Forty years ago, REM released Radio Free Europe, setting the band from Athens, Georgia on the way to musical immortality
The REM legend was born in a makeshift studio in a garage in North Carolina. It was there, in Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio, that Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry recorded Radio Free Europe, their first single.
The quartet had made significant inroads in their hometown of Athens, Georgia and their zeal for touring had ensured they burned a lot of gasoline and made plenty of fans traversing the Peach State and its neighbours.
And, now, they were finally getting to capture some of that intense live energy in studio. Forty years ago this weekend, that first single was released and it would elevate the band far beyond their wildest dreams.
Radio Free Europe quickly became a staple of the burgeoning college rock scene — effectively indie and alternative music that wasn’t being played on mainstream radio — and it marked REM as a band that was considerably different to their peers.
Like so much of the early music that REM made, the song is both magical and mysterious. The original version, released on the Hib-Tone label, got a special release for Record Store Day this year.
It sounds much rougher than the re-recorded track that opens the band’s debut album, Murmur, but it really captures what the quartet were like in concert in their earliest days.
Thanks to the success of the song, REM were offered a record deal with the big LA-based indie label IRS Records. The five-track Chronic Town, from 1982, was recorded by Mitch Easter in his garage and features the noise of crickets — one of the defining natural sounds of the Deep South.
But it was Murmur, which came out in 1983, that truly connected with audiences. Although IRS had wanted a bigger name producer than Easter, it was he and his colleague Don Dixon who got the gig on the insistence of Stipe et al.
Like Radio Free Europe, the majority of the tracks make little sense, lyrically. And yet it doesn’t matter — it’s an album that connects on a deep level.
Maybe it’s Buck’s jangly guitars, or the yearning of Stipe’s vocals, or the vocal interplay with Mills, or Berry’s driving percussion, but Murmur remains as wonderful today as when it was first released.
It had fantastic songs, such as Pilgrimage and Talk About the Passion, which would be live favourites for years to come. The most plaintive track, Perfect Circle, remains one of their most moving compositions.
At the end of 1983, Rolling Stone named Murmur the year’s best album, beating Michael Jackson’s all-conquering Thriller and Synchronicity by the Police. It was a remarkable accolade for a band that weren’t getting much airplay outside the college rock stations.
But REM had little interest in resting on their laurels. Before 1983 was out, they had the bulk of a second album in the bag.
Reckoning was less obscure than its predecessor, as Stipe set about writing marginally more conventional songs, but it’s every bit as bewitching as the band’s debut. It might just be my favourite REM album. The masterful So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry) and the countrified (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville demonstrate Stipe’s growth as a songwriter while the haunting Camera pays tribute to a close friend, a young photographer named Carol Levy, who was killed in a car crash.
It was on the tour in support of Reckoning that REM made it outside the US for the first time and there was a much mythologised date at Dublin’s SFX in December 1984.
For £6.50 per ticket, a thousand or so early disciples saw the band run though the core songs of Murmur and Reckoning as well as air compositions that would make their way onto their next two albums, Fables of the Reconstruction and (the apostrophe-phobic) Lifes Rich Pageant.
REM were a band going places fast. The murky-sounding Fables was made the bleak London winter of early 1985 and produced by the folk stalwart Joe Boyd and demonstrated the band’s desire to try new sounds and ideas — like Southern Gothic — while remaining true to themselves.
On their next album, Lifes Rich Pageant, the band were embracing a more anthemic, expansive sound that would soon see them playing big arenas, if not stadiums.
Pageant was produced by the commercially minded Don Gehman in John Mellencamp’s Belmont Studios in Indiana and saw Stipe become politicised on songs like Cuyahoga and The Flowers of Guatemala.
Their final IRS album, Document, appeared in 1987. REM had delivered a striking album every year since Murmur’s appearance in 1983, and this one — their most political in their entire canon — continued a winning streak even if hardcore fans at the time would have felt that the secret was well and truly out. The One I Love, after all, was a big hit in the US and the video was on constant rotation on MTV.
Then came a megabucks deal with Warner Bros and a huge shift in REM’s fortunes. Major label debut Green sold well and the accompanying tour saw the band truly embrace arenas.
The next two albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People, went positively gargantuan. For a time, it put REM on the same commercial footing of the U2s of this world — something they never quite appeared to be comfortable with.
There was much more to come in the REM story, but for many — this writer included — it’s that breathtaking body of work between 1981 and 1987 that endures most.
REM’s path helped show bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana that success could come by sticking to what you believe in, developing at your own pace and building fan-bases the old-fashioned way.
And it all began in a suburban garage.