I conclude R.E.M. week (on the 26th anniversary of their first gig) by featuring music by bands that aren’t quite R.E.M.
It’ll make sense: trust me.
Like most small, intense music scenes, that of Athens in the early ’80s was fairly incestuous: people knew one another, people played in one another’s bands or formed ad hoc bands, and so on. Just around the time R.E.M. was beginning to be sniffed out by people beyond the local scene (and to read about the hygiene of Stipe in particular at that time, that couldn’t have been too difficult…), Michael Stipe was also doing time in a band called Tanzplagen, which featured his sister Lynda and, occasionally, singer Linda Hopper. (Hopper and Lynda Stipe would go on to Oh OK, also Matthew Sweet’s launching pad, while Stipe would form Hetch Hetchy and Hopper would go on to form Magnapop. That’s just for those you into the rock genealogy thing.) The band was led by a musician named William Lee Self, a guitarist and organ player who clearly enjoys his pedals.
Tanzplagen released a single, “Treason” b/w “Meeting,” and what’s interesting is the way both tracks have some very R.E.M.-ish moments…even though Stipe’s the only R.E.M. guy here, and he only co-wrote “Meeting.” I’d say that in addition to people playing in one another’s bands, they were listening, and learning, from one another’s bands. Regardless, this is a pretty great single. Both sides were reissued on a German CD in the early ’90s which also featured three live tracks: “Living by the Neck,” built on a bass-led guitar riff and tremolo, a version of “Meeting” that expands the studio recording considerably, in a rather spacy direction, and a somewhat annoying (but short) track called “Peter Pan” that all but shouts “we’re being avant garde now!”
At one point I found some biographical info on William Lee Self – but I can’t seem to find it any more. (He’s not the writer Will Self, though…)
From one band that isn’t R.E.M., we go to another band that isn’t R.E.M. but sort of is. The Minus 5 is a sort of Borg of a band that seems bent on assimilating other bands nearly whole: on its current tour it’s also Robyn Hitchcock’s backing band (and Hitchcock is apparently recording with them: good – he’s much better with a band these days, I think), and since it features Peter Buck as more or less a permanent member (the apparatus is under the control of mad genius Scott McCaughey, who’s pretty much the sole constant member), as well as R.E.M. tour drummer Bill Rieflin, plus a Posie or sometimes two…it was only a matter of time until the inevitable happened. So, last week on April 1 (and this time, this isn’t a hoax), here’s Mike Mills wandering onto the stage of the Georgia Theater in Atlanta, and hey waddaya know let’s do a few R.E.M. songs since here’s Michael Stipe…and – wow – who’s that unibrowed man in a white t-shirt who just picked up the bass guitar? Yep: Bill Berry, temporarily returning from his retirement, to join the Minus 5, or 4.E.M., or something, on a version of “Country Feedback.” (In the comments area of my last R.E.M. post, there’s a link to a video of this performance on YouTube: lead guitar and vocals are all but inaudible, but you can see what’s going on…such as the fact that Michael Stipe is no longer the only member of R.E.M. with a bald spot. If you can play this audio and watch that video, well, that should work pretty well for you!)