The phrase was coined by Michael Quercio, founder of the Salvation Army and the Three O’Clock, and it would come to be hated by the bands that it described the way that the word “grunge” would be hated by bands in Seattle a few years later. It referred to the paisley fashions that the groups favored, but most of the California bands had some substance beneath the style, at least in the beginning. Many of the groups had roots in suburban Davis, California, but the scene solidified in Los Angeles. “A lot of the friendships started out of the barbecues that Green On Red would have,” Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn told The Bob in 1985. “They had this house down in Hollywood in 1982, a little two-story apartment for the whole band and their girlfriends. Every Sunday, we’d get together for a barbecue, bring tons of alcohol and whatever drugs—lots of burgers and chicken—and we’d just sit around, play guitar, and talk. That’s how the friendships happened, not in nightclubs or recording studios . . . especially with Green On Red and the Dream Syndicate and the Rain Parade.”
Like many of the English psychedelic rockers in the ’60s, most of the Paisley Underground musicians were from upper-middle-class backgrounds. They were too young to remember the first wave of psychedelic rock, and they discovered the music by rummaging through their parents’ or older siblings’ record collections. They were encouraged to pick up instruments by punk, and they decided to employ them by playing ’60s sounds after seeing the Unclaimed. But while the Unclaimed drew its sound almost exclusively from the Seeds and the Music Machine, the younger bands had broader interests and a wider range of emotions, as evidenced by 1983’s Rainy Day compilation, a revealing moment of unity for a scene that would soon fracture. The album features members of the Rain Parade, the Bangles, the Dream Syndicate, and the Three O’Clock playing in various combinations and paying tribute to the artists who provided the starting points for their own groups, including Bob Dylan (“I’ll Keep It with Mine”), the Beach Boys (“Sloop John B.”), the Buffalo Springfield (“Flying on the Ground is Wrong”), Big Star (“Holocaust”), the Velvet Underground (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”), and Jimi Hendrix (“Rainy Day, Dream Away”).
Like many of the scene’s early releases, Rainy Day was recorded by Ethan James at Radio Tokyo Studios. Other albums were caught on tape by Earle Mankey in his garage, which was outfitted with the console that had been used to record Pet Sounds. In addition to using the same studios, the bands often played on each others’ records. Unfortunately, they were also united by the fact that they all took turns for the worse once they were signed to major labels. In the days before Nirvana proved that there was money to be made if bands were left to their own “alternative” ways, it’s possible that corporate meddling was to blame. Some bands may have gotten greedy, and some may have lost heart as, with the sole exception of R.E.M., American guitar bands were unable to achieve both critical and commercial success. Or perhaps the charges that they were just nostalgic revivalists were too hard to overcome. “The Paisley Underground tag was simultaneously good and bad,” the Rain Parade’s Steven Roback told me a decade later. “It was good because it helped a lot of serious musicians get some notoriety and make more good music. It was bad because there were a lot of preconceived notions about this psychedelic trip which really were not accurate.”
The man who named the scene was born in 1963 in Carson, California, not far from the Beach Boys’ hometown of Hawthorne. Quercio formed the Salvation Army as a pop-punk trio in 1981, and he released his first singles on the Minutemen’s New Alliance label. But the band really came into its own when he linked up with guitarist Greggory Louis Gutierrez. Shortly thereafter, the group was forced to change its name because of a threat from the real Salvation Army. The Three O’Clock was chosen from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote (“In the darkest part of the mind it’s always three o’clock in the morning”), and the contention in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test that people who dropped acid in the early evening would be at the height of their trip at 3:00 a.m.
The influence of the Byrds, the Move, the early Bee Gees, and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd are obvious on the band’s 1982 EP, Baroque Hoedown, as well as 1983’s Sixteen Tambourines. Quercio delivers hook-filled choruses over uplifting rhythms and shifting musical backgrounds based on buzzing keyboards and textured guitar sounds. Like Barrett, the singer projects an ambiguous sexuality, but one of his most memorable tunes is about being “With Cantaloupe Girlfriend.” (Despite the obvious mammary inference, Quercio claimed it was a nonsense phrase for an ideal girl.) The band’s decline began with its first release on IRS, Arrive Without Traveling. The album boasts two strong tunes in “Her Head’s Revolving” and “The Girl With the Guitar” (Quercio penned the latter with Scott Miller, who recorded power-pop with a tinge of psychedelia in Northern California’s Game Theory), but these moments are overwhelmed by self-parodying schlock like “Simon in the Park (With Tentacles).” Gutierrez left in 1986, and the band signed to Prince’s Paisley Park label for the dreadfully slick Vermillion. With its original fans alienated and everyone else indifferent, the Three O’Clock finally broke up in 1989.
