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Sunday Morning Playlist: Paisley Underground

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A subgenre of the mid-80’s jangle pop genre, Paisley Underground (so named for the paisley shirts many bandmembers favored) was a psychedelic-revival movement centered in Los Angeles. Most (but not all) paisley underground bands borrowed heavily from the ringing guitars of the Byrds, and in the drones, raga-rock, and colorful whimsy of the late 60’s psychedelic bands. While it was a largely retro-scene, an attempt to keep alive a form and style that had been dead for well over a decade and a half, it also produced some very fresh-sounding new music.


Rain Parade [Concert Poster] (1984)   Dream Syndicate [Concert poster] (1984)   The Bangles [Concert poster] (1987)

Few paisley underground bands rose above cult status, but The Bangles eventually scored big, the Rain Parade’s David Roback would have 90’s success with Mazzy Star, the Long Ryders would influence the alternative country movement of the 90’s, and Dream Syndicate and Game Theory would receive critical acclaim, if not sales at the register.

Paisley Underground’s moment was a short-lived one, stretching from about 1982 through 1986. As the late 80’s approached, most of the original bands had disbanded. Since the genre stemmed from a local scene that had moved on to other things, there was no significant second wave. Still, much paisley underground music remains good listening to this day; it bridged a gap from the 60’s to the neo-psychedelia of 90’s dream pop, and remains a colorful offshoot of jangle pop, one of the more important 80’s rock movements.

Some important/influential paisley underground artists and songs include:

1. The Bangles: The Real World
The Bangles: The Bangles [EP] (1982)
The all-woman Bangles, formerly The Bangs, formed in Los Angeles in 1981 and specialized in a rootsy 60’s based guitar rock that recalled the Byrds and The Grass Roots. “The Real World” is an excellent representation of their early sound, and was part of a 4-song EP debut on Faulty records in 1982, which featured original bassist Annette Zilinkas, who would be replaced by Michael Steele by the time of their 1984 debut album on IRS, All Over The Place. Light, breezy, tuneful, mildly psychedelic, this remains one of their best tracks; the EP, which is now out-of-print and rare, is worth seeking out for the other tracks as well, including “Mary Street” and a tough, rocking cover of “How Is The Air Up There?”, a garage-punk tune originally done by New Zealand’s La De Da’s. Their sound changed by the time of their second full length album, Different Light (1985); their early material is best.

2. Green On Red: Death And Angels
Green On Red: Green On Red [EP] (1982)
Green on Red, originally from Tuscon, Arizona, emerged from the paisley underground scene with an EP, Green On Red, on Steve Wynn’s Down There label in 1982. “Death And Angels” bears all the hallmarks of the genre, particularly in the organ playing of Chris Cacavas; here, the band’s sound recalls The Seeds crossed with The Doors, with a little Love sprinkled in. The band didn’t like the pigeonhole the “paisley underground” tag stuck them in, and by the time of their 1983 debut album, Gravity Talks (on Slash records), they had already toned down the psychedelic devices in favor of a roots-rock approach reminscent of John Fogerty. The band never sold many records, but maintained a following; they managed to release 10 albums and EP’s on a variety of labels before disbanding in 1992.

3. The Long Ryders: Looking For Lewis And Clark
The Long Ryders: State Of Our Union (1985)
The Long Ryders were part of the paisley underground scene, featuring Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn in its lineup for a spell, and playing many of the same venues as the other bands. However, they owed a much larger debt to the Byrds and Gram Parsons in their musical approach, the psychedelia in their music limited to fuzzed guitars more than trippy jams. After an album and an EP on indie labels, the band signed with Island (who also signed Rain Parade); “Looking For Lewis And Clark” was the leadoff single from their 1985 major label debut, State Of Our Union. Led by singer/guitarists Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy, the band was tight and melodic, and is now considered one of the best folk/country/jangle pop/roots rock bands of its day. This single is instantly accessable, features nicely impressionistic political lyrics, and plenty of chiming guitars and harmonica. A real classic; unfortunately it never charted.

4. The Rain Parade: This Can’t Be Today
The Rain Parade: Emergency Third Rail Power Trip (1983)
Led by brothers David (guitar) and Steven Roback (bass) and vocalist/guitarist Matt Piucci, The Rain Parade was arguably the quintessential paisley underground band. Favoring hypnotic drone, raga rock, textured and phased guitars, and brooding, melancholic lyrics, they best captured the spirit of the 60’s influences so many of these bands shared. “This Can’t Be Today” was the first single from their 1983 debut album Emergency Third Rail Power Trip on Enigma records, and remains their best; guitar-and-drums driven, featuring the eerie background vocals of Dream Syndicate’s Kendra Smith (who would later form Opal with David Roback), and quite psychedelic. The band had a devoted cult following, but never managed to sell many records; after another EP for Enigma, and a good but flop LP for Island, the band folded in 1986.

