Shfl Guide: The Paisley Underground

It was a phrase from a 1982 jam session by an LA punk band whose bassist Lina Sedillo passed it on to her friend Michael Quercio. But when Quercio — leader of the band the Salvation Army, soon to change their name to the Three O’Clock — used it in an interview a little while later, he inadvertently tagged an ill-defined group of somewhat interrelated California acts, mostly from LA or the Northern California college town Davis, as a scene. Whatever the usefulness or the limitations of the term, the Paisley Underground went on to define a kind of neo-psychedelia for a new decade. Parallel scenes and kindred spirits existed elsewhere in the country and around the world, whether it was the perceived second coming of The Byrds in the shape of R.E.M., the rich flow of acts from the UK like XTC, Echo & the Bunnymen and Julian Cope, or The Church’s own remarkable career starting at home in Australia. But the Paisley Underground, in its mix-and-match of everything from 60s AM radio hits to shadowy Velvet Underground worship to garage rock rave-ups and more, left a collective impact.

Perhaps no Paisley Underground band accelerated more quickly from making noise with friends to massive commercial hits than the Bangles, and while another lover of the 1960s, Prince, gave them “Manic Monday,” he cemented his own connection to the scene by later signing the Three O’Clock to his own Paisley Park label. Meantime, while the initial lineup of The Dream Syndicate only lasted for one album, it spawned any number of bands and acts on its own. The UK gave some music press love to a few of the rootsier acts like Green on Red and The Long Ryders, while Thin White Rope eventually gained legend status for its run of albums and fierce live shows. But it was the course of David Roback’s art and life that showed what the scene, whatever it was, could be: co-founding Rain Parade, jamming with a slew of fellow travellers as Rainy Day, starting another act, Opal, with Dream Syndicate vet Kendra Smith and then, after Smith left, working with Hope Sandoval to create Mazzy Star. The hushed tones and wistful dreaminess of so many acts since aiming to create a “Fade Into You” of their own may just be the Paisley Underground’s deepest legacy.

The Lost Weekend cover

If Dan Stuart and Steve Wynn were already showing love for American roots and country music even from their main bands’ early days, then by the time they took on the name of Danny & Dusty and roped in compatriots from Green on Red and the Dream Syndicate, not to mention the Long Ryders, it was plenty, almost ridiculously clear. There’s other moods kicking around well on The Lost Weekend, with “Miracle Mile” half feeling like a Lou Reed character study set in LA rather than New York, plus an album-ending “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” cover to boot.

Five Ways Of Disappearing cover

Kendra Smith’s only full length solo album from 1995 was also her last release of any sort, an unexpected departure from recorded music but, as a statement of particular artistic intent, a strong, deeply underrated effort. Performing many instruments, notably pump organ and harmonium, in combination with other musicians, Smith builds on her Presents The Guild Of Temporal Adventurers EP with a series of unusual and thoroughly compelling psych and drone originals, all culminating in a majestic cover of Richard and Mimi Farina’s “Bold Marauder.”

Exploring the Axis cover

Blasting out of the gate on their first formal release with the white-hot, wild and weird energy of “Down In The Desert,” on Exploring the Axis Thin White Rope showed well before Pavement that California’s Central Valley had an ear for taking twisted Americana and skew-whiff art-rock to create new hybrids all of its own. Guy Kyser’s vocals and lyrics show both an ear for sharp wit and bug-eyed intensity, while the band’s collective sense of keeping a steady central focus while seemingly fraying at the edges gives the album an atmosphere of blasting heatwave shimmer.

Ladies And Gentlemen... The Bangles! cover

Drawing together the band’s earliest and then-heavily out of print work from before they signed to Columbia, Ladies and Gentlemen… The Bangles! is a giddy treat, fully demonstrating the range of their 60s inspirations, from surf (the opening “Bitchen Summer/Speedway”) to sunshine pop, garage rock and a general vibe of Sunset Strip-based good times. Their songwriting abilities and perfect sense of harmonies on songs like “Getting Out Of Hand” and “I’m In Line” showed that all their future successes, for all the major label gloss, had deep roots.

Emergency Third Rail Power Trip cover

The debut album by the Rain Parade, by virtue of being the first full-length effort released involving Dave Roback, can be seen as a signpost for all his work that followed to some degree, but Emergency Third Rail Power Trip has its own distinct blend of style and performance. While low-key, it’s not dull, possessing a good steady energy that’s near upbeat on songs like “What She’s Done To Your Mind” and “I Look Around,” while sitar, backwards-masking and Association-like dreamy harmonies contribute to a woozy and very trippy feeling indeed.

The Complete Recordings cover

While 28th Day is often solely seen as the start of Barbara Manning’s remarkable recording career, the band’s one release, a self-titled seven song EP from 1985 later expanded and rereleased as The Complete Recordings, is an energetic delight in its own right. Manning and Cole Marquis split most of the songwriting while keeping an overall sound going, at once an arguably familiar mid-80s American indie rock effort but with its own engaging polite chug and guitar twang, vocals sometimes mixing into harmonies, sometimes into intriguing contrasts.

