I first heard about the so-called Paisley Underground in 1985. Sitting in the office of a drivers ed classroom, I flipped through a copy of People magazine, where I read a feature about the Los Angeles scene of 60s garage, country-rock and pop revivalists, and gawked at photos of groovy kids in paisley shirts and Beatle boots. MTV’s general coverage of college radio music was spotty back then, confined mostly to “IRS: The Cutting Edge” (hosted by Peter Zaremba), while interviews or record reviews of the Paisley Underground had to compete with cover stories of Sting or Keith Richards in the pages of Spin Magazine. So, I accessed these bands directly via the record store and traded cassettes: Green On Red, the Long Ryders, the Rain Parade, the Three O’Clock, True West, Plasticland, Plan 9, the Fleshtones, the Fuzztones… (Yes, for those who remember, the radius from Los Angeles extendspretty far as that list goes on.) Being an impressionable 16 year old at the time, I fell pretty hard for a scene that flourished in my imagination.

The Paisley Underground, I’d go so far to say, was a contributing factor to my decision to attend UCLA the next year. While visiting the campus, a chance opportunity to catch a free lunchtime concert on campus (the Textones, I believe it was) led me to believe I’d be seeing these bands regularly, so I enrolled with record collection and paisley shirt in tow. However, by the fall of 1986 this “scene,” if it ever existed as coherently as it was publicized, was over. The Dream Syndicate (post-Karl Precoda) was still actively gigging, and I think Long Ryders played one more gig at the Roxy for their second major-label album, but otherwise that was it. The Rain Parade and the Three O’Clock were defunct; Green On Red had moved away (to Europe?); I never really cared about the Bangles; and the rest, who knows? Diving into college radio, I moved on and never really looked back. Still, to this day I remain deeply fond of the Paisley Underground and its diaspora, notably the Rain Parade offshoots (Opal, Mazzy Star, Kendra Smith indirectly) and the Davis CA bands (also never seen in concert: Game Theory, Thin White Rope).

What happened to the Paisley Underground? Certainly those bands were linked together by a large dose of hype, only to join the legions of mostly forgotten underground/college radio/“alternative” groups and performers who came before Lollapalooza and Nirvana. But this scene’s present obscurity is instructive. I won’t focus on their musical or aesthetic appeal today, but I posit these bands were sincere in their creative intent and respectful of, if not totally gassed to be participating in, the cultural ripple of roots/retro Americana created by the splash R.E.M. was making. And, let’s not forget, they embodied an early local movement too, at a time when localism would resonate in so-called alternative music with increasing force: Athens, Minneapolis, Austin, Seattle.

I’d argue the significance of the Paisley Underground comes from the fact that its flare-up (explosion would be too strong an metaphor) on the music world from 1981-85 represented the last completed, from-birth-to-death lifecycle of a post-punk movement just before the consolidation of a DIY/independent music ethic.Consequently, those bands turned to the corporate music industry, at a time when the latter struggled to sell authenticity to mass markets. But if the music industry failed the Paisley Underground, those bands may have failed themselves as well.

That’s to say, almost to a one, the groups and performers willing to self-consciously connect themselves to (or at least tolerate publicity associating them with) the buzz over the Paisley Underground displayed an ‘incorrect’ attitude toward the promotion of their music. They all signed to major or would-be-major labels; a handful recorded albums that demonstrated a misunderstanding of why anyone listened to them in the first place. Touring dropped off, while big-budget albums and TV ad appearances increased. (Remember the Miller Beer endorsements of the Long Ryders and the Del Fuegos?) A few succumbed to galling displays of careerism, as if they thought that because they were in the band du jour, the world owed them its attention and indulgence, just as it did the rock dinosaurs before punk.

Am I right to recall that Steve Wynn even made light of his ambitions in a late 80s/early 90s interview, half-seriously counseling his listeners not to feel schadenfreude over the Dream Syndicate’s act major label hubris, the quickly-out-of-print The Medicine Show? If so, the timing of his mea culpa is revealing. In confessing his ‘sin’ and (by my extension) that of the other Paisley Underground groups, he addresses himself to the now-coherent ideological stance of a DIY music industry that really didn’t exist with any solidity or unanimity of worldview back when the Paisley Underground first appeared. In hindsight, the way these bands promoted themselves and advanced their careers (careers?!) was 180º from the DIY ethos that soon became normative thanks to purists like Steve Albini and Ian Mackaye, and that would be later documented (in books like Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991.  (Among other reasons, this is why we should remember that some “underground” record labels were in fact real dicks.)

Out of print and out of step with the emerging indie-rock ethos: it’s no wonder no one remembers the Paisley Underground anymore. But that’s the problem of historical revision, maybe not (wholly) the fault of these bands. Yeah, not all of it holds up well anymore, but go listen to the early (Karl Precoda and Kendra Smith-era) Dream Syndicate, the first two Green on Red LPs, or just about anything in the Rain Parade’s catalog and tell me those don’t sound great still.

Their moment is gone, but the dialectic that the Paisley Underground illustrated still weighs heavily. It surfaces every time we wring our hands over post-collegiate hipsters, their art-based urban gentrification, their apparent lack of concern for the “corporate rock sucks” code that seemed so important back in the 80s and 90s, and our own inability to believe that the DIY ethos might offer its own brand of market enchantment.