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(Credit: Michael Stipe)

Music

The R.E.M. masterpiece that Michael Stipe recorded in his underpants

Some songs form such a seamlessly pivotal moment in culture that you don’t really imagine them being written, like noble old oaks, or grand old Victorian architecture, they’re just there, standing around and serving us in a way that often isn’t fully appreciated until you catch it in the right light once more. From the first mandolin-tingling seconds of R.E.M.’s masterpiece ‘Losing My Religion’, the notion of a song simply being lassoed from the ether is the only explanation. 

Thus, it comes as somewhat of an odious reality to realise that the scintillating pop alchemy came with a contribution for a sweaty bald man wearing nothing but his underpants. ‘That’s me in the corner, crooning with my kit off’ may well have been a verse that didn’t survive the edit as Michael Stipe looked to get his vocal take right to intone the full welter of emotion in the melodious opus. 

The frustrated yearning in the lyrics is echoed very closely by Stipe’s desire to get the vocal take over and done with. It is a song that propels itself on the exhaustive push and pull of desire and fear. “I was very upset,” Stipe declared regarding his anger at not being able to encapsulate the heartfelt outpouring of his poetry in the stuffy environment of the studio. 

The fact that the studio engineer “seemed out of it” and it was a sweltering day at Bearstudio A in Woodstock, New York, didn’t help matters. Stipe explained, “I also got really hot because I was all worked up, so I took my clothes off and recorded the song almost naked.” Whilst this is not necessarily the sort of image you want while listening back, it certainly illuminates the hoarse cascade of soaring poetry with an interesting explanation.

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Recorded between September and October of 1990 and released on this day in 1991, ‘Losing My Religion’ was the first single from Out Of Time, and it launched the LP to instant success. The song was pivotal to the group’s evolution. Charting in the U.S. at number four, the song attracted a slew of newcomers to the band’s ever-growing fanbase, one that had been steadily increasing since their 1983 debut Murmur

There was an Indian Summer that year in Woodstock and there is something about that stuffy heat that seems to be brought out in the record. Whether that be the Mediterranean sound of the mandolin or the notion of Stipe in his underpants somehow creeping into the sound in a mystic way is hard to tell, but ‘Losing My Religion’ suits a summer moon like Sunday’s frozen pitch fits a Thermos flask.

Nevertheless, Stipe sweating it out with undergarments that looked like two boiled eggs in a cycling sock is an image best forgotten if you want the ethereal integrity of the track to survive. Thank God no Get Back-style cameras were present recording the whole thing.

You can watch a scintillating, fully-clothed performance of the classic performed a Glastonbury below.

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