14 Essential Paisley Underground Songs

14 Essential Paisley Underground Songs

Although it’s identified with Los Angeles, the Paisley Underground has roots that extend about 400 miles to the north. Specifically, to Davis, California, a small college town near Sacramento. Even more specifically, to the UC Davis student radio station. That’s where Steve Wynn met Kendra Smith, shortly before they formed the Suspects and later the Dream Syndicate. That’s where Russ Tolman spun records before he joined the Suspects and later True West. Scott Miller of Game Theory spun records at KDVS, as did Guy Kyser of art punks Thin White Rope. It’s not unusual for college radio stations to attract music nerds, misfits, and budding musicians, but in the late 1970s nearly every DJ at UC Davis was a cult legend in the making.

What did that station’s vinyl collection look like? The B section must have been bursting at the seams: the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Big Star and the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. Over in the Vs was the Velvet Underground, and in Various Artists was a well-worn copy of the Nuggets set, which gathered garage rock oddities and one-offs from the 1960s. After digesting all of those sounds and ideas, most of those DJs would move south to Los Angeles, where they would reassemble those influences into a new movement. As Wynn told The Big Takeover in 2015, “I do think the music we were making was timeless in a way that we were mixing the music we loved from our past — sixties, garage, psychedelia —with what was exciting us at the time in the punk rock and post-punk world. It was already a mix-tape of eras even at that point, which meant it wasn’t fixed to one moment in time.”

The scene itself wouldn’t get a name until 1982, when Michael Quercio coined paisley underground while ad-libbing lyrics during a rehearsal with his band the Three O’Clock. A few days later he uttered it again in an interview with the L.A. Weekly. It stuck because it was both useful and playful: The phrase sounded like a play on the Velvet Underground and a winking reference to the amoeboid shape that had been synonymous with the psych pop of the ’60s. For a while it was a tight-knit community, friendly and not especially competitive, with acts sharing bills at clubs like the Whisky, the Dancing Waters, and the Cathay De Grande. As Quercio told the Guardian in 2013: “By June of ’82 we all took a trip to Catalina Island — the Dream Syndicate, the Bangs, some guys from the Rain Parade — we all went out there and just kind of camped out and bonded. There was nothing else like this going on. The new wave scene was over, and even the hardcore scene was on the wane because there was so much violence that the clubs wouldn’t let a lot of these bands play.”

Because bands were very rarely fixed entities, it takes a detailed family tree or a massive Venn diagram to track everybody in the Paisley Underground. Membership was usually fluid, with line-ups mutating from one release to the next and musicians jumping from one act to another. Kendra Smith, one of the most beloved voices in the Paisley Underground, co-founded the Suspects and later the Dream Syndicate, then left to form the Clay Allison with David Roback of the Rain Parade. That band changed its name to Opal and released an EP and an LP before Smith left to pursue a solo career. Then it became Mazzy Star. But that just meant players were free to collaborate and experiment. In 1984 Roback spearheaded the scene-defining EP Rainy Day, credited to a group called Rainy Day but really just a loose coalition of locals covering Dylan, the Beach Boys, and Big Star. More than just an artifact of the era, that EP remains a blueprint for how old songs might find new life with new singers and new players.

As the movement bore on, many of these musicians developed an interest in country music, which had its own strange history in Los Angeles. Acts like True West, the Long Ryders, and Green On Red added a bit of twang to their songs, and even the Dream Syndicate feinted in that direction with their third album, Out Of The Grey. In 1985, Steve Wynn and Green On Red’s Dan Stuart got drunk and holed up in a studio for 36 hours to record a handful of raucous barroom tunes, which they released as Danny & Dusty. The Lost Weekend remains a wild ride, roughing up country rock as though they’re slashing the tires on Don Henley’s limo.

