R.E.M Plays “Radio Free Europe” on Their National Television Debut on The David Letterman Show (1983)

It’s hard for me to believe that we now live in a post-R.E.M. world. Also a post-Sonic Youth world, post-Pixies world (as far as I’m concerned), etc. The bands of my errant youth are no more; sometimes it feels like all I can do is toss out the occasional, half-hearted “get off my lawn” or mumble bemusedly, “what’s a Lorde?” when contemplating the current state of music.

Yet all is not lost for “aging hipsters”—in the parlance of the blog Rock Turtleneck!. Though our pop culture may seem to slip into an irrelevant ice age, we can at least warm ourselves at the flickering screen, where Youtube caches troves of footage of our bygone heroes—like the video above of R.E.M. playing “Radio Free Europe” for their first appearance on TV in 1983.

Now, this was before the time of my fandom, which dates from the later 80s. Still, it’s always a joy to see one of my all time favorites roaring in their lionhearted youth.

The band appeared on Letterman, promoting their debut, Murmur. The venue is no surprise, given Dave’s consistent championing of instant-classic American artists. But after this appearance, they would not return to his show for another 12 years, this time to play “Crush With Eyeliner” in the midst of their 1995 Monster tour (above). I loved R.E.M. no less then, but they were pros by that time, not the scrappy, jangly Southern alt-rockers boldly challenging the orthodoxy of bloated stadium rock.

I think Rock Turtleneck! does not overstate its case in claiming that the band’s national television debut “was the college rock equivalent of The Beatles playing the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.” Well, maybe just a little, but it’s still a pivotal moment in the history of alt-rock. Murmur appears as number 1 on this list of the “best albums of 1983”—calculated from “overall rankings in over 13,000 greatest album charts”—followed by other new wave and alternative classics like the Violent Femmes’s eponymous debut, The Police’s Synchronicity, U2’s War, Tom Wait’s Swordfishtrombones, and New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies. Simpler times, simpler times….

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Related Content:

Two Very Early Concert Films of R.E.M., Live in ‘81 and ‘82

R.E.M.’s Final Encore (and an Early Concert from Germany)

R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” Reworked from Minor to Major Scale

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Wendell Gee says:

    R.E.M. also played “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” during that first Letterman performance. According to Mike Mills the song did not have a name yet as it was ‘too new’.


    The first time I heard R.E.M. was in a friends car in 1983. He had a bootleg tape with Chronic Town, Murmer and a few live recordings. The entire universe shifted for me in that moment and my world was never the same. Great band, great career, although to me, they were never the same after Bill Berry left (“a three legged dog” as Stipe described them).

    I love a lot of different music by many disparate groups, but R.E.M. would definitely be my ‘desert island’ band if I had to pick just one.

  • Mike Rishell says:

    For me, it was The Specials on SNL in 1980:

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