R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe US 7″ 
- Radio Free Europe 1
- Sitting Still 1
I really can’t say why it happened, I only know that it did. In the summer of 1981 athens band R.E.M. released their first indie single; their initial recording of “Radio Free Europe.” I lived in Orlando, Florida at the time. The song was an instant hit on WPRK-FM, my local college station of choice at that time, which I was listening to a lot. I heard the song and liked it. It had a good feel to it and Athens was hip following the emergence of the B-52s. I thought about getting the single since I saw it in the better local record stores by that Fall.
Ultimately, I never bought a copy since it was in such heavy rotation on WPRK-FM, I heard it more than enough times. Besides, I didn’t like it quite that much to actually drop coin! You’d hear that single blaring out of the speakers every other time you were in one of Orlando’s finer record stores. Okay I get it. They’re popular. They don’t suck, so that was good and they managed to immediately strike a vein of interest in Orlando, Florida, for some reason. Nice going for guys in Athens with no money.
By the time that the “Chronic Town” EP was released after the band had signed to IRS Records in the Summer of 1982, Orlando was in the throes of R.E.M. fever. This time I’d bought a copy of the EP and could no longer afford the prices that the Hib-Tone single was going for locally. It was okay, but not as memorable as the single. Whenever I saw a local band play, damned if R.E.M. [with only a handful of songs released] were the template for the clone wave that followed. Between hipsters playing the records in public, or local bands following slavishly in their footsteps, you’d be forgiven for thinking that perhaps R.E.M. were a local Orlando band at this time.
All bets were off when R.E.M. released their debut album, “Murmur,” in the Spring of 1983. Everyone had the album immediately, even me. The band had re-recorded their debut single in a less murky version for the album, which was a lot more solid than the EP had been. When the manager of one of Orlando’s local record store chains “went solo” to establish his own store that Spring, of course it was named Murmur Records! I had the album, but I didn’t need to play it, really. Everywhere I went, there it was on the speakers. Record stores played it constantly. When attending college parties, it was part of the soundtrack on the stereo. Art classes held were to its accompaniment. Rock clubs played the songs at every visit. There was even a local band named Stumble, fr’ crying out loud!
I often wondered if this was just a local Orlando phenomenon, or was it happening all over the place. I really didn’t know for certain, but I did know one thing. I was getting burned out big time on R.E.M.! Come the spring of 1983, I even remember having some wag thrust a petition to I.R.S. records to have the band play locally on tour! By this time I had begun to crack. While I liked the band well enough, I couldn’t quite see how they were so vastly popular in the place of bands I really held a torch for. By the end of the year, I had come to resent R.E.M. for their omnipresence and popularity far in excess to my perceived worth of their art. During the Great Vinyl Purge® that first occurred in 1985 when I could trade in used vinyl and get credit to buy glittering new CDs, both R.E.M. records were on the shortlist to get the fast eject from the Record Cell.
By the time that they turned up on rotation on MTV, I was way past caring, and came to see them as the enemy. They had inspired a wave of US proto-Americana acts that were part of a reactionary wave against all of the arty synthesizer bands I preferred and valued more than their 60s retro-Byrds blatherings. Ultimately, their middlebrow antics went from underground to mainstream in a few short years, and helped make the media a little more tedious as the Post-Punk wave hit the middle of the eighties and ebbed as its practitioners lost their path and became subsumed by mediocrity.
By 1986, the band was poised for mainstream success. A friend of mine wanted to see them play in some arena in Tampa on their tour, and asked me if I wanted to accompany him. Who wants to trek 90 miles away alone for a concert? Fortunately, the opening act for the tour was their producer Mitch Easter’s band Let’s Active, so I was ready to sign on the dotted line! Even though I was beyond bored with R.E.M., I loved Mitch Easter’s music! Let’s Active really had the goods, as far as I was concerned, and this was the band’s tour for their transcendent second full album, “Big Plans For Everybody.” I had been wanting to see Let’s Active ever since their first EP hit in 1983 and the band did not disappoint! This was an amazing batch of songs that were largely performed in the studio by Easter alone. Live with his new band, they completely rocked. And since they were close, personal friends of R.E.M., they were allowed an encore. They happened to cover Billy Joe Royal’s awesome “Hush” in the Deep Purple style! Afterward, I managed to nap as the R.E.M. concert was underway.
