In 2003 I was hired as managing editor of a startup free weekly paper in Wichita. F5 Weekly (RIP) covered music, movies, art, politics, etc., and the whole of the full-time staff was comprised of me and two others. One day in the office, somebody said they wished they had a great compilation of the alternative rock hits of the ’80s — you know, the stuff you would have heard on KMUW-FM’s After Midnight or maybe seen on MTV’s 120 Minutes music video omnibus. So I set out to make one.
By this time I had already borne witness to CMJ’s compact disc box set of the top “college rock” singles of the 1980s, and read Michael Azzerad’s fine book Our Band Could Be Your Life, and had a general idea of how I wanted to structure it. I ended up assembling a three-CD set, each disc containing 20 songs in roughly chronological order. I designed a cover and dashed off a quick set of liner notes (which follow below) and burned two or three copies to give away, then lost all evidence of the project for many years — until just the other day, when I found the liner notes and cover photo on an old CD-R full of data I backed up decades ago.
Going through it now, there are songs I would probably change, but I’m leaving it just the way it was then, a thumbnail sketch of my frame of reference at that moment in time. Also bear in mind these liner notes were written nearly 20 years ago, and some of the information — and opinions — within may have changed in the years since. Time keeps on slippin’ into the future, ya know.
So without further ado, here is Secret Meetings. I hope you enjoy it!
The Other Story of Rock Music
In Michael Azzerad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life, the author chooses the dates 1981-1991 as the prime era of “indie” music in America. The punk movement went nationwide in vans and converted school buses, New Wave shot to the top of the pop charts, and on college campuses everywhere, young music fans turned their backs on corporate rock in favor of independent and unique new acts and musical styles.
College and other underground radio shows were the place to look for the good stuff, although early MTV (in an era in which few bands bothered with the making of music videos) played a lot of cool, wacky songs by fringe artists. There were a few great cable-TV shows — USA Network’s Night Flight and Radio 1990, and Night Tracks on Atlanta’s WTBS — that featured videos, interviews and long stories on avant-garde artists; thanks to them, I became aware of the dawn of hip-hop (Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” blew my mind), the Grateful Dead, reggae music, and experimental artists like Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, Residents (and their sometime guest guitarist Snakefinger) and many others.
1991 was The Year Punk Broke, according to the documentary on that summer’s Nirvana/Sonic Youth tour; it was also the year “Smells Like Teen Spirit” snatched Nirvana from the few of us who already owned their early Bleach album, and gave them to the world. After that, the giant corporate record labels started signing everything even remotely grungy, and soon the entire FM radio dial was polluted with Kurt Cobain wannabes. The revolution was over; like so many before, having been co-opted by the establishment, dissected, processed and sold back to the public from whence it came.
Collected here are songs I remember from that magical musical timeframe — songs I liked then, and still like now.
SECRET MEETINGS 1: 1981-1985
1. Let’s Active – Every Word Means No
Let’s Active was the combo formed around legendary southern indie producer Mitch Easter, who first recorded REM in the garage/studio at his parents’ house. “Every Word Means No” may have been the closest thing to a hit he ever had himself, though a number of bands he produced went on to bigger and better things.
2. Split Enz – History Never Repeats
The late ’70s/early ’80s brought a wave of fresh and sometimes offbeat musical acts from Oceania (Rick Springfield, INXS, Men at Work, DiVinyls, Midnight Oil, etc.), and New Zealand’s Split Enz was one of the boldest — and occasionally poppiest. They had a string of college chart hits, including “History Never Repeats,” “I Got You” and “Six Months In A Leaky Boat.” Bandleader Tim Finn and brother Neil later left to form Crowded House, which found much greater success in the US, most notably with their huge hit single “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”
3. The Fall – Fit and Working Again
Holy shit, what can I say about the mighty Fall? The brainchild and lifelong project of working-class English intellectual/malcontent/joker Mark E. Smith, the Fall has made some of the most consistently unpredictable noise on vinyl from the late ’70s on up to the present day. The Fall — like the Velvet Underground before it — is one of those bands that may sell comparatively few records, but influences everyone who hears them.
