Although not quite as emphatically as say Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, R.E.M. were primarily an “album” band rather than a “singles” band. Although they had their share of hit singles – “Losing My Religion”, “The One I Love” etc – generally their albums did better on the charts and their legion of fans typically bought the LP or CD instead of just the singles. All that made this day in 1999 a bit unusual for them, when they released something close to a standalone single – “The Great Beyond.”
“The Great Beyond” wasn’t absolutely a standalone; it was in fact the single off the Man on the Moon soundtrack, which the band produced with Pat McCarthy, who’d done their previous album, Up. As the title suggests, it was the movie soundtrack to the film about Andy Kaufman, the avant garde comic who’d loosely inspired the band’s 1992 hit “Man on the Moon.”
Michael Stipe says of “The Great Beyond”, he was trying to “revisit a character that you’ve written a classic song about and try to one-up yourself. Bowie pulled it off for real “ (with “Ashes to Ashes” following-up “Space Oddity”). So the second R.E.M. song about Kaufman was “about attempting the impossible, which I think Andy Kaufman did with his entire career,” according to the singer. He noted many of the lyrics he wrote, about pushing elephants up stairs and so on, came from an old Laurel and Hardy gag since Kaufman adored that duo.
The album is credited to R.E.M., but it’s an unusual one. It contained the previous hit of theirs, as well as the ’70s Exile hit “Kiss You All Over”, plus the theme from Taxi, the TV show Kaufman was a part of, various sound bites from the movie and a number of instrumental, orchestral bits scored by the band (or seemingly Mike Mills, the bassist who performed parts of it with the Mike Mills Orchestra.)
The video, fitting for one about such an off-the-wall character, was an odd one with the band appearing to break the “fourth wall” and come out at the viewers… one of their more creative ones, but at a time when video was on the wane. Overall, the song did OK but wasn’t able to “one-up” the ’92 hit, except in the British Isles. There it rose to #3, technically their highest-charting single ever, and it topped Irish charts. In Canada it hit #16, while at home, the single missed the top 40 but did make the Alternative Rock charts up to #11. The song became a staple of their live shows thereafter, and Stipe suggests he likes their live versions of it better than the studio one.
Maybe somewhere in the great beyond, Kaufman is looking down or smiling… “if you believe.”