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.

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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.

Harpers

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.

Funtime

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.

Strange

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.