R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant and the First Shadows of the Reagan Dusk

lifes rich pageant

We often tend to mistakenly think of the 1980s in ways that paint it as uniformly conforming to certain trends consistently throughout the decade. If you look into the cultural and political history of the 1980s, however, you will see something in the late 1980s I call “Reagan Dusk.” During this period criticism of unequal social conditions became more prominent in popular culture, and there was a growing negative reaction to what neoliberalism had wrought. This coincided both with the thawing of the Cold War and the Iran-Contra Scandal, which undermined the Reaganite view of global conflict as well as trust in the Gipper, respectively. The president himself was sundowning, growing senile and more prone to health problems. Public memory of the 1980s has mish-mashed it into a big neon spandex blur, the so-called “Greed Decade” for many progressives, or a golden age overseen by Ronald the Great by conservatives.

Both interpretations are wrong. Dissent coincided with greed. Reagan’s popularity waxed and waned, and his so-called “revolution” started running into its own limits.

1986 was the crucial transitional year for all of this. That was the year the Iran Contra scandal broke, hampering Reagan’s popularity and bringing on talk of a second Watergate. 1986 was also saw a summit in Iceland between Gorbachev and Reagan that heralded a great lessening of tensions between the superpowers. Earlier that year the Chernobyl disaster forced the hand of glasnost in the Soviet Union. In America Reagan signed a massive tax bill that included tax increases on the wealthy from the extremely low levels he had set in 1981 and a tacit admission that supply side economics were not magic beans that could lower the deficit by cutting taxes. (Of course, that idea would soon be back.) All the while, AIDS raged, the horrible toll unacknowledged by the president. In a nation where thousands were dying of disease, there was no “Morning in America.”

Popular culture, however, took longer to catch up. The ultimate expression of Reagan-era ideology on film, Top Gun, was the highest-grossing film of the year. The same year also saw Cobra, Sylvester Stallone’s bluntest 80s statement on violence as will to power. (His catchphrase, “you’re the disease, I’m the cure” sounds chilling post Trump.) Popular music was as big as the shoulder pads and hair so common at the time and as loud as the patterns on the shorts and dresses of Americans that summer.

At the fringes, however, the Reagan Dusk was just barely visible. It could be heard on Lifes Rich Pageant, the fourth album from R.E.M., the rock band poised to bring the sound of the underground to the mainstream. R.E.M.’s first three albums are masterpieces of jangly guitar and mysteriously mumbled lyrics with an overlay of Southern Gothic on top. Your average indie rock fan today still pays homage to them. They are less likely to do so for Lifes Rich Pageant, where the band took a turn that in retrospect ought to be lauded rather than disdained.

The change is obvious immediately, as “Begin the Begin” starts with a hard-edged rock riff and loud feedback beneath Stipe’s voice, which is suddenly much clearer, the lyrics more legible and now, for the first time, topical. The loud snare drum reflects the times and the production of Don Gehman, who had worked on heartland rocker John Cougar Mellencamp’s albums. This song is a call to arms amidst the wreckage of the Reagan Era, but the lyrics are cryptic enough not to make it a traditional “protest song.” There is dark talk of “The powers/ the only vote that matters” but a cautiously optimistic cry “let’s begin again” as well.

Before the listener can catch their breath, the song transitions immediately without pause into “These Days,” with a fast, loud, blistering riff by Buck over muscular Berry drums. (This is the album where Bill Berry’s beginnings as a metal-head are most evident.) It might be the only R.E.M. song that encourages head banging. The words are fiery too, “We are old despite the times” and “I’ll rearrange your scales.” The one-two punch of “Begin the Begin” and “These Days” is an announcement that R.E.M. has abandoned its Southern Gothic Folk Mystery thing and is grabbing for the crown of Band That Matters.

