BY JUD COST
“Hi, I’m Vicki Peterson of the Bangs,” announces one of tonight’s (Dec. 5) performers over the pristine sound system of San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. It’s the perfect insider’s intro to this scintillating evening that already feels more like a high school reunion than a rock show that’s reunited the bands from Los Angeles’ early ’80s, post-punk scene, the Paisley Underground. Only those who were there from the early days would have recognized “the Bangs” as the original name of the all-girl combo who would later hit the national charts as “the Bangles” with such national hits as “Walk Like An Egyptian” and “Eternal Flame.” “We are delighted to play alongside these great bands we worshipped: Rain Parade, the Dream Syndicate and the Three O’Clock,” adds Peterson.
It was an idea I’d broached to many of tonight’s participants as the ’80s unfolded, and I was fortunate enough to interview them many times for such vital underground periodicals as London’s Bucketfull of Brains and The Bob from Philadelphia. I recall telling Pat Thomas, the man who founded San Francisco’s Paisley-friendly Heyday Records, that these four bands and others tarred with the same brush—True West, the Long Ryders, Green On Red, Game Theory, the 28th Day—should star in a poor man’s Woodstock some day to play together for one last, glorious weekend. Tonight is about as close as you could get, and it sounds even better tonight than it had in my feverish dreams.
Created by uber-guitarist Matt Piucci, and the more sensitive fretboard tones of the Roback brothers, David and Steven, Rain Parade was the band I’d heard first from what Michael Quercio, frontman for the Three O’Clock, would soon dub “the Paisley Underground.” Wandering through San Francisco’s Tower Records in North Beach in 1981, I noticed a 45 single on the Llama label that featured a song called “What She’s Done To Your Mind.” A store clerk had taped a piece of cardboard to the record on which these words appeared: “Very psychedelic! Highly recommended!” That was enough for me. Spun the disc, loved its meandering, mind-bending sound and spent the rest of the decade traipsing after all the bands this little slab of PVC would help open the door for.
The scene’s top dog for many, Rain Parade now features vintage members Piucci, Steven Roback and second guitarist John Thoman (sporting an Uncle Sam goatee), alongside three recent additions, drummer Gil Ray formerly of Game Theory, boatclub guitarist Mark Hanley and Sneetches bassist Alec Palao, take the stage with “This Can’t Be Today,” a twinkling gem from their debut album, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip.
As well as a polite bow toward ’60s folk/psych heroes the Byrds and Pink Floyd, the songs immediately evoke memories of SF’s premier underground venue the I-Beam in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury. Take a deep breath and you can almost smell the acrid byproduct of clove cigarettes, an ’80s bad idea that might have nipped the tobacco epidemic in the bud all by itself if allowed to flourish.
“Kaleidoscope” and “You Are My Friend” follow, flashing beacons from Rain Parade’s second longplayer, Explosions In The Glass Palace, whose cover depicts the perps sitting on the lawn in front of Golden Gate Park’s window-paned arboretum under fuchsia-pink skies. As it played out at venues as widespread as LA’s Club Lingerie, the Anti Club and Music Machine, as well as the Bay Area’s Old Waldorf, Berkeley Square and Wolfgang’s, the finale was usually the same hypnotic tune. “No Easy Way Down is a mesmerizing journey Piucci once described as “snake charmer music,” and a fittingly exotic climax to a fabulous set.
A sweaty Piucci is ecstatic, afterwards. “Did you see me talking to (Bangles vocalist) Sue Hoffs?” he asks, grinning broadly. “I told her that song (‘What She’s Done To Your Mind’) was for her.”
The Three O’Clock follows with Quercio on vocals and bass, Louis Gutierrez on guitar, an unidentified keyboardist and Danny Benair on drums. Their set tonight is utterly amazing, as fresh as a bag of bakery goods and as satisfying as an ice cold quart of milk. Anyone with half a brain could tell back in their prime that Benair was probably the best rock drummer ever, with a skill set that rivaled legendary studio/jazz percussionists like Shelly Manne.
Quercio, looking like he’s aged about six months since then, still has the pipes to easily navigate the luscious melodies of his band’s best material with the ease of a limber young housecat. “Jet Fighter Plane” and “With A Cantaloupe Girlfriend” sound like they should have been AM radio smashes in their day. And the covers, my god, the covers! The Bee Gees’ “In My Own Time” is a pip, as is their eye-popping version of “Lucifer Sam,” shanghaied from Pink Floyd. “Sorry,” the tune they borrowed from the Easybeats, Australia’s version of the Beatles, shakes the Fillmore to its foundation, like similar workouts must have done back in this hall’s glory days five decades ago with appearances by Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators and San Jose’s Chocolate Watchband.
