This began as a piece to mark the 40th birthday of R.E.M., which I gather from Twitter was on Sunday. It went somewhere else.
I’ve spoken before, many times, about growing up as a music fan in the pre-internet era. I don’t know how many readers I have who are younger than me – probably only a very few regulars – but it can’t be stressed enough how different it was to now.
New music was a scarce commodity then, at least if you were a kid like I was. I earned £11 a week from a paper round when I was 14, so if I wanted to buy a new record while also keeping a bit of cash aside for stuff like guitar strings and my share of band rehearsal costs (a very reasonable £21 for a five-hour session at Maple in Southend, Essex), I’d have to squirrel away a few pounds here and a few pounds there for maybe three or four weeks to afford a new CD. Since not every store had a listening post, purchases were often blind, and if you didn’t immediately like the record you chose, you’d have enough invested in it to really work at getting it.
Being impatient to get my hands on new music more often than a dozen or so times a year, libraries, record fairs and second-hand record stall Gumbi’s (which stood in a covered market on an insalubrious road close to Southend high street) became important resources to me. I was definitely not above getting CDs from the library and taping them, but I was enough of a completist about the bands I liked that if I was into an album I taped from a friend or a library copy, I’d eventually buy it anyway.
In this world, the single-artist compilation disc – a form that is practically obsolete now – was a really useful way to get a handle on an artist’s body of work without blowing all your cash on one abum that may be patchy at best, or overhyped and rubbish at worst. Consequently, I picked up more than a few as a teenager, from wherever I could get them cheap.
It was at Gumbi’s that I found a copy of The Best of R.E.M., released by the group’s former label IRS after the band’s success with its second Warner Bros. release, Out of Time. It was £7, near enough half the price of a new CD (which tended to retail at around £12 back then in HMV or Virgin). Not having any alternate versions or rarities like Dead Letter Office and Eponymous, The Best of R.E.M. was greeted with a sniff and a shrug by reviewers and long-time fans, and probably bewilderment by newer fans, who wondered why the only song on it they’d even vaguely heard of was The One I Love, but to me it was a godsend. It handily distilled R.E.M.’s here-be-dragons IRS era into 16 songs – one from the EP Chronic Town, and three each from the five albums they released between 1983 and 1987.
Murmur, the first of those, would go on to become an absolutely foundational record for me, one of my favourite albums ever, with Fables of the Reconstruction close behind. I’d still put Murmur in my top ten favourite records ever. It pulls of an absolutely stunning trick – while a fully formed work in its own regard that captures the band’s absolute quintessence, it pulls all over the place, with influences drawn from folk-rock, country, gospel, post-punk, bubblegum and straight-up, honest-to-goodness 4/4 rock ‘n’ roll.
Representing such a record as Murmur or Fables in just three tracks is a tough job, and if I was going to pick three songs to encapsulate Murmur I’d drop Talk About the Passion and replace it with Sitting Still or Shaking Through. And yeah, the Fables picks give little hint of that record’s bone-deep weirdness. And I Believe but not Begin the Begin or These Days? Huh? But still, the compilation did more than just open up the band’s back catalogue to me; it was a window on a world that seemed distant and strange because I had few first-hand memories of it.
Single-artist compilations are held in low esteem by many music fans; if an artist’s work is worth hearing, it’s worth hearing as they intended, goes the argument. Album by album, perhaps even in the order they came out. But actually, that’s not how most music fans engage with music, and never has been. For Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 in the second half of the seventies, read Spotify’s This is Eagles* playlist now.
A Spotify playlist has the same utile value for the consumer as the single-artist compilation album did, in that it gives him or her a simple way to get the measure of an artist that they’re not familiar with. But what the compilation has over the Spotify playlist – or indeed those double-CD best ofs that became common in the late 1990s – is concision. Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 has 10 songs in it. Spotify’s This is Eagles playlist has more songs on it than I can count, and one of them is Chug All Night**. OK, so some great single-artist compilations were long (Neil Young’s Decade ran to three discs for its vinyl release), but they were the exception; most avoided doing the skilled compiler’s work of reducing an entire oeuvre to a dozen or so songs. A well-compiled best-of on one disc or two sides of vinyl is the platonic ideal of the form for me.
Ultimately, even the most perfunctory, will-this-do compilations raise a fascinating question for the listener: are these songs just the tip of the iceberg, or do they represent everything this artist did that’s worth hearing? For a music fan just getting to grips with an artist’s body of work, what could be more exciting than getting the chance to find out that answer for themselves?
*Spotify becoming the only person/thing that has ever referred to the band as simply “Eagles” and not “the Eagles” other than Glenn Frey.
**Anyone who lived through A Good Day in Hell – The Official ILM Track-By-Track Eagles Listening Thread on I Love Music remembers Chug All Night, an otherwise forgotten Frey song from their debut, with a combination of hilarity and horror.