Sep 222011

As you’ve surely heard by now, R.E.M. broke up yesterday via an understated note on their website. Just as it began, the entire enterprise ended not with a bang, but with a murmur. The quartet-turned-trio performed together for 31 years, 15 albums, and countless “R.E.M. changed my life” exclamations in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Over the course of their career, the band performed countless covers. From the very beginning, they seemingly relished every opportunity to pay tribute to their influences, tacking covers onto singles, compilations, and their annual Christmas fan club records. In the whole lot, there are few duds. Through a combination of smart selections (no novelty rap covers here) and a rare ability to extract the essence of a lyric or melody, they made just about every song they tackled sound like an R.E.M. original. To remember the beloved band, we look back chronologically at some of their most important and best-known covers.

In their earliest days, the band covered Velvet Underground. A lot. Their first album single (1983’s “Radio Free Europe”) featured “There She Goes Again” on the flip. Two singles later (1984’s “So. Central Rain”), they did “Pale Blue Eyes.” Three years later, they released “Femme Fatale” on the Dead Letter Office compilation. And throughout the ‘80s, they covered “After Hours.” Once the band started covering the Velvets, they couldn’t seem to stop.
R.E.M. – There She Goes Again (The Velvet Underground cover)

R.E.M. – Pale Blue Eyes (The Velvet Underground cover)

R.E.M. – Femme Fatale (The Velvet Underground cover)

R.E.M. – After Hours (The Velvet Underground cover)

The first cover they released on a regular album was the Clique’s barely-remembered “Superman” on 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant. R.E.M. earned themselves a minor hit with it and earned the original songwriters a sudden boon in royalty payments 20 years after they wrote it. The following year, they did it again, covering Wire’s “Strange” on Document.
R.E.M. – Superman (The Clique cover)

R.E.M. – Strange (Wire cover)

In 1988, the band released the first of their annual Christmas fan club singles. As would quickly become a tradition, they included a cover, this time of Television’s “See No Evil.” The songs were usually non-thematic, but a few times they covered seasonal tunes, like “Good King Wenceslas” the following year.
R.E.M. – See No Evil (Television cover)

R.E.M. – Good King Wenceslas (Traditional cover)

The band’s first (of many) high-profile tribute album appearances came on 1990’s Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson. They covered “I Walked with a Zombie,” with every member taking turns on lead vocals. Yes, that includes Peter Buck, in a rare vocal turn.
R.E.M. – I Walked with a Zombie (Roky Erickson cover)

R.E.M. released two of their best-known covers in 1991. In April, they taped their MTV Unplugged set and recorded a cover of the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around” with Mike Mills singing lead vocals. Then in November, I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen came out, centered around the band’s sublime “First We Take Manhattan.”
R.E.M. – Love Is All Around (The Troggs cover)

R.E.M. – First We Take Manhattan (Leonard Cohen cover)

The tribute appearances continued in 1994 on Beat the Retreat: Songs by Richard Thompson. R.E.M. contributed a memorable version of Shoot Out the Lights closer “Wall of Death.” Two years later, they offered “Sponge” to Sweet Relief II, a charity album for ailing songwriter Vic Chesnutt.
R.E.M. – Wall of Death (Richard Thompson cover)

R.E.M. – Sponge (Vic Chestnutt cover)

Austin Powers seems like an unlikely place to find new R.E.M. material, but there they were on the Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack with a version of Tommy James’ 1971 post-Shondells classic “Draggin’ the Line.”
R.E.M. – Draggin’ the Line (Tommy James cover)

Hop forward a few years to 2007. Amnesty International’s sprawling Instant Karma tribute to John Lennon came out to much hoopla and middling reviews. One thing everyone agreed on though: R.E.M. nailed it on their version of “#9 Dream.”
R.E.M. – #9 Dream (John Lennon cover)

Throughout this set, one through line has been R.E.M. honoring their influences or, at the very least, their peers. In 2008, though, they flipped it, honoring a band that they themselves had heavily influenced: Editors. A few years earlier, the British quartet had covered “Orange Crush” on a single and R.E.M. repaid the favor with a cover of “Munich” for BBC Radio 1.
R.E.M. – Munich (Editors cover)

Finally, last December the band released what we presume was their final Christmas single. They did Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It feels a fitting end to the band’s cover story…until the reunion, that is.
R.E.M. – Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (Darlene Love cover)

What covers will you remember R.E.M. by? Let us know in the comments!

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  3 Responses to “Imitation of Life: Remembering R.E.M. Through Their Covers”

Comments (3)
  1. They also covered Wicked Game, and All I have to do is Dream.

  2. You missed “Crazy” from Pylon which was on Dead Letter Office (which also includes some other classic covers in addition to the Pale Blue Eyes you mention, like Aerosmith and Roger Miller) and highlights the early Athens music scene. A notable cover as it has the story about how when “Radio Free Europe” came out, Stipe felt that Pylon’s single of “Crazy” was much better than “RFE.”

  3. They did a lovely cover of CCR’s “Have you ever seen the rain?” on tour in 1985 and a horrible cover of Mission of Burma’s “Academy Fight Song” a few years later.

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