It’s funny. To this day I’m over R.E.M. and news of their retirement only makes me think – finally! Don’t those guys have enough money by now? On the other hand, I’m satisfied that they won’t get the chance to outlast the Rolling Stones in the longevity sweepstakes. I would feel very sorry for anyone who manages to outlast The Stones! Curiously, I’m a big fan of the guys who produced those early R.E.M. records I’ve heard. I’ve seen Mitch Easter and Don Dixon numerous times in concert and don’t plan on stopping any time soon. And as a Warren Zevon fan, I want to get a copy of the Hindu Love Gods album, which is among the few of Zevon’s not yet in the Record Cell. I’m just glad that I won’t have to duck R.E.M. any longer!
– 30 –
Having experienced Orlando’s R.E.M. mania at the same time as Mr. Monk, I can certainly relate to what he’s saying. I was always okay with them in small measured doses. If you have both volumes of their hits, it’s really all you need. Having played in a band in the late 80s/early 90s, we covered at least a half dozen of their songs which were always well received. My favorite was “Can’t Get There From Here”. In the pre-internet era, you had to do the best you could to figure out what in the hell Michael Stipe was singing. Listen to the second line of the third verse and tell me he’s not singing “Dickheads jumping off the ground”!
And yeah, Mitch Easter is one cool cat.
I’ve always lamented that Guadalcanal Diary didn’t have the same luck. Somewhere there’s a parallel universe where they ruled the 80s/90s and R.E.M. were dumped in the cutout bins.
Mitch Easter…Stephen Duffy!
Was never much of an R.E.M. fan – I am more of a Method Actors type of guy. The hand-held R.E.M. music videos were never easy to watch – and they got played a lot.
ronkanefiles – They got played far in advance of their merits, I think. There’s way more fascinating groups than R.E.M. The last time I saw Mitch Easter I should have asked him how he ever hooked up with Stephen Duffy. My guess is Duffy was a Let’s Active fan.
(Trying to measure my words here) I never groked REM. To me they were always a triumph of marketing over content and honestly I find them unlistenable. The only track I own by them in an enormous collection of music is a track that they contributed to the soundtrack of my favorite movie, Wim Wenders ‘Until the End of the World.”
Ever read the UK magazine Uncut? They used to have a column called ”The Reaper” that I just loved. IIRC REM made that column a couple of times. That and their ”albums-you-never-heard-but-should-have” were the first two pieces I read in every issue, I would have probably never heard of the Blue Nile if it wasn’t for the latter column.
Tim – Hey, join the club! I also have the wonderful “Until The End Of The World” OST! It’s the only R.E.M. in my vast collection! Better yet, I have the German issue, “Bis Ans Ende Der Welt [original filmmusik]” which is lacking the U2 song [don’t get me started on them] on all of the other copies!
I never read Uncut. Here’s my relationship with music press. I used to build my life around my subscription to Trouser Press back in the day. It’s the only music rag I ever loved – even though they usually dismissed my favorite acts [except for Ultravox]. In the mid 80s, I started buying Q and stopped when it got over $4.95 an issue. Pay more than $3-5.00 for a music magazine? Fageddaboudit! If it costs that much, better to be buying some more music instead, I think. So this whole “following in Q’s footsteps” wave has never touched me. Uncut? Never saw a copy. Mojo? I just paid $10.99 for my first copy ever, but only because it had a demo version of a John Foxx & The Maths track that was on their “free” bundled CD on their October 2011 issue [now on sale]. I have to say I hated the contents of the magazine! It was yet more “classic rock” worship wrapped in the most clique-y content I’ve ever seen. I’m a well-versed “music guy” and it was so “insider” Ten pages of it was about itself; the Mojo Awards that ultimately seemed to be shilling for some sort of whiskey! I could have cared less! What copy was in it seemed to be poorly written. One of my favorite music websites is The Quietus, due mostly to the editor’s insistence that they provide an alternative to the all-pervasive “classic rock” worship that informs the usual suspects: Rolling Stone, Q, Mojo, etc.
I had a friend in the eighties and given the choice, she would always opt for music press over actual records, which I could never understand. I guess that’s a difference between men and women in regards to their music. For me it was how the music made me feel. I didn’t care about the lives of the practitioners. Female fans I know form emotional bonds with the musicians instead. They tend not to dote on the actual music. Look at the [official] Ultravox website. It’s been run by Cerise Reed from the start. Has it ever had an Ultravox discography among it’s many diverse features? No! Not after 15+ years! There’s umpteen features on the band, interviews, forums full of har-dee-har bonhomie but for the person trying to collect Ultravox records, bupkiss. Women are from Bloomingdales; Men are from Lowes.
Did that answer your question? Was there a question?
