R.E.M. – Reckoning – Deluxe Edition [reissue]

January 01, 1970

(I.R.S./A&M/UMe)

 

www.universalchronicles.com

 

 

April 9, 1984, record
stores all over America:
For in-the-loop R.E.M. fans, it’s a red-letter – as opposed to, one presumes,
dead letter – day. The Athens combo’s second long-player is released today, and
although advance tapes of the LP have been circulating for weeks (the band commenced
work on it at Charlotte’s Reflection Studios with producers Mitch Easter and
Don Dixon back in early December and completed sessions in mid-January), any
sneak peeks at the material have only whetted our appetite. Not for nothing has
R.E.M.’s grassroots base been increasing at an exponential rate over the course
of the last 18 months; one fan’s awestruck reports from the trenches on the
band literally begets twenty more, and everybody is positively itching to have,
to hold and to hear this new artifact.

 

And what an artifact it is. A quarter-century after its
release, Reckoning, as with 1983’s Murmur, has lost none of its charm. From
the disturbingly serpentine Howard Finster sleeve art to the simultaneously
dense and expansive sonics to the tunes themselves, nearly all of which would
remain fan favorites for years to come, Reckoning‘s
estimable powers to enthrall and to mystify are only just slightly less than
its predecessor’s. If there’s a true qualitative difference between the two
that must be logged, it’s simply that Murmur appeared on the musical landscape as something utterly fresh and absolutely alien;
for Reckoning, we know the score – and
therefore what, in general, to expect from the band. But that doesn’t make
listening to it any less thrilling then or now.

 

Like last year’s Murmur 2-CD overhaul, the brand new Reckoning –
Deluxe Edition
(I.R.S./A&M/UMe) has been freshly remastered, and while
it’s nigh-on impossible to fault the original Easter-Dixon production/mixing, Reckoning Mk. 2009 does have a crispness
and an overall presence that will have stereo gear geeks and headphone (not
earbud) aficionados pinching themselves. The “theater” aspect of the album is
quite profound; moving your battered-but-trusty old pair of Dynaco A-25
speakers around in the room just so will make the record come alive in nearly
3D or surround-sound fashion (the producers even applied binaural recording
techniques on some tracks). In fact, “alive” is the operative term: despite it
being very much a studio record boasting a wealth of cortex-ticking mix flourishes
– listen, for example, to the choirlike qualities of the Michael Stipe-Bill
Berry-Mike Mills harmony vocals, or Mills’ keyboards, previously somewhat
obscured – Reckoning is a remarkably
accurate document of what the band sounded like in concert (see below) at the
time.

 

From the sensual, hip-swiveling throb of opening track
“Harborcoat” and moody jangler “so. Central Rain” to the brash powerpop thump
of “Pretty Persuasion” and proto-Americana anthem “(don’t Go back To) Rockville” – try
listening to the latter without singing along during the chorus – Reckoning delivers the songwriting
goods, too. By now Stipe had grudgingly decided he had a greater stake in
having people understand what he was singing, and even if it was still tough
sometimes to get exactly what he was singing about, with his words more carefully enunciated and no longer
pushed as deep into the mix, you can snag complete visual images, tantalizing
metaphors, quirky observations and little asides that help make the
lyric-combing all the more rewarding. And with Pete Buck’s consistently
churning, at times agitated fretwork riding atop an equally brawny Mills-Berry
rhythm section, Reckoning was
defiantly rock ‘n’ roll from start to finish. Though early on the group may
have notched its share of Byrds comparisons, nobody was going to mistake this record for some latterday excursion
into folk-rock territory.

 

The Deluxe Edition’s second CD serves up a sparkling live
concert from the actual Reckoning tour
(a/k/a the “Little America Tour”). Recorded July 7, 1984 at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom and broadcast over
WXRT-FM, the performance spawned a raft of high quality bootlegs so it’s not
exactly obscure to R.E.M. buffs. It’s not the entire show, either; the original
broadcast was about 75 minutes but a subsequent re-broadcast trimmed it back to
just under an hour, omitting the unreleased song “Cushy Tush” and covers of
Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” and the Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run.” The
edited concert is what’s presented here, but it’s still a welcome addition to
the collection, showcasing such relatively obscure R.E.M. gems as the band’s
charmingly awkward take on the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and hectic
punk raveup “Windout” plus the as-yet-unrecorded “Driver 8” and “Hyena” (the
latter two would eventually wind up on, respectively, 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction and 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant, but as mainstays of
R.E.M. setlists on the ’84 tour, they quickly became concert crowd-pleasers).

 

All of the Reckoning songs
shine in their live incarnations. “Rockville”
in particular dials the twang back and is straightforwardly anthemic in the
purest R.E.M. sense, while “so. Central Rain,” though sounding ever-so-slightly
out of tune, brings an additional dynamic heft, particularly in Stipe’s
feral-to-the-point-of-anguished vocals in the closing seconds. “Harborcoat” is
itchily kinetic, speeded up to the point of almost being ska-like. “7 Chinese
Brothers” is true to the album version – with the exception of Stipe’s role, as
he throws in some of the tune’s “alternate lyrics” (otherwise known as “Voice
of Harold,” an outtake from the recording sessions, they included bon mots culled from the sleeve of an
old gospel album, e.g. “the joy of knowing Jesus… produced by Joel
Gentry…backliner design…”). And the band’s standard pre-encore concert-closer at
the time, “Little America” is a rousing,
howling, thumping, gloriously messy blowout that, also, is pure R.E.M. For a
crucial snapshot of the band in the mid ‘80s, the Aragon broadcast is pretty hard to
beat (hold that thought; see below).

