Music fans hungry for an alternative to the Foreigners and REO Speedwagons of the era saw a band of Southerners charge out of the gates with the seismic "Radio Free Europe" fueled by an energy, eccentricity and commitment that made it clear that this was a band to watch and listen to.
Their debut LP Murmur was already legendary, a strangely assured and worldly piece of work, despite being a mere six months old. Already a devoted fan, I stayed up that night to watch them play and taped it on my VCR - the tape still resides in the humidity-controlled subterranean RT archives.
After the commercial break, Letterman engaged in some awkward conversation with guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills. Michael Stipe refrained from conversation due to shyness or affectation and sat on Bill Berry's drum riser, turning another rock convention — the singer as spokesman — on its head.
Then the band cemented their college rock-god status by not playing another track from Murmur in favor of a song they called "too new to be named" - the gorgeous "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)," which would be the lead single off their next LP Reckoning. Here was a band confident enough to suggest tha ast great as the songs on Murmur were, the next ones would be even better.
R.E.M. didn't return to Letterman's show for 12 years.
By 1995, both had graduated from fringe cult heroes to mainstream superstars. Letterman had the dominant 11:30 talk show on CBS and his own theatre — the Ed Sullivan Theatre, which The Beatles had rocked 30 years earlier.
In the midst of its worldwide Monster tour, R.E.M. was probably the biggest band in the world. Playing the post-glam "Crush with Eyeliner," it was obvious that they were a little older and a lot more professional, but still as compelling as they had been eight or so albums earlier.
At the end of the performance, Stipe, who'd long since shed his shell of shyness to become one of rock's most flamboyant frontmen, sat on his PA monitor rather than engage with Letterman - a subtle yet unmistakable nod to his fans that underscored how much had changed for all of us in all those years.
Bonus R.E.M./Letterman clip: "What's the Frequency Kenneth" featuring Dan Rather
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