Life's Rich Pageant

Talk about the R.E.M. catalog with most music people and the conversation usually comes down to albums released during the years the band spent on its original label, the late, great I.R.S. Records. Although R.E.M. remains the label’s biggest claim to fame, Miles Copeland’s I.R.S. also had The Go–Go’s, Fine Young Cannibals, Concrete Blonde, The Alarm, Timbuk 3 and a number of other interesting if marginally successful acts on the label during its active years (1979-88), which not coincidentally are the years preceding R.E.M. being signed away by Warner Brothers in 1988.

While malcontents and other loudmouth critical types (gee, to whom could I be referring?) have always sniffed that Warner Bros Records got the band after its artistic peak—which is true!—Warner’s took and continues to take comfort from the fact that the Warner R.E.M. records beginning with Green and moving onto Out of Time and Automatic For the Peoplebegan a run of hitting at or near the top of the Billboard Top 200 album chart which has only slackened in the past several years. It’s the old art versus commerce split: IRS got the art and Warners did the commerce.

The reason the band’s fans keep coming back to the first five records, is not however, as simple as the old “the first record was the best” syndrome which was memorably transposed to the world of filmmaking by Woody Allen in Stardust Memories when people kept saying, [I like your movies…] “especially your early funny ones.” Anyone who heard them when they first came out can still remember the shiver that went through you when their music was first played. They had a celestial, cryptic sound. They were a world unto themselves. They made alt–rock. All five records had and still have different charms: Murmur with the Kudzu horror landscape cover has always sounded as new and unconnected to anything else as the day it was released. Reckoning swung the other way, rocked out and has accessible rock tunes like “7 Chinese Brothers” and the great “Don’t Go Back to (Rockville).” Fables is splendid, otherworldly, multi-layered weirdness, which may mean everything or nothing, thanks to a band–producer partnership between all–star producer Joe Boyd and a band that couldn’t help sounding murky, unsure or between concepts. And then came Life’s Rich Pageant which for some odd reason—probably my attachment to the angry brilliance of the next record Document—I seem to neglect much to the disgust of every other R.E.M. fan I know. For serious listeners it’s the record that turned on the lights, threw open the front door and declared the party started. It’s profusion of Stipe–speak—I have no idea what the line “Miles Standish proud” from “Begin the Begin,” means but it’s damned memorable—and remarkable songs including a cover of “Superman,” by the obscure 60’s Texas garage pop band, The Cliques, turned a lot heads at the time and won the band new levels of respect and adoration. All I have to say about my semi–abject ignorance is: You can’t listen to everything.

Now, IRS’s last distributor EMI, which now owns the IRS catalog (and actually relaunched the imprint in June and begun signing young bands) has released a remastered 25th Anniversary Edition of Life’s Rich Pageant which adds a second disc of 19 tracks euphemistically called the “Athens Demos” which are early versions of the tracks that appeared on the finished record as well as “March Song (King of Birds)” which became “King of Birds” on Document. The demos are the usual odds and sods mix of songs being worked out, which in the case of strong numbers like “Fall On Me,” means a more acoustic, less assured version that’s not all that much different from the final mix. A rawer, guitar–y–er mix of “Begin the Begin” on this extras disc is worth having and Stipe’s vocals on an earlier take of “Cuyahoga” are actually more supple and expressive than what’s on the released take. The overall sound mix of that tune is also different and I have to say crisper, and more alive than the released take. Also among the extras are “Bad Day” which although recorded in 1986 appeared much later in the band’s career in a re–recorded versions in 2003 as the new track/single from the compilation In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003 There’s also “Wait” a tune that the band has played live before but which has never really been officially released as far as I know.

While the music here is superb, the flip top box packaging is equally well–done and looks like it may actually hold together over time. And there’s a poster and postcards for those who need their stuff.

volvic's picture

Another re-issue/re-packaging from a company that has seen its bottom line shrink, in a desperate attempt to try and recoup a few more bucks from us.  No thanks, have their first five on CD and vinyl, have spent enough.  I also saw they (record companies) are releasing a 20th anniversary Achtung Baby box set complete with Bono "Fly" sunglasses and unreleased outakes.  Show some love and spend your money on your local indie record store and get some good new music.  But hey, it's your money. 

flavor bud living's picture

I don't think the divide between art and commerce is as conveniently placed as you do, Robert. I'll always love the first three releases best (starting with Chronic Town) but Automatic for the People is close to a perfect record, and what for me really stands as the band's swan song, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, fulfilled so much of the band's promise to push outside its comfort zone. There are beautiful songs on the later IRS efforts, but -- haha -- I thought Fables was the "beginning of the end."

I hear the new one is a "return to form," but without Bill Berry on drums, it's not R.E.M. - it's an R.E.M. cover band. Although, the posthumous Up had its moments.


donunus's picture

Sound Quality of the remaster? is it any good?

dbowker's picture

...And--just read it can be had as 180 gram vinyl, which I will be picking up for sure. The old copy I have, while in good shape, is classic thin-sounding early 80's rock. Not the worst, but not great either. Other REM vinyl re-issues have been stunning in how much fuller and better they sound.


Not really all that interested in the poster and postcards but whatever. The alternates...could be good. More live maybe?

deckeda's picture

1) Where is the sonic comparison with the original CD or LP? It's one thing to concentrate on the artist's story or just the music when there's only one version available, but this material mostly is a known quantity----and no, the extras here or with any reissue won't be the main draw I hope.

Time to give these news items to the equipment reviewers at Stereophile, who often seem more familiar with the various available versions of a given title.

2) I'd be interested to know in particular if the new CD is more compressed. Same with the new LP coming. We're seeing more reissues all the time it seems but few seem to improve upon the originals. I want to own a reference library, not a collection of versions.