Time was when we used to have ‘scenes’ to belong to. ‘Scenes’ we could relate to, which reflected who we thought we were, or at least who we wanted to be and ‘scenes’ that made us feel like we were both razor sharp cutting edge and right at home with our ‘family’. I’m not sure what the cool kids do now, with all their open minded diversity; listening to Fontaines DC one minute and then Arlo Parks and Shabaka Hutchings the next. Doesn’t it get awful confusing? Don’t they long for the comfort and camaraderie of a gang of like-minded muckers, dressing in (sort of) matching outfits, indulging in the same recreational chemicals and partying in the same grotty Saturday night drinking dives?
Not that I’m actually getting nostalgic mind, more wistful really. I never had a scene see. The nearest we got was a few spotty outsiders going to Eddie and the Hot Rods gigs and afterwards getting ‘busted’ by Liverpool fans in the centre of Leeds. If I could have had my choice of ‘scenes’ it would have been the Paisley Underground, hands down. I know it’s an almost forgotten ‘cult’ thing now and to most it doesn’t have the same magical allure and glamour of such legendary scenes as, say, the London ‘Mods’ of 65-66 or New York punk in 75-78 or even ‘Madchester’ but to me it was and remains the scene.
Imagine how god-awful it must have been for sensitive student types in LA as the 70s slipped into the 80s. Far too wimpy for the SoCal punk scene and nowhere near debauched enough for the burgeoning Glam/Hair Metal goings on down Sunset. Permanently excluded from the Hyatt/Riot House and the Whisky, never even heard of Gazzarris and way too delicate to have anything to do with either the noise or the antics of ‘The Crue’, WASP, Poison or Ratt and their over-coiffed under-fed ilk. What was a poor girl/boy to do except sit in their bedroom at UCLA or USC listening to their elder sibling’s Beatles, Byrds and Seeds records and dreaming of making their one and only seven-inch and living their 15 minutes of fame.
Lucky for the rest of use some of these bedroom heroes got out and about occasionally and started to form friendships, then allegiances and finally bands. By all accounts it was a pretty organic thing, with gigs being played, sofas being slept on and band names and members being changed over the days. This isn’t a history lesson about the formation and growth of the Paisley Underground. If you want that there are what seems like hundreds of thousands of words out there on the web covering all that in detail and told by the people who were there for the most part.
Given that, it is worth noting though, that for such an organic ‘scene’ there seems to be a lot of general agreement about the key bands: Around 1980/81 there are The Rain Parade, The Bangs (later The Bangles), Dream Syndicate and The Salvation Army (later The Three O’clock). Michael Quercio (Three O’clock Mainstay) is generally credited with coining the name Paisley Underground to refer to this core quartet and Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn has characterised it as a bunch of friends “hanging out, playing shows, dating and taking field trips”. A little later the Long Ryders and Green on Red get lumped in with this early version of the scene as both Sid Griffin and Dan Stuart were regular associates of the gigging and flopping crew. This is a good thing for avoidance of any doubt as to the Paisley Underground’s AUK worthiness!
As we might expect both Griffin and Stewart have well-formed and pithily expressed recollections of their days in early 80’s LA. Griffin’s reminiscences of each band’s template offer a neat encapsulation of the overall sound – Bangles = Beatles, Dream Syndicate = The Velvets and Long Ryders = Byrds + punk. Whilst Stuart, a self-identified outsider ‘cactus head’ from Arizona, happily recounts the crazy shit and chutzpah of a time that could see bands shifting units through simple word of mouth and labels making signings as an act of benevolence.
Later the whole Paisley Underground moniker would be stretched way beyond its original meaning by the inclusion of lots of bands from outside LA. With one argument even suggesting that UK label Zippo Records (progeny of Demon) was in large part responsible for this. After releasing early records by core protagonists Dream Syndicate, Long Ryders and Rain Parade they went on to put out a slew of great LPs by bands who may have been stylistically similar but did not meet the purist’s requirement of being from LA.
