I realize this weekend, I should ideally share an old review of one of the first Harry Potter films, but I barely ever put fingers to keys in service of analyzing those blockbusters. (At the risk of incurring the wrath of several of my friends, I’ll assert here that only one of the installments in the franchise is a satisfying film that stands as anything other than a glossy, moving companion memento to the books.) Instead, I’ll dig into the stretch of pieces from my formal digital home that were posted under the umbrella of “Flashback Fridays.” A friend of mine provided a welcome diversion this week in challenging folks to rank the first nine R.E.M. albums. Taken with yesterday’s release of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Out of Time (I am ever so old) and Michael Stipe suggesting he might be ready to make music again, it seems appropriate to revisit this little exercise in nostalgia.
1981: “Radio Free Europe” by R.E.M. is released
What was it like to listen to that single during the summer of 1981? It couldn’t have gotten out to that many people. I doubt it was sent around to wide array of college radio stations operating back then, but a few surely must have gotten it. It undoubtedly made its way to WUOG, the student-populated broadcast outlet there in Athens, Georgia. Hell, Peter Buck could have taken a break from slingin’ comics to hand deliver the 45. Was there anyone who played it with the foresight to predict the success to come?
It’s a great song, maybe as good as a debut single can be, but it’s an overly romantic notion to think that a first listen to it, with no idea of who this band was, could stir someone into thinking, say, “This record is going to be considered an important part of music history someday.” But the three-and-a-half minutes contained on that thin slab did represent something special beyond its own innate quality. It was the crazy catchy opening shot of a climb to a certain brand of chart dominance, one that was, if not quite unprecedented, certainly unique enough from the traditional route that started with commercial radio airplay that it was worth noticing. They may not have been blazing a trail, but they were certainly help clear away the foliage to make the path wider.
Through the eighties, R.E.M. absolutely dominated college radio, and their ascendancy was mirrored by the medium itself. College radio went from kids goofing around and playing their favorite records for a handful of listeners that were mostly comprised of their friends to, well, pretty much the same thing, but with greater attention from the powers that be. College radio programmers weren’t exactly taste-makers, but record execs were scrutinizing the charts in publications like CMJ or even tracking the playlists of a few select stations to figure out which songs, albums and performers might have a chance of appealing to a wide enough audience to turn those vinyl records into gold or even platinum. It’s a process that arguably peaked with the colossal success of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam in the early nineties.
And there it began, with that humble little record. It starts with the same sort of otherworldly, bending sounds that initiate the “Martian Hop” by The Ran-Dells, but rather than an intergalactic goof, the song transitions with a few sharp strikes of Billy Berry’s drum to a easy yet propulsive rock song that sounds like an earthier version of the post-punk that was the dominant sound on the underground scene at the time. Michael Stipe’s vocals are high and clear in the mix, but the words are almost indecipherable, inviting listeners to lean in to the speakers and strain to make out what’s being said, as if it’s a blurry page of letters and reading glasses are nowhere to be found. The vocals are half-moaned at times, almost ethereal. They’re built from tones instead of words, which only heightens the sense of a broadcast surfing static from across the globe that the title suggests. The song is like a coded note slipped into a pocket by s stranger, to be pulled out later and puzzled over all night.
Beyond their influence, R.E.M. was just a damn good band. I’m not sure how snugly this observation fits within the current conventional wisdom, but I think from 1983’s Murmur to 1997’s Up, the band put together a string of great to near-great albums that rivals any other stretch by any other act, including the runs of classic albums that can be claimed by bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. And it all started on a little dinky label that only released a grand total of four 45s in its existence. As that HT-0001 on the label attests, “Radio Free Europe” was its first.