MOJO Time Machine: R.E.M. Are Bingo Hand Job!

On March 12, 1991 R.E.M. played a secret gig at London’s Borderline under the alias Bingo Hand Job

MOJO TIME MACHINE

by Fred Dellar |

March 12, 1991

Following a year-long hiatus, R.E.M. had returned to active duty. Their seventh album, Out Of Time, had been released and was accruing sales on the back of lead single Losing My Religion, and its striking video. By March 23 the LP would be Number 1 in the UK; nine weeks later it would top the US charts.

Their transition from college rock contenders to major league players was not straightforward. Before recording had commenced, guitarist Peter Buck had let it be known that he had grown tired of electric guitars and wanted to explore things of an acoustic nature. So he picked up a mandolin, bassist Mike Mills played some keyboards and drummer Bill Berry assumed bass duties. It soon became known that a string section had been hauled in, as was former dB’s cohort Peter Holsapple and New Orleans saxman Kidd Jordan, plus Boogie Down Productions rapper KRS-1 and Kate Pierson from The B-52’s. What were they building in there?

Upon its release, Berry agreed that the lush, emotive record signalled a significant change in direction. “It was a direct reaction to [1988 LP] Green and pushed us away from where we were going,” he said.

“Every song on the record is a love song,” announced singer Michael Stipe, who had in the past purposely avoided the subject of romance. Regarding Losing My Religion, the singer told Billboard: “My idea with the song was to try to rewrite Every Breath You Take. I guess I did a pretty good job of it.”

But would the band tour the album? Buck explained that R.E.M. had been on the road for a decade. “We’ve got to find another way to do it,” he mused. “It might be fun to involve other musicians, make it a larger group of people.”

He wasn’t kidding. Just a few days after the release of Out Of Time, on the evenings of March 14 and 15, R.E.M. pitched up at London’s Borderline, a bijoux basement beneath a Mexican diner off Charing Cross Road, to play a secret gig. They played under the alias Bingo Hand Job, featuring The Doc (Berry), Raoul (Buck), Stinky (Stipe) and Ophelia (Mills), along with friends Conrad (Billy Bragg), Violet (Robyn Hitchcock) and Spanish Charlie (Peter Holsapple). Support act was Stump Monkey. MOJO’s Keith Cameron reported on the gig, and wrote how the unannounced shows “sold out within an hour and demand was such that outside, grown men were asking (and receiving) £200 in exchange for the right to descend the Borderline’s stone steps and check out this hotly-tipped new act. Once down there, all became clear. Stump Monkey turned out to be the Chickasaw Mudpuppies, purveyors of refried hillbilly kitsch; the ancillary bands none other than Billy Bragg, Robyn Hitchcock and Peter Holsapple, while the main attraction were revealed as R.E.M., one-time garage punks from Athens, Georgia, who had decided to play their first UK gig in almost two years to barely 200 people in a cellar.”

Playing seated in relaxed style, using accordions, mandolins and bongos and a music stand to read lyrics from, the shows were freewheeling affairs. Bingo Hand Job/R.E.M. played pieces including Radio Song, The One I Love and Losing My Religion, as well as such covers as Syd Barrett’s Dark Globe and The Troggs’ Love Is All Around,  plus duets with support acts Hitchcock or Bragg on versions of Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s Jackson and Bob Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere. The disbelieving crowd, most of whom had paid a mere £6, also got a flannel embroidered with the words “Sanitised for your protection”.

We don’t necessarily do the things we do to sell records”

Mike Mills

If the gig was a rehearsal for future one-off dates, it additionally confirmed the band’s intention not to get involved in serious touring – something they would avoid until 1995. ”We don’t necessarily do the things we do to sell records,” Mills explained.

Not that their absence from the road affected the sales of Out Of Time. It would ultimately shift over 18 million units worldwide. R.E.M. were global stars at last, but stars still up for doing things their own way, it seemed. After The Troggs found out that R.E.M. had been covering their song, they set off to Athens that September to record with Buck, Berry and Mills. The 1992 collaborative album, Athens Andover, was the result. The Doc, Raoul, Stinky and Ophelia must have been proud.

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