The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite

May 3, 2007

John Paul Jones‘ string arrangement for “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” may be surplus to the needs of a tune already bursting with peppy hooks, but his additional melodies do absolutely nothing to spoil the composition. It’s a big decadent ice cream sundae of a pop song, and Jones’ elegant score is essentially the cherry on top. His arrangement is not lacking in boldness, but the most brilliant bit — the gently plucked pizzicato part that accompanies the final verse — is so subtle that I did not notice it was even there until after I’d known the song for over a decade.

“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is a much-needed oasis of joy and levity on an otherwise dour album. Michael Stipe’s voice is especially ideal for the song, to the point that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else singing it with anywhere near as much boyish enthusiasm and silly charm. His giggle following the line “a reading from Dr. Suess” easily ranks among the most endearing moments on any R.E.M. record, and his quasi-brogue on the chorus has a weird, mystifying allure even if it makes the words sound a lot more like “call me da chowder baker” than “call me when you try to wake her.” It’s a great thing for the song — the easily misheard lyric is just one more novel hook for a pop tune that’s doing everything it can to earn your love without seeming particularly needy.

41 Responses to “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”

  1. Jamie Says:

    I think it sounds more like, “Calling Jamaica”, personally.

  2. sashwap Says:

    favorite hook in the song is when stipe pulls out the “i can always sleep standing up” line in the chorus.

  3. jill Says:

    ok, now i can only hear it as “call me da chowder baker”.

  4. David Says:

    It’s unfortunate that more people haven’t heard the band’s take on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

  5. ozon Says:

    This used to be my absolute favourite when I was first getting into them in 2001 (I was 12 then). Other songs have overtaken it since but I still love it and I can’t understand why the band seems to a bit ashamed of it.


  6. What makes you think they are ashamed of it? I mean, they put it on that hits album and they skipped over some much bigger hits to put it on. (I mean, they skipped their biggest US chart hit, which they ARE embarrassed about.) I know they never play it live, but I think that has more to do with the arrangement than anything else.

  7. Dave Gassner Says:

    Despite offering a moment of silliness and absurdity on an album of mortality and melancholy, this song always kinda wore out my ‘>>’ button. Just kinda killed the ‘mood’ I guess (ironically by being, well, too happy). Couldn’t get into it.

    Just wanted to say thank you though for the very informative and comprehensive page Matthew; I finally have another web page to read while at work all day. I’ve been a fan of this band since the late 90’s and many of your thoughts on the songs are similar to my own interpretations of them, even if we don’t always favor the same ones (ex/ I can’t believe you didn’t like ‘The Outsiders’!)

    I’m really looking forward to your analysis of ‘Electrolite’ (my favorite) and ‘Why Not Smile’, amongst many others.

    Do you know if anyone has done this for Radiohead or U2? Any ‘about life’ epic bands would be an interesting to scrutinize in this manner.

  8. John Micek Says:

    For the longest time, I thought it was “Permanent Tie-Breaker.”
    But I’m in complete agreement — it’s an oasis of pop in a very bleak LP. I’ve been wishing lately that REM would have more moments like this on their more recent LPs.

  9. wolfy Says:

    The song is one of my all time faves by REM. I sing it at work!
    It reminds me of a time when I was broke but all too happy to go places on a whim with a friend’s father who had just arrived from India (he had no licence to drive yet). We went places and I used maps to figure out the routes and sometimes we got lost!
    Now, I don’t drive and miss that sense of adventure.

  10. Kirsten Says:

    Stipe’s voice makes this song.

    Their version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight is fantastic if you haven’t heard it – get a copy!!

  11. xman Says:

    great, great song. i love the little seuss giggle too.
    this one sounds really great on the aftp dvd-a.
    strings are lush, yet subtle…

    it’d be pretty adventurous of the boys, but i always thought this one would sound reall nice in a rarely performed acoustic arrangement, kinda like “disappear” or the 2001 performances of “let me in”.

    thank you, thank you for starting this blog. r.e.m. has been my favorite band since “up”, and this blog gives me a good reason to go back and listen to all these songs.

  12. Scott Says:

    The song matches the album’s mood because the lyric under the optimistic arrangement is sad. Those big strings suggest the grandiosity of the character’s delusion: that the person missed will be in touch soon. Whoever he is, he’s still waiting.

  13. Catapult Says:

    I used to cite this as my favorite REM song. I’ve since realized there can be no such thing, but I do adore it along with many, many others. What I really love about it is it’s ‘abstractness’ and that I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what it’s about. I even remember Mike Mills talking about Micheal’s lyrics and saying something to the effect of, “On the one hand there’s Everybody Hurts, and everyone knows what it means, and then there’s Sidewinder, where nobody knows what he’s talking about.”

