Night Flight’s 1987 R.E.M. video profile: Here’s the story behind “Radio Free Europe” and other early videos

By on September 14, 2016

“Night Flight”‘s video profile on R.E.M. — which originally aired on April 11, 1987, and is now streaming over on our Night Flight Plus channel — featured several of the band’s earliest videos while they were still signed to I.R.S. Records, along with an exclusive interview with band members Peter Buck and Mike Mills, in which they talk about R.E.M.’s formation in 1980 and other topics, including the origin of their Lifes Rich Pageant album title.

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The band’s formation happened when a young art student named Michael Stipe met a record store clerk named Peter Buck, who worked at Wuxtry Records, the famed Athens record store, and musically, they hit it off.

After Mike Mills and Bill Berry filled out the band’s rhythm section, the quartet played their first show in 1980 at a birthday party. Mills — in the interview — says the band wrote ten original songs for the gig.

The band would end up garnering a huge local following in the Athens area, and would land a gig as the opening band for The Police, after which they decided it was time to record demos in order to land themselves a record deal.

They ended up traveling to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to record three tracks with producer Mitch Easter at his Drive-In Studios, for a session that took place on April 15, 1981. These three demos were put on cassette tapes — 400 of them — which were sent out to prospective record labels, clubs and journalists.

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A law student named Jonny Hibbert ended up with one of the tapes and he offered to release “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still” as the band’s first 7-inch single, but he wasn’t happy with the recording and oversaw a remix, which everyone was ultimated unsatisfied with, sounding the way it did.

Peter Buck would later tell Rolling Stone,“We hated it. It was mastered by a deaf man, apparently.”

Nevertheless, in 1981, the Athens, GA-based band’s first single, “Radio Free Europe,” was released by the tiny Hib-Tone label. Michael Stipe mumbled his lyrics — a vague riff on U.S. cultural imperialism — because he hadn’t finished writing them when it was time to record.

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Incidentally, those 400 copies of the 1981 “Cassette Set” demo tape eventually surfaced online, giving many fans their first taste of producer Mitch Easter’s original mixes of “Radio Free Europe,” “Sitting Still” and “White Tornado.”

A year later, 1982, saw the release of their celebrated Chronic Town EP, which caught fire and ended up with R.E.M. signing to I.R.S. Records that same year.

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By the time they were releasing their debut album Murmur — on April 12, 1983 — the buzz on the band had grown quite loud. They’d been working with two producers, Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, in a North Carolina studio, who re-worked the band’s “Radio Free Europe,” which was released as their first single from the album in July 1983, and after five weeks would end up charting at #78 on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100.

The album would climb into Billboard‘s Top 40 album chart, something that was virtually unheard of for an indie LP in 1983.

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Since the band weren’t happy with the original version of “Europe,” R.E.M. re-recorded it for Murmur, with a richer melody and tighter rhythm — “like Motown,” Buck later recalled.

Somewhat ironically, this newer 1983 version of the song — with slightly differently lyrics (completed lyrics, really) and a slower tempo — ended up being not as well-liked by the band themselves. In fact, when the original version was collected for the band’s Eponymous compilation release, Mike Mills said that he thought the original version (despite its poor sound quality) “crushes the other one like a grape.”

At the request of MTV, R.E.M. would end up producing their first video ever — to be directed by Arthur Pierson — for “Radio Free Europe,” and it was Stipe who proposed that the band film it in the Reverend Howard Finster’s rural Paradise Gardens, located on Lewis Street in Summerville, Georgia, in an unincorporated section of Pennville, about an hour south from Chattanooga, Tennessee, down US-27, and some 90 miles northwest of Atlanta.

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The band members would apparently frequently go to visit the eccentric Southern artist, who rarely left his home in Summerville, to walk around the property’s four acres and listen to him prattle on about being a traveler in space and being purposefully put on Earth in order to bring the word of God to people through his folk art.

In addition to being a Baptist minister, Finster was also a folk musician, a showman and an avid artistic collaborator who apparently slept no more than three hours a night. When he was awake, he was usually creating his unique outsider artworks.

