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The Dream Syndicate

One of several “Paisley Underground” outfits to emerge from the pack; a pack spearheaded by The RAIN PARADE, GREEN ON RED and The LONG RYDERS, Steve Wynn’s dark and dusky DREAM SYNDICATE were a cut above their rival collegiate, country-rock cousins. It was clear that in order to supersede each other in a superficial race to the top, each uncompromising combo had eaten into one another’s threadbare slice of the pie. And with Wynn’s ever-fluctuating band pinching a bit of rolling thunder from DYLAN, TELEVISION and the once-mighty VELVET UNDERGROUND, there were at least three more reasons to doubt their ubiety.
Formed by aforesaid singer/songwriter/guitarist Steve Wynn, in Los Angeles, California – out of the Suspects, a new wave combo that also comprised vocalist Kendra Smith, guitarist Russ Tolman, bassist Steve Suchil, and drummer Gavin Blair – there was promise shown on the band’s inaugural 1979 single, `It’s Up To You’.
When Tolman and Blair took off to later morph into TRUE WEST, Wynn opted to front 15 Minutes, alongside ex-ALTERNATE LEARNING pair, Carolyn O’Rourke (bass) and Erik Landers (drums). This trio managed to unfetter one 45, `That’s What You Always Say’, for Steve’s Down There Records, in 1981, around the same time as he briefly cut his proverbial teeth with Sid Griffin in an embryonic version of The LONG RYDERS.
Both Steve Wynn and Kendra Smith (now on bass), had given up their time at the University of California, in Davis, to fully formulate The DREAM SYNDICATE. The quintessential quartet was completed by former bassist-turned-guitarist Karl Precoda and drummer Dennis Duck for an “untitled” 12-inch; a record that revisited `That’s What…’ and heralded the wonderful `Sure Thing’ and `Some Kinda Itch’.
The EP caught the attention of producer CHRIS D.’s Ruby Records, a subsidiary of Slash who issued their debut album, THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES {*9}, toward the fall of 1982. And cut from a distinctly rougher-hewn cloth than most of the band’s “Paisley Underground” contemporaries, the LP’s dark intensity caused enough of a stir to eventually turn the heads of the burgeoning Rough Trade enterprise, who endorsed the revered record a year on. Unlike their less-abrasive Californian country-rawk cousins, the obvious highlights were single `Tell Me When It’s Over’, the aforementioned PATTI SMITH GROUP-like `That’s What You Always Say’, `Then She Remembers’ and the concluding 7-minute title track.
It was no big surprise that they were then lured by A&M Records. By the release of their major label debut, MEDICINE SHOW (1984) {*8}, Kendra had left to join RAIN PARADE/RAINY DAY off-shoot OPAL, alongside David Roback. Her replacement, bassist Dave Provost, had no previous experience to speak of, but he fitted into the scheme of things reasonably well. Although more mainstream than its predecessor, the Sandy Pearlman-produced album still showed the ragged influence of NEIL YOUNG and The VELVET UNDERGROUND and, while the record didn’t accrue the success it was probably due, its critical acclaim paved the way for other labels to give them a shot in the big league. At nearly nine minutes, group composition `John Coltrane Stereo Blues’ took star billing, whilst guest keyboardist Tom Zvoncheck (ex-BLUE OYSTER CULT) lent a hand on other not so grandiose songs: `Daddy’s Girl’, `Bullet With My Name On It’, `Armed With An Empty Gun’ and `Merritville’.
The decision to unfetter the rather needless live-in-Chicago mini-set appendage, THIS IS NOT THE NEW DREAM SYNDICATE ALBUM (1985) {*5}, was ill-named, ill-timed and ill-judged, but it was indeed one way to skin a cat as the group seemed to be falling apart at the seams; and Provost was first to bail out. Whilst Wynn coupled his talents with GREEN ON RED buddy, Dan Stuart, on DANNY & DUSTY’s `The Lost Weekend’ (1985), there had already been other sweeping changes to the DS personnel with the addition of Mark Walton, and Precoda’s replacement, Paul B. Cutler, who’d made his mark with goth-punks 45 GRAVE.
