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Left Of the Dial : Dispatches From the 80’s Underground

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If you’re looking for musical heroes, look no further. Rhino Records’ Left Of the Dial box set, a tribute to the 80’s Underground, sprawls with 82 songs by 82 different artists across 4 discs, but most all are infused with the Post-Punk revival of the conviction that music can and will change the world. Three vital components of delivering an effective message are intensity, artistry, and a sense of humor. All three elements are powerfully represented in this collection. Rhino advertises this set as its antidote to their own 80’s Pop Culture box. Left Of the Dial may be an answer of sorts, but it stands alone on its own merits with recordings that in many cases are as vital now as the day they were recorded.

The Do-It-Yourself ethic of late 70’s Punk gave birth to a wide-ranging Post-Punk Underground in the 80’s that took its cues from an incredibly varied musical palette and, most importantly, a sense that music should be authentic and have an identifiable impact on the listener. There is an intensity in these songs that is undeniable. Whether it’s the obvious Hardcore thrash of Black Flag and Bad Brains, or the lush romantic yearning of Prefab Sprout’s “When Love Breaks Down,” raw emotion reigns supreme. As Kate Bush eloquently sings, surrounded by a relentless beat and swirl of electronics on “Running Up That Hill”, “C’mon darling let’s exchange the experience.”

Although the Punk scene reveled in band members’ lack of formal skill at playing instruments, Post-Punk embraced a higher sense of artistic skill in creating music. The Smithereens and Stone Roses helped bring Guitar Pop to a new maturity in the 80’s. The Sugarcubes, featuring a young female lead vocalist named Bjork, and the Cocteau Twins explored avant garde song structure. Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as well as New Order’s “Temptation” prove the group’s facility at bonding instantly memorable melodies to propulsive Dance-Rock with and without original lead singer Ian Curtis. All of these are part of the always interesting, sometimes stunning artistic explorations featured on Left Of the Dial.

A number of Post-Punk bands used humor as a means of reaching their audience. The duo They Might Be Giants prefer an intellectual, sometimes obtuse, approach to humor in music while the Dead Milkmen’s instrumental thrash comes off as almost warm and fuzzy on their depiction of an adolescent crush on a “Punk Rock Girl.” The brilliant “stained sheet” insanity of “Blister In the Sun” by Violent Femmes remains striking 2 decades later.

On Left Of the Dial, producer Gary Stewart (the man who also produced Rhino’s 60’s garage band Nuggets series and the massive No Thanks! 70’s Punk box) has given definition to the massive explosion of music referred to as Post-Punk. The tracks here span the decade and geographically range from Iceland to San Antonio, Texas. However, they are unified by the principle that their music is a catalyst for positive social change. This principle is perhaps best summed up as Echo and the Bunnymen’s lead vocalist Ian McCulloch declares “Say we can, say we will – NOT just another drop in the ocean!” For those who knew and loved this music when it was first released or those discovering it for the first time, Rhino has hit another home run in making a diverse musical movement understandable and enthralling. The book included with the box is at Rhino’s usual high standard for providing background information and reminiscences from key musical figures. While one song is just enough to whet your appetite for more by most of these artists, few key artists have been left out and some nearly forgotten bands are once again honored. As a starting point in discovering Post-Punk music, you can not do better than this collection.

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About Bill Lamb

  • Bill Sherman

    Rhino also used the Left of the Dial title for one of three disc collections released in 1999 under the title Postpunk Chronicles. Looks as if the label’s expanded and revised that series to good effect. . .

  • Bill Lamb

    Yep, you’re exactly right. Rhino stated in their initial press releases that this collection is seen as superseding the Postpunk Chronicles series which is now out of print.

    Many of the artists are featured in both sets, but there is little overlap in the included songs.

    I own Postpunk Chronicles, too, and I think this box is better – the song selection is better and the book included is a significant improvement over the other series’ liner notes.

  • Rodney Welch

    Don’t get me started on No Thanks — I wrote about it here a year ago and I STILL listen to it regularly. I think it’s the greatest box set of all time, and I’m really looking forward to Left of the Dial.

  • LIRC

    Rhino rocks- even though I have most of the stuff on this, it is worth the price alone for the book.

    Love No Thanks, Love Nuggets. I want to marry Rhino.