Aug 092011

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

For most of their existence, Athens, GA quartet (later trio) R.E.M. has been synonymous with college rock. As early pioneers of the alternative movement that bucked popular trends like hair metal and new wave, R.E.M. gained significant notoriety among their core fan base with strong ’80s efforts like Murmur and Life’s Rich Pageant before finding mainstream success with hits such as 1987’s “The One I Love” and 1991’s monster single “Losing My Religion.” They continue to record to this day, and still have legions of devoted fans. In fact, they released their 15th studio album, Collapse Into Now, only a few months ago, taking them into the 31st consecutive year of their career.

Being a hip college band, R.E.M.’s certainly performed their share of “cool” covers. A quick perusal of songs they’ve delivered either live or on record serves in some ways as a primer on early groups that inspired R.E.M. to do their thing over three decades ago. Throughout their career, they’ve taken on tunes by the Velvet Underground/Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Mission of Burma, Iggy Pop, Roky Erickson and other somewhat underground visionaries of the ’70s and earlier. One of their most popular early numbers, “Superman,” is actually a cover of a 1969 song by Texas pop band the Clique. For this post, though, we thought it would be fun to collect a few covers that R.E.M. fans might not necessarily expect to hear. When it comes to covers, Michael Stipe and company have made more than a few weird choices in the past, especially in live settings. They’re not always delivered in a totally serious fashion, but they’re usually pretty good. Let’s see what might’ve made R.E.M. audiences scratch their heads.

R.E.M. – Moon River (Henry Mancini cover)

Lots of folks know this 1961 tune as the signature song of crooner Andy Williams, who has almost nothing in common with R.E.M. Yet Michael Stipe gave a surprisingly sensitive (and seemingly totally earnest) performance of this corny anthem to open the second encore of a 1984 show at Florida Atlantic University. About halfway through the performance he’s joined on harmonies by fellow band-mate Mike Mills, and the whole thing ends up sounding like some classic Simon and Garfunkel performance. For a moment, the kids at FAU must’ve felt as though they were transported to Branson, MO.

R.E.M. – I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor cover)

Another odd cover choice for the usually quite serious R.E.M., this 1978 disco hit here gets a makeover as an acoustic dirge. They clearly don’t take this cover too seriously; Stipe makes it clear at points he doesn’t exactly know the lyrics, and often his vocal delivery seems about half a chord change behind where it should be. Still, the whole thing ends up sounding pretty cool, especially when the band reaches the chorus that everybody knows, even if they don’t want to admit it.

R.E.M. – Love is All Around (The Troggs cover)

Though most of the world is familiar with this song because of Wet, Wet, Wet’s 1994 cover from Four Weddings and a Funeral, it actually comes from the same band that gave us all “Wild Thing.” R.E.M. breaks it down MTV Unplugged-style at a 1991 show, three years before the Scottish pop artists with the worst band name ever got their hands on it. Mike Mills takes a turn at lead vocals here, although you can pick out Stipe popping up at the end to deliver “ba ba ba”s.

R.E.M. – Toys in the Attic (Aerosmith cover)

Music critic Chuck Klosterman asserted that all hair metal probably stems from Aerosmith, or at least that Steven Tyler and Joe Perry’s classic rock juggernaut was the first band to seriously influence ’80s heavy-hitters like Motley Crue and Guns N Roses. In many ways, R.E.M. is the antithesis of those groups, and yet clearly they have a soft spot for Aerosmith too. Here’s a rocking “Toys in the Attic” cover from a 1985 show in Germany. It sounds like a totally sincere tribute to Aerosmith, but all the elements of classic R.E.M. are in place — Peter Buck’s treble-y guitar, Bill Berry’s nonstop rhythm, and the fantastic Stipe/Mills harmonization.

R.E.M. – Wicked Game (Chris Isaak cover)

It often feels like this song’s most memorable because of its super-sexualized, super-shirtless music video that always seems to be a staple on VH1 countdowns. All available evidence suggests that Michael Stipe — indeed, the whole band — kept their shirts on when they performed this song live a few times in 1995. Is it serious? A lark? Can’t really tell, but it ends up sounding pretty good in R.E.M.’s hands, a clear sign that they’re just pros at this music thing.

Check out more from R.E.M. at their official website!

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  3 Responses to “In the Spotlight: R.E.M.”

Comments (3)
  1. The Chris Isaak cover of Wicked Game is sincere. They are Isaak fans and have been for over 20 years.

    R.E.M. has performed a load of covers live and in the studio. The song “Strange” off the album Document is a cover. It’s by Wire. “Crazy” off of “Dead Letter Office” is a Pylon song.”Toys in the Attic” is also on Dead Letter Office.

    Here is a short list of some of their live covers:

    “Femme Fatale” by Lou Reed
    “Summertime” by George Gershwin
    “Last Date” by Floyd Cramer
    Theme song to Barney Miller (instrumental)
    “Pale Blue Eyes” and “After Hours” by the Velvet Underground
    “Secret Agent Man” made famous by Johnny Rivers
    “One” by U2
    “I Got You Babe” by Sonny & Cher
    “20th Century Boy” by Marc Bolan (T. Rex)
    “Favorite Writer” by Magnapop (Great song, the Magnapop version)

    On the Green Tour, they regularly played the beginning of “With the People” by Drivn’ N Cryin’ as an intro to “King of the Birds.”

    Stipe recorded “Dark Globe” by Syd Barrett as a vinyl 45 insert for Sassy magazine in 1990 or 1991.

    Sadly, “Moon River” is one of the worst covers they performed. It must be some kind of personal indulgence. It’s not for the audience.

  2. I saw them in Stateboro, Georgia around 1983 and they did “Spooky” by the Atlanta Rythm Section. I was never a real big fan of that song but hearing them do it was incredible.

  3. REM also covered part of Tori Amos’ “Winter” live a capella.

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