Part 2 of my missive against Left of the Dial, now available for your reading pleasure:
-Too many important bands missing. Licensing or otherwise, there is no excuse to omit the following from a box set purporting to survey the '80s music underground:
The Fall, Cabaret Voltaire, the Residents, Tuxedomoon, Oingo Boingo, Pere Ubu, Gary Numan, Laurie Anderson, Negativland, Einsturzende Neubauten, Dead Can Dance, The Pop Group, Art of Noise, pre-Dare! Human League, Chrome, Yello, Wire, This Mortal Coil, The Chills, Swell Maps, SPK, Simple Minds, the Specials, Madness, and the Selecter, to name some. Also, how about some love for cult favorites and rarely-anthologized groups like The Teardrop Explodes, Pigbag, Spizzenergi, Renaldo and the Loaf, MX-80 Sound, Heaven 17, Thomas Leer, the Soft Boys, Medium Medium, Comsat Angels, Modern English, Christian Death, 45 Grave, the Nails, Human Hands, Monitor, Au Pairs, Klaus Nomi, A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column, This Heat, The Blue Nile, Everything but the Girl, Rhythm and Noise, Monte Cazazza, Romeo Void, Orange Juice, and Josef K, to name some?
-Too narrow a focus. Four discs seemed right for Rhino's predecessor No Thanks! The '70s Punk Rebellion (though I'd argue it could have been stretched to 6 to account for some oversights), since the bulk of the included tracks dated from 1976-1979, but assigning just 4 CDs for the 80s? A project of this scope deserves no fewer than 8 CDs, IMHO.
Although this boxset seemed like a noble endeavor in 2004, its flaws have become more glaring with the march of time. To wit:
-Too many repeats from the Postpunk Chronicles series. Hell, the title is lifted from the second disc of that series (Left of the Dial). Just from glancing the tracklisting here, I see 11 songs recycled from the Postpunk Chronicles trilogy: 1 song from Scared to Dance (OMD's Enola Gay), 2 songs from Left of the Dial (the Passions and Dream Syndicate songs), and a whopping 8 from Going Underground (songs from The Jam, the Go-Betweens, Gang Of Four, Rain Parade, Green On Red, Throbbing Gristle, The Three O'Clock, and Billy Bragg). At least they had the courtesy to use a different mix of To Hell with Poverty! for this box.
-Lack of cohesion to the tracklisting. I enjoy stylistic diversity as much as the next person, but whoever sequenced the tracks on this set was either schizophrenic or felt like having amusement at the listeners' expense. Seriously, whose idea was it to put Dinosaur Jr's Freak Scene after Ultravox's Vienna? Or how about following up Siouxsie and the Banshees' Christine with Minor Threat's Straight Edge? A better approach would have been to follow a chronological timeframe or group the songs by genre/label/movement.
-Weak American representatives. Despite what Rhino would have believe, the American independent scene of the 80s was a lot more diverse than hardcore punk, jangle pop, and earbleeding noise rawk. For starters, there was the whole Ralph Records label of avant-gardists and experimentalists, each of whom brought a distinct sound and style (Though in the case of the almighty Residents, it was more like a half-dozen or more styles and sounds). Yet, you won't find samples from the moody electronic cabaret noir of Tuxedomoon, the "hard rock guitars filtered through free jazz structure" hybrid of MX-80 Sound, or the cosmic soundscapes of Rhythm & Noise (the most criminally ignored Ralph act, although with their being included on Cherry Red's 3rd Electronica set, a rediscovery just might be underway), and that's not counting the various European acts who signed up with the electric San Francisco label. The broader San Francisco art/post-punk scene birthed numerous exciting acts that would have been perfect for this set, especially Chrome, Negativland, Monte Cazazza, and the Units, but none of them are here, either. Los Angeles had a small but significant avant-garde scene itself, the best known examples being Oingo Boingo, Wall of Voodoo (who were at least included), and Suburban Lawns, but the less-heralded bands are equally fun (Human Hands, Monitor, Savage Republic, 100 Flowers). Nope, instead we get 4 samples of the Paisley Underground, a blatantly unoriginal clique that recycled '60s psychedelic styles without updating or deconstructing them.
