1986: R.E.M. / Lifes Rich Pageant*
by J A Gray
Yeah, yeah, I know. Three R.E.M. albums in four years is pushing the limits in terms of keeping this fresh. Mind you, if I’d been born in 1963 then this whole enterprise would have kicked off with four straight chapters on The Beatles. Only my late arrival to the 1960s party prevented that happening, but I confess that it would have thrown the project off-kilter from the start. And I suppose that having this many chapters on R.E.M. so close together threatens to do something similar, but I’m sticking to my guns here. For me to pretend that any other record from 1986 matters to me even half as much as Lifes Rich Pageant would be too bold a lie. I know I’m taking the risk of maybe alienating some of you here. So be it.
I ended the previous chapter drawing a parallel between R.E.M. and The Beatles, and here I am doing it again. This is not to say that the two bands were at all alike. They really only have being a four-piece band and owning some Rickenbackers in common. And although R.E.M. eventually made a big splash for a few years in the early 90s, they fell well short of becoming the very epicentre of Western popular culture like The Beatles did. And yet in my personal microcosm, these two groups will probably always be the two that matter the most – the major life changers. The Beatles caught the attentions of a mere infant and had me hooked on pop for life. They will always remain the kings of the hill. Nobody will ever challenge their place as the ultimate pop group. However, R.E.M. caught me as I was taking my first faltering steps into adulthood, and they pressed all my late teenage/early twenty-something buttons so hard that it made my heart pound and my head spin. It was only very much later on, when they started making albums that were decidedly average, that I was able to take a step or two back and view them with anything approaching detachment.
Simon and I, sometimes with one or two others, spent a sizeable chunk of 1985 catching R.E.M. live as often as we could. Their gigs were always a high-energy thrill ride. Michael Stipe had become far more animated as a frontman. He’d parted with his long curly locks. He began the year with a peach-fuzz crop, but by the autumn he’d grown it back mid-length and dyed it mustard yellow. He often coloured in his eyebrows purple, for a little contrast. The results were arresting, to say the least. On stage he would stamp, twitch, and turn, dragging his ever faithful solid and heavy microphone stand behind him like it was a lame extra leg. Mike Mills and Peter Buck flanked him, darting to and fro. Buck in particular was always a blur of leaps, high kicks, and knee drops. And behind them sat Billy Berry, drumming away with concentration, and joining Mills for those exquisite backing vocals. The gigs were a catharsis for band and audience alike. And they were also great fun.
We travelled to see them in Manchester, and in Newcastle. We went to the University of Warwick to see them as part of a summer festival. The problem was that we were told that the gig was strictly for their students only. Simon saved the day by producing a generic NUS card and buying our tickets in advance with his credit card. Better yet, the payment didn’t even go through in the end, so we saw them for free. R.E.M. were playing in the second hall, reserved for the less-popular attractions (remember that only the committed knew who they were back in those days). Also on the bill in that same hall were Green On Red, Jonathan Richman, and The Jazz Butcher. All of them playing full-length sets. How’s that for a quality sideshow! Richman was engaging. R.E.M. watched him from side-stage. Then it was their turn, and they were as wonderful as ever. Green On Red may have had a lower profile, but they were playing a gig up in Leeds that night, so were going to be high-tailing it down the motorway before playing the headline slot. Peter Buck hung around to catch them and he chatted to us while we waited. They arrived late after having their van break down en route, clearly under the influence of drink. Buck strapped on Dan Stuart’s guitar for the encores. It had been a magical night of rock ‘n’ roll. One of the best gigs of my life. We’d long since missed the last train back to Birmingham, so walked slowly towards the station, stopping a milk float on the way to buy a pint of milk each. We sat on a station bench, reminiscing about the highlights of the gig, drank our milk and waited for the first train of the next morning. Back in Birmingham we ate a most-welcome breakfast before going home to crash. I don’t think I could handle all that sleep deprivation, discomfort, and hanging around these days, but back then I had youth and enthusiasm enough to override such inconveniences.
