It's the end of the world as we know it. Or at least as Michael Stipe says, "the end of an era."

Drummer Bill Berry revealed Thursday he's leaving seminal Gen X-era rock band, R.E.M.--the first real threat to a group that's been a critical and college rock favorite since the early 1980s.

The remaining R.E.M. members--singer Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck--intend to continue as a trio, keeping the band name intact. According to the band's label, Warner Bros., Buck "will not be replaced"; instead, R.E.M. will use studio musicians on future albums and tours.

By all indications, the split was amicable. Berry, 39, who was nearly killed by a brain aneurysm in 1995 but has since toured and recorded with his bandmates, says his decision was based on personal, not health, reasons.

"Physically, my brain is in great shape," he tells the Los Angeles Times. "My motor functions are fine...[But] when we got together [to record the new album] in Hawaii in April, I didn't feel like I was all there."

"I've been playing the drums since age 9," Berry adds in a statement Friday. "I'm at a point in my life where some of my priorities have shifted. I loved my 17 years with R.E.M., but I'm ready to reflect, assess and move on to a different phase of my life. The four of us will continue our close friendship, and I look forward to hearing their future efforts as the world's biggest R.E.M. fan."

The lineup change--the first since R.E.M. began practicing in an old Athens, Georgia, church back in 1980--has shaken the close-knit band, which treated each member as an equal. Buck says his bandmates probably would not have continued using the name R.E.M. without Berry's okay. Adds Stipe: "It's the end of an era for us--Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe--and that's sad...For me, Mike and Peter, as R.E.M., are we still R.E.M.? I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn how to run differently."

Berry's departure comes as R.E.M.'s popularity is at a low ebb. The band's most recent album, 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, released on the heels of a record $80 million deal with Warners, logged only platinum sales and was considered a bust by retailers accustomed to mega-selling R.E.M. discs. The critical and commercial microscopes will be on high-power when an R.E.M. sans Berry releases its next album, due in mid-1998.

How will Stipe and company's three-legged dog run? The boys might be heartened to know that roster changes never stopped the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac from selling gazillions of records. And those bands have one other thing in common--they all wound up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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