Lex on R.E.M. (Lifes Rich Pageant)

For me you have to look at R.E.M. and their album Lifes Rich Pageant, in the context of what was going on in the 1980s – big hair, no style, and a Republican government that was more than slightly embarrassing to those who closely monitored politics.  Good television was the exception (shows like Family Ties, Moonlighting, and Bosom Buddies), not the rule.  And if you went to the movies, you chose movies by John Hughes.

By the mid-80s, there were only a handful of bands and singers that really mattered in the grand scheme of pop and rock music.  On this list was R.E.M.  Album after album, these guys really showed their creativity and their talent for writing songs that you’d want to hear more than once.  For my money, they were the best “album band” in the world at that point.  I’d gone along for the ride for Murmur, Reckoning, and Fables of the Reconstruction.  I was not disappointed.

Then, in the summer of 1986, they released Lifes Rich Pageant.

When I placed that album on my turntable and cranked it up, I suddenly felt alive.  The power of that record blasted me out of the doldrums of teenage life to young adulthood, and nothing would ever be the same again.  Childhood was now officially over.  It was also the first time I was able to understand the vocals that had been buried in the mix (as another instrument) for the previous outings.

With Lifes Rich Pageant came the end of the first phase of R.E.M.’s recording career.  It marked the end of multi-layered sound textures and murky vocals.  It marked the beginning of Michael Stipe’s powerful voice being sewn into the fabric of the American “pop landscape;” it was the exit of “the mumble,” and the entrance of one of the most recognized and mesmerizing voices in music.

“Begin The Begin,” the track that starts the album, came through my stereo speakers with a rapid 9-note riff, a beefy rhythm track, a squall of feedback, and a sound that was powerful enough to move mountains.  I realized that this was a record that could go toe-to-toe with some of the older, solid classic rock albums in my collection.  The one-two combination of “Cuyahoga” and “Fall On Me” made me look closer at the lines that divided the aware and apathetic, especially in my age group.

“Fall On Me” is still revered as a classic R.E.M. song.  For me, it’s really one of the few pop / rock songs that survived the 1980s that stands as a signpost, both in its musical text and in its message.  For the first time, I  considered the consequences of my generation’s apathy.  Generation X (as the media would label us) spent its teen years behind RayBans, scouring record shops, and being told that we weren’t as good as our parents’ generation (the Baby Boomers).  When the book is written years from now, “Fall On Me” will be mentioned in the same breath as “For What It’s Worth (Stop! Hey! What’s That Sound),” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and “Ball Of Confusion.”  Mark my words; it’s more than just “mid-tempo jangle pop.”

“These Days” was another manically-paced rocker from the album that made my ears prick up in delight.  The lyrics caught my ears and made me think.

All the people gather
Fly to carry each his burden
We are young, despite the years
We are concern
We are hope, despite the times
All of the sudden these days

Indeed, those words pointed my young mind in different directions.  It was at this point my childhood melted away.  I may have taken this song a bit too seriously at the time, but for me “These Days” drew a line in the sand.  It separated the “men” from the “boys.”  After a few dozen listens, I found my answer.

Lifes Rich Pageant is rock but it’s also ballads (“The Flowers of Guatemala”); it’s punk (“Just A Touch”); it’s quirky (“Underneath the Bunker”); it’s abstract acoustic pop (“Swan Swan H”); and it’s power pop (“Superman”).  Critics tend to dismiss this album as “the big step towards a more mainstream sound.”  I still see it as one of my favorite bands underneath the microscope, naked and unafraid to venture into new territory.

(Then again critics may love music, but they don’t buy music.  For the money I put down in late July of ’86, I got more than I expected – my guys hit a homerun!  Screw the critics!)

Today is Michael Stipe’s birthday (January 4th).  Last year, I wrote a piece that told of my love for Michael’s work, and how the music of R.E.M. saved me from a decade of rather bland techno-pop, rock that lacked any balls or swagger, tired rhythm and blues that lacked any soul, and country music that lacked depth.  Today I write about one of my favorite albums, by one of my top 3 bands of all-time, by one of my top 2 favorite singers, co-written by my favorite lyricist.  Happy birthday, Michael.  I love you, man.

(Lex Neon is also known as Alex Oliver, the quirky and often eccentric musical genius of “sunshine pop / rock” band Poppermost.  Check out their music and Lex’s rock rantings at http://www.poppermost.com).

Note: The album below was originally released July 28, 1986.

Lifes Rich Pageant
By R.E.M
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~ by Poppermost on January 5, 2009.

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