The 80s: The American Import Record Rack
Words & curation by Jules Gray, artwork by Mick Clarke
Mike Scott of The Waterboys once tweeted “The 80s were so rubbish that I invented my own”.
I could relate to that statement, but only with the caveat that the 1980s in question was the obvious, all-too-visible, top of the pop charts 80s. The rise of electronic sounds, gated drums, New Romanticism, big hair and shoulder pads, and that general lapse into style over substance left me utterly cold. The Americans were eating up all our Thatcherite pop cheese and declaring it The Second British Invasion. Meanwhile I was taking part in an exchange scheme, albeit one that was happening on a much smaller scale. It wasn’t that I couldn’t find any home grown music that was a cut above the rest — I was still buying and enjoying records by, among others, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs, Dexys Midnight Runners, The Smiths, Orange Juice, the still occasionally interesting Stranglers, and the aforementioned Waterboys. But this wasn’t enough to sustain me, besides which, the all-pervading sterility of 80s production values was even creeping into the recordings made by some of the groups that I did rate.
It was R.E.M. who woke me up to a whole new world of possibilities. Over in America, bands were making records that seemed to me to cut through all the artifice of an increasingly banal musical landscape. When I moved to Birmingham in late 1984, I began a weekly practice of flicking through the American import racks in Virgin and HMV. There was also Revolver, and, later, the mighty Swordfish. Or you could pick up used bargains in Second City Sounds, or get fleeced by the not-so-generous Reddingtons.
I found like-minded soulmates too. Simon, Bill, Chris, and myself would arrive back from town with records that the others hadn’t yet heard, and we’d listen and swap opinions, and then go out and buy our own copies, if they were favourable. Sometimes we’d even get to see some of these people in concert. I remember those days fondly. Much of the music collected together for this playlist was made by bands that are still celebrated to this day. Some of the others came and went with less fanfare and now seem more like footnotes. I’ve arranged them into a chronological sequence, giants standing alongside the more modest of stature, to help tell the story of a different 1980s. And one that wasn’t in the least bit rubbish.
1. The Feelies — Moscow Nights [Crazy Rhythms; 1980]
Of course it would be ridiculous to suggest that this amazing American alternative/indie/college radio scene appeared out of the blue as the 1980s dawned. The original US punk bands of the 1970s begat new wave and hardcore and countless other rivers and tributaries. You can hear echoes of The Velvet Underground, The Modern Lovers, Talking Heads and Television in the music of The Feelies. In retrospect though, this sounds like the start of something new happening. This is about art and expression over any commercial considerations. They can barely sing, but they know how to play those guitars, and they know how to arrange and use dynamics. They have drawn inspiration from rock’s back pages, but they’re forging their own path forwards. Oh, and they invented Weezer’s album covers for them.
2. The dB’s — From a Window to a Screen [Repercussion; 1982]
The dB’s were all fans of Big Star. R.E.M. and Game Theory were, in turn, fans of The dB’s. And so the torch got passed. Their records tended to sound brittle and jerky. This song always stood out for me because they slowed it down and found that melancholy narcoleptic groove.
3. The Dream Syndicate — Tell Me When It’s Over [The Days of Wine and Roses; 1982]
I never fully warmed to The Dream Syndicate, but that was mainly down to me liking this song so much that nothing else was able to measure up. It’s all about that guitar riff really. I saw them play on one of the smaller stages at Glastonbury once. I can’t remember a thing about it, but then it was a long time ago.
