Flashback: R.E.M.'s National TV Debut in 1983

Watch the band play "Radio Free Europe" on Letterman

By Andy Greene
Feb 23, 2014

In October 1983, Americans flocked to the theaters to see Sean Connery return as James Bond after  a 12-year break in Never Say Never Again. The Number One song was Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," though it would soon be eclipsed by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's "Islands in the Stream" and Lionel Richie's "All Night Long." The top show on TV was CBS's Dallas, which drew over 21 million viewers per broadcast. 

Over on NBC, Late Night With David Letterman was well into its second season. A few months earlier, the 36-year-old host appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with the cover line "How Weird Is David Letterman?" His show was reinventing television and comedy on a nightly basis, and on October 6th, 1983 the main guest was Julia Child, though Larry "Bud" Melman stopped by and Chris Elliott debuted his Conspiracy Guy character. 

It was also the night that R.E.M. first played to a national audience. Their debut album, Murmur, hit stores that April. It generated glowing reviews, but it failed to make a big commercial impact in a musical atmosphere dominated by Michael Jackson, the Police and Lionel Richie. College radio did embrace debut single "Radio Free Europe," which was actually a re-rerecording of a song they released on an indie label two years earlier. 

The new version of "Radio Free Europe" never got higher than Number 78 on the Billboard Hot 100 (tucked between "Wishing" by Flock of Seagulls and "She's a Beauty" by The Tubes), but they still had enough buzz to land on Letterman. Unlike many acts around that time, they weren't forced to play the song with Paul Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band. For reasons that surely made sense at the time, they followed it up with an early version of "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" from Reckoning, which wouldn't land in stores until the following May. The song didn't even have a title at the time. 

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