Rain Parade: Emergency Third Rail Power Trip / Explosions in the Glass Palace
Thirty years on, the so-called “Paisley Underground” deserves a critical reassessment documenting their wide reach and influence. Start here.
Sorry if it bores you, but this is personal.
I graduated from high school in May 1984 and was all set to be the first in my immediate family to go off to college. About a week before I was to go, my father took me aside and handed me six $20 bills, saying simply, “Get what you need.”
I knew what I needed: I needed to fit in. A lifelong outcast, I swore that college would be different and that I’d find a way to mesh into the mainstream. So I spent a weekend driving around South Philadelphia, hitting assorted thrift stores to spread those 120 bucks out as best I could. I found some good clean polo shirts and a tags-still-on pair of tan corduroy slacks in my size. I even found a nearly-new Members Only knock-off jacket and still had just around 12 bucks in my pocket.
Succumbing to old habits, though, I stopped off at Third Street Jazz, my favorite record store. Several sleepless nights earlier, flipping through cable channels, I’d caught only the second half of Rain Parade’s video for “This Can’t Be Today” on MTV. Despite its incompleteness, those swirling guitars and explosive organ washes had been floating in my head since. There on the basement wall in the shop was that antique looking album cover with the Technicolor balloon launch: Emergency Third Rail Power Trip. I bought it and didn't think I listened to another thing during the week leading up to being dropped off at my dorm at a small central Pennsylvania state college.
The first thing I unpacked was my record player, and I set it up on my empty desk and put on this record. Sitting alone in a strange place, wearing my slightly used preppy fit-in disguise, and with the moving-in noises of other students pulsing through my door, the lyrics of “Carolyn’s Song” sent me reeling: “Are you lost? Are you sad? Did I leave you alone? / Do you think that they don’t understand what it’s like to feel all alone?” The sorrowful sighs that stood in for the song’s chorus actually inspired me to get up and open the door to go find the college radio station office. Jumping forward from that moment, it turned out I didn’t have to change to fit in. I would find a community of fellow outcasts among the deejays at the college radio station (and I would ditch the corduroys).
Rain Parade was at the center of the “Paisley Underground”, a loosely affiliated group of like-minded Los Angeles-area musicians with a common appreciation for 60s garage rock, bubblegum pop, and psychedelia, but with a broad variety of interpretations in terms of modernizing those sounds. My college radio show featured most of the bands associated with the movement: the noir, proto-Americana of Green on Red; the dark, moodiness of Dream Syndicate (who solidified my need to explore the Velvet Underground); the bright, bubblegum trip-pop of the Three O’Clock; the brash but poppy garage rock of the Bangles; the alt-country twang and burn of the Long Ryders; and, the brittle pop genius of Game Theory. But Rain Parade was the catalyst for me, always at the center.
Emergency Third Rail Power Trip is the album that empowered me to stop caring about how I fit in or didn’t, with others, to become myself, whoever that self would turn out to be. And now, all these years later, I’m joyfully tasked with reviewing the album’s re-release. If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably, and smartly, given up any hope of objectivity.
But that’s the halcyon position of that special, simultaneously life-changing and life-affirming album of one’s youth. Everyone should have one, and this one is mine. I know every note by heart. These songs have accompanied me through every step of life’s passage and will continue to do so until I can listen no longer. For me, it’s a perfect album, as is its immediate follow-up, included here, the Explosions in the Glass Palace EP. The only hiccup on the disc, really, is the bonus cut that serves as the bridge between the two records, “Look Both Ways”. It’s not a bad song; it’s just a really good B-side that they were right to leave off of the original American release of Emergency.
Jim Hill’s remastering does these songs justice in a way that the previous CD reissue of the two albums in 1995 did not. Comparing them, that first conversion to the digital format sounds flat. This re-release is vibrant and loud, with better separation of the individual instruments and players, particularly in the guitar interplay between David Roback and Matt Piucci, as on the still-delightful garage pop of the band’s lead single “What She’s Done to Your Mind”. For me, though, the defining source of the Rain Parade’s sound has always been the combination of the late Will Glenn’s organ and violin and Stephen Roback’s melodic bass guitar. “Kaleidoscope” floats on Glenn’s organ and his playing provides the otherworldly mood for “This Can’t Be Today” while the bass line drives that song forward. Similarly, Roback’s bass is as much a lead instrument on “I Look Around” and “Look at Merri” as are the vaunted twin guitars.
David Roback’s departure following the debut album, oddly enough, only made the band stronger, as evidenced by their leaner but no less powerful sound on Explosions in the Glass Palace. “You Are My Friend” is a fine lead single, and possible kiss-off to the expatriate member made more meaningful for its mix of love and anger: “Friend, so sad it had to end”, Piucci sings, while acknowledging “Some broken things don’t mend / They lie where they fall.” The complex emotions are revisited in “Broken Horse”, which spirals its dominant emotion of regret amidst Stephen Roback’s delicate acoustic guitar and Piucci’s angry electric angst. “No Easy Way Down” might be the definitive Rain Parade song, the collective locked upon a fuzzed-out journey into personal emotional oblivion.
“The Paisley Underground” was always a throwaway term coined off-the-cuff by the Three O’Clock’s Michael Quercio and embraced by few of the bands then associated with it. Thirty-plus years on, though, it is a worthwhile guidepost pointing towards a loose collection of musicians whose influence has proven to far exceed their reach at the time. Their influence sent Prince down an anything but color-blind alley (witness Around the World in a Day), and their reach extends to lauded contemporary bands like War on Drugs, the Allah Las, and Beachwood Sparks. Emergency Third Rail Power Trip is one of the definitive albums of that era, and it has aged well, or, rather, it has hardly aged at all. Just as upon its release in 1983, it harkens back to earlier influences while forging its own ground forward.