One Nation Underground: The Story Of The Paisley Underground


It was 20 years ago today that the four of them began to play. The Dream Syndicate, Bangles (pictured), Rain Parade and Three O’Clock formed a neo-psychedelic Los Angeles scene in the ‘80s. MAGNET examines a pair of audio artifacts that tell the story of the Paisley Underground. By Corey duBrowa

Los Angeles, circa 1984. The world watches while the Summer Olympics take flight; Reagan and his conservative cronies are re-elected in a landslide; the economy continues its inexorable trudge into darkness; and the sound emanating from local clubs is the roaring buzzsaw of punk bands such as Black Flag, X, Minutemen and Agent Orange. MTV is in its infancy—all sweetness and light, with a bit of mascara applied—but the pervasive vibe is one of anger, fear and faint hopes for better days somewhere in the smoggy wastelands of Southern California.

It’s within this forbidding landscape that the Paisley Underground saw its heyday, proffering a West Coast version of the CBGB template from which other regional scenes (Boston, Seattle and Chapel Hill among them) would borrow heavily. As with most “next big things” that have come and gone, the facts now are sketchy and the agreements few. What was the Paisley Underground? Who were the players, the contenders, the hangers-on? Those who were there hardly see eye-to-eye about what occurred, but all seem to recognize that something special once existed, never mind the details.

During its moment in the pop-culture sun, the Paisley Underground created the foundation upon which the houses of dream-pop and alt-country would later be built. While rich with music and memories, two particular records have emerged as talismans for the era: Rainy Day, a covers collection featuring songs written by ‘60s acts ranging from the Velvet Underground to Neil Young, and The Lost Weekend, a hazy alt-country hoedown recorded by Danny & Dusty (Dan Stuart, Steve Wynn and assorted friends) before any such handle existed. Peering backward through the kaleidoscope reveals glimpses of a scene marked by then-unfashionable influences and the secret society that held them close.

Flying On The Ground Is Wrong
Psychedelic music has never escaped its link to the substances that inspired its creation. The Paisley Underground (the nickname, despised by most within the scene, is attributed to Three O’Clock leader Michael Quercio, who used it tongue-in-cheek during an interview only to find that it stuck) emerged at about the same time Ecstasy first made its appearance on the recreational-drug menu, a confluence of events that seems more than a little coincidental today. The music produced by these bands neatly replicated the drug’s sought-after effects, creating for listeners a floating haze of vaguely shaped, dilated-pupil happiness that took flight as grooving, liquid sound. The first albums by these acts were shared among friends as though they were the basis to the secrets of the universe: a kind of pseudo-spiritual code-speak reserved exclusively for those in the know, much like the “selection” process for membership in the Underground itself, as it so happens.

“Basically, we were all record collectors who played music,” says Quercio. “The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was certainly a big deal to us. The Dream Syndicate, the Bangs (who later became the Bangles) and the Salvation Army (which became the Three O’Clock) were all playing gigs around L.A. at funky little places like the Music Machine, Dancing Waters, the Whisky, the Cathay de Grande. After about a year of bumping into one another, I think it was (the Bangs’) Susanna Hoffs who finally came up with the idea that maybe we should be playing together.”

“It’s funny that there are so many different takes on it now, but the [Paisley Underground scene] was everything you would imagine it to be,” says Dream Syndicate frontman Wynn. “Bands sharing bills, writing together, rehearsing together, playing on each other’s records, going to parties, dating each other. It was all that. We were all big music fans and pretty diligent about the things we thought were cool or weren’t cool. We felt more like messengers for music that matters than rock stars … Bands like ours felt a lot more kinship with the hardcore bands than with Heaven 17. We dug Black Flag’s stuff because, you know, Greg Ginn was playing a guitar! Our stuff was scary, unprocessed, very much against what was happening in mainstream music back then. Which is probably why people stayed away from us in droves. We came after the first wave of punk and well before Nirvana; the ‘80s were this vast wasteland of really horrible music. And so we were all doing a lot of covers at the time as a result, all turning each other on to really cool records: Creedence, Blue Öyster Cult, the Stooges, the Godz. That was a big part of the whole scene.”

Indeed, a quick scan of the collective’s early recordings reveals this essential truth: Makeshift versions of the Easybeats’ “Sorry” (Three O’Clock), Bob Dylan’s “Outlaw Blues” (Dream Syndicate) and the Grassroots’ “Where Were You When I Needed You?” (Bangles) colored the Paisley landscape with a decidedly ‘60s hue from the very beginning.

