The early eighties Paisley Underground Scene of guitar-led garage bands was a particular movement. Based around a set of like-minded and mutually supportive souls, looking more to the sixties than the seventies generally, it produced a bunch of good to middling records and perhaps one album that verges on greatness, the debut outing from The Dream Syndicate, The Days of Wine & Roses.
Built around the songwriting and vocals of Steve Wynn, but very much a group effort, it was recorded in a couple of days in late 1982 and released later in the same year. Very much indebted to the methedrine intensity of The Velvet Underground, there's even a slower Nico / Mo Tucker track, sung by bassist Kendra Smith. Wynn became increasingly defensive in response to the inevitable comparisons, (they did after all take their name from the original pre-Velvets grouping), nevertheless, it's certainly much more than mere tribute, sounding very much a West Coast record rather than an East Coast one, drenched as it is in Hollywood paranoia and cinematic angst, A series of well-crafted and impressively delivered songs of guitar adventuring.
The band draw on Punk and New Wave in addition to the sixties. Wynn and lead guitarist Karl Precoda duel in a manner not dissimilar to Television's Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd but their interplay is intentionally more ragged and open-ended, (and occasionally awash in feedback), than that band's recorded output and nods its head to Crazy Horse, Dylan and Creedence too, while The Fall were also an influence that Wynn has repeatedly mentioned in interview. He was also apparently an avid fan of Postcard Records, Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. He applies his own, half-spoken, drawled vocals, telling a set of tales of vague, existential dread of lives spinning irretrievably out of control, played out under the unrelenting Californian sun. In addition to all this, the album acts as something of a pre-cursor to Sonic Youth, who were just forming at the same point and preceded to take things to an altogether more unhinged extreme in the following decade.
The Days of Wine & Roses, seen on its own terms, is a pretty much perfect guitar album. Never quite as inspired as Reed, Verlaine or Young, Wynn's songs nevertheless operate highly efficiently in their slipstream and Precoda's playing particularly elevates the record to its own equisite heights.It very much sounds like the work of a band on the uneasy cusp of adulthood and laying down their own path.
Setting off with the creamy Tell Me When It's Over, each track on here keeps up the pace and occasionally, when the band really let rip, they set down a template that has barely been matched since. Wynn is an observer of life's strange tribulations, troubled, but also detached and occasionally the band lock into an inspired almost jazz like hazy, opiate groove.
Going at cross-purposes to much of the New Wave which was turning on mass towards synth-pop, The Days of Wine & Roses revisits and renews the glorious potential of guitar driven Rock and Roll. The Dream Syndicate were far from alone, at least in the States. The Replacements, R.E.M. Husker Du and The Minutemen along with countless others had embarked along similar roads but they were all very much underground concerns at this point, with the possible exception of R.E.M. who immediately began making chart inroads the same year with the release of Murmur.
The Days of Wine & Roses is a record with limited commercial appeal. The Velvet Underground, regardless of Wynn's protestations, the guiding influence of everything on here, were never meant to top the hit parade. Nevertheless, the record did open up a whole field of exciting possibilities which those with like-minded sensibilities leapt on, in Europe as well as the States.
When I personally started hearing this music myself, round about the time, when I was forming my own taste and starting to buy my first records, it was a revelation. The influence of Punk was beginning to dim, with 1982 and New Pop probably its last direct immediate impact on the mainstream. The Smiths emerged to offer an alternative route along with The Go-Betweens, Prefab Sprout, Aztec Camera, The Triffids and Lloyd Cole & the Commotions but there were also all of these American bands, though, again with the exception of R.E.M. they didn't gain much footing over here except for touring occasionally in small halls to appreciative audiences.
Several of the other Paisley Underground bands were worthy of note. The Rain Parade, True West, The Long Ryders and The Bangles for example. But it was The Dream Syndicate who most successfully built a bridge from the sixties to the eighties with this record. Sadly they never quite matched it, signing to A&M and worked with big-hitting producer Sandy Pearlman on their second album The Medicine Show. In comparison with their first outing, they worked painstakingly on the record's sound but despite having great moments, (it's a fine 'nearly' record, particularly the mighty John Coltrane's Stereo Blues), overall it failed to match the sustained, inspirational peaks of its successor. The Days of Wine & Roses remains the band's definitive statement. It still sounds quite wonderful today, more than thirty years on!
* For an excellent account of the record an its context, see this Uncut Magazine review