Review - Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the '80s Underground

Artist: Various Artists


No four-CD boxed set can sum up an era, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth a try. The 1980s were a particularly difficult time because it was the first decade to be completely disserviced by its own industry. Tighter radio playlists, corporate consolidations, aging boomers and a small, fractured teen demographic meant hearing the Traveling Wilburys and Starship on the radio while bands such as the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers spent the decade outside looking in. R.E.M. found a crack in the wall and landed on MTV and commercial rock stations, but the rest of the litter relied heavily on the emerging Do-It-Yourself network of independent labels, promoters, distributors, fanzines, low-watt college radio stations and stores to build their grassroots fan base.

Anyone who lived through that alternative rock scene has a different story to tell. Karen Schoemer's first-person account liner notes are dead accurate, but they're also inevitably one small tour diary in a much larger production. While there were obvious "hits" – there isn't a college DJ alive from that era who didn't field a million requests for the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" or Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized" – it was an era of regional successes and hundreds of borderline cases. Boxed set producer Gary Stewart admits as much in the selection process. It's obvious that Rhino's connection to the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic catalog tilted the scales slightly; yet, it isn't enough to hurt. After all, Hüsker Dü's "Don't Want to Know if You Are Lonely" is every bit as deserving as something from their pre-Warner Bros. days on SST.

In essence, you've got the aforementioned staples along with countless Brits (the Jam, the Cure, Sisters of Mercy, Cocteau Twins), punks (Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat), psychedelics (Three O'Clock, Julian Cope, Rain Parade), Down-Under popsters (The Church, Hoodoo Gurus), bands who wished they were the Velvet Underground (Jesus and Mary Chain, Dream Syndicate), forgotten heroes (Gun Club, The dB's, The Raincoats) and a dozen or so acts that will tickle some faint, nearly forgotten memory (The Feelies, Magazine). Your nose is likely to turn up at least a dozen times throughout the four discs, but your ears will also open to a previously unforecast gem. It's just tough to predict which will be which.