A long time ago in my parents' basement far, far away… my record collection was lost to a flood. Cassettes, seven inches, LPs collected from Schoolkids Records and Plan 9 were tossed out by people in waders.
One of those seven inch recordings was R.E.M.’s first single, “Radio Free Europe” b/w “Sitting Still.” It was the Hib-Tone mix of R.E.M.’s seminal song that still stands as one of the greats today. A more slowed down version appears on the band’s 1983 studio debut “Murmur.”
The producer of the recording is legendary North Carolina musician and producer Mitch Easter, who helped make the track in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at Drive-In Studios. Drive-In was set up in his parents’ garage, and the expectations and overhead were low.
“It was pretty humble, I had decent equipment but not much of it,” Easter told me. “But I think the thing people picked up was that it was for this new music scene... it wasn’t trying to compete with the old studios and we weren’t even thinking about them. We were thinking about this imaginary new world that we all lived in.”
“Radio Free Europe” would go on to launch R.E.M.'s career as their big break. It was the song that not only jump started their success, but also an independent radio movement. And by independent radio, I mean college radio. The mainstream couldn’t have been less interested, and in retrospect, that was likely good because artists had time to incubate, develop, and just breathe.
Read more: R.E.M. on Morning Becomes Eclectic
One tidbit that most folks don’t know is that there was actually another version beyond the Hib-Tone and “Murmur” versions, produced and mixed by Easter for R.E.M.’s demos. A version was later mislabeled and appeared on a couple of compilations, but ultimately lost to time.
It’s a crazy story that I had never heard before, involving mistitled master tapes, likely record label lapses in communication, and the all around excitement of everyone to get the music the hell out as quickly as possible. Easter set the record straight with me about how his mix ended up mislabeled on compilations and the circuitous path of the song into our early ‘80s collective consciousness.
On Friday, R.E.M. and Craft Recordings/Concord are re-issuing Easter’s seminal Hib-Tone seven-inch of “Radio Free Europe” b/w “Sitting Still.” We’re pleased to provide an early listen to the track and an exclusive conversation about the byzantine and rock and roll story of “Radio Free Europe’s” immersion into the musical canon of that era.
Click or tap on the green play button above to listen to the Hib-Tone version of “Radio Free Europe” — and my conversation with Easter about the wild story behind it — below.