"You don't want to go out there and have control over everything," Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn told the Boston Globe, as he explained the conditions under which the band performed its best live shows. "If you call your shots and preplan it, then it's nothing exciting. You wanna go up there and have a big mess." Wynn's statement could almost describe the Dream Syndicate's whole career in the 1980s, as the band changed styles according to Wynn's interests and finally dissolved when those interests led him in the direction of a solo career. But the debut Dream Syndicate album, 1982's The Days of Wine and Roses, is widely considered a landmark event in the development of the alternative rock genre, and the band's music influenced many younger performers.
The Dream Syndicate had its origins with a pair of English majors at the University of California at Davis, songwriter and vocalist Steve Wynn and bassist Kendra Smith. After moving together to Los Angeles, they joined with guitarist Karl Precoda (with whom Wynn had played in a band called Goat Deity) and drummer Dennis Duck for a jam session in Wynn's basement in December of 1981. For two hours they improvised on the Creedence Clearwater Revival hit "Suzy Q," and they liked the results enough to continue playing together. The name Dream Syndicate came from an album by Tony Conrad called Outside the Dream Syndicate, which in turn was named after a group from the 1960s that featured Conrad, classical minimalist pioneer LaMonte Young, and future Velvet Underground member John Cale. "In the early days we had no ambition other than maybe getting a few free drinks somewhere," Wynn told the Providence Journal.
In the same spirit, they made a four-song EP (extended play) record shortly after coming together. Released on the band's own Down There label, the EP suddenly attracted a strong core of fans among the enthusiasts of the Los Angeles rock underground. That caught the attention of Slash Records, perhaps the most consistently successful of the West Coast independent labels of the time, and Slash released the Dream Syndicate's full-length debut, The Days of Wine and Roses, in September of 1982.
The album became a critical favorite, and Rolling Stone named the Dream Syndicate the best new band of 1982. It mixed together several of the most vital trends in West Coast rock of the early 1980s. The Dream Syndicate drew on a host of 1960s influences that got the band grouped in with a "Paisley Underground" category of Los Angeles bands (such as Green on Red) that revived psychedelia and related styles, and merged them with punk energy. Wynn's dark vocals reminded many listeners of Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed, and Precoda's flat-out onslaughts on the electric guitar riveted club audiences looking for an alternative to synthesizer pop. The single "Tell Me When It's Over" exemplified the album's style and found success in England, kicking off a period of European success for the Dream Syndicate that outstripped their domestic renown.
Exhausted by the stress of touring, Smith left the band in 1983 and was replaced by Dave Provost. The Dream Syndicate returned to the studio the following year to record Medicine Show for the larger A&M label, this time in a style that showed the influence of pioneer folk-rocker Neil Young. "We'd love to sell quadruple platinum and have our music played on every radio station in the country," Wynn told the Providence Journal. But the band was impaled on the horns of the classic alternative-rock dilemma: their move in a more commercial direction alienated some of their hardcore fans.
Wynn's music, which made up the bulk of the songs the band played, wasn't really suited to commercial radio. The former English major's complex lyrics were shaped by his taste for classic and contemporary fiction and poetry. The title The Days of Wine and Roses was taken from a poem by English writer Ernest Dowson, which held that the days of wine and roses "vanish within a dream"; and Wynn told the Toronto Star that he structured his music thematically around what he was reading at the moment. "On the first record, there's a lot of Victorian philosophy and on the second I was reading a lot of Southern literature—Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor." Wynn added that the literary influence on Dream Syndicate's third full-length studio album, 1986's Out of the Grey, was "more [like] 'hard-boiled' Hollywood fiction."
Dream Syndicate had gone on temporary hiatus prior to that album's release, occasioned partly by a split in the paths of Wynn and Precoda. A live album released on A&M, This Is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album, finished out the band's obligations to that label. Reformed with Paul Cutler on guitar and Mark Walton on bass, Dream Syndicate moved in the direction of country-rock and its musical successor style, referred to in the 1980s as cowpunk, with Out of the Grey.
The next Dream Syndicate album, Ghost Stories, was produced by L.A. veteran Elliot Mazer, whose career went back to Janis Joplin's Cheap Thrills. Mazer forced Wynn to record while he was suffering with a fever, and intentionally angered the musicians in the studio to heighten the intensity of their music. Ghost Stories was hailed by some as the Dream Syndicate's best album since The Days of Wine and Roses, but after another live album, 1989's Live at Raji's, the band broke up for good. "It got to the point where it stopped surprising me," Wynn explained to the Austin American Statesman. "Also, I really like the fact that all the responsibility comes back to me [with a solo album]. I don't work well with compromise and give-and-take. ... That doesn't mean I'm a tyrant; it just means I have my own way of hearing things."
For the Record . . .
Members include Paul Cutler (joined group, 1986), guitar; Dennis Duck , drums; Karl Precoda , guitar; Dave Provost (joined group, 1983), bass; Kendra Smith , bass; Mark Walton (joined group, 1986), bass; Steve Wynn , guitar and vocals.
Group formed in Los Angeles, CA, 1981; released The Days of Wine and Roses, 1982; released Tell Me When It's Over, 1983; released numerous albums through 1980s; group broke up, 1989.
Awards: Rolling Stone magazine, Best New Group, 1982.
Wynn pursued his vision with the band Gutterball and in a solo career lasting into the early 2000s, and several other Dream Syndicate members also released albums on their own. Their greatest influence however, was exerted on those who had followed their career from the beginning; The Days of Wine and Roses was named as an inspiration by such artists as Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson. Compilation albums and reissues of lost Dream Syndicate material appeared at a brisk pace through the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Days of Wine and Roses, Ruby, 1982.
The Dream Syndicate EP, Down There, 1982.
Tell Me When It's Over, Slash, 1983.
Medicine Show, A&M, 1984.
This Is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album ... Live!, A&M, 1984.
Out of the Grey, Big Time, 1986.
Ghost Stories, Enigma, 1988.
Live at Raji's, Restless, 1989.
Tell Me When It's Over: The Best of Dream Syndicate, Rhino, 1992.
The Day Before Wine and Roses: Live at KPFK, September 5, 1982, Atavistic, 1995.
Complete Live at Raji's, Restless Brand/Ryko, 2004.
George-Warren, Holly, and Patricia Romanowski, editors, Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 2001.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Schirmer, 1999.
Hochman, Steve, editor, Popular Musicians, Salem, 1999.
Austin American Statesman, August 2, 1990, p. 7.
Boston Globe, June 14, 1983, p. 1.
Chicago Sun-Times, September 8, 1986, p. 33.
Orange County Register, December 13, 1988, p. F3.
Providence Journal (Providence, RI), July 4, 1985, p. C5.
Toronto Star, September 5, 1986, p. C10.
Washington Post, February 4, 1983, p. 31; November 18, 1988, p. N27.
"Dream Syndicate," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (December 30, 2004).
"The Dream Syndicate," Dream Syndicate, http://guitarbands.de/dreamsyndicate.htm (December 30, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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