25 Years Ago: R.E.M. Pick Up A Pinch Singer and Become Hindu Love Gods
Superstar side projects predate Ryan Adams and Jack White. Back in the '70s, David Bowie took a keyboard gig for his good buddy Iggy Pop, for example. Numerous '60s examples exist, and some even don't include Crosby, Stills, Nash or Young.
In the '80s, Prince was the king of the side project: Madhouse, the Family, related artists like Sheila E., the Time and Vanity 6. It's a wonder that he had time to write and record "Raspberry Beret" but he did, and thank goodness, because that provides a nice segue into one of the alternative '80s greatest side projects: Hindu Love Gods.
The R.E.M. boys were actually serial collaborators. Michael Stipe lent his vocals to the Golden Palominos' 1985 album Visions of Excess, Peter Buck laid down a great guitar lead on the Replacements' "I Will Dare" and drummer Bill Berry did some time with Love Tractor. Throw in the production credits, guest spots, writing credits and shows under pseudonyms like "It Crawled From the South," and R.E.M.'s side gigs easily number a few dozen.
But none captured the imagination of the band's fan base like the Hindu Love Gods. Founded in 1984 by R.E.M.'s three instrumentalists (Berry, Buck and bassist Mike Mills) along with Bryan Cook (a friend from Athens, Ga.) Hindu Love Gods was never meant to be more than a hobby band. Marcus Gray quotes Buck in his book, It Crawled From the South: An R.E.M. Companion:
We were just bored because we had a month off. Me, Mike and Bill had talked about forming a side band that did all covers and played Holiday Inns. We rehearsed for about three days, learned four Troggs songs and a lot of early 70s glam rock stuff like Sweet, Mud, Slade and T. Rex.
They also played a few R.E.M. tracks that the band never recorded, including a song Berry wrote called "Narrator."
The following month, Warren Zevon visited Athens to record some demos with R.E.M. Once a Top 40 star courtesy of the eccentric "Werewolves of London," Zevon now found himself freshly sober and without a record deal. His favorite album at the time was Murmur, so he arranged to have R.E.M. back him on a handful of tracks to help attract a new label. During those sessions, they also cut a cover of an old Easybeats song named "Gonna Have a Good Time Tonight" along with the aforementioned "Narrator." They also recorded a demo of "The Factory," which would show up on Zevon's 1987 comeback, Sentimental Hygiene.
After those sessions Zevon was a Hindu Love God, at least as much as anyone could be a member of a band that didn't really exist. He even showed up occasionally at R.E.M. gigs for a song or two.
Fans knew about the sessions and harassed R.E.M.'s label I.R.S. Records to release them. A little speculation is necessary here, but presumably Zevon's demos were off the table, leaving only the Easybeats and Berry tracks. In early 1986, I.R.S. released these two cuts as a single. Roughly around the same time, Hindu Love Gods regrouped for a benefit show to raise money for the family of Minutemen guitarist D. Boon, who had been killed in a car accident.
Flash forward to February 1987. Zevon needed a band to back him on the Sentimental Hygiene sessions, so he called up Berry, Buck and Mills (and even Stipe for one track). Again from It Crawled From the South, Mike Mills explained:
Warren said, 'Hey, I've got a great idea! Let's do a bunch of old blues covers and we'll call it Monkey Wash, Donkey Rinse.' Don't ask me why! We said, 'Fine,' and we all got drunk (except reformed alcoholic Warren) and cut this bunch of blues covers and 'Raspberry Beret."
Sentimental Hygiene restored Zevon to the limelight, but 1989's followup, Transverse City, didn't attract much attention. Meanwhile, R.E.M. just kept getting bigger. Green, their 1988 major label debut, quickly went platinum. Zevon (or perhaps his management) saw an opportunity and took it, releasing the self-titled Hindu Love Gods. Buck publicly complimented the album, calling it "great," but noted that "Warren's people had some unrealistic ideas about us promoting it or doing a tour or video for it, and I think we feel a little burned by the whole thing."
The album features some great blues covers: Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle," Robert Johnson's "Travelin' Riverside Blues" -- along with a cover of the Georgia Satellites "Battleship Chains," but the real buzz was their take on Prince's "Raspberry Beret." This was to '90's listeners what Ryan Adams' version of Taylor Swift's 1989 is to contemporary listeners: permission to drop our guard and enjoy a well written pop song.
Both Zevon and R.E.M. are gone now. Buck and Mills have the Baseball Project, their current "just for fun" band along with R.E.M. side man Scott McCaughey. But we still hold out hope that one of these sleepless nights at a Holiday Inn we'll duck into the lounge and see Peter, Mike, and Bill tearing through a cover of "Wild Thing." Hey, it could happen.