29 Years Ago: R.E.M. Release ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’
Mahalia Jackson, burning rivers, and an obscure '60s sunshine pop tune. Only R.E.M. could weave such disparate threads into a truly great album.
Over the course of three records, the band slowly emerged from the cryptic lyrics of Murmur to the almost narrative stories of Fables of the Reconstruction. Album number four, Lifes Rich Pageant, was not only a collection of brand new material but new attitudes, too.
Just three years prior to the LP's 1986 release, Michael Stipe told the magazine, The Record, "I'm not willing, and the whole band is not willing, to throw a diatribe at anybody."
Read his thoughts from The Record below:
I'm not willing, and the whole band is not willing, to throw a diatribe at anybody. Nobody cares, or nobody would care, about where I stand politically or socially or what my love life is like. Who wants to hear it from me? I'm not some great genius. That's what coffee houses are made for, and that's what coffee tables are made for. If you want to talk about politics or your love life or social problems or what it's like to live in 1983, then you should do it somewhere other than on the stage.
So what was Pageant's first single? A song about acid rain, of course.
Stipe would later claim that "Fall on Me" was about oppression rather than pollution, but the fact remains that the band were no longer sitting on the sidelines politically or socially. The pair of bison on the album's cover are occasionally cited as evidence of the album's environmental theme, but one need not look for hidden messages. "Fall on Me" is followed by "Cuyahoga," moving the concern from polluted air to an Ohio river once so polluted that it caught fire.
The track's opening line, "Let's put our heads together / And start a new country up," echoes the motif introduced in album opener "Begin the Begin's" invocation of pilgrim Myles Standish. From the first riff the band left no question that this was a political album, a declaration of a new beginning.
"Cuyahoga" and "Begin the Begin" are two of five completely new tracks written during the sessions for Pageant. Of the remaining three, only two -- "These Days" and "Flowers of Guatemala" -- made the final cut. The band recorded the fifth track, "PSA," nearly 20 years later for the In Time greatest hits collection, where it was retitled "Bad Day."
One of the more interesting songs on the album dates from the Fables of the Reconstruction sessions, where it was titled "When I Was Young." Retitled "I Believe" for Pageant, the track functions a bit like an alternative Pledge of Allegiance, with lines like "Trust in your calling / Make sure your calling's true" and "My humor's wearing thin and change is what I believe in."
If the title sounds familiar yet you don't know the song, you may know its inspiration. Marcus Gray writes in It Crawled From the South: An R.E.M. Companion:
When performing the song live, Michael frequently prefaced it with an a cappella snippet from a Mahalia Jackson song. On the 21 November 1986 [sic], at the Bayfront Arena in St. Petersburg, Florida, he came clean about the reason for this. R.E.M.'s 'I Believe' was named after the original song of that title, a version of which Michael had heard on a Mahalia Jackson LP. The a cappella was intended to acknowledge the debt.
Like "I Believe" and "Fall On Me," "Swan Swan H" dates from the Fables era. Written on the road -- literally, on the tour bus -- early one November morning, the song combines lyrics Stipe allegedly found in a "1920's book ... on post-Civil war slave hymns," and guitarist Peter Buck's attempt at "fake Irish music," according to Gray.
It's an odd choice for inclusion on Pageant. Thematically the song doesn't fit with the album's political bent, though one could argue that lines like "What's the price of heroes" certainly lean in that direction. "Swan Swan H"'s Johnny Reb, whiskey and wine seem better suited to Fables' southern mythology. Regardless, thank goodness they included it, as the R.E.M. songbook would be sorely lacking without it.
Album closer "Superman" also served as the LP's second (and last) single, and although it didn't perform as well as "Fall on Me" -- peaking at No. 17 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks vs. "Fall On Me"'s No. 5 -- the song remains one of the most beloved in the band's discography. Not bad for a track that features bassist Mike Mills on lead vocals and was actually a cover of an obscure '60s B-side. The original was written and recorded by a Texas band named the Clique in 1969, who slapped it on the B-side of their cover of the Tommy James cut, "Sugar On Sunday."
At the time, Lifes Rich Pageant stood as R.E.M.'s most commercially successful record, attaining gold status, but it was more than that. With its political awareness and catchy hooks, Pageant marks the emergence of the "mature" R.E.M., for lack of a better word. It captures the moment when one notices the big wave beginning to swell not too far from shore. As fans, all we could do was paddle along and hope that we could catch a ride.