How REM’s ‘Document’ Dragged College Rock into the Mainstream

It is the first week of December 1987, and REM has just finished a tour of Europe and North America, playing to the biggest crowd of the group’s career so far. They are on the front page Rolling stones, underlined with the statement “America’s Best Band.” Their latest album, Documentare fast approaching platinum sales in the US and they have a Top 10 hit.

Most bands would be excited, ready to go forth with declarations of continued greatness (remember what Bono said about U2 in ’87). But the guys in REM, bandmates for seven years, were more surprised by their quantum leap in popularity, perhaps even shocked by it and certainly skeptical.

“I can’t believe we’re up there with it [Bruce] Springsteen or whatever,” frontman Michael Stipe said in it Rolling stones tire history. “It doesn’t really mean that much, but it does for the industry, and I think for kids who read. And my mom got a little teary… No, she didn’t. But she couldn’t believe it either.”

The disbelief made sense. REM had been promised a fabled “breakthrough” by music industry pundits every time they released a new LP dating back to the 1983s The murmur. It had not yet been seen, and the band had long given up such a wish. Sure, the critics loved (only to be surpassed by the band’s hardcore fans) and sales improved with each release – but this was a steady form of growth befitting REM’s underground status.

“There are a few things on this album that could do well on Top Forty radio,” guitarist Peter Buck told Rolling stonesjust before Documentwill be released on Aug. 31, 1987, “but then again, I can’t imagine that happening knowing us. So I don’t know if I have any commercial expectations for this one at all. I assume it will sell some, somebody has to buy it. I know my mom will buy three or four. I don’t see this as the record that’s going to blow the chart apart. Although you never know. Stranger things have happened.”

If REM happened to scrape the singles charts, that was fine as long as they could tour and make records, each with a sonic approach different from the one that came before. The band’s fifth album fits well into that tradition. As with previous LPs, the quartet sought to build on what they had done while simultaneously moving in an alternative direction.

Lives Rich Contest in 1986 had brought a cleaner and richer sound to the band’s recordings, in part through producer Don Gehman. In the realm of REM, it was more directly musical and lyrical, with Buck’s flimsy guitar wrapped around Stipe’s often environmentally conscious plea. Stipe and Buck together with bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry, wanted this next record to be a bit weirder.

Listen to REM’s “Fireplace”

“This time we wanted to make a harder record,” Buck said. “This time we wanted to do a loose, weird, semi-live-in-the-studio album. We wanted to have a bit of a tougher attitude.”

With that performance, the band brought in producer Scott Litt. At the time he had gained most attention for directing Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine”, but REM were curious because he had also produced the dBs Aftermath. After recording the one-off “Romance” with Litt for it Made in heaven soundtrack, the guys thought it would be interesting to do a full album with him.

REM and Litt agreed to record the album in the spring of 1987 at Nashville’s Sound Emporium studio—chosen by Buck, “because it [looked] a bit like a Polynesian bar,” according to Stipe. Litt’s mission aligned with REM’s in wanting to change the band’s sound. He hadn’t been a big fan of the group before that point because he felt their records had sounded too “scary”.

“I’ve always liked full-range records and treated vocals with care,” Litt shared Chicago Tribune. “With REM, I thought it was important to show that the music belongs on the radio, that it was as worthy as Whitney Houston or whatever else it said.”

While writing and recording Document, the members of REM were less concerned with radio than creating a record that reflected the modern world circa 1987. Therefore, the LP’s title was eventually chosen, instead of alternative choices “No. 5″ and “Table of Contents” (both of which appear on the sleeve), as well as “Last Train to Disneyland” (which does not).

Listen to REM’s “Exhuming McCarthy”

Stipe, as the band’s singer and primary lyricist, crafted political and observational songs that were as pointed as the mix of rock, funk and folk that came from Berry, Buck and Mills. “Digging McCarthy” drew connections between the Red Scare and Iran-Contra. “Welcome to the occupation” condemned US interference in Central America. Even the album’s lone cover, by Thread‘s”Strange” seemed to reflect how REM felt about current events. In the meantime “Finest work song” opened the album with a call to arms – ”The time to rise is committed” – predict how these 11 clues would be used in righteous anger.

“Michael is really concerned – we all are – about this neo-conservative wave in America,” Mills said Globe and Mail. “With all the suppression of personal liberties, the knee-jerk reactionism, that’s the kind of atmosphere, old Joe [McCarthy] would fit in well, hence the song. But we try not to be direct about it. There is a lot of quirky humor and irony in Michael’s writing that we don’t really get credit for. I think people miss that a lot of the stuff we do is partly tongue in cheek.”

This applies to one of Document‘s (and REM’s) most famous tracks, “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I’m fine)” (which you can listen to at the top of the page), which combined real-life fears—like Stipe’s earthquake terror—with political references and daydreams about celebrities with the initials LB having a birthday party with cheesecake and jelly beans. The song also foretold the future media-saturated information overload with its fast-paced lyrics that leave the singer’s mouth like slugs from a howitzer.

“End of the World” would become a modest hit en route to pop culture immortality, while “The only one I love” would resonate much more immediately. With Berry’s crisp drum riff launched into Buck’s barbed-wire guitar, the album’s lead single captured listeners’ attention. The track was the track that beat the odds, buzzing radio stations internationally and earning REM their first Top 10 hit in America by climbing to No. 9. Stipe got a kick out of casual fans who didn’t listen closely enough to hear him declare, that the overall purpose of this dedication was also simply “a simple prop to occupy my time.”

“It’s a brutal kind of song and I don’t know if a lot of people pick up on that,” he said. Rolling stones. “But I’ve always left myself pretty open to interpretation. It’s probably better that they just think it’s a love song at this point… I don’t know. That song just popped up from somewhere , and I recognized that it was really violent and horrible.”

Listen to REM’s “The One I Love”

Whether because of “The One I Love’s” darker tendencies or in spite of them, the single brought REM hordes of new fans who pressed on. Document into the Top 10, making it the band’s first ever platinum release in January 1988. Meanwhile, the band had completed their Work Tour to promote the album, with the members struggling with the group’s rising fame. Buck had a freak-out after playing to 12,000 fans and witnessing the bruising in a general admission crowd. Stipe found himself becoming increasingly hostile towards certain members of the audience.

“There was a time in the ’80s when I looked out at my audience and I saw people that if I wasn’t on stage – they’d be quicker to throw me when they passed me on the sidewalk,” Stipe said. Filter Magazine in 2003. “It was different people. I was an ugly, horrible person on stage then [laughs] – ask about Reagan and about this and that. This is where a song like ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ came from. There was a moment when I looked out and I saw these people and I realized: I am the performing monkey. I’m the dancing clown … And it was really offensive to me, and so I reacted like someone would react in that situation: you get very defensive and very insecure and very angry and you want to shove down people’s throats who you really is and see how much of it they can take. OK, well, luckily I kind of grew out of it, but I had to learn the hard way.”

In so many ways, Document was a massive turning point for REM, filled with big hits and hard lessons. As the band’s final studio LP with IRS Records, it marked the end of the band’s underground years – as REM would jump to Warner Bros. the following year and became an act that could fill arenas. But it was also the beginning of a new era, a fruitful studio partnership with Scott Litt that resulted in a slew of blockbuster albums and many more radio hits.

“We never took giant steps to turn ourselves into a viable, hit-making American band for American radio,” reflected Stipe In the studio with a red beard. “Radio came to us … pop culture just swung into our little, stubborn orbit.”

REM albums ranked in order of awesome

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