 

The Deluxe Edition of Murmur was issued last November (read our review HERE), which was a fantastic document
but one that might have been served more fully by the inclusion of additional
studio material (its bonus disc comprised a 1983 live recording). Likewise, this
new-look Reckoning doesn’t include any of the known studio outtakes
from the original recording sessions, or sessions proximate to the album’s
general time frame. (“Burning Down,” “Ages of You,” “Voice Of Harold,” “Cushy
Tush” or “Hey Hey Nadine,” anyone? How about the Velvets covers
“Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale”?) Previous import CD reissues of the album
had included bonus tracks “Wind Out,” “Pretty Persuasion (live
in studio),” “Tighten Up,” “Moon River”
and “White Tornado (live in studio),” so fleshing out Disc One wouldn’t
have been all that problematic. However, since this makes twice R.E.M. has
opted to present the original artifact exactly as it was presented in ‘84 sans extras, we’ll squelch our fanboy
instincts and defer to the intentions of the artists themselves. Besides, some
of the songs listed above have already seen official release, and if R.E.M.
eventually gets around to doing a Deluxe Edition for 1987’s odds ‘n’ sods
collection Dead Letter Office, it’s
entirely conceivable they’ll throw the fans a few additional bones – or olive
branches.

 

***

 

September 26, 1984, Duke University: “If anybody
taped last night,” R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe is saying to the audience, “come find
me after the show – I wanna talk to you.”

 

It’s the second of two sold-out nights at Duke’s Page
Auditorium. After this tour, R.E.M. won’t be able to do venues of this size
(seating cap.: just over 1200) anymore. Knowing that and wanting to document the
impending end of an era, the band has brought in engineers and recording gear
from Reflection Studios. Reckoning‘s
release a few months earlier brought critical and commercial acclaim, the LP eventually
hitting #27 on the Billboard charts, and
the band is firing on all cylinders. Much to the chagrin of everyone involved,
however, last night’s taping yielded some nasty sonic gremlins. Hence Stipe’s
stage announcement – they’d like to get ahold of a decent tape.

 

And this is the moment where one of yours truly’s odder
intersections with rock royalty begins. In possession of front-row balcony
seats for both nights and with my own mobile recording unit (a Sony D6 stereo cassette
deck) in hand, I’m doing my own documentation of what’s clearly an event. As
both tapes turn out quite nicely, upon my return home I dub off copies of each
night and drop them into the mail to their manager, whom I knew from our mutual
Chapel Hill days, at R.E.M.’s Athens
headquarters.

 

A few months later things take an intriguing twist when an
acquaintance phones and says he has a surprise for me. It’s a cassette, tellingly
labeled “Page 9-26-84,” and the moment I hear it I know what it is: the
Reflection mobile recording from the second night at Duke, fully mixed and in
pristine sound – the best live R.E.M.
recording I ever heard
. My friend, an aspiring engineer/producer who’d
recently begun interning at Reflection, had somehow gained momentary access to
the studio’s vaults and dubbed off about an hour’s worth of the show. “Keep it
to yourself,” he instructs me gravely. I readily comply, no questions.

 

Too bad he didn’t take his own advice. He’d also made a copy
for another contact, an R.E.M. fan and record dealer from Florida with more balls than ethics. When
the “We Are Having A Heavenly Time!” bootleg R.E.M. LP subsequently
surfaced in the summer of ’85, it was pretty obvious who was behind it. In the
transition from tape to vinyl, somehow the Duke show had gotten slightly
speeded-up, but with the otherwise incredible sound quality and custom sleeve
artwork, the album quickly became a high-demand item among collectors. It
probably would have remained “underground,” too – by ’85 a lot of R.E.M.
bootlegs were in circulation, Pete Buck himself even being known to collect
them – had the back cover not been inscribed with the notation, “This Fan Club album is not intended for
sale, commercial distribution or air play. All rights reserved.”

 

R.E.M. HQ wouldn’t have blinked twice at the appearance of
another R.E.M. boot, but they were not happy at all about some clown
usurping the official fan club’s name. Curses were uttered. Phone calls were
made. Including one to yours truly from the band’s manager, who thought I might
have an idea who was behind the LP. I did, of course, so I offered to track
down the bootlegger and broker a scenario whereby, in exchange for his pledge
to get out of the R.E.M. “fan club” business, they wouldn’t sic The Man on his
ass. Oh, and as a gesture of good faith, could he mail a stack of the Heavenly Time album to Athens as well? The guys in the band would,
er, like their own copies.

 

After that things returned to normal – sort of. Not long
afterwards, R.E.M.’s lawyer turned up at Reflection. He took every R.E.M. tape
that had been in storage at the studio, including the live shows from Duke, and
toted them back to Athens
in, legend has it, an armored car. Many years later during a periodic
housecleaning at Reflection, the studio’s head engineer, also a friend of mine,
came across some empty reel-to-reel tape boxes; listed on them were Reckoning song titles. Knowing I was a
fan, he mailed them to me and to this day they remain prized additions to my
record shelf.

 

To date none of the live material from Duke has ever seen
the official light of day. Although the Aragon set is good, the Duke show
is better, at least to these ears. (I’m biased, I admit.) Regardless of where
one’s Reckoning intersection occurs,
however, to re-experience the band on that eventful 1984 tour – with the
exception of a month’s break during August, it essentially lasted all year (chronology HERE) – is to hear a band at the peak of its pre-arena powers, as thrilling and
charismatic a live outfit as the era ever produced.

 

In a both a literal and metaphorical sense, the slamming
shut of the aforementioned armored car’s doors marked, perhaps, when that era
truly came to a close.

 

Standout Tracks: “Pretty
Persuasion” (studio), “7 Chinese Brothers” (live) FRED MILLS

 

 

 

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