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.


March 23, 2008

“Bandwagon” is a good old fashioned b-side. It doesn’t require any context to be enjoyable, and it thrives without having to live up to any sort of expectation. It’s doesn’t have the oomph of a proper a-side, and wouldn’t have made much sense if it had been included on Fables of the Reconstruction, but it’s a happy little gem that serves as a fine complement to the levity of “Can’t Get There From Here.”  The song is carried by Peter Buck’s breezy, cheery chord progressions, which is contrasted with a rather cynical and sarcastic lyric by Michael Stipe that gently mocks herd mentality, and comes about as close as he has ever come to telling other musicians not to bite his band’s style.

“There are songs I wrote in the past that were gender-specific. “7 Chinese Bros.” was about me breaking up a couple — and then dating both of them, a man and a woman, which is a terrible thing to do, but I was young and stupid.”

Michael Stipe in the April 2008 issue of Spin.

Okay, whoa.

That’s pretty scandalous and all, but c’mon, it’s also not that surprising so there’s no need to focus on that aspect of this revelation. The thing that really throws me about this is how aside from an oblique reference to what I presume to be both halves of this couple in the first line of the verses (“this mellow, sweet short haired boy, woman offers pull up a seat”), there really is no way to pull that narrative from the lyrics of the song. It just isn’t there! The first line introduces the man and the woman, the second introduces a setting and suggests a conflict, and the rest of the verse is entirely abstract. The chorus botches an allusion to Claire Hutchet Bishop‘s 1938 children’s book The Five Chinese Brothers, and nods in the general direction of both guilt and renewal.

The revelation of Stipe’s motivation in writing the song does shed some light on the allusion to The Five Chinese Brothers. In Bishop’s story — which is based upon a Chinese folk tale — one of the brothers is able to hold the entire ocean in his mouth, and does so for a boy who wants to gather fish. The boy turns out to be greedy, and does not return to shore when he is beckoned. The brother is unable to breathe and is forced to let the ocean out, which in turn drowns the boy. The brother is later sentenced to death by the townsfolk. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see why Stipe would relate his sordid scenario to this tale — it’s pretty clear now that he’s the selfish little boy in this story.

It’s still somewhat surprising to me that there’s this dark, painful story is buried in the subtext of this perky, innocuous song. It makes me wonder just how much is hidden in Stipe’s early lyrics, and how of what we don’t understand in his songs actually comes down to carefully coded messages to himself. Truthfully, aside from admiring the gentle sentimentality of the opening line, I’d never given all that much thought to the words of “7 Chinese Bros.” until just now — I’ve been fixated on the sunny, chiming sound of Peter Buck’s guitar part for as long as I’ve known the song. I suspect this is the case for many people, and perhaps the band themselves. After all, they did record “Voice of Harold,” which puts Michael and the instrumental to the “I’d listen to them recite the phone book!” test, though in this case, it’s the liner notes of a gospel album. It’s very funny and cute, though I don’t know if I’d label it “a must.”

“White Tornado,” “Windout,” “Rotary Ten,” and “Burning Hell,” were written by R.E.M., but they aren’t really R.E.M. songs. They are essentially genre pastiches used to serve a function on stage, musical shorthand that they band outgrew once they had enough material to fill out a full concert. These aren’t serious compositions, but rather fun indulgences: “Windout” is a competent but uninspired garage rock rave-up; “Rotary Ten” is an amusing faux-jazz instrumental for an imaginary film;”Burning Hell” is ersatz badass riff rock; the alternative title for “White Tornado” was the bluntly descriptive “Generic Surf.” There’s not a lot to these songs that other artists haven’t made a career out of doing much better, but there’s a pleasant mix of irony and reverence in the way the band embraced these standard song forms while pushing themselves toward something more distinct in the rest of their material from the period.

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.

Walter’s Theme

July 23, 2007

“Walter’s Theme” was written as a unsolicited jingle for Walter’s Bar-B-Q of Athens, Georgia. It’s a fun, goofy instrumental with some muffled chatter and wacky noises made by Michael Stipe filling in the negative space before the song halts and segues into a loose, sloppy version of “King of the Road.” It’s kinda hard to be critical about a recording that is so incredibly unpretentious and informal. It’s pleasant and fun, and it makes me wish that I could head on down to Walter’s for a plate of ribs because, well, I suppose I just trust Peter Buck’s judgment vis-a-vis barbecued meats.

“Ages Of You” is a rewritten version of “Burning Down,” one of R.E.M.’s earliest compositions dating back to 1980. Obviously, the group were never very pleased with either incarnation, and both appear on the odd-and-sods collection Dead Letter Office. Both songs have a pleasant chord progression that in retrospect seems almost like a generic version of Buck’s own style from the period, but despite some intriguing lyrics that nod in the general direction of the topic of the south’s history with slavery, “Burning Down” is clearly the lesser of the two. There’s something missing, but it’s not obvious — its elements are appealing, but nothing gels. “Ages Of You” is much more complete, and progresses through several strong hooks and a cascading guitar part that seems to anticipate the generally superior “Pretty Persuasion.” Weirdly, “Ages Of You” would probably be a lot more enjoyable if it were written and performed by a band who were actively attempting to ape R.E.M., but as an actual entry in the real deal’s discography, it just invites a smile and a shrug: “Yeah, okay. That’s a nice song. Whatever.”

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.