R.E.M./The Clique: “Superman”
Although it may not be so well-remembered now, so many years since R.E.M. elevated themselves from being the kings of college rock in the ’80s to more widespread international fame, there was a turning point for them, or maybe “tipping point” is a better way to look at it. And it was the one-two punch of the singles from 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant — “Fall on Me” and their cover of “Superman,” an obscure 1969 song by The Clique, a little-known band from Texas — that helped push them over the top, setting the scene for the even bigger hit, “The One I Love,” in 1987.
“Superman” reached #17 on the American charts — definitely one of the coolest songs on the chart at the time. Generally speaking, only those who owned the album to be able to check the songwriting credits knew that it was a cover, but really, R.E.M. did such a great job making it their own that it didn’t matter to anyone except Bottler and Zekley, the original songwriters (hopefully they still owned the rights in order to get the royalties). R.E.M. took the somewhat Tommy James and the Shondells-ish version by the Clique and made it sound more garage-y, nearly sounding as much like a song from the ’60s as the original. It may be Mike Mills’ finest lead-vocal moment (although he had many other highlights singing backup) — the song is perfectly suited for his vocal range (surprisingly similar to the original singer’s voice, in fact, but I vote for Mills’ vocals as the better of the two). It’s a great moment of frivolity from a great band that might have benefited later in their career from being more frivolous; another obscure cover might have helped.