Rhino’s four-disc box set Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the ’80s Underground comes with a sticker on the front advertising its contents as the “music that mattered from the decade that didn’t.” This is a rare example of truth in advertising. Rather than another collection of Regan-era hits we’ve all heard ad infinitum, this box documents the sort of post-punk rock ‘n’ roll heard nearly exclusively on “left on the dial” college radio.
Punk’s impact in the ’70s was such that for most of ’80s, artists attempted to decipher and expand upon its implications, leaving a plethora of stylistic schisms, united only by their willingness to do it their own way and lowly sales figures in the era of the mega star. From jangle pop (R.E.M., the dBs) to brooding goth (Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy); from industrial (Ministry, Throbbing Gristle) to psychedelic revival (the Dream Syndicate, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians); from dance-floor fodder (New Order, Stone Roses) to mosh-pit anthems (Black Flag, Minor Threat); and various points in between, this box collects it all.
In the liner notes, Karen Schoemer and others set the scene, providing a portrait of what it meant to be on the fringe of the music mainstream at a time, when stars including Michael Jackson and Madonna were larger than life. This box does tend so focus on songs and artists that may have made a dent in American radio and MTV (i.e. Depeche Mode, the Cure, Jane’s Addiction), but to say they were dwarfed in the marketplace by their competitors would be an understatement.
Songs including the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” and Camper Van Beethoven’s “Take the Skinheads Bowling” may have the feel of hits two decades later, but there was little to no chart action at the time of release. This approach works well, giving the listener songs that would have been well known in the underground — not chart hits, per se, but communal “hits.” There may not be much in this collection that will surprise those well versed in the ’80s underground, but to the uninitiated it will be a revelation.
The packaging and liner notes are up to Rhino’s usual standards. As with any collection of this kind, track selection is debatable. But with eighty-two tracks and one cut per artist, this set is fairly exhaustive. Still, those inclined to quibble will find the nonappearance of the Fall noteworthy and the absence of any bands from New Zealand’s extremely fertile underground scene close to glaring.
But the biggest problem with Left of the Dial is not its selection but its sequencing, which seems haphazard and, at times, nearly random. The ’80s underground was nothing if not eclectic, and the compilation’s tendency to genre hop can be jarring. You might get whiplash on the dance floor if the deejay followed up the Smiths’ bouncy “This Charming Man” with Ministry’s pounding “Stigmata” and the country-rock of Lone Justice.
Nonetheless, Left of the Dial is a worthwhile collection. The pre-Nevermind era, when the term “alternative” was truly apropos, was an incredibly exciting time for rock music, provided you could simply ignore the mainstream. This box set is a bounty of some of the best cuts from the “other” ’80s, and it should not be passed up.