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He’d begun building the sprawling grotto-style Paradise Gardens in 1970, and began creating “sermons in paint” — tens of thousands of them — in 1976.

By 1980 he was being profiled in LIFE magazine, in their June cover feature on contemporary American folk artists, and in 1982, Finster was receiving a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (for sculpture) and feted with a solo show a the New Museum in New York City.

The next year, he was appearing with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” rendering the popular TV talk show host speechless.

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Finster’s Paradise Gardens would end up becoming a tourist destination, featuring a free-form structures, some of them topped off with turrets and pinnacles, including one near the entrance that resembled a mini Gaudi-esque meditation chapel.

Some of the sites include: Bicycle Towers, Tomb of the Unknown Body, the Giant Cement Boot, the People Mural, and the Cement Roses. There’s also a real-life version of the “mansion” which he often featured in his paintings, many of which included hand-painted Bible verses.

The gardens (also known as the “Plant Farm”) also featured whimsical renderings of American political figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and other American icons (Henry Ford, Hank Williams, etc.), mixed in with the biblical works.

Finster used concrete in great flowing sweeps, embedded with bric-a-brac including bits of tile, seashells, plastic toys, mirror fragments, shards of colored glass, and old bicycle and car parts.

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Finster — who, by the time he died in October of 2001, had become of the country’s most famous folk artists — had apparently experienced hallucinations or “visions” since childhood, and the primitive art he produced while in a trance-like state, according to some, represented his childlike visions in a kind of unbroken stream-of-consciousness.

After years of traveling around as an evangelist advertised as “The Reverend Howard Finster, Man of Visions,” he had a vision that told him not to travel anymore, and to make his church in Summerville and have people come to him instead.

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He ended up building a church, three stories high with a big steeple, on his property, and buried all his tools in the cement walkway because he said he was giving up his tools, he didn’t need them because he was dedicating himself to God.

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Finster’s friendshp with Stipe resulted in him providing a painting that would be reproduced for the band’s second album for I.R.S., Reckoning (badly, according to most of the people who saw the original work).

Stipe drew the outline for a two-headed snake, which he then gave to Finster to fill in, which Finster did, in great detail, but it wasn’t printed correctly and the record sleeves apparently didn’t capture all of the detailed work that Finster had done.

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Finster would also later end up creating artwork for the band Talking Heads, for their 1985 album Little Creatures, commissioned by the band’s David Byrne.

I.R.S. didn’t quite know what to make of the video they were presented, which was mostly culled from footage of band wandering aimlessly around the Gardens for hours on end.

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They were disappointed, it turns out, mainly because they felt there wasn’t any connection between the lyrics to the song and Finster or his Gardens, and they weren’t quite sure what MTV would make of it, since the new cable station seemed to prefer fast-moving, colorful storylines in the videos they were airing at the time.

I.R.S. added footage of R.E.M. playing live, which disappointed the band greatly, but they were even more dismayed that the final cost of the video was about half of what they’d spent to record the entire album itself, $28,000.

Peter Buck — who hated music videos in general — would later say, “You hire two people to make the record, and eight people to make the video. I’ve never understood that.”

After their experience with this video, Stipe used the opportunity to make sure they had complete control of their videos thereafter.

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When the band’s song “South Central Rain” was chosen as a single, inevitably discussion came around to doing a video for the track, but Stipe refused to lip-synch and, in fact, the band members had major reservations about the idea of producing the video at all.

The band brought in Atlanta-based filmmaker Howard Libov to shoot the band in the studio at Reflection, in Charlotte, NC, although they decided to perform in shadows, playing behind screens.

Peter Buck and Bill Berry can be seen in the video with beards, at a time when most rock bands were clean-shaven unless they were long-time bearded classic rockers like the guys in Fleetwood Mac or ZZ Top, to name just two examples.

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For Reckoning‘s inside cover shots, in fact, you can see Buck sporting a beard while he sits at a piano, an instrument which at that point he’d never played.

Stipe ended up singing live-to-tape, which made the video version of the song an entirely new mix that would be unavailable elsewhere.

