By Eleni P. Austin
Back in the Pre-Historic days (a.k.a. before the internet), finding someone who liked the same music you did was akin to knowing a secret handshake. Los Angeles in the early ‘80s was a musical melting pot, as diverse as the city itself. A bastion of Punk, New Wave, Roots Rock and even Hair Metal. So, it was a wonderfully shocking surprise to find four bands that were all separately inspired by ‘60s bands other than the Beatles and the Stones. The Bangles, The Three O’Clock, The Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade each took their cues from Power-Pop, Garage Rock, Psychedelia and Baroque Pop.
All four of these groups were passionate about well-known bands like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, but they also worshipped at the alter of more arcane outfits like Love, the Merry-Go-Round, the Seeds, The Left Banke The Creation, 13th Floor Elevators and The Count Five, along with the darker sounds of the Velvet Underground and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse.
The D.I.Y. ethos of Punk Rock made it possible for these bands to form without preconceptions. Susannah Hoffs (vocals, guitar), placed an ad in The Recycler and it was answered by the Peterson sisters, Debbi (drums, vocals) and Vicki (lead guitar, vocals). The first time they met in a garage to make music, it was just days after John Lennon was murdered. When they connected with bassist Annette Zilinskas their line-up was complete. Originally, they were The Bangs until it was discovered that a band in New Jersey shared the name, so they elongated to The Bangles. They were immediately embraced by influential tastemaker, KROQ DJ (and unofficial Mayor of the Sunset Strip), Rodney Bingenheimer. They released an EP through the IRS label, but not long after, Annette split the band to form Blood On The Saddle and ex-Runaway Michael Steele took over bass duties.
They signed with a major label, Columbia, releasing their first long-player, All Over The Place in 1984. Critically acclaimed, it gained them a powerful fan, Prince, and set the stage for their commercial breakthrough, Different Light. That album spawned three hit singles, starting with “Manic Monday,” written by Prince under the pseudonym Christopher. Unfortunately, Columbia seemed intent on sanding down the Bangles’ rough edges and thrusting Susannah into the spotlight, at the expense of the other band members. Their third LP, Everything, was released in 1988. It contained the droopy (albeit successful) power ballad “The Flame.” Not long after, they broke up, each going on to other musical endeavors and reuniting for a 2002 album, Doll Revolution and nine years later for a fifth effort, Sweetheart Of The Sun.
Steve Wynn, architect of The Dream Syndicate’s sui generis sound grew up in L.A. but the seeds of TDS’s sound germinated during his college years at UC Davis. When he returned to his hometown with Kendra Smith (bass/vocals) to attend grad school, he met guitarist Karl Precoda and drummer Dennis Duck. They clicked and the four-piece began honing their drone-y mood music. Constant gigging won them a loyal fan base and rapturous coverage from local critics.
Venerable indie label Slash, took notice and signed them, assigning musician and A&R guru Chris D. to produce. The result was the sultry and sepulchral The Days Of Wine And Roses, which began blowing minds in late 1982. Unfortunately, this magic line-up wouldn’t last. Kendra split not long after Days… and Karl peeled off after their second LP. They were replaced and The Dream Syndicate soldiered on for two more albums and a live effort, before shuddering to a halt in 1990. Happily, an incarnation of the band reformed in 2012 and released a long-awaited fifth record.
L.A. native David Roback and Chicago son Matt Piucci met as college roommates while attending college in Minnesota. Both played guitar and sang, after graduation, they headed to the City Of Angels,intent on starting a band. They recruited David’s brother Steven for bass duties, (ironically, years before, the brothers had played with their neighbor, Susannah Hoffs in a short-lived band called The Unconscious). When Will Glenn (violin, keys) and Eddie Kalwa (drums) came aboard, the Rain Parade sound truly coalesced. Their full-length debut, “Emergency Third Rail Power Trip arrived in 1983, conveying a trippy, mystic, crystal vision. Naturally, David left the band, going on to form Opal with Kendra Smith and the longer lasting Mazzy Star with Hope Sandoval. Matt and Steve have kept Rain Parade alive and well in between solo stints and other projects.
The Three O’Clock is probably the most emblematic of the Paisley bands. After all, TTOC’s leader, Michael Quercio actually coined the phrase “Paisley Underground” when he tried to explain their sound during an interview. Originally known as the Salvation Army, (until they received a “cease and desist” letter from the bell-ringing charity), Michael and guitarist Louis Gutierrez were already signed to the indie label Frontier. With the addition of Mike Mariano on keys and powerhouse drummer Danny Benair (formerly of The Weirdos and The Quick) they officially became The Three O’Clock.
Poppy and effervescent, they released an EP and followed up with a full-length on Frontier before jumping ship for the I.R.S. label. Their music found a home with Rodney and KROQ and MTV followed suit. Prince became such a fan he named his boutique label and Minnesota recording complex Paisley Park. He then lured the band away from IRS. The Three O’Clock inured the typical personnel changes and never achieved the commercial heights they should’ve, so they called it quits in 1990. Michael fronted two more excellent bands, Permanent Green Light and Jupiter Affect. Louis played in Mary’s Danish, Danny moved to the business side of music, and Mike quit music entirely.
Fast forward to 2013, Goldenvoice invited The Three O’Clock to play Coachella, Omnivore released a career retrospective and that success allowed the band, which now included Adam Merrin on keys, enough momentum to book a mini-tour. That December, TTOC reunited with The Bangles, The Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade to play a couple of benefit concerts for the Education Through Music Organization. It was such a great experience the all began discussing a way to commemorate their shared Paisley beginnings. They hit upon the idea that each band would cover one song of the other three’s. That dream became a reality when the Yep Roc label stepped in. The result is a 12-song collection aptly entitled 3×4. It was a special Black Friday RSD (swirly purple) vinyl release in November, but come February it will be out on LP, CD and digital platforms.
