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On This Day In Music… March 23, 1991: 'Out of Time' Gives R.E.M. First U.K. No. 1

The album was the band's most successful to that point – but also included what is for many fans R.E.M.'s most hated song

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Source: Warner Records / YouTube

'Out of Time' went on to sell over 12 million copies worldwide.

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It took 11 years for R.E.M. to break into the big time – but once they arrived, they did so in some style. Out of Time was the Athens, Georgia, band’s seventh album, and on March 23, 1991, their first to top the British charts. A few weeks later it would repeat the trick in the U.S.

The record would go on to sell over four million copies in America alone, and rack up some 12 million sales worldwide. In total it would spend a combined 292 weeks in the U.K. and U.S. album charts – the equivalent of five and a half years.

Out of Time was a watershed moment for R.E.M. Although the band had built a strong and devoted indie following, with previous two albums Document and Green producing the Top 10 hit singles “The One I Love” and “Stand”, after Out of Time they became superstars.

Follow-ups Automatic for the People, Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi charted at No. 2, No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the U.S. and all made the top spot in the U.K. By the end of the decade they were, along with U2, arguably the biggest band in the world.

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rem s
Source: mega

Over seven albums R.E.M. had grown from spiky cult favorites to genuine big league stars.

The success of Out of Time came in no small part thanks to its lead single. “Losing My Religion” was released a month before the album and became the band’s biggest hit to date, receiving heavy rotation on MTV and eventually peaking at No. 4 in the Billboard Hot 100. Built around a cyclical mandolin riff and featuring a lyric that Stipe later described as “a classic obsession pop song”, it took off around the world, eventually earning a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Quoted in the book R.E.M.: Fiction: An Alternative Biography, bassist Mike Mills said: “There've been very few life-changing events in our career because our career has been so gradual. If you want to talk about life changing, I think ‘Losing My Religion’ is the closest it gets.”

Engineer John Keane, who worked on the track, later recalled the making of “Losing My Religion”.

“I very distinctly remember hearing the first time Michael went into the booth and sang the vocal parts for that song,” he said. “That was just one of those moments that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. He only sang it once or twice, but it was just an amazing performance. I remember thinking, ‘Well, this is my new favorite R.E.M. song’ as soon as I heard it.”

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If “Losing My Religion” represented the flowering of all R.E.M.’s spiky, leftfield, indie promise into something darkly and unsettlingly brilliant, Out of Time’s next single, “Shiny Happy People” was quite the opposite.

Featuring guest vocals from B-52s singer Kate Pierson, “Shiny Happy People” was defiantly, and for many, confusingly, chirpy. Was it supposed to be a joke? Was it ironic? Was there something going on that no one but Stipe could quite grasp? Nobody was quite sure.

If John Keane’s first experience of “Losing My Religion” made his hair stand up, the first time he heard “Shiny Happy People” provoked a very different reaction.

“I distinctly remember when we were all in the control room and Michael went in to sing the lyrics,” he said. “None of the band members had actually heard the lyrics clearly until that point. When he got to the ‘Shiny Happy People’ part, Mike Mills and Pete looked at each other like, ‘Really? Is that what he’s gonna sing?’ And then they hit the floor laughing.”

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Source: Chris Connor / WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

R.E.M.: Fairly shiny, and fairly happy, at least.

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The single would give Out of Time its second Top 10 hit, but many were not only confused (or amused) but actually appalled.

Writing in the Melody Maker, Paul Lester was scathing, describing “Shiny Happy People” as “the worst kind of advert, not only for the Out of Time LP, but for all those people who stood up in crowded streets and bars, feverishly proclaiming the latter album’s genius and all-round proximity to The Way and The Light. This is one of those annoying-verging-on facetious R.E.M. records which, like ‘Pop Song 89’ makes great show of fiddling around with form and content as it tries vainly to condense its critique (of whatever) within the confines of a merry melody. So the music’s all jaunty and upbeat but – ho hum, guess what – it’s not really about ‘Shiny Happy People’ at all! Gosh!”

The song would also top AOL Music’s list of the “111 Wussiest Songs of All Time” and in 2005 be included in Q’s list of "Ten Terrible Records by Great Artists".

Even Stipe himself grew to dislike it, reportedly keeping it off the 2003 greatest hits album In Time and refusing to play it live. “I wouldn't say I'm embarrassed by the song but it is what it is, has limited appeal for me,” he later said.

“I never bad-mouth. I try never to say anything bad about the songs that I don't particularly like. Because there might be someone out there who hears that to whom that song means everything, to whom that song represents something in their life which is essential and I don't want to take that from them.”

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Mike Mills would later attempt at least some defense of what was to be R.E.M.’s final Top 10 single.

“There’s nothing wrong with writing a happy song,” he said. “A lot of people think they’re cooler than thou, and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a twee song. We don’t like that song.’ Well, you don’t have to like it. It’s partly written for 12-year-olds and 10-year-olds, so if you don’t like it, it’s not a problem. We like the song. We don’t mind the song. We just don’t want to be known for just that song. That’s the only thing. We don’t want that to be the song that people think of when they think of R.E.M.”

Eleven months after the release of Out of Time, R.E.M. received seven nominations at the 1992 Grammy Awards – the most for any artist that year – and took home three gongs, for Best Alternative Music Album for Out of Time, and Best Short Form Music Video and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for “Losing My Religion”.

“Shiny Happy People” was not among the nominations.


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