May 17, 2007

This is kind of an understatement, but back in the 1980s, R.E.M. played a lot of covers. Many of them were one-off deals and piss-takes, but as the decade progressed, an elite number of these songs were performed with such regularity that it seemed as though the band had adopted them as their own. The group gave most of those tunes dramatic make-overs that nudged the distinct style of artists like Iggy Pop or Suicide closer to their own aesthetic, but in the case of Pylon’s “Crazy,” the song was already so similar to the band’s established sound that their version seems as though it could be an R.E.M. original.

The similarities were not at all accidental. R.E.M. were always open about their admiration for Pylon, and it’s rather clear that they had gained a great deal of inspiration from their murky arpeggios, shifting beats, and nonlinear, deliberately esoteric lyrics. Pylon also hailed from Athens, Georgia, but were wrapping up their original run just around the time R.E.M. were working on Murmur, an album that would popularize a strain of post-punk particular to the American south that they had directly influenced.

R.E.M.’s version of “Crazy” is very faithful to Pylon’s original, but as they are wont to do, the group tightened up its structure just enough to make the song a bit more accessible and intuitive. The band’s studio recording was first released as the b-side to the “Driver 8” single, but found a greater audience when it became the opening track of the rarities collection Dead Letter Office in 1987.

It’s safe to assume that most people (including myself) were introduced to the song (as well as Pylon) via R.E.M., and that without that crucial bit of exposure, the group would’ve disappeared into history entirely. They remain very obscure, but it’s doubtful most anyone outside of Athens would think of them today were it not for R.E.M.’s relentless advocacy of their music.

37 Responses to “Crazy”

  1. narcizo Says:

    You are right about your assumption, at least as far as I ‘m concerned.
    One of the most esoteric “pop songs” I ‘ve ever heard, and, in REM’s case, it sounds more esoteric than ever. Brings back memories, innocent ones.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. gabriel peters Says:

    I bought my vinyl copy of Dead Letter Office when it came out in 1987 on a holiday trip in a little record shop in Lugano/Switzerland – and take it with me in a plastic bag (and with my backpack, my sleeping bag and my tent) on my way hit chhiking back to Germany.
    Crazy was in that time 20 years ago just perfect for me. The chorus has an exuberance, a friskiness, that is in the same time cool, intellectual, moody, melancholic – a combination that I never heard before. And it is simultaneously an ear candy. Its catchy tune is deeply burned in in my subconsciousness – what´s simply wonderful.

  3. So you’ll be handling covers, too?


  4. Well, not all of them. Just the really important ones that were major set staples — “After Hours,” “See No Evil,” “Dark Globe,” etc, plus the covers that are on Dead Letter Office, Lifes Rich Pageant, and Document. I don’t think there will be any covers from after 1989.

    Actually, if someone wants to be a major help, I reallllllly need a recording of the band doing “Harpers.” Or um, shows from the 84 – 89 era in general. But I definitely need “Harpers.”

  5. dan Says:

    i like that about making the songs their own. so true. they were a pretty good cover band, eh? i have a long-standing feud with a friend of mine because i consider their take on television’s “see no evil” better than the original (and i offended a lot of people on youtube by saying so in a comment for a video of r.e.m. playing it live).

  6. Actually I totally agree that their version of “See No Evil” is better.

  7. gabriel peters Says:

    Was “Crazy” ever recorded by Pylon? Can I find it on an album of them?

  8. dan Says:

    yeah, i believe pylon released it as a single. i own it on a compilation called Hits, not sure if it was ever an album track or not.

  9. Andy Says:

    I was going to write something a bit longer about Dead Letter Office, but it just started sounding corny. So, let me just say this: Dead Letter Office opened my eyes. That amazing mix of tunes—and Peter Buck’s liner notes—showed me that art can (and should) absorb all sorts of influences. It seemed to say to me that you can’t be a snob or take yourself too seriously. You can cover arena rock (Aerosmith), do a commercial (“Walker’s Theme”) or just get tired of your own creation (“Ages of You”). It’s as valuable to be influenced by Roger Miller as it is to be a devotee of the Velvets: it’s all about how you use it.
    For me, “Seven Chinese Brothers” will always be “Voice of Harold,” and for the longest time, I thought Bill Monroe must have been a member of the Velvet Underground. Dead Letter Office was an education for me, and for that, I am thankful.

