“radio free europe (hib-tone version)” – r.e.m. (1981)


Music is a constant in my life.  Not only do I listen to it for pleasure, but it also permeates through my life in other areas.  My hobbies are also musical as well.  I volunteer for two non-profits that are focused one music; one being a community radio station and the other a music school.  I even take classes at the music school where I volunteer.  Friends and I will even meet at a local pub to discuss albums for fun.  Music is a big part of my life and identity.

However, there is just so much music out there.  I feel like I know quite a bit about it until I meet someone else who, by comparison, is a complete encyclopedia.  When I was younger, I always found that kind of intimidating and a subject of awe for me.  I wanted to be the person with all this vast knowledge.  They just seemed cool because they had awareness, even access, to sounds that were cooler than anything I had ever known.

Over the years, my musical knowledge has expanded and changed.  There are bands I once listened to non-stop that I haven’t revisited in years and there are genres I now love that I previously never would have thought I would ever get into.  My tastes and interests are in flux.  Bands or albums that were once meaningless to me will find significance later on.  It just happens.

R.E.M. is one of those bands.  For nearly four decades, R.E.M. has been one of the most inspirational and famous bands to come out of the early 1980s alternative music scene.  Though they broke up in 2011, they’ve outlived most of their contemporaries from that era.  They’re signature sound is instantly recognizable.  They are band that has our culture in significant ways.  However, for years, I just couldn’t give a shit.

I was born in the 1980s and I don’t own a single R.E.M. release.  I feel like everyone else who was born in the 1980s has at least one R.E.M. album or compilation in their collection.  But, not me.  And especially considering that I have a deep appreciation for early 1980s alternative rock, it might even sound stranger that I just never really cared about R.E.M.  Sure, I knew some of their most recognizable songs.  And I even liked some of them.  But whenever I considered R.E.M. as a whole, I’ve always just thought they were just OK.

That started to change recently.  I’ve been listening to more R.E.M.  It began a few months back when I rewatched Man on the Moon, Miloš Forman’s 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic with Jim Carrey playing the polarizing comedic figure.  I remember when that film came out.  I saw it a few years after it was released and I remembered enjoying it.  However, after seeing it listed on HBO, I thought I would rewatch it to see if it held up.

R.E.M. wrote the soundtrack for the album and recorded original music for it.  The title for the film, however, came from a song of the same name that was released on their 1992 studio album Automatic for the People.  That song, “Man on the Moon,” was all over the promotional material as it played in the trailer and on television commercial spots. It made sense to use it.
The soundtrack also featured a bunch of instrumental tracks that scored the film.  However, the other memorable song on the album besides the inclusion of “Man on the Moon” was an original soundtrack contribution called “The Great Beyond.”  The music video featured the band with footage of Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman, but the video was later edited to include archival footage of the real Andy Kaufman instead of Carrey’s performance.  Upon rewatching that film, I listened “The Great Beyond” a lot.  I didn’t remember the song when it came out, but I loved listening to it now.

A few months later, R.E.M. entered my life in a more direct way.  For the last few years, I had listened to a podcast called R U Talkin’ U2 2 Me?  The podcast was hosted by Scott Aukerman (of Comedy Bang Bang) and Adam Scott (of Parks & Recreation).  The premise of the podcast was that these two comedians who were lifelong fans of the band U2 would go through each of the band’s albums in-depth that were released at that point.  Billed as an “encyclopedic compendium of all things U2,” the podcast is just two guys bullshitting and joking for an hour before breaking down their thoughts on an album track by track.  I absolutely loved it because it was incredibly funny and seemingly random.  Other U2 fans, according to the fan message boards I frequented, hated it because of all the inane bullshit.  They just didn’t get.

The podcast got bigger than Aukerman or Scott ever anticipated.  U2 appeared on an episode and conducted interviews.  And the podcast was the first place you could have an exclusive listen of their 2017 studio album Songs of Experience.  So, where do you go from there?

A few weeks ago, I see that the RSS feed for the podcast changed.  Everything changed.  The logo, description, and even the title was different.  Now, it was R.E.M.’s turn to get the Aukerman and Scott treatment.

R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? Is setting out to do for R.E.M. what the original podcast did for U2.  As with U2, Aukerman and Scott were lifelong fans of R.E.M. and needed something to do since they were all caught up with U2’s discography.

When the podcast premiered, I wasn’t too enthusiastic.  I told myself I would give it a listen when I had some downtime at work.  I eventually did listen and the format is exactly the same as their U2 podcast.  Like before, the goal was to break down each album in the band’s discography and provide their thoughts.  They even reuse skits and gags that made the U2 podcast a lot of fun.  For all intents and purposes, it was the same.

Though I wasn’t a fan of R.E.M. or that enthusiast about the podcast update, I listened to the first few episodes.  I thoroughly enjoyed all the memorable jokes and bits from before. It all felt incredibly familiar to me.  The new aspect would be the album breakdown.  Besides a few of their biggest songs, I didn’t know a lot about the band’s music.

When Aukerman and Scott go through the album, they play segments from songs (can’t play too much due to fair use laws) and then talk about it.  For someone completely unfamiliar with most of these songs, not hearing the entire song doesn’t give me a complete context but I hear enough to get the point.  The hosts then share their thoughts on when they first heard these songs and how things have changed for them in 2018.

I always enjoyed that discussion on the U2 podcast.  Primarily because I knew the song’s context.  With R.E.M., I have to trust the hosts more than I have before and really rely on their levels of enthusiasm.  I have found, since listening, their critiques are honest and forthright and when they hear something they really enjoy, I love the enthusiasm they convey for the songs.  They’re excited and it gets me excited.  I wanna know what all the fuss is about.

Just recently, I listened to my first R.E.M. album in its entirety.  The album discussion group I participate in every other week is meeting this weekend to discuss their 1983 debut studio album Murmur.  Prior to this, I have never listened to an R.E.M. album in its entirety.  I will share my thoughts about the record and its signature blend of jangly guitar and indecipherable lyrics with the rest of the group during the meetup.  However, my introduction to R.E.M. continues as I listen to more episodes of the podcast.

The opening track on Murmur is “Radio Free Europe.”  That is one of their songs I had known previously and did enjoy.  However, listening to the podcast, I learned that it was a rerecording done for I.R.S. Records.  Two years prior, in 1981, R.E.M. recorded a rougher and faster version for the short-lived label Hib-Tone as their first official single.

I really love the original version of “Radio Free Europe” because it is so rough.  It is a demo that is good enough for an actual record.  That really spoke to me.  Usually, demos are poorly done but show off enough of the band for you to get the point.  Demos aren’t usually polished and fully realized.  While the I.R.S. version is better produced and more polished, the Hib-Tone original really speaks to the band’s musicianship.  If they could record a demo as good as this, I feel that signifies they truly have something special.

I recently listened to the podcast episode on their third album Fables of the Reconstruction and I was impressed with the different direction they took for their third album which I have come to learn is a polarizing record in their discography and not one of their more well-known.  Still, Murmur is the only full album I have listened to.  Based on how much of the podcast I’ve covered, I’m still behind on properly listening to Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction.  While I have really enjoyed what I have heard so far, I’m still not calling myself an R.E.M. convert yet.  I’m not sold on them quite yet, but still curious enough to keep exploring.  While this a is a band that everyone else my age or in my circles loves, I’m a little behind. However, I’m giving it an honest try because I like being open to new things and expanding, or even changing, my music habits and tastes.