In 2016 REM’s seminal album Lifes Rich Pageant will celebrate its 30th anniversary. Reviewed in hindsight the album captured REM at a pivotal moment. It was the release where they began to shake off the “College Radio darlings” persona to become something more mainstream but still uniquely their own. The album moved them a step farther along on their progression to larger venues and bigger horizons.
Lifes Rich Pageant was the band’s fourth studio release and followed up 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction. In contrast to Fables” which was loaded with a laconic Gothic Southern feel Lifes Rich Pageant was energy laden and urgent. The release emphasized the feeling that each member of the band had recommitted to being in the band. On the album clarity came to the surface with focused, clear lyrics. It was a departure from the past with a release that was more terrestrial and presented Michael Stipe singing with singular purpose. Topics that had frequently concerned the band were the main themes; Environmentalism, Central American Civil Wars and the brinkmanship games of America. The album painted a country at a moral crossroads with one path leading to self destruction and the other pointing to a new beginning. All the while the band extended to the listener an invitation to action. In their discography of the period it was their most overtly political album, energizing the band while successfully avoiding getting preachy.
Lifes Rich Pageant was produced by Don Gehman and was recorded at John Melloncamp’s Belmont Mall Recording Studios in Belmont, Indiana. The title for the album according to Peter Buck came from the Peter Sellers/Inspector Clouseau Movie “A Shot In the Dark”. There were two officially released singles, Fall on Me and Superman. Lifes Rich Pageant was the band’s most commercially successful album since their inception. In the U.S. it peaked at #21 and was their first gold record, and it charted #43 in the UK. The album far superseded “Fables” in commercial and critical popularity. The members of the band have since acknowledged that the “Fables” period was a challenging time for the band. For fans it was a relief that the band had returned intact from the trying period during and following the release of “Fables”. The members of REM entered the recording studio for Lifes Rich Pageant with renewed purpose. Michael Stipe continued on frontman duties, Peter Buck provided lead guitar, banjo and accordion contributions, Bill Berry provided the drums while Mike Mills sang the lead on Superman, played the bass, piano and pump organ. Producer Don Gehman deserves a lot of credit for the outstanding job he did solidifying REM’s aural energy. He accomplished that feat without losing any of the rich texture that made REM’s music so engaging.
On “Lifes Rich Pageant” REM’s prior lyrical dodginess shapeshifted into an approach that came at issues from obscure but purposeful angles. The lead off song Begin the Begin was a track that exploded from the start announcing that something amazing was going to follow sonically. The days of REM’s naval gazing, southern gothic mumbling had come to an end. REM was ready to go to the next level. There was no equivocation instead a full on attack lyrically and musically. Stipe and Co were stating that things had to change,”Silence means security, silence means approval… lets begin again, begin the begin… Like Martin Luther zen/The mythology begins the begin.” Stipe was channeling his anger and disgust into something purposeful all the while indicting apathy. The band was on fire, Buck’s guitar was incendiary and Berry was almost maniacal on the drum kit.
The band continued their rapid paced frontal assault on These Days with an incensed lyric; “We are young despite the years, we are concern, we are hope despite the times… all of a sudden these days happy throngs, take this joy wherever, wherever you go.” Berry’s driving drums made for a very post punk affair. Stipe is crystal clear on his vocal conveying his anger and the joy at the realization it was not too late to speak up and do something.
The next song, Fall on Me slowed down the barn burning tempo of the first two songs for a beautiful and prescient song. It is no stretch to call Fall on Me an environmental song, it pointed out that things were falling apart and were no longer making sense. The powerful were selling what was never theirs in this case the very sky itself. “Buy the sky and sell the sky and tell the sky and tell the sky, don’t fall on me.” Stipe goes on to question where it all ends and the repercussions of ignoring the cost to the environment and mankind by mindless waste and excess. He also warned that common sense and reason didn’t seem to apply anymore just “progress”. “There’s the progress, we have found a way to talk around the problem, building towers farsight isn’t anything at all”. It is not surprising this track remains one of Michael Stipe’s favorite songs.
Cuyahoga took the plea for environmental sanity even farther than “Fall on Me”. The song compares the state of the polluted Cuyahoga River, so filthy it caught fire in the 70’s and 80’s, to its pristine state when Native Americans walked the land. The song again pointed out there was time to rethink what was going on. It damned those in power who ignored the warnings. Accusing them of “rewrite the book and wrote the pages saving face, secured in faith, bury, burn the waste behind you … this land is the land of ours, this river runs red over it. We are not your allies we can not defend.” It is Stipe at his more earnest and urgent, as he channels Woody Guthrie’s sentiments which had been expressed in songs like “This Land is Our Land.” Also not to be overlooked is Mike Mill’s beautiful bass line adding a memorable flavor to the song.