4. Mission of Burma – That’s When I Reach for My Revolver
Mission of Burma was a group of art students interested in making experimental music. They used tons of shrieking feedback, as well as electronically-generated and -manipulated sounds to create a whole new take on rock and roll. “Revolver” was inspired by a line in a play written by notorious Nazi poet Hans Johst: “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.”
5. Pretenders – Talk of the Town
The original lineup of the Pretenders put out two perfect albums in the early 1980s: Pretenders and Pretenders II. Buy these. Between their second and third record, however, both guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon died of drug-related causes. The band was never the same, though Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers are out touring and recording under the Pretenders name to this very day. The song “Talk of the Town,” along with “Back on the Chain Gang,” still make me weepy after all these years.
6. Plimsouls – A Million Miles Away
Talk about your one-hit wonders. Though the Plimsouls were masters of catchy, danceable, jangly rock & roll, their closest brush with fame came when “A Million Miles Away” was featured in the soundtrack to the movie Valley Girl. They enjoyed their brief moment in the sun, then pretty much vanished off the mainstream pop culture radar. Singer/guitarist Peter Case is now a well-established cult artist, though, with a huge fan base of folks who enjoy his more recent rootsy acoustic work.
7. The Fixx – Stand or Fall
Hailing from England, The Fixx was a keyboard-and-guitar-driven outfit that mixed experimental song structure and layered ambient sounds with traditional post-Beatles pop songwriting. Their live shows were dramatic and artistic, drawing on the theatrical presentation of David Bowie and other art-rockers. They actually had a number of Top 40 singles in America, most notably the smash “One Thing Leads to Another.” The bloom went off the rose for the band a few years later, and though they haven’t had a hit in over a decade and a half, they still tour and enjoy an enthusiastic and strong fan base. Lead singer Cy Curnin also makes and sells hats.
8. INXS – The One Thing
Australia’s INXS struggled for years on the fringes of pop success before their 1987 album Kick took them straight to the top of the pops. Much earlier, the band was almost unknown outside college campuses, where “The One Thing” and the super-poppy “Don’t Change” were full-on hit singles. INXS became hugely popular (in no small part due to incredibly good-looking lead singer Michael Hutchence), and had a slew of hit singles going into the early ’90s. Hutchence’s untimely death seems to have ended their remarkable streak.
9. Jason & The Scorchers – Absolutely Sweet Marie
Another band that’s still around all these years later, Jason & The Scorchers beat the “insurgent country” movement to the punch by a good 15 years at least. Fusing southern honky-tonk with blazing rock and roll guitar attitude, these guys never got much of anywhere on the pop charts, but put out a string of consistently hot, fun albums. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” is, of course, a cover of a Bob Dylan classic.
10. Shonen Knife – Twist Barbie
My God, do I love Shonen Knife. What’s not to love about a trio of adorable Japanese women playing no-bullshit Ramones-style punk rock? This band wasso cool that before they even had a record contract in the US, a bunch of American alt.rock heroes (Big Dipper, Sonic Youth, etc.) had already appeared on a Shonen Knife tribute album! Most of their songs are about cute animals, junk food and the like, and most are rendered in a pidgin mix of Japanese and English. “Twist Barbie” is about — you guessed it — a Barbie doll. Did I mention that I love Shonen Knife?
11. Bangles – Hero Takes A Fall
Long before they walked like Egyptians or recorded Prince tunes, The Bangles were a totally kick-ass all-woman band playing jangly Beatlesque pop-rock. Personally I always felt that their later success in the big-label spotlight robbed them of some of their spirit and charm, but “Hero Takes A Fall” is top-notch Bangles.
12. Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – Perfect Skin
Another one-hit wonder. Cole enjoyed a lot of college/underground radio airplay with this single, but afterward, it seemed he could hardly get arrested in the US. Too bad, really — his records received a lot of critical acclaim as the years went by, but “Perfect Skin” was his commercial high point, at least Stateside.
