The Dream Syndicate - Biography



           The Dream Syndicate came to prominence in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, when the quartet was lumped among the amorphous membership of the city’s so-called “Paisley Underground.” While that handle described nothing more than a loosely related group of second-generation punk musicians with ‘60s-derived influences, the notion that the bands constituted a scene of sorts garnered plentiful press attention for these largely unseasoned performers.


            Singer-songwriter-guitarist Steve Wynn’s foursome was easily the most bracing and skillful of the Paisley Underground acts (but not the most successful – that honor would go to the all-girl group The Bangs, who went on to fame and fortune as The Bangles). The Dream Syndicate hung together for a mere six years, but the hard-touring group made an impression on succeeding generations of guitar-flashing indie-rock bands. The band also served as a launching pad for Wynn’s lengthy and highly consistent solo career.


            Wynn was born in 1960 in Santa Monica, California, and started playing guitar at the age of nine. By the time he enrolled at the University of California in Davis, in Northern California, he was a veteran of several high school combos. At UC-Davis, he played in The Suspects, which was fronted by vocalist Kendra Smith.


            After finishing school, Wynn returned to L.A., where he became a familiar figure behind the counter at Rhino Records’ Westwood store. He played sporadically with the garage revival band The Unclaimed and its country-rock offshoot The Long Ryders. In 1981, he recorded a single – the “A” side of which was an embryonic version of The Dream Syndicate’s future number “That’s What You Always Say” – with the trio 15 Minutes and issued it on his own independent label, Down There.


           But Wynn soon organized a new band with Smith on bass. The lineup was completed by drummer Dennis Duck, a founding member of Pasadena’s experimental Los Angeles Free Music Society and The Human Hands’ ex-skinman, and guitarist Karl Precoda. The group was heavily influenced lyrically by Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground, and texturally by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, and Television; they took their name from a New York avant garde collective that had included the Velvets’ John Cale, The Dream Syndicate.


            The band debuted with a four-song self-titled Down There EP. The record garnered some local interest, as did The Dream Syndicate’s club performances in the company of such like-minded Paisley Underground bands as The Long Ryders, Green On Red (who also recorded for Down There), The Bangs, and The Rain Parade. The Syndicate was soon signed by Slash Records’ A&R man and Flesh Eaters lead singer Chris D., who produced the full-length album The Days of Wine and Roses (1982) for Slash’s Ruby subsidiary.


            The Syndicate’s raw, churning guitar blowouts – “Tell Me When It’s Over,” “That’s What You Always Say,” “The Days of Wine and Roses” – exerted a grand influence on the guitar-driven indie-rock bands that followed in its wake. Though Smith exited the group not long after the album’s release – to join The Rain Parade’s David Roback in Clay Allison and then Opal – the band secured a major-label contract with A&M Records. With David Provost of The Droogs recruited to fill the bass chair, The Dream Syndicate began protracted sessions with Sandy Pearlman, Blue Oyster Cult’s longtime producer and helmsman of The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope.


            Their resultant sophomore LP Medicine Show (1984) was a mind-bending hard rock horror show, chock-a-block with Gothic songs about murder, incest, and arson and highlighted by another rampaging guitar duel, “John Coltrane Stereo Blues.” Reviled by the U.S. press (but admired in the U.K.), it scraped the bottom of the album charts at No. 171. The Dream Syndicate did not remain with A&M for long, but they stuck around long enough for the label to fund The Lost Weekend (1985), a boozy roots-rock session billed to “Danny & Dusty” (Green On Red’s Dan Stuart and Wynn) and featuring members of the Syndicate, Green On Red, and The Long Ryders.


            Continuing friction between the band’s two guitarists resulted in the unpredictable Precoda’s departure after the release of Medicine Show. The Dream Syndicate’s lineup resolidified with the recruitment of 45 Grave guitarist Paul B. Cutler – also a skilled producer who had worked on the band’s debut EP – and bassist Mark Walton. This unit recorded two solid, lean albums, the Cutler-produced Out of the Grey (1986) and Ghost Stories (1988), marshaled by Neil Young’s onetime producer Eliot Mazer. They also cut a ferocious live album in late 1987 at the fabled Hollywood Boulevard dive Raji’s.


            Seeing no new worlds to conquer with The Dream Syndicate, Wynn broke up the band in December 1988. He has spent the intervening two decades making the independent label rounds, racking up a large solo discography and touring through 25 countries around the world.


            He bowed as a solo artist with Kerosene Man (1990); he was signed to Rhino Records, the label offshoot of his onetime retail employer and America’s most prominent reissue imprint, in a short-lived attempt to market contemporary talent. The album was highlighted by “Carolyn,” a much-cherished but never-recorded Dream Syndicate number, and “Conspiracy of the Heart,” a duet with Concrete Blonde vocalist (and former Wynn paramour) Johnette Napolitano. He remained with the label for the less satisfying follow-up Dazzling Display (1992).


            In the mid-’90s, Wynn, who had forsaken L.A. for New York, divided his time between solo projects like Fluorescent (1994) and two albums with Gutterball, a loose-limbed cooperative band that included Stephen McCarthy of The Long Ryders and the members of the two-man Virginia-bred group House of Freaks. He made three uncertainly received albums for the Zero Hour label, commencing with Melting in the Dark (1996), on which he collaborated with the hard-edged Boston guitar band Come.


            Wynn reached his critical apex as a solo performer in 2001 with the release of the pounding two-CD set Here Come the Miracles, on which he and his group The Miracle Three (which includes his longtime drummer and partner Linda Pitmon, formerly of Zuzu’s Petals) ripped through 19 hard-rocking tracks. The subsequent Static Transmission (2003) and tick…tick…tick (2006) stayed in a similarly road-honed rock pocket. In 2008, Wynn made a sharp stylistic turn with the string-driven Crossing Dragon Bridge.


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