Ah, you missed some goodness in the olde issues of Uncut. It was a great magazine back around 2000/2001, so much so I even subscribed to it. Meaty articles with content and a cover mounted cd of new music that they thought you should hear that was a death star to my wallet.
I also have the German UTEOTW soundtrack and have gone a step further and made an uber-soundtrack with items left off of that, the Elvis track, Chuck Berry, Robbie Robertson and the Blue Nile, et al.
Several years ago I saw on his website that the full movie was coming out on DVD via some place in Italy. Ah, those Italians and their lax copyright issues. I ordered the box set with trepidation, seriously believing that despite the plug on WW’s site that I was still going to get ripped off. A week later I had a dvd of the full UTEOTW in all it’s glory. God I love that movie, so much so I can tolerate the REM song in it.
Tim – Can’t say I’ve ever had the pleasure. I think the only Wim Winders movies I’ve seen were [checks internet] “Wings Of Desire” and “Buena Vista Social Club.” The last one astounds me since I had no idea he directed it until I just looked! I just bought the soundtrack because in 1991 I had to have new DM, Jane Siberry, Julee Cruise, and Neneh Cherry. The Lou Reed track was immense, and the whole CD has been a favorite “dinner party” soundtrack of mine for decades. Funny. By 1993 I lost interest in DM, Jane Siberry, Neneh Cherry, and Julee Cruise.
The Quietus is quite the nice web site. Found it about a year ago, I think via linkage in the Richard Hawley forums.
A couple years ago I discovered a stack of old Heavy Metal magazines at my father in laws’ house. Stack is kind of an understatement, pretty much a complete run of the first several years. I’ve never been a fan of comics; they just do nothing for me, even as a kid. I did find myself engrossed with these old HM’s because the reviews of film, music, etc from that time were pretty much dead on (on damn near everything, too).
I also found one issue with an interview with Wim Wenders – I think it was contemporary to the release of ”The State of Things” where he talks about this project in development that is UTEOTW. It is probably the oldest reference to the movie I have found by him (circa ’83). He also had some not so kind (but dimplomatically worded) things to say about ET, too, which I found pretty amusing.
Back to REM, I think that they road a mid to late 80’s wave of reaction to everything that had happened in pop culture in the early part of the 80’s. They were seen as fresh, sincere and real to a lot of people burnt out on the glam dimensions of what came in the mainstream earlier in the decade.
A lot of indie and foreign film from the same time frame is similar in the sense that it tried so hard to be as absolutely un-Hollywood as possible that it’s quite bad. In America David Lynch’s stuff really stood out and god bless Wim Wenders for ”Wings of Desire,” the success of which gave him carte blanche (for a while before the producers pulled the plug on him and he found himself living out ”The State of Things”) to make UTEOTW.
Tim – I loved comics and read them until my late 20s. The early 80s “alternative comics” scene was very concurrent with musical developments. But eventually, the unseemly vibe of comic shops by the early 90s was off putting to me. The trend for porno comics showed me the door. But the early 80s held all sorts of promise; someone was moving beyond two guys in tights beating the hell out of each other. I never touched Heavy Metal. It looked from the covers like it pandered kids that couldn’t manage to buy Playboy but could slip this by the 7-11 clerk. Some time in the early 80s, my friend Tom and I were in a comic shop run by an acquaintance from high school [he now own a chain of them] and there were old copies of HM in a cheapie bin. Tom was waxing eloquent about this guy Matt Howarth and a story “Changes” he had serialized in the magazine and bade me buy them. Howarth’s stuff was amazing. He was a total prog/wave music fan and it showed. One chapter was called “Enossification!” He later went on to create a book around the characters in “Changes” called “Those Annoying Post Brothers” which featured many a famous [to us] musician appearing within the storylines: Dieter Meier, The Residents, Nash The Slash! The rest of the stories were adolescent fantasies of the stripe that I’d avoided successfully for so long; full of nudity and pseudo profundity.
Howarth’s writing partner was one Lou Stathis. Lou had music columns in HM that, had I read them at the time of publication [78-80], would have blown my mind. He was all about the best music out there: King Crimson, Kraftwerk, Ultravox! Reading these in 1985 was like preaching to the choir by that point, but everything Lou covered in his music column was 100% right on, to coin a phrase. Similarly, I found the music coverage in the sci/sci-fi mag OMNI revelatory. I bought the first three-four years of that rag and got a handle on Robert Fripp that’s lasted until this day. Similarly, my first exposure to The Human League [back when they ruled the world – but didn’t know it yet] was also in those pages.
