Lifes Rich Pageant

There was a band I liked. Back then. REM. We caught them live in Manchester, in 1985, at The International Club. They went for a curry in Rusholme with club owner Gareth Evans. They loved the downbeat Manchester vibe. They mingled freely. It was a time of escape…of vision from that club’s inspiring booker, Roger Eagle. The man who brought guitar bands back to a city doused in Chicago House. Ironic really, as he also all but invented Northern Soul.

All this local stuff reflects beautifully in Lifes Rich Pageant: the upbeat, welcoming follow-up to downer vibes of the preceding Fables of the Reconstruction. That had been the tale of a tired band. This time, they sounded refreshed and sunny – literally so, apparently, as this was recorded in a sun-scorched Midwest. A long way from Manchester, I admit, but the band captured on this album are exactly the same band we witnessed in such ebullient form at The International in 1985.

There are ironies. Lifes Rich Pageant (by the way, English reviewers tend to add the apostrophe in the title. REM claim its omission intentional, though I am not entirely convinced) soon became known as a hinge album, truly balanced between a rather endearing cultish appeal and the broad sweep for global domination that would soon follow. Many of the band’s earlier champions remain locked in fondness for those early days, where falling into a rock groove seemed to govern the heart of their set. Soon the dark clouds of anthemic dominance would begin to gather ominously. Well, that’s one viewpoint and a revisit to the Lifes Rich Pageant rather sweetly gathers the emotions and carries them back to the time.

It is an intriguing journey back, too. So accustomed have we come to hearing those rounded anthems, that is almost shocking to hear Peter Buck’s spiked and spiralling riffs splattering all across songs that sit so firmly within their time frame: echoes of mid-80s college radio never too far away, faint traces of The Smiths too… and those touches of Crazy Horse.

There is also a forgotten political edge. Pageant was recorded during the depressing swing to the right as Reagan upped the stakes, midway through his second term. America’s bullying foreign policy started to show its darkest edges… time then for Stipe and Co to swipe back. Ineffective? Perhaps so, especially given the apparent apathy of following generations, but it at least gave teeth to REM of this vintage. You can hear echoes of discontent within the still lovely ‘Cuyahoga’ and, more poignantly, the bite-back lyrical visions on ‘Fall On Me’.

“We are concern. We are hope despite the times,” he sings on ‘These Days’, a simple enough expression of folkish optimism. That, perhaps, is the key element of Life’s Rich Pageant. Upbeat, forward-thinking, edging towards the brightness. It is an album that has become shaded over the years, largely due to its lack of hit singles, although, intriguingly, it is a more complete affair than patchy and more celebrated hit-laden later outings. That it remains entrapped within the REM that we once loved, as opposed to the REM that so many other people love – yes, I am writing as indie-snob venue-ghost – means that many ageing aficionados openly regard it as the band’s finest album, in much the same way as die hard Boss-freaks view Darkness On The Edge Of Town. It certainly can be seen as the final thrust of the free artists, although its apparent greatness is arguably refuted by the lack of immediacy that, for instance, arrives like a train at the start of ‘Losing My Religion’. But that’s part of the ironic charm here. The reissue is fully justified and listening to it is to revisit a warm old feeling. The fact that, for better or worse, a beast of a band would emerge from this shell can be viewed as irrelevant.

In common with the modern shift towards the expensive end of the album market, Lifes Rich Pageant arrives in sexy ‘deluxe’ packaging, complete with superfluous poster and postcards – I ask you, who, in 2011, would put a poster of REM on their wall? – and 19 extra tracks named ‘The Athens Demos’. These are the pre-recording run-throughs, slapped down in their home town before they decamped to Don Gehman’s studio for the real thing. What is fascinating here is a role-rehearsal for a bunch of demos that hint strongly at the possibility of an album with greater mainstream appeal. In addition to sweet if simplistic versions of the album cuts (‘The Flowers of Guatemala’, ‘Begin the Begin’ and ‘Fall on Me’ among them) there are a few dusty gems, most notably ‘Bad Day’ which, astonishingly, didn’t make the transition to album and only surfaced on the 2003 gathering In Time. Here it arrives complete with unlovely harmonica. With echoes of ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It’, is a hit single being skilfully avoided by a band in a state of indecision? You will also sense ‘bits’n’bobs’ among the lost tracks, slight phrasings that would surface in different guises. Despite their welcome inclusion, the charm here belongs to an original album captured in ice. More than that, it provides a chance to enjoy REM as innovative force, exploding with ideas and angst.

Songs from gawky men with flowing hair and wide-eyed optimism. Men whom, it appears, didn’t give a fuck about an apostrophe.

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