4. R.E.M. — Radio Free Europe [Murmur; 1983]
This is where I came in. I was watching The Tube music show one Friday in November, 1983. R.E.M. came on. The singer has scruffy long hair. The guitar player had a Rickenbacker and leapt around a lot. They sounded a bit like a 60s band but also a lot like right now. They weren’t pop yet their songs had hooks that snared me in an instant, especially Radio Free Europe’s refrain of “calling on, in transit”. I was listening to songs that I’d never heard before yet I felt like I’d known them all my life. I asked around at school the next day, but it was just me. Nobody else had noticed them particularly. I was in London later that month and picked up a copy of Murmur and it only further intensified all of those same feelings. They became my band. I wonder if all those people that I used to bang on and on about R.E.M. to when they were an obscure little cult band raised an eyebrow of surprise when they became massive. So many stories about R.E.M. Did I tell you about the time that Simon and I went for a curry with Michael Stipe?
5. The Rain Parade — Talking in My Sleep [Emergency Third Rail Power Trip; 1983]
The Edsel/Demon record label group started putting some of these new alternative American bands’ albums out in the UK on their Zippo subsidiary. For a while, Bill, Simon and myself would pretty much buy anything on Zippo, on faith. And, for a while at least, we were rewarded again and again. This was the first Zippo release. The Rain Parade were so steeped in 60s psychedelia that they verged on pastiche, and all too soon we forgot about them almost as casually as we had first stumbled upon them. And yet, listening to this for the first time in over three decades, I was struck by how fresh it sounded, and how great too. I felt more joy than I would have thought possible. Sometimes, you can go back.
6. Love Tractor — Neon Lights [’Til the Cows Come Home; 1984]
This was one of Simon’s discoveries. I later learned that Bill Berry had drummed for both R.E.M. and Love Tractor and found it a tough call when he had to choose one band over the other. He made the right choice, but having said that, I absolutely love this record. Love Tractor played a lot of instrumental originals, but they also covered this Kraftwerk song. Unlike Simon, I had no idea it was a Kraftwerk song at the time, so for me, this is the definitive version of Neon Lights.
7. The Long Ryders — Ivory Tower [Native Sons; 1984]
Simon and I were both moved to buy Native Sons on the strength of its album cover. It was our first Zippo label purchase. The Long Ryders had Byrds haircuts and looked like outlaws from a western. (I later found out that the cover photo was a tribute to the photograph of The Buffalo Springfield that was to have adorned their unreleased Stampede LP, but I didn’t know that then.) They also had the same 12-string Rickenbacker chime plus country Telecaster twang configuration as the Clarence White-era Byrds, and on Ivory Tower had somehow lured an original Byrd, Gene Clark, to sing harmony. And yet they also had punk energy in their veins, and their live gigs were sweaty and raucous affairs. We used to drag the less musical obsessive members of our student gang out to see them when they were playing in and around town, and everybody always had a great time. I still have my original Zippo label Native Songs, signed by all four of the band. Thanks fellas. They recently got back together for a new album and some live gigs and have been touring the UK again too, just like old times.
8. The Bangles — Going Down to Liverpool [All Over the Place; 1984]
The Bangles’ journey from being the hip all-female band in L.A.’s “paisley underground” scene to airbrushed shiny pop stars happened so fast that there wasn’t much time to enjoy the moment when everyone concerned got the balance just about right. That moment is probably this tune, written by one-time Soft Boy, Kimberley Rew, and originally recorded by Katrina and The Waves. I’m still tickled pink by the strange charm of listening to Californian women singing “Hey, la’, where you going with that UB40 in your hand?”.
9. Violent Femmes — Hallowed Ground [Hallowed Ground; 1984]
The Violent Femmes’ debut LP became ubiquitous. It was seemingly in every student’s record collection, and the best-loved tracks were played at clubs and discos week in and week out. It was very much an album that came close to wearing out its welcome through over-familiarity. The second record, Hallowed Ground, was less easy to love. It was filled with darkness, rain, murder, and plenty of that old time religion, back when singing about God was only acceptable to the rock and roll audience if you were doing it ironically. It also had a broader musical palette and a richer soundscape. None of this necessarily makes it a better album, but it’s the one I’m more likely to revisit.
