Story of the Song: 'Losing My Religion', REM (1991)

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The Independent Culture

In December 1990, REM appeared at the 40 Watt Club in their native Athens, Georgia.

That night, Michael Stipe kicked off with a curious, minor-chord-dominated love song, which they were playing live for the first time. Tethered to a nifty mandolin hook, "Losing My Religion" was named after an archaic, Southern American expression meaning to be pushed to the limit.

Dating back to the summer of 1990, the song originated from the guitarist Peter Buck's efforts to learn a new instrument. When Buck played back recordings of his first attempts to master the mandolin, he heard the riff and thought it might make a good basis for a song.

The band demoed the embryonic composition, given the working title "Sugar Cane", in July 1990, at a studio in Athens. In addition to the mandolin, Buck tried his hand at the banjo, Mike Mills aped John McVie's rounded bass playing and an early take was drenched in Hammond organ. The session was memorable, as Buck recalled: "It just had a really magical feel."

Two months later the band convened at Bearsville Studio, in upstate New York, to begin work on what would become Out of Time. Peter Holsapple, from the Southern power-pop act the dB's, helped out on acoustic guitar and Stipe's vocals were laid down in a single take. Back in Georgia, the original organ backing was replaced by a string arrangement from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the recording was complete.

It was a rare romantic outing for REM. "[It's about] someone who pines for someone else," said Stipe, who admitted he had tried to top The Police's compulsive "Every Breath You Take". "It's just a classic obsession pop song," he said, denying claims that the lyrics were in any way autobiographical. "Losing My Religion" was issued ahead of the album in February 1991. Their label, Warner Bros, initially resisted its release, voicing doubts that such an unconventional-sounding single would appeal to record buyers. The band proved that mandolins can make classic pop, however, when it crossed over from their traditional college-radio audience to the Top 20, helping to launch the band on to the global stage.