Demos, are the rough draft of any essay, the first run through before the final product is turned in. Often they are filled with fractured sentences and half thoughts as the words in question are still being juggled around in our brains.
For fans of music, demos can often get an early clue into the songwriting process. Typical folks that enjoy these types of things also question liner notes, weird quotes and other statements and well we get off on a particular chorus that is not all the way developed or a verse that is completely different than the version on the album.
My introduction to demos was not actually listening to them but hearing about them via Peter Buck who discussed briefly the validity of “Bootlegs” way back in 1988 on the nationally syndicated show Rockline. There he discussed some of his favorite bootlegs, including “Chronic Murmurings” when he noted that this was special in that it had a version of Bertis Downs and Jefferson Holt doing the vocals for “Windout”.
Chronic Murmurings is just one of the plethora of Demo Bootleg collections available as for R.E.M., demo sessions had been leaked for every album up through Out of Time, with the exception of course of Fables of the Reconstruction.
For R.E.M. this would be the first time the band has released a full-fledged “Demo Sessions” for any album. While there have been songs that have appeared as B-Sides from time to time, this is a true departure.
The demo sessions that are included on the Fables of the Reconstruction 25th Anniversary Re-release include sessions that they did in Athens, Georgia before they left for England to record with Joe Boyd, who recorded such acts as Nick Drake, Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention.
Demos have always had a long and storied history for any popular band. As the band would pass around an early tape of their music, that tape would multiply and eventually end up on some underground bootleg release.
As a longtime fan that has a plethora of their early live shows, my initial feeling was that this would not work. What would be the point of having a set of demo recordings when no short of seven of these would be right off the Reckoning tour. There could not be all that many secrets for half of these songs. Right?
Second, sometimes Demos do not work all that well on an album setting such as this when the songs do not deviate significantly from the album versions. For example, Gardening at Night was recorded during the Reckoning sessions much slower than the version that was on Chronic Town. In doing so it offered something unique that could be placed on an album and believe that it would succeed. Same with the “As Yet Unreleased” version of Catapult that was recorded by Stephen Hague. And while the band of course hated this version and the song, it would be nice to see this song officially released.
The Fables Demos that were recorded in Athens contain all the Fables tracks as well as ‘Bandwagon’, ‘Hyena’ and ‘Throw These Trolls Away’ aka ‘When I Was Young’ which contains similar lyrics to that of ‘I Believe’.
There have been a plethora of posts in terms of the quality of these bootlegs. On the surface, the bootlegs sound pretty outstanding, minus the hiccups in the final engineering of the product. As mentioned earlier, most of the songs on this demos cd produce “Clipping” which is the “Shearing” off the tops of the audio files, which, for the listener creates a high end static sound. This is much more of a problem for listening with headphones vs. speakers, which might crowd out that static. However, it still persists.
Some questions linger whether this was on the master recording itself or just an effect that happened in the mastering/engineering process, however, that question is mute. If this static did exist on the master tapes there is plenty of wizardry that could have been accomplished to take it off, which makes it essentially shoddy work, which is a shame.
Secondly, I would make the argument that these demos are pretty much for diehards only. The appeal of the live concert vs. the demos is, in my opinion treating the subject matter, the album, in different contexts.
For an album such as Murmur, the Larry’s Hideaway show gave listeners both some insight into their early shows as well as showcased the differences between their live sound and the studio work. And while Reckoning was much more stripped down a record, the Aragon Ballroom show included in that deluxe edition showcased the urgency of their sound. Make no mistake, R.E.M. barnstormed this country and sold fans not just on their critically-acclaimed albums but a solid if not outstanding live show from a band that put all they had into every show. Fans would travel up and down the east coast, following them from venue to venue, gathering a small but eager fan base.
The Fables package with the demos, decides to reconstruct this album from the top down. It’s moody atmosphere and production value has been a topic of hot conversation among fans wondering if the “Muddiness” was a preference or an effect of recording across the pond.
Many of songs for Fables had already been performed during the Reckoning tour, which allowed the band to flesh out their live sound and refine it along the way. For example, Driver 8’s original lyrics were “The walls constructed” vs. “The wall were built up”. Other songs included a crazy version of Wendell Gee performed on MTV’s Cutting Edge, which was first performed on acoustic guitar and later on the tour on electric guitar. Other songs making their way to the live shows included Old Man Kensey, Auctioneer (Another Engine) and Hyena (although obviously this was not included on the final Fables album).
For fans that are willing to jaunt into this realm, I recommend picking these up. Some of the highlights in my opinion are as follows:
Feeling Gravitys Pull – The most inventive song on Fables stands out for the insane drumming by Bill Berry. Comparing this to the original highlights an aspect that is often forgotten in the Peter Buck-Guitar Centric minds of R.E.M. fans in what a great drummer Bill was. He is the key to the album Murmur, in my opinion and I would imagine that if the producer on this album was someone other than Joe Boyd, the song might have turned out differently.
Can’t Get There From Here – Not as funky as the finished product as the chorus is still in development and does not contain the flashy horns on the album version.
Kohoutek – The lyrics on this song are still not finished as several inconsistencies occur.
Maps and Legends – This is also a work in progress as we find Michael Stipe’s lyrics on this offer different lyrics for the both the second and third verse. The second verse is almost completely unique minus a line he uses in the finished product and the third verse is similar to the first.
Don’t Throw These Trolls Away – The song that has been titled “When I Was Young” on several bootlegs, is given a proper treatment here. While some of the lyrics will eventually end up on the song “I Believe” here we see a song that is a work in progress. There is no doubt that they made the right decision to abandon this song. I would be curious however, if a version of this came out of the Fables sessions in England. That might be interesting to hear.
Wendell Gee – Instead of focusing on Banjo and Keyboards/Pianos, this version features Peter on electric guitar such as how the band performed during the later part of the tour for Reckoning.
On another level it works as an alternate Fables album and I guess you can rearrange the songs and put them in that order as I had the opportunity to do the first time that I listened to it.
And while I support this release and the fact that the band gave us something that has not been heard yet, I also feel that something is left out. The Fables Tour marks the first time that I believe that Stipe is coming into his own on stage. The Fables Tour acts as part live show and storytelling opportunity that allowed him to begin weaving the tales of the album’s content to the live audience such as the stories about Kensey or even the made up story of “Theme to Two Steps Onward”. Thanks to tapers such as David O. Thomas who recorded amazing bootlegs of these shows, most of them can be found from time to time online.
But for the common fan out there, I can only look back at myself and remember that it was these elements that got me so enamored with R.E.M. in the first place.