In the annals of great debut singles, REM’s Radio Free Europe shouldn’t have been in with a shout. The sound was muddy, the lyrics were unintelligible, and the cover art was a blurry smudge of a photo taken by the singer. But oh my God, what a song. Radio Free Europe was a near-perfect slice of juddering, jangly DIY rock, and it set the template for a million indie bands to follow throughout the 1980s.
Now REM have announced a 40th-anniversary reissue of the song, in its original seven-inch vinyl format, plus a version on cassette – what's "cassette", precious? – which will replicate the original demo tape, complete with handwritten labels by Michael Stipe. Don't have a cassette player? That's all right: you can buy a limited-edition portable cassette player from the REM store so you can hear Radio Free Europe just the way you heard it the first time.
The single, released on the Hib-Tone label in July 1981, didn’t trouble the Billboard charts, but it did become a staple of college radio in the United States, and helped establish the group from Athens, Georgia, as one of the biggest cult bands in the southern states.
Every music bar you went to, the local band would be playing Radio Free Europe, the singer gamely putting their own interpretation on Michael Stipe's mumbled lyrics. It was a lo-fi phenomenon
I lived in Florida around this time, and every music bar you went to, from Tampa to Atlanta, the local band would be playing Radio Free Europe, the singer gamely putting their own interpretation on Stipe’s mumbled lyrics. It was a lo-fi phenomenon.
The band recorded a more polished version of the song as the lead single for their 1983 debut album, Murmur, and it brushed the lower reaches of the charts, but even they had to concede that the original, gloriously ragged version was superior, and it’s this version, recorded in the garage of its producer, Mitch Easter, in 1981, that’s getting the reissue treatment.
REM went on to become one of the biggest bands in the world, releasing many great songs with lyrics you could actually decipher, but Radio Free Europe still stands as a masterful pop manifesto.
Kevin Courtney’s 10 greatest debut singles
1. REM: Radio Free Europe (1981)
Forty years ago, the first single by a fledgling REM sparked a jangly guitar revolution, and soon indie bands everywhere were arpeggiating like billy-o while trying to look pale and interesting.
2. Roxy Music: Virginia Plain (1972)
Roxy arrived fully formed and all decked up in glitter and glam on Top of the Pops on August 24th, 1972, with this banger of a tune, filled with strange saxes, synths and clarinets, and packed with pop-culture references and alluring images of high-society living. Talk about a grand entrance. It was like a door opening into a fabulous party, with Bryan Ferry as your esteemed host in a spangly shirt. The song didn't even have a chorus; it didn't need one. Just when you thought it couldn't get any better, along came a synthy breakdown courtesy of Brian Eno, and suddenly we all wanted to win "teenage rebel of the week". That TOTP performance was brilliantly re-enacted by the cast of the comedy sketch show Big Train in 2009. No higher endorsement.
3. Ramones: Blitzkrieg Bop (1976)
Start as you mean to go on, as a wise person once advised, and the NY punks The Ramones clearly took that advice to heart, setting down their simple, three-chord formula with Blitzkrieg Bop, and sticking resolutely to that formula for pretty much the rest of their career. From the opening rallying call of "Hey! Oh! Let's Go!" the song perfectly encapsulated the quick-fire, no-frills punk aesthetic, and when it ended, just over two minutes later, it had laid waste to every bloated stadium-rock anthem that came before it.
4. Arctic Monkeys: I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor (2005)
The Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys arrived at a time when the music industry was in a panic over internet music piracy and the rise of file-sharing sites such as Napster and Limewire. Record companies didn't know how to deal with this scary new threat to their limos and private jets, but Arctic Monkeys knew exactly how to use the technology to build up their fan base, promote their music and bypass the A&R posse. By the time they released their debut single, the fans snapped it up and sent it straight to number one, and in indie discos up and down the land everyone was dancing like a robot from 1984.
5. The Smiths: Hand in Glove (1983)
Morrissey has not aged well, becoming a right-wing embarrassment in his later years, but back in 1983, when he swanned on to the scene in a frilly blouse and NHS specs, with gladioli sticking out of his back pocket, he was an indie kids' dream: floppy-haired, bookish, sexually ambiguous and with an ability to nail that feeling of you and me (or just me) against the world. Hand in Glove was an anthem for everyone who felt like an outsider – which was pretty much every teenager at the time. The song didn't make the UK singles charts – it was their next release, This Charming Man, that really cracked it for The Smiths – but a new version, sung by Sandie Shaw with the band backing her up, hit the top 30 a year later.
6. Van Morrison: Brown-Eyed Girl (1967)
Forget the laughable Latest Record Project Volume 1 and Morrison's current wittering about lockdowns and Covid: Brown-Eyed Girl is a stone classic, and established the former Them vocalist as an A-list talent from the get-go. Morrison has dismissed the song as a whimsy, but the pastoral idyll and nostalgia evoked in the lyrics would be further explored in Astral Weeks. He foolishly signed away his publishing rights to the song, so hasn't benefited from the gazillions in royalties it has earned from endless radio plays and countless cover versions. Maybe that's why he hates it so much.
7. Sex Pistols: Anarchy in the UK (1976)
A first single can sometimes change the music business, or recalibrate the way we hear pop music, but rarely does a debut seven-inch threaten the collapse of society itself. When The Sex Pistols released Anarchy in the UK, it was as if Britain was hit by a punk apocalypse. Conservative politicians railed against these snotty punks, TV presenters openly sneered, and endless editorials asked, must we fling this filth at our pop kids? Do we need to answer?
8. Britney Spears: ...Baby One More Time (1998)
When the 16-year-old from Louisiana sashayed on to MTV in a sexy schoolgirl uniform, she sparked a pop revolution, and paved the way for a generation of lascivious pop princesses, from Rihanna to Miley Cyrus. The song, written by the Swedish songwriting wizard Max Martin, introduced a more strident style of pop tune that was impossible to resist, despite a video that seemed to pander to pervy male fantasies and lyrics that flirted with themes of domestic violence. Soon, "cred" bands were "ironically" covering the song at their gigs, but you knew they secretly loved it.
9. Tracy Chapman: Fast Car (1988)
It's astonishing how quickly this lone woman from Cleveland, Ohio, with an acoustic guitar conquered the world, but a lot of it must go down to this debut single, which had instant classic written all over it. Its nifty guitar refrain has been painstakingly learned by a generation of young musicians, and the lyrics about finding a way out of a hard-knock life continue to resonate. When she performed it a 70th-birthday tribute concert for Nelson Mandela in June 1988, it shot into the Billboard top 10 and sealed Chapman's superstar status. Now, how do you play that guitar bit again…
10. Elvis Presley: That's All Right (1954)
It's the mama of all debut singles, written and originally recorded by Arthur Crudup but made immortal by the future king of rock'n'roll. It was recorded at the venerated Sun Studios – legend has it that, during a lull in proceedings, Elvis started riffing on a speeded-up version of the Crudup song. His guitarist Scotty Moore and his bassist Bill Black joined in, and the rest is music history.
Radio Free Europe's 40th anniversary reissue is out on July 23rd