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ISSUE 118 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/5/2004

Revivalism digs deeper

By Peter Farrell
Contributing Writer


Friday, November 5, 2004

Suddenly, the '80s are everywhere. In what must surely be a sign of the apocalypse, the decade defined by big hair, spandex, Ronald Reagan and the New Right, Jane Fonda, Cabbage Patch Kids, cocaine, Wall Street and "The Breakfast Club" has become hipper than hip.

References to the once reviled decade of excess litter the pop culture landscape with an ever-increasing, highly disturbing frequency. Most frightening, however, is that while the television and film industries have been digging into the '80s archive fervently, the base of the revolution lies within the music industry.

For those music buffs that have dared to venture into the murky waters of '80s mainstream pop, the experience is seldom discussed.

Mechanical drumbeats, bland guitar riffs, filtered vocals and whammy bar infested power-rock solos do not make for pleasant listening. Coupled with the fact that most of the haircuts of the popular artists of the time were even worse than the music, the picture becomes even clearer: The '80s were not cool.

But beneath the sickeningly slick surface sheen of the pop world thrived a vibrant subculture of underground rock bands fed-up with the politics, culture and lifestyle of the time. In the wake of punk and disco, these bands synthesized many of the best elements of those genres experimental synth sounds, danceable beats and breakneck guitar riffs to form the movements of hardcore, post-punk and new wave.

The oft-stunning results are documented in the new Rhino Records compilation, Left of the Dial: Dispatches From the 80s Underground. Featuring an awe-inspiring track list of 82 bands spread across four CDs, Left of the Dial serves as a potent primer course on some of the best music you've never heard.

Starting with the seminal R.E.M. classic, "Radio Free Europe," Left of the Dial a reference to a Replacements song of the same name brings the listener on a long, winding journey through the varied soundscapes of many celebrated musical artists that achieved little fame outside of the indie-rock community.

From the smoldering hardcore punk of Bad Brains, Black Flag and Minor Threat to the more ethereal pop meanderings of Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure and XTC, the collection is ambitious in both scope and execution.

The foremost bands of the underground movement are all present. The Replacements, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, the Smiths, Joy Division, Violent Femmes, Meat Puppets, Mission of Burma, Gang of Four and the Pixies cited by many as the definitive bands of the era all make impressive contributions.

However, the deeper cuts are where the real treasures lie. Many of the bands that emerged in this era were similar to the one-hit wonders of the 60s. A brief flash of inspiration hits and three minutes of musical brilliance is conceived. Songs such as the Sugarcube's "Birthday," the Happy Mondays "24 Hour Party People," or the English Beat's "Mirror in the Bathroom," stand out as noteworthy tracks by bands that otherwise were never able to create cohesive albums.

At times, however, the sheer number of songs, artists and musical genres covered within the compilation can overwhelm even the most devoted listener.

In an effort to compensate for Left of the Dial's vast scope, the fine people at Rhino Records have included an encyclopedic collection of liner notes. Each track gets a brief, detailed overview that outlines the influence and history of the song. It is a tremendously helpful feature that helps the listener navigate successfully through the genres and sub-genres many of these artists spawned.

Left of the Dial is an impressive, comprehensive introduction to an era of music in which the most exciting artists of the time were ignored by the mainstream. Undeterred, these bands went underground and formed an intricate network of independent rock built upon the do it yourself work ethic that has survived to this day.

The '80s weren't unbearable. Well, not all of it at least. You just have to dig a little deeper.





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