To recall how these bands were viewed critically at the time, it’s instructive to comb the backlog of reviews in the British press. Music journalists took a keen interest in the Underground’s unique mix of free-form psychedelia and pop-inspired song structure, comparing it to similar sounds that had come a few years prior from such U.K. bands as Echo & The Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes. Wrote the NME of the Rain Parade’s debut, 1983’s Emergency Third Rail Power Trip: “Sound cathedrals? We got ‘em, in [the form of] David Roback’s mind-meltingly beautiful guitar sounds, employed sparingly and dynamically amid dark, dizzy tales of murder, madness and drug paranoia. A mantra for an altered state of mind, and testament to a band who, however fleetingly, made music that sounded like the best drugs ever.” Similarly glowing reviews can be found in the archives of semi-legendary indie mag Bucketfull Of Brains, which released flexi singles featuring early recordings from several of the Paisley bands.

At the same time that many of the Underground debuts were making their way onto college-radio playlists, Roback was already scheming to conceive the scene’s first conceptual masterwork: a communal record honoring the heroes that had inspired many of the Paisley crowd to play music in the first place. Roback (who reportedly splits his time these days between residences in northern Europe, London and L.A.) couldn’t be reached for comment, though many of his compatriots were willing to step forward and share their varied opinions about how his Rainy Day project came to life.

The idea was simple enough. Roback compiled a short list of the ‘60s songs he loved most, reaching out to his friends—including Dream Syndicate bassist/then-girlfriend Kendra Smith, Hoffs and various Rain Parade and Three O’Clock members—to record them. The tunes emanated from influences both obvious in their rarefied indie-cred factor (Velvet Underground, Big Star, Buffalo Springfield, Byrds) to obscure (an unreleased Dylan demo, a song from the Who’s A Quick One), and Roback’s friends flocked to participate in his nostalgic field trip to another time.

“We were inspired by the pop music we heard on AM radio when we were kids—it seemed so full of possibilities,” says Steven Roback, David’s younger brother and co-founder of the Rain Parade. “But by the early ‘80s, the music of the Velvets and Big Star better expressed our mood. It was darker, lonelier, more daring. L.A. was in a somewhat depressed period. We were in the midst of a massive arms race, the economy was stagnant and, worst of all, John Lennon had just been killed. There was a longing to bring back the early optimism, but it was colored with despair and the bleak reality of that period. Punk was big then and had the right attitude. So the musicians that participated in Rainy Day were trying to recast the spirit of punk but in more expansive musical terms.”

This merger of punk’s edgy theatricality with the more overt melodic sensibilities of ‘60s pop is essential to unlocking the power of the Paisley Underground’s lasting influence over American pop music. The Leaving Trains appeared on the L.A. scene at the same time, and the band’s first album, 1984’s Well Down Blue Highway, evinces some of the same jingle-jangle moves as the core Underground membership. “Ultimately, what was best about the Paisley scene were the things that were brave and new,” says Trains frontman Falling James Moreland. “Like how the Dream Syndicate used to play long, slow guitar jams in front of impatient hardcore audiences and ended up winning them over on energy alone.”

“We were all excited by this music that had perhaps fallen out of favor during the punk years but now seemed fresh all over again,” says Dennis Duck, the Dream Syndicate’s drummer and a key Rainy Day contributor. “It was full of the innocence and wonder that was missing from the bleakness and negativity of much of what was then considered cool by the rock underground. It seemed as though we were participating in a sort of conspiracy—members of the resistance who never took the movement seriously but moved nonetheless. We were, you might say, flying on the ground. Was that wrong?”

A Wizard, A True Star?
No discussion of the Rainy Day compilation would be complete without recounting the involvement of David Roback (or “Throwback,” as he’s pejoratively been called) in driving the project to its completion. While this shadowy, complicated man deserves every inch of credit for the record and for helping the scene to attain a more elevated stature, an interesting picture of him emerges when pieced together from the recollections of the musicians he worked with over the years in his various musical incarnations (Rain Parade, Clay Allison, Opal, Mazzy Star).

In 1983, Roback was scheduled to record the first Rain Parade LP but had some free studio time available at a small, converted apartment in Venice known as Radio Tokyo, working with owner/in-demand producer Ethan James. Roback used this time judiciously to construct the tracks that would eventually become Rainy Day.

