Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)

I’m doing this one next to fulfill a promise to Levin Mulder

Among my top 3 favorite R.E.M. songs, I’ve been playing this one since at least high school–maybe earlier.  I’m not sure that the way I play it has evolved much over the years, but some parts did not sound quite right, and after investigation of the videos, I found one or two things to tweak in the chorus (I never could play that “A” chord and get my pinky to do the A -> Asus4 -> A -> A with B open -> A (note played on G string, 2nd fret).

Here is one very interesting 1983 (mislabeled 1985) rendition on a television program, Livewire (you can’t see much guitar playing because of the dancing):

One thing that was easy to pick up here, though, was that Peter Buck does not often play the full bar chords–I guess to emphasize the higher strings. He does not often play the low E string.  So here, the B minor–one of the most prominent chords in the song, is played with just the bottom 4 strings.

One recurring theme of this blog is that PB does not always play traditional chords–he puts a twist on them or plays his own chords. It is part of the signature R.E.M. sound and what made them different from all other bands, especially int he early 1980s (of course, Dave Evans of U-2 was playing so unconventionally at the time–I’m sure there were some others–but R.E.M. was doing so many things differently).

Here is the Carnival of Sorts from the Passaic show at the Capital Theatre (one of three great concerts for figuring out these songs because they were filmed and are on YouTube):

Confirming a lot of stuff there, and giving the best shot of how the chorus is played right here:

EDIT: So slow that down. What has been bothering me is that droning on the B string.  If you watch the video above slowly when PB plays the chorus, you see it is actually this:

Bm played with bottom two strings open like this (it’s like the top of the Bm).

G with bottom strings open like this. (keep emphasis on the B string)

Then the A barred (probably muting the bottom string–emphasizing the A and E note–second fret D string) with the little flourish at the end. 

Here is an incredible 1982 video from one of the three filmed concerts–the Raleigh Underground (note they often had Mitch Easter or another guitarist join them onstage for songs–not sure who this is*, but they are playing this version with two guitars):

Peter Buck  plays a Bm played like this for the verse**, G***, and then the A played normally.  For the bridge to the chorus, it’s the G followed by an A chord (I think just like this)**** played with the 2nd and 3rd fingers going into the chorus from the lead-in as seen here at Passaic, followed by the “upper half Bm” again, back to A with the little flourish he does.

So putting that all together with the chords I have known since high school yields a great sound to a familiar tune.

I have no idea whether this is accurate, but it is the best I can do with the resources I have (and after decades of playing it differently, it is hard to get used to something new).  This is an evolutionary process started in the early 1980s. I hope that discussion here can lead me and others farther down that path to understanding how PB played these songs–I always welcome input.

Played Live:



*(NOTE: As identified by peechpanda in the comments section, Peter Holsapple of the dB’s appears to join the band on guitar for this song) –

**We’ll call that the “upper half Bm” as opposed to the “lower half Bm” he plays in the chorus.

***I think Peter Buck usually plays a G chord with his 3rd & 4th fingers on the second fret, B and e (5th and 6th) strings respectively [edit: but not in the chorus–in the Passaic video, you can hear that droning on the B string go on during the G chord which has all 4 bottom strings open]

****I think he’s kind of muting the D string


Very cool video from 1984:


Previous Video of how I played it


Further Reading:

Question: “Also, ‘Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)’ reminds me of a 1960s horror film called ‘Carnival of Souls’.  I wondered whether you had seen the film and if so if you were thinking about it when you wrote the lyrics. “

Michael Stipe: “Carnival of Sorts is written about the Carnival night scene in the film ‘The Elephant Man’; I think they are escaping under cover of night, I don’t recall right now.  I don’t think I’ve seen ‘Carnival of Souls’.”

Possible Lyrics


10 thoughts on “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)”

  1. Now there’s dedication, amigo and I thought João was the perfectionist, Don’t worry so much, you can always redo it, if you feel the need. Watching those clips made me feel 30 years younger, so thanks for that too.
    What should I call you? Dead Letter doesn’t seem polite.
    Wish you could see the thunder storm here, better shut down, peace!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Your welcome..I really want to study Peter Buck’s playing I feel like your blog is
        perfect for you have any thing new your working on?


      2. Ok. I hope you do..I know I want to copy Buck’s style because I love how he plays..I think Peter wrote great guitar parts and great songs


  2. Thank you for sharing your efforts. I’ve said it before in another post how much your work is valued. I think this one you really hit your stride, including the flourishes Mr. Buck uses.


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