On R.E.M. – I never valued sincerity and realness in music. It’s what I rebel against in art. I always felt that the whole point of art was to create an alternative, better model of reality – with the goal of changing it to reflect these new values. Art which reflects status quo values like “realness” and “sincerity” is a propaganda tool of the staus quo to quash malcontents and coerce the masses into compliance with its goals.
Art is not a mirror, it is a hammer (I forget who said it, but I read it on a Henry Cow album)
ronkanefiles – Thanks for the words of wisdom, sir!
Couldn’t agree more. The funny thing with the rise of acts like U2 and REM in the states in the late 80’s is this perception that they were real (because they played guitars and synths were not prominent) and sincere & they’re ROCK bands and not some fey pop group. Part of rock is supposed to be about rebellion or at least challenging the status quo and outfits like U2, REM and Nirvana are the safe corporate approved rock bands. I saw U2 collect an award once and Bono said something along the lines of ”yeah we’re going to continue to f*** up the mainstream” and I remember exclaiming in exasperation ”you ARE the mainstream!” The marketing on some of this stuff is just amazing, ”The Joshua Tree” geez what a turgid waste of vinyl but everyone I knew at the time it was out had it (the Pet Shop Boys have a great section about their take on U2 in their book ”Literally” for those who want more in this vein).
Give me Repo Man over The Breakfast Club any day, thanks.
Tim – I asked that you not get me started on U2!! I can’t believe that the great Gavin Friday is friends with them! Talk about night and day! Until recently I just hated Bono. He’s undoubtedly the apogee of self-satisfied smugness and self-delusion [as you so cunningly pointed out with your TV outburst]. Shockingly, I recently saw the movie “It Might Get Loud” and of the three guitarists comprising the film [Jack White, Jimmy Page, David “The Edge” Evans] The Edge at 49 years of age had never heard Link Wray’s “Rumble” when White and Page were discussing it!!!! My wife and I were outraged at this fact. A lead guitarist who copped his sound from Alan Rankine AND he’s never heard “Rumble” by Link Wray??!! No wonder u2 SUCK.
I used to own “Literally” but that was years ago. Refresh my memory. By the way, when I saw PSB in Miami the night of their US tour debut in 1991 you could have heard a pin drop when they launched into “Where The Streets Have No Name/Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You!! The recording of it was not released yet and it had maximum shock value.
As for Nirvana, labels love addicts! They’re so easy to control – at least until they put a gun to their skull. At which point they become even easier to control!
Radio Free Europe seems to have grabbed us all on college radio. Hearing it always reminds me of turning on WNYU in NYC when I got home from classes on my 3 World band stereo non-boombox. I shared this radio with my grandfather who enjoyed the World bands to find crazy Iranian and Indian news stations. I alway found myself resetting it to 89.1.
I never really caught the R.E.M. fever. I seem to own a number of albums and cd’s, but honestly have never spent a lot of time listening to them. I have seen them twice. Once in an NYC club and the second time in bad seats at the Meadowlands Arena. Neither show was memorable.
Echorich – I have a hard time imagining a memorable R.E.M. show. One with heavy analog synth usage?
I remembered this post when I recently shared a treatise on Facebook on how R.E.M. ruined the American independent and underground music scenes. I would be happy to copy and paste the critique in a separate comment, if you’d (and others) like to read and respond to it, PPM.
For now, I’ll just join the chorus of dissension here. I like some R.E.M. songs (the original Hib-Tone version of Radio Free Europe) and scattered tracks from among their I.R.S. period. My minimal enjoyment of R.E.M. is far outweighed by their negative influence on the U.S. indie/underground in the 80s. I utterly loathe the regressive retro-Americana trend of the mid-80s, a major blight in music history. Thankfully, just about all those Americuhn (my deliberate typo) alterna-rawk bands have fallen by the wayside, their vinyl left to collect dust in used record shops and thrift stores. Across the Atlantic, the British indie scene fared much better. 4AD entered its golden age with the Cocteau Twins/Dead Can Dance/This Mortal Coil trifecta, The Fall made some of their best (and most listener-friendly) LPs on Beggars Banquet, Cabaret Voltaire maintained a strong output even a decade after they began, Prefab Sprout emerged with a bang, Mute made great strides with Depeche Mode, and Some Bizzare rode the second wave of industrial successfully, to name some U.K. highlights. There was some unforgivable crap (the emergence of Billy Bragg, for one), but the U.K. mid-80s indie scene still stood head and shoulders above the U.S. one.
The best thing to happen in the U.S. indie scene after 1984 (when it began to decline sharply) was Negativland’s rise to prominence. Great, subversive group that deserves a lot more props for their art pranks and satirical work.