After two slower tempo songs the band breaks forth on Hyena. It was a veiled or not so veiled attack on then President Ronald Reagan. The song took to task Reagan’s brinkmanship, stating that he was only a cowboy actor playing a dangerous game with high stakes in the battle of nuclear proliferation with the USSR. It equated Reagan to a hyena that symbolically represents gluttony and cowardice. The key lyric of the song, “The only thing to fear is fearlessness, the bigger the weapon the greater the fear, hyena is ambassador to here.” Stipe accused Reagan of hiding behind and justifying his actions as being for the greater good. Historically Reagan came out victorious, but during the period there was no assurance of a good outcome and many reasons to be concerned. The topic now seems a bit quaint but still applies to the powerful justifying dangerous policies and actions by rationalizing they are for the greater good. The track contains a searing guitar by Buck and a chaotic piano coda that reflected the craziness of the era.
Underneath the Bunker has always created mixed opinions, with there being two camps either loving it or hating it. It is quirky with the smaltzy samba sound and Stipe singing the lyrics through a megaphone. The brief song is gleefully manic as it proposed we would soon be living in the underground fallout shelters because of the US/ USSR playing Russian roulette with nuclear warheads. It resonates for those of us old enough to remember the ever present fear of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation which was very real at the time. Some critics thought the song messed up a masterpiece. Others like myself saw it as experimental and in keeping with the themes discussed throughout the recording.
The Velvet Underground influenced Flowers of Guatemala is a song that was inspired by proxy Cold War fighting that took place in Central America in the 80’s. The Amanita of the song is referring to a toxic mushroom. Here in the song Amanita is symbolic for the proxy fighting. These civil wars were the poison that tainted the lives of the people in these countries. “There’s something here I find hard to ignore, there’s something that I’ve never seen before… Amanita is the name, they cover over everything.” The song itself is beautiful and evocative as it cries out against the injustices overlooked as these proxy wars took place and were covered up. It is a tragic and ugly topic encased in a stunningly beautiful song. Stipe is amazing in his deft delivery, as the track swirls and contains a great guitar solo from Peter Buck. Side note, at the time many did not realize the true meaning of the song and admired it as a pretty song about flowers.
I Believe broke the revelry of “Flowers of Guatemala” with a classic jangle rock song that was a throwback to prior albums. It re introduced the southern Gothic feel of “Fables” but in a much clearer portrayal. Here Stipe takes on the persona of a revivalist preacher of Progressive Liberalism, as he evinces wisdom and a creed. The key was again the frustration he felt about how things were and how they could be, “I believe my humor is wearing thin and change is what I believe in.” The banjo intro breaks into another full band assault with anger and frustration coming through the speakers.
My favorite song on the album is What if We Give it Away. It is probably the most enigmatic song lyrically on the album; but is also one of the loveliest. A simply gorgeous song sung full throatily by Stipe. It is a song about generosity and examining what you need over what you want and helping others. It addressed nonconformity and not fearing the other but instead being accepting. It is an easily recognizable REM song especially the ending that reaches back to “Fables” and the song Driver 8. Just A Touch is a rambling knees up song. A forceful rhymefest rant, energy filled and brimming over the top with a great jam out. It is best described as the accompaniment to a hootenanny.
Another song that would not have been out of place on “Fables” was Swan Song H. It is gloriously beautiful and I always felt it was the twin to the Flowers of Guatemala in sonic feel. It is filled with that Gothic Southern aura, created by the use of harmonica, accordion and pump organ. It is a glorious poem with a plodding pace that gives it a spectacular evocative feel. Stipe’s deliver is impeccable and this song live was something to experience.
The final song on the album again was pointed out by some critics as ruining a master-work. Superman is a cover of the song by Clique. I have always felt the song was a piss take on the myth of the rockstar and overblown egos where ever they exist in general. It is irony laden and strikes at the false construct of the rock star as a super hero. The song was a nice light touch after the sustained heavy topics of the release. It showed the band was not all gloom and seriousness. The only draw back was the lyrics were a bit stalker like. That being said REM does a stellar job on the cover and it was the second of only two officially released singles off the album.
Lifes Rich Pageant is an insightful snapshot of REM before the band attained the wide ranging fame that would come with Document and Green. The album put out a warning to the music community that REM had not even begun to plum the depths of their miles deep talents. The album showed a band that had survived the doldrums and disappointments of Fables of the Reconstruction. Lifes Rich Pageant displayed an invigorated band who had found a renewed purpose for what they were doing. Their desire to move beyond their comfortable zone as College Radio gods and cult status was risky but paid off and provided listeners with amazing, uncompromising future releases. The brilliant ground-breaking and profound work on Lifes Rich Pageant provided the launch pad for the next step in the band’s career.
With Lifes Rich Pageant REM does a bit of a volte face. Prior efforts on REM outings had a compelling obliqueness and the much belabored obscurity of Stipe’s lyrics. On “Lifes…” thing become even more compelling by dropping the oblique and obscure. The clouds clear displaying a crisp clean sound; but still took advantage of retro instruments like banjos, accordions and pump organs that made the release one of kind. There are those who argue that the album would have been flawless if not for the two toss away songs, Underneath the Bunker and Superman. I have always felt that the two songs lightened the mood of the album and provided a release from some of the heavy topics that exist throughout the album. It was a glimpse at the wry sense of the ridiculous that each of the members had in spades dispelling some of the enigmatic miasma that had surrounded the band. Sound wise the band had turned from rhythm to melody and lyrically they had converted from inactivity and fear to hope and a plan.