Modern Art and the Art of the EP, from R.E.M., Let’s Active, Bangles + others: Shadows in Stereo

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Recently, many print media and online sources celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of The Velvet Underground and Nico, considered by many to be one of the most influential albums of the classic rock era. At the time, its approach and content certainly seemed at odds with the peace, love and flower power sentiments favored by most of their ‘60s contemporaries. However, over time the influence of The Velvet Underground and Nico has grown such that it’s been often said though few people bought it on its release, everyone who did went on to start a band.

The Velvets were initially connected to the famous visual artist Andy Warhol and his New York art scene, which enabled then to go into the studio, with Warhol himself listed as nominal producer. But one has to wonder if they would have even got to ride the studio service elevator without a big name to accompany them. Really, look at the basic elements of the album they made: a half a drum kit; a viola making fingernail-on-blackboard noises; Lou Reed’s froggy vocal delivery punctuated by Nico’s low-alto Teutonic inflections; and a lyrical content that often embodies the term “sleaze.” It’s brilliant, of course, but what every-day record exec would sign this?

Which brings us to all those acolytes who heard this fine debut and went out and started bands. Interestingly, in the early ’80s there were a number of indie rock bands with spiritual allegiance to the Velvet Underground’s legacy that released four- or five-song recordings called extended plays, or EPs.

Why pursue the EP format? Who knows? Perhaps there were financial restrictions at play, but ultimately an EP release has an interesting aesthetic all its own. First, it’s more than a single, so everything isn’t riding on one hit song. Second, because it isn’t a long-playing LP, there’s less need for filler. (For you literary minded types, think the difference between a regular novel and a shorter novella.) Finally, a handful of songs on a 12-inch slab of vinyl really functions not only as a sampler, but also as an opportunity to stretch out – so it can contain alternate takes, covers, or otherwise rare material.

Here are a few significant releases that originally came into the world as EPs:

R.E.M. – CHRONIC TOWN (1982): Out of Athens, Georgia, came one of the most stunning debuts of all time. Chronic Town defied easy description, which automatically set the band in the same category as the Velvet Underground – as did the number of Velvets’ covers that R.E.M. performed over the years. One could only imagine what a Southern gothic art-garage, folk-rock band with a lead singer who mostly mumbled would actually sound like. It turns out it sounded like indie rock, college rock, alternative rock, pre-rock and non-rock all at the same time – or something else.

DREAM SYNDICATE – DREAM SYNDICATE (1982): Part of L.A.’s so-called Paisley Underground scene, Dream Syndicate most closely conjured the drone via noise quality of such Velvet’s sonic assaults as “Sister Ray” or “European Son” on this self-titled EP. In later years, the group veered more towards the Neil Young school of sound. Side note: the first new Dream Syndicate album in decades is rumored to be due out sometime in 2017.

MISSION OF BURMA – SIGNALS, CALLS AND MARCHES (1982): Like most major centers, Boston had at least a few indie bands in the early ‘80s, and Mission of Burma was one of the best. Like Ace of Hearts label mates the Neats, Mission of Burma released some great music without the backing of a major music conglomerate. Signals, Calls and Marches connects smart songwriting to punk-inspired musical muscle and tape loops as well. In the process, they moved the indie rock movement further along past its punk and new wave origins.

LET’S ACTIVE – AFOOT (1983): Mitch Easter produced many early R.E.M. releases including Chronic Town and in 1983, the owner/operator of Drive In Studios in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, put together his own indie rock project, Let’s Active. The original line-up was eventually manned by a rotating cast of players, but their original EP is a compelling update to classic jangle pop.

THE LONG RYDERS – 10-5-60 (1983): Another of L.A.’s Paisley Underground bands, the Long Ryders mixed garage-rock basics with country-rock leanings, helping to usher in the musical offshoot that came to be known as Americana.

THE BANGLES – THE BANGLES (1982): Also a charter member of L.A.’s Paisley Underground, the Bangles went on to multiplatinum pop success in the late ‘80s. It’s easy to forget that their first EP showed them to be a pretty decent rock ‘n’ roll band, melding ’60s garage stylings with Byrds-like harmonies. Yes, vocalist/guitarist Susannah Hoffs did sing the Velvet Underground’s pure pop masterpiece “I’ll Be Your Mirror” on the Rainy Day compilation album that came out in 1984, but to hear the Bangles really nail a cover, listen to their version of “How Is the Air Up There?,” originally by New Zealand ‘60s group the La De Dahs.

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he's not occupied with this pastime, he's interested in all things rock and roll -- which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early '90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at
JC Mosquito
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