The final one of these that I'll do and it might be the most controversial yet. For most, R.E.M.'s records on the IRS label are sacred and should be left well alone. And to be fair, there's very little you'd ever want to tamper with on those five brilliant albums. But...
'Lifes Rich Pageant' is a big favourite of mine, yet it's far from perfect and has a couple of things that really niggle me about it. It was only the second R.E.M. record I ever heard so it's one of those I've been exposed to the most over the years. Its first four songs make up what I think is the greatest opening sequence of songs on any album I've ever owned. That's probably what makes it such a big fave. But from that point on it doesn't quite tick all the boxes.
Some history: 'Lifes Rich Pageant' sounds like something of a statement. After the traumatic process of the making of 'Fables Of The Reconstruction', which almost broke the band and caused Michael Stipe to sink into a deep depression, R.E.M. reconvened to record LRP in March 1986 with renewed vigour. It's a record which sounded like no other R.E.M. record at the time - loud, hard-hitting and, in places, very angry. It was largely the result of six years under Reagan and the political situation in America it garnered. Gone were the claustrophobic jangles of the previous records, gone were the oblique stories in Stipe's lyrics. These new songs had a real purpose about them.
Except they weren't all new songs. For some reason, the band unearthed some material dating back to their earliest period. At least five of the songs demoed for the record were written and performed as far back as 1980-81. All The Right Friends and Mystery To Me were, in fact, both played at their legendary debut gig (at the abandoned St Mary's Episcopal Church, Athens, GA. on 5th May 1980), while Just A Touch featured at their next show just a fortnight later. Both Wait and Get On Their Way (the latter of which became Why Don't We Give It Away) got their first airings in January 1981. Another LRP song Hyena was written in 1984 and was played a number of times during live shows that year before being demoed for 'Fables' but cast aside.
Exactly why the band saw fit to revive these long-forgotten songs at this time is unclear, but revive them they did and two of them even featured on the finished record. Originally conceived as a ten-track album, side one was to feature the album's loud, fast songs, while side two its slower, quieter moments. So far down the line were they with this plan, the final album's artwork was produced with this tracklisting.At some point though, things changed. At a mere 34 minutes, it was deemed to be too short so a couple other tracks were required. And this is where I think 'Lifes Rich Pageant' went a little pear-shaped. The band chose to record one of their newer original songs and a cover version. Underneath The Bunker is a short, silly bossanova piece with few lyrics. Superman was a bubblegum pop song by The Clique which Mike Mills liked. He sang lead on it as Stipe didn't want to - he instead sings backup. Quite why these songs were chosen remains a mystery. So a new (better?) track order was arranged and 'Lifes Rich Pageant' was released.
And this is where I come in. What can I do to make LRP the album it could have been? Well, the first four songs remain untouched. As I said, there is nothing that could make this opening sequence any better. I can well do without both Underneath The Bunker and Superman - b-side material at best as far as I'm concerned. I'm replacing them with two of the demos recorded at John Keane's studios in March '86 instead.
Which brings me to track 5 which I've decided will be All The Right Friends. It picks up the energetic mood again following the previous two songs, but I've edited it slightly. Being a demo, it is a bit rough around the edges, especially the ending. After dabbling with a couple other versions of the song, I decided to use the final chord of the 2001 version recorded for the Vanilla Sky soundtrack as it's the one that worked best. To be fair, it's still rough, but that's down to my skill level and available resources. (Insert one of Jez's statutory disclaimers here...) Side one ends with the thunderous rasp of Just A Touch, Stipe's words (borrowing from Patti Smith) fading into the runout groove... "I'm so young / I'm so goddamn young".
Side two starts the same as the real LRP with the gorgeous Flowers Of Guatamala and the lively I Believe, while Hyena is transferred from side one. The next two songs gave me problems in that I wasn't quite sure how to sequence them. Mystery To Me was to end side one in my previous draft, but I ended up swapping it with Just A Touch. To be fair, Mystery To Me perhaps sounds a little out of place wherever it goes as it might just be the one weak link in this project. The only other options I had were PSA (the early demo version of Bad Day), Wait and Two Steps Forward. None quite fit the bill though, and PSA sounds way too much like It's The End Of The World As We Know It in its original form. The remade version from 2001 is better but wouldn't fit here.
In the end I settled for Mystery To Me as the penultimate track, though it is preceded by a little instrumental segue (also lifted from the demos) to make the transition from What If We Give It Away more palatable. You may recognise it as a section of Rotary 10, but at the demo stage it was simply known as Jazz. To finish with, a rather contentious decision, perhaps. Rather than the album version, I've opted for the demo version of Swan Swan H. Now, there's absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with the original, it's a track I love and, were it not for the presence of Superman tacked on the end, would have been the perfect closer for the real LRP. I do love the demo though, in which the band retains the electric guitars rather than swap to acoustics. Mills' bass riff in the album version is played here on lead guitar, though I'm not sure whether it's he or Buck who plays it. Anyway, this version keeps things interesting for those of you who have never heard it.
'Lifes Rich Pageant [REiMagined]' is done. Feel free to chastise me for my choices, or for even daring to try it in the first place. It's done now and available below.
Lifes Rich Pageant [REiMagined]
Here's Swan Swan H performed live in 1986 in the Athens, GA. Inside/Out documentary.