The once enlightening Paisley Underground scene was fading fast, so hooking up with Big Time/BMG Records (Chrysalis in the UK) seemed the way ahead for The DREAM SYNDICATE. Their unconvincing third album, OUT OF THE GREY (1986) {*6}, featured some fair-to-middling pieces in `50 In A 25 Zone’, `Blood Money’ and `Now I Ride Alone’, but despite the quartet’s more commercial, straight-ahead rock sound, success continued to elude them.
Moving along the corporate corridor to Enigma Records, there were indeed flashes of brilliance on 1988’s Elliot Mazer-produced GHOST STORIES {*7}. This former AREA CODE 615 member had worked with NEIL YOUNG and the late JANIS JOPLIN, so there was certainly room for scope and improvement. The trouble was that `The Side’ll Never Show’, `Weathered And Torn’, and a rousing rendition of BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON’s `See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’, fell on deaf ears as the fickle world of music looked for something new to pin their coat-tails upon. The whole shebang was all wrapped up on LIVE AT RAJI’S (1989) {*7}; a concert set recorded in Hollywood, back on January 31, 1988, but one that showed The DREAM SYNDICATE had been no nightmare.
With a vocal style mostly leaning towards NEIL YOUNG than LOU REED, the indefatigable STEVE WYNN embarked on a solo career at the turn of the decade; he also formed GUTTERBALL, alongside The LONG RYDERS musician Stephen McCarthy; Walton would subsequently form The Continental Drifters
Interestingly enough, it’s worth mentioning that the ‘Syndicate had left behind several covers: notably `I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ (RODNEY CROWELL), `Cinnamon Girl’ (NEIL YOUNG), `Ballad Of Dwight Frye’ (ALICE COOPER), `Let It Rain’ (DEREK & THE DOMINOS), `Shake Your Hips’ (SLIM HARPO), `Mr. Soul’ (BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD) and `The Lonely Bull’ (a hit for HERB ALPERT).
As with many great rock acts, The DREAM SYNDICATE re-formed in their twilight years. Under considerable demand over the years, Wynn, Walton, Duck and newbie lead guitarist Jason Victor (from Wynn’s Miracle 3 off-shoot), performed first on September 21, 2012, at the BAM Festival in Barcelona, Spain, and later in December 2013 at Paisley Underground gigs in Fillmore, San Francisco and the Fonda Theatre in L.A.
A fifth studio album, HOW DID I FIND MYSELF HERE? (2017) {*7} – issued on Anti- Records – also featured guest spots from Chris Cacavas and singer/lyricist Kendra Smith (as in `Kendra’s Dream’). Spacey, more exploratory and consciously neo-psychedelic was, in part, how Mark Deming of AMG perfectly described the set. And while it was no “Days Of Wine And Roses” per se, the vibes emanating from `Filter Me Through You’, `The Circle’ and the title track, recalled sounds that could well’ve graced a slippery shoegaze set. The need then to follow it with a live effort, HOW WE FOUND OURSELVES… EVERYWHERE! (2018) {*5}, was something that only the band and their label could explain.
To prove that The DREAM SYNDICATE comeback was not just some hazy figment of one’s wild imagination (or indeed a flash in the pan), up popped their cathartic kaleidoscope of cacophony that was THESE TIMES (2019) {*8}. If one could imagine FELT or TELEVISION in bed with The VELVET UNDERGROUND, then a full-circle DS had pushed out the envelope. The 5th member increment of the returning Cacavas was clearly the catalyst that granted `The Way In’, `Black Light’, `Recovery Mode’, `Space Age’ and the dazed-and-confused `The Whole World’s Watching’ renewed cult-status appeal.
Three studio albums in as many years when THE UNIVERSE INSIDE (2020) {*8} was given the green light, The DREAM SYNDICATE were as close to prolific as any neo-psych outfit had any right to be; and light years from their early-mid-80s entries. Opening with a jazzy jam jaunt of epic proportions, `The Regulator’ (clocking in at over 20 minutes), Wynn and Co must’ve set an alarm to wake themselves from their cosmic coma; maybe that was down to auxiliary players Marcus Tenney (sax), Stephen McCarthy (sitar) and usual suspect, Chris Cacavas. While the track was no “Set The Controls For The Heart…”, the band journeyed onwards with horizontal hazy hues, `The Longing’, `Apropos Of Nothing’, `Dusting Off The Rust’ (a CRAZY HORSE never sleeps!), and the concluding (almost GONG or ORB-like), `The Slowest Rendition’.
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2003 // rev-up MCS Aug2019-Apr2020

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