10. Minutemen — History Lesson Part II [Double Nickels on the Dime; 1984]
Minutemen came from a different environment than many of the other bands here. They were working class guys who thought of themselves as punks, even if the music they played confused the increasingly closed-minded hardcore audience. Their songs were short, quirky and rhythmic. They flirted with jazz and funk. I first heard Minutemen courtesy of my friend who lived in the room opposite me during my first year as a student in Birmingham. Ian was playing the Project Mersh EP. I approached the rest of their output with caution when I discovered that most of the rest of it was considerably less ‘mersh’ (commercial). Thankfully there were exceptions, and songs like the beautifully self-referential History Lesson Part II were valuable stepping stones for me as I moved from their friendlier material towards their more intense punk stuff. Also, in bass player Mike Watt, Minutemen gave me a hero for life; both as a man of the people, and a master musician.
11. True West — Look Around [Drifters; 1984]
One of the minor footnotes in this story. They enjoyed a brief moment in the sunshine of our shared affections. After all, it was a Zippo release. Simon found this first. The Drifters album is now only available as part of the Hollywood Holiday Revisited collection. I love the ascending guitar figure that recurs throughout this song.
12. Los Lobos — Will the Wolf Survive? [How Will The Wolf Survive?; 1984]
Another album which came to us courtesy of Simon. Los Lobos did rock, they did Mexican roots music, and they mixed in the blues as well. This plaintive song of defiance and perseverance was a career highlight. It’s pure quality.
13. Miracle Legion — The Backyard [The Backyard; 1984]
I was always searching for another R.E.M. and they had certainly spawned a handful of soundalikes. Miracle Legion would go on to prove themselves as more than mere copycats, but I’ll always enjoy this song (the one I heard first) the best, probably because it did sound so very much like boys from Athens, Georgia.
14. Green On Red — The Drifter [Gas Food Lodging; 1985]
Ah, Green On Red. The first things I heard by them were very organ-driven and sounded like a Doors-y garage band. And then they brought young gunslinger Chuck Prophet IV on board, and it made all the difference. Their first full-length with Chuck, Gas, Food, Lodging, was probably their finest hour overall, even if the production was muddy. They were such fun live. Dan Stuart, all booze-sozzled and seemingly always at the brink of collapse, while Chuck fired off these razor-sharp leads. I once saw Peter Buck get up and jam with them. He played Dan’s guitar because Dan was too wasted to play it himself. Happy days.
15. Jason & The Scorchers — Broken Whiskey Glass [Lost & Found; 1985]
One of the knock-on effects of this resurgence in American music was discovering that it might actually be OK to like country music. Indeed there was a whole new generation of interesting young country artists coming through during this same time period. I first heard Broken Whiskey Glass played live by R.E.M. at the very first concert of theirs I attended, in November 1984 (they’d covered Color Me Impressed by The Replacements immediately before). Michael Stipe also co-wrote a song on their Fervor EP, and sang backups on another track, so that was good enough for us. In truth, what let The Scorchers down in the end was that they chose to ramp up the rock element rather than really exploring their country side.
16. Camper Van Beethoven — Take the Skinheads Bowling [Telephone Free Landslide Victory; 1985]
Eventually, every scene gets its own novelty record, and, delightful as it is, that’s pretty much what we have here. The greatest element of this record is the harmony vocals delivered with so much feeling on such an absurd lyric.
17. 10,000 Maniacs — Back o’ the Moon [The Wishing Chair; 1985]
Another band that were introduced to me via The Tube music show. The sight of Natalie Merchant’s skirt swirling and billowing as she danced a merry jig was more than a little diverting. And she sang with a voice pitched somewhere between New England and Olde England, folk nuanced with peculiar vowel sounds. I was sometimes frustrated that her bandmates were so well-mannered and buttoned-up, but for two or three albums, 10,000 Maniacs were major players. Natalie even dated Michael Stipe for a while; the pair briefly becoming the royal couple of the American alternative rock family.
