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By John Siden
In 1986 R.E.M. released the classic album Lifes Rich Pageant, which is in my opinion, the most important record in their canon. The album was the beginning of their transition from a smaller indie/college rock act to the stadium band they would become.
For the uninitiated, R.E.M. was Michael Stipe (vocals), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass guitar), and Bill Berry (drums). Of course, they often played more instruments than what is listed and more and more as they progressed over the years. This was their lineup from 1980 until 1996 when Bill Berry left the band. They continued until 2011 when they called it quits. Previous to Lifes Rich Pageant (1986), they had released the EP Chronic Town (1982), and the albums Murmur (1983), Reckoning (1984), and Fables of the Reconstruction (1985). When it came time to record they decided to use Don Gehman. They had liked his work with John Cougar Mellencamp. They ended up recording the record at Mellencamp’s studio in Indiana.
The title is an old expression but was inspired by a line of dialogue from the Pink Panther film A Shot in the Dark where Peter Sellers utters, “It’s all part of life’s rich pageant.” The album was recorded between April and May of 1986 and released in July. The album featured the singles “Fall on Me,” and “Superman.” “Fall on Me” was released in August after the album came out, and “Superman” was in November. I find this almost odd as this album is so strong and full of potential singles. Many fan-favorite tracks come from this record. The cover features drummer Bill Berry on top and two Buffalo below him.
The album opens with “Begin the Begin.” This song is a little on the political side and references Martin Luther. The lyrical content seems like it could be applied to any era of politics. Pretty impressive for a song that is thirty-six years old. A great way to kick things off. Next up is “These Days,” which is another driving rock song. Once again, it has the feeling of a political theme with the opening line, “I’m not feeding off you. I will rearrange the scales if I can.” This is possibly just a comment on his place in society and culture at the time. This leads to the first single, “Fall on Me,” with the lyric, “Buy the sky and sell the sky,” which would indicate a song about the way industry is taking over space. Apparently, this is one of Michael Stipe’s favorites.
“Cuyahoga” continues on the previous themes of politics and culture, and is a little more direct in this case, “Let’s start a new country up,” is how it starts, and then, “This land is the land of ours.” It really sounds like calling for change. But it includes some of my favorite R.E.M. lyrics, “This is where we walked, this is where we swam, take a picture here, take a souvenir.” I had a poster with these lyrics printed on it. “Hyena” continues side one with a straight ahead rock tune. Side one ends with the awesome instrumental called “Underneath the Bunker.”
Side two starts off with the track “The Flowers of Guatemala.” This track continues to show Michael Stipe’s poetic side, “The Flowers cover everything.” His lyrics often remind me of Patti Smith, who was one of his heroes. We charge forward with “I Believe” next, and I just love this song. I think it could have been a single. “When I was young and full of grace, and spirited a rattlesnake,” which sounds like someone ready to change the world or at least try. “What if We Give it Away” is track three on this side, and once again, this easily could have been a single. It’s a phenomenal track on the slower side of things. “Just a Touch” is next, and this seems to be reminiscing back to the early days of the band, “Don’t you remember, send us back. Kevin heard it on the radio, Hugh informed word of mouth].”
By this point, we have reached the last two tracks and this album ends strong. One of my favorite R.E.M. songs, “Swan Swan H,” is a song that references the Civil War, which is not surprising when you consider where they are from. The second verse, in particular, seems to be about commerce, “Johnny Reb whats the price of fans, forty apiece or three for one dollar.” The final song in our journey today is “Superman,” which is sung by bassist Mike Mills. This is also the lone cover song on on the record, which was originally recorded in 1969 by the band The Clique. A super catchy song and a fun way to wrap things up.
I have had three opportunities to see R.E.M. and was successful on two occasions. I easily could have seen them on the Lifes Rich Pageant Tour but didn’t. Looking back on it, Guadalcanal Diary opened and that would have been epic. If you are a fan of R.E.M., I recommend checking out Guadalcanal Diary too. I did manage to see the Green Tour, and it was an amazing show. A much bigger venue as they had blown up a little with the success of both Document and Green. It was a nice mix of songs and was probably the only chance I was going to have to hear any of their very early songs.
Overall, I feel Lifes Rich Pageant was a major cog in R.E.M.’s transition to more mainstream success. This allowed them to explore themselves further artistically, as such, it’s why I feel it is most likely their most important album.