Saturday, January 4, 2020

Certain Songs #1719: R.E.M. – “Superman” | Medialoper

Album: Lifes Rich Pageant
Year: 1986

. . .

File Under Pathway

From their very beginnings as an Athens, GA, party band, R.E.M. incorporated covers in their act. Obviously, it was always good to play songs that people were familiar with, and on the other hand, it also connected them to their roots, some obvious and some surprising.

For the most part, the covers were usually relegated to b-sides, and ran the gamut from the expected (the Velvets and their fellow Athenians, Pylon) to the unexpected (fuck yeah, Aerosmith!), and in fact they recorded covers throughout their career, though eventually they stopped being even b-sides and were limited to the Christmas fan club singles.

And, in fact, starting with their cover of “See No Evil” in 1988, the fan club singles — easily findable on the internets — is probably the most comprehensive compendium of their covers, even eclipsing the 1987 compilation Dead Letter Office, where the aforementioned Velvets, Pylon and Aerosmith songs can be found.

All of this is a long way of saying that it’s interesting that it took them until 1986 to include a cover on one of their regular albums, but on the other hand, they probably waited until they had a doozy — obscure enough so that noone knew the original text, yet catchy enough to compete with their own songs — which is exactly what they had with their version of The Clique’s “Superman.”

Dug up, no doubt by Peter Buck, and dodgy enough by Michael Stipe’s standards that it was fine with him that Mike Mills take his first lead vocal on an R.E.M. song, “Superman” was a perfect way to end Lifes Rich Pageant, which — given all of the old songs and covers they recorded for it — was kind of a salvage job for R.E.M. Their Tattoo You, if you will.

“Superman” wasn’t even listed on the cover, but after the incredibly self-serious “Swan Swan H,” it was a great piss-take to hear the then-unintelligible Japanese dialog from what turned out to be a pull-string Godzilla toy leading into the totally retro guitar riff that Peter Buck both copped from and improved upon. And then Mike Mills starts singing the chorus with assists from Michael Stipe and Bill Berry, and quite literally, all is right with the world.

I am (I ammmmmmmmmm)
I am Superman
And I know what’s happening
I am
(I am)
I am Superman
And I can do anything

We can all agree that “Superman” is an incredibly silly song, and yet in R.E.M.’s hands — not even a moment of irony in their version — it also somehow becomes almost profound, even though Supes is using his power not so much to save the world but to, er, hit on a girl he likes.

You don’t really love that guy
You make it with, now, do you?
I know you don’t love that guy
‘Cause I can see right through you

If course, if the guy in the song was really Superman, this would be creepy as fuck, but it’s pretty obvious from the start that it’s all fantasy, because the bravado of the lyrics is totally mitigated by vocals that are infused with a hit of sadness, a hint of melancholy and harmonies that are too exquisite for words.

Also mitigating: Bill Berry’s lovely double-time snare part on the verses, which gets aided by handclaps (!) on the second verse.

If you go a million miles away
I’ll track you down, girl
Trust me when I say I know
The pathway to your heart

This leads directly into the silliest part of “Superman,” the instrumental break, which is all Buck and Berry; Buck playing a riff that is a second cousin to the riff that drives Shocking Blue’s “Venus” while Berry sets up each instance with a bunch of snare drum slams (which I couldn’t figure out for the longest when we tried to cover this in a on-off band), all of which breaks down just in time for them to reprise the second verse and send “Superman” to the stratosphere.

In a weird way, it kinda made sense to give Mike Mills the lead vocals on the final song on Lifes Rich Pageant, as it’s one of their most Mills-heavy albums, especially given that nearly every song is enhanced by his keyboard parts. And so, as Superman comes crashing to a halt, all you hear for a moment is the pump organ and the vocal harmonies.

If you go a million miles away
I’ll track you down, girl

And as Michael Stipe barks “hey, hey!” Berry starts up on the drums again and the second verse continues.

Trust me when I say I know
The pathway to your hearrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrt, aaahhhhhhhhhhhh

Only this time, as Mills & Berry begin to hold the long note on “hearrrrrrrrrrt,” Michael Stipe sneaks in underneath them with a completely unexpected and totally lonely “I ammmmmmm, I am Superman / and I know what’s happening” and it is one of the most perfect, most thrilling moments in any R.E.M. song. I’ve played “Superman” approximately 1,567,984,341 times since 1986 and I’ve never ever gotten to the bottom of it.

After that, it’s all pump organ, guitars and Mills & Berry singing the chorus while Michael Stipe goes “hey hey!” and lifts his arms as if he’s flying. I seem to recall that at some point in the 90s or 00s that R.E.M. distanced themselves from “Superman,” because the guys who wrote it sold it for a car commercial, but I can’t really source that, though according to, they only played it once after 1989.

Which makes sense: by the time R.E.M. started touring again as one of the biggest acts in the world, “Superman” would have made no sense in the context of their shows, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it remains one of the greatest covers ever recorded.


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