Thinking Inside the Box

Our nostalgia for the 1980s tends toward the rose-colored. Cable TV shows, movies, books, and web sites catalog that decade’s every pop-cultural burp, from neon socks and parachute pants to Boy George’s transvestitism to Michael Jackson’s sequined glove. The term “yuppie” becomes a punchline, and Wall Street avarice is excused as a social trend.

In a sense, this approach to an era consigns it to capital-H History, where textbooks can untangle its uglier knots, like AIDS, Reaganomics, the Iran Contra Affair, and too many others. In fact, the 00s are beginning to resemble the 80s with its greed-is-good ethos fueling a real estate boom, albeit out in suburbia, and with the Bush Administration securing a second term. All of which makes our blinkered nostalgia for the 80s not just a little disconcerting, but perhaps even disturbing.

Rhino Entertainment, the record label that has managed to make its mark putting everyone from Ornette Coleman to Alice Cooper to Peter Paul and Mary in a box, is doing its part to balance this one-sided view of the 80s: its new, four-disk box set, Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the 80s Underground, collects 82 tracks from some of the decade’s lesser-known, but independent-minded and influential, artists. Featuring the likes of Minor Threat, Bauhaus, Green on Red, and the Lyres alongside more recognizable artists like R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Kate Bush, it offers a corrective to so many compilations that dutifully repackage obvious hits from Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, Culture Club, and – if they’re either desperate or risky – Taco and Kajagoogoo. Such hits aren’t sold as music necessarily, but as reminders of our collective past, when we daily rediscovered the Best! Song! Ever!

Perhaps that’s why this collection proves so compelling and why so many of these bands have prospered when their mainstream counterparts have struggled. Both the Pixies and the Cure have launched massive comeback tours and played to thousands of avid fans, while Duran Duran’s recent album Astronaut barely made a ripple and George Michael is on his second or third sub-Rod Stewart standards album. We can still think of the Pixies and the Cure, not to mention Echo & the Bunnymen, Bad Brains, the Church, and Beat Happening, as music.

In one of two introductory essays, music critic Karen Schoemer writes, “Part of the mystique of underground music was that it was personal and allowed the listener to feel like an individual, instead of a number in a scanner.” That’s the philosophy of the left-of-the-dial rock, and it has its roots in the origins of the form, from the raw rock of the late 50s to the rambunctious psychedelic pop of the 60s and the rough-and-tumble punk of the 70s. Unsurprisingly, Rhino has box-setted all of these eras in four similarly packaged, four-disk collections – Loud, Fast & Out of Control: The Wild Sounds of 50s Rock; Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968; Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond, 1964–1969; and the supremely successful No Thanks! The 70s Punk Rebellion. Together, these five volumes covering four decades form an unofficial and utterly compelling secret history of rock and roll.

While it includes one song and several bands featured on No Thanks!, Left of the Dial, which refers to the FM frequency location of most college stations – the home of alternative music – diverges from its predecessors’ similar storyline in at least one crucial way: there is no aesthetic or genre commonality among all these bands. They represent various and varying scenes, such as L.A.’s Paisley Underground, Minneapolis’ Longhorn-centered roots rock explosion, Manchester’s Factory Records, San Francisco and D.C.’s hardcore constituencies, and Boston’s college-rock resurgence. Conceivably, Rhino could have included many more, such as Seattle’s nascent grunge scene (Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden), the Midwestern alt-country upstarts (Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks), Britain’s shoegazer brigade (Lush, Slowdive), and especially hip-hop’s Native Tongue posse (Jungle Brothers, De La Soul). What makes the 80s underground so fascinating is its diversity; in a sense, it mirrored the diversity of the mainstream, giving discerning listeners alternatives to MTV’s heavy rotation bands, radio mainstays, and aging legends.

This diversity, however, is both an asset and a hindrance. The juxtaposition of so many styles, approaches, and sounds makes these four disks a dynamic, exciting listen. On the third disk, for instance, Robyn Hitchcock’s romantic “Madonna of the Wasps” gives way to the proto-“Teen Spirit” irony of Faith No More’s “We Care a Lot,” which leads into the tense rhythms of “To Hell With Poverty” by Gang of Four. The pairing of Suicidal Tendencies’ hardcore “Institutionalized” with the Cocteau Twins’ ethereal “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” is almost worth the set’s $60 pricetag alone.

However, this diversity precludes any sense of collective mission among these bands and cohesion among these 82 tracks. All they share is contemporaneity: Left of the Dial chronicles a specific period of time, but it cannot define a larger movement with any specificity. So, while the music itself is almost uniformly amazing, the set as a whole lacks focus and narrative.

To Rhino’s credit, the music here takes precedence over history and message, and hearing these songs in the slightly bloodless context of a historically minded box set is still startling. Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot” has the force of a rousing anthem even sixteen years after its original release, and Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” possesses a striking intensity that Tori Amos can only hope to achieve. Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” is tensely combustible, as if it leans towards real violence. Only one track – Bauhaus’s ridiculous “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” – sounds dated and unnecessary.

Despite its flaws, Left of the Dial nevertheless proves to be Rhino’s most relevant and perhaps its most important set. It chronicles a fertile underground that gave rise to many of today’s most popular artists, such as R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, and the Flaming Lips (the latter two are not included on Left of the Dial), and others that have had incredible influence on subsequent bands in the 90s and 00s, resulting in an exponentially more diverse underground that includes artists like Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand, rappers like Atmosphere and Dizzee Rascal, and neo-folkies like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom.

Furthermore, as many of these songs confront the larger, uglier issues of the 80s, they remain relevant for our current era. Songs like Minor Threat’s “Straight Edge” and Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot” rebel against the reigning greed-is-good ethos of the era. Black Flag command us to “Rise Above,” while the Dead Kennedys (whose Governor Reagan-baiting “California Uber Alles” has come full circle in relevance) poke fun at yuppies on “Holiday in Cambodia.” Across the Atlantic bands expressed outrage with Thatcher principles: the Killing Joke created the martial-punk of “Wardance” to herald the coming apocalypse under Thatcher.

Left of the Dial is proof that music can thrive under even the unfriendliest administrations. Many of these bands were railing against compassionless Thatcherism, cold-hearted Reaganism, and the culture they inspired. In doing so, they communicated their own political and social messages to small but significant audiences, which could then influence the mainstream. Consequently, the underground didn’t stay underground for very long. To quote Black Flag, “Rise above we gotta rise above!”

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