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On This Day In Music… April 19, 1980: R.E.M. Play Their First Gig as R.E.M., Show is Stopped by the Cops

Less than a year later, the band would record debut single 'Radio Free Europe'.

rem michael stipe
Source: YouTube / stephenqdoo

R.E.M. only decided on their name a few days before the show.

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R.E.M. had only existed as a musical entity at all for a few months when they played their first gig under that name on April 19, 1980. And it was only the second time they had performed in front of an audience at all.

The band had formed in January 1980 around the twin friendships of Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, and Bill Berry and Mike Mills. Stipe and Buck had met in an Athens, Georgia record store while students at the University of Georgia. Bonding over a shared love of punk rock and new wave, they were joined by fellow students Berry and Mills, and together decided to meet up regularly to bash out punk covers, with Stipe later commenting, “there was no grand plan behind any of it”.

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After a few months rehearsing in the deconsecrated St. Mary’s Church in Athens, which had been turned into a local arts space, they took to the stage for the first time as a quartet in the same venue, playing for a friend’s birthday party on April 5. So devoid of a “grand plan” were they at that time, they did not even bother coming up with a name for themselves, and their set was mostly a raucous series of covers including the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” and Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner”, as well as some tentative original compositions Stipe and Buck had worked up.

Unnamed and ever-so-slightly ramshackle they may have been – but their energy nevertheless proved a hit with the partygoers, and, most encouragingly, their self-written songs had been received as enthusiastically as their cover versions. “It was really fun,” Stipe later told author Marcus Gray. “I don't remember the last half of it.” Berry, by contrast, remembered feeling less confident, remarking: “We were scared sh-tless!”

Two weeks later they decided to do it again, at a venue called the 11:11 Koffee Klub in downtown Athens. And this time, they had a name for themselves: R.E.M., supposedly picked out of a dictionary at random by Stipe.

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rem stipe
Source: mega

The gig did not even start until after 1.30 in the morning.

Bertis Downs was a second-year law student at the University of Georgia School of Law at the time, and was friendly with Buck and Berry. Writing on his website, he remembered attending the gig.

“I was intrigued by the handbill downtown announcing their show, with their brand new name, R.E.M., at a place called the Koffee Klub on Clayton Street,” he wrote. “There was no stage, just a bare floor, a very minimal sound set up, no lights other than the basics of things that would be in a house, and I went with a few law school friends.”

For reasons that still seem hazy, the gig did not start until after 1.30 am, but despite the late hour, it has been reported that up to 150 people – mostly students – had squeezed themselves into the venue.

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rem stipe dancing
Source: WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

R.E.M. would go on to sell 90 million records and be recognized as one of the most influential bands of the 1980s and 90s.

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Although R.E.M.’s set was still dominated by covers, they once again peppered the show with original songs. “I remarked that their originals, songs like ‘All The Right Friends,’ ‘Dangerous Times,’ ‘Different Girl,’ ‘Narrator,’ and ‘Just a Touch’ were as good as the covers,” remembered Bertis Downs. “All of them short, fast and rocking, and definitely tuneful.”

Shortly after two in the morning, however, the party was broken up.

“The cops showed up, noticed that there was beer in various plastic cups, shut the whole thing down, threatening to arrest people and charging the organizer of the event, which was actually in an old print shop with ‘running a discotheque without a license’,” he continues. “They also took a bunch of Polaroid photos of audience members and got to hear some perhaps over-served law students asking if they’d ever heard of the Fourth Amendment re search and seizure. But eventually everyone dispersed since we had little choice.”

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If having your second-ever gig shut down by the police seems a suitably rebellious start for a punk rock band, R.E.M. soon began to develop a sound distinct from their thrashy beginnings, growing more confident in their own songwriting and gradually ditching the covers altogether.

On June 6, less than two months after their first gig as R.E.M., the band recorded their first demo, in the backroom of the same record shop in which Stipe had met Buck, and in April 1981, laid down what would be their first single, “Radio Free Europe”. Despite an initial pressing of just 1,000 copies, the song would be listed as one of the New York Times’ 10 best singles of the year.

Two years later, by then signed to I.R.S., “Radio Free Europe” became R.E.M.’s first charting single… and set in place a career that would last until 2011 and encompass over 90 million album sales.


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