    I’m a bit surprised that several people here have called it a happy song because I’ve never thought that at all. I’d agree that it doesn’t exactly fit in with the somber tone of AFTP, but it still isn’t what I’d call ‘happy’. More like a surreal dream-state, whatever the hell that means. Favorite line: “tell her she can kiss my ass, then laugh and say that you were only kidding. That way she’ll know that it’s really, really, really, really me”

    One last note: I came across a paper that apparently analyzes the meaning of this song in some detail. I really want to read this, but am not ready to shell out $30+ just to do so. Here is the link for anyone who may be interested:
    http://mq.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/citation/88/3/456

  14. conortje Says:

    The giggle was because he mispronounced the name Dr Suess wasn’t it? It really is a unique point – I often giggle myself when I hear it still – it’s infectious. Wonderful blog by the way.

  15. James Says:

    I don’t know what the song is “really’ about, but the first couple of verses, at least, seem to come from the voice of someone who’s going to a place where tehnology can’t reach him easily. The narrator is telling someone that he can only be reached by a payphone outside the place he’s staying. The title basically means – the phone isn’t ringing (“sidewinder” is a phone cord).

    Also, there is an interesting line that seems to nod to a song on the next album: “little need to sleep but to dream.”


  16. Funny, I knew this was one of many sleep/dream songs, but I never made the connection to “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream.” Which is weird because that song is one of my favorites.

  17. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    To me “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” has always kind of been AFTP’s sequel song to OOT’s “Shiny Happy People”. These two songs have always had a connection in my mind and whenever I make somebody a mix CD or REM hits I always put them back to back. “Sidewinder” is not quite as over the top silly as “Shiny Happy People” is, but I think it seems so because it is SO different that the feel of the rest of AFTP. While REM’s “pop songs” are rarely amongst my favorites by the band “Sidewinder” is one of their best attempts at pop/radio friendly music and it is fun to see how the band both plays tribute to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and how they subvert it into something completely unique yet still based on the older tune. While I wouldn’t consider this song a masterpiece it is a great song, especially considering is doesn’t really aspire to be great, just fun.

  18. Lisa Says:

    When my kids were toddlers they used to call this the “wheatie-wheatie” song.

  19. zozoe Says:

    Such a gorgeous song and a great interpretation.

  20. aljoark Says:

    A beautiful song, which reminds me of a sweet and soft liquorice candy with a taste of lemon. A funny memory perhaps….

    Please visit my website (in Swedish)
    http://aljoark.wordpress.com/
    byggnadskonst + ingenjörskonst

  21. Marc Says:

    I’ve always admired the song, and for some reason, never felt it was thematically or musically out of place in the context of the record. The sequencing of AFTP is pitch perfect and this track provides an initial dose of levity that would have been much more out of place deeper into the album. The only glitch on AFTP in my mind is Ignoreland, which to me, always felt like a track that was leftover from the Out of Time sessions.

    Anyway, great site. It’s rekindled many old emotions and memories of these songs that I’ve largely forgotten over the past decade.

  22. satisfied75 Says:

    In high school a girl made the dubious claim it was “calling a jamaica mon.” i called bullshit, but later found myself mouthing those very words to the song in my car.


  23. Since we’re all playing along at home, I might as well point out that I thought the chorus was “Call me when you try to break her heart.”

    Oddly enough I was listening to this song a few days ago and when he laughed after the Dr. Seuss lyric I honestly thought you’d give the song a hard time about that. I’m glad you didn’t, because it’s one of my favorite moments on the album.

  24. Jasper Says:

    Michael stated in an interview once that he laughed because, no matter how many takes they tried, he just could not pronouce the word “Suess”, instead saying it with a “Z” sound. I think of that and laugh every time I hear it.

    Their version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was a bonus track on the CD single of this song, which I own. I have always loved their take on the song. I assume the trombone is Mike Mills, since I remember an interview with him shortly before this album where he stated that he was trying to master the instrument.

  25. Dan Butt Says:

    In partial support of the “bit ashamed of it” claim, Peter Buck says the following in the sleevenotes to The Best of REM: “We included this song on Automatic in order to break the prevailing mood of the album. Given that lyrically the record dealt with mortality, the passage of time, suicide and family, we felt that a light spot was needed. In retrospect, the consensus among the band is that this might be a little too lightweight.”