As apt a descriptor as the phrase Paisley Underground might have been, it may have proved a limiting prophecy, preventing these bands from breaking into the mainstream and instead consigning them to cult status. Only the Bangles managed to break out of the scene and establish themselves beyond the city limits, thanks to a massive single penned for them by Prince himself. His fascination with the music ultimately eclipsed the scene itself, as he followed up the massively popular Purple Rain with an album inspired by ’60s psychedelia. There’s even a song on Around The World In A Day called “Paisley Park,” Prince’s vision of a social utopia, and he used the same phrase for his record label (which actually signed the Three O’Clock) and his recording compound outside Minneapolis. The Paisley Underground had invaded the mainstream, but few of the bands reaped the rewards.

And so the scene simply dwindled, eventually overshadowed by the outrageous hair-metal acts along the Sunset Strip. Very few bands survived into the 1990s without a break-up or a long hiatus. On the other hand, almost every Paisley Underground band has either reunited or reissued their breakthrough albums. Real Gone Records recently gave the Rain Parade’s Emergency Third Rail Power Trip the deluxe treatment, complete with bonus live cuts. Next month, the reconstituted Dream Syndicate will release their fifth album (and their first since 1989), How Did I Find Myself Here?. Their best since Days Of Wine & Roses, it surveys the past from the vantage point of middle age, finding new joy and fresh possibilities in old sounds. And this week sees the release of Supercalifragile, a crowdfunded final Game Theory album (and their first since 1988) featuring Aimee Mann, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, and the Posies’ Jon Auer.

That longevity speaks not only to the scene’s impact on subsequent college rock and underground acts (ranging from the aforementioned R.E.M. and Posies to Dinosaur Jr. and Galaxie 500) but also the durability of the ideas these bands were exploring so long ago. It wasn’t simply about guitar jangle and pop harmonies, but more about a way of looking deep into rock’s past, of scrounging through another generation’s castoffs to find new inspirations, of putting a new stamp on pop culture. This list acts as an entry point into a tangled and complicated scene; these songs are listed in chronological order according to release date. Each band is limited to one song each, although almost every one of them has an expansive catalog for new generations to explore.

The Salvation Army – “She Turns To Flowers” (1982)

Every element and idea associated with the Paisley Underground is present in this single, which opens with a blast of backwards guitars and a bright tapestry of pop harmonies. The Salvation Army were trying to sound out of time, and the flowery existentialism of the lyrics and the studious phrasing of the vocals only heightens that out-of-time sensibility. “She Turns To Flowers” is inspired mimicry, rock and roll as wish fulfillment: they just wasn’t made for these times. Following a threatened lawsuit by the real Salvation Army, the band changed its name to the Three O’Clock and began to sound a bit more modern. Well, slightly.

The Bangles – “The Real World” (1982)

The Bangles had some of the best hooks, the best melodies, and maybe the best songs of any Paisley Underground band, but their fame obscured just how good they actually were right out of the gate. Released in 1982, shortly before Michael Steele (from the Runaways) joined the line-up, their self-titled debut EP introduced a band nearly fully formed, getting high off their favorite records (they even cover the La De Da’s “How Is The Air Up There”) and placing heavy emphasis on songcraft. “The Real World” sounds so familiar you know it instantly, a rousing pop tune that showcases the band’s glittery harmonies and jangly energy. By the mid 1980s, they had a platinum album thanks to the Prince-penned “Manic Monday,” yet their later singles lack the verve of their early material.

The Dream Syndicate – “Tell Me When It’s Over” (1982)

One of the most fondly remembered albums to crawl out of the Paisley Underground, The Days Of Wine & Roses looks east for inspiration. The Dream Syndicate, named after a 1960s experimental music project featuring LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad, were much more Velvet Underground than Buffalo Springfield, with drummer Dennis Duck and bass player Kendra Smith pounding out a rhythmic skeleton over which Karl Precoda and Steve Wynn would drape elaborate guitar drones and distortion. The album’s opening track and first single, “Tell Me When It’s Over” is a wry wink from Wynn, who sings like someone already looking forward to the end before the album has even begun. Extremely influential, the band would record three more albums before calling it quits in 1989, but would reunite in 2012.