The Bangles also slid into glossy commercialism after meeting up with Prince, but they started their career as a spare folk-rock quartet with pristine Mamas and Papas-style interval harmonies. The group changed its name from the Bangs and recorded its self-titled debut in 1982. When the band signed to Columbia, it traded mod fashions for Go-Go’s/new wave-style glamour, but the musicians retained a feisty, independent spirit. All Over the Place (1984) succeeds on the strength of guitarist Vicki Peterson’s songs, especially “James” and “Hero Takes A Fall,” plus an effective cover of former Soft Boy Kimberly Rew’s “Going Down to Liverpool.” The balance of power shifted after the group scored hits with the Prince-penned “Manic Monday” and the novelty single “Walk Like An Egyptian.” By 1988’s Everything, singer Susanna Hoffs was being positioned as the break-out star. The band’s original spirit was doused by soggy ballads such as über-hack Dianne Warren’s “Eternal Flame,” and the group broke up in 1989. Hoffs’ solo career stalled after two disappointing efforts, though 1991’s When You’re a Boy was notable for its odd cover of David Bowie and Brian Eno’s “Boys Keep Swinging.” “The old ’60s sounds were safe,” Hoffs told me at the time. “They were the old tricks that had come around for me, and I used them, every one in the book.” But these were always the sounds that suited her best, and she returned to them when the Bangles reunited in 2000, capitalizing on a wave of ’80s nostalgia and the renewed notoriety from an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music.
Before the Bangles, Hoffs played in a short-lived group called the Unconscious with brothers David and Steven Roback, who went on to form the Rain Parade with guitarist Matt Piucci. The Rain Parade started with a sound that combined Merseybeat and Rolling Stones-style R&B, but it soon developed a moodier and more complex signature. “We started playing with orchestration, instruments, and different types of guitars,” Steven Roback told me years later. “We didn’t know what the sound was going to be until we heard it. By the time we got into doing the album itself, all the parts were in place and we went in and did it in a fast, commando sort of thing. There was no money to do it any other way.”
Emergency Third Rail Power Trip is not only the best album from any of the Paisley Underground bands, it ranks with the best psychedelic rock efforts from any era. Recorded in the winter of 1983, it has a startlingly crisp and clear sound achieved at Radio Tokyo. Songs such as “What’s She Done to Your Mind,” “Kaleidoscope,” and “Look at Merri” showcase the Robacks’ ethereal vocals, Eddie Kalwa’s precise drumming, Will Glenn’s colorful sitar, violin, and keyboard accents, and an intricate, chiming, but droney two-guitar attack that picks up where the Byrds left off with “Eight Miles High.” But while the melodies are often uplifting, the themes are dark and introspective. “We’re psychedelic in a sort of psychoanalytic sense,” Piucci told Matter magazine at the time. “I think what psychedelic drugs did to people is that it made them reflect on some very internalized parts of their lives.” Steven expanded on the vibe of the album when we spoke years later. “The lyrical themes and song content have a sort of punk ethos to them,” he said. “The state of mind we were all in was pretty dark, and it was like personal therapy for everybody in the band. We were all feeling kind of hopeless and helpless about things, and the band was this sort of idealistic attempt to create some space where we could all feel really great.”
Calling the split a business decision, David Roback quit the Rain Parade in early 1984. “There were just too many cooks, basically,” Steven told me. “You had three really strong songwriters, and at some point there was just not enough room.” The group continued under the direction of Steven and Piucci, recording the even darker Explosions In the Glass Palace EP. But while signing to Island Records should have provided the band with the chance to perfect its sound in the studio, Crashing Dream was made under hurried, pressured conditions, and the Rain Parade never got another chance: It split up in late 1985. After dabbling with pickup gigs (Piucci played with Crazy Horse between its stints backing Neil Young) and day jobs (Roback has a degree in architecture), the band’s driving forces reunited in the ’90s in the low-key but pleasant-sounding Viva Saturn (which also featured contributions from Glenn), and Steven later worked with his wife, Missy, on a charmingly ethereal album called Just Like Breathing. Meanwhile, David Roback returned to the model of the Unconscious, forming a series of bands pairing wispy female vocals with gentle, somnambulant sounds. Kendra Smith filled the vocalist roles in Clay Allison and Opal, but she was replaced by the petulant Hope Sandoval in 1990 when Roback formed Mazzy Star (which also featured Glenn’s sonic colorings). Though they were more successful commercially, Mazzy Star’s recordings fail to match the intensity of Opal’s Happy Nightmare Baby (1987), or Smith’s long-awaited solo bow, Five Ways of Disappearing (1995).
