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Music

The R.E.M. cover that Peter Buck said the band should be sued for

@TylerGolsen

Dead Letter Office is a wonderful insight into how R.E.M. tick as a group. Not just because it sheds light on the band’s influences (note the numerous Velvet Underground covers) and not just because it contains some of the most interesting outtakes from the band’s early days. No, Dead Letter Office is an invaluable source of information because guitarist Peter Buck penned the liner notes himself.

Part glib self-deprecation and part historical recall about R.E.M.’s recording history, the liner notes to Dead Letter Office find Buck at his most giddily sarcastic. There’s his assessment of ‘Bandwagon’, which he claims was originally called “The Fruity Song”, the short note for ‘Rotary Ten’, which he describes as a “movie theme without a movie”, and his recollection of recording Pylon’s ‘Crazy’, in which Buck remembers getting “suddenly depressed by how much better it was than our record”.

Buck doesn’t pull any punches either. He’s happy to tell you that the band got tired of songs like ‘Burning Down’ and ‘Ages of You’, or how the cover of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ features an “exceedingly sloppy solo” from him. Buck takes a brief moment to lament that ‘Windout’ probably could have fit on Reckoning and unabashedly states his fandom for Aerosmith through the band’s unlikely cover of ‘Toys in the Attic’, which Buck claims was “always fun to play live”.

But the best assessment comes during the final number, a cover of Roger Miller’s signature track ‘King of the Road’. R.E.M.’s version remains one of the most notorious recordings of the band’s career. Buck sets the scene as having taken place “at the very end of a long alcohol-soaked day,” and you can tell in the band’s execution: Michael Stipe barely knows the words, and it’s possible to hear both Buck and Mike Mills shouting chords at each other in an attempt to get on the same page.

“I suppose if we had any shame we would have never allowed this little gem to see the light of day,” Buck adds. “If there was any justice in the world, Roger Miller should be able to sue us for what we did to this song.” Indeed, ‘King of the Road’ is shambolic and haphazard, but in an admittedly charming kind of way. 

The shouts of F and G chords as the band finds the arrangement in real-time are the kind of things bands do before the red light turns on. But here, we get to hear R.E.M., in a drunken stupor, attempting to play a classic country song. You can call it anything you like, but it’s hard not to be entertained by it.

Check out R.E.M.’s cover of ‘King of the Road’ down below.