Rainy Day cover

It’s a little much to call the one self-titled effort by Rainy Day as the product of a supergroup, since in 1984 none of the collective members were quite there yet, but perhaps it’s the LA equivalent to the that year’s debut by This Mortal Coil instead — they even share a choice of cover song in Big Star’s “Holocaust.” With other covers including work by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and more, Susannah Hoffs, David Roback, Michael Quercio, Kendra Smith and more besides created the ultimate Paisley Underground souvenir, a gentle treat.

Happy Nightmare Baby cover

Opal’s one full-length album from 1987 was a dark, beautiful masterpiece of psych rock from the start, thanks to “Rocket Machine”’s compelling T. Rex-tinged guitar chug from David Roback and Kendra Smith’s cool, murmuring singing helping set the stage just so. From there it’s a nine-song trip through a realm where Manson’s family never upset the LA scene and maybe goth never needed inventing either, as songs like “Magick Power,” “She’s A Diamond” and “Siamese Trap” create miniature worlds of incense, oil projections and seriously heavy trips.

Befour Three O'Clock cover

The saga of the Three O’Clock’s earliest days, when they recorded a self-titled album and performed as the Salvation Army to the actual organization’s ire, led to a lot of discographical confusion in later years, as well as one reissue with a slew of bonus cuts. But whether via the original name or via the Befour Three O’Clock camouflage, the earliest work by Michael Quercio and company remains a quick and fizzy delight, Quercio’s voice and energy just this side of snotty pop-punk, but with the elements of psychedelic whimsy and fragility already in place too.

Native Sons cover

While the previous year’s 10-5-60 EP was the Long Ryders’ first release, everything fully gelled for them on their full-length debut the following year, Native Sons, at once a completely obvious nod-back to any number of 1960s forebears and all the better for it thanks to their willingness to mix and match to the full. The country obsessions of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, classic 1966 Sunset Strip rock band frugs and rave-ups and yet more all comes together on songs like “Still Get By” and “Ivory Tower,” the latter of which even has a Gene Clark cameo.

So Tonight That I Might See cover

The shift from Opal to Mazzy Star had already occurred when Hope Sandoval took over singing in the wake of Kendra Smith’s departure, but nobody at all expected that in the wake of grunge and alternative’s popularity the band’s second album would turn into a breakout hit. With “Fade Into You” demonstrating the powerful beauty of Sandoval’s drowsy singing and David Roback’s stately playing, So Tonight That I Might See proceeded to show their remarkable range in the shadows, from the drony, intense haze of “Mary Of Silence” to the stillness of “Into Dust.”

Gravity Talks cover

Following two EPs, Green on Red released Gravity Talks, their first full length, in 1983, having built up a pretty understandable association with the Paisley Underground tag thanks to Dan Stuart’s often garage-rock snotty vocals, Chris Cacavas’s exuberant organ performances and earlier production help from Steve Wynn. But while seen in the light of their later efforts the album is almost a curio, it’s a remarkably enjoyable one, the band already armed with an ear for some sharp turns of phrase and good titles like “Cheap Wine” and “That’s What You’re Here For.”

Hollywood Holiday Revisited cover

A handy compilation of True West’s earliest work, Hollywood Holiday Revisited brings together both their 1983 debut EP of that title, the subsequent album Drifters and a small clutch of demos produced by Tom Verlaine in between those releases. That’s a pretty understandable connection, because while True West doesn’t sound like Television, the double guitar attack doesn’t hurt, creating an air of nighttime highway drives to nowhere and desert-tinged haze, with Gavin Blair’s sometimes moody, sometimes cutting vocals adding extra bite.

Blaze of Glory cover

Released in 1982 and expanded in 2014 with a shedload of bonus tracks from various sources, including his prior band Alternate Learning, Blaze of Glory showed Game Theory’s main man Scott Miller already on his way to building his considerable reputation as a prime psych-pop genius of the 1980s and beyond. The sense of nervous, fragile but still exuberant energy made for a listen that was several things at once — a collection of crisp power-pop, a quirky New Wave effort, a Paisley Underground-adjacent polite trippiness — all of which combined very well.

The Days of Wine and Roses cover

The elements that fed into the Dream Syndicate’s debut album may have been evident enough — Steve Wynn projects a real (but not total) Lou Reed vibe with his vocals, while there’s both ringing and crunchy guitars that nod to any number of 60s rock bands. But it’s the wonderful fusion that makes The Days of Wine and Roses what it is, transforming everything into a killer set of songs starting with the great “Tell Me When It’s Over” and never letting up, from the controlled fierce burn of “Halloween” to the explosive rave-up title track that ends the album.

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