You know that oft-quoted Brian Eno line about how the Velvet Underground‘s first album sold about a thousand copies when it was released, but everyone that heard it went out and started a band? R.E.M. are not one of those bands, but rather the progeny of that first wave of Velvet Underground acolytes. I’m pretty sure that the band, and most especially Peter Buck, were acutely aware of this lineage, and it comes through in all of the band’s VU covers.  Like a majority of R.E.M.’s cover versions in the ’80s, their arrangements for Velvet Underground tunes seemed intent on reverse-engineering them in order to uncover their connections to the mainstream pop of the 50s and early 60s, kinda like a form of musical genealogy. This is especially true of their take on “There She Goes Again” from the Velvets’ debut album — stripped of Lou Reed’s tough guy/poet affectations, the song is neat and streamlined into pure bubblegum.

“Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale” are a slightly different matter. For both songs, the arrangements are reasonably close approximations of the Velvet Underground versions, but Michael Stipe’s approach to the vocals is rather sentimental and straight-forward compared to the original performances by Reed and Nico, respectively. I actually heard R.E.M.’s version of “Femme Fatale” before I’d encountered the VU recording, and I’ve got to tell you, I was pretty surprised when I realized that Stipe’s performance was a lot more traditionally feminine than Nico’s aloof Teutonic intonation. Stipe’s versions eliminate the more subversive qualities of the songs, but I have to be honest — I’ve always found his take on both songs to be far more emotionally affecting.

It’s a shame that R.E.M.’s best and most interesting Velvet Underground cover was never tracked in a studio. “After Hours,” a gem from the Velvets’ self-titled album, is a lonely, melancholy song about fantasizing about the fun and glamor in other peoples’ lives, but as covered by R.E.M., it’s all goof and fluff. It’s a rare case of a band gutting the most emotionally affecting aspects of a song, investing it with a completely different meaning, and making it work. In R.E.M.’s context, “After Hours” was their cheeky farewell song, the thing they played at the end of a majority of their concerts in the late 80s. They recast the tune as a music hall/cabaret showstopper, and often allowed the song to collapse upon itself in multiple fake-out endings. I can’t imagine how fun it must have been to see the band end their shows in this way — silly, giddy, humble, weird, and a tiny bit sad. Seeing in that it’s probably never going to be performed by the band ever again, I can only hope to experience it vicariously via the ending of the Tourfilm video.

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” has a utility in R.E.M.’s live repertoire, and it’s been the same since very, very early on in their career: You are getting rained on, and they are playing the song because they kinda feel bad for you. It’s a bit funny, it’s a bit jerky. Earlier this evening I happened to be at an R.E.M. show that was delayed by a severe, torrential rain storm. Inevitably, they started the show with the song, and then it kept raining and it didn’t stop until the final notes of the last song of the night. In case you were wondering: Yes, I most definitely saw the rain.


May 28, 2008

You probably don’t know “Harpers.” It’s not an R.E.M. song, but Michael Stipe co-wrote it with the band Hugo Largo, and it appeared on that band’s Stipe-produced debut EP Drum. That’s not the reason why the song is included on this site, though. Between Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe, there are quite a few random collaborations that ought to be considered non-canonical; “Harpers” gets the nod because Stipe performed the song a cappella at the overwhelming majority of R.E.M. concerts between 1986 and 1990. The tune normally popped up at some point in the encores — this was back in the day when R.E.M. could be expected to play as many as four sets of encores on any given night — and was relatively brief, rarely cracking the two minute mark. It’s a gorgeous song, but not quite within Michael’s range, and it forced him to reach up to the tippy top of his highest register, usually with mildly embarrassing results. Weirdly enough, this was something Stipe seemed to enjoy doing during this period — you can hear him do the same thing on “Dark Globe” and “After Hours,” and he’d toss it into his own songs here and there. It’s kinda adorable, but also a bit annoying.

Thanks to Kirsten.


January 10, 2008

Iggy Pop’s “Funtime” is deliberately creepy — it’s slow and cartoonishly macabre, and the cheery tone of the lyrics are mostly deadpan and ironic in context. R.E.M. coverthe song as though they had never heard the original or had much familiarity with Iggy, and run through it as though they found the sheet music and decided to play the song as literally as possible. It’s hard to tell who was being more of a smart-ass. Iggy’s dry humor on the original is fantastic, but the premise is a bit obvious. R.E.M.’s goofy take is a little bit self-deprecating — their general tactic re: covers in the late ’80s seems to have been “let’s cover the coolest songs we know but do them in really dorky ways” — but the joke is mainly at the expense of uptight snobs who would likely despise such a silly take on an underground classic.

