Tell Me When It’s Over: The Paisley Underground Reconsidered

The Rain Parade

Steve Wynn

If you ask Steve Wynn for one of his favorite memories from his days playing on the Los Angeles club scene back in the early eighties, you might be surprised by his answer.

It’s not sharing the bill with such legendary combos as The Rain Parade or Green on Red, or touring the nation, or even recording an album in 1982 that’s come to be viewed as a seminal document of the time (The Days of Wine and Roses — more on which later).

No, when Wynn, the former Dream Syndicate leader (now a solo artist), thinks about the brief flowering of West Coast bands that became known as The Paisley underground, he thinks about a day trip to Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California.

The year is 1982. It’s a glorious Fourth of July weekend, and members of the Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, Salvation Army and the Bangles (before the big hair and “Walk Like an Egyptian”) are all in attendance. It is a day of sun, surf, barbecue and camaraderie.

“It was the defining moment,” Wynn recalled not long ago. “We were all just happy together. We were all into the moment.”

So why should one memory, now 20 years gone, still hold any importance? Why should the activities of a semi-obscure group of bands still hold sway two decades after they first took up their instruments and committed songs to tape?

The answer is twofold.

First, Wynn’s story should resonate with anyone who even vaguely remembers their early 20s: that magical time when your friends are your family, when every sensation is the first one, and (if you’re a musician just starting out) rock is the food and drink that gets you through the day.

“It was a surprisingly supportive scene,” said Steven Roback, who co-founded the Rain Parade with brother David. “Part of it was preestablished friendships between David and I and the Hoffs family. We grew up together, lived two blocks from each other. In fact, I performed in seventh grade musical with Sue [Susannah Hoffs of the Bangles] as the lead.”

The camaraderie between the bands was at least as important as the music they were making. For a period of several years, the Paisley Underground groups crossed paths on tour, shared the same booking agents, and worked on each other’s projects.

The epicenter for the scene was the two-story, Los Angeles apartment kept by desert rockers Green on Red. The band’s barbecues provided a place to schmooze, drink and swap musical ideas. It is a place recalled with great fondness by the Paisley Underground’s various members.

Rain Parade guitarist Matt Piucci puts it this way: “We met the Dream Syndicate through a (Green on Red) barbecue,” Piucci recalled. “They had this place up in Hollywood. From there, we met the [Bangles’] Peterson sisters — Ooh yeah! They were very sweet girls.”

The bands that made up the Paisley Underground provide a direct link between the early American underground and the modern alternative rock and that was to follow a decade later.

“It was a marriage of classic rock and punk,” explained Pat Thomas, co-owner of San Francisco indie Innerstate Records and the Underground’s unofficial historian. “It was a precursor to SubPop and the whole alternative country movement. You’ve got bands like the Long Ryders. Fast-forward 10 years, and everyone thinks that Son Volt is God’s gift to country rock.”

Indeed, the harsh guitar noise of the Dream Syndicate echoed later in the Pixies and Nirvana (Kurt Cobain once cited the Syndicate as an influence) and the twangy guitars of the Long Ryders and Green on Red later provided a blueprint for pioneers Uncle Tupelo.

“Uncle Tupelo started as we were unraveling,” former Long Ryders bassist Tom Stevens said. “We played St. Louis once, and I don’t know if (Uncle Tupelo leaders Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar) were out in the audience taking notes or what.”

Although they disagree about exactly when they were officially christened (listening to the various musicians tell stories about the era is not unlike playing a child’s game of telephone), Wynn and the others do agree that it was former Salvation Army leader Michael Quercio who gave the movement its name.

Quercio — who later went on to form the Three O’Clock and Jupiter Affect — jokingly dropped the Paisley Underground reference during an interview. It stuck. And again, depending on whom you ask, the communal moniker was either a godsend or an albatross.

“We viewed it as joke,” Stevens said. “We didn’t like to be pigeonholed on the one hand. On the other, if people were writing about us and spelling our names right, it was okay.”

Wynn is slightly more charitable.

“I don’t think [Quercio] thought it would stick like it did”, he said. “As dopey as it was . . . it was helpful to have a banner over it. It didn’t really hurt anyone.”

Those involved in the scene also agree on something else: the umbrella label failed to take into account the diverse bands that made up the Paisley Underground scene.

On the one hand, there was the desert rock of Green on Red and the country-punk of the Long Ryders. On the other was the dreamy pop of the Rain Parade and the Salvation Army/3 O’clock. The Dream Syndicate, meanwhile, blended psychedelia with the anger of punk and the mystique of the Velvet Underground.

“These bands in L.A. had extremely diverse musical personalities. Some of them were extremely hard rocking, and that’s why the Paisley Underground is truly a misnomer,” Roback said. “The whole thing was a spontaneous resynthesis of many influences, which happens periodically, colored by the personalities of the people and the times. Rain Parade was very much a recasting of our punk interests in more musical terms, inspired by our fascination with music history.”