These days, when Bono has become kind of a joke and social media has made political activism more accessible, the significance of this move has been diluted. In the middle of the Reagan Era, when nuclear war threatened, cities rotted, and AIDS ravaged the country while the media and political figures barely seemed to care, music stepped into the breach. For someone like me, who grew up in a very rural, conservative area, it was not just a lifeline, it paved a way for my embrace of a more progressive politics. Hip hop (and especially Public Enemy) provided me with the most radical musical critiques, but R.E.M. was important too. After all, they hailed from Athens, Georgia, and were a sign that resistance to the dominant politics of the time could exist in places like the one where I lived.

The political themes continue on the first side of the album, but songs ease back into folkier territory, such as in the ringing, beautiful “Fall On Me.” “Buy the sky/ And sell the sky/ And lift your arms up to the sky/ And ask the sky and ask the sky/ Don’t fall on me.” I remember Stipe saying it was about acid rain, but for obvious reasons it calls to mind other environmental dangers we face today. The beautiful Mike Mills background harmonies truly make this song, though. While R.E.M. might be headed in traditionally more “rawk” directions here, they are doing it their way with their own unique sound.

“Cuyahoga” continues discussion of the environment, referencing the Cleveland river that was once so polluted that it caught fire. It also discusses Native American history, and how this nation’s wealth was built on the theft of others’ land. Such critical re-evaluations of American history would be more commonplace during the Reagan Dusk, leading to the inevitable anti-PC backlash of the early 1990s. The sound is folkier than the album’s start, but the lyrical message is unmistakable.

After those first four songs, the political elements are more subdued once the band has laid down the gauntlet. With different, less big production, “Hyena”could belong on Reckoning. Of course, lines like “The greater the weapon, the bigger the fear” seem to reference geopolitics just a little. The jaunty Latin dance-y song “Underneath The Bunker” with Stipe’s unintelligibly filtered voice might be a nuclear war reference, but that’s easy to ignore. It closes out side one, cheekily called the “Dinner Side.”

Side two, the “Supper Side,” goes into more explicitly political territory with “The Flowers of Guatemala.” (On CD the transition from “Underneath the Bunker” to this more serious song is quite jarring.) The song references, of course, America’s support for brutal military regimes in Guatemala, but does so in a mournful rather than rage-filled way. Stipe sings mournfully of the flowers on the graves of those murdered by the state. It is one of the most moving and powerful songs in R.E.M.’s canon, and highlights issue that most people in this country, even those who are political progressives, choose to ignore. Amid the justified anger over Russian meddling in American elections, folks in America might want to take a minute and ponder what their own country has done elsewhere.

It’s hard to top a side-opener like that, and R.E.M. really doesn’t. A trio of solid but less evocative songs follows: “I Believe,” “What If We Give It Away,” and “Just A Touch.” The latter is my favorite for its up-tempo punkiness and the story behind it. Evidently as a teenager Stipe witnessed an Elvis impersonator being mobbed on the day of the King’s death by a group of distraught female Elvis fans, one of them saying “C’mon love, just a touch.” The whole thing is just a fun rave-up and an unlikely segue into “Swan Swan H.”

This acoustic song puts us back into R.E.M.’s Southern Gothic mode big time. The lyrics reference the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Emancipation (“Hurrah we’re all free now.”) For such a politically important time in America’s history, there does not seem to be much politics here, more setting a mood. That said, it’s catchy as hell and in my youth I would listen to it over and over again. The album ends on an unlikely note, with a cover of an obscure 1960s song, “Superman” by The Clique. It puts on full display the band’s love of psychedelic garage rock (which is all over the rest of the album), but also mirrors another aspect of the coming Reagan Dusk: 60s nostalgia. One could argue it was kicked off in 1986 when MTV ran a bunch of Monkees episodes one weekend. Nostalgia for that decade, of course, was a kind of a political statement in itself in the midst of the conservative backlash.

Lifes Rich Pageant is a classic “tweener” album. R.E.M. abandoned the formula that the Pitchfork crowd still idolizes, but its new, rock oriented sound did not yet yield any hits. That would soon come with 1987’s Document, once the Reagan Dusk had truly started to fall. Lifes Rich Pageant is a document of the other 1980s, the 80s of dissent and protest and resistance, of ACT-UP and anti-Apartheid. In our own fraught times when we need to begin again, it is well worth another listen.