See No Evil

October 31, 2007

Make no mistake — Television’s “See No Evil” is a classic, and the original recording on Marquee Moon is probably the most perfect that band ever recorded aside from that album’s epic title track. Nevertheless, the song is so perfectly suited to R.E.M. that when they performed it, it sounded as though the song was written specifically for them. Though they certainly lose the subtle disco-ish rhythm of the Television recording, R.E.M. fully integrated the song into their ’80s style, with Peter Buck adapting the melodic guitar parts into this jangly aesthetic, and Mike Mills and Michael Stipe transferring the vocal interplay of the original into something that sounds like it could easily be one of their mid-80s originals. As great as it is, they couldn’t quite capture the magic of Television’s original “See No Evil,” but they certainly did a wonderful job of making it their own.

Toys In The Attic

October 31, 2007

It seems a little bit weird that R.E.M. have covered Aerosmith, doesn’t it? At least in the sense that when the band recorded a cover of their 1975 hit “Toys In The Attic” for the b-side of “Fall On Me,” they most likely thought Aerosmith to be washed-up has-beens, and only one year later, they would be –ahem– back in the saddle again with a massive comeback that has continued on through this decade, and will probably keep going on for years to come. R.E.M.’s take on the song is fun but slight, and its appeal mainly lies in hearing the guys take a break from being a thoughtful, arty pop group and having a ball rocking out like a common bar band.


October 31, 2007

I heard R.E.M.’s version of “Strange” long before I ever heard Wire’s original recording on their classic album Pink Flag, and so I was a bit shocked to learn that Wire’s take was half as fast and sorta cartoonishly spooky. I love both versions, but I simply can’t hear the original without feeling like Wire are deliberately fucking with the song, and that its natural state is the perky rave-up found on Document. There’s a real sense that R.E.M. liberated the song from Wire’s pretense, though it’s also clear that the group’s reverence for the original and Wire in general is intense and genuine. They definitely make it their own — Mike Mills’ backing vocals are top-notch whether he’s ghosting the chorus along with Michael Stipe, or chanting “doo-doo, doo-doo” over the chugging riff. The solo on the bridge practically screams “I am being performed by Peter Buck circa the late-80s,” and true to his slightly modified lyrics, Michael sounds nervous, but also goofy, coy, and urgent.


October 31, 2007

“Superman” doesn’t quite qualify as a bonus track, but it’s not exactly the proper conclusion of Lifes Rich Pageant. Coming on after a brief period of silence after the somber “Swan Swan H,” the cheery tune serves as an encore of sorts for the record. Though R.E.M. made a habit of significantly altering the tone of many of the songs they covered in the ’80s, “Superman” is rather faithful to the original studio recording by the Clique. This is most likely due to the incredible obscurity of the source material, but also probably because there’s really not a lot to fix. The song is perfectly formed, and any shift in tone would disrupt the irony of a perky song about a creepy guy who wishes that he had the powers of Superman so that he could more effectively stalk a girl. Though Michael Stipe appears on the track, Mike Mills’ voice dominates the recording, and he sells both the meekness and the sinister edge of the song’s character without tipping too far in either direction.

Dark Globe

July 30, 2007

“Dark Globe” is the most emotionally devastating song of Syd Barrett‘s short and often brilliant career, in part because it’s the one that most perfectly encapsulates his frail, somewhat child-like expression of both joy and sadness. In the late ’80s, the song became a staple of R.E.M.’s live shows, most often appearing in the second or third encore, just before the end of the night. The band’s version was more streamlined than Barrett’s, translating its peculiar rhythms to a simple, sentimental piano arrangement and a vocal performance by Michael Stipe that was mostly sweet, and occasionally off-key. The studio version sounds a bit dashed off, but nails its emotional tone, particularly in the way Stipe sings the words as though he is the saddest little boy in all of the world. “Won’t you miss me? Wouldn’t you miss me at all?” It’s a bit cartoonish and lacks the context and weight of the Barrett recording, but it’s heartbreaking all the same.

King Of The Road

May 27, 2007

It may be a bit more fair to categorize R.E.M.’s version of Roger Miller‘s “King of the Road” as an improvisation rather than a straight cover. The band seem to only have a passing familiarity with Miller’s 1965 country and western hit — Michael Stipe only sings its first verse and flubs some of the lines, and Mike Mills shouts out the chord changes as they go along. It’s a mess, for sure, but the laid back, tossed off performance allows the listener a rare opportunity to hear R.E.M. goof off in a rehearsal. If only the band allowed themselves to sound so loose and informal more often — Michael’s voice is especially gorgeous on the chorus, and the recording has a lovely, ramshackle charm that suits the no-frills character of the song.


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.