13. Minutemen – This Ain’t No Picnic
The fucking Minutemen — oh Jesus, what a great band. Fiercely political, but always with a great sense of humor, this three-piece tore shit up through the ’80s. One of the great artists on Black Flag’s SST Records, they always fought the good fight, and recorded scads of songs (most under two minutes long). The Minutemen came to a screeching halt one dark night between gigs when their van careened off the road, throwing singer/guitarist D. Boon through the windshield to his death. The band’s other two members, George Hurley and Mike Watt, went on to form another kick-ass trio, fIREHOSE — and Watt now tours all over with his all-star punk rock show, which includes live punk rock karaoke!
14. Replacements – Favorite Thing
Maybe no band of the ’80s touched me more than the fabulously-drunk Replacements, a four-piece from Minneapolis. They started out as a thrashy, snotty punk group, but quickly evolved into a mature (yet still snotty) unit as singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg honed his considerable songwriting skills. Buy their records, especially Let It Be, Pleased to Meet Me and Tim. The band fell apart after Westerberg fired lead guitarist Bob Stinson, who later went on to drink himself to death. But for a few years in the Reagan era, rock & roll didn’t get any better.
15. Simple Minds – Speed Your Love to Me
Most popular for “Don’t You Forget About Me,” their contribution to the soundtrack for the John Hughes film The Breakfast Club, Simple Minds was a keyboard-saturated Scottish New Wave combo. They enjoyed a number of hit records in the wave of “Don’t You,” then slowly faded from the limelight. Lead singer Jim Kerr married and divorced the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, sang backup for Peter Gabriel and has been pretty much quiet since. “Speed Your Love to Me” is from their early album Sparkle In the Rain, which also featured the almost-hit “Up on the Catwalk.”
16. Tony Carey – A Fine Fine Day
A one-time member of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and former leader of weirdly wonderful experimental rock group Planet P Project, Tony Carey went solo in the mid-1980s with the album One Tough City. This song was the closest he ever got to stardom, appearing briefly on MTV and on the pop charts. “A Fine Fine Day” tells the tale of “Uncle Sonny” and his return from prison. Tony Carey seems to have been all but forgotten today, which is too bad, as he left a lot of unique and provocative music behind him, most notably with Planet P.
17. The Alarm – 68 Guns
Blaring out of Ireland in the early ’80s, The Alarm brought huge-sounding acoustic and electric guitars, fiery political rhetoric and catchy pop hooks with them. The songs “68 Guns” and “The Stand” were instant college hits; later efforts such as “Rain in the Summertime” and “Sold Me Down the River” got more mainstream rock radio exposure but lacked the fiery character of their earlier stuff, to my ear.
18. The Cult – She Sells Sanctuary
Originally called the Southern Death Cult, this band updated psychedelic ’60s vibes with AC/DC-style hard rock swagger and created a sound all their own. Their albums Love and Electric were both minor hits in the US, and charted several singles, including “Love Removal Machine,” “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Fire Woman.” Lead singer Ian Astbury and stellar rawk guitarist Billy Duffy still tour with a newer version of the group.
19. Guadalcanal Diary – Trail of Tears
Following the success of jangly alt.rockers like REM, Guadalcanal Diary enjoyed a brief stay in the limelight in the mid-to-late-1980s. Their early records (most notably Walking In the Shadow of the Big Man) were best, and by the time the public noticed (“Always Saturday“), the band had lost some of its edge.
20. Housemartins – Happy Hour
With their totally unlikely mix of upbeat British pop, soulful a cappella harmonies and jangly instrumentals, the Housemartins left behind a stellar catalog — but barely made a dent in the US charts. Today you’re most likely to hear of them as a footnote; the popular dance music artist Fatboy Slim was their bass player!