Later that same year, we caught up with R.E.M. in Birmingham and London. In Birmingham we even managed to blag our way backstage under the premise of being student reporters for the college paper. We were writing a gig review, and surely an interview was possible. We found Mike Mills and Bill Berry racing around playing out a game of cops or cowboys or something similar. We decided to leave them to it as they were clearly letting their hair down after doing their thing for the people. But a few minutes later, out came Michael. I don’t remember all that much about what followed. I was all but dumbstruck with hero worship and awe. Simon lead the way through an interview with the man, and then had the bright idea to ask him if he was hungry. And that’s how I found myself eating a curry with Michael Stipe on Halloween night in 1985. I remember the date because he gave me a plastic Halloween mask he’d been wearing (which, sad to say, I promptly lost). He ordered dhal, and several cups of coffee. We talked about food and the cities of Europe. Well, Simon and Michael did. I think I managed the occasional wide-eyed nod of the head, and maybe a monosyllabic grunt or two. We walked him to his hotel and shook hands goodbye. Stipe complained about my limp wet-fish handshake and gave me a quick crash course in improving my technique. And that was pretty much that. No parties, no rock ‘n’ roll excess. No complaints though. We walked home without our feet touching the ground.
In the midst of all this activity, the band recorded and released their third album, Fables Of The Reconstruction/Reconstruction Of The Fables (the title was intended to be cicular). Many of the songs included saw a return to the melancholy and mystery of Murmur. Sure, it was somewhat marred by a production job utterly lacking in clarity and dynamics, but then again it was hard to be all that bothered by such things when you listened to your records on a stereo which cost less than £100. As far as I was concerned, my favourite band had managed to release three classic LPs in a row, and it didn’t look like they were going to falter any time soon.
What I didn’t know was that the band had come close to breaking up around this time. They’d been working too hard, touring America and Europe endlessly. And bear in mind that they were still touring in a van in those days – no luxury coaches or limos for these boys. They’d also made the decision to record Fables… with Joe Boyd in his stomping ground: London. And London in late winter/early spring was more than likely wet and cold. Certainly not what four fellas from Georgia were used to. Stipe in particular was less than impressed with British food and complained that all he could find to eat that agreed with him were potatoes. Thank goodness we found him some dhal. But in truth, his problems went a lot deeper than that. He became acutely depressed and still looks back on this period with a great deal of discomfort. Simon and I may have been having a blast watching Stipe and the others exorcise their demons on stage, but we were utterly oblivious to there being any such suffering.** I always think of these lines from Good Advices (a song from Fables Of The Reconstruction) when I think about this period: “a familiar face, a foreign place, I forget your name/I’d like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away”; culminating in the heartfelt cry “home is a long way away”.
Maybe much of the problem was indeed homesickness, because when the tour ended and they’d had some time to rest and recuperate in their hometown, they dismissed any thoughts about throwing the towel in, and came back loud and proud in 1986 with Lifes Rich Pageant. 1985 had been miserable for them, so they made sure they didn’t fall into the same traps this time around. They recorded it in Indiana, where the sun was shining. They took the decision to use a more mainstream rock producer, Don Gehman, and when he turned up the drums, or asked Stipe to both write and sing with greater clarity, the band acquiesced. They weren’t looking to sell out or make hit records, simply to shake up their modus operandi. And after they made the album, they played a much shorter tour which took in the States and Canada only.
I remember buying my copy of Lifes Rich Pageant in London from a specialist shop on some back street. I forget the name of it now. Simon had tipped me off that they had a few copies in the racks a couple of days before the release date. That was a big deal for me. I had the new R.E.M. album in my hands and it didn’t even officially exist yet!
