My ‘Desert Island Album’ with Royal Chant’s, Mark Spence

SO, dispensing with the usual caveat that this is of course an impossible task, we have decided to reach into our overhead luggage as the plane goes down to grab R.E.M.’s ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ to keep us company as we await death or rescue from our barren rock in the middle of the ocean.

There’s a million albums out there, all with their own nuances and varying degrees of strength, and rather than agonise over which one is truly the right one we struck quick and decisively and decided that would be that.

For better or worse, we quickly realised there is no way this choice isn’t informed by some sense of nostalgia. Not only that but choosing an album purely as a listener-only was an impossible task as well, because it was always going to be filtered through an additional lens of being a musician, songwriter, and band member. Not only did I reach for an album of songs I truly loved, but I reached for an album that served as one of the better guide maps of, “Hey, here’s how you do this.”

We moved from suburban Salt Lake City, Utah, to suburban Atlanta, Georgia, in nineteen-eighty something which meant that since we were hooked on MTV in America we also witnessed the rise and rise of REM. Moving to Georgia actually had very little to do with our appreciation of the band, since radio & television (aka: MTV) were both already nationalised and homogenous even back then, so unless you were lucky enough to have a lifeline to your local underground scene you were largely getting the same media diet no matter where you lived. Some high school kids certainly were, but we were just a little too young and too sheltered for that, so growing up less than an hour from the birthplace & home base of REM would be an interesting footnote that we would not appreciate until much, much later.

We aren’t quite old enough or cool enough to be able to say, “I grew up with REM,” at least not in the way that fans who were in their teens or 20s who latched on to them in their ‘Chronic Town’ days can honestly say. No, we kind of just grew up with them around us when they might arguably be said to be at their peak — they were kind of like the sonic wallpaper of the time. We didn’t know any better. The airwaves used to be filled with Poison, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, & Motley Crue, and then one day there was REM and Nirvana and a whole slew of other bands that looked like everything ranging from cool AF to absolute dorks. Somehow, to us, REM managed to be both.

When REM jumped ship to Warner Bros. in the late ’80s, their subsequent albums had a lot more money and PR hype behind them, so mid-era REM staples like ‘Stand,’ ‘The One I Love,’ ‘Losing My Religion,’ ‘Man On The Moon,’ (and heaps more) were kind of just part of the background. It was catchy, and that was good enough for us.

We started writing songs around 10th grade, but we didn’t have any real gist to it, and we lacked any sort of…well, everything, really. We were just kind of rhyming and meh. It wasn’t until Bob Dylan broke our minds in 11th grade that things started to have a spine, and the next two years were largely spent in the shadows of Dylan and Lou Reed. For better or worse, my song writing finally had a direction and a sense of identity, even if I was mostly trying on other people’s masks.

Now, as far as songwriters go, one could argue that those two were pretty good tutors, but when it came to bands, even though the Velvets were certainly formidable, it was REM that became the touchstone of, ‘THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD DO THIS.’

If The Replacements had gotten their shit together maybe it could have been them, but since they didn’t they never broke through that mainstream ceiling and instead languished in the upper echelons of the underground, wasting their few chances and thus remaining unknown to small-town kids until it was far too late. REM was the one band, literally like the ONE band, that followed the stereotypical music industry playbook to perfection: Record, release, tour, rinse, repeat. An organically grown fan base. Critical acclaim. A difficult third album. A return to form. Jump to a major.

That’s the way it was supposed to work, even though it rarely did. Why the exception was considered the rule we’ll never understand, but some myths are hard to let go we guess.

So here I am, reaching for album #4 from a band who managed to churn out 16 albums of varying quality over their long career, and it’s all thanks to the final cut on the album, ‘Superman.’ We have no idea when or how we heard it, but we have a vague recollection of hearing it on the radio and kind of losing our minds. Atlanta commercial radio was pretty pablum stuff (probably still is, who knows), but they did have a few college stations that you could pick up out in the ‘burbs.

We’ll go ahead and guess it was WRAS 88.5 FM, which was apparently a legendary college radio station back in the day, but one that seemed to disappoint us more than not. Like, kids in high school would be talking about how awesome and cool it was, but whenever we would tune in and brace ourselves for the awesomeness that was about to pour forth from our crappy car speakers it was always free-form dub night or just random tuneless shit. But still, like an abusive relationship, we kept coming back and hoping things would be better. They rarely were, but occasionally they really would play something that sounded like actual music, and lo and behold ‘Superman’ came ringing.

Once we tracked down the band and the song and whatnot, we raced out to buy the album. And from there we proceeded to play…. just that song. On repeat. For days on end. For a month, probably. I mean, obviously we knew there were other songs on the album, but it didn’t matter then, we just wanted that song.

And that’s the way it stayed for quite some time.