SECRET MEETINGS 2: 1985-1988
1. Meat Puppets – Up on the Sun
Rolling out of Arizona, pumped up on LSD and premium gasoline, the Meat Puppets blazed a trail of unique, esoteric, beautiful rock music for the better part of two decades. They were such a huge influence on Kurt Cobain that he had them onstage during the taping of MTV’s Nirvana Unplugged, and did several of their songs during that set. Immediately afterward, the Meat Puppets got a major label record deal, had a couple minor hit singles (including “Backwater“), then fell apart due to drug abuse. A sad state of affairs for one of the most awesome bands I ever saw live.
2. Kinks – Do It Again
The Kinks were one of the original British Invasion bands of the 1960s, scoring hit after hit with songs like “You Really Got Me,” “All Day and All of the Night,” “Tired of Waiting for You,” “Lola” and many others. Singer Ray Davies (another guy who married Chrissie Hynde, by the way) led the band for decades, though they went through a largely hitless period in the late 1970s and early ’80s. That all changed with the release of “Come Dancing,” which was a big hit for the group. “Do It Again” was a lesser hit, but became a rock radio staple with long legs. The Kinks were always intelligent, subversive, and a bit dangerous — what more can you ask of “alternative” music?
3. REM – Driver 8
Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry made up REM from roughly 1979 until 2000, when drummer Berry quit after a health scare. Through the ’80s, REM was alternative music, plain and simple. Every college campus rang with their introspective, peculiarly obscure, jangly take on rock and roll. Of course, they became gigantic mainstream stars after signing on with Warner Brothers records in 1988; their first Warners record, Green, featured the goofy pop anthem “Stand,” and soon every five-year-old in the country was singing it and doing the goofy dance from the video. REM was my very favorite band at the time I moved off to college, which was only a few months before they released Green. I saw them twice on that tour, then never bought another one of their records again.
4. The dB’s – Amplifier
The dB’s were fun, influential and admired by heavy musicians far and wide — yet chart success consistently eluded them. “Amplifier,” a song about a guy who kills himself when his girlfriend leaves him and takes all his stuff, is the closest thing they ever had to a hit. (And it wasn’t that close.)
5. Camper Van Beethoven – Good Guys & Bad Guys
Oh, Jesus, did I love this band. Their first few records are fantastic voyages across American pop music history. They did it all, from bluegrass-infused takes on Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” to a psychedelic violin-charged cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” Camper Van was one of the truly original greats of its era, before lead singer David Lowery went off and formed the significantly more anodyne Cracker. You can buy any CVB record without fear — they’re all excellent.
6. Icicle Works – Understanding Jane
Most people who were around in the ’80s will remember this band from their nigh-iconic debut single, “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream),” but as I had been close a particularly difficult-to-understand Jane, this tune has its own added weight for me personally. These guys were from Liverpool, just like the Beatles. They put out a few records and then it seems they disappeared into the mists of time.
7. Public Image Limited – Rise
When the most notorious punk band in the world — the Sex Pistols — imploded on their 1978 US tour, singer John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon immediately formed a totally different type of band, PiL. Noisy, arty, unpredictable and sometimes scary, Public Image put out a series of well-regarded albums through the early ’90s, and even managed to appear on American Bandstand, where Johnny famously refused to mime to the record. “Rise” is from the band’s most widely-heard album, titled Album, featuring a plethora of heavy-hitter guest stars including Steve Vai, Ginger Baker, Bernie Worrell, Tony Williams, Jonas Hellborg and Ryuichi Sakamoto(!).
8. Julian Cope – World Shut Your Mouth
After his nouveau-psychedelic band The Teardrop Explodes broke up, British freaker Julian Cope had a slapdash solo career. He’s still really popular across the pond, but “World Shut Your Mouth” was the peak of his fame in the States.
9. Smithereens – Blood and Roses
The hard-rocking New Yorkers known as the Smithereens got their start in the underground with this single, and later bloomed into a popular mainstream act with songs like “House We Used to Live In,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and “Only A Memory.” I saw them at the West Bank Stage here in Wichita around 1994 or so, and they kicked much ass.
