Rock

Peter Buck, Mike Mills & More Give the Story Behind R.E.M.'s Secret Shows as Bingo Hand Job

REM
JA Barratt/Photoshot/Getty Images

REM photographed circa 1990.

"We weren't too concerned about being a professional band."

A mere two days following the release of their soon-to-be Billboard 200-topping album Out of Time, R.E.M. played a pair of secret acoustic shows on March 14 and 15, 1991, at the London club the Borderline under the assumed name of Bingo Hand Job.

On Record Store Day, April 13, Craft Recordings will release a two-record vinyl set recorded during that second show. It took place as "Losing My Religion" was on its way to becoming a worldwide smash, but before the band was featured on MTV's Unplugged. R.E.M. was in a loose and jovial mood. The album features acoustic versions of various songs from the band's catalog, dating back to "Perfect Circle" from the band's 1983 full-length debut, Murmur, along with a few choice covers.

To celebrate the release of Live at the Borderline 1991, we spoke with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Mike Mills, manager Bertis Downs, exchanged emails with then-auxiliary member Peter Holsapple, support act Robyn Hitchcock and a tweet with special guest Billy Bragg.

How It Happened

Peter Buck: We were doing an acoustic tour of Europe for Out of Time. We had three acoustic guitars, mandolin, acoustic bass, I think bongos and tambourine. We were just doing radio shows and TV -- just kind of a low-key thing. In England, it's almost like you need a work permit to do Top of the Pops, but they won't give you a work permit to do Top of the Pops unless you do some other work. So we said, "Let's do an acoustic show and we'll invite Robyn Hitchcock and Billy Bragg and call it Bingo Hand Job."

Mike Mills: We were enjoying some of the stuff we were doing in a non-tour type setting. It sounds like something the record company would set up and we thought, 'OK, this will be totally cool. We'll play with our friends Robyn Hitchcock and Billy Bragg.' Just have it be loose and fun and enjoy ourselves.

Bertis Downs: This would have been a record company idea I'm sure -- a little tiny club called the Borderline. Way smaller than R.E.M. would ever play. Obviously you'd need to come up with a different name, so it doesn’t get out.

Robyn Hitchcock: Everyone there was so thrilled to have got into that little club to witness them. This was the zenith of R.E.M.’s cool, and they were about to become as popular as U2. It was an epic moment, tattooed in my memory. It was exciting to be associated with them, and they were very generous in sharing the focus with us.

Peter Holsapple: Approaching promotion for Out of Time differently was smart that way — the band didn’t want to do another big rock show tour, and the depth and breadth of the new record deserved something more intimate.

Downs: The reason there were two nights is because the first night was going to be entirely industry and we said, "Come on, we can't do a thing that has 250 industry people there and no punters, no regular people." So that's why there was a second night. It was born of necessity, so we would not do an industry show only. One night was very industry heavy in terms of who got into and the other was punter heavy. The one we ended up releasing is the second night.

Origins of the Name

Mills: That sounds like Peter. I think it has his M.O. all over it. It could have been Michael. I know it wasn't me. I don't think it was [drummer] Bill [Berry], so I'm going with one of those two guys.

Downs: I would say that would be a collective effort by the band. I have no idea if it was Berry, Buck, Mills or Stipe or some combination of them. I have my guess, but I have no idea. Peter was always good at naming things, whether it's an album…If I had to bet on it, I would guess Peter, but I think it was the band came up with names and they named themselves after the various names in legend of Bingo Hand Job or whatever.

Buck: I don't know. Time has passed. It might have been a group thing, but I do know that I was the one who suggested that we get hand towels made saying, "Bingo Hand Job sanitized for your pleasure" and we handed them out to the first 100 people at each show. I don't even have one of those. I wish I had one.

Billy Bragg: I think they gave me a commemorative hand towel.

Individual Pseudonyms
(Stipe was Stinky; Berry, The Doc; Mills, Ophelia; Buck, Raoul; Holsapple, Spanish Charlie; Bragg, Conrad; and Hitchcock was Violet)

Mills: I have no idea where that came from. I feel like that was a found image and we all got to pick who we wanted to be. There was a big fight over who was going to get to be Stinky. I ended up being Ophelia. I might have gotten the short straw.

"World Leader Pretend"
(This song opened the set and album)

Mills: It's horrifying. There are a lot of prescient lyrics in that and it's a really sad state of affairs that that song is perhaps more applicable now than it was then.

The Mood

Buck: It was completely insane. Alcohol was consumed. I didn't know it was recorded, although I did buy a cassette of a bootleg the next day at Camden Market. I said, "How'd you get this done?" And the guy said, "I've been up all night dubbing these damn things." But I never thought about it again. It turns out that apparently the sound guy or somebody had a pretty decent recording of it. And it came up as why don't we put it out? It's kind of funny. I like it and it's a side of us that maybe people who think that we're super serious people at all times might not recognize.