5. The Three O’Clock: With a Cantaloupe Girlfriend

The Three O'Clock: Baroque Hoedown (1982)
Lead singer and bassist Michael Quercio is credited with coining the phrase “paisley underground”, and his band, The Three O’Clock is another band that could be considered the most representative of the genre. Formed as The Salvation Army in 1980, the band was forced to relinquish their name after their debut EP in 1982. Baroque Hoedown, their first EP under their new name, was where their sound meshed, and arguably stands as the best distillation of their sound, which resembled Syd Barrett fronting a garage band. The band would eventually chart one album, Arrive Without Traveling at #125 in 1985, but never developed beyond a cult item. They disbanded in 1988.

6. Game Theory: 24
Game Thoery: Real Nighttime (1985)
Led by singer/guitarist Scott Miller, whose voice sounded a lot like Alex Chilton, Game Theory blended the paisley underground conventions with a Big Star-style power pop approach; coming up with a more uptempo quasi-psychedelia. Formed in Sacramento in 1982, the band relocated to L.A. and were fixtures on the scene for a while. After releasing a trio of EP’s from 1982-1984, the band teamed up with R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter for their first full length album. “24” features a slowly building instrumental intro before launching into a perky piece of jangle pop, with particularly evocative lyrics from Miller. The band would later lean more on the Big Star influence, particularly on their best album, Lolita Nation (1987), but like their heroes, they were never destined to sell records. They disbanded in 1990.

7. True West: Hollywood Holiday
true West: Hollywood Holiday (1983)
True West, from Davis, California, were fringe players in the paisley underground movement, centering their base of operations in the San Francisco area, instead of Los Angeles. They had a number of connections to the scene, however. Steve Wynn co-produced one of their albums, Rain Parade’s Matt Piucci and Green On Red’s Chuck Prophet contributed guitar to another, True West drummer Josef Becker would join Thin White Rope after leaving the band. The band itself specialized in a darker neo-psychedelic sound with some folk/country shadings and a Californiacentric worldview; “Hollywood Holiday” is perhaps their best song, from their 1983 debut, featuring Gavin Blair’s Syd Barrett influenced vocals. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Russ Tolman, who left the band shortly thereafter, releases albums to this day, and has a cult following, especially in France.

8. Dream Syndicate: Tell Me When It’s Over
Dream Syndicate: Days Of Wine And Roses (1982)
Though not the most commercially successful of the paisley underground bands (that distinction goes to The Bangles), Dream Syndicate ultimately was the most important one. Led by Steve Wynn and Kendra Smith, the band formed in Los Angeles in 1981 after Wynn and Smith had relocated there from Davis, CA. Featuring an aggressive, guitar driven, jamming style, the band had considerable influence on indie rock in general, beyond the confines of the local scene, not only via their Velvet Underground/Byrds/Doors/Neil Young inspired music, but through Steve Wynn’s varied production credits on other bands’ albums. Smith would soon depart, eventually to form Opal with David Roback, but the band would continue to develop, improving their technique. “Tell Me When It’s Over” is from their 1982 debut Days Of Wine And Roses, and sounds like Lou Reed and Neil Young’s love child. The band recorded seven albums, but disbanded in 1989.

9. Thin White Rope: Disney Girl
Thin White Rope: Exploring The Axis (1985)
Another band from Davis, CA (which is midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco musically, if not exactly geographically), Thin White Rope specialized in a psychedelic roots-rock, not unlike Green On Red. Their music was dark and bleak, but also with flourishes of beauty; they attracted a following in Europe, and were the first American indie band to tour the Soviet Union in 1987. More than a paisley underground band, they drew upon a huge range of influences, covering Suicide and Can, mixing together raw, abrasive Americana with chilly psychedelia fronted by Guy Kyser’s choked, tense vocals. “Disney Girl” is from Exploring The Axis, their 1985 debut, and is a good example of their early, more psychedelic beginnings. They cut six albums before disbanding in 1993.

10. Opal: Happy Nightmare Baby
Opal: Happy Nightmare Baby (1987)
Opal was formed by guitarist David Roback (ex-Rain Parade) and Kendra Smith (ex-Dream Syndicate). Originally named Clay Allison, and releasing an EP under that moniker, they renamed themselves Opal in 1985, and released an EP and album for hardore label SST. Heavily psychedelic, featuring Roback’s various guitar textures, lots of organ, and Smith’s detached vocals and dark lyrical obsessions, Opal was perhaps the very last of the paisley underground bands. “Happy Nightmare Baby”, the 1987 title track from their lone album, is an atmospheric, ominous, ethereal jaunt down a foggy road at night, showing both performers at their peak. Smith would leave the following year, and Roback would recruit Hope Sandoval, leading to the formation of Mazzy Star.

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  • jody

    the article i have been waiting for.
    Was it that many years ago…yes it was as the loss of hair and firm teeth confirm. Saw the Parade OPEN for a rotten local band in flint, MI called the strolling bones and the 4 or five songs they played before they were kicked off the stage were perfect..Yeah I loved all of these bands and somehow have original vinyl of them all..try not to listen to them much cause I don’t want to wear them out but yeah, yeah, yeah…

  • http://halfbakered.blogspot.com mike hollihan

    This is great! I like how you don’t go for the obvious songs, either. I’d’ve been sorely tempted to choose “You Are My Friend” by Rain Parade. Beautiful, sublime, sad song.

