REM’s cover of Wire’s ‘Strange’ speaks to the moment

REM loved to cover their musical heroes – in concert, on tribute albums, for b-sides. YouTube and rarities collections is full of them paying tribute to artists including Iggy Pop, Richard Thompsonthat The Velvet Underground and Television.

But the band chose only 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 merrily singing lead – on Lives Rich Contest. The other is “Strange”, featured prominently on REM’s fifth LP, Document.

The song was originally written and recorded a decade earlier by artistic British punks Threadon their critically acclaimed debut in 1977, Pink Flag. The album was one in a holy trinity of inspirations for a then teenager Michael Stipewho bought Horses by Patti Smith, Marquee Moon by Television and Pink Flag of Wire in quick succession.

“Those were the big influences,” Stipe said Rolling stones in 1991. “Their whole zeitgeist was that anybody could do it. And I took that very literally.”

Listen to Wire’s original version of ‘Strange’

On Pink Flag, “Strange” was a languid lament 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 on the floor / No one will save your life.” Guest musician Kate Lukas and her multi-tracked whistle squeal only made the track even creepier.

So how do you make “Strange” more disturbing? Turn up the tempo and make it a bouncy dance party, complete with handclaps, harmonies, a sliding piano and a “do-do” sing along. REM had already gotten their crafty take on the song while on tour in ’86 (which led to its inclusion in Document sessions in the spring of ’87). What was Pink Flag‘s longest song became so Document‘s shortest, despised by Peter Buck‘s switchblade guitar and Bill Berry’s crackerjack drums. Mills threw his high bottom into the rafters while Stipe shook and flitted his way through the workout.

The lead singer changed the lyrics slightly, notably changing “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 was like, ‘That’s it,'” Stipe shared Melody maker just like Document was released. “I didn’t listen to it afterwards. They took it away and mixed it and put some reverb on it. I just couldn’t be bothered with it. I put a whole lot of energy into the other songs and it was just ‘Ugh!’ It’s like spitting – you don’t want it all over your shirt, but you want it out and keep walking.”

Although the original “Strange” was apolitical, given its opening line – “Something strange is happening tonight / Something is happening that is not quite right” — and the context of the other songs on Document‘s front page, REM’s front page seemed a fair reflection of their angst against President Ronald Reagan’s administration.

REM 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 deliberate tempo of the original – an added nod to a major influence.

Listen to REM’s version of ‘Strange’

REM albums ranked in order of awesome

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