    A must!

  10. “Crazy” was on Pylon’s 1983 album Chomp. It was originally released as a single in 1981.

  11. Bunnia Says:

    “It’s safe to assume that most people (including myself) were introduced to the song (as well as Pylon) via R.E.M., and that without that crucial bit of exposure, the group would’ve disappeared into history entirely.”

    ((((( HEY KIDS!!!! )))))

    Yes, this is very true for me. Not long after getting DLO (and hearing “Crazy”) I was lucky enough to get to see Pylon live three times in North Carolina in the late 80’s. Their live performances were amazing! The lead singer (forgot her name) had such a powerful and striking voice. Hearing R.E.M.’s version of “Crazy” again (after seeing Pylon live) I remember thinking that Michael’s voice did not sound as powerful as hers, but I still loved it all the same. I think they did a great job covering it on DLO and I appreciate the music and their respect for Pylon.

  12. Kirsten Says:

    There’s something beautiful in the production of this song. I just love the way Michael’s voice seems to blend into the music and be part of it, rather than sitting on top of it, like most songs.

  13. gabriel peters Says:

    thanks for the information regarding where I can find Crazy by Pylon. I checked up Amazon Germany for the Pylon Album Chomp, but it seems that it was never releaesed as a CD. I found a Hits Compilation of Pylon, that includes Crazy, but costs nearly 100 Euro, really! 😦

  14. EK Alex Says:

    The understated vocal really adds to the charm of this song. ‘Crazy’ was performed several times during the ‘Green’ world tour, and the live version with Stipe’s dominant vocal is a nice companion piece to the DLO version.

  15. Jared Says:

    Love the album and love the cover, but I wanted to stress that the PYLON stuff is totally great. Last I heard, some of it might be getting a re-release soon. I’ve been fortunate enough to see them perform several times over the last few years and they still have every bit as much energy as they did back then.
    Here’s some great vintage video:

  16. Evan Says:

    It’s always interesting to me to see which famous, artistically ambitious bands after, say, 1975 are comfortable playing and recording covers. Seems to me that R.E.M. are one of relatively ew. It seems like many artists are reluctant to do this, except as an occasional goof or for a tribute album or something — only a few acts make it a consistent practice. The most obvious example is Yo La Tengo, of course, whose cover habits seem to owe a lot to R.E.M. (i.e. picking obscure record-collector favorites); the Wedding Present also come to mind. (Also, Pavement started to do this towards the end of their career, covering the Velvet Underground and Echo & the Bunnymen, etc.)

  17. Eclipse Says:

    I’ve always loved this song. There’s something very frustrated and brooding about the melody in addition to the words – it goes from melancholy haunted verses to a yearning, almost frustrated chorus. A great track from a very illuminating album that shows listeners another side of this band.

    I used to have a casette of the soundtrack from “Athens Georgia Inside/Out” which was my first exposure to Pylon; I played that tape constantly, and I loved the Pylon and Flat Duo Jets tracks. I wish I still had it or knew where to get that soundtrack.

  18. lulu Says:

    Thanks for another great memory!

  19. jim jos Says:

    Dead Letter Office now included. Yes!

  20. protimoi86 Says:

    I think this song is arguably the cover R.E.M. have made there own more than any other. And if you’re doing “See No Evil,” then how about another fan club favorite of mine, “Live For Today?” Most of R.E.M.’s fan club originals are insubstantial, but Live For Today is such a mysterious, weird recording – and possibly the last thing we heard from the four-piece R.E.M.

  21. Great concept for a blog, i will return to see which song you will analyze next. Then perhaps a new band, unless of course, for you, their is only R.E.M.

  22. dan Says:

    “live for today” is one of my very favorites.

  23. No promises one way or another, but I’d probably rule out “Live For Today.” I guess it depends on how energetic I’m feeling in the home stretch. I’m not planning on doing all of the fan-club singles. I just figure if I’m going to do some covers, I may as well cover all the ones that were concert staples in the 80s.

