“The #1 greatest record you probably haven’t already heard is Robert John‘s take on The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Which is immediately kind of a lie. All kinds of people heard it back in the day. It was the #21 biggest selling single of 1972 in the USA, #45 in Canada. Yet somehow or other the world seems to have mostly forgotten about it. It’s also not the greatest song you probably haven’t already heard. It just isn’t. But what is then? I don’t know. I’m just some guy sitting on a porch, making a list. What I do know is The Lion Sleeps Tonight isn’t just any song. Written in 1922 by a man named Solomon Linda, a South African of Zulu origin, finally released almost twenty years later under the title Mbube, a 78-rpm record that was mostly marketed to black audiences in South Africa.
But something clearly happened along the way, not all of it good. In fact the song’s back story includes one of the more notorious copyright crimes of all time. The upside of all that being the myriad cover versions that flooded forth– everybody from Miriam Makeba to Brian Eno to Chet Atkins to Roger Whittaker, Yma Sumac, The Weavers, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Sandra Bernhard, the Stylistics, even REM (sort of). But Robert John’s take is the one for me, and not just for nailing the yodeling, but also the doo-wop stylings, and there’s a tuba involved, some pedal steel as well. And so it captures the peace and joy and freedom from worry (if only for one night) that it’s all about. Because the lion is asleep. Which if you think about it, doesn’t really makes sense. If the lion’s asleep, isn’t a raucous party going to wake it up? Not if it’s been drugged. So whatever. It’s a party! We’re alive and we’re singing, and tomorrow and all of its troubles – that’s just a rumour. Tonight the LionSleeps.
“It’s hard to overstate how big a deal REM were in the cool world when they first hit, except maybe to say, everything about them was punk … except their sound. They did it their way, Michael Stipe resplendently inarticulate, the other guys jangling along with deceptive power, reminding us that there was way more to music than all the godawful corporate radio crap we hated and and/or punk’s necessary vomit. Which was the key, I guess. So much beautiful and mysterious stuff between those extremes that wanted exploring. All that passion. And yet, I don’t think REM ever really topped that first album, Murmur. They’d never be that essential again, even as their sound got sharper, tighter, and Mr. Stipe stooped to enunciating, even making sense eventually. Which wasn’t necessarily what anyone had been asking for.” (Philip Random)
“Vancouver, 1984. REM finally made it to Vancouver and a sold out Commodore Ballroom was waiting for them, including at least one member from every at least half-cool band in town. They opened with Radio Free Europe as I recall, which killed, but equally notable was Michael Stipe’s hair. It was long, hippie long. Which just wasn’t done in cool culture those days. Punk had accomplished that much, hadn’t it? Guys with long hair and cool no longer belonged in the same sentence, or the same nightclub. Jump ahead a year to 1985 and REM were back, playing to yet another sold out Commodore, and now there were all manner of long haired guys in the audience. Except now Michael Stipe had his cut almost military short, and dyed blonde. People were confused, feeling out of sync. Until the band kicked into their first song, Gravity’s Pull from the new album Reconstruction Of The Fables – strong and dark, and heavy without being obvious about it. Everybody quickly forgot about the hair.” (Philip Random)
The Final Countdown* is Randophonic’s longest and, if we’re doing it right, most relevant countdown yet – the end of result of a rather convoluted process that’s still evolving such is the existential nature of the project question: the 1297 Greatest Records of All Time right now right here. Whatever that means. What it means is over a year of radio if all goes to plan, and when has that ever happened?
Installment #14 of The Final Countdown* went like this.
1031. Ennio Morricone – an Indian story
1030. Screaming Blue Messiahs – wild blue yonder
1029. Doors – soul kitchen
1028. REM – Cuyahoga
1027. Flatt + Scruggs – down in the flood
1026. Queen – someday one day
1025. Gordon Lightfoot – Don Quixote
1024. Flying Burrito Brothers – lazy day
1023. Alan Parsons Project – Dr Tarr + Professor Fether
1022. CloudDead – rifle eyes
1021. Pauline Easy – Billie Jean
1020. The Leisure Society – Cars
1019. Cookin’ with Kurt – soup du jour
1018. Holger Czukay – Dancing In Wide Circles
1017. Godley + Creme – Consequences [stampede + mobilization]
1016. Sun Ra – nuclear war
1015. Lovin’ Spoonful – day dream
1014. John Mayall – sitting in the rain
1013. Arthur Louis – knockin’ on heaven’s door
1012. Wall of Voodoo – on Interstate 15
1011. John Martyn – I’d rather be the devil
1010. Aphex Twin – analogue bubblebath
1009. Jenny Owen Youngs – Fuck Was I
1008. Sonic Youth – I’m Not There
Randophonic airs pretty much every Saturday night, starting 11 pm (Pacific time) c/o CiTR.FM.101.9, with streaming and/or download options usually available within twenty-four hours via our Facebook page.
“I gave up trying to figure out what Michael Stipe was on about very early on. The first few REM albums, he was mumbling, which made it easy. But then, come Life’s Rich Pageant, he was suddenly enunciating, you could now decipher words – they just weren’t adding up. Except maybe Cuyahoga. Because I’d read about the Cuyahoga as a little kid. The river that was so polluted with man made chemicals and whatever that it actually caught fire, Cleveland, Ohio, 1969. That’s the kind of fact that’s all too meaningful.” (Philip Random)
Come 1987, REM had already conquered the world of indie-cool with four solid albums of ever increasing finesse, articulation, even a hint of crossover commercial success. Which made album #5 Document pivotal in terms of what might happen next. Yes, it continued the commercial ascendancy, but it also went the other way with the likes of Oddfellows Local 151, a track that Peter Buck referred to at the time as either the worst thing they’d ever done, or the best, he wasn’t sure yet. Either way, its deep fried southern weirdness expanded the stage for one of those outfits who, love ’em or hate ’em, still had a long way to go.
“I realize it’s not cool to prefer REM’s cover of Strange to Wire’s original, but who even heard Wire’s first three albums when they were new? Not anyone I was hanging with. So to me, REM’s more jangly, more rocking, more fun take is the original. And given that it comes from 1987’s Document, that means they’re at their pre-mega-mainstream peak. Still suitably artful and obscure, but beginning to enunciate.” (Philip Random)
Miracle Legion came our way in 1984 amid the so-called jangle pop resurgence that followed REM’s initial breakthrough. Suddenly it was okay, cool even, for guitars to sound nice again, melodies sweet. In the case of The Backyard, that meant a tight, driving bit of melancholy about early childhood, a time when your whole world was your backyard, but even that could break your heart.
“Guadalcanal Diary generally got compared to REM back in the day, because they were also from Georgia and their guitars had a tendency to jangle. But their songs always felt more direct to me, less concerned with being Art, more with melodies that tended to get stuck in your head for days afterward. Their first release, In The Shadow Of The Big Man, was jammed with such stuff.” (Philip Random)