THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 20)

The Robster writes…..

I’m going to come out right away and say it now. I cannot stand The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite. It is a bloody terrible song that should never have been allowed to see the light of day. There, I’ve said it.

‘Automatic For The People’ was undoubtedly a success beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. R.E.M. were now firmly entrenched in the mainstream. An obscure college indie band a decade before, they were now fast becoming an act that could (and would) sell out stadiums around the world. And what’s more, they were doing it on their own terms. But they still had the odd chink in their armour.

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite was an oddity on AFTP, as Peter Buck explained: “We included this song on Automatic in order to break the prevailing mood of the album. Given that lyrically the record dealt with mortality, the passage of time, suicide and family, we felt that a light spot was needed. In retrospect, the consensus among the band is that this might be a little too lightweight.” He’s not kidding. Whereas there is an argument that the execrable Shiny Happy People had a valid place on ‘Out Of Time’ owing to its upbeat nature, the same cannot be said of Sidewinder. It’s one of those novelty songs that always seemed to be released as singles. Sadly, it’s also the one awful commercial radio stations insist on playing several times a day every day. I know. I’ve had to endure it whenever I’ve been in the office. Which is why I’m so enjoying working from home now!

mp3: R.E.M. – The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite

The song was based on The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which for some reason, the band paid for the rights to use. Mike Mills told Melody Maker in 1992 that the song was about: “somebody that doesn’t have a place to stay. Part of it is also about what man can do that machines can’t. The rest of it – I don’t have any idea what it’s about.” He later said: “Half of the song is about somebody trying to get in touch with someone who can sleep on his floor. The other half – you’re on your own.”

Stipe laughs while singing “or a reading from Dr. Seuss” as he always pronounced Seuss as “Zeus” despite several attempts.

Some other facts for you:

1) In 2010, a survey in the UK named Sidewinder the number one most misheard lyric. The line “Call me when you try to wake her up” is heard as “Calling Jamaica”.

2) The song reached number one in Iceland. NUMBER 1! In Iceland, where they usually have such impeccable music taste!

3) R.E.M. never played Sidewinder live. Thank goodness for small mercies…

I’m done with the facts. The song really isn’t worth this amount of space on such an esteemed blog. So let’s move onto the b-sides. As with the previous singles from Automatic, the b-side of the UK 7” and cassette was a track from ‘Green’. This time it was Get Up, an equally upbeat number but 100,000 times better than the a-side.

mp3: R.E.M. – Get Up

Again there were two CD singles. As part of the deal the band brokered to obtain the rights to The Lion Sleeps Tonight was a clause that they had to record a cover of the song. I suppose this was because Sidewinder was attributed to Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe as writers, so the authors of Lion may have felt entitled to a cut. Which I suppose is fair enough and the band obliged and put it on CD1. It’s not the best cover you’ll ever hear, but then it was never the best song you’ll ever hear. But it’s OK for curiosity value.

mp3: R.E.M. – The Lion Sleeps Tonight

It’s the third track on CD1 that is the real gem though. I referred to Fretless in my piece on Drive a couple weeks ago. It’s one of the songs the band recorded for Out Of Time but jettisoned. You have to ask yourself ‘Why?’ I don’t know a single R.E.M. fan who would argue against it being on OoT in place of, say, Endgame or Shiny Happy People. Certainly the band has rued that decision over the years. It would also have been a good fit on Automatic, but it ended up on a soundtrack – Until The End Of The World – where it would have languished in obscurity were it not for this single. Hey, did I just say something positive about Sidewinder? Anyway, it’s a beautiful song, probably the saddest Kate Pierson ever sang on too. This song would always make it onto an R.E.M. mixtape. Sidewinder wouldn’t.

mp3: R.E.M. – Fretless

CD2 had the de rigeur disposable instrumental. Organ Song was one of many demos the band made but never pursued. It’s played on a church organ (or a keyboard with a convincing church organ sound) and goes absolutely nowhere throughout its overly long 3½ minutes. One of the most pointless b-sides in the band’s catalogue, and there have been a few! The final track was a demo of Star Me Kitten which, well, sounds like a demo. Not sure why this was included either, as it doesn’t have much to offer that the album track doesn’t do much better. The version with William S. Burroughs that appeared on an X-Files inspired compilation some years later beats this one hands- down. Not the best of “Collectors’ Edition” releases, it has to be said.

mp3: R.E.M. – Organ Song
mp3: R.E.M. – Star Me Kitten (demo)

Let’s take Fretless with us and forget the rest ever happened, OK?

JC writes….

I’m very conscious of the fact that my piece last week re Man on The Moon was overly long and so I’ll do my best to keep this brief.

I like The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.  Peter Buck gives the reasons as to why it was recorded and included before backtracking by saying it was a little too lightweight.  I feel it comes in at just the right spot on the album. We’ve had the intensity of Drive and the sadness the deathbed song that was Try Not To Breathe.  Coming up next is Everybody Hurts, an intensely sad song that will be looked at further next week as it is the next single.  The album would have just been too much to take without breaking things up a bit, and given the various snippets we have offered up via the instrumental b-sides which in effect were demos that weren’t progressed, I think it’s fair to say that the tune for Sidewinder beats them all.