Roback’s working style has been alternately hailed as that of a genius and castigated as the by-product of a tightly wound control freak. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground for those who knew and worked with him—either at the time Rainy Day was recorded or in the subsequent years that saw him creating chilly, crystalline sounds in Opal and Mazzy Star. Indeed, articles published during Mazzy Star’s ‘90s heyday invariably portrayed a mute, reticent persona, someone completely uncomfortable with the idea of doing anything as cheap as an interview to tarnish the value of the music. To that end, the opinions among those who worked on Rainy Day seem equally split between these two camps.

One of the more measured comments from the “control freak” contingent comes from former Rain Parade guitarist Matt Piucci, who reportedly played a key role in an intraband putsch that ultimately led to Roback’s ouster from the group they co-founded. “Part of David’s whole trip is that he’s very calculating and seems to have an inability to be honest about anything,” says Piucci. “He’s not the guy I used to know.”

Some are less generous in their assessment of Roback’s embedded personality flaws. “The iceberg that hit the Titanic gave off more warmth than David Roback,” says Long Ryders frontman Sid Griffin. “I have no idea how he works, except for this tale: Ex-Long Ryders guitarist Stephen McCarthy auditioned for Mazzy Star in 1990. He told me that when he got to the audition, he saw Roback and went up to say hello. David blanked him, which is to say that he told him he didn’t know who he was and that they’d obviously never met before. Stephen said, ‘Don’t be silly. You would know me from about two dozen gigs over the years with the Long Ryders.’ Roback replied, as if a Kraftwerk showroom dummy, ‘We’ve never met. I tell you I don’t know you at all.’ This went on a bit, and Stephen finally packed up his guitar and amp and split. I guess that’s how Roback works.”

There are other unflattering memories as well, such as the suggestion that former Rain Parade keyboardist/violinist Will Glenn (who recently lost his battle with cancer) was asked to change his name to Will Cooper before Roback would hire him for Mazzy Star, the better to keep his former identity a secret and thereby limit the extent of his involvement in projects outside the band. Or that Roback’s single-minded manipulation of the Rainy Day personnel roster included intentional mistakes in the album’s liner notes (one such example: Quercio’s trip behind the traps for “Soon Be Home” was omitted from the final credits). But some are just odd, as Moreland recounts. “David is certainly very cryptic and reclusive—intentionally so,” he says. “I think he likes the stoicism of the image, for one thing. Plus, he was obviously influenced by the Kung Fu TV show and David Carradine’s deliberate, cryptic way of speaking as Caine. Yes, David was very much a control freak. It definitely had a downside to it for some of the cool musicians who worked with him over the years, but maybe that’s what he needed to create.”

Others who collaborated with Roback, though, aren’t quite as adamant about his supposedly taciturn nature. “I didn’t know David well at the time Rainy Day was recorded, but I admired him as a musician and a songwriter,” says Duck. “He had all the qualities of a great artist: brilliant, troubled, always dissatisfied with what he’d just done and wanting perfection so much that it sometimes paralyzed him creatively. David had a kind of Platonic ideal of the sound he was hearing in his head and would attempt to describe that sound and never quite get it right—and then get terribly frustrated. But I think he had a pretty good idea of what he was getting at and seemed to have nearly found it in the music of Mazzy Star. Perhaps David is still living in a remote corner of the Paisley universe we all used to inhabit together—its only surviving inhabitant, the sage. Or perhaps he just wants a little peace.”

Wynn also says Roback’s focus and drive served him well later in his career. “It’s funny, because if I had to pick which of the [Paisley] bands would have a gold record by now—outside of the Bangles, of course, which happened pretty quickly—I don’t think any of us would have picked David,” he chuckles, referring to Mazzy Star’s commercial success with “Fade Into You,” the group’s 1993 hit. “It’s actually analogous to what happened with R.E.M.; he had a focus and maintained it for a long time. In the ‘80s, you had to have your particular ‘angle’ and stick with it, as opposed to the Dream Syndicate, where one thing would lead us to another and we ended up trying it all.”

Steven Roback puts it most succinctly: “That was really a creative period for all of us, and it was mostly a pleasure working with David. We did some great work, and I think that we succeeded in capturing people’s imaginations.”

