By Tim Peacock
Though it wasn’t a major commercial hit, R.E.M.’s third album, Fables Of The Reconstruction, ensured that the upwards trajectory the band had been on since their landmark debut, Murmur, continued apace. The band toured Fables… relentlessly in Europe and North America across the latter half of 1985, and, by the dawn of 1986, were on the cusp of breaking through to the mainstream. The songs the Athens, Georgia, quartet had been working up for their eventual follow-up, Lifes Rich Pageant, were significantly more upbeat and less gnomic than the Southern gothic-flavoured tracks on Fables…, and the band seemed poised to connect with a much larger audience.
R.E.M. had crossed the Atlantic to work with former Nick Drake and Fairport Convention producer Joe Boyd during the Fables… sessions, but for their fourth album, they opted to stay in the US and enlist the services of Don Gehman, known primarily for his work with John Cougar Mellencamp.
Gehman was renowned for his crisp, efficient production techniques, and he first hooked up with the band for an extensive demo session at John Keane’s Studio in Athens, during March 1986. Later collected as the Athens Demos as part of Lifes Rich Pageant’s 25th-anniversary release in 2011, this session found the band working up early versions of most of the tracks that would appear on the album proper, in addition to future B-sides such as ‘Rotary Ten’ (or ‘Jazz (Rotary Ten)’ as it was known at this stage) and the inaugural version of their 2003 hit ‘Bad Day’.
R.E.M. decamped to Indiana for the album sessions proper, where they reunited with Gehman at Mellencamp’s studio — Belmont Mall in Bloomington — and completed the new record’s 12 songs across April and May 1986. Gehman encouraged Michael Stipe’s vocal prowess during the sessions and, accordingly, Lifes Rich Pageant is rightly viewed as a watershed for R.E.M.: the record where Stipe significantly gained in confidence as a frontman and began to clearly enunciate his lyrics.
As a lyricist, it was patently obvious that Stipe had also grown immensely, with a number of Lifes Rich Pageant’s key tracks reflecting his burgeoning interest in contemporary politics and ecological issues. Though the apocryphal tale of Galileo Galilei dropping feathers and lead weights off the Leaning Tower Of Pisa, to test the laws of gravity, partly inspired his eventual lyric, the glorious, yearning ‘Fall On Me’ also commented on environmental issues, most specifically acid rain. The brooding ‘Cuyahoga’, meanwhile, referred to the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River that flows into Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio. The lyric “We burned the river down” reputedly referred to several occasions (most specifically in 1969) when the river actually caught fire in the locale.
Stipe, however, wasn’t the only band member to benefit from Gehman’s disciplined approach to recording. The entire line-up was on point throughout the sessions, and from the purposeful opener, ‘Begin The Begin’, to the joyous closing cover of The Clique’s ‘Superman’, Lifes Rich Pageant was suffused with a swaggering élan that was almost entirely absent on Fables Of The Reconstruction.
Filler was never an issue with Lifes Rich Pageant, and the record has remained a panacea for the ears to this day. Surging, idealistic anthems such as ‘I Believe’ and ‘These Days’ (“We are concern/We are hope despite the times”) have retained both energy and urgency, while the homespun folk of ‘Swan Swan H’ and the curious, rhumba-like ‘Underneath The Bunker’ — with its distorted vocals and nuclear war-related lyric — remind us that, even at their most direct and accessible, R.E.M. always exuded a tantalising air of mystique.
Elsewhere, Stipe’s growing confidence ensured he delivered emotive vocal performances on the poised ‘What If We Give It Away?’ and the shimmering ‘The Flowers Of Guatemala’. His opaque lyrics seemingly gave little away, though the latter song has long been rumoured to relate to the disappearance of political dissidents in Guatemala. Whatever the truth of the matter, ‘The Flowers Of Guatemala’ remains one of the semi-hidden gems in R.E.M.’s catalogue, and at very least it’s on a par with the band’s more celebrated ballads such as ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘Strange Currencies’.
