At the time R.E.M. released their fifth studio album, Document, in 1987, the little ol’ band from Athens, Georgia was still adamantly against a practice that was commonplace in popular music. In contrast to most of their musical brethren, R.E.M. abstained from include lyrics sheets with each new album. Because of that, I knew more than one person who made it into a mission to transcribe the stream of consciousness litany that comprised album standout “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” It’s the sort of devotion that R.E.M. inspired back when they ruled college radio like no other act. And this track immediately announced itself as something special in the band’s catalogue.
According to producer Scott Litt, not everyone had a positive first impression, though. Guitarist Peter Buck didn’t even like the song at first, feeling it was too much of a departure from what the band had delivered before. The song was polished into shape while Buck and the other bandmates were out on a dinner break, and they didn’t weigh in with enthusiasm when they returned.
“It was pretty much done by the time they got back, and Peter hated it,” recounted Stipe. “He capitulated finally and it made the record. Thank God we have always had each other to convince ourselves how wrong and right we can be.”
For the lyrics, Stipe said he drew upon his own dreams, noting that he was regularly beset by apocalyptic visions while sleeping. There were more specific dreams that fed into the words Stipe rattled off.
“I’m extremely aware of everything around me, whether I am in a sleeping state, awake, dream-state or just in day to day life,” explained Stipe. “There’s a part in ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It’ that came from a dream where I was at Lester Bangs’ birthday party and I was the only person there whose initials weren’t L.B. So there was Lenny Bruce, Leonid Brezhnev, Leonard Bernstein. So that ended up in the song along with a lot of stuff I’d seen when I was flipping TV channels. It’s a collection of streams of consciousness.”
Although Stipe’s subconscious fed the lyrics, Buck noted at least one actual experience fed into the details in the song. In the liner notes to the R.E.M.’s hits collection Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, Buck recounted a 1980 birthday part he and Stipe wound up at, with the legendary music writer also in attendance.
“The guys from Joe King Carrasco and Lester Bangs were there,” wrote Buck. “And all they had was birthday cake and jelly beans, and we were starving and ate that. A random story that popped into a song eight years later. At the time, I was really proud of that song.”
If the resulting song was characterized by propulsive music, Stipe knew he had to deliver accordingly. At the time, the singer was notorious for his withdrawn enunciation. For “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” he pushed himself to a different level.
“I wanted it to be the most bombastic vocal I could possibly muster,” said Stipe. “Something that would completely overwhelm you and drip off your shoulders and stick in your hair like bubblegum.”
Released as the second single from Document, the track didn’t have the same chart success as it’s predecessor, the commercial breakthrough “The One I Love.” It peaked at #69 on the Billboard Hot 100. It did better on commercial rock radio. On college radio, of course, it was nearly peerless. In the span from 1979 to 1989, only one single did better.
But we’ll get to that next week.
As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.
The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.