Achieving legendary status often requires a dramatic disappearance. For proof, consider some of the more noteworthy burn-outs of the first wave of psychedelia: Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, the late Skip Spence. Absence not only makes the heart grow fonder but also creates a void that’s anxiously filled by rabid fans who fixate on every heaving sigh, every halting utterance ever committed to tape, hoarding it like lost treasure. So it goes with Rainy Day.

The album was first released in 1984 on the Enigma label, which had signed the Rain Parade the year previous. After selling through its first pressing, the LP was rereleased in 1989 on Rough Trade Records at the same time David Roback’s Opal signed to the label, but Rainy Day proceeded to go out of print again. Rykodisc Records reportedly offered to reissue the album but was unable to come to terms with Roback, so it remains one of the lost classics of its era, a hard-to-find gem (except on eBay, where it fetches nearly $100) that becomes more sought-after with each passing year.

Sweatheart Of The Rodeo
If Rainy Day was a calculated collection of songs that—like some lysergic Dick Clark Caravan Of Stars—prodded most of the major players of the Paisley Underground onto the stage piecemeal, Danny & Dusty’s The Lost Weekend (released in 1985) was a spontaneous, country/rock LP hatched by a couple of Los Angeles pals watching sports on television. And drinking. That Steve “Dusty” Wynn and Dan Stuart (Green On Red) named their joint effort The Lost Weekend after the 1945 Ray Milland film depicting the agonies of alcoholism was no accident.

“Danny and I were best friends,” says Wynn. “We were both drinking a lot and wrote those songs while watching Monday Night Football. I’d get a bunch of beer, go over to his house and we’d try to top each other. I’d leave him stewing on one of my lines for 10 minutes, and when I got home, Danny would be on my answering machine saying, ‘Dusty, check out this line.’ And I’d say, ‘That’s perfect.’”

Stuart believes what Wynn calls his “one-year life sentence in San Francisco” (recording the Dream Syndicate’s Medicine Show with noted producer Sandy Pearlman) was the reason behind the hang-loose, slam-bam feel of The Lost Weekend. “Steve had been in the laboratory doing that fuck-fuck thing for a long time,” says Stuart. “He just wanted to have fun.”

The impetus for The Lost Weekend dates back to 1983. Susie Wrenn (Stuart’s then-girlfriend) was putting together Don’t Shoot, a compilation of L.A. bands performing country songs. She solicited a track from Wynn and Stuart, who wrote “Bend In The Road” and recorded it with a group of friends. The duo’s backing band—a Paisley Underground all-star combo consisting of guitarists Griffin and McCarthy, bassist Tom Stevens (Long Ryders), pianist Chris Cacavas (Green On Red) and drummer Duck—reassembled the next year to record The Lost Weekend.

“I don’t know how we decided these were the people who would be on the album,” chuckles Wynn. “Maybe it was a sports mentality: Choose up the team, and these are our first-round draft picks. I recall there was a little sensitivity from band members who weren’t on the record, like (Green On Red’s) Jack Waterson, for example. [Cacavas] was an automatic pick because he was the one guy who played keyboards.”

Stuart had his eye, for good reason, on the Long Ryders’ lap-steel whiz. “I really wanted Stephen McCarthy on that record,” he says. “He was a sweetheart—a humble guy who didn’t know how good he was—and we wanted to make it country-rockish, because that’s how it sounded in the living room when we wrote the songs.”

McCarthy had lingering doubts about the project. “Stephen was really nervous because he was from the South,” recalls Wynn. “He kept saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this country stuff.’ He thought it was kinda hokey. We were all into serious country/psych stuff like Buffalo Springfield, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Neil Young, who, if anybody, was the patron saint of the Paisley scene … We wanted Danny & Dusty to be kind of a Waylon & Willie type of thing, but maybe it was more like Moe & Joe (Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley)—more clowny than cosmic.”

Cacavas claims he “had a blast” at the sessions, two days at the Control Center in L.A.’s Koreatown. “It was this little hole of a studio in a seedy part of town and extremely hard to find, tucked behind a supermarket, down a hidden driveway,” he says. “It was a low-ceilinged, stucco-coated hovel that everyone clamored to get into, and it was owned by this surfer dude named Rick Novak.”

“Rick spent a week of his life working constantly on that record, because me and Chris had to go to Europe right afterward,” says Stuart. “After he was finished, Rick told me, ‘I gotta get away from this shit.’ So he packs his truck and goes down to Baja to surf. He’s coming out of the water on some abandoned beach when these surfers pull up, and out of the car stereo comes Danny & Dusty. It was something Steve had played on an L.A. station and they had taped.”

