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The Story Behind The Song: Why R.E.M. created 'The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite'

In the early 1990s, America was prosperous with rock talent. While Nirvana had begun their journey toward the sun, and Pearl Jam were equally as imposing on the charts, one band stood out among the rest: R.E.M. The release of their eighth studio album, Automatic for the People, provides a crystalline reminder of their talent and just how refreshing a voice like Michael Stipe’s was in 1992. 

The fact that it still holds up today as a textured, honest and vulnerable piece of musicianship is a testament to the craft of the band, and it’s likely we’ll still be discussing the record for many years to come.

One of the most memorable moments on the album is its third single, ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’. Famously, it was influenced by the classic 1939 song ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, which was written by South African artist Solomon Linda and then popularised in the Western mainstream by The Tokens in 1961. 

The first four notes that Stipe sings are very close to those of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, and it may come as not much of a surprise to find out that this was a deliberate move. Interestingly, instead of outwardly stealing the song, R.E.M. paid for the rights to use it. As part of the deal that was brokered, the band were requested to cover the original version of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, which the Georgia band then used as the B-side to the single. 

As with everything that R.E.M. did, the song ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ was written and included on Automatic for the People for a reason. They wanted a light foil to the rather stark themes of mortality that colour the classic record, providing a brief respite from all of its rather depressing messages. 

Why R.E.M.’s ‘Automatic for the People’ still feels so vital today

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Guitarist Peter Buck explained: “We included this song on Automatic in order to break the prevailing mood of the album. Given that the record dealt with mortality, the passage of time, suicide and family, we felt that a light spot was needed. In retrospect, the consensus amongst the band is that this might be a little too lightweight.”

A notable facet of the song is what Michael Stipe sings during the chorus. It’s long been thought that he sings “calling Jamaica”, due to the African roots of the original track. However, he actually sings, “Call me when try to wake her up”. Reflecting just how universally misheard the lyric is, a 2010 survey found that it was the most misheard lyric in the UK, beating one of the most iconic other examples, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’. 

Added to this lyrical complexity, Stipe also repeatedly attempted to namecheck children’s author Dr. Seuss. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t pronounce it, given the vocal melody and pace of delivery, and kept saying ‘Zeus’ instead. You can hear Stipe laughing on the track at his inability to pronounce it correctly, which bassist Mike Mills implored him to get right. This mispronunciation of Seuss’ name wasn’t a new thing, though. Ever since he was a child, Stipe had always struggled with pronouncing his name. 

Offering up an interpretation of Stipe’s lyrics, Mills told Melody Maker in 1992: “It’s 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.”

Elsewhere, he elucidated on this, doing what he could to make sense of Stipe’s typically oblique lyrics: “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.”

In the liner notes for the band’s 2011 greatest hits, Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, Stipe said that the song “holds one of my favourite lines ever, in ‘their world has flat backgrounds and little need to sleep but to dream.’ Cartoon characters never just get sleepy, they always have to have a dream of some floaty kind.”

‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ is perhaps the most humorous moment in all of R.E.M.’s distinguished back catalogue. Even if the band may now regard it as too lightweight, personally, I’d argue that its makes for a stellar break. Bands should be able to foray into lighter subjects every now and again, as otherwise, it just gets monotonous and depressing.

R.E.M. didn’t exactly make their name as being one of the most optimistic outfits out there, so it was nice to see this side of them. There’s no wonder that the song remains a fan favourite, some 30 years after it was first released. 

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