Listen to this track by first-tier Paisley Underground representatives The Dream Syndicate. It’s “Tell Me When It’s Over”, the opening cut as taken from their 1982 record Days of Wine and Roses, their debut. The song was released as a single in early, although in the UK and not in their native West Coast where they were critically acclaimed but not commercially viable, somehow.
The threads between what was happening on the West Coast, and with post-punk bands in New York and in the UK were intertwined thematically speaking by the beginning of the eighties. Yet in many ways, this song and the sound the band reached for in general represented a complete departure, too. Some of the influences that floated into their sound that couldn’t be found in scenes elsewhere at the time. It had to do with the kinds of crowds they played to on the scene as well, partial to jams that perhaps were outside of the standard post-punk wheelhouse in other quarters.
The question of mainstream appeal at the time was perhaps not applicable across the board in other respects as well. From the early 1980s, The Dream Syndicate demonstrated a vital truth from which we’re still benefiting today; that pop music made by indie bands can’t be measured on a single historical line or any one set of musical influences.
Pulling their musical DNA from The Byrds, Love, The Velvet Underground, Buffalo Springfield, and (in The Dream Syndicate’s case in particular) Television, the more guitar-centric dynamics on the scene weren’t immediately recognized as being on the cutting edge in an age when synthpop and a nascent MTV was beginning to define the mainstream landscape where pop music was concerned. Even REM weren’t in the sweet spot by 1982. But for The Bangles who eventually managed to break through to the mainstream later on, this critical acclaim and low-sales profile was a pretty common story with The Paisley Underground scene out of which The Dream Syndicate flourished locally by the early 1980s.
Yet, fans on the scene celebrated the band, known as they were for vocalist and guitarist Steve Wynn’s deft hand at songwriting, and the band’s ability to jam out in long passages in a way that wasn’t exactly fashionable at the time outside of the scene. But a lot of the subtle existential angst that was found in new wave and post-punk music by the early 1980s can be found in the music of The Dream Syndicate. That’s pretty evident on this song, the opening salvo to this, their first album.
The contrast between the sunshiny feel of this song against Wynn’s sombre vocals is the first port of call for me on this song. The effect is the hint of sixties idealism as mixed with post-1970s jaded realism, full of disappointment and even the scorn. “You have a real imagination, man!” says an awful lot half-way through this song, seeming to sum up the time after a supposed cultural revolution against an oppressive establishment that had lost none of its power by the end. It’s no wonder the 1980s were full of such ennui in much of our pop music, and maybe why sixties influences weren’t quite so welcome broadly speaking. Maybe that’s why a tune like this was never going to be the belle of the ball at the top of the mainstream charts.
The cultural currents at the time were all about how the good work of the civil rights era had affected real change, and that things were better than they ever were, supposedly; the 1980s as the new era for western prosperity, with the shameful ghosts of the past left behind (so let’s not talk about them again, please). I don’t think that this song is meant to be a political statement in any overt way to speak directly to any of that. But the lines “I really don’t know. Because I don’t want to know” certainly has all kinds of implications of the kind of polarized and complacent environment we were in by 1982. The political landscape looked not unlike it did in the early 1960s, before marches to Washington, hippies, and Woodstock. Things really hadn’t changed all that much. Much of it just sank further below the surface where it was harder to see.
“Tell Me When It’s Over” can be viewed as a song of resignation in the face of that, an anthem to the idea that changes for the better really will take real imagination. As vibrant and sun-soaked as “Tell Me When It’s Over” continues to be, it still sounds like exhausted sigh that remains more than culturally applicable in 2017. Looking back on it now in this current era, it’s hard not to continue to sigh at what the world has become after so much youthful idealism around what a new century would be like, since emptying out into an uncertain and fearful present day.
The Dream Syndicate put out a few more records by the end of the 1980s before calling it quits. And yet, in 2012, a continually active Steve Wynn reconvened the band for more shows in Europe, continuing to play live for the next few years. This year, we can expect a new record from them in September on the illustrious Anti-Records!
To find out more about that upcoming disc at thedreamsyndicate.com.
And to learn more about how the band reunited, have a read of this article from Slicing Up Eyeballs.
And what the heck – read this interview with Steve Wynn, too.