10. Smiths – Bigmouth Strikes Again
One of the most widely-hated, yet widely-loved, of the English mope-rock bands was The Smiths. Lead singer Morrissey’s foppishly wussy persona and dour-but-literate lyrics led many sullen and misunderstood teens to love ’em, but sometimes I get the impression that everyone else hated ’em. No matter what you thought of the band, however, there was no denying that guitarist Johnny Marr was a force of nature and the musical center of the group. Marr has a new band now called The Healers, and Morrissey is still out there pissing people off solo.
11. Violent Femmes – Breakin’ Hearts
This acoustic trio was discovered in Milwaukee by James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders as they were busking on the street, entertaining people waiting in line for Pretenders tickets. They were stunned when Chrissie Hynde asked them to come on stage and play a short set that night, and before long they found themselves signed to a record deal. Their self-titled debut album, which features “Blister In the Sun,” “Kiss Off” and any number of other alt.rock standards, is at this point iconic. Go buy it.
12. Sonic Youth – Schizophrenia
Sonic Youth is the best band in the world, bar none. “Schizophrenia” is from their album Sister, the first of a trilogy of outstanding records (followed by Daydream Nation, the best album ever recorded, and Goo). I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love Sonic Youth. They make me weep with joy, and for bonus points, they appeared as themselves in an episode of The Simpsons, even contributing a noisy SY-style rendition of the show’s theme song.
13. XTC – Dear God
XTC were college radio darlings back in the ’80s, releasing one album after another of angular, odd English pop. They even had a secret identity, The Dukes of Stratosphear, under which moniker they put out two albums of vintage-sounding Floyd-esque ’60s psychedelia. “Dear God” is a fiery rejection of the existence of God, which as you might imagine earned the band considerable hate mail. XTC almost got popular in the States toward the end of the ’80s, but perhaps were just too weird to really catch on.
14. Hüsker Dü – She Floated Away
Another Minneapolis-based band (and SST Records mainstay), the fantastic Hüsker Dü put out a slew of kick-ass high-octane records in the 1980s. Lead vocals and songwriting duties were divided between guitarist Bob Mould (later to form the band Sugar) and drummer Grant Hart (more on him later). Bassist Greg Norton rounded out the band. Though hugely popular among the college rock set, Hüsker Dü never caught on with the public. The band flew apart in the late 1980s, apparently with a lot of hard feelings. It’s a shame.
15. The Cure – Just Like Heaven
England’s most popular mope-rockers of all time must be the Cure. Led by the eternally cartoonish Robert Smith, the band first popped up on the radar in the late ’70s with great singles like “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Killing an Arab” and “Jumping Someone Else’s Train.” By the late 1980s, they were critical and commercial darlings. “Just Like Heaven” is my favorite song they ever recorded, and it’s so great, even Dinosaur Jr. had to show it some love.
16. Butthole Surfers – Human Cannonball
How can one describe the fantastic psychedelic nightmare that is the Butthole Surfers? Impossible. Part performance art, part bad acid trip, part balls-out metal band, the Surfers crawled out of Texas about 20 years ago, bent on spreading their bizarre Dada freakshow nationwide. I’ve seen ’em three times in concert, and each show made for a wild, memorable experience. Of course, this is a band whose album titles include Cream Corn from the Socket of Davis, Rembrandt Pussyhorse, Hairway to Steven, Locust Abortion Technician and Independent Worm Saloon, so… Anyway, I love the Butthole Surfers.
17. fIREHOSE – Hear Me
As I wrote earlier, fIREHOSE rose from the ashes of the late, great Minutemen. The story goes that Ed “Ed fROMOHIO” Crawford contacted Mike Watt after the death of D. Boon, then drove to California from Ohio to start a new band with the surviving Minutemen. “Hear Me” was the group’s first single, and the beginning of a remarkable catalog of work.
