Credit: R.E.M.

The Story Behind the Song: R.E.M.'s life-saving brilliance 'Everybody Hurts'

Put simply, R.E.M. wrote ‘Everybody Hurts’ to save people’s lives. Everything about the song was designed to stop teenagers from committing suicide; from the straightforward lyrics to the dramatic string arrangements to the beautiful melody, the song hits directly where it counts — the heart.  

By the time R.E.M. entered the 1990s, they had a massive global presence, and what’s more, they had integrity. Throughout the ’80s, the Georgian group had laid the groundwork for countless alternative bands as well as the grunge scene that dominated the ’90s, ironically so, as R.E.M. had then become somewhat alienated on their sensitive alt-rock island. Their 1992 album, Automatic For The People, therefore, came about under no real pressure, and this, as most artists will know, is when the best work is done. 

By this token, the album was one of R.E.M.’s most mature records and would spawn a few hits, even though commercial revelry has never been of the highest priority for Michale Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry.

‘Everybody Hurts’ appeared on the band’s 1992 album, Automatic For The People, and is one of the record’s strong points, if not the band’s entire back catalogue. Surprisingly, the drummer Bill Berry is credited as the primary songwriter for the track, although the entire band was involved with completing the song, as well as producing it, alongside Scott Litt.  

Guitar player Peter Buck stated in an interview that: “‘Everybody Hurts’ is similar to ‘Man on the Moon’. Bill brought it in, and it was a one-minute long country-and-western song. It didn’t have a chorus or a bridge. It had the verse… it kind of went around and around, and he was strumming it.” 

Buck then proceeds to go into detail about how the band approached the first draft and how they completed it, “we went through about four different ideas and how to approach it and eventually came to that Stax, Otis Redding, ‘Pain in My Heart’ kind of vibe. I’m not sure if Michael would have copped that reference, but to a lot of our fans, it was a Staxxy-type thing. It took us forever to figure out the arrangement and who was going to play what, and then Bill ended up not playing on the original track. It was me and Mike and a drum machine. And then we all overdubbed.”

R.E.M approached writing the album in the way they had in the past. Michael Stipe was largely absent, so the other three members of the band would get together in a rehearsal space, switch on to different instruments that were not their primary ones, and brainstorm musical ideas from there. “We’d write one on Thursday, tape it that night and never play it again,” Buck explained in Johnny Black’s Reveal: The Story of R.E.M. “Then, when we made the record, we had this list of about 25 songs,” according to the Rolling Stone. 

None other than John Paul Jones, bass player for Led Zeppelin, did the arrangements. “Scott Litt had heard some old string arrangements I did for Herman’s Hermits in the 1960s, so they got in touch,” Jones said in Reveal. In the same publication, Bucksaid about the Led Zeppelin elder statesman: “he knows his way backwards and forwards on just about every instrument. He’s a great arranger and a super sweet guy.”

The lyrics to the song are very straight forward as they were originally intended for distraught teens. Singer Michael Stipe, however, has commented that a good number of people of different ages have told him that the song saved their lives. Stipe had originally intended to do a duet with Patti Smith on the song, although it wouldn’t pan out until years later when they joined forces for a special performance.

Usually, Stipe prides himself on singing his lyrics with a somewhat indecipherable tone. It encourages his audience to not only challenge what he is singing but to make up their own mind on what that might be. For ‘Everybody Hurts’, however, he set about ensuring the message was as clear as a bell: “I don’t remember singing it,” he noted in Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, “but I still kind of can’t believe my voice is on this recording. It’s very pure. This song instantly belonged to everyone except us, and that honestly means the world to me.”

R.E.M.’s positive message was successfully transmitted to a large audience as the track became a bigger hit than anyone in the band or label had anticipated mining from the record. The balancing act of populous gems and personal mantras make the album a shining gem in R.E.M.’s glistening crown. It offers up an entire society’s viewpoint, fitting for one of the most democratic bands you’re ever likely to stumble across. All in all, It makes for one of the most pertinent albums of its era, largely because it still feels so vitally important today. You can land a lot of the LP’s message, and the fact that it was spread across the country, on ‘Everybody Hurts’ and, especially, its video.

After all, this is 1992, a moment in time when MTV was nearing the peak of its powers and the television ruled the airwaves. The music video, which shows the band in a car stuck in a traffic jam, was directed by Jake Scott. The video won the MTV Music Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Direction, Best Editing, and Breakthrough Video. It cleaned up.

The song remains one of R.E.M’s best hits; it peaked at number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number seven on the UK Singles Chart and charted in many other countries. This success coupled with the song’s universally recognised virtuosity has led Suicide organizations to use the song as part of its message of light at the end of every tunnel. While it may well not be the most sincere representation of R.E.M. as a band, it certainly is one of their purest attempts at connecting with the world.

Listen to the heart-wrenching song, here.