The Best Songs of the Paisley Underground

The Paisley Underground wasn’t so much a movement as an intermission between next new things. It was 1981 and punk music had run its course. Labels marketed their prior punk bands as new wave or power pop and the moniker was essentially abandoned to the hardcore kids. Cowpunk was about to happen, but wouldn’t kick off until Rank and File’s debut Sundown in 1982, while alt- and college rock were still a few years away. R.E.M. released their first single, “Radio Free Europe,” that year, and their jangly, then-fuzzy sound wasn’t far removed from where the Paisley Underground entered stylistically.

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The sound blends roots rock like the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield, giving the guitars a warm ringing jangle, mixed with psychedelic rock elements from noisy, fuzzed-out licks to sonorous bar chord drone, all delivered in a raw, clamorous rumble lifted from ’60s garage rock. 

While some acts resisted the tag, it was useful to have a banner of sort to run under. But it wasn’t a political party so much as a backyard one, full of like-minded souls who would explore some subset of those styles as they emerged from the gate. The “movement” was relatively small. There were six bands basically, and they would literally hang out and barbecue together. 

“I know it sounds stupid, but a lot of us met at these barbecues,” Sid Griffin of the Long Ryders told the Guardian. “We’re all in the same neighborhood. We’re all roughly the same age, and we all like ’60s bands: the Beatles, the Stones, the Byrds, the Creation, the Action. I was amazed a lot of these guys knew these bands.”

What’s extraordinary is all of these bands are still active in some way and many have continued to release music. Several have reunited in the past decade and released albums in the past 18 months, including the Long Ryders, Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade, while the Bangles broke up, then reunited 25 years ago and still play periodically. Green on Red’s Dan Stuart and Chuck Prophet continued into solo careers, while Three O’Clock reunited in 2013 and still play occasionally and have released archival music. 

1. “Tell Me When It’s Over,” Dream Syndicate (1982)

Arguably the most critically adored of the Paisley Underground bands, Dream Syndicate took their name from one of John Cale’s pre-Velvet Underground projects, signaling one of their biggest influences. There’s a noisy obliqueness to their sound fueled by the intertwining guitar work of Karl Pecoda and Steve Wynn, which was influenced by the guitar line interplay of Television’s guitarists Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine. There’s a ragged grace to their guitar hooks that also recalls Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

There’s something fitting about opening their debut album, The Days of Wine and Roses, with this track, which overtly evokes an ending. But it’s also about actively avoiding closure: I really don’t know / ‘Cause I don’t wanna know. That’s a fitting sentiment for a band that kept their musical approach and playing style open-ended. 

The Days of Wine and Roses is considered by many critics to be one of the best albums of the early ’80s; because it was released on Ruby Records, a smaller subsidiary of pioneering punk label Slash Records, it took time for word to spread. Wynn also releases solo albums and records with Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) in The Baseball Project. Dream Syndicate released Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions in 2022.

2. “Hero Takes a Fall,” The Bangles (1984)

The Bangles were sort of the spunky younger sister of the Go Go’s, but with a gruffer, garage rock swagger. Like the Go-Go’s, everyone contributed and sang, but the label screwed with the band’s chemistry by narrowing their attentions on Susanna Hoffs (see, Belinda Carlisle), and favoring her songs for the singles. The girls shared a love of ’60s garage-psych and British Invasion bands; they were huge music nerds like the boys. And naturally there were all these cross-connections; for example, Hoffs’ brother John was best friends with Rain Parade guitarist David Roback.

“Hero Takes a Fall” is not only a great early track for the Bangles, it led to Prince collaborating with the band on its first big hit, “Manic Monday.” “[It] was one of those breakthrough songs for us,” Hoffs told Vulture. “It’s the song that Prince heard and was like, ‘What band is this? I like it.’ The song really encapsulates [Patterson sisters] Vicki and Debbi, and my love of ’60s music and … sort of psychedelic pop: The Seeds, Arthur Lee, Love, the Beau Brummels, the Blues Magoos, the Troggs.”

3. “Looking For Lewis and Clark,” The Long Ryders (1985)

Guitarists Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy keyed the Long Ryders’ sound, settling on a blend of Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers country with a gruff garage attitude, or as Griffin described it, “The Byrds, but pissed off.” The punk came out in the lyrics that were appropriately anti-corporate and progressive in tone, and together formed an early blueprint for the basics of the Americana sound.

According to Griffin, the band was particularly victimized by an executive at their label who thought guitar bands were over. Acting on his steadfast belief, he canceled the order of albums to support the single’s release. Naturally the single got off to a nice start, getting airplay at college radio and into rotation on MTV, but then there were no records in the stores.

“There was like a three-week gap in the market where you couldn’t buy it, so we were just dead in the water,” said Griffin, who blamed the departure of the A&R guy that signed them. “The next people, they don’t care about you, because you’re someone else’s. They just say, ‘Well, this is Fred’s signing, not mine, what does it have to do with me?’”

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

Green on Red came to Los Angeles from Tucson, Arizona, after singer/guitarist Dan Stuart fled the state following a smash-and-grab robbery to supply himself with a guitar and amp. (And he successfully avoided jail time!) While distinctive from the start, due in part to Chris Cacavas’ woozy organ sound, the addition of guitarist Chuck Prophet prior to their second full-length album, Gas Food Lodging, took them to another level. 

“When I saw Green On Red, it’s hard for me to really describe just how wildly fresh they were at the time. They had songs, you know, that were narrative, story songs,” Prophet recalled. “They were playing some open chords on guitar and you could hear the words, but now on top of the elements, it was charismatic in some way that really kind of blew my mind. When they asked me to join, I didn’t hesitate.”

This track from the aforementioned album captures that moment’s road-weary-but-impassioned vibe, as Stuart sings, Guess I’ll just be poor for the rest of my life / It’s better than giving up the fight / That’s what dreams were made for.

5. Talking in My Sleep, Rain Parade (1983)

Some of the guitar tones share common DNA with Dream Syndicate. After releasing their 1983 debut, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, guitarist David Roback left Rain Parade to form Opal with Dream Syndicate bassist Kendra Smith and drummer Keith Mitchell. When Smith left Opal after a show in Providence, Rhode Island, Roback replaced her with his friend Hope Sandoval, ultimately changing the band’s name to Mazzy Star. A few years later they released “Fade Into You,” a slow builder that became a hit almost a year after its release.

Piucci reunited Rain Parade a decade ago, and in August they dropped their third album and first release in 37 years, Last Days of a Dying Sun, to favorable reviews.

6. “Jet Fighter” The Three O’Clock

The punchy, almost power pop approach of The Three O’Clock fits nicely alongside The Plimsouls, The Shoes and even R.E.M. Their songs were catchy and they quickly ascended the musical ladder, going from small indie Frontier Records for their 1983 debut, 16 Tambourines, to major-associated indie IRS Records for their next two albums. They were signed to Prince’s major label subsidiary, Paisley Park, for their final album, Vermillion, which also featured popsmith Jason Falkner (Jellyfish) on guitar. The band broke up afterward, though they reunited in 2013. The only “original” music they’ve released was taking part in Yep Roc’s 2018 paisley underground 3X4 release, in which The Three O’Clock, Bangles, Dream Syndicate, and Rain Parade each cover one of each other’s songs.

Photo by Brian McLaughlin/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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