-Too many marginal names. I don't care what diehards might claim, this box set would have been better off without the likes of the Paisley Undergrounders (even if Rain Parade's David Roback later split off to form the better known Mazzy Star, his earlier band was as derivative and rote as you can get, and the others left a minimal legacy), Lone Justice (whose Ways to Be Wicked sounds way too overproduced and Tom Petty-ish [Hell, the damn song was written by Petty!]), the Dead Milkmen (a total joke band), Lyres (Take what I said about the Paisley Underground, but substitute garage rock as the reference point; the Lyres were a straight-up xerox of American garage staples like Question Mark and the Mysterians), and Concrete Blonde (Way too rawkish).
-Severe under-representation of industrial music. Of all the genres to emerge in the shadow of punk, industrial just might be one of the most crucial. Industrial has evolved and changed heavily in the 40+ years it's been around. Not according to Rhino. If you go by this box set, the only important names in industrial in the 80s were Throbbing Gristle and Ministry. There's no excuse for leaving off Cabaret Voltaire, Einsturzende Neubauten, SPK, Fad Gadget, Clock DVA, Laibach, or even the controversial Whitehouse and NON/Boyd Rice.
I think its a bit unfair to call this a dull corporate cash-cow. I never feel that way about Rhino boxes. Sure, the bottom line of any release is to shift copies, but that doesn't mean the compilers didn't have a genuine appreciation of the music wherein. The anomaly of calling much of this music underground in the present is acknowledged in the notes. The premise of the set is that even though much of what is here became popular eventually, it had its roots comparatively left or underground compared to mainstream 1980's music. What's here is not particularly obscure and it isn't supposed to be. This is not supposed to be a 'Nuggets' set (for that, see 'Children of Nuggets'), just a sampler of an era. The all things to all people approach means that not all listeners will love everything here. But most of what is here is excellent, and at the worst, at least interesting, and extremely diverse. For people who aren't familiar with these bands or these tracks, its as good an introductory sampler as any. And for those who are, it plays like a great mix tape or an impossible radio station. The sequencing actually plays a lot better than it looks on paper, incidentally. The only sore thumb for me here is Kate Bush. I like Kate Bush. But she doesn't belong here.
No matter how exclusive it tries to be, suggesting a compilation like this is still more equal to shallow listener's individual choice more than broadening it.
These days anyone can do a compilation - of course, it varies with the same degree of subjective quality as is the case with the commercial ones, so releasing an expensive hit list of things we've already collected a dozen times before isn't by any means spectacular or unique.
Starting with the name - the title, pretentious as in many cases before it, 'Left of the Dial' is a decent introduction to either popular or obscure gems of the 80s underground, although bearing the fact many of the examples are proud of their 'seventies' artifact (and mind you, the year '1980' still isn't the 80s).
At its best, this is made for standard parties or indolent DJs' radio programme.
However, the worst thing about this 'dispatch' of songs is - either by choice or the fluid - that no matter their individual appeal, here the songs simply don't complement each other in-between. As an example, take Throbbing Gristle's 'Adrenalin' and then along come The Stone Roses. Maybe these stylistic twists between each other form the key to random listening perfection of the lot but in the end, it still makes it 'just another compilation' where certain hits find better exposure than the others - of course, depending on how much an average alternative music fan will aspire to 'Black Celebration' while gems like The Go-Betweens will continue to go on remaining unnoticed.
As a tiny 4 disc reminder, 'Left of the Dial' is far more closer to a dull corporate cash-cow TV-advertised set like those painfully pathetic 'Missing You - 100 Love Golden Greats', than to a sincere preview of the music underground it desperately tries to invoke.