Once an aspiring rock critic, Steve Wynn formed the Dream Syndicate with bassist Kendra Smith and fiery guitarist Karl Precoda in 1982. The group recorded its self-released EP only three weeks later, following up a short time later with a powerful album, The Days of Wine and Roses. Raw and energetic, with extraordinarily potent guitar solos and bursts of controlled feedback, the album was strongly influenced by the Velvet Underground, and tunes such as “Tell Me When It’s Over,” “Halloween,” and “Until Lately” have a psychotic edge unique among the Paisley Underground bands. Smith left after the first album, the band signed to A&M, and Wynn began to come to the forefront as a not always very remarkable singer-songwriter. The best moments on 1984’s The Medicine Show are the least-structured guitar blow-outs of the title track and “John Coltrane Stereo Blues. Precoda left after this album, and while the Dream Syndicate continued for a few more years, Wynn didn’t really hit his stride again until solo efforts such as Kerosene Man, Dazzling Display, and Flourescent in the ’90s, delivering songs full of carefully drawn characters and vivid lyrical images with his familiar Lou Reed-in-Southern-California vocal style and frenetic guitars that recalled his old band at its best.
“You get back to the point of where you were when you started,” Wynn told me when he toured in 2001 in support of a strong indie effort called Here Come the Miracles. “When you feel like, ‘This is the music I’m making, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to listen.’ It’s a real freedom, but it’s hard to get back to that. I want to be constantly surprised onstage and in the studio, because then I react to that. The whole thing I love about music—and this is getting back to the psychedelic thing—is the interaction, the call and response, where somebody does one thing and it inspires you to do something else. We were recording in a strange place, experimenting, letting things fly, and going more by instinct than mapping things out. I think that gives the album a sense of time and place, and that’s something that most of my favorite records have.”
A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Sid Griffin formed the Long Ryders to explore more expansive sounds after tiring of the Unclaimed’s rather narrow, garage-centric worldview. Debuting with the 10-5-60 EP in 1983, the group brought a punk attitude to the mix of psychedelic rock and country music that was pioneered by the Gram Parsons-era Byrds. Ex-Byrd Gene Clark made a guest appearance on the beautiful “Ivory Tower” from 1984’s Native Sons, but the psychedelic intensity of startlingly powerful songs such as “The Trip,” “And She Rides,” “Wreck of the 809,” and “Too Close to the Light” began to wane and the group turned toward more mainstream country after signing to Island in 1985. (The band is best remembered today as a key influence on the burgeoning alternative-country movement.) Griffin moved to England in the early ’90s, wrote a biography of Parsons, and continued to play with a new combo, the Coal Porters.
Green On Red, the band whose barbecues started it all, are the Paisley Underground’s worst case of arrested development. The group formed in L.A. after three of its members relocated from Tucson, Arizona. Its first two EPs get by on garage-rock energy and a swirling keyboard sound, but the group moved toward drunken Dylan and Young imitations with 1983’s Gravity Talks, and it spiraled downward after that on six more albums for four different labels. (Equally slight is bandleader Dan Stuart’s 1985 collaboration with Wynn and the Long Ryders, Danny & Dusty.) At the fringes of the Paisley Underground were two other strong guitar bands from Davis—True West (which did a strong cover of Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam” on its debut EP but never delivered on the promise of that disc) and Thin White Rope (which recorded several albums of ominous psychedelic rock and Can-like repetitive drones)—and the Leaving Trains, which were fronted by celebrated transvestite Falling James (who briefly married Courtney Love before she met Kurt Cobain). In retrospect, tough-gal psychedelic garage-rockers the Pandoras predicted the assertive stance of the riot grrrls six years earlier.