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30 Years Ago: R.E.M. Display Their New Sound With ‘Fall on Me’

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R.E.M.‘s first few albums were distinctive by their elusive, murky sound. But they showed a new direction when “Fall on Me,” the lead single off Lifes Rich Pageant, was released on July 14, 1986.

Their folk-rock influences were still there — the song has one of Peter Buck‘s most memorable jangly guitar parts — but the real changes were in Bill Berry’s big snare drum sound and, most surprisingly, Michael Stipe‘s vocals, which were front-and-center in the mix and sung in a clear voice.

Both changes were the work of producer Don Gehman, who had made his name on John Mellencamp‘s hit records. And while it may sound strange for a post-punk band to want to work with a blue-collar rocker, they specifically wanted his expertise in making pop hits.

“I think Don came at the perfect time for the band,” said bassist Mike Mills in the album’s press kit. “He works with the radio in mind and concentrates on getting the best, biggest sound.”

Gehman also challenged Stipe to sing with more clarity and not hide behind the other musicians, and “Fall on Me” shows Stipe rising to the occasion. That extended to the background vocals, too. Mills takes over for the bridge, and the chorus, with Mills and Berry each singing different parts, is one of the most beautiful moments in R.E.M.’s entire catalog.

But there was a touch of the “what-was-he-singing?” still to be found. The song originally had a different melody and lyric — one inspired by acid rain and the environment. Stipe’s original melody, but not the majority of the words, can be heard underneath in the second verse.

The group released a video for the song, which, introspect, now seems like a bridge between Bob Dylan‘s clip for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and the modern lyric video. As a single, “Fall on Me” only reached No. 94 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it hit No. 5 at Mainstream Rock and helped pave the way for the success they would have a year later with Document.

Worst to First: Every R.E.M. Album Ranked

Next: Read About R.E.M.'s 'Murmur'

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