REM – Lifes Rich Pageant, 30 Years on.
It would be a hard to say many of us remember the release of Lifes Rich Pageant given that it was released in the UK on July 28, 1986. Some of us would have been running round the estate, building huts by the army base and playing on abandoned railway lines, laughing in the face of Health and Safety. It was a while before any of us discovered music and longer still before we found REM, but what a find it would turn out to be.
The first proper gig we ever went to was REM in Slane Castle, just outside Dublin. The year was 1995, the date was July 22nd and we were in our late teens and early 20’s. A bus load of us set off in the wee small hours to make the trek and beat the queues at the gates. The show was intense, primal almost, it remains the gig of a lifetime for many of us, it was the moment we truly fell in love with the most amazing band we’d ever seen. It was a turning point for thousands of people’s lives, a moment in time that a generation returns to when it looks back over music. We had listened to nothing but REM for the previous six months, there was nothing else, this show had to be amazing. That this gig was part of the Monster tour meant months of worry that it might not actually happen. Between aneurysms and appendectomies, a punishing tour schedule the band seemingly weren’t ready for and the usual last minute licensing blips, the fear of a cancellation was palpable. When the band cancelled a slew of shows at the start of the summer of 95 we were crest fallen. Convinced there weould bemore shows culled. It was momentous to finally walk through the gates at Slane and downhill toward the stage.
Just 10 rows from the front, we huddled and spent the day baying like wild animals, wailing, screaming, bartering for slops from half drank pint glasses and begging strangers for warm water in a desperate attempt not to surrender our spot. Or faint. We would not be moved. In the space of 10 hours on a balmy day we fell in love, had our hearts broken, cemented friendships and made new ones that have lasted a lifetime. One case in point involved our friend Danny, he was swept off his feet by the tiny Roisin, she was swept off her feet by the sway of the crowd at around 6.30pm and never seen again. The poor man was distraught.
With support from Luka Bloom, Spearhead, Belly, Sharon Shannon and Oasis the day went by in a blur. The moment we spotted a rigger high above the stage strapping himself into a spotlight we collectively held our breath, 80,000 people just stopped dead. The Stipe was near. The moment was upon us. This was one of the most hyped Slane shows in years and it was about to go off. For 23 beautiful songs we sang, we swore, we wept and we applauded the human pyramids. We were surrounded by love and joy and at one point actual fire. 80,000 people set fire to paper cups and held them aloft during Everybody Hurts. It was the most beautiful thing we’d ever witnessed, a scene that has never been repeated. They didn’t play a single song from Lifes Rich Pageant, but that was fine, they were there, we were there and it was phenomenal.
A few of us stumbled into REM towards the end of 1994, there was something about Monster that drew us in. Monster was getting hours of airplay and we loved every second of it. Within four months of its release we had bought every single REM record we could collectively lay our hands on, there were weeks when it was like swop shop on speed. It was fortuitous that one of our number worked in the local record shop and could order whatever we wanted from wherever we wanted. (God bless the Pop In and may she rest in peace). Out of Time and Automatic for the People had been around but they didn’t do it for us at first. Monster was different, Monster was big. It arrived in a wave of screeching guitars, thunderous drums, gut wrenching bass, indecipherable lyrics and a cacophonous noise we couldn’t get enough of. It was 1995, we were awash with guitars, we talked about American garage bands, Manchester shoe gazers, Sheffield pop, Oxford grunge and that London swagger. After Monster we found Green, then the stunning thing that is Life’s Rich Pageant. Murmur came next, my God, Murmur. Fables of the Reconstruction followed, we were all floored. As we passed round albums and rarities we couldn’t believe what we were hearing, how could four gentlemen from the South produce such an amazing body of work in such a short space of time?
An album a year for six years, each one of them a work of art. Consider Radio Free Europe from Murmur, (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville from Reckoning, Driver 8 from Fables of the Reconstruction, Fall on Me from Lifes Rich Pageant, It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) from Document, Get up from Green. For six years REM didn’t put one single foot wrong. Slap bang in the middle of that remarkable list is Lifes Rich Pageant. For many the true masterpiece, the one record that pulls every album they’ve produced together, it’s the centre, the start of any journey into REM. It is gentle acoustic poetry, love lost, broken hearted and in the next breath, breathlessness itself, angry, furious at the world and beautifully noisy.
Lifes Rich Pageant was the last record that could be considered as coming from an underground band, this was the record that launched REM, lifted them from college rock to something higher, set them up as a band to be reckoned with, a band that had something powerful to say. These Days ranks as many peoples favourite REM track of all time, it appears on nearly every list. It is a demand to get up and do something positive, something useful, it is a promise that while so many people have lost their head and their dreams, there is hope, somewhere, share the burden, carry the man.
To a horde of teenagers and the rest lyrics like “I had a hat and it sunk, reached down, yanked it up, slapped it on my head” were a call to arms. It was a reminder you could pick yourself up and dust yourself down, Stipe was leading the charge and we had to file in behind. “Let’s put our heads together, and start a new country up,” he pleads on Cuyahoga, a call to save the world, make a change. The majority of Lifes Rich Pageant is a proclamation that demanded we unplug the headphones and do something. On Begin the Begin we hear the beguiling line ‘Silence means security silence means approval’ and like the rest of the album it is bursting with intent.
Lifes Rich Pageant tackles everything from lost hope to nuclear disarmament and the absurdity of life itself. The album is named after a quote by Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, the very epicentre of absurdity. This record takes you on a journey of the soul, pulls you in and shares the in joke. Lifes Rich Pageant has a “dinner” and a “supper” side, each closes with a song that show the bands infectious humour, the joy and energy in the record. Underneath The Bunker and Superman couldn’t be further apart on any scale but they both play a crucial role in understanding the records core.
This is different from anything that has come before, it pulls out the bands strengths and is harder, scratchier, almost stubborn. There is a glorious clash between the sonic shock and the sweet gentle chorus REM played out across their career. The fuzziness of the earlier records is evident but here they add piano, banjo and accordion. It creates a noise that is clear enough to make out how nonsensical Stipe could be and pick up the amazing poetry. Every single note is there with intent, every note has a purpose. While the album is a work of art the B sides and out takes lend a new level to understanding what made REM tick in a tumultuous year. The 1993 I.R.S. reissue has a itchy demo like version of Toys in the Attic that is spectacular, the 2011 25th Anniversary Edition has a stunning demo of What If We Give It Away? that adds another layer to the story.
Some of the old crowd were lucky enough to see REM in the Olympia Theatre in Dublin as part of their Live Rehearsals residency. It was almost like a reunion, in such a unique setting we felt like the chosen few. Elated by the opportunity, we almost flew over the rooftops to get there. Over the course of five nights REM rehearsed for a tour that never came. They played songs off every record they released and a few they didn’t. They introduced a slew of new material, they printed the wrong lyrics off the internet and stopped and started as they needed to.
They played the B Sides, the rarities, the oddities and a cover or two were thrown in for good measure. It was joy personified. On the night we were there they played Cuyahoga, we were sat in the room when they played Cuyahoga. We watched from the balcony and wept, every one of us. We had no idea it would be the last time we would see them live, we were looking forward to another Slane, another Landsdowne Road or Ardgillan Castle, another anything. But that was it, and it was a beautiful way to go.