Sometimes songs can take years to polish up and get to a place where you feel they are finally ready. However, on a scarce occasion, something just instantly clicks, and a song unfurls from your mind like a quick release scroll. This is what happened for R.E.M. creating their most well-known song in the time it takes to have a cigarette.
The song in question, ‘Losing My Religion’, was never intended to be a single, let alone considered the band’s defining anthem. R.E.M. thought nothing much to the track and initially were bemused when their record label recommended it to be the lead single from Out Of Time but went along with their wishes.
Initially, ‘Losing My Religion’ began with guitarist Peter Buck messing around on his mandolin while watching television. He was trying to learn the instrument, and Buck wasn’t intently practising but simply messing around for entertainment purposes only.
The following day, when he came to see the rest of the band, Buck listened back to the recordings he’d made the previous day while sitting at home and was astounded that he’d accidentally cooked up the day before. “When I listened back to it the next day, there was a bunch of stuff that was really just me learning how to play mandolin,” he later said.
He elaborated on the song’s creation on the In Time compilation and revealed: “The music was written in five minutes. The first time the band played it, it fell into place perfectly. Michael had the lyrics within the hour, and while playing the song for the third or fourth time, I found my self incredibly moved to hear the vocals in conjunction with the music.
“To me, ‘Losing My Religion’ feels like some kind archetype that was floating around in space that we managed to lasso. If only all songwriting was this easy.”
The only explanation for how R.E.M. created the classic track in such a short time span is that it was unknowingly sitting inside of them, waiting to be unleashed. Stipe later said that he’d always found it fascinating to write a song about “unrequited love” and said that it was fate that when he finally approached this subject, it aligned with “one of the best pieces of music the band ever gave me.”
The title is a spin on an old Georgian adage and a phrase that the singer pulled from his grandmother. Stipe revealed to the New Yorker: “‘Losing my religion’ is my version of an old phrase, ‘lost my religion’. ‘I almost lost my religion’ – that’s what people would say. I changed it forever. I didn’t realise it would be a hit single.”
Even though Stipe admits that he never thought the track so unconventional would be a “hit single”, it connected with people profoundly at an unstoppable rate. It became the highest-charting single of their career in the U.S. which led to Out Of Time selling millions of copies, making R.E.M. one of the most essential alternative voices of their era.