More than 30 years later, the Paisley Underground still lives and gives. On Record Store Day (Nov. 23), Yep Roc will release 3 x 4, a terrific new double LP/CD album wherein all four bands honor the scene by covering each other’s songs. (A global release, including digital, is slated for Jan. 11.) The record has been in the works since a pair of 2013 reunion shows brought the four groups and most of the original musicians together on the same stage for the first time since 1982.
“It was so much fun and so fulfilling,” says Bangles guitarist and singer Vicki Peterson. “There was something about it that made us feel like we didn’t want it to quite be over yet.”
There was initially talk of having everyone remake ‘60s classics or even collaborate on new material. Then someone came up with the brilliant idea of having each band pick one song by each of the other three and record new versions wherever and however they wanted. Hence the title, 3 x 4.
“There are plenty of tribute records,” says Three O’Clock drummer Danny Benair, who sold the idea to Yep Roc and helped pull the whole thing together. “But I thought this was a rather unique approach. I think it also makes clear to everyone that Paisley Underground is not a sound. It was a scene.”
Benair’s point should be obvious to anyone who knows this music. The harmony-rich “Taxman”-style rave-ups of the pre-fame Bangles sound nothing like The Dream Syndicate’s scratchy Velvet Underground-inspired noise-pop jams. The Rain Parade, meanwhile, came with a melancholic Byrds-y chiming that enveloped you like a fog. (Rain Parade co-founder Dave Roback later formed Mazzy Star, a band with similar hypnotic qualities.)
And then there was The Three O’Clock, psychedelic bubblegum maestros responsible for the movement’s most vibrant and hooky songs. Frontman and bassist Michael Quercio—the man who coined the term “Paisley Underground” in an L.A. Weekly interview—sang tunes like “Jet Fighter” and “With a Cantaloupe Girlfriend” with a delightful faux British accent.
What united the Paisley Underground bands was a shared affection for ‘60s music and culture that was completely at odds with the rest of the L.A. rock establishment. This was a time when punk was turning into hardcore and mainstream pop was awash with synthesizers. Picking up a jangly old Rickenbacker was hardly the obvious move.
“Guitars had become kind of unhip, like people claim they are now,” says Steve Wynn, lead singer and guitarist of The Dream Syndicate. “The kinds of music we all loved—’60s-influenced psychedelia or garage-rock or whatever you want to call it—was outside the mainstream and outside the underground as well. The scene began mainly because we all somehow found each other.”
As Peterson puts it, the Paisley groups were “all dancing around the same maypole.” “The perfect band would be a band that sounds like all four of us,” she says. “Because there are so many magical things that happen in each separate group.”
The everyone-covers-everyone format of 3 x 4 showcases both the similarities and differences. Take for instance The Three O’Clock’s version of “Tell Me When It’s Over,” off The Dream Syndicate’s vaulted 1982 debut Days of Wine and Roses. The Three O’Clock adds some far-out Middle Eastern percussion that transforms Wynn’s hard-edged college-rock staple into something swirly, trippy and totally in their wheelhouse.
“That song was the furthest from who we are in a lot of ways,” says Benair. “It was the one we put the most time into. We have bells and weird percussion gong on. And Michael out of nowhere was like, ‘I’m going to tip my cap to Steve Wynn by doing the verse vocals low like Steve.’ We didn’t see that coming at all. That was really cool.”
Another highlight is The Dream Syndicate’s version of The Bangles’ “Hero Takes a Fall,” a breezy kiss-off to an egotistical dude about to get his comeuppance. It was The Bangles’ major-label debut single in 1984, which technically means it came after the Paisley heyday, but this is the one Wynn had to pick. After all, The Bangles wrote it about him.
Wynn recalls having “about five reactions at the same time” when he learned about “Hero Takes a Fall” while The Dream Syndicate were touring with R.E.M. in 1984. “I was hurt, of course, because they were my friends,” says Wynn. “The song is not the nicest thing in the world. The second reaction was, ‘They got a point.’ I was a little bit cocky. Like anybody at that age who gets lots of success, I had a little bit of an attitude.”
“Once I got past the slight hurt, the slight shock, the slight flattery—’They bothered to write a song about me’—I was like, ‘Well, it’s a damn good song,’” Wynn adds.