It’s been turned into a novelty song by the attitude of the band since the release of Automatic and the critical reaction.  Let’s not kid ourselves, right up to the days before it went to press, R.E.M. could have vetoed the inclusion of Sidewinder but stayed quiet on it, obviously wanting something upbeat at that juncture of the album.

There’s also the fact that the promo video for Sidewinder was filmed on 21 September 1992 – a full two weeks before Automatic was released in the UK and USA, which is a clear indication of an agreement with Warner Bros that is was a likely single at some point in the future.  The backtracking started when some reviewers not only wrote that it jarred but questioned why R.E.M. would lower themselves to cover something so lightweight and frivolous.  It strikes me that the band members decided that rather than take on such viewpoints and defend what they did, the best course of action was to disown it.

Sidewinder is no better and no worse than songs like Stand or Pop Song 89 or Shiny Happy People or Underneath The Bunker (a disposable and fun number on Life’s Rich Pageant), and was a continuation of R.E.M.’s efforts on almost all albums to include a song that was out of the norm and not to be taken too seriously – which was obviously OK to do until the serious journos questioned the motives.

Anyway, since you made it this far, how about a bonus song?   Here’s the William S. Boroughs collaboration for the X-Files soundtrack mentioned in passing by The Robster.

mp3: R.E.M – Star Me Kitten (feat. William S Burroughs)

PS: It’s me next week with a look at Everybody Hurts.  It’ll be a short piece, you’ll be relieved to hear!

PPS: Robster is bang-on with his thoughts on Fretless.  It’s a hidden gem.

The Robster and JC

13 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 20)

  1. I liked Sidewinder at the time and I still Like It now. Yes, it’s a bit of fluff but occasionally you need them.
    I was a teenager in 93 and just getting into serious music. This track appealed to me then a lot more than everybody hurts did.

  2. I was blissfully unaware of the back story to Sidewinder – not that it has affected my enjoyment in any way.

    I’ve always enjoyed the subjective nature of music – fans of one band enjoying different favourites and doing so with such gusto.

    I like Sidewinder. It’s quite the definition of a single: light, fluffy and catchy.

  3. Automatic is my favoutite REM album – and Sidewinder has never seemed out of place on it to me – so I’m with JC on this one!

  4. Nope. Thought it was a mess of a track in 1992 and that hasn’t changed. I’m not a real fan of AFTP. R.E.M. weren’t essential listening for me at this point and the album’s greatness was shouted at me way too often by friends as well as music writers.

  5. I Like sidewinder and side with JC. Each to their own.
    I always try to look at a track and imagine that his was the one track that an artist was famous for. If this was the only REM single to ever chart I think we would all find it at least ‘OK’.

  6. Sidewinder…meh. But a cool story about the bass used on ‘Fretless’. Says Cameron Miller of Maton Guitars, Australia:

    “It’s a Maton MGB4 fretless bass, serial number 108. It was my personal bass from 1986 to 1989, when I gave it to Mike in Melbourne, Australia during the Green World Tour. I was working at Maton by then and I was going to make Mike a bass from scratch, but never got around to it. When the tour was announced I thought “I’ll just give him my bass”, so that’s what I did. The bass has an Australian flag painted on it and it cost me $1739.00AU when I bought it in 1986. Mike returned the gesture when he wrote the music for “Fretless” and told me in 1995 “Cam, I wrote a song for you”. Had I known that was going to happen I probably would’ve given him 10 bass guitars!”

  7. I like Sidewinder, it fits on the album placed where it is and is good guitar pop. For the band to disown it is a bit rich to be frank given Shiny Happy People…

  8. Now HERE we have an example of how differing views on a piece of music can be expressed in a civil way on this site! I’m not a great fan of Sidewinder – the need to cram the lyrics in the chorus feels rather clumsy to me. On the other hand, on the rare occasions that I listen to “Automatic for the People”, it doesn’t feel massively out of place. Fretless though. I like Peter Buck’s suggestion on the “In Time” booklet, that it (and “It’s a Free World, Baby”) could be used as the basis for a reorganised “Out of Time” fits well. It’s certainly one of those REM tracks that you chance across and remind you just how great they were (are? – never really like discussing bands in the past when the music still feels current and relevant).

  9. I’ve never found Sidewinder objectionable. And never misheard
    the lyric as ‘Calling Jamaica’ – but I bet I will from now on.
    Another ace post from The Robster and JC- I will now listen to Fretless.

  10. I’ve nothing against Sidewinder either, though I’ve realised how little I’ve actually listened to the song (or Automatic For The People, for that matter) in the past few years.

    I was tired of Warners regurgitating old album tracks, B-sides and off-cuts for their (in my opinion) overpriced CD singles, but Fretless deserved another outing.

    Another excellent post, Robster and JC.

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