Radio Free R.E.M.

On this day in 1983, R.E.M. released their first full-length album, Murmur, and my life would never be the same. Widely regarded as one of the best albums of the 1980s – and one of the greatest debuts of all time – Murmur was a game-changer.

R.E.M. got their start in Athens, Georgia in 1980. In January of that year, Michael Stipe met Peter Buck at Wuxtry Records, where Buck was an employee. Both University of Georgia students, the two bonded over a shared love of proto-punk artists like Television and The Velvet Underground. Through a mutual friend, Stipe and Buck met Mike Mills and Bill Berry, who had known each other since high school, and the quartet started rehearsing together in an abandoned church. The newly minted R.E.M. (legend has it that Stipe chose the name out of the dictionary at random) played their first gig on April 5th – the mutual friend’s birthday party.

Success for R.E.M. came quickly in Athens, and the band began touring all over the south. An R.E.M. show in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, so impressed a record store clerk named Jefferson Holt, he moved to Athens to manage the band. In April, 1981 – just a year after they played their first gig together – R.E.M. recorded their first single, “Radio Free Europe”, followed by an EP called Chronic Town in October of that year.

I.R.S. Records, impressed with a Chronic Town demo, signed the band in May, 1982. R.E.M. entered the studio on January 6, 1983, to begin recording their debut LP. Included in the sessions was a re-recording of “Radio Free Europe”, which would become Murmur‘s first single. I honestly had never heard the original recording of the song until just now, and it’s remarkable: faster, punkier and far less polished, it demonstrates the raw potential of an extraordinary band in its infancy.

Original 1981 Recording
Murmur version

I heard “Radio Free Europe” on my local college radio station (Ann Arbor’s WCBN FM-88.3), and I was gobsmacked. I bought Murmur as soon as I could, and listened to it until the grooves wore out. The music, with its jangly guitar and melodic basslines, and Stipe’s mumbly vocal style and cryptic lyrics, was unlike anything I’d heard before (or since, if I’m being perfectly honest). It was a refreshing change of pace from the polished pop, bombastic rock and synth-heavy new wave of the time period. For reference, here are the top ten singles on the Billboard Hot 100 from the week Murmur was released:

  1. Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
  2. Come On Eileen – Dexy’s Midnight Runners
  3. Mr. Roboto – Styx
  4. Jeopardy – Greg Kihn Band
  5. Beat It – Michael Jackson
  6. Hungry Like the Wolf – Duran Duran
  7. One on One – Hall and Oates
  8. Separate Ways (Worlds Apart) – Journey
  9. Der Kommissar – After the Fire
  10. Do You Really Want To Hurt Me – Culture Club

Don’t get me wrong, there are some bangers here – the only song on this list that I actively dislike is “Jeopardy”, but even that yielded this stone-cold classic from Sir Alfred Yankovic, so I can’t hate on it too much.

The point is, nothing on this – or any other – list sounds quite like R.E.M. They sounded completely fresh, yet utterly timeless. Listening to Murmur again now, I can’t get over how innovative it still feels. And though Murmur didn’t end up being R.E.M.’s best album (I’d argue that title belongs to Automatic for the People, but this band’s discography is an embarrassment of riches), it is their most important album. R.E.M. remains one of my favorite artists, and they are a perfect example of a band that has achieved incredible success while consistently maintaining their authenticity.

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