18. Mighty Lemon Drops – Inside Out
Though the Mighty Lemon Drops only existed on the international alt.rock scene as a momentary blip on the radar, their World Without End album remains an enjoyable bit of pop candy. “Inside Out” sounded like a hit, even if the charts didn’t believe it.
19. Jesus and Mary Chain – Kill Surf City
No band was more notorious in the ’80s than the noisy Jesus and Mary Chain, at least for a few shining moments there. Not only was their band name edgy, but their albums were filled with over-amped shrieking feedback and vocals drenched in mountains of reverb. “Kill Surf City,” a cataclysmic take on 1960s surf-rock, is a fine sample of what they were dishing out at the time.
20. Yo La Tengo – Barnaby, Hardly Working
To this day, you’d be hard pressed to find a band with more uniform critical acclaim than New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo. Formed by husband-and-wife team Ira Kaplan (guitar/vocals) and Georgia Hubley (drums) in the ’80s, the band continues to put out one amazing record after another. Whether doing beautiful, sweet acoustic music or full-on squawling rawk, they can do no wrong in my book. “Barnaby” is from the great double CD package President Yo La Tengo / New Wave Hot Dogs, collecting two early albums in one. I’ve seen ’em live twice, and both times, they blew my mind. Awesome.
SECRET MEETINGS 3: 1988-1991
1. Soul Asylum – Sometime to Return
This group of Minneapolis-area rockers started out in the great Replacements tradition of loud, fast, hook-infused guitar rock. Over time, they started putting more acoustic/folkie elements into their music (as in the great “P9“), and evolved into a more mature unit. Their smash hit “Runaway Train,” linked to a nationwide campaign relating to runaway children, made them big stars overnight.
2. The Church – Under the Milky Way
Another Australian import, The Church is responsible for a lot of very good music, much of it rooted in a ’60s revival vibe. Additionally, lead singer/bassist Steve Kilbey and guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes have each released numerous strong solo records on top of their collective output as The Church. When they first burst onto the American scene in the early-to-mid-’80s, they wore long-sleeved paisley shirts buttoned up to the necks and shot videos with vintage camera effects. After the release of the Starfish album, from which came “Under the Milky Way,” the Church became flavor of the month, then receded back to cult acclaim.
3. Dinosaur Jr. – Freak Scene
What’s not to love about Dinosaur Jr? Led by alt.rock guitar god J. Mascis, Dinosaur (they added the “Junior” after they found there was another band called “Dinosaur”) struck the perfect balance between spine-crushing walls of wailing guitars and super-hummable rock candy pop. The band is so cool, they inspired the leadoff track (“Teenage Riot“) on Sonic Youth’s perfect album Daydream Nation. Not to mention that Dinosaur’s bass player Lou Barlow has amply shown he is more than just a second banana with his other fine projects — Sebadoh, Sentridoh and Folk Implosion.
4. Sugarcubes – Birthday
You are surely at least passingly familiar with the wildly flamboyant Icelandic singer named Björk, purveyor of experimental pop music and video. Well, back in about ’87 or ’88, she was one of two vocalists in the arty jazz/pop group known as The Sugarcubes. Though Björk herself was already something of a star in Iceland — where she put out albums as a child) — it was the ‘Cubes that launched her international career. “Birthday” was the first single released in the US, and brought the group instant acclaim. Their debut album, Life’s Too Good remains a fun, catchy, strange ride today.
5. Lemonheads – Luka
Headed by alt.rock dreamboat Evan Dando, the Lemonheads made a career out of super-catchy guitar pop. Aside from Dando’s original compositions, which are generally excellent, the band recorded a number of cover tunes — including this one, a gritty reworking of Suzanne Vega’s acoustic hit, “Luka,” about an abused child. Other Lemonheads covers include Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” and “Frank Mills” from the rock opera Hair. Get their excellent album It’s a Shame About Ray.
