R.E.M.’s Cover of Wire’s ‘Strange’ Speaks to the Moment
R.E.M. love to cover their musical heroes – in concert, on tribute albums, for b-sides. YouTube and rarities compilations are rife with them paying tribute to artists including Iggy Pop, Richard Thompson, the Velvet Underground and Television.
But the band only ever selected two cover songs to appear on their 15 studio albums. One of these was “(I Am) Superman,” originally recorded by ’60s pop band the Clique and reimagined – with Mike Mills gleefully singing lead – on Lifes Rich Pageant. The other is “Strange,” placed prominently on R.E.M.’s fifth LP, Document.
The song was originally written and recorded a decade earlier by arty British punks Wire, on their critically cherished 1977 debut, Pink Flag. The album was one in a holy trinity of inspirations for a then-teenage Michael Stipe, who purchased Horses by Patti Smith, Marquee Moon by Television and Pink Flag by Wire in rapid succession.
“Those were the big influences,” Stipe told Rolling Stone in 1991. “Their whole Zeitgeist was that anybody could do it. And I took that very literally.”
On Pink Flag, “Strange” was a sludgy dirge of a song, led by a rumble that made Link Wray sound like Lawrence Welk. This molasses locomotive chugged along for four minutes as singer Colin Newman drove in paranoid circles, hinting at a hostage situation: “Keep your eyes screwed to the floor / No one’s gonna save your life.” Guest musician Kate Lukas and her multi-tracked flute squeals only made the track even creepier.
So how do you make “Strange” more disconcerting? Rev up the pace and turn it into a bouncy dance party, complete with handclaps, harmonies, a sliding piano and a “do-do” sing along. R.E.M. had already nailed their wily take on the song while on tour in ’86 (leading to its inclusion in the Document sessions in the spring of ’87). What was Pink Flag’s longest song then became Document’s shortest, spurned by Peter Buck’s switchblade guitar and Bill Berry’s crackerjack drums. Mills flung his high-pitched backing part into the rafters while Stipe shook and shimmied his way through the workout.
The frontman changed the lyrics a bit, most notably altering “Joey’s nervous” to “Michael’s nervous” – perhaps a clue to how he felt about tackling a song by his musical heroes. He certainly didn’t sound comfortable discussing the recording process for the song.
“‘Strange’ was a scratch vocal. I went in and sang it twice and said, ‘That’s it’,” Stipe told Melody Maker just as Document was being released. “I didn’t listen to it after that. They took it away and mixed it up and put some reverb on it. I just couldn’t be bothered with it. I put a whole load of energy into the other songs and that one was just ‘Ugh!’ It’s like spitting – you don’t want to get it over your shirt but you wanna get it out and keep walking.”
Even though the original “Strange” was apolitical, given its opening line -- “There’s something strange going on tonight / There’s something going on that’s not quite right” -- and the context of the other songs on Document's first side, R.E.M.’s cover seemed a fair reflection of their angst against the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
R.E.M. continued to play their elastic version of “Strange” on subsequent tours. At the end of the song, the band would slow it down to the original’s deliberate pace – an extra nod to a major influence.
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