Tales Of The Unauthorized – R.E.M Interview Disc & Fully Illustrated Book

I’m always leery when I approach an album that falls outside the scope of a band’s studio discography. Smartphone technology allows a for quick check of an album’s legitimacy, but there are some occasions where you are willing to throw caution to the wind. The time that I found this little R.E.M.-themed package was one of those moments.

It doesn’t seem very likely that an interview disc of any sort falls into official release category unless bundled as a bonus in a more extensive box set, and this didn’t appear to be any different. For the price I found this (in a 3 for $10 bin at Now & Then in the Oshawa Centre), it seemed to be neat enough keepsake with low-risk / high-reward potential. The band’s authorization was not much of a consideration. Come to think of it, the other two albums I grabbed in the bin (Chet Baker’s My Funny Valentine and Charlie Parker’s Autumn In New York) may also fall under the unauthorized category, if not hastily thrown together budget compilation albums. This type of product was commonplace when I was growing up. Decades ago, my brother owned a Maximum Metallica CD that contained brief interview snippets in a blandly-narrated audio history of the group. The same store in which I acquired this R.E.M. disc also had a similar product for Nick Cave with a much higher price tag.

The Limited Edition labeling jumps out, and is an obvious play for the collector out there. While it is printed as clear as day all over the packaging, at least they didn’t try to quantify how many were actually manufactured. My point of reference in that regard is a 1 of 350,000 hockey card set I once owned that laughably came with a certificate of authenticity, which should only be considered a low quantity if we are discussing a species of animal, number of brain cells, or people in line at a Passport Canada office on a Saturday (oddly specific, I realize). Technically every album release is a limited edition to some degree, eventually getting re-issued if the demand is there, but the print run or limited edition classification is rarely worth advertising. I own vinyl albums produced in 500 or less copies, and even then (a situation when I would most prefer it) they don’t always feel the need to slap that fact on the cover.

Speaking of the cover, that’s exactly where the CD was tucked away.

If you want a quick summary, I’d say it would feel like a ripoff if I had to spend ten dollars or more on this item. Not so much for the book, but rather the CD. Let’s focus on the book first.

I’ve got little to complain about with the book. From an age before Wikipedia, the level of detail for this pocket-sized book is fairly impressive. ‘Fully illustrated’ seems to be a bit of weird phrasing on the cover, almost implying it’s a picture book void of text. However, that’s not entirely without accuracy, given that 90-95% of the pages contain a photo of some form. The quality of picture varies, but only marginally. Overall, it seems to cover a lot of ground visually, compiling pictures from a variety of sources. Based on my own book and magazine collection, I recognize a few of these shots from issues of Musician and Guitar For The Practicing Musician among other places. To a person not too well-read on R.E.M., this provided some great insight, a relatively concise but all-encompasing overview of their career to that stage that spans from their early days through to the release of Monster. It’s as solid a crash course as one could hope for.

Scanning this is rather difficult since it’s a CD-sized book at around 120 pages, so you’ll need to make due with snapshots from my phone camera.

The back credits this as a Sound And Media release, who seem to have specialized in these unofficial offerings from unwilling artists. The book lists Carlton Books as the publisher, with David Harrington listed as the credited author. Finding more detail about Harrington is difficult given his name is about as common as Frampton Comes Alive, shared by dozens of public figures including a politician, a children’s book illustrator, the violinist/founder of The Kronos Quartet, and an author that specializes in witchcraft. I’m doubting this is one of those David Harringtons, but I’ve likely digested some of his work in one of the hundreds of music magazines I’ve owned or borrowed in my lifetime.

Then comes the interview CD. Despite purchasing this around a year ago, I’d only listened to it one time, and only gave it a second listen for the sake of this discussion to see if it was as bad as I remembered it. It was. If I have to pin the blame somewhere, I’ll stick it on Sound and Media. It sounds like found footage, so there absolutely must have been another more acceptable audio interview to take this one’s place.

The packaging lists that this interview was conducted in “March ‘91 by rock journalist Stuart Batsford, backstage at The Borderline and on a BR train to Dover!” The exclamation mark almost implies that the location is some sort of an added bonus (Trains! Excitement!!!). An apology for the sound quality would be more appropriate because for a large portion of their discussion you can hear as much of the train as you do the parties in conversation. I wouldn’t blame the interviewer for the audio interruptions since I don’t think this was ever intended for distribution in this form. It was likely used in print form in some music publication or not at all. I’m legitimately curious to see if this interview was actually used elsewhere so I can give it some proper attention. My searches for Stuart Batsford had limited results, but I did find other interviews featuring him, such as this one where he discusses Phil Spector. As for The Borderline, this must be the venue, seeing that they list an R.E.M. performance on their webpage occurring soon after the release of Out Of Time.

Most of the talking is with Peter Buck, but you can hear Michael Stipe enter the discussion around 48 minutes into the 64-minute track. Parts of it do sound interesting. Among conversation points are discussion of performing on The Late Show, signing into hotels under aliases, collaborating with different artists, and Peter Buck’s development as a mandolin player, but the talk often gets de-railed when discussing issues such as ordering food and obtaining train tickets. I’d be much more forgiving of these side-conversations if I didn’t have to consistently adjust the volume or half-consider doing some audio filtering of my own. Stipe’s voice is the most difficult to pick out over the noise. It doesn’t help that he’s not always the best at enunciating as a speaker in spite of his talent as a vocalist.

I’d like to share more details of the interview, but I keep getting hung up on the excess noise. Aside from the rhythmic pulse of the train that fades in and out, here is among what else the poorly-positioned recording device can pick up:

  • Robyn Hitchcock warming up backstage in the first portion of the interview. He comes in so clear at times you’d swear he was the target of the recording.
  • Someone surely must have been running a vacuum cleaner or Dustbuster during portions. Maybe this was out of courtesy to future train passengers, taking their duty seriously to leave no crumbs behind if they insist on eating during their commute.
  • I believe at the 36:14 mark of the track that the recorder, possibly attached beneath their train car from the outside, picks up a distinct scratching sound of a wheel striking a penny left on the train track. Luckily, there’s not much real danger of a train being thrown off the track in this manner, but how cool would it be to say that it was your penny that was flattened by a train  transporting R.E.M.?
  • Possibly the odd word from the rest of R.E.M. (Mike Mills and Bill Berry), but I’d like to think they were in an adjacent car catching some Zs or being mic’ed up properly for a different interview.

There are likely better books on the band available for a bit more coin, and easily more audible interview footage as well, but I’ll leave it to the hardcore R.E.M. fans to pass better judgment on this piece. Have you bought this, would you buy this, and what is the most money you’d shell out for it?

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