R.E.M.'s world as they knew it ended in autumn 1987, when the release of their breakout fifth album propelled them from the obscurity of America's burgeoning alternative underground to global stardom. But the resultant fame eventually left the reclusive rockers feeling anything but fine.
Even today, Document remains a powerhouse album, its crunching guitars, stadium-worthy choruses and angry lyrics making it one of the standout recordings of the post-punk era. It wasn't to everyone's liking - long-time fans of the Athens, Georgia, band reacted with despondency to the album's change of musical direction, from timid, awkward jangle-pop to full-on rock. But tracks such as The One I Love and Finest Work Song built a bridgehead to a mainstream audience.
While The One I Love gave R.E.M. their first US hit single, it was the rousing and infectious It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) that provided the band with the longevity of interest to accelerate their career beyond Document's commercial life.
Credited with being written by all four members of the band - singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry - the single began taking shape as a song called Public Service Announcement. Its quick-tempo stream-of-consciousness rant of pop-cultural memes and icons resembled Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. Its pacy structure begged listeners to try to sing along, providing an almost impossible challenge that made the track all the more alluring. Punctuated words at key standout phrases - the call-and-return shout of the name "Leonard Bernstein", for instance - offered hooks that resonated on indie dance floors through the late 1980s into the '90s.
End of the World and The One I Love helped Document break into the album charts in markets where they had been previously regarded as a niche band, appealing to fans of college radio. It was R.E.M.'s first album to be produced by Scott Litt, who went on to helm their next four albums, including the milestones Out of Time and Automatic for the People. It also marked their final recording with indie label I.R.S.
Before Document, R.E.M.'s moderate success had been founded on the acclaim of the underground press and constant touring. After its release they were playing theatres and festivals. It gave them the clout to take artistic chances with their next few albums, recorded with Warner Bros, and saw them develop a folk-pop aesthetic that made Automatic a global hit.
From there the band's fortunes snowballed, racking up ever-bigger record sales, filling giant arenas and garnering tabloid exposure. That brought the usual problems that attend global success. Bass player Mills' departure for health reasons in the mid-'90s and Buck's later arrest after a drunken incident on a plane to London exposed cracks in the band that eventually led to their demise last year.
Topics: R.E.M. Music Albums Alternative Rock