they felt comfortable, their ideals weren’t always accommodated. Sure, they played multi-night sets at major theaters such as Radio City Music Hall in New York and the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, R.E.M. also performed for more than 12,000 fans at Kaplan Arena in Williamsburg, Va. That general admission show, which involved a crush of fans near the stage, scared the band – particularly Buck – off the desire to play more arena shows. Although no concertgoers were seriously injured, the guitarist wasn’t sure this was the size of venue R.E.M. was meant to play. As a result, he uttered an infamous statement.

“People have been trying to convince me for a long time that we could play bigger places and enjoy it,” Buck told Rolling Stone. “And tonight proved, if nothing else, that there’s no f—ing way I can. If we ever did a stadium tour, I would imagine it would be about the last thing we’d ever do together.”

Of course, Buck would eat his words when R.E.M. became a stadium act beginning with the band’s 1989 world tour, but for now he held firm. With a hit album and single on the charts, outside forces pressured the group to continue touring. Even I.R.S., knowing that the label’s most successful band might depart for a major label, tried to sell the band on a more extensive European tour in order to prove the worth of their overseas promotional talents. But it was to no avail. For now, R.E.M. was done with “Work.”

“We’ve been locked in this thing for the last six years,” Berry said. “We go in the studio, put out a record, tour, rehearse. It’s getting to be a really predictable thing. And I’m not saying it’s stifling us, but this record bought us the opportunity to take a year off.”

Although R.E.M. would indeed take the year off of touring, the rest of their relaxation plans wouldn’t come to fruition, as the band signed with Warner Bros., recorded a new album and released Green by the end of 1988. The next year would see their biggest tour yet.

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