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Stipe decided to delve further into the world of video and photography with future projects, and after securing the funding for a filmed art piece that would accompany the entire first side of the band’s Reckoning album, he recruited Athens, Georgia-based painter and filmmaker Jim Herbert in March 1984 to film Left of Reckoning, a 20-minute short film which showed the band stumbling around primitive sculptor and folk artist R.A. Miller’s Whirlgig Farm, located in Rabbittown, near Gainesville, Georgia, which dovetailed nicely with their “Radio Free Europe” video’s similar concept.

Herbert — who had studied with experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage and abstract expressionist painter Clyfford Still — was Stipe’s art professor when he studied at the Univesity of Georgia. Stipe was an admirer of Herbert’s films, and would later cite him as a significant influence on him individually and artistically.

They’d begun working together as early as 1982, when Herbert was invited to film the band performing live in some of their earliest club gigs.

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For Left of Reckoning, five songs from side one of R.E.M.’s Reckoning were featured — “Harborcoat,” “7 Chinese Bros.,” “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry),” “Pretty Persuasion,” “Time After Time (AnnElise)” — along with “Second Guessing” from the other side of the LP.

The film consists primarily of footage of the band members wandering around the farm, while Herbert utilizes close-ups, silhouettes, and slow motion footage.

Herbert also utilized a process during the film’s editing called “rephotography,” which involved taking photographs of film frames at random, while also closing in or pulling back from the image with no regard to narrative.

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According to Buck, “It was really inexpensive to make and kind of fun. We just asked [Herbert] to edit something to four minutes’ length, but he’s used to making 20-minute films, that’s the length he works in. He just made this film that goes along with the first side of the record.”

MTV did not air the complete film, but the channel’s “The Cutting Edge” segment (funded by I.R.S.) aired the “Time After Time (AnnElise)” segment, and the snippet featuring “Pretty Persuasion” was aired as a standalone video on “Night Flight” and other music video programs.

It’s curious to note here that “Pretty Persuasion” was a song that R.E.M. were reluctant to record at all, as it was one of their earliest songs and Stipe in particular was sick of singing it and had begun to hate the song and had to be talked into recording it by their producer Mitch Easter in early 1984.

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Herbert would later say that he could see how Stipe’s non-linear lyrical approach to their songs — especially Stipe hiding his lyrics in layers of ambiguity — and to his choices of video shooting locations.

That same approach could be seen in the band’s album covers, inner sleeves or any other of their releases, as the group pointedly didn’t appear on either; instead, R.E.M. remained confident that a kudzu-covered ravine or a folk-art painting could speak more strongly about their music than their own presence ever could.

By 1986, Stipe — now clearly the band’s spokesman after years of R.E.M. having a more democratic approach to their business — was spending as much time on the band’s visuals as he was on the music, or so it seemed. His own photography had taken off and he’d had exhibitions of his work in Athens, Georgia, and Greenville, South Carolina.

In addition to designing the cover to their Fables of the Reconstruction album, he also worked on the band’s lighting advisor (helping to shape R.E.M.’s unusually dark onstage presentation), and he began working as a co-director on the band’s videos, in particular on “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Driver 8,” which featured nostalgic-tinged grainy Super-8mm footage of trains.

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A year later — in 1987, as “Night Flight” was airing this video profile, Stipe was appearing in the band’s video interview, which was sent to music programs who would air it as though they’d done the interview themselves.

In it, Stipe looks directly at the camera and says, “If you were to say that videos are not commercials, you would be lying to people. The other band members and myself didn’t like that aspect of videos, but I’ve always looked at it as a way of being able to get across the more visual aspect of R.E.M.”

The Library of Congress would eventually declare that R.E.M.’s debut single “Radio Free Europe” — one of the cornerstones of ’80s college rock — was “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant,” adding the recording to its National Recording Registry.

The National Recording Preservation Board celebrated R.E.M. for setting “the pattern for later indie rock releases by breaking through on college radio in the face of mainstream radio’s general indifference.”

Check out our video profile on R.E.M. — featuring the videos for “Pretty Persuasion,” “Radio Free Europe,” “South Central Rain,” “Driver 8,” and an Everly Brothers cover, “All I’ve Got To Do Is Dream” — on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.