On February 19, 1991, R.E.M. released Losing My Religion as the first single from their eagerly-anticipated seventh album, Out Of Time. Given that the Athens, Georgia quartet had already decided not to tour the record. their label, Warners, was more than a little anxious about the choice of the mandolin-led song as a lead single, but Michael Stipe's band were known for their integrity and authenticity, and ultimately the label stepped back and trusted the group's instincts.
They were rewarded with a global hit single, and R.E.M.'s highest-ever US chart placing when the song reached number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100: Out Of Time would go on to sell more than 18 million copies worldwide.
In a new interview with Vulture, bassist Mike Mills admits that the band themselves were surprised that radio embraced the single to the extent that it did.
"That was supposed to be a warm-up track for the radio to get to Shiny Happy People or whatever the next single was," he recalls. "Nobody would expect a five-minute song with no chorus and a mandolin being the lead instrument to be played on the radio at all - much less become a worldwide number-one hit. It was just crazy. Anybody that says they saw that coming is lying to you."
"I remember the strangest time. We were once in Paraguay well into the jungle. We were going to help sign over 500,000 acres to the Indigenous Ashe people of northern Paraguay. We were still getting reception from the local radio station and Losing My Religion came on. That was pretty surprising. That’s when we knew we had a worldwide hit."
Earlier this year, the four members of R.E.M. each submitted a list of their ten favourite songs by the group: no-one chose Losing My Religion. Which is not to say that the group weren't fans of the song, collectively, and had little time for moaning old school fans who considered it a 'sell out' to radio. After it became a hit, Peter Buck told Rolling Stone, "The people that changed their minds because of Losing My Religion can just kiss my ass."