R.E.M. didn’t quite know what to make of their 1987 LP Document – which turns 30 this week – shortly before it came out. They were six years and five albums into their career by that point, but they’d never seen a song go higher than #78 on the Billboard Hot 100. But, working with new producer Scott Litt, they’d crafted tunes unlike anything they’d made before, including “The One I Love” and “It’s The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”
“There are a few things on this album that could do well on Top 40 radio,” R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck told Rolling Stone, “but then again, I can’t imagine it 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’s got to buy it. I know my mom will buy three or four. I don’t see this as the record that’s going to blast apart the chart. Although you never know. Weirder things have happened.”
His apprehension was understandable. Bands lumped under the term “college rock” simply didn’t get big radio hits. It was an era of hair metal groups like Mötley Crüe and stadium rock acts like U2, Dire Straits and INXS. The Number One song in America was “Who’s That Girl” by Madonna. Critics may have dug groups like the Pixies, the Replacements and Sonic Youth, but they were not getting anywhere near mainstream radio.
But “The One I Love” was simply too catchy to ignore, even if most listeners probably didn’t realize it wasn’t exactly a love song. “It’s a brutal kind of song, and I don’t know if a lot of people pick up on that,” Michael Stipe told Rolling Stone that year. “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.”
The message of their second single was a little more explicit: “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” “[That’s about] bombastic, vomiting sensory overload,” Stipe told Rolling Stone. They promoted it with a video (watch the clip above) where a young skateboarder rummages through a filthy, abandoned farmhouse on the verge of complete collapse. At no point do you even catch a glimpse of the band. Despite that, MTV put it into heavy rotation. It was too weird to go higher than Number 69 on the Hot 100, but it still meant that drunk frat boys would be screaming the name “Leonard Bernstein” at the top of their lungs for years to come.
The surprise success of Document – featured on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time – moved R.E.M. into basketball arenas and onto the cover of Rolling Stone before the end of the year, the beginning of an amazing decade-long run on top. Their 1987 Rolling Stone cover line told the whole story: “Rock’s Most Influential College Band Graduates.”