As evidenced on a key new reissue, the Paisley Underground flagbearer’s combination of accessible melodies, trippy production touches and rock muscle set a blueprint that many indie psych rockers have followed since.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
This is what we talk about when we talk about the Paisley Underground.
As fans of the mid-‘80s psychedelic scene in California (and beyond) know, the Paisley Underground was more a collection of friends than a roll-call of soundalikes. Everyone has their own definition of what psychedelia means, and the variety in that particular scene showed it, from the harmony-rich jangle pop of the Bangles and the twee psych-pop of the Three O’Clock to the deep ‘n’ dark Southwesternisms of True West and the Velvets/Crazy Horse frenzy of the Dream Syndicate. (Not to mention the gonzoid ‘60s worship of Milwaukee’s Plasticland…we could go on. Ask this site’s editor for a full rundown.) (Indeed. He was there and knew ‘em all. –Site Editor Ed.)
But for many folks, when we hear the words “Paisley Underground,” we think of Los Angeles-based Rain Parade. The band’s combination of accessible melodies, trippy production touches and rock muscle set a blueprint that many indie psych rockers have followed since. The band wasn’t the best known of the scene’s acts, even as it was one of the first—indeed, it may be best remembered as the launching pad for singer/guitarist David Roback, later of Mazzy Star. But the band recorded some of the signature albums of the Paisley Underground, two of which are now getting the remaster/reissue treatment: Emergency Third Rail Power Trip and Explosions in the Glass Palace, via Real Gone Music.
Emergency Third Rail Power Trip has, for nearly 35 years, stood as one of the scene’s major statements. At first listen it seems almost modest—after all, the combo of singalong melodies and mildly acidic arrangements was hardly new, then or now. But that’s not the point; the band was just damn good at what it did. Fronted by a trio of equally talented singer/songwriters (David Roback, his bassist brother Steven, guitarist Matt Piucci) and enhanced and augmented by keyboard/violin colorist Will Glenn and jazz-inflected drummer Eddie Kalwa, the group had a potent combo that knocked out one gem after another.
The timeless pop tunes “I Look Around,” “This Can’t Be Today” and “What She’s Done to Your Mind” would be staples of sixties collections had they been issued back in Ye Olden Dayes. “Saturday’s Asylum,” “1 Hour ½ Ago” and the gloriously tripped-out “Kaleidoscope” dive deep into the liquid lightshow side of the scene’s personality, and avoid sounding dated while they do so. Even “Look Both Ways,” an overtly garagey folk rocker originally issued on the British version of the album, shakes off any mold that might gather and just gets down to business. ETRPT holds up better now than a lot of the sixties albums that inspired it.
Despite that triumph, the mercurial David Roback quit the band after its first national tour, leaving the remaining foursome to reorganize around the EP Explosions in the Glass Palace. Though far too short at only five songs, that quintet of cuts hasn’t a loser in the bunch. “Blue” and “You Are My Friend” present more perfectly crafted pop, while “Prisoners” and “Broken Horse” delve into overtly acid-drenched mini-epics. The EP ends with the anthemic powerhouse “No Easy Way Down,” then as now the band’s definitive track.
Without arguing about whether or not these albums are the best the scene had to offer, it seems clear that they’re probably the definitive representations of what the Paisley Underground meant at the time. (Archivist and journalist Pat Thomas makes the case quite convincingly in his liner notes as well.) That they hold up so well decades later is a testament to the writing and performance skills of the band. Still as rich and accessible now as they were when they were released, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip/Explosions in the Glass Palace wave the flag of psych rock’s continued relevancy proudly.
(Below, watch a clip of the band live in 1985, doing “You Are My Friend.”)