  24. Chris Oliver Says:

    I’m not sure I agree that “See No Evil” was an improvement, but they definitely fleshed out “Crazy” and “Femme Fatale.”

    Anyone know what that song was that Mike Mills used to sing circa Pageant/Document, that sounded like a 70’s AM pop song? “When you dance with me/ba ba ba ba ba,” that one?

  25. dan Says:

    i would consider most non-album covers inessential, especially fan club stuff. however, “live for today” is a rare non-album r.e.m. original.

  26. Eh, I guess it depends. You should look over the R.E.M. Timeline site’s concert chronology, it might shift your perspective somewhat! For example, “After Hours” was the final song at the overwhelming majority of R.E.M. shows between 1986 and 1990. It’s also one of my favorite songs by anyone, so there’s that. A lot of those staple covers were truly exceptional songs, and I can’t really say that about “Live For Today,” which is kinda ehh to me.

  27. Courtney Says:

    Quite possibly one of my favorite REM songs, even if it is a cover (much like Superman).

  28. Jason Says:

    Always been my favourite R.E.M. song, and it’s not even theirs!

  29. Kirsten Says:

    I have 2 live versions of Harpers from 87 & 89. They’re both done a capalla and only go for 1 – 1 1/2 minutes, so I’m not sure if that’s what you are after. I’d be happy to send them to you though, if you’re interested….

  30. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Just quickly, for a longt time as a teen I only had a copied cassette of DLO and therefore never read Peter’s liner notes, so I didn’t realize that “Crazy” was a cover until I broke down and bought the CD later. It always sounded like an REM original to me and I was actually surprised to find out it was a cover. Such a fun song!

  31. David Says:

    Chris, you might (*might*) be thinking of “Love is All Around,” another wonderful cover.

    Mike took lead vocals on that one, with Michael singing behind him.

  32. Alex Ezell Says:

    Speaking of covers, the version of The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream” that the band did in the Athens, GA Inside/Out documentary film is pretty fantastic. Of course, most of my feelings for it are based on nostalgia and the visuals which accompany it. I don’t think I could objectively analyze it as a lone work of music.

  33. Chris Oliver Says:

    The Troggs song? I don’t think that was it. Looking at the REM timeline page, I think it may have been “A Girl Like You.” They also did “All I Have To Do Is Dream” that night.

  34. Aerothorn Says:

    I’ve never been able to get my hands on a Pylon CD – Hits starts at $45 on Amazon Marketplace. Bleh.

  35. Doctor Casino Says:

    A very, very good rendition of a fantastic song – Pylon’s is nervier, creepier, and ultimately better at actually making your heads, arms, etc start shakin’. REM’s, typically, has a stronger hand on the emotive end of the experience, with Stipe’s shivering yelp cutting close to the desperate need to experience the release that “Crazy” discusses. Pylon’s is better, but they were (and are!) an incredibly good rock band – and this is one case where I prefer the direct sonic experience to the lyrical evocation OF that experience.

    I think I first heard Pylon in “Inside/Out,” which effectively counts as hearing them through REM. But I lived in Athens and everything is skewed anyway – in befriending an ex of Vanessa’s daughter I got fully Pylonized, and then a couple years later the band were reunited and turning venues into sweaty electrical storms all over again. I admit I’m shocked to discover that “Hits” has become so hard to get ahold of – it used to be floating around Athens in significant quantities. The reunited band is moving towards a CD release of “Gyrate” with DFA Records, so maybe “Chomp” might also be in the works…?

  36. transformerdog Says:

    I’ve never heard many of the covers mentioned above although I am certainly very familiar with DLO–wondering if there is some sort of compilation or something out there , available, just REM covers (well, the main ones)…?????…..Crazy is just that , crazy, a cauldron of a mind bust union bubbling over with mixed emotions riding the roller coaster of life , still a young life though when it is all good, even the negative thoughts sparkling with the femme fatale magic teenage sumptuous magic when death is appealing (but impossible) as long as it’s done in the proper legendary style , all banshee and amulet each to his own individual porcelain and jade.

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