Radio Free Europe

April 3, 2007

R.E.M. began their recorded career with “Radio Free Europe,” a song that seems to deliberately challenge the audience’s compulsion to sing along with upbeat rock anthems by rendering its words either incomprehensible or nonsensical. There’s some implication of political content, but not nearly enough information to indicate the singer’s position, or what he may be railing against. Intentionally or not, “Radio Free Europe” forces the listener to question their identification with a set of lyrics that make very little literal sense, and possibly reevaluate how they respond to other songs that employ similar musical formulas to elicit an affirmative response. The song suggests an intriguing rhetorical question: If we sing along to a pop song, are we on some level agreeing with and endorsing its lyrical content, and if so, can a good tune con us into lending our passive approval to potentially harmful concepts?

13 Responses to “Radio Free Europe”

  1. Jack Fear Says:

    I think my love for catchy foreign-language pop began with “Radio Free Europe.”

  2. James Says:

    I don’t know, when I listen to RFE (the Hib-Tone single version, at least) I tend to listen to Mills’ astonishing bass runs more than the lyrics. The secret “trick” to either version of RFE is that the rhythm part (Mills and Berry) is essentially dance music, not even too far off from disco (though the band was probably picking ideas from the Gang of Four and Pylon). Stipe wasn’t “Stipe” yet, and I consider the lyrics almost an afterthought. But, damn, could Mills really play, even that early (I think he was the only trained musician in the band at the start?)


  3. Yeah, that’s actually true of a lot of the early R.E.M. songs, though I’d definitely say that Peter Buck and Bill Berry were also very creative and clever musicians at that time, it wasn’t all Mills. There’s all kinds of really interesting things happening on Murmur. I will probably address your point about the lyrics being an afterthought when I get to other songs from Chronic Town and Murmur — that’s definitely something I was thinking about when I was listening to Murmur trying to figure out which song to write up first.

  4. CHOUT Says:

    I never tire of this song.

  5. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    My definitive memory of “Radio Free Europe” (seen in recordings as I am too young to remember it) is Dick Clark playing it on American Bandstand and then asking one of the kids in studio “What do you think, is it going to be a hit?” And a very befuddled looking young man (who obviously was expecting much more mainstream dance/pop on Bandstand) saying something to the effect of, “I dunno, but I like it cuz I can dance to it!”. This has always been very surreal for me as it totally typifies much of the mainstream reactiont to REM )through the 80’s especially) on their very first single! That response it likely so the antithesis of what the band was thinking that it just cracks me up! REM the dance/pop band! Also, I have always preferred the original single mix to the version on Murmur for some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on.


  6. Actually, R.E.M. started off as a party band, and a lot of the songs were definitely intended for dancing! I mean, that goes straight through the 80s period! There’s a lot of strong disco influences on Murmur in particular, and there’s a lot of Motown-ish bits on Document. “Can’t Get There From There” is a straight up funky dance number. “Just A Touch” is a good old fashioned rave-up. Please don’t paint R.E.M. as some kind of borecore band, because they so totally are not!

  7. Aerothorn Says:

    Only a few years ago – at least a decade after I fell into love with R.E.M. – my mom mentioned in passing that she had worked on one of their music videos – one done in a pastor’s garden. I couldn’t figure out which one it was until you linked to the guy (forget his name) – apparently it was this one. I think she was just a production assistant, but suffice it to say, I’m still jealous.

  8. ScottMalobisky Says:

    agree with CHOUT , I’ll never tire of this song, formidable in it’s catchiness, perhaps the greatest pop song ever written .the band could have not penned another thing after this and still be legendary though probably not in The Hall.

  9. ScottMalobisky Says:

    and this song would not be as compelling if one could even come close to understanding exactly what the words are…that’s the clincher.

  10. ScottMalobisky Says:

    CHOUT CHOUT let it all out
    these are the things I can do without so come on
    I’m talking to you so come on

  11. LukaszPL Says:

    maybe this article can shed some light on what the lyrics are actually about

  12. Dan Says:

    aside from obvious reference to iron curtain era pirate broadcasting, i always thought it would be cool if JMS were referring to Marconi leaving Italy and moving to England, thus leaving Europe free of his radio.
    thoughts?


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