Peterson, who once lived with Wynn and a bunch of other people in a “rock ‘n’ roll flophouse” dubbed “the Spock Hotel,” still remembers writing “Hero Takes a Fall.” She and Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs were thinking about “classic dramatic structures”—i.e. stuff you’d find in Shakespeare plays.
“In tragedy, the hero has a flaw and often will be taken down by it,” Peterson says. “A personality flaw, a physical flaw, an Achilles' heel. We were playing around with the idea and came up with a composite character of some people we knew. And then the rumors started going that it was about Steve Wynn. Which I never actively denied. And I’m still giving you a non-denial denial [laughs].”
Whatever beef existed is ancient history. Wynn and Peterson remain close friends, and besides, “Hero Takes a Fall” turned out good for everyone in Paisley Land. The Bangles made a cheekily feminist video for the song that caught the eyes and ears of Prince, who soon began turning up at their gigs. He subsequently gave them a song called “Manic Monday,” which became their first hit on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching No. 2. Prince later signed The Three O’Clock to his label, not coincidentally named Paisley Park.
On 3 x 4, The Bangles show their edgier side with a killer cover of The Dream Syndicate’s snarling “That’s What You Always Say.” Peterson, who sings lead on the track, was initially worried about capturing the raw power of Wynn’s original. “I love that record so much,” she says. “It was really fun to just bash through those chords and try to find the spirit of it and figure out how to do it.” Peterson based the “doll from a horror movie” la-la-la background vocals on some harmonies she’d heard in a super-rare 15-minute version of the song Wynn recorded prior to forming The Dream Syndicate.
Wynn was impressed with—but not surprised by—the results. “I always tell people who weren’t around back then that The Bangles were probably the most rocking and most assured of all the bands,” Wynn says. “They had it down.”
Fans who were around to see The Bangles and rest of the Paisley crew in their early days included punks, goths, rockabillies, and members of various other L.A. subcultures. Peterson remembers looking into the crowd and seeing lots of girls rocking ‘60s gear just like The Bangles. Benair recalls playing Orange County clubs where hundreds of mod kids would pull up on Vespa scooters.
“The fringes and the more open-minded part of every movement saw part of what we were doing that made sense to them,” says Wynn. “It was the same as with bands like the Velvets or The Modern Lovers or The Stooges or Big Star. A lot of people said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this kind of music. I just didn’t know where to find it.’ All of our bands appealed to that.”
Peterson admits that nostalgia played a role—at least as far as her own ‘60s infatuation was concerned. She’s a firm believer in the “20-year cycle”—a rule that explains why today’s bands dig ’90s grunge and Bangles fans are always telling her how much they love the ‘80s.
“You’re 10 years old, and you fall in love with your first band,” says Peterson. “That is like a first love. It’s so powerful. It changes your world. It colors your world. All of a sudden you’re 30, and the music sounds really different, and you’re nostalgic for that 10-year-old love and how you felt when that band played.”
It helped that Peterson’s early favorites—The Beatles, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, etc.—came at a pivotal time in popular culture. “There was a spirit of change and youth and energy and power,” says Peterson of the ‘60s. “Almost like if you just wished hard enough, you could make it happen. I think I carried that into my young adulthood. It’s probably part of the reason I had a band. Because it’s the most unlikely thing ever to try to do. And then to make a success of it is completely crazy.”
That vibe Peterson describes might explain why ‘60s music has defied the 20-year cycle. From the shoegaze of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to The Flaming Lips to modern garage revivalists like Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall, plenty of artists have kept the psychedelic torch burning over the last three decades. It’s no wonder Paisley Underground albums like The Rain Parade’s Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, The Three O’Clock’s Sixteen Tambourines, and The Dream Syndicate’s Days of Wine and Roses sound less dated than a lot of music made in the early ‘80s.
Benair, Wynn, and Peterson all hope to bring 3 x 4 to the stage in 2019. It takes a lot of finagling to coordinate the schedules of 20 middle-age musicians with families and other obligations, so it’s unclear how and when this will happen. But nobody is ready to let the scene die.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about the Paisley Underground,’” says Wynn, who’s gone on to have success as a solo artist and with numerous side projects, including The Baseball Project with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. “I’m proud to be part of something that was this cool and lasted this long in people’s consciousness. We were all fortunate we had each other. It gave context to what we were doing.
“I don’t doubt any of us would have done fine on our own,” he says. “But something about being together made more people pay attention.”