Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the Underground
ow long has it been since the 1980s? Judging by Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the Underground, the new definitive box set from Rhino Records, it’s been longer than you might realize. Back when cassette dubbing was the closest thing to file sharing and before Nirvana turned everything upside down, the line between underground and mainstream was far larger than we can possibly imagine today. Of course, there was overlap—a fair number of artists on this box at least flirted with the mainstream, and a couple (R.E.M., The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction) would become some of the biggest bands in the world at the dawn of the 90s.
But reading some of the essays in the Left of the Dial liner notes reveal a time where indie rock was unafraid to draw a line in the sand: us vs. them. Karen Schoemer’s elitist, near-jingoistic essay, specifically singles out Madonna as the enemy of her generation and admits to the exclusivist nature of the times, how she’d root for the success of her favorite bands, only to denounce them as sell-outs once success was achieved. And the sticker that graces the front of the box—“the music that mattered from the decade that didn’t”—says it all, really. In an age where some of the most critically successful singles come form artists like Eminem and Britney Spears, and the mainstream success of bands like Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand is both encouraged and then applauded, these sentiments seem almost disgustingly archaic.
While the attitudes might have dated, luckily, the music hasn’t. Of the 82 tracks selected to make up Left of the Dial, there’s barely even a handful of duds and an extremely high rate of classics. And what’s even more striking is that for such a diminutive movement, there’s a stunning diversity among these songs. The underground of the 1980s, as presented here, is a utopian world where The Red Hot Chili Peppers get their groove on with New Order, Ultravox paint the town with Dinosaur Jr., Bad Brains go slamdancing with the Sugarcubes and the Cocteau Twins co-headline the Hacienda with Happy Mondays. A less ambitious box might have only covered the noisy lo-fi American dudes of the period, but the Sonic Youths of the period are matched here every step of the way by the Goths, the mopey Brits, the new romantics, the punkers, the jangle-poppers and countless more. There’s sophisti-pop (Prefab Sprout), jokey weirdness (The Butthole Surfers), punk-funk (The Minutemen), even an Irish ballad or two (The Pogues, Nick Cave). For all its idealism, this was still a scene clearly built on a love of music, a love which can include both Dinosaur Jr. and Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark.
Of course, the trade-off of this ambition is that at 82 tracks, not everything can be included. It’s pointless to argue petty exclusions—why Depeche Mode is included but not Yazoo, why both Bauhaus and Love and Rockets are included but not Tones on Tail, why Minor Thread but not Rites of Spring—when what is included is almost always excellent. Still, I’m not sure why so many bands that were featured on the previous Rhino box, No Thanks! The 70s Punk Rebellion, are also included here, when it’s reasonably fair to expect that anyone who’s going to buy this will also have the punk set. It’s one thing for artists like The Cure or Gang of Four to be included, both of which had already outgrew punk by the turn of the decade and quickly moved on to far more interesting things, but do we really need another song from the Dead Kennedys, X or The Pretenders? These were all great bands, but their greatness was adequately summed up by their inclusion on No Thanks!, and here it’s hard to see why they take up room that could be occupied by gems from excluded artists like Orange Juice, the Vulgar Boatmen, the Woodentops, The Chills or the Television Personalities.
Also, regrettably, there are a couple of genres crucial to the time are left out entirely. Grunge, soon to become the underground music that would briefly conquer the mainstream, is entirely unrepresented here—no Mother Love Bone, no Soundgarden, not even Mudhoney (this possibly being the first compilation of its kind to exclude the seminal “Touch Me, I’m Sick”). Genre precursors like The Pixies and Jane’s Addiction are represented here with ballads, and The Replacements are represented with the twelve-stringed “I Will Dare” (oddly enough, rather than the titular “Left of the Dial”). For a genre that would come to be practically synonymous with the underground, this exclusion is somewhat bizarre.
Far more regrettable, however, is the lack of dream pop or proto-shoegaze. Aside from the hazy atmospherics of The Jesus and Mary Chain and the Cocteau Twins (both from the first half of the decade), there’s a decided lack of gorgeously swirling guitars and hypnotic, dragging rhythms on Left of the Dial--and that means no Kitchens of Distinction, no A.R. Kane, no Galaxie 500, no Spacemen Three, and most incredibly, no My Bloody Valentine. These bands, plus a good deal of the 4AD line-up, were responsible for some of the most heart-rending and beautiful music of the last half of the 80s, and it’s a damn shame not to hear them here. Hopefully, many of these bands (and their grunge brethren) that made it past 1989 will be included come the release of Rhino’s inevitable 90s box set, Alternative Nation.
So, besides these small misses, the important question when considering a box set of this sort is whether or not you feel like you’re experiencing the scene this music comes from while listening to it. And with regards to Left of the Dial, the answer is a resounding yes—listening to these four discs, you can really picture an entire nation of college students and twenty-somethings promoting their own gigs, designing their radio station playlists and folding their own record sleeves while staying up late to watch 120 Minutes. And as the credits of this box set take pains to point out by listing the location of the band after every track, this was more than just an American thing—these bands come from Glasgow, Sydney, Madchester and Rekjavik as well as L.A., New York, Minneapolis and Boston, all united by the desire to make great music on their own terms. It’s an easily romanticized period, and for better or worse, it’s nearly impossible to envision it happening again today. So even if Left of the Dial proves how ideologically limited the vision of the underground was in the 80s, it also proves that musically, just about anything was possible.