THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 27)

The more I listen to these songs from ‘Monster’, the more I love them. 26 years have passed since its release, but I don’t find myself tiring of them one little bit, unlike many of those on the preceding two R.E.M. records. This week’s track was the fourth single from ‘Monster’ and arguably the album’s most obvious single.

On first listen, you could be forgiven for thinking that Strange Currencies is essentially a re-working of Everybody Hurts. Indeed, it nearly didn’t make the cut for ‘Monster’ owing to its similarity to the former hit. But Stipe’s melody was deemed to be too good to eschew, so the rhythm section was redone. There are still obvious parallels – the 6/8 time signature, and Buck’s arpeggios, but if you listen hard enough, there’s a lot more going on here. There’s swathes of feedback floating in and out of the background, the guitars are dirtier, and of course, the emotion of the vocal and subject of the lyrics, couldn’t make this song more different than EH.

Here, Stipe sings of a longing for someone he simply cannot reconcile. His role is ambiguous – is his would-be paramour aware of his adoration, but unwilling to reciprocate? Or is there something more sinister afoot? There’s an air of desperation in his words, and his emotions seem to be getting the better of him. He’s pleading for a sign – “I need a chance, a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance, a word, a signal, a nod, a little breath, just to fool myself, catch myself, to make it real”. It’s a beautiful line, one of Stipe’s best in my view. But… Peter Buck once explained the song is sung from the point of view of a stalker, which obviously puts a completely different spin on things. The opening line “I don’t know why you’re mean to me / When I call on the telephone” makes complete sense in that regard. In both cases though, it’s a song of (unhealthy?) obsession, and as such, it’s very much a Monster song, and nothing whatsoever like Everybody Hurts.

Musically, it actually sounds like a classic doo-wop or Motown ballad. Listen to the chorus – the syncopation between the vocal and the bass/drums, especially – and you can easily hear a group like the Temptations performing it. (By the way, I can’t take credit for that observation – I read it in a fan forum once, but it stuck with me because it surprised me how true it was.) I also love the bridge – so simple, but oh-so effective in lifting us to a near-crescendo before dropping us back to earth for the final verse.

There will always those who cannot hear beyond the Everybody Hurts comparisons. That’s fine. But to me, Strange Currencies is one of the band’s finest moments, a complex mix of beauty and ugliness, gentleness and brutality, subtlety and brazenness.

While Strange Currencies was played live at every show on the massive Monster Tour, it was then laid off until 2003 when it made occasional appearances. As a single though, it reached #9 in the UK charts, the band’s fourth Top Ten hit. It was released on three formats. The 7” was a numbered limited edition on rather lurid fluorescent green (almost yellow) vinyl and came packaged with a Monster bear-head tie pin-type badge. Along with the cassette, it included an instrumental version of the a-side.

mp3: R.E.M. – Strange Currencies
mp3: R.E.M. – Strange Currencies (instrumental)

The CD single continued the solar-powered concert for Greenpeace that the previous three singles started. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Drive was performed twice so that a good recording could be provided for a Greenpeace charity album. The version that opened the show was not put out as one of these b-sides, so what you’re hearing here is the second version, which is ever so slightly better. Both are radically different to the album version on ‘Automatic For The People’.

Funtime is, of course, the Iggy Pop/David Bowie song that R.E.M. originally recorded for the b-side of Get Up in the States. And Radio Free Europe needs nothing written about it, other than this is a terrific, loud version which closed the show with a bang! And, perhaps as expected, Stipe really cannot remember the words…

mp3: R.E.M. – Drive (live, Greenpeace)
mp3: R.E.M. – Funtime (live, Greenpeace)
mp3: R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe (live, Greenpeace)

And here’s your bonus remix, probably the best of the entire Monster Remix project. This is utterly, utterly gorgeous. Yes, it’s very similar to the original, but my goodness, how the subtle differences transform it! The keyboard part in the final verse is brought closer to the foreground, and Stipe’s vocal is actually a different take than the one used for the original, and it floors me! Without a doubt, Monster [2019 Remix]’s finest moment…..

mp3: R.E.M. – Strange Currencies (remix)

The Robster

7 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 27)

  1. Happy New Year, Robster, and welcome back. A great post, as ever, and a fascinating insight into a song I’m quite unfamiliar with. I’d lost interest in R.E.M. albums at this point and I’ve never owned a copy of Monster, something I will remedy on the back of this series. I can see the comparison with Everybody Hurts (and The Temptations, for that matter) but this is a great song in its own right. And yes, the stalker perspective makes perfect sense in the thematic context of the previous singles and indeed the parent album’s title.

    Again, I love the Greenpeace live tracks bulking out the CD version. Entertaining as always to hear Stipe ad-lib the forgotten lyrics! I’ve enjoyed the amped up version of Drive since I heard it on the In Time compilation, but it’s been great to hear other songs from the same concert. Thanks!

  2. I don’t own all singles up to this point but this is the last I bought. Mine remains shrink-wrapped with the badge. I have no idea if the vinyl is a lurid shade or not?

    I didn’t make a conscience decision not to buy further singles it just happened. I think my vinyl versus cd conflict had begun with CDs winning out.

    Strange Currencies packs an emotional punch and I had no idea of the stalker premise of the lyric.

    Great series. Just great

  3. Slightly concerned about what it says about me that I find the stalker-themed “Strange Currencies” so much more interesting than “Everybody Hurts”. Initially it did feel like a mere retread and less interesting than the return to loud guitars. More fool me. It is, of course, a triumph. As is this series. A few more great singles to come and then…Can’t wait to read what you make of the singles in month or two’s time!

  4. My unenthusiastic initial response to Monster was coloured by witnessing a very underwhelming show at a cavernous stadium in Cardiff on that tour.
    That said, Strange Currencies was the standout track from that era for me, one of the finest of their career, and, at the risk of sounding a bit Partridge, it’s the song Everybody Hurts could have been.

  5. @chaval: That Cardiff show was where MrsRobster and I met. We were quite near the front so our experience was probably very different to yours. I do hate large stadium shows as a rule though. Depending on where you are in the crowd, they are largely soulless and populated by many people who are there for a day out rather than to enjoy the music. That particular show remains memorable to me for obvious reasons though.

  6. I’ve always liked this song and consider it a better track
    than EH. This was another really interesting read, and it’s
    great to have the series back after the festive break. Thanks
    a lot.

  7. Glad the Cardiff magic worked for you Robster. I was there with my sister’s boyfriend who was a disturbingly obsessive Stipe fanatic and insisted on regaling me with obscure biographical details about the frontman. I was miles from the stage and it was dismal. Wish I had been tuned in enough to catch them live in a small club in the mid 80s.

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