18. Thin White Rope — Down in the Desert [Exploring the Axis; 1985]
I’d grown up listening to a series of artists who stretched the boundaries of what you could call singing. Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine all come to mind. Guy Kyser was similarly an acquired taste. In fact I’m not sure I ever really acquired it, and that voice probably prevented me from exploring his axis very much further. Yet it certainly fits this song. He sounds like a man who knows about something that could affect you down in the desert.
19. Meat Puppets — Out My Way [Out My Way; 1986]
Meat Puppets were label mates of both Black Flag and Minutemen, but all three bands couldn’t have been more different. Meat Puppets were desert-fried psychedelic country punks. They had a genuine guitar hero in Curt Kirkwood. And all three members were artists who did their own record sleeve art. It was my friend Bill who turned me onto them one day in 1985 or so when he brought home the Up On The Sun LP. I heard this odd yet appealing out-of-tune vocal drifting down the stairs, and I was hooked before I even knew what I was listening to. The Out My Way mini-album wasn’t such an immediate hit, yet I’ve grown to absolutely love the stoner take on ZZ Top vibe of the title track.
20. Hüsker Dü — Could You Be the One? [Warehouse: Songs and Stories; 1987]
Simon was a huge Hüsker Dü fan. I must admit that I never really got them, and not for want of trying. It was all a bit brash for me. But this late-period almost-hit single was undeniable. My old band Onionhead learned it and covered it many times.
21. The Replacements — Can’t Hardly Wait [Pleased to Meet Me; 1987]
It seems wrong that I’ve had to wait this long to talk about The Replacements, because they’re only second to R.E.M. here in holding onto my lasting affections, and sometimes they’re not even second. America’s punky dysfunctional answer to The Faces, and dozens of other unasked questions, The Replacements had bruised soul. Their Let It Be LP was one of our gang’s earliest Zippo purchases. We had to get past that it had song titles like Gary’s Got a Boner, and Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out. Just how dumb was this LP going to be? Well, not as dumb as it was brilliant. I became a fan for life. Anyway, they’re this late in the playlist because of the chronology thing, and it had to be this song. This is your Replacements gateway drug, if you’re not already addicted. The purists may baulk at the horns, but I love them. It’s a major regret of mine that I never saw them live. I’m still kicking myself.
22. Game Theory — Throwing the Election [2 Steps from the Middle Ages; 1988]
And speaking of regrets, it’s to my eternal puzzlement that I had no awareness of Game Theory until after frontman Scott Miller’s suicide in 2013. A big fan of Big Star, produced by Mitch Easter of Let’s Active (who maybe should be here in this playlist) who had also produced R.E.M., and with ties to various other “paisley underground” acts — how could I have missed them? So this is a little bit of revisionism on my part. If you don’t know the albums The Big Shot Chronicles and Lolita Nation, then go and seek them out immediately. This track is from a less essential LP, but I think it perfectly captures a lot of what I love about Scott Miller’s song writing.
23. Sonic Youth — Teen Age Riot [Daydream Nation; 1988]
Sometimes you just have to go with the obvious. I was vaguely aware of Sonic Youth before Daydream Nation, but this still sounded like a bolt from the blue. It was a massive song, both in its length and its impact. That trippy intro, and then when the band kicks in. Oof! I remember first hearing this on my then-girlfriend Kate’s stereo. I can still picture the sleeve, and the record spinning, and feeling the rush.
24. Dinosaur Jr. — Freak Scene [Bug; 1988]
Sometimes you have to go with the obvious, part two. Question: were Dinosaur Jr. the first grunge band? It certainly sounds like a blueprint for everything that became such a big deal two or three years later. Again, this had a huge impact on the music lovers in my circle of friends. Our friends’ band Sandkings used to cover it. In truth, I got tired of hearing it everywhere I went, but it still needs to be here.
