35 Years Ago: R.E.M. Clear the Vaults With ‘Dead Letter Office’
R.E.M. built a following partly through their defiantly anti-commercial stance during the image-driven '80s, so it may have come as something of a surprise when the band agreed to release a collection of non-album cuts. But if the group confounded expectations by putting out 1987's Dead Letter Office, the record's contents happily exceeded them.
Rather than a hastily assembled cash grab, the 15-track set opened a window into R.E.M. — not only their in-studio creative process, which was captured with a string of originals running the gamut from the drunken "Walters Theme" to more polished B-sides like "Burning Down," but the band members' sometimes surprising influences, represented through the LP's collection of cover songs.
While no one could have been surprised by some of the cover choices assembled on Dead Letter Office — such as the trio of Velvet Underground tracks ("There She Goes Again," "Pale Blue Eyes," "Femme Fatale") that made the cut — others offered an informative peek at R.E.M.'s roots. Aerosmith's "Toys in the Attic," for example, might have seemed miles removed from their far less aggressive sound, but as guitarist Peter Buck wrote in the dryly humorous liner notes he penned for the set, "If you grew up in the seventies you liked Aerosmith. This one is always fun to play live."
Hear R.E.M.'s 'Toys in the Attic'
Easier to understand — at least in theory — was the band's decision to record "King of the Road," a composition pulled from Roger Miller's songbook, although their execution was far more sloppily inebriated than some fans of the novelty-country legend might have liked. "If there was any justice in the world," quipped Buck, "Roger Miller should be able to sue for what we did to this song."
As much room as Dead Letter Office made for tossed-off curios of chief interest to diehard fans, it remained an overall satisfying listen that — while perhaps not exactly cohesive — summed up R.E.M.'s early years as effectively as any singles collection. And while its arrival might have been contractually driven, whether or not fans realized it, Office's April 1987 release came at a pivotal moment for the group; their next set, Document, marked a decisive turning point in their sound, and they'd soon depart longtime label I.R.S. Records for the more mainstream environs of Warner Bros. — with multi-platinum fame soon to follow.
But before they morphed into an MTV juggernaut, R.E.M. were still just a group of guys from Athens, Ga., without any of the label investment or expectations that might have kept them from collecting a rumpled grab bag of their old castoffs. Explaining the aesthetic behind the album, Buck shared his fondness for the 45, explaining that no matter how big a band might get, a single was still "essentially a piece of crap usually purchased by teenagers," whose intrinsic disposable nature encouraged artists to lard the B-side with "failed experiments, badly written songs, drunken jokes, and occasionally, a worthwhile song that doesn't fit the feel of an album."
As the guitarist pointed out, Dead Letter Office collects songs from each of those categories. "It's not a record to be taken too seriously," he advised. "Listening to this album should be like browsing through a junkshop. Good hunting."