  26. Bandwagon03 Says:

    For old school REM fans, this was a great song and a great moment on a new REM album, a silly little tune. Many people felt like the band had been taking themselves too seriously, and this was a great oasis of a song.

  27. Voltaire Says:

    I just want to put in another vote for the laugh as the best moment on the album.

  28. Voltaire Says:

    “I’m a bit surprised that several people here have called it a happy song because I’ve never thought that at all. I’d agree that it doesn’t exactly fit in with the somber tone of AFTP, but it still isn’t what I’d call ‘happy’.”

    I agree, Catapult. I love the song and it’s one of my favorites, but I also consider it creepy.

  29. EK Alex Says:

    At first I liked this one. The the dorky local radio station here in Glasgow insisted in playing it every hour. Sadly, the only other REM song they aired with such regularity was Shiny Happy People. Talk about no taste.

  30. Gabriel Peters Says:

    One of the things I like about R.E.M. ist, that they have a side where they take themselve and the arts and crafts they produce serious. So I don´t need very much a R.E.M. song that demonstrates that they can walk on the funny, brught side of life, too – because there are millions of ugly, boring bands outside that are doing nothing else than this. Low´s Alan Sparhawk said in an interview that one of the things he learnt while touring with Radiohead was not taking his music too serious. I was shocked! Dumb Thom Yorke! I know why I´m not liking Radiohead…


  31. Wow, that is so far and away removed from how I appreciate the band or music in general. I think you might find over time that I definitely favor the lighter, peppier songs on the whole!

  32. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Matthew, I may be a good counterpoint then, because I definately prefer the darker, more moody REM tunes.

  33. Kris Says:

    In relation to the Oxford Music Quarterly article mentioned above, I have free access to this article as a university student. If you want me to send you a copy, just email me at tooxintro@hotmail.com and I’ll ship it out. It’s pretty good, in a “someone’s working on their thesis and anaylsing stuff to death” sort of way.

  34. Kris Says:

    To clarify: by ‘ship out’ I mean I’ll email you a pdf version.

  35. transformerdog Says:

    Matthew refers to the key change in Stand as the “most charming” in the canon; I think it might be second to the key change in this song , or is this one just a chord change ? albeit a most potent one (I think any half-assed fan knows the part of this song I’m talking about here) ..The band came into these sessions with a backlog of about 35 songs/ideas in various stages ,one tentatively titled–by Michael– ‘The Devil Rides Backwards On A Horse Called Maybe’, what ever became of that one ?

    PB talking of this time (probably exaggerating),” I pretty much spent two years in bed. All I did was drink wine and lay in bed.” {reminds me of Lennon at the Dakota for a period there and the extended Brian Wilson hibernation/breakdown}”I’d get up and practice every night and then I’d go back to bed. I never left my house and then I figured out what I wanted to do with my life and did it.” ..what was that , Peter ?..”I made a lot of changes.”…moved to Seattle.?…”It was kinda fun, I’d recommend it to anyone. If you feel depressed , take a two week vacation and don’t leave your bed. Order pizza, drink wine , it’s a great thing.” Or smoke an awful lot of pot if you’re Lennon…..One thing for sure Peter loves his wine.:)

  36. transformerdog Says:

    Matthew , what’s your all time REM bestest favorite ? Would it be right to assume you’ll save that one for last ?

  37. Paul Alferink Says:

    Best Lyric: Baby, instant soup doesn’t really grab me.
    Today I need something more sub sub substantial
    Like can of beans or black eyed peas
    some nescafe and ice.

  38. bob Says:

    I’d say the song isn’t upbeat in a “shiny happy people” way, but rather kind of sad. The protagonist strikes me as being young, perhaps a teenager, who doesn’t have much at all — he sleeps on his feet and thinks Nescafe and ice is substantial. Still he is naïve but hopeful and spunky. Another complex rem song highlighted by Stipe’s inspired vocal acting (if that makes sense) B.O.B in apple valley mn

  39. Alex Says:

    I’ve always found this arrangement to have a tinge of Jeff Lynne to it, some of the best strings on any R.E.M. song.

  40. RedParakeet Says:

    I think the main reason they never play this song live is more because of the high register Stipe has to sing in as well as the string arrangement not quite the same when played on a keyboard.

  41. Giorgia Says:

    I love this song, it’s one of my favourite of ever. I always listen to it on the bus in the morning: a great charge of energy…
    But I agree with Catapult: I don’t think it’s a “happy” song. Perhaps a surreal dream or a flood of thoughts in a state of doziness (I’m not sure the word is correct: I mean when you are half-asleep… In Italy we say “dormiveglia”).

    The blog is fantastic!


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