Radio Free Europe is a song by R.E.M. The song was released as R.E.M.’s debut single on the short-lived independent record label Hib-Tone, in 1981.
The song features “what were to become the trademark unintelligible lyrics which have distinguished R.E.M.’s work ever since.”
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 its 1983 debut album Murmur and a live performance at Larry’s Hideaway, Toronto, Canada, from July 9, 1983 was released on the 2008 Deluxe Edition reissue of that album. The re-recording for I.R.S. became the group’s first charting single, peaking at # 78 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The song is ranked # 389 on Rolling Stone list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In 2010, it was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry for setting “the pattern for later indie rock releases by breaking through on college radio in the face of mainstream radio’s general indifference.”
R.E.M. formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980. The band quickly established itself in the local scene. Over the course of 1980 the band refined its songwriting skills, helped by its frequent gigs at local venues. One of the group’s newer compositions was Radio Free Europe.
The other members of the band were reportedly awestruck when they heard the lyrics and melodies singer Michael Stipe had written for the song.
By May 1981, the band added Radio Free Europe to its setlist.
After a successful show opening for The Police, R.E.M. intended to record material for a demo tape. The group traveled to Drive-In Studios in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to record some songs with producer Mitch Easter, who was a member of the band Let’s Active.
The band recorded Radio Free Europe, Sitting Still, and the instrumental song White Tornado, which were placed on a promotional cassette tape. The band sent out 400 copies, one of which was received by Athens law student Jonny Hibbert. Hibbert offered to release Radio Free Europe and Sitting Still as a one-off 7″ vinyl single with the understanding that he would own the publishing rights for both songs; the band agreed to his terms. However, Hibbert felt the recording was unsatisfactory, and oversaw a remix.
Easter said he found the presence of Hibbert “distracting” and added, “He came into my studio and it was like, now the big city guy is going to do it right. We mixed the song for about 12 hours and really, there wasn’t enough equipment to warrant more than 45 minutes.”
The final mastering of the song disappointed the band.
Guitarist Peter Buck, who described the recording years later as “muddy and hi-end“, expressed his displeasure by breaking a copy of the finished single and nailing to his wall. In contrast, Buck also admitted that “there’s something to be said for the original sort of murky feeling for [the original recording]“.
Both the Hib-Tone and I.R.S. releases of Radio Free Europe begin with brief instrumental intros before the band enters. The Hib-Tone version features a brief synthesizer figure. The intro to the I.R.S. version originated as an errant system hum accidentally recorded on tape. Easter triggered the effect to open and shut an electronic noise gate in time with bassist Mike Mills’ playing.
Drummer Bill Berry begins the song with a four-to-the-floor beat, and then the rest of the band enters. Berry plays a steady backbeat throughout the song. During the verses, Mills plays a fast eighth note bassline pulse, characteristic of punk rock and New Wave. Guitarist Peter Buck plays the palm-muted lower strings of his guitar, marking the end of a four-bar repetition with an upstroke strummed chord. During the pre-chorus refrain, Buck switches to playing arpeggios, ending each four bar phrase with a full chord down-stroke. Mills accompanies this section by performing independent melody lines with syncopated rhythms. Mills’ last note of the refrain is doubled by a piano.
After two verses and two prechoruses, the band enters the song’s chorus, where Stipe sings the phrase “Calling out in transit/Calling out in transit/Radio Free Europe“. After a second chorus, a bridge section follows, where Mills’ one-note ascending bassline is doubled by the piano. The band then plays a final verse-pre-chorus-chorus section. At the song’s end, Buck plays an arpeggio figure similar to the pre-chorus refrain, and the band ends on an A chord.
Stipe’s lyrics are hard to discern, and largely serve to give the singer something to vocalize with. When first developing the original song, Stipe intentionally did not want the lyrics to be understood, as he “...hadn’t written any of the words yet.” Also, when the song was played live, Stipe improvised his own set of lyrics halfway through the song.
In a 1988 NME interview, Stipe denied the interviewer’s claim that his lyrics on Murmur were “indecipherable“, but acknowledged that Radio Free Europe was one of the few exceptions, describing it as “complete babbling”
At the request of MTV, the single was accompanied by a music video (see above_, directed by Arthur Pierson. The video took place in the garden of artist Howard Finster, who would go on to paint the album cover for the band’s second album, Reckoning.
Editor’s Note: The third selection for Video of the Day Radio Week is one of the songs on a list that a few of us made, my music friends and I; a list of unintelligible lyric-ed songs. We would pass the half-smashed Coke can, used as a makeshift pipe, inhaling until our intake of breath turned into an eye-watering choke, and then, leaning back, we tried to come up with our own lyrics. I wish I could remember a few of them that went along with this song.