And then came the return to the scene of the crime of none other than the Dream Syndicate led by Steve Wynn, the best talk-singer since the original purveyor of that risky art, the late Lou Reed.
Back when I worked for the post office and could take an afternoon nap at home before punching out, I was snoozing on my couch with KSAN FM-radio blasting away when I was rudely awakened by what sounded like two locomotives colliding head-on in the night. I sat bolt upright as “Sure Thing” and “Some Kinda Itch” from the Dream Syndicate’s debut mini-album on the Down There label, washed over me like that corrosive goo Walter White used to dispose of corpses. It was Wynn’s ironclad rhythm guitar and psych-fretboard genius Karl Precoda doing battle as if the end of the world was about 20 minutes away in a radioactive cloud of feedback.
Precoda and original Syndicate bassist Kendra Smith disappeared into the night long ago, but Wynn and skinsman Dennis Duck are back with Mark Walton on bass and Jason Victor on lead guitar to take the revived Syndicate along a slightly different path. Before long, Victor and Wynn are standing toe-to-toe trading blows like Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television or True West’s Richard McGrath and Russ Tolman. Wynn’s successful solo career as leader of the Miracle Three has spurred him to upgrade his singing chops at the sacrifice of his talk-sing voice. So the early DS classics—”That’s What You Always Say,” “When You Smile,” “Tell Me When It’s Over”—veer off into other rooms with other voices. If Dylan can completely rewrite the melodies to his old stuff, why can’t Wynn do a little tinkering too?
“John Coltrane Stereo Blues” is dedicated by Wynn to renowned Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina. The dual set-closers still wield enough raw power “to raise the dead/And make the little girls talk out of their heads,” according to Mississippi guru Mose Allison. “The Days Of Wine And Roses” finds that same guy “out on the ledge again, threatening everything,” and the flickering “Halloween” must be one of the most sinister (and addictive) melodies ever put to wax.
Below: some Three O’Clocks and some Bangles
Before you’ve had time to recover from the first three rounds of this heavyweight title fight, the Syndicate Of Sound’s timeless garage rock anthem “Little Girl,” (another talk-sing knockout), blares from the Fillmore’s PA, and the Bangles are off and running. Hoffs on vocals and guitar and the Peterson sisters, Vicki on guitar and vocals and Debbi on drums and vocals, begin to ply their trade with their jangling treatment of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade Of Winter.”
It becomes clear, though nothing is mentioned from the stage, that all the performers tonight are playing their early material, circa 1982-85. Thus, the girls do not remove the Egyptian from his weatherproof sarcophagus tonight to point his hands angularly in different directions. They do, however, unzip an achingly beautiful version of Big Star’s “September Gurls,” as well as a hearty rundown of “Live” by fabled LA combo the Merry-Go-Round. The girls also cook up a savory segue from the Velvet Underground’s “Waitin’ For My Man” to the song Prince wrote for them, “Manic Monday,” back when the Purple One was one of the Bangles’ biggest boosters.
The breathtaking encore, with all hands on deck, is the equivalent of a diabetic being manacled and forced to eat his way out of a See’s candy store. Everyone does the Pete Seeger hootenanny thing to the strains of the Byrds’ ” I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” “Time Will Show The Wiser” from Fairport Convention, the Velvet Underground’s “There She Goes” and then closes shop with “For Pete’s Sake,” the song the Monkees used as the credits rolled on their 1966 TV show.
Always the diplomat, Wynn would wax euphoric about the event three days later on his website: “it was nice to find everyone was still making great music, getting along so well and open to whatever it took to make a memorable evening.”
After falling down onstage and breaking his glasses, Piucci chuckles ruefully after the repeat showing of the entire program the following night at LA’s Henry Fonda Theatre. “I’m getting too old for this shit! I’m 55 years old,” he says, half laughing, half groaning. He doesn’t really mean it. As the Flamin’ Groovies’ ace guitarist Cyril Jordan once put it: “If you’re still doing music when you turn 30, you’re in it for life.”
The cream of the Paisley Underground is living proof what a good life that can be, especially when you’re among old friends.