I just learned that one of my favorite bands, R.E.M., is coming up on the 25th anniversary of their breakout album, Lifes Rich Pageant. It is getting the full Expanded & Remastered treatment, according to Paste.
The band‘s groundbreaking fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant re-release date is July 12, the album’s 25th anniversary. A special 2-disc edition will feature a digitally remastered version of the original album plus 19 previously unreleased demo recordings.
The album recorded by vocalist Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry was R.E.M.’s first Gold record, reaching #21 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart. It included the hit singles Fall On Me and Superman.
I was a huge R.E.M. fan in grad school, and their first few albums were enormously powerful and influential on me personally. It was one of the first examples a younger me realized you could go on your own path and still be successful.
Most of you young’uns probably are familiar with the band’s later bigger commercial hits — “Losing My Religion, Shiny Happy People, Everybody Hurts, Stand, etc.” That stuff is all good for what it is — better than most of the pop on the radio at the same time, anyway.
You may not realize that R.E.M. was the original alternative rock band. Their first album, 1983’s Murmur, transformed the post-punk, underground college-rock era into brand new genre: What you take for granted as alternative rock was essentially created out of whole cloth by R.E.M. way back then. Its oin my top, 100 list.
For those of you who only know their latter, shiny happy, pop stuff, delve into this seminal, influential band’s best work — these 4 albums; Genius that way lay.
A little context: In 1983, the US Stock market had just awoken from a 16 year slumber. Reagan was President, polyester had not yet gone away. The movie Saturday Night Fever was still relatively fresh in people’s minds, and there was plenty of Disco on the air, along with Journey, Boston, and Foreigner. It was a simple, if uglier time.
Along comes R.E.M., from of all places Athens, GA. Murmur broke boundaries, and literally created a new musical genre. The sound lay somewhere between the jangling guitar work of ’60s bands (Beatles, Byrds), with a drive that was not unlike later bands (Clash, Elvis Costello).
The original versions of Murmur and Reckoning are $7.97. (About time the music industry started to price discs dynamically, especially on artists’ back catalogues). They are probably a decade too late, and have already lost a generation of CD buyers.
R.E.M. was overtly political. Their songs were barbed attacks on the status quo, hidden beneath hauntingly beautiful melodies, arcane lyrical language, driving drumbeats, jangly guitars, and
mumbled vocals. It was a completely idiosyncratic approach, but it worked well.
What stood out most of all were their collections of
songs, alternatively beautiful and compelling. Dramatic structures, majestic melodies, lush vocal harmonies and somewhat archaic language combined for a unique sound.
The band became a critical darling, and sold increasingly well. Each subsequent album sharpened the band’s focus, and saw their writing become increasingly layered and complex, culminating in the tight, driving rock of Document. This was the album that catapulted R.E.M. from college radio favorites to mainstream stardom — and with good cause, too. It also marked their critical (but not their commercial) peak.
A WSJ piece noted the commercial decline:
“It has been a long, slow fade for a band that came to be known both as one of the founders of alternative rock and one of the genre’s most bankable names. Its 1996 contract turned out to be the high-water mark of a five-year frenzy of wildly expensive superstar contracts across the music industry, whipped up by interlabel bidding wars and CD sales’ seemingly boundless potential for growth. Most of these deals, such as Sony Music’s $60 million contract with Michael Jackson in 1991, and Virgin’s $70 million 1996 pact with his sister Janet, proved overly optimistic about the commercial prospects of artists who were past their prime.”
That sound about right. None of these artists have since achieved any level of their former commercial — or critical — success.
Must Own Albums:
• Murmur (1983)
• Reckoning (1984)
• Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
• Document (1987)
Radio Free Europe (on Letterman)
It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine…)
Losing My Religion
Man on the Moon
REM Official Website
REM Wikipedia Entry
R.E.M. Attempts to ‘Accelerate’
The Veteran Rock Band, Facing Fleeing Fans, Ramps Up Its Publicity
WSJ, March 28, 2008; Page W6