While many fans may only be familiar with the 1983 version of R.E.M‘s debut single from their first studio album, Murmur, only a lucky few until now had heard the rare 1981 cut. Well, that’s about to change because the band have just released ‘Radio Free Europe’ in its original format, as an Athens pressed 45 RPM 7-inch single, to celebrate their fortieth anniversary as a band.
‘Radio Free Europe‘ has been unavailable for 40 years in any format, it’s one of the band’s earliest recordings and was their first official release. It was originally put out by Mitch Easter (a singer and songwriter himself) who recorded it at his parents’ converted garage, in 1981. Copies of the tape produced at this time eventually made their way around to Johnny Hibbert who owned the Atlanta-based, indie label Hib-Tone. He liked what he heard and offered to put this out as the band’s first single. While the band preferred Easter’s original mix of the song, Hibbert chose his own mix for the 7-inch single.
Hibbert’s mix (featured below) is a clean-sounding, mid-tempo recording that seamlessly blends Stipe’s smooth vocals with Buck’s jangly guitar, Mills’ urgent bassline and Berry’s frenetic drums. The song showcases the band’s capacity to write catchy but sophisticated material, that’s both fun and smart.
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.
Despite mishaps along the way, the release of the ‘Radio Free Europe‘ single earned the band critical acclaim and an offer from I.R.S. Records. Under the new label, a more experienced R.E.M. re-recorded “Radio Free Europe.” The new version – which featured a slower tempo than its predecessor and slightly revised lyrics – was released as the band’s first official single with I.R.S., and appeared on their 1983 debut, Murmur.
Despite the breakthrough success of that 1983 recording, R.E.M. has long stated that the rougher, Hib-Tone version of ‘Radio Free Europe‘ is the superior recording and the accompanying pressing has remained a much sought after rarity for decades. But it’s now available again on 7-inch vinyl and as a cassette – if purchased as part of the Cassette Set demo tape.