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Behind the song: Why Stipe wrote 'Losing My Religion'

First released: 1991 Highest UK chart position: 7

Highest US chart position: 34

Since they first started making music in their native Athens, Georgia, in 1980, REM have garnered the reputation of the biggest cult band in rock. But they were forced to evolve. Transferring from the independent IRS label to Warner Brothers in a reported $6 million deal raised the stakes and a commercial breakthrough was more or less obligatory. 1989's Green laid the foundations by breaching the US Top 20, promoted by an exhausting tour. When its successor Out Of Time emerged in 1991 it was to stand or fall on its own merits - no live shows to follow. Much rested on the first single, "Losing My Religion".

The Times called it "the first existential pop song ever to make the American Top 10". It was chosen, according to Stipe, because "there's an REM tradition to choose the least likely track as the first single". "Losing My Religion" was musically catchy and lyrically baffling. The fact that Stipe was emoting something over a jolly mandolin backing was surprising enough, but when you came to the words: that's him in the corner, that's him in the spotlight, he's said too much, hasn't said enough... just what is one expected to make of this mass of contradictions?

The title was a Southern saying Stipe had encountered all his life and had assumed was in common use. "It's the same as being at the end of your rope, or reaching the final straw and snapping. It has nothing to do with religion in this song.

"It's used casually - a waitress will say 'I almost lost my religion over that table, they were such jerks'. To make it more serious, it could refer to an event so dramatic as to cause you to question your spiritual beliefs.' The rock rumour mill would indeed suggest such an event, insisting that Stipe, a determinedly asexual pop star in image terms, had been diagnosed HIV positive in the six-year interval between tours.

"It [the rumour] burned me out for ten minutes," he shrugged, concluding that "you can't allow the media to direct your life.'

The lyricist had set himself a challenge with Out Of Time: it was to be a collection of love songs, with straightforward meanings and less of the ambiguity that had made REM's earlier albums all things to all men. "Losing My Religion", then, was both a failure and a success. For Stipe, the release of "Losing My Religion" was "the moment I went from being recognisable to a relatively small, predominantly white audience of 20 to 35-year-olds to having everyone checking me as the guy who sang that funny song". The song reached Number 4 in the US chart, while the album it so ably trailed was a transatlantic chart-topper. REM had arrived - and there were many believers.

'Behind The Song' by Michael Heatley and Spencer Leigh is published by Blandford at pounds 14.99. Independent readers can buy the book for pounds 12.99 (including p&p). To order 01624 675 137.