In order to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you obviously have to be talented and have produced an impressive body of work, but most importantly, you have to be old. Really old. Even if you get inducted the first year you’re nominated, that’s at least 25 years after the release of your first album/single. Since 2007 makes it 25 years since the release of Chronic Town, R.E.M. get to become Rock and Roll Hall of Famers this year, and therefore, are officially old.
Frankly, they sound it too. Despite still being hugely popular in Europe and still having one of the best live reputations going, R.E.M. have been in an artistic rut since the departure of drummer Bill Berry, who retired from music in 1997 (but has performed with the band on rare occasions since; expect him to perform with the band once again at the Hall of Fame ceremony). I actually think Up might be the most underappreciated record in the band’s catalogue, but you’ll get no apologies from me for Reveal and Around the Sun, two unbelievably boring records that use synthesizers and strings to sickeningly boring, stale effect.
If I had the opportunity to sit Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck down in a room and play them one R.E.M. album that would inspire them to reclaim their past glory, I’d have several to choose from: there’s Murmur, one of the best debut albums ever; Document, the band’s politically-inspired breakthrough record; Automatic for the People, their undeniable, for-the-ages classic; and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, a late-period neglected classic. But after thinking about all of these great options, I’d probably flip through the years to 1986 and pull out Lifes Rich Pageant.
I’d choose Lifes Rich Pageant (that’s not a typo – there’s no apostrophe because Peter Buck was adamant that no good record had ever been made with an apostrophe in the title) because it’s the record where R.E.M. decided that they wanted to be something more than quirky little indie band, and it started them on their path to becoming the first band of the hugely-influential 1980s alternative music scene to break through into the mainstream. It also was an album that followed a disappointment, the murky and repetitive Fables of the Reconstruction, a record that suggested that the band had run out of ideas with its traditional, jangly sound but had little idea what to do next. Had they stayed on the same path, they would have resigned themselves to simply being an influential underground rock band, not unlike the Pixies and Sonic Youth are viewed as today. But on Lifes Rich Pageant, the band made a conscious choice to go in another direction: to refine and amplify their existing sound in a noble attempt at world domination.
Well okay, I doubt that world domination was actually the motivation behind the album, but it sure sounds like it. R.E.M. have never sounded as vital and impassioned as they did on Pageant. The change to a more agressive, refined sound on Pageant never feels forced or phony, and it owes a lot to producer Don Gehman’s influence. The band chose to work with Gehman because they wanted a harder, cleaner sound, the kind that he had infused in John Mellancamp’s latest album. Without modifying the core elements that made R.E.M. great (Stipe’s rambling lyricism, Buck’s jangly guitars, etc.), Gehman made two decisions that pushed R.E.M. out from their shell and towards a mass audience.
The first is in the drums. Instead of being muddled in the mix, Gehman pulled out the sound on Berry’s drum work and made it the driving force on the album. Not seeming like an afterthought anymore, the drums were instead the centerpiece of an airtight rhythm section that turned Pageant’s upbeat tracks into the most blistering rock songs of the band’s work to this point, while also adding a sharp, poignant edge to the ballads. Just listen to a song like “These Days,” or “Begin the Begin,” or the album’s biggest single “Fall on Me” and you can hear the different from their previous work.
The second major change that Gehman helped institute is with Michael Stipe’s vocals. Solidified in his throne as indie rock’s King of Mumbling, Stipe felt intimidated and challenged by Gehmen’s request that he open up and actually sing something remotely discernable. Stipe always was a good lyricist – even in if incomprehensible – but forced to actually think about what he was saying, Stipe turned towards politics and made Lifes Rich Pageant the first of several albums to host intelligent songs providing counterpoints to Reagansim – in the environment (“Cuyahoga”), foreign policy (“The Flowers of Guatemala”) and more.
I own this absolutely fantastic R.E.M. book entitled Adventures in Hi-Fi, a tome so ridiculously detailed that it actually has every setlist for every R.E.M. concert from the band’s inception through to 2003. I found the chapter on Lifes Rich Pageant particularly enlightening because it illustrated how poorly planned out the album was: the band went into the studio with very few new complete songs, and several of the ones that made the album were outcasts and riffs that had been played around with while making earlier albums but never used. Knowing this does give Pageant a bit of a schizophrenic feel, but that only adds to its charm. It feels alive and natural, not stale and calculated like today’s R.E.M. albums.
And that’s why I’d play Lifes Rich Pageant to the band today, because once again R.E.M. is stuck in a rut, seemingly resigned to second-class status in the popular music world. They need to be reminded that all the sonic landscapes in the world don’t matter if the music that they surround lacks passion. The passion on Pageant led straight to Document, with hits like “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” and then to other cornerstones of the band’s legacy like “Losing My Religion” and “Orange Crush.” It’s that passion that has led the band to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And it’s that passion which I desperately hope that the band can rediscover someday.
Watch: R.E.M. – “Fall on Me”