Indeed, if you spend any time talking with its constituents, it rapidly becomes apparent that the Paisley Underground’s members are music junkies in the truest sense of the word. Wynn and Piucci, in particular, are repositories of vast stores of rock history. Combine that knowledge with a punk D.I.Y ethic, and the scene explodes.

“We all came out of punk,” Wynn said. “We had a huge musical awakening in 1977, and it just blew everything else away. In 1975, you couldn’t do that. But by 1982, it was second nature.”

That melding of styles also lends the music a certain timelessness that is lacking in other records of the period. Indeed, the Dream Syndicate’s The Days of Wine and Roses or Rain Parade’s stellar debut, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, still sound refreshingly modern and could easily occupy the same indie airspace as the Strokes or the Anniversary.

“I think it’s because they wrote good songs,” Chicago Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis said of the scene’s staying power. “It’s illuminating to compare the ’60s revivals of the era — the West Coast Paisley Underground and the East Coast garage scene. The bands from the former stay with the fans much more than the latter because they wrote strong material that stood the test of time, while the latter were largely devoted to covers and style (and fashion) over songwriting.”

But by 1985, the scene had disintegrated amid personnel changes, disputes over songwriting, and the old demon: record deals gone bad.

“Unfortunately, they were all united by the fact that they all took turns for the worse when they were signed to major labels,” DeRogatis wrote in his seminal work on the scene, Kaleidoscope Eyes.

“In the days before Nirvana, they proved there was money to be made if the bands were left to their own devices,” DeRogatis wrote. “It’s possible that corporate meddling was to blame. The bands may have lost heart as, with the sole exception of R.E.M., American guitar music was unable to achieve both critical and commercial success.”

For a brief, flashing moment, it appeared that the American underground had conquered rock. And through the prism of two decades, the members of the Paisley Underground remain fiercely proud of their legacy.

“The reason the L.A. scene has endured is because the music was really good,” Roback said. “I mean things did get a little absurd when these . . . A&R people started showing up at gigs and throwing money around. But these people were all very talented, and regardless of the label, capable of great things. For about three or four years, all of those bands were on a serious roll, producing great music, which was all different . . . The rest is mainly hype.”

But the artistic achievement was important enough for Innerstate’s Thomas (whose own New York band, the Rochester-based Absolute Gray, provided the Underground with its East Coast branch office) to spend several fruitless months attempting to compile a still-unreleased Paisley Underground boxed set.

He began compiling the set in 1997 at the behest of executives at Rykodisc in England. “I got a phone call out of the blue”, he recalled. “And they were looking for the phone numbers for some of the key members. I was working at a record store and the owner was good friends with the head of A&R at Ryko and he convinced him why I should have the job. Finally, they flew someone out to meet with me, and by 1998, I had the job.”

What followed is a textbook example of the whims of the record business. After spending six months compiling photographs, tracking down old B-sides and compiling live cuts, the rug was suddenly pulled out from under him.

“Ryko got bought out by Island, and they fired the big bosses,” he said. “Pretty much every project got canceled. Every few months, someone from Ryko will call and ask what’s up, but I’d be surprised if it ever sees the light of day.” He’s briefly toyed with releasing the set on his own label, but the costs of such a project would make it prohibitive. “To do it all top-notch would cost about $30,000,” he said. “If we were to do it ourselves, it would cost about $10,000. What needs to happen is that someone needs to take the bull by the horns. I’ll get excited when and if that happens.”

Several hundred miles north of Thomas’ Oakland offices that has already begun to happen.

Founded little more than a year ago, the Portland, Oregon-based indie, the Paisley Pop Label, has dedicated itself to keeping the spirit of the Underground alive. In its brief existence, the label has released demos and outtakes by former Windbreaker s Bobby Sutliff and Tim Lee, an Absolute Grey live set, and, more recently, a collection by former True West members Gavin Blair and Richard McGrath called The Foolkillers.

Label owner Jim Huie (himself a frequent collaborator with former True West guitarist Russ Tolman) also moderates a Paisley Underground mailing list. It is, he says, his way of keeping the faith.

“If the Paisley Underground built upon the ’60s, then it’s certainly possible that a younger crowd might take inspiration from the Dream Syndicate and the Long Ryders.”

For his part, Wynn said he’s glad that the Paisley Underground’s legacy has endured and picked up new fans.

“It’s attached to a lot of strong feelings from people”, he said. “I don’t know how many are people who were there at the time and how many are 25-year-old kids who are discovering it for the first time . . . I think it still sounds kind of non-formulaic in ways that other music does not. It still does stand out.”