25. Guided By Voices — Short on Posters [Self-Inflicted Aural Nostalgia; 1989]
More revisionism. I certainly hadn’t heard of Guided By Voices back in the 80s. Hell, hardly anyone who wasn’t actually a member of Guided By Voices had heard of them. Their earliest records were little more than vanity releases, because they had stopped playing gigs, and had no fanbase to speak of. Robert Pollard and his fluid lineup of henchmen made records because they were driven to do so by artistic impulse and the need for self-expression. Those early records, pressed in limited numbers, now sell for thousands of dollars on eBay. Ideally I would have included something from their debut EP Forever Since Breakfast, but since that’s not available on Spotify, this song, originally intended for a projected 1988 album that was, to quote Pollard, “shitcanned”, will have to do. I’m obsessed by this band, but that’s another playlist for another time.
26. Pixies — Monkey Gone to Heaven [Doolittle; 1989]
Sometimes you have to go with the obvious, part three. I remember Pixies being the new big thing, and I just didn’t get them at all. My oldest friend Ed loved them. My girlfriend Kate loved them. I heard a lot of screeching and hollering, and rolled my eyes. This song changed things to a certain degree. I could now understand because I was hearing something undeniably catchy. A pop song, really. A mutant pop song. Pixies famously invented the quiet/loud blueprint that Nirvana would soon sell to the whole world. Only with Pixies, there was a lot more yelping.
27. Lemonheads — Luka [Lick; 1989]
Good ol’ Evan Dando, forever remembered as the man with so much promise who frittered it away out of sheer half-assedness. This was the first time I remember being aware of Lemonheads; covering Suzanne Vega’s sorry tale of domestic abuse, and doing a damn fine job of it too.
28. fIREHOSE — Riddle of the Eighties [fROMOHIO; 1989]
The rhythm section of Mike Watt and George Hurley get a second showing here, but only due to tragedy. Minutemen frontman d. boon was killed in a car accident, in December 1985. Watt was all set to hang up his bass for good, but Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore hauled him out of his grief for a guest appearance, and then a plucky young man called Ed Crawford from Ohio travelled all the way to San Pedro to inform Watt that he was ready to be his new guitar player. The resulting band, fIREHOSE, was both a continuation of Minutemen’s good work, and a noticeably different vehicle. As different as d. boon and ed fROMOHIO were as singers, guitar players, and writers. This Mike Watt song sees him recounting his transition from one band to the other.
29. Nirvana — About a Girl [Bleach; 1989]
We are now very much at the end of the 80s and looking towards the dawning on the next decade. Nirvana would soon take off and achieve money and fame far beyond what most of the other bands here (R.E.M. being a notable exception) couldn’t even comprehend, never mind attain. The only clue to this white-hot future of mixed blessings to be found on their debut LP Bleach was this tune. Hey, listen! Kurt Cobain can write and sing a catchy song with a tune you could probably even whistle! There was more to come, but, alas, not nearly enough.
30. Galaxie 500 — Snowstorm [On Fire; 1989]
My old band Onionhead had the pleasure of supporting Galaxie 500 when they played a handful of UK dates around the time of this album’s release. I used to stand at the side of the stage or out there at the front and listen to them do their mesmeric, stripped-down, beautiful thing every night. Snowstorm was always my favourite, and it still is.
That’s the end of our little ride down my favourite dusty roads of the 1980s. Feel free to back up and start again at the beginning. Apologies to those bands that I couldn’t shoehorn into this playlist. I didn’t manage to find room for Black Flag, or The Three O’Clock, or Let’s Active, or Giant Sand, or Naked Prey, or The Smithereens, or Guadalcanal Diary, or The Connells, or any one of a hundred others. Maybe next time. I’d like to dedicate this playlist to d. boon, Bob Stinson, Kurt Cobain, Robert Buck, Scott Miller, Gil Ray, Grant Hart, and anyone else involved in making this music that meant so much to me that is sadly no longer with us. Thank you for what you gave us. Thank you for making a difference.
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