The Rain Parade – “1 Hour ½ Ago” (1983)

Few Paisley bands were quite as self-aware as the Rain Parade, fronted by brothers Steven and David Roback. “What’s the point of looking back?” they ask on this standout from their debut, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip. “All you see is an empty track.” But the remainder of “1 Hour ½ Ago,” along with the rest of that landmark album, not only looks back but sets up shop in the past. It’s genuinely psychedelic, in that it wants to lead the listener some unknown destination. When the tempo changes and the song sounds like it’s melting right in front of your ears, it’s one of the trippiest moments in LA rock history.

The Three O’Clock – “Jet Fighter” (1983)

The difference between the claustrophobic noise rock of the Dream Syndicate and the peppy energy of the Three O’Clock suggests that the Paisley Underground was either an extremely wide umbrella or possibly a useless term. “Jet Fighter” was a sizable hit on college radio stations, essentially acting as an advertisement for the LA scene with its chiming guitars and lite-garage ambience. While there is a sharp contrast between the military imagery of the lyrics and the acrobatic falsetto of frontman Michael Quercio, the psychedelic touches are musical references rather than narcotic endorsements. They’re channeling the joy of listening to your father’s records rather than the out-of-body buzz of a strong hallucinogen.

The Long Ryders – “10-5-60″ (1983)

The title track from the Long Ryders’ debut EP is a song about being in a rock band and writing a rock song. Over a hyperactive guitar riff and a relentless drumbeat, Sid Griffin outlines the rules of the scene and the ingredients for a good tune. “If the dancers don’t feel it, nobody’s gonna move!” As they chant those obscure numbers on the chorus, the song becomes a boisterous mission statement, although they would soon trade the garage for the roadhouse, refining a jarring country-rock attack that predicted the alt-country movement of the next decade. Griffin would later form the Coal Porters in the 1990s and penned a biography of Gram Parsons in 1998.

True West – “Hollywood Holiday” (1983)

Did you know that Los Angeles has a seedy side? That’s the subject of True West’s signature song, which chronicles a motel hook-up between two people who probably don’t want to be photographed together. “She says she hasn’t done this much at all,” sings Russ Tolman, like he’s some old-school private dick sticking a camera through someone else’s blinds. Taking its name from the Sam Shepard play that won a Pulitzer in 1983, the band straddled hard-bitten country rock and rock-geek psychedelia (even covering Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam” backwards), with Richard McGrath’s guitar blending the two genre’s until they were indistinguishable. Despite some good press in the UK and an opening gig on R.E.M.’s Fables Of The Reconstruction tour, True West never broke out of the underground and finally disbanded in 1985.

Rainy Day – “I’ll Keep It With Mine” (1984)

Rainy Day was the brainchild of the Rain Parade’s David Roback, a scene-specific supergroup featuring members of the Bangles, Opal, and the Three O’Clock. The group released only one EP of covers that provided a roadmap to the Paisley Underground. Kendra Smith singing “Holocaust” is nearly definitive, Michael Quercio managed to make “Sloop John B” sound like an all new bad trip, and Susanna Hoffs adds heart to Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine.” What might have been hero-worship karaoke instead becomes something much more personal and poignant, with the Bangles frontwoman turning the song into a scene-wide statement about how we treasure the music of the past. Sadly, the EP has been out of print for three decades, which means this one-off lives on in bootlegs.

The Pandoras – “Hot Generation” (1984)

Primary Pandora Paula Pierce had a gift for mimicking the riffs and melodies of her favorite 45s, blurring the line between tribute and theft (“I’m Here I’m Gone” barely inverts “Satisfaction,” for example). “Hot Generation,” however, steamrollers any comparisons, stomping its ways out of the garage and careening recklessly all the way to the beach. Overshadowing their musical accomplishments, sadly, was the infighting that resulted in two versions of the Pandoras gigging around LA: a version led by Pierce and another version featuring all the previous band members she had alienated. As the ’80s wore on, the group veered closer to Sunset Strip metal before Pierce died of a brain aneurysm in 1990.

