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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