THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 14)

The Robster writes……

Picture the scene:

It’s Monday, February 19th 1991. Your humble scribe is working for Our Price, at the time the UK’s biggest record store chain. In among the boxes of new releases that day is one particular offering I’d been waiting very eagerly for – R.E.M.’s new single Losing My Religion. I can’t remember if I or someone else unpacked the boxes that day, but I know I had made sure that one copy of each format had been put aside. I so desperately wanted to play it, but R.E.M. were still considered a cult band and not suitable for a busy Monday of new releases, despite most of my colleagues and managers also being fans.

At one point later in the day, I managed to commandeer the CD player and headphones. I squat down behind the counter and played Losing my Religion for the first time. And as I listened, all that enthusiasm drained slowly away. What the hell was this? I mean, I was aware the band was making a more acoustic record akin to the mandolin-led numbers on ‘Green’, but I at least expected a chorus! Didn’t stop me from buying it though. On all formats.

mp3: R.E.M. – Losing My Religion

I played it to death hoping I would warm to it, and I did. But I still didn’t think it would be a hit. I was never one of those fans who didn’t want his favourite band to be successful so I had to share them with other people. No, I wanted R.E.M. to be huge, so I could point at all the others who thought I listened to “weird stuff” and tell them I was right all along! But if R.E.M. were going to be megastars, this wouldn’t be the song to catapult them to that status. I wasn’t the only one to think that.

The band’s label, Warner Bros., was wary about the group’s choice of the song as the album’s first single. Steven Baker (no relation!), vice president of product management at the time, said there were “long, drawn-out discussions” about releasing such an “unconventional track” as the single until the label agreed. The marketing department had similar concerns as did radio programmers. To this day, it’s a mystery how Losing My Religion became the global behemoth that it did.

It started out in life as Peter Buck teaching himself to play mandolin while watching TV. When he listened back to the tapes he made of his attempts “there was a bunch of stuff that was really just me learning how to play mandolin, and then there’s what became ‘Losing My Religion’, and then a whole bunch more of me learning to play the mandolin.” Despite “trying to get away from [writing typical R.E.M] kind of songs”, Buck admitted it was “probably the most typical R.E.M.-sounding song” on the new album. “The verses are the kinds of things R.E.M. uses a lot, going from one minor to another, kind [of] like those Driver 8 chords. You can’t really say anything bad about E minor, A minor, D, and G – I mean, they’re just good chords.”

The original studio take was just Buck, Mills and Berry. Mike Mills found it hard to write a bass line for the song without it sounding derivative, so what was used was apparently influenced by John McVie of Fleetwood Mac. The band felt the song sounded “hollow”, with the high range of Buck’s mandolin set against Mills’ low-end bass. To give it some mid-range, they drafted in former dBs guitarist/vocalist Peter Holsapple to play acoustic guitar. Holsapple remained as an unofficial “fifth member” of the band throughout the recording of the album and subsequent promotional live appearances. Michael Stipe recorded his vocal in a single take, which is quite remarkable when you listen to it.

Losing My Religion became R.E.M.’s biggest hit around the world. In the UK, it only reached #19, but unusually held that position for three straight weeks. The song’s popularity grew the longer it hung around, and years later is one of R.E.M.’s most recognisable songs, probably because of the slew of different live versions that have cropped up on numerous R.E.M. releases ever since. If you’d said that to a 19-year-old Robster squatting behind the Our Price counter he’d have sneered with contempt at such a ridiculous notion!

So, those formats I referred to? Well, the 7”, 12” and standard CD single all included a track entitled Rotary 11, a reference to an old b-side Rotary 10. Like its predecessor, it’s not really worth the effort, being just a daft jazz-tinged instrumental with a surf guitar lead. Of more interest was the extra track on the 12” and CD single, a live version of a Velvet Underground song. Now R.E.M. like the Velvets, as previous renditions of Femme Fatale, There She Goes Again and Pale Blue Eyes demonstrated. After Hours was a song penned by Lou Reed and sung by both Reed and drummer Mo Tucker. R.E.M.’s live version was recorded during the Green Tour in 1989 and first featured on the very highly acclaimed concert movie ‘Tourfilm’. It omits the part of the song Reed sang in the original to keep it short and sweet.

mp3: R.E.M. – Rotary 11
mp3: R.E.M. – After Hours (live)

Also released in the UK was a second CD single, labelled “Collector’s Edition”, in order to make sure people who bought any of the other formats also bought this one, especially as it didn’t hit the shelves until the week after the others! That’s music marketing in the 90s for you.

This CD contained another three songs from the ‘Tourfilm’ soundtrack, namely Stand, Turn You Inside-Out and World Leader Pretend. The originals, of course, all featured on R.E.M.’s previous album ‘Green’, their only other record released by Warner Bros., and clearly aimed to get new fans to buy that one as well!

mp3: R.E.M – Stand (live)
mp3: R.E.M.- Turn You Inside-Out (live)
mp3: R.E.M. – World Leader Pretend (live)*

One final note – Wikipedia lists a second “Collector’s Edition” CD single in the UK, which carried the tagline “Song Of The Year”. However, this was not an official release in the UK, but became available as an import from Europe. Along with the a-side and the 7” b-side, it also contained two other tracks that were released as b-sides in the UK on subsequent singles, so we’ll save them for later.