The more I hear and read about and by the people involved in this scene the more I wish I had been part of it at the time. They seem so damn funny, engaging and… fuck it… just ‘good people’. The main thing though, as always, is that most of the records from the scene and beyond are worth a listen and the ones offered up here are ace*. They jangle, twang and occasionally roar with the best of them. Dive back in again or give them a try for the first time, you won’t be disappointed. I’m not going to spend ages eulogising these records and offering some unwanted critique or explaining their connection to the scene, that kind of exploration is the fun part, get to it…. To a greater or lesser extent they are all fine LPs, one or two are genuinely great but they are all representative of the joy that was (is) the Paisley Underground and the ways in which it has continued to resonate since it faded from view over 30 years ago.
* That is the beauty of a ‘top 10’ for a scene rather than an artist. With the greatest of respect to some of the septuagenarian and octogenarian greats populating our firmament, there isn’t one artist extant that has 10 ‘ace’ albums in their career knapsack.
Number 10: The Bangles, The Rain Parade, The Dream Syndicate, The Three O’clock – 3X4 (2018)
This is the four original bands, covering each other’s songs over 30 years later. If we’re honest, none of these versions are better than the originals, few even match the prototypes. But this is such a lovely open hearted mutual ‘love and respect in’ that it would be churlish in the extreme not to mention it here.
Number 9: Long Ryders Native Sons (1984)
Bringing the roots to LA, lead Ryder Sid Griffin was desperate to be part of the scene and ended up with one of the more successful bands. Inordinately written about and loved on AUK so they don’t need my tw’penneth.
Number 8: True West Drifters (1984)
True West big guy Russ Tolman was there right from the get-go. He recorded a single in 1979 with Wynne and Kendra Smith long before they left uni to become the Dream Syndicate. He made some fine, if somewhat unheralded records of his own and this is the best. Last seen in a solo spot supporting Jesse Malin and trying to avoid any mention of this record or the band that made it!
Number 7: Rainy Day Rainy Day (1984)
A super-group covers album whilst the scene is still in its adolescence, hubris or genius? Not quite either but versions of ‘I’ll Keep it With Mine’ and ‘Flying on the Ground is Wrong’ sparkle and the take on Big Star’s (P.U. signature band) ‘Holocaust’ is just as bleak and mournful as the original.
Number 6: The Three O’clock Sixteen Tambourines (1985)
The somewhat spiky and sloppy Salvation Army reinvented themselves as an organ infused cross between Badfinger and Blondie and this debut album remains Michael Quercio’s mob’s most immediate and appealing.
Number 5: Thin White Rope In the Spanish Cave (1988)
Definitely a P.U band but more of an outlier in style and sound. Darker and edgier than most of the scene and less in debt to the Velvets than the Dream Syndicate. The final song on the extended reissue of this, their finest work, is a desiccated, howling live version of Suicide’s ‘Rocket USA’. The whole thing sounds like John Cale and Lou Reed murdering Tom Waits with Townes’ pocket knife in a ghost town back alley. It’s wonky, unpleasant, disturbing and utterly, utterly compelling. The whole LP, right there, in one song.
Number 4: Green on Red Gas Food Lodging (1985)
Their third and indubitably their best LP, G.F.L. invents desert roots-rock and spreads the Paisley tentacles across the whole of the Southern States.
Number 3: The Dream Syndicate Days of Wine and Roses (1982)
The first great P.U. album. Teetering on the edge of breakdown throughout, Wynn & co. reimagine the Velvets in the East Coast sunshine and set the grunge template while they’re at it.
Number 2: Rain Parade Emergency Third Rail Power Trip (1983)
As 60’s sounding as the scene got. Tinged with both psych and folk-rock at the same time as hammering that Television extended work-out thing. It’s a big stretch from here to David Roback’s excursions in Mazzy Star and Opal.
Number 1: Game Theory Lolita Nation (1987)
Perhaps – contentious claim alert – the scene’s finest offering, a real ambitious labour of love for main man Scott Miller who mashes up the sombre version of Big Star with jangle-pop deluxe and then blends it with blasts of noise and random snippets of randomness. A tricky but supremely rewarding listen.