    If you’re bringing in the Bangles, can I mention Wednesday Week? Completely lost to history, it seems, but they had good songs and sharp Bangles-y harmonies. Not very paisley, but a good listen.

  • SFC SKI

    Arrive without Travlling is a great album, unfortunately I only have it on cassette. Great playlist.

  • HW Saxton

    Another cool thing about that P.U. scene
    was that it helped to fuel a backlash of
    more “Garage Punk” oriented 60’s styled
    bands around L.A. such as The Pandoras,
    The Unclaimed,etc that were into a more
    fuzzed out,raunchy take on the 1960’s
    sound.

  • Vern Halen

    To echo a previous comment – the article I’ve been waiting for. This was the stuff I listened to while the mainstream was listening to something else in the 80’s. Glad to see someone remembers that fine Opal album, and Green On Red’s great lost Gravity Talks. Rain Parade had a beautifully recorded live in Tokyo where they did Green On Red’s Cheap Wine, Television’s Aint That Nothin’, and a live version of their own Prisoners that’ll send chills up your spine.

    Howcum all this doesn’t get a decent CD release? I’ve been looking for Dream Syndicate’s Medicine Show for years.

    BTW, a friend of mine saw Steve Wynn fron DS a few years back, and his encore (or so he claims) was The Days of Wine & Roses album from start to finish. Would’ve loved to have been there.

  • Vern Halen

    Forgot – thanks for giving me some excellent reading today – a well written overview.

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Thanks everyone. Like Vern, this was exactly what I listened to most when it was new; Rain Parade, Bangles, Long Ryders, Dream Syndicate are permanently etched into my brain.

    Why indeed is it so hard to get this stuff on CD? I’ve been thirsty for Crashing Dream, the Rain Parade’s Island album, never on CD; I found half on p2p lovingly converted to mp3 from vinyl by a devoted fan.

    Another good one is by Matt Piucci of Rain Parade plus a member of the Windbreakers (I think?) called Gone Fishin’ on Enigma in 1986.

    Sidebar on Rain Parade: in the 90’s, Piucci, S. Roback, and one other recorded together as Viva Saturn. I can never find their stuff, either.

    Rhino records? Sundazed? Here’s a market just waiting to be tapped…

  • SFC SKI

    I listened to a lot back then, but in unearthing my old cassettes, I found lost treasures. Good noews is, the Three O’Clock’s “Arrive Without Travelling” is available from Amazon (not from iTunes, sadly). I also loved the Bangles, and still do. While the Paisley Underground centered around California, I think the Smithereens deserve a mention here.

    To my mind, the ’80’s had a huge variety of great music, most of it unnoticed on a large scale and now unremembered. I still listen to newer stuff, but I often find more pleasure in the older, less well known stuff.

    To be truthful, I have more music than one man could listen to, it doesn’t stop me from buying more.

  • http://biggreenhouse.typepad.com bmarkey

    While it’s nice to see Thin White Rope get their props, I have to take issue with your inclusion of them (and True West and Game Theory, too) in the Paisley Underground. I’m not usually a stickler for genre labels, but the sound coming out of Davis at the time was much darker in tone than most of the P.U. bands.

    I spent the 80’s in Sacramento. For what it’s worth, Davis is light-years away from either SF or LA, spiritually speaking, although it’s a relatively quick two hour drive to the Bay Area.

  • Vern Halen

    Crashing Dream? I think the closest you’ll get is a CD called Demolition which was all the demos from before Crashing Dream. The demos were pretty edgy compared to the final product. It included a live version of Crashing Dream – a great lost song, as well as about 10 extra tunes. I snapped up the only copy I’ve ever seen, on a label I’m not familiar with – I think it’s called 060 Records.

  • SFC SKI

    This post reminds me of 2 great sites, one titled “Lost Bands of the New Wave Era” and the other is the Boston Rock and Roll Museum, lots of lost treasures there.

  • T

    not sure where you want to put the davis bands of the time but certainly those aforementioned were much closer in spirit to the p u of s f and l a. more importantly they were friends. and there was a lot of cross-cultural stuff happening in davis at the time. house parties, the coffee house….

    unfortunately the davis noise ordinance all but did away with anything remotely underground then and its oppression continues.

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Thanks for the input, T

    I included a couple of Davis bands on this list, but I find the fans of the Davis bands get irritated to see them lumped together with paisley underground.

    Actually, you’ve made me curious to see if I can put something together on the 80’s Davis scene; it really was active and had a culture like you mention, but I’ve seen very little about it.

    I’ll also have to do some hunting for tunes; a lot of Davis bands are hard to find now…

  • Russ Tolman

    Just wanted to pass along the word that singer Gavin Blair, guitarist Richard McGrath, and myself — AKA True West — will be on stage together for the first time in 21 years when we play at the International Pop Overthrow festival (IPO) in Seattle on 26 August at The Crocodile.