Danny & Dusty – “Baby, We All Gotta Go Down” (1985)

The Lost Weekend, this supergroup’s first album, certainly lived up to its name: Danny (Dan Stuart of Green On Red) and Dusty (Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate) and a loose crew of locals spent a beer-fueled weekend recording a raucous set of country-rock tunes alternately hilarious and harrowing. A document of the scene’s growing fascination with country music, it’s loose and sloppy and raw and fun, like Dylan and the Band trying to incite a bar brawl. Especially on “Baby, We All Gotta Go Down,” they embrace the heavy-drinkin’, down-and-out, devil-may-care ethos of outlaw country as a noble cause, delivering that shout-along chorus like they’re going into battle.

Prince – “Raspberry Beret” (1985)

At the height of his purple reign, Prince was obsessed with the Paisley Underground, not only signing the Three O’Clock to his label but naming that label, a song, and his recording compound in Minnesota all Paisley Park. His follow-up to Purple Rain was informed by the hippie rock popular in Los Angeles, and while it was fairly reviled at the time, Around The World In A Day has improved with age and “Raspberry Beret” remains one of his best singles, a breezy story-song about hooking up with a girl at work.

Green On Red – “That’s What Dreams Were Made For” (1985)

Green On Red weren’t native Angelenos. Rather, they hailed from Arizona, where frontman Dan Stuart was busted for trying to steal a guitar. So the band moved west and entrenched themselves in the Paisley Underground. Early records played up the psychedelic elements in their sound, making fine use of Chris Cacavas’s acrobatic organ. Gradually, the band would introduce country elements into their songs. “That’s What Dreams Were Made For,” from their second full-length, Gas Food Lodging, adds some Bakersfield twang to the guitars and a bit of drawl into the vocals, but the biggest change might be the lyrics, which embrace a heartland narrative style not far removed from Mellencamp or Springsteen.

Game Theory – “24” (1985)

Miller was a DJ at the UC Davis radio station alongside Steve Wynn, Kendra Smith, and Russ Tolman, but he remained in northern California when his fellow students migrated south. Far from the center of the Paisley Underground, he managed to mold some of the same influences into a very different sound. As a result, the band sounds a bit less florid in their psychedelia, a bit less aggressive in their garage rock. Especially with Mitch Easter’s production, Game Theory sound more ’80s than ’60s, especially on this standout from their second full-length album, Real Nighttime. Few bands were writing so straightforwardly about the confusion of being young and just out of college, facing down the world without the bravado of youth. “I’m in the sweetest way misled, growing my hair in bed,” Miller sings, then poses the question that all recent graduates must ask themselves at some point: “Coffee or beer?”

Opal – “My Only Friend” (1989)

Opal is the brainchild of two of the most elusive personalities in the Paisley Underground: David Roback was a founding member of the Rain Parade who devised the Rainy Day project in 1984, and Kendra Smith was a founding member of the Dream Syndicate who quit the band after the release of Days Of Wine & Roses. Opal lasted only a few years and one album, but they recorded frequently enough for a posthumous collection in 1989, simply titled Early Recordings. With its droning organ, heavily reverbed percussion, and tricky tempo changes, “My Only Friend” is an ode to lost loved ones, and the song’s gauzy melancholy gives it a bit more warmth than the Velvet Underground records upon which it’s obviously based. When Smith left the group, Roback hired Hope Sandoval to replace her and changed the name to Mazzy Star. Smith recorded a solo album in 1996, then excused herself from the music business. Her absence intensifies the melancholy of this tune, although hearing her sing on the new Dream Syndicate record sounds like the return of a long-lost friend.

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