R.E.M. will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its classic, five-song debut EP, Chronic Town, by releasing it as a standalone CD for the first time in the U.S. on Aug. 19 via I.R.S./UMe. Augmented by extensive new liner notes from original producer Mitch Easter, the project will also be available on picture disc vinyl and cassette and can be pre-ordered here.
Chronic Town was recorded in October 1981 at Easter’s Drive-In Studios in Winston-Salem, N.C., a few months after the release of R.E.M.’s debut single, “Radio Free Europe.” The EP introduced R.E.M.’s distinctive early sound to the wider world on staples such as “Gardening at Night,” “Wolves, Lower” and “1,000,000,” setting the stage for the band’s debut full-length, Murmur, in April 1983.
“There is a certain spare, almost live quality to the sound of this record, which makes it especially fascinating now,” Easter writes of Chronic Town in his new essay. “You hear what R.E.M. actually sounded like in its early days, only slightly enhanced with a little studio fun. No other R.E.M. record is like Chronic Town, but you hear traces of it throughout the band’s entire career.”
R.E.M. shot its first music video ever for “Wolves, Lower,” which the band re-recorded at a slower tempo several months after the original session upon urging from I.R.S. execs Miles Copeland and Jay Boberg. A version of “Gardening at Night” with an earlier, alternate vocal take saw the light of day on the 1988 compilation Eponymous.
As original drummer Bill Berry recalled of “Gardening at Night” in the liner notes to the 2006 collection And I Feel Fine … The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982–1987, “We were driving at night after a show (I don’t remember where), and I was at the wheel of our old car, with a rental trailer in tow. One of my three passengers aimed a directive at me. Rather than inform me of his desire to evacuate his bladder, he instead suggested that I pull over so that he might engage in the task of roadside ‘night gardening.’ To four guys in their early 20s, this was a glaring catalyst for a new song.”
Chronic Town did not appear on CD until it was included on the 1987 rarities collection Dead Letter Office. It has only ever been available as a standalone CD as part of the 1995 U.K. boxed set The Originals, which also featured Murmur and its 1984 follow-up, Reckoning. Many of the songs disappeared from R.E.M.’s live repertoire for decades, but “Wolves, Lower,” “Gardening at Night,” “1,000,000” and “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)” were revived in at various points in the 2000s and included on the 2009 album Live at the Olympia, which was recorded in Dublin.
As previously reported, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills have recently been in the studio with Easter for the first time in decades, working on the latest album by their group The Baseball Project.