It’s May 1989 in the Barrowland Ballroom and REM are winding up a marathon Green World Tour show with the second of three encores and an inspired version of a song that reminds me greatly of Jonathan Richman’s Roadrunner. It circles around a repetitive 2 chord riff and as it builds to a groove, drummer Bill Berry gets out the drum stool and without missing a beat takes the guitar offered to him by Peter Buck and takes over guitar duties as Buck gamely assumes the sticks and continues the backbeat to the song’s conclusion with an almost, but not quite, metronomic precision. Only later, after finding a bootleg tape at the Barras market did I learn that the song was Ghost Rider, by a band (Suicide) I’d yet to hear of.
The Buck/Berry swap over was a carefully timed bit of fun, two musicians afforded the time to do their party piece by the other half of the band as the end of a fantastic, career-encompassing show drew to a close. For all I knew, REM did the same schtick every night, but that encore in Glasgow seemed spontaneous and instant and as in the moment as live shows get. I can still see the two musicians now, Buck stage left, arms outstretched offering the sacrificial axe, Berry banging away at the bass pedal as he straps on the Les Paul (or maybe it was a Rickenbacker…it was 30 years ago, after all) while Mike Mills gamely keeps the whole thing together.
Bands swapping instruments on stage is nothing new. Adam and Edge used to swap bass and guitar whenever U2 played ’40’ and The Band would routinely do likewise mid set, mid song, whenever. Fleetwood Mac used to do similar at their height in the mid 70s. Of course, they went the whole hog and swapped wives, girlfriends and partners too, but it’s when the band takes it into the recording studio that the fun really begins.
When it was time for Bob Dylan to record Rainy Day Women #12 &35, he wanted to capture the sound of controlled chaos, a wonky ‘n warped Salvation Army band under the influence of, good god!, whatever. Copious amounts of alcohol and marijuana were taken, the mood was lightened and, the piece de resistance, the musicians were ordered to swap instruments.
Bob Dylan – Rainy Day Women #12 &35 (Take 1)
Bass player Charlie McCoy was given the forlorn task of finding a horn section in the middle of the night – “Go an’ git me a Salvation Army band!” – before too being given a trumpet as the tapes started rolling. Guitarist Wayne Moss switched to bass and Henry Strzelecki jumped from guitar to Al Kooper’s organ. Kooper plays the tambourine that rattles enthusiastically from start to finish, counting every beat, the glue that barely keeps it all together. Only Kenny Buttrey on drums maintained his usual instrument, but even then he dismantled his kit and played just the snare and the bass drum.
The recording captures the daftness of the occasion. Hoops and hollers and yee-haws and yeahs fill the gaps between the sloppily-played 12 bar blues. Dylan is on fine form. In the middle of an imperious stretch of writing and recording – the same session would yield accepted stone-cold Dylan classic I Want You – he lets his guard down, giggling and cackling his way through the numerous verses. Listening to it, you can practically see the ear-to-ear grin he sports. The whole thing is dangerously close to falling apart, which is of course Dylan’s modus operandi and the intended appeal of the finished version. A daft song with a daft refrain – ‘Everybody must git stoned!‘ – it’s the perfect product of its environment.
Talking Heads‘ 5th album Speaking In Tongues closes with the fantastic This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody). The bracketed part of the song title comes from the fact that the guitar and bass play exactly the same 3 chord melody throughout. Real musicians, ratlionalised David Byrne, would never opt to play the same thing.
Talking Heads – This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)
That naïve melody is a product of Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison moving from their comfort zones. Weymouth relinquishes bass duties on the track and swaps 4 strings for 6. Harrison, relieved of his guitar plays the bassline on a Prophet synthesiser.
Accomplished as they are, the two musicians lend the track a slight edgy don’t look down! feel, and the track precariously wobbles on a tightrope of new wave funk. On their previous couple of albums, Talking Heads had flirted with the polyrhythms of Fela Kuti-infused Afrobeat. That This Must Be The Place never wanders makes it all the better. As Mark E Smith was wont to quote, repetition is discipline.
If you want even more repetition, look no further than the extended version…
Talking Heads – This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody) 12″ version