Until at some point we started to listen to the whole album. And it was good. But then we moved on to other albums and whatnot, and that’s how it would have stayed. Like,

Friend, scanning our CD collection: “Hey, you’ve got Lifes Rich Pageant?”

Me: Yeah

F: You like it?

M: Yeah.

F: …..

M: …..

Fast forward 10 or 15 years or whatever, fast forward to halfway around the world in Australia, fast forward to homesickness and confusion. Here we are, living in a small rural town on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales, four hours North of Sydney and constantly on the road in our van or wagon or whatever cheap crappy tour vehicle we have at the time, and ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ just so happens to be one of the few CDs that made the trip across the pond.

Royal Chant was a fresh young band once (sort of, I mean, even then I was on the older side for a band that’s trying to break through, but the rest of the band was young AF so it averaged out OK). We spent lots of time together on the road. I liked REM. No one else did. That was probably a sign that things might not work out with that particular line-up.

The funny thing about Port Macquarie is that everywhere seems to be 5–12 minutes away. That means if ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ was in the CD player, (and it was, because why bother changing it), I seemed to hear pretty much the first four songs of the album a lot. Like….A. LOT.

For the first time ever, I start to appreciate just how powerful ‘Begin The Begin’ is as an album opener, and how following that with ‘These Days’ really is a one-two punch. ‘Fall On Me’ is heavenly and wasn’t until we saw that homemade lyric video that Stipe created that we truly began to appreciate just how much left field art-school sensibilities REM managed to inject into mainstream music for a while. ‘Cuyahoga’ is our sleeper fav. We didn’t even know what they were singing for ages, (even though that’s the title of the song), we were just enamoured with the feel and just belted out whatever words we thought we were hearing. We still do in fact.

‘Hyena’ is fine. Like, we never actually put it on intentionally but when it comes on, we’re still amazed that even the mediocre ‘mail-it-in-REM-by-the-numbers’ song is pretty damn good. We’ll allow ‘Underneath The Bunker’ because it’s less a song and more an interlude. We get it. It’s good for bands to indulge.

Now, if you stopped right there, that would be an amazing EP. If you trimmed it down to just the first four songs that would be next level, and that has always struck us. They didn’t just write one or two good songs, they wrote greatness in batches, slabs, and chunks, and knew how to put them together.

Even though we had this on CD there’s definitely a vinyl pacing to the album, so they flip the script for side two which starts soft(ish) with ‘Flowers Of Guatemala’ but deceptively kicks pleasantly into a fairly high gear with an especially cool indie guitar solo in the middle. We never put that song on deliberately, but when it comes on it seems like our favourite ever. Weird.

And then…..BAM! They kick into another blistering trio of ‘I Believe’ (which I love to shout and sing along to in the car), then ‘What If We Give It Away’ and ‘Just A Touch,’ using a fast-slow-fast pacing before they ask passengers to please return their seats to the upright position and prepare for landing with ‘Swan Swan H which we love love love. And then, for a little chocolate treat after shaking hands with the captain as you exit the plane, it’s ‘Superman.’

Everything about this album in our lives was an accident. From our introduction via the closing number, (which we didn’t even know was cover until AGES later), to our long-delayed, long-simmering appreciation. It was there all along, and it took a long, long time for us to see what we had right in front of us.

Their aesthetic became extremely influential in my writing, as well as our horrible attempts at trying to sell ourselves in a way that didn’t fill us with self-loathing. Can popular music be good? Can art exist in the mainstream? How does one evolve as an artist without completely changing oneself? How does one fuse mystery with sincerity?

This album feels political but it’s hard to say how, and it’s sincere without wetting the bed. It’s like there’s a call to arms, but it’s up to you to decide exactly what you’re going to care about.

The way the band existed, the way they seemed to make functioning in a democratic manner so easy and ego-less, was something we aspired for long after it became apparent that they were the exception rather than the rule. They taught us that multi-instrumentalist bass players who can sing are the most valuable commodity on the planet and should be hoarded like rare jewels. That they can talk and disagree without the sky falling in, that compromise exists. It was just a rare, rare thing to behold. It was the sound of an indie band standing on the precipice of greater, bigger things, and this was one of their finest achievements of their initial five-album run of indie self-determination. They managed to sound like their old stuff, while somehow sounding bigger and clearer and witting new stuff. They didn’t piss off their old fans while managing to gain new ones. Unreal.

The concrete and the mythic side-by-side, rocking awkwardly away singing a made-up vernacular that’s clear as a bell but still murky in meaning, vaguely powerful and powerfully vague, following their own blueprint and getting away with it: that’s REM’s Lifes Rich Pageant and that’s why it’s our desert island disc. Massive thanks to Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe for showing us how it’s done. xoxo

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