6. Lou Reed – Romeo Had Juliette
As the ’80s drew to a close, Lou Reed got in one last word with his stark and intense concept album, New York. Of course, at that point, Reed was already a full-blown icon of the underground, having come up in the ’60s in the most widely influential alt.rock band in American history, The Velvet Underground. After years of on-again-off-again success, marked by uneven work and drug abuse, Lou emerged with New York as a focused, seasoned craftsman at the top of his game. “Romeo” and “Dirty Boulevard” were immediate college radio hits, and the freshly-inspired Reed went on to the next phase in his 40-year-career of playing outside the rules. He’s a master.
7. Primitives – Crash
A band from Coventry, England, The Primitives had exactly one brush with fame Stateside — the song “Crash.” Though it was played in heavy rotation on underground/college radio, and years later was featured in the film Dumb and Dumber, it was not enough to keep the band going. They broke up in 1991, though adorable lead singer Tracy Tracy has since appeared as guest vocalist on numerous records in Britain.
8. Galaxie 500 – When Will You Come Home
This is another one of those bands that means so much to me personally, I can’t rationally explain it to anyone else. In 1989, as I found myself mired in suicidal depression, I saw a review for their album On Fire, which was produced by Kramer (who is himself a whole, long other story). I bought a copy of it on vinyl at the now-dead Music Inc. record store, took it home, put it on the turntable, and it changed my brain (and entered my heart) forever. Galaxie 500 broke up a long time ago, splintering into two new groups; singer/guitarist Dean Wareham formed the more accessible, pop-driven Luna, and drummer Damon Krukowski and bassist Naomi Yang formed (fairly enough) the duo Damon and Naomi.
9. Godfathers – She Gives Me Love
The Godfathers, another English import, played no-nonsense, hard-edged rock tunes written in a style that was as much Yardbirds as Buzzcocks. They scored big on the American college charts with their debut single, “Birth, School, Work, Death,” and followed it up with “She Gives Me Love.” They wore suits and ties, not unlike dapper mobsters — and their first EP came delivered in a Godfather’s pizza box. Where are they now? I have no idea.
10. Grant Hart – 2541
Grant Hart was the drummer for legendary indie band Hüsker Dü, until internal tension blew the band to smithereens. While guitarist Bob Mould followed the breakup with an intricate, introspective solo album (the gorgeous Workbook), Hart sequestered himself in a studio and created — playing all the instruments himself — something of a masterpiece, the album called Intolerance. I bought it around the same time as Galaxie 500’s On Fire, and those two records were played nonstop at my place for a long, long time. “2541” is the story of Hüsker Dü’s early days (2541 being the address of the warehouse in which the band practiced) and its bitter breakup.
11. Stone Roses – She Bangs the Drums
Manchester, England was a kind of hotbed of new, exciting music from the ’80s through the Ecstasy-soaked rave culture era of the ’90s. Though many of the bands (Soup Dragons, Happy Mondays, EMF, etc.) relied on synthesizers for their dance-friendly sounds, The Stone Roses opted for a more classic approach to danceable pop. “She Bangs the Drums” could have been written in 1967, as could the unbelievably beautiful single “I Wanna Be Adored” from the same album. The band was popular in the US for a while, even scoring a mainstream rock hit a few years later with “Love Spreads,” from their album Second Coming.
12. Mekons – Memphis, Egypt
Let me make this clear: The Mekons are living legends. Formed in England in the late 1970s, the flamingly leftist band has been more of a performance art work-in-progress than anything. Though they came out of the punk scene, their music has always included elements of folk, honky-tonk country, traditional English shanty, American R&B, and pretty much anything else they can throw into the mix. Grey-headed bandleader Jon Langford is now an alt.country darling, leading the Waco Brothers into y’allternative glory. My band Sunshine Family opened for the Mekons once, and I’ll never forget it. The power and the glory.
13. Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians – Madonna of the Wasps
If you like Syd Barrett, you’ll love Robyn Hitchcock. A founding member of the Soft Boys (a psychedelic band from the late 1970s), Hitchcock went on to greater fame and acclaim with his own backing band, the Egyptians. Most of his songs are surreal but pretty meditations on love, balloons, chickens, ghosts and hardboiled novelists. I highly recommend his work, especially the albums Globe of Frogs and Queen Elvis, not to mention the live Gotta Let This Hen Out! And don’t miss Jonathan Demme’s wonderful, intimate RH concert film Storefront Hitchcock, either.
14. Pixies – Here Comes Your Man
Ask any ten college radio DJs from the 1980s who was the best band of all, and probably eight of them will say, “The Pixies, of course, you dumbass.” And it’s true that the Boston quartet really was rewriting the DNA of alternative rock, inspiring legions of followers — including Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Buy any of their albums, you can’t miss, though my favorite is still Doolittle. Bassist Kim Deal went on to form the Breeders with her identical twin sister, Kelley; lead singer/guitarist Black Francis changed his name to Frank Black, and now rocks out with the Catholics.
15. Syd Straw & Michael Stipe – Future 40’s (String of Pearls)
Syd Straw should have been a much bigger star. She started her career as a backup singer for Pat Benatar, but broke into the sphere of college rock as a member of the alternative all-star supergroup Golden Palominos. When Syd was ready to cut her own solo record, she drew on the vast reservoir of talent from the Palominos stable — including REM’s Stipe — and recorded the beautiful album Surprise. The critics loved it, but it didn’t go over on the charts. Syd didn’t just dry up and blow away though; she’s been acting on TV (Pete and Pete), doing guest vocals with lots of big-name artists, and has an album out with the Skeletons, a riproarin’ bar band from Missouri.
16. Throwing Muses – Dragonhead
One of the biggest female-fronted alt.rock bands ever was Throwing Muses. Though they never had a big mainstream radio hit (or much airplay, for that matter), they enjoyed critical acclaim and steady support from college radio. But the two creative forces in the band, stepsisters Tonya Donelly and Kristin Hersh, ended up pulling the band in two. Donelly left, first for the Breeders and then on to Belly. If you like “Dragonhead,” go look for the band’s Hunkpapa album. It’s my favorite.
17. Ultra Vivid Scene – The Mercy Seat
Not to be confused with the terrifying song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, this “Mercy Seat” is a brittle, fuzzed-out trip that almost demands the listener drop a tab of acid. Ultra Vivid Scene is really a one-man show, and that one man is Kurt Ralske, a music school dropout. He enjoyed critical acclaim in his day, but it’s been over a decade since I’ve heard a peep from UVS. Too bad, really. Bonus: A young, then-unknown Moby appears in the video for this song.
18. Breeders – Doe
Ex-Pixie Kim Deal formed the fantastic Breeders as the ’80s pooped out, and the band quickly won over the hearts of many a Pixie fan. Always off-kilter, but always rockin’ — that’s the Breeders experience in a nutshell. The band put out several records before hitting the big time in the early ’90s with the Last Splash album, which featured the mega MTV hit “Cannonball.” Kim’s twin sister Kelley got busted on the Lollapalooza tour (on which I saw them play) for heroin possession; when she got out of treatment, she recorded a sadly overlooked album with her own band, the Kelley Deal 6000.
19. My Bloody Valentine – Only Shallow
The archetypal shoegazers, they stand still on stage, barely moving, cranking out their lush, ambient walls of ear-splitting noise without jumping around, screaming, or attempting to attract attention. Nobody else sounded like this then, and nobody does now. A rare combination of overwhelming power and gentle grace — how can something rock so hard, yet remain so silky smooth? Only the Valentines know.
20. Teenage Fanclub – Star Sign
Holy shit, do I love this band. Hailing from the mists of Scotland, Teenage Fanclub ably picks up the mantle of power pop touchstone Big Star. Combining smart lyrics, sweet harmonies, rockin’ guitar riffs and drunken rawk attitude into one easily-digestible package, Teenage Fanclub is totally the poop. You can buy anything by them and know it’s gonna be great. I guarantee it!