Mills: We always said that people never really got how much fun we were having, because we didn't smile in our photographs. That might have been the reason people missed out on that.

Hitchcock: Michael’s voice has an earnest quality. That might lead people to think that...Have you heard him sing a curry house menu? It’s hilarious yet poignant. But there’s nothing serious about Mike Mills.

Holsapple: I was always aware of their playful side. We had been friends for a long time already and we had travelled in a van for some months, and you can’t help but see inside each other in proximity like that.

Fast and Loose

Buck: We never rehearsed doing an acoustic show. Our whole plan was we're doing six songs on the radio and TV and interviews and all of a sudden we had two hours to fill. We were just faking it. "Does anyone know how to play this one?" We'd come on and come off. I think it was like three-hour nights. A lot of it was just a mess, but cutting it down to just the R.E.M. stuff we realized these are good songs. They work well acoustically and everyone seems to be having a good time. It's not what I would send to a new R.E.M. fan saying, 'Yeah, this is what it's all about,' but it's the kind of thing I'd like to have from the bands that I liked. And I do have that kind of stuff, so it's going to be out in the world. Unleashed.

Holsapple: It was a lovely gesture on the part of the band to do these shows for their fans; and there was a sense of relaxation within the players since it wasn’t a big show in a big hall, and having friends like Robyn and Billy Bragg around made it very special for everyone.

The Covers
(They played the Johnny Cash/June Carter hit "Jackson" and Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Dallas" with Bragg)

Buck: I think Michael wanted "Jackson." And "Dallas," I have no idea how he knew that song. I know it. I think he might have learned it from somebody. He just started singing it and we assumed it was in E. I'm not sure we got it right, but we only played it twice. But I like the idea, "Yeah, whatever, we'll give it a shot."

Mills: "Dallas" was a big favorite of Michael's. I think "Jackson" just worked its way into that particular moment. We did a lot of stuff like that. Michael would go into a song or one of us would go into some other thing. We did that at a lot of our shows. I don't remember "Jackson" being planned or rehearsed. I know "Dallas" was but I think "Jackson" just kind of came out of the blue.

The Troggs' "Love Is All Around"

Mills: Peter and I were big Troggs fans, especially Peter, and it's just such a beautiful song. By that time, Michael was happy to share vocals, especially on covers. If it was a cover he particularly loved like "Dallas," he would sing it. If it was a cover that I loved or Peter loved, then I would sing it. You know, it was kind of egalitarian about that stuff.

Buck: I just loved that song. Me and Mike would play it. We just started doing it and we had recorded it as a B-side, and I started to think, "Wouldn't it be fun to have a non-album single…" Not just spreading rumors, but I'd heard the members of Wet Wet Wet were at the show when we did that and if you listen to their version, our version and the Troggs version, there's a harmony that Michael does that is not on the Troggs version. It's only on our version and Wet Wet Wet's. I'm happy for them. They had a No. 1 [in the U.K.] with it. Their version is pretty cool. I like to think they heard us do it and went, "Ah, OK."

Holsapple: I think people hearing them cover the Troggs was probably an eye opener. And it was done because they loved the Troggs, nothing ironic about it. And that ended up getting the two bands together for [the] Athens Andover [album], of course. Remember these guys are all huge music fans, so it was a dream come true for us.

Mills: I think the crowd likes to a chance to express their appreciation for each individual member, since Michael being the frontman who does most of the talking, it's easy for the crowd to tell him they appreciate him and it's not so easy to have a moment to appreciate Bill, Peter and myself. That was a moment for them to be able to say, 'Hey, we like you, too.'"

"Moon River"

Downs: It was definitely a staple around that time, around the '89 tour. The encore songs they were doing a lot were that one and "After Hours," the Velvet Underground song. Being from Georgia and Michael having relatives in Savannah and Johnny Mercer, it's a crooner, it's a beautiful song.

"Tom's Diner"
(released on the 1991 compilation album Tom's Album as "Tom's?" and as a B-side of the import of the "Near Wild Heaven" single)

Holsapple: Is "Tom's Diner" on this?

Buck: Everyone went through it and picked out the stuff that was actually musical. "Tom's Diner" is really funny, but it's not very musical. I love that song, but I don't think anyone wanted people to think we were making fun of the song, because we weren't. We were just goofing around. It didn't meet the lowly standards of Bingo Hand Job.

Mills: We were just playing it fast and loose. We were just having a good time and enjoying ourselves. We weren't too concerned about being a professional band for a great deal of those two evenings.