R.E.M.’s feeling of a new dawn rising is all too apparent when you put the record on. The first track is called Begin The Begin. It sounds full of energy and a sense of purpose. Stipe sings “let’s begin again”, and he sounds like he means business. And no sooner does this opening salvo stop, than These Days comes thundering in. R.E.M. had never sounded this crunchy, this angular, this raucous before. I wasn’t even sure that I liked all this bluster at the time. Simon was already calling it the greatest one-two-punch pair of album openers ever, but I was relieved when things settled down for the more familiar folk-rock textures of Fall On Me (that song so should have been a hit!), and Cuyahoga. Slowly but surely I came around though, and I now recognise Begin The Begin in particular as being one of their milestone songs with one of Stipe’s finest lyrics and one of the band’s most impassioned performances. For me, though, the greatest of the new songs was I Believe. It starts with a deceptive back porch banjo introduction, before Buck switches to guitar and leads the band through a giddy, careening roller coaster of a song which builds and builds. It marries the energy of the album’s opening songs with the homespun folk wisdom of the songs they wrote for Fables Of The Reconstruction, but here the mood is more playful, more joyous.
It was no accident that I Believe recalled Fables Of The Reconstruction, because the song’s initial draft was titled When I Was Young and was recorded for that album. In fact it’s even listed on the inner sleeve. The band may have had a new lease of life, but they hadn’t managed to work up an entire album’s worth of new material. Hyena was another holdover from Fables Of The Reconstruction. They had played the song countless times during the 1985 tours, and I recall Simon and myself being utterly baffled when it hadn’t appeared on the album. It had seemed like a shoo-in. The similarly spirited Just A Touch was even older – they’d been playing since their earliest gigs and had bashed out a live in the studio version during the Reckoning sessions. What If We Give It Away was of a similar vintage, being a revised version of another ancient live song, Why Don’t They Get On Their Way. Sad to say that neither incarnation of the song is up to much, and this was arguably the weakest cut on the LP. They even included a cover version on one of their albums for the first time with Superman, which saw Mike Mills given his first lead vocal on an R.E.M. record. It was fun, but disposable. Ditto the brief side one closer Underneath The Bunker. In fact neither of these tracks were even listed on the album jacket and were only included on the record at the eleventh hour.
So, on closer inspection, Lifes Rich Pageant isn’t quite the bold new manifesto it would like to be. It arguably contains more filler than any of their other 1980s albums. Yet ultimately this doesn’t matter very much. It’s the joyful energy and spirit of the record that makes a lasting impression. And it sounds so great, so fresh. When I’ve listened to these early R.E.M. albums in recent years, I’ve noticed that the first three LPs are beginning to show their age. They’re still very special records, but they’ve started to sound (whisper it) a little dated. Lifes Rich Pageant doesn’t though. There was a risk in going for a bigger drum sound that they’d have been victims of that awful 80s production trap that so many great artists fell into. Thankfully Don Gehman steered them just the right side of that. The album was built to last. It has legs. And my appreciation of it has grown steadily over the years. I now think of it, or at least the best tracks from it, as being the most vital recordings of R.E.M.’s whole career.
* No, I haven’t abandoned the rules of grammar; the apostrophe was left out deliberately. I have no idea why, but it’s likely to be nothing other than a whim on Stipe’s part (cf the song title “Swan Swan H”).
** At one show, either Manchester or Newcastle, Stipe took to the stage with the word “DOG” scrawled across his forehead. We thought it was punk rock theatre of the highest order. It turns out he’d spent much of the previous 24 hours vomiting and shitting, and really did feel like one.
N.B. Lifes Rich Pageant is currently available, in remastered form, as a ‘Deluxe Edition’ double CD pack with a contemporaneous live show on the second disc. An older, single-disc remaster in the ‘I.R.S. Years’ series is also still available which contains the original album plus a small selection of bonus tracks.
My other nominations for 1986 albums of merit:
Game Theory / The Big Shot Chronicles
fIREHOSE / Ragin’, Full-On
Paul Simon / Graceland
Talk Talk / The Colour Of Spring
The Smiths / The Queen Is Dead
Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers / It’s Time For
Elvis Costello / King Of America
Elvis Costello And The Attractions / Blood & Chocolate
Hüsker Dü / Candy Apple Grey