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The Story Behind The Song: R.E.M.'s debut single 'Radio Free Europe'

R.E.M. song ‘Radio Free Europe’ is important for two main reasons. On the one hand, it was R.E.M.’s debut single and put the Georgian band on the map when it was first put out in 1981 as the band struggled to make ends meet. On the other, when the single was released in 1983 as part of their newly polished major-label LP Murmur, it planted the blueprint for what an alternative rock band should look like.

Named after the United States’ broadcast anti-communist propaganda channel, R.E.M sought to reverse the damage of misinformation and manipulation the US had presided over, in the form of an alternative pop song. Of course, I’m saying this in the name of dramatic effect; one could certainly not reverse global policy in a three-minute rock song, right? 

What R.E.M. did do with their debut single is create alternative rock’s audience for decades to come. An audience that would not remain content with what they were told by society. Bands like R.E.M. took a retrospective look to find what punk groups had done just a few years prior, in 1977, and tried to emulate it for a new generation — they wanted to start again and reinvent what our culture stood for.

This retro attitude also took shape in the very music and the instruments that R.E.M. used. Both guitar and bass players, Peter Buck and Mike Mills, respectively, used Rickenbacker guitars, something also done by 1960s bands like The Beatles and The Byrds, for a unique tone. The group’s early sound, as it came to fruition on their 1983 Murmur record, featured jangle-rock, pop sensibilities and searing intelligence combined to make for one of the more underrated records of the ’80s but the single’s first release laid the groundwork for the band’s success. Short and succinct pop songs would be their weaponry, but with the adopted aggressive attitude of punk. 

What did make R.E.M. unique with ‘Radio Free Europe’ is that their singer, Michael Stipe, did not have any lyrics ready until they re-recorded the song for their Murmur version. When the band first self-released the single through their soon-to-be-defunct label, Hib-Tone, the song was picked up by an Atlanta law student, Jonny Hibbert. Bizarrely enough, Hibbert proved to be a catalyst to push the band to get a better version out there.

This version of the song didn’t have real lyrics. It was Stipe singing gibberish to the melody. This could be seen as an insufferable act, however, within the context of what R.E.M. used to sound like, it was brilliant. ‘Radio Free Europe’ was a protest song against disinformation, propaganda and just general and unwanted noise. Stipe wasn’t just incapable of writing lyrics, but had chosen the confusing reem of lyrics to prove a point.

Michael Stipe said in a 1983 interview with Alternative America: “We were all so scared of what the other one would say, that everyone nodded their head in agreement to anything to come up. The earlier songs were incredibly fundamental, real simple, songs that you could write in five minutes. Most of them didn’t have any words. I just got up and howled and hollered a lot.

That’s true. I’ve got to write words for ‘Radio Free Europe,’ because we’re going to re-record that for the album. It still doesn’t have a second or third verse. I think there are actually lyrics to every song on the EP.”

On the most practical level, ‘Radio Free Europe’ saved R.E.M.’s asses: “Most fans may not realise that for two years before Murmur was released, we barely made financial ends meet by playing tiny clubs around the southeast. Our gasoline budget prevented us from venturing further,” drummer Bill Berry began to explain in Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011. 

This was a pivotal moment for R.E.M. ‘Radio Free Europe’ would either save them as a band or confirm them to the dustbin of history. Berry added, “Put simply, our existence was impoverished. College radio and major city club scenes embraced this song and expanded our audience to the extent that we moved from small clubs to medium-sized venues, and the additional revenue made it possible to logically pursue this wild musical endeavour. I dare not contemplate what our fate would have been had this song not appeared when it did.”

‘Radio Free Europe’ would land R.E.M. their much-needed break; the band signed to I.R.S Records in 1982, and they re-recorded the track becoming the first single for their debut 1983 record, Murmur. 

Hear R.E.M.’s debut single, the fantastically feverish ‘Radio Free Europe’ below.

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