And one final note – I’m sick to bloody death of Losing My Religion now. I can barely listen to it anymore without wanting to turn it off. A shame, but a symptom of being an uber-fan I think.

The Robster

*JC adds.…..the mp3 provided for World Leader Pretend is not identical as that on the Losing My Religion CD single.  Instead, it’s an extended version which includes the longer introduction where, after the cheering from the previous song has finally died down, Michael Stipe uses a drumstick to hit the side of a chair and recites a few lines from We Live As We Dream, Alone by Gang of Four before the band burst into their own song.  It’s an exceptional performance of what is surely THE stand-out song from Green.

10 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 14)

  1. Thanks, Robster. Although I don’t feel quite as fed up with the track as you, I certainly feel I have heard it enough for the next few years. I also was glad that people finally got to hear REM and understand what I’d been saying. This has since morphed into “Losing My Religion” becoming almost the stereotypical REM track people think of. Could be worse. Sadly, several friends somehow managed to miss this (deliberately) but then heard the follow up. Oh dear.

  2. By 1991, I had given up on rock radio of any kind. In fact, I was so far down a House Music rabbit hole, that I had installed a king sized bed. I liked Losing My Religion upon first exposure, mostly because it sounded counter intuitive to releasing a hit. But in 1991, it was your video that was the real decider for becoming a hit in the USA, and for better or worse, R.E.M. and Warner Bros. went all out on the visuals. Tarsem Singh’s video is melodramatic and at times both a bit literal and a bit surreal. Singh ignored, for the most part, the meaning of the song and went for a more religious or spiritual expression on film – if the viewers of video cared to really follow along.
    But Losing My Religion became the standard for “Alternative” Artists breaking through to the mainstream in the US, making it both “cool” and required for any and all music programmers to play on heavy rotation. Somewhere after the 20th listen, I think I moved on and waited for what was next.

  3. I think this is the point in the series where people lose interest… A shame because there are some fantastic records to come that some early fans may have missed owing R.E.M. slipping off their radar around this point.

    It’s also going to be interesting discussing some of the not-very-good years post New Adventures, but we haven’t written those yet…

  4. Don’t worry @The Robster. No loss of interest here. some of the singles may dip in quality, but I can manage to be just as opinionated about them! Even if I didn’t purchase as a physical object (if the B-side wasn’t rare and it didn’t come in a rather pointless piece of packaging I saved my money), I still bought the album and will have thoughts about the choices made!

  5. I think its a great song and turned out to be a surprise hit, being completely at odds with both the prevailing musical trends and the preceding Green album which had established the band as a chart act.

  6. This is the point in the series where I’m about to get super interested. I hated the song Losing My Religion almost as much as the video. It turned me completely off a band I had loved from the beginning but was beginning to weary of. Consequently, I have little to no knowledge of REM’s music starting from this point, and I’m looking forward to an education about what I missed. Bound to be something much better in the coming weeks.

  7. I still think Losing My Religion is a great song. I agree with others that it was over-played but why not? Few singles released before it enjoyed such exposure – my view is the band were deserving of a hit and subsequent income. I don’t begrudge them.

  8. Irrespective of what I think of the songs, it’s the excellent posts that keep me interested and this was no exception. I was in Australia when Out Of Time came out and I lived with a group of Japanese friends who had Oz MTV constantly on in the background; all of the singles got heavy rotation. I particularly remember Losing My Religion getting lots of airplay on commercial radio too. I was working in a canteen at the time and Losing My Religion was an oasis of hope in an ocean of AOR/dance pop pap like Jimmy Barnes, Daryl Braithwaite, Divinyls, Cher, Stevie B. and LondonBeat’s “I’ve Been Thinking About You”. Perversely, this song was frequently supplanted on alternative station Triple J by R.E.M.’s cover version of I Walked With A Zombie by the 13th Floor Elevators. Losing My Religion is not my favourite R.E.M. song by any stretch of the mark, but it’s inevitable link with a unique and very happy time in my life has meant that I’ve never tired of this song. An excellent feature, Robster, and I for one am greatly looking forward to the posts on the subsequent singles.

  9. I think ‘Losing My Religion’ is a victim of familiarity. It’s
    probably a great song, but one I’m unable to really judge now
    as it’s so familiar – almost shorthand for a particular time.

    For me, there are finer song on the LP – ‘Half a World Away’ is
    miles better – but I do actually get why the band chose LMR as the
    lead-off single.

    Am looking very much forward to further instalments – no loss of
    interest here.

  10. I take it back. I’m glad everyone is enjoying the series and won’t give up now we’ve reached the ‘megastar years’. I’m still enjoying writing them (currently working on my pieces for the monster singles) as there is always something interesting to write about, even if the song isn’t up to much.

    But equally, I’m really enjoying the comments. Some really great ones in there, and the positive feedback is really appreciated. Now, JC’s got Shiny Happy People next week. I’m really interested in what everyone has to say about that one!

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