When R.E.M. took the stage on Late Night with David Letterman in October of 1983, all parties involved were relatively green. First up were the band, who had only just released their debut album Murmur six months before. Frontman Michael Stipe was so nervous and taciturn that he sat on the drum riser rather than interact with Letterman, leaving the talking duties to bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck.
Letterman himself was still trying to prove his worth on television as well. It was a year and a half into his tenure as a late-night host, with his dry wit and gonzo stunts provoking mixed reactions from critics and audiences. Letterman would find his groove eventually, including booking some great musical guests throughout his career, but this was still a time for Letterman to prove himself.
With all that in mind, neither R.E.M. nor Letterman could have predicted that this particular night would go down in history for both of them. That’s because it was R.E.M.’s television debut. The band that would go on to define alternative rock for the next two decades started their public profile on Late Night with David Letterman, and it’s hard to think of a more appropriate place for a strange group of southern boys to meet an eccentric former weatherman trying to make it as a comedian.
Ostensibly R.E.M. were there to perform their first single, ‘Radio Free Europe’, but they also had another song that needed to be played on the broadcast. Rather than rely on what fans might recognise from Murmur, the band opted to play a brand new song that didn’t even have a name yet. Fans who caught the broadcast would later figure out that the jangly untitled song was ‘So. Central Rain’, the lead single to their next album Reckoning.
In between songs, Letterman takes time to highlight the Athens, Georgia music scene that R.E.M. were the leaders of in the early 1980s. Buck manages to get in a dig that, because there’s “a lack of anything else to do there”, forming bands is one of the only ways that people can keep themselves entertained. When asked who comes from Athens, someone cracks that football player Herschel Walker is the best export, followed by The B-52s, Pylon, Love Tractor, and the Method Actors.
Watch R.E.M. play ‘Radio Free Europe’ and ‘So. Central Rain’.