A handful of live shows, including one-nighters at the Music Machine and Hollywood’s Club Lingerie, followed the record’s release on A&M, the Dream Syndicate’s new label.

“Those were both really fun shows,” says Wynn. “We did the entire album. And we even played a cover version of ‘Tom Dooley,’ where each of the seven members had to make up their own verse on the spot. Freestyling before its time.”

“We should have played more live gigs,” laments Stuart. “It sounded better live than on the record.”

In hindsight, the participants don’t fully agree on the album’s lingering merits. While Cacavas claims to be “blown away” and Wynn calls it “hot stuff,” Stuart (who says he hasn’t listened to The Lost Weekend since its release) cynically quips, “Hey, it ain’t The Basement Tapes.”

Tell Me When It’s Over
The Paisley Underground continued its run until the late ‘80s, with some of its membership racking up respectable sales (the Bangles) while others signed with major labels (the Three O’Clock, which was picked up by Prince’s Paisley Park imprint), continuing to tour and record. But by the end of the decade, the scene had dissipated, fractured into component pieces (solo careers for alumni such as the prolific Wynn, Green On Red’s Cacavas and Chuck Prophet and the Dream Syndicate’s Smith) or mutating into new directions and aggregations, such as Bangle Vicki Peterson (Continental Drifters), Steven Roback (Viva Saturn) and Quercio (Permanent Green Light). David Roback, after finishing Rainy Day, went on to form a mostly acoustic, folk-inspired act with Smith called Clay Allison (soon renamed Opal) and, later, Mazzy Star.

The scene faded into obscurity until the mid-‘90s, when Mazzy Star’s success ignited a new wave of interest in the original bands that made up the Paisley roster. “A few years ago, I heard that Rykodisc was working on a Paisley Underground boxed set and wanted some phone numbers of the musicians involved,” says Pat Thomas, who started Heyday Records in the late ‘80s (releasing solo albums by Steven Roback, Cacavas and other Paisley alumni) and now runs the Innerstate label with former True West guitarist Russ Tolman. “A few months later, I ran into the head of Rykodisc’s A&R at a record store I was working at and offered my services to help put it together. Ryko ultimately made me the compiler and producer of the project, gave me some money to work with and turned me loose. Eventually, I had culled a three-CD, 50-song set, after researching old live tapes and demos, long-gone singles and the like.”

But Rykodisc, recently purchased by Palm Pictures and in the midst of massive employee layoffs, pulled the plug on the boxed set. Thomas says he may end up releasing a Paisley collection, albeit in scaled-down form. (Worth noting: David Roback was the only significant Paisley musician who refused to participate in the project; not one Opal or Rainy Day track was ever approved for Rykodisc’s aborted box set.)

As always with the Paisley Underground, these seeming contradictions—a body of work unique enough to have percolated through mass culture since it was first recorded but unable to secure a commercial outlet willing to reissue the long-since unavailable original material—are just part of the experience, a piece of the accrued lore passed down to those interested in revisiting that time and place.

“I believe that Rainy Day marked the beginning of the big corporations realizing they could make money (in the Underground),” says Moreland, neatly prefiguring the commercial interest that greeted punk bands such as Hole (fronted by his ex-wife Courtney Love). “Listening to Kendra and Susanna, you could hear the future hits. The industry wasn’t going to fuck up like they did at first with punk rock. They were going to jump into this right away and succeeded in lucking into the success of the Bangles. But mostly, I think Rainy Day was this springlike burst of creativity within a relatively small group of friends, a notice to the world that said, ‘Here we are!’ more conclusively and dramatically than most of these bands’ earlier, original recordings were able to.”

3 replies on “One Nation Underground: The Story Of The Paisley Underground”

A really interesting and informative article Corey. I don’t know how the core got to be the core, but I was always very fond of Green on Red and the Long Ryders. Were they not part of the core group of this scene?

I would most certainly say the Long Ryders were a very large and well known part of the paisly underground. I am very surprised that more mention is not given to them in this article, they toured as far as SW Canada. We all knew of their music and the whole “paisley underground” scene- it’s as though the mainstream groups such as the “Bangles” due to their commercial success is a large focus, which of course they were, but Long Ryders were revered

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