The album concluded with an inspired cover of The Clique’s cult 1969 hit ‘Superman’, the song opening with a sample from one of the Godzilla movies and featuring a rare lead vocal from bassist Mike Mills. Shorn of the movie sample, the infectious ‘Superman’ was later chosen as the second of the two singles culled from the album and — like the preceding ‘Fall On Me’ — it charted inside the Top 20 of the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart.
Thought it’s actually based on an old English idiom, R.E.M. reputedly first encountered the phrase “life’s rich pageant” through watching the 1964 film A Shot In The Dark, starring Peter Sellers as the hapless fictional French detective Inspector Clouseau. In the film, Clouseau opens a car door and falls into a fountain. In response, the movie’s female lead, Maria Gambrelli (played by actress Elke Sommer) says, “You should get out of these clothes immediately. You’ll catch your death of pneumonia, you will.” To this, Clouseau replies philosophically, “Yes, I probably will. But it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know.”
R.E.M., however, chose to present the album as Lifes Rich Pageant, deliberately omitting the apostrophe. Nearly all contractions used by R.E.M. lacked apostrophes, though, in this case, “life’s” was a possessive. Peter Buck later stated: “We all hate apostrophes. Michael insisted, and I agreed, that there’s never been a good rock album that’s had an apostrophe in the title.”
The album’s grammatically-challenged moniker, however, did little to derail its progress. The band’s burgeoning fanbase pounced on this direct and highly accessible record, and Lifes Rich Pageant peaked at №21 on North America’s Billboard 200, quickly going gold in the process. In other territories, the album also performed strongly, peaking at №43 in the UK and gaining a platinum certification in Canada.
R.E.M. made no secret of the fact they were proud of their fourth album, with Peter Buck praising Michael Stipe’s new-found vocal confidence in the Chicago Tribune: “Michael is getting better at what he’s doing, and he’s getting more confident at it. And I think that shows in the projection of his voice.”
The press, too, quickly latched on to the quality inherent in Lifes Rich Pageant, and both contemporary and retrospective reviews have kept the superlatives coming. In the August 1986 issue of Rolling Stone, Anthony DeCurtis discovered plenty to praise, his review dubbing Lifes Rich Pageant “brilliant and groundbreaking” and declaring it to be “the most outward-looking record R.E.M. has made”. In a comprehensive retrospective of the album’s 25th-anniversary deluxe edition, The Guardian also cogently stated: “Lifes Rich Pageant may represent the band at their absolute zenith.”
During the first half of 1986, R.E.M. had finally climbed off the touring treadmill. Aside from a benefit concert for The Minutemen’s late frontman, D Boon, in January, live appearances were restricted to individual guest slots until well into the summer. Peter Buck popped up at live shows by bands such as The Dream Syndicate and Hüsker Dü, while Michael Stipe appeared onstage with The Golden Palominos, sometimes taking lead vocals on an early version of future R.E.M. classic ‘Finest Worksong’.
However, following the release of Lifes Rich Pageant, late in July 1986, the band reconvened for promotional duties. Atypically, the first leg involved an entire month’s worth of regular interviews throughout August, with the band making on-air appearances on radio stations from Toronto to New York City and Knoxville, Tennessee.
In September ’86, R.E.M. embarked on their Pageantry tour of North America and Canada, their biggest undertaking to date, with the 70-date itinerary taking in major venues including the Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City, outside Los Angeles, and two nights at The Felt Forum in New York City’s prestigious Madison Square Garden. Throughout the tour, R.E.M. performed lengthy, career-spanning sets with multiple encores, and entranced audiences were left in little doubt that they were witnessing one of rock’n’roll’s truly great bands in their ascendency.
R.E.M. were still focussed on forward movement, however, and their setlists hungrily embraced a clutch of new songs, including ‘The One I Love’, ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins’ and ‘Oddfellows Local 151’, all of which would be considered for their next studio album. The band’s most immediate venture into the studio, though, resulted in them cutting the quirky ‘Romance’ for the 1987 feature film Made In Heaven, with a new producer, Scott Litt, who would shortly become a key figure in the R.E.M. story.
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