To paraphrase Maria Von Trapp, let’s start at the very beginning, alphabetically, with the Bangles, since it’s a very fine place to start. Their three-song set reunites the original line-up of Susannah, Debbi, Vicki and Annette, recording together for the first time since 1982. They open with a surprisingly muscular version of The Dream Syndicate’s “That’s What You Always Say.” Growling bass lines connect with jangly guitars and a menacing Kick-drum beat. Vicki takes the lead, her vocals alternately tough and tender, the other three offer a Greek chorus of “na-na-na-na’s” over cryptic lyrics that parse “stories and words (that) are here and gone.” Squally feedback guitar intertwines with demonic harmonica on the break.
Susannah’s winsome mezzo-soprano is front and center on Rain Parade’s “Talking In My Sleep.” The infectious melody splits the difference between down-home Country Comfort and hypnotic Psychedelia, powered by angular guitar and sidewinder bass. Debbi’s modal meter is accented by tabla fills, courtesy Meena Makhijani. Susannah’s mein is beguiling and bewitching even as she unspools a saga of a slightly spooked somnambulist.
The Bangles take on “Jet Fighter” by The Three O’Clock is remarkably Hook-tastic. Lush harmonies are quickly subsumed by a supersonic beat, strafing guitars and blitzkrieg bass. Debbi slyly pays homage to Quercio’s ersatz Anglophile accent, clipping vowels and consonants on each turn of phrase. Layered guitars lock into a shimmery groove that leans closer to Boston and Thin Lizzy than The Standells, but it works.
Since 2012 The Dream Syndicate has retained its most consistent line-up, with Steve and Dennis bookending guitarist Jason Victor and bassist Mark Walton. Their three songs kick off with the brutal betrayal of Rain Parade’s “You Are My Friend.” The melancholy chime of the original has been replaced with more razor-sharp riff-age, rumbly bass and an authoritative drum crack that matches the lyrics’ accusatory tone. Steve’s caustic vocal delivery seems to close the door on any rapprochement.
The Bangles wrote “The Hero Takes The Fall” as a withering assessment of Steve Wynn’s callow behavior during The Dream Syndicate’s brief bout with success. Therefore, it feels wildly apropos that they offer a crackling version of the song. Prowling bass lines circumnavigate a galloping gait beneath shards of prickly guitar. Here, Steve’s economical vocals are augmented by sweet harmonies from Vicki Peterson and longtime collaborator, Linda Pitmon.
Reaching back in to the mists of time, TDS tackles the Salvation Army classic, “She Turns To Flowers.” The noisy melodicism is anchored by tensile bass lines, kaleidoscopic feedback, a whip-crack rhythm and drone-y vocals. It’s the aural equivalent of the infamous “Blue Boy” episode from the TV series “Dragnet.”
Back in the ‘80s, Rain Parade’s flame flickered out pretty quickly, therefore, it feels all the sweeter that the torch has been reignited here. First up is their rendition of The Three O’Clock’s “As Real As Real.” Sparked by an off-kilter backbeat, pastoral guitar, chiming sitar and Danny Benair’s tumbling tambour kick. It’s expansive and intimate all at the same time.
The Bangles’ “Real World” is Grrls at their Garage-iest. Rain Parade, which features original linchpins Matt Pinucci, Steven Roback and John Thorman, as well Stephen Junca, Derek See and Jim Hill, transform the track into something of a Countrified charmer. Slowing the tempo, cascading guitars wash over this tentative declaration of love. Even as the tune accelerates, adding more sinewy guitar and chunky bongos on the break, the dreamy song just seems to drift into the ether.
Their take on “When You Smile” by The Dream Syndicate opens with feedback-drenched guitar before downshifting into filigreed acoustic fills and searing electric riffs. These fretboard flights of fancy are tethered rubbery bass lines and a thumpy backbeat. The calibrated chaos of the instrumentation and arrangement is buttressed by whispery vocals that simply declare “When you Smile, I don’t know what to do, ‘cause I lose everything in a minute or two/And it seems like the end of the world when you smile.” A wordless coda features a wall of guitars.
Finally, The Three O’Clock weigh in, offering an opening salvo with a Soul-infused take on the Bang(les)s first single, “Getting Out Of Hand.” Swapping out their typical Shagadelic style, TTOC lattice crushed velvet Voxx notes over spitfire guitar licks, a walking bass line and a propulsive handclap beat. More Stax/Volt than Zakary Thaks, it truly delivers.
Despite downer lyrics like “Is your smile made of pain, kindness is the only way, you may say that you’re not down, so tell me why you’re hanging ‘round,” they swath the Rain Parade’s “What She’s Done To Your Mind” in a fuzzy cocoon of grooviness. Jingle-jangle Guitars ring and peal as Quercio’s still boyish tenor, (he’s like a Paisley Dorian Gray), extricates a friend from the clutches of a femme fatale. The swirly guitar on the break feels like the perfect heartbreak panacea.
Finally, they offer up a thrilling version of The Dream Syndicate’s magnum opus, “Tell Me When It’s Over.” Locking into a kinetic groove, TTOC jettisons the original’s choppy guitar sound without sacrificing the track’s heaviosity. Macabre wind chimes and ominous bass lines slither around a pounding beat and measured piano notes. When the guitars cut loose, they spark and pinwheel, shivery one minute, feedback-y the next. Michael caresses cryptic lyrics looking for answers, even when the questions are closed.
There’s a synergy and camaraderie that simply lights up 3×4. It’s definitely a true labor of love. In the liner notes Susannah Hoffs speaks of the euphoria she felt when she discovered these like-minded bands were influenced by the same ‘60s sounds she was passionate about. That euphoria shines through all these years later.