REM – Radio Free Europe

I didn’t first hear this song when it was originally released in 1981. I had a friend who played it to me a few years later after it was re-recorded. It was an important song in REM’s career…it broke them on the charts…not super high but on the charts just the same.

This song was R.E.M.’s first single, released in 1981 on the short-lived independent record label Hib-Tone. The single received critical acclaim, and its success earned the band a record deal with I.R.S. Records. R.E.M. re-recorded the song for their 1983 debut album Murmur.

The re-recording was released by a larger I.R.S. and peaked at #78 in the Billboard 100 and #25 on the Mainstream Rock Chart.

Radio Free Europe is a radio network run by the United States government that broadcasts to Europe and the Middle East. The mission of the broadcasts is to promote democracy and freedom, but R.E.M. makes the point that this can easily cross the line into propaganda.

Drummer Bill Berry: “This song was pivotal to the continuation of our career,”  “Most fans may not realize 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. 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 endeavor. I dare not contemplate what our fate would have been had this song not appeared when it did.”

From Songfacts

There was a good reason for Michael Stipe’s infamously indecipherable lyrics on this song: he hadn’t finished them by the time they recorded it. In a 1988 NME interview, Stipe described the lyrical content as “complete babbling.”

R.E.M. lead singer 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.”

Stipe noted being apparently unaware of his own genius: “The guys always said I do something harmonically here that made them all go ‘whoa,’ because it was so advanced … or something, in the ‘straight off the boat’ part. I wonder if I tricked them by accident? I still have no idea what it is they’re talking about.”

The video for this song, directed by Arthur Pierson, was shot in the famed Paradise Gardens, a folk art sculpture garden crafted by artist Howard Finster in Pennville, Georgia. Finster, a Baptist minister, also painted the album art for R.E.M.’s second album, Reckoning.

This version is the original Hib-Tone version.

Radio Free Europe

Beside yourself if radio’s gonna stay
Reason: it could polish up the gray
Put that, put that, put that up your wall
That this isn’t country at all

Raving station, beside yourself

Keep me out of country and the word
Deal the porch is leading us absurd
Push that, push that, push that to the hull
That this isn’t nothing at all

Straight off the boat
Where to go?

Calling on in transit
Calling on in transit
Radio Free Europe
Radio

Beside defying’ media too fast
Instead of pushin’ palaces to fall
Put that, put that, put that before all
That this isn’t fortunate at all

Raving station, beside yourself

Calling on in transit
Calling on in transit
Radio Free Europe
Radio

Decide yourself
Calling on a boat
Media’s too fast

Keep me out of country and the word
Disappointers into us absurd

Straight off the boat
Where to go?

Calling on in transit
Calling on in transit
Radio Free Europe
Radio Free Europe

Calling on in transit
Calling on in transit
Radio Free Europe
Radio Free Europe