The Dream Syndicate took their name from a 1973 album by Tony Conrad called Outside the Dream Syndicate. Conrad, in turn, was making a reference to the experimental group he co-founded with La Monte Young and John Cale, which tinkered with free jazz, drone, classical, and what Young called “dream music.” Even without those associations, it’s a great band name, combining the institutional with the mysterious, but that nod to Conrad and his cohort speaks to big ideas about what rock’n’roll could say and how it could say it. These three kids in their early twenties, along with the more seasoned drummer they persuaded to join them, were fascinated by ideas of noise and abrasion, din and drone, deconstruction and entropy, and they were committed to bringing those ideas to rock clubs. To audiences in the early 1980s, that mission made them just as confrontational as the punk bands still roaming L.A., and even more confounding.

They were equally besotted with the mainstream pop and rock of the 1960s, celebrating Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds right alongside Nuggets and the Velvet Underground. Those interests aligned the band with a crew of local acts that would coalesce into the Paisley Underground, which included the Bangles, the Rain Parade, and Green on Red. Both of these pools of influence—’60s rock and ’60s avant-garde—combine beautifully on their debut, The Days of Wine and Roses, released in 1982 and generally considered to be a college-rock landmark with an outsize impact on the Minutemen and R.E.M., among others. It’s an album of sparkling spontaneity, full of songs that creep and crawl with a weird, dark energy, as though even the players themselves don’t always know where they’re headed. Pitting highly structured songcraft against discursive guitar outbursts, the Dream Syndicate struck a precarious balance of order and chaos that remains exciting and combustible four decades later.

Commemorating the album’s 40th anniversary, this 54-song, 4xCD expanded edition of The Days of Wine and Roses shows how the band developed those big ideas during its first days together. While not presented in chronological order, the set works as a year-in-the-life history that includes some of their earliest rehearsals, shows, and recordings. The L.A. scene was in flux in the early ’80s: The first wave of punk bands had generally subsided, and hardcore was only just starting up. New-wave and skinny-tie bands were enjoying some success, but they reflected larger trends rather than specifically local concerns. Fresh out of college, Steve Wynn found a job at Rhino Records (the store, not the label), where his co-workers dramatically expanded his musical vocabulary. Nels Cline had a particularly profound impact on Wynn, introducing him to the works of Don Cherry and Albert Ayler, among other free-jazz pioneers.

Yet Wynn’s first recordings barely hint at what would make the Dream Syndicate so distinctive. In October 1981 he taped a handful of songs in his basement with a 4-track and a drum machine and released two of them under the name 15 Minutes. There’s a peculiar charm in the way he turns his primitive setup into a dank aesthetic—an approach that works best on “That’s What You Always Say.” With its tinny robot beat and Wynn’s low, close-mic’ed vocals, this demo sounds curiously goth, or at the very least suggests he’ll soon start a new-wave band. Compare that version to the one the Dream Syndicate recorded a few months later, just a week after they made their live debut at Club Lingerie. This version, released on their Down There EP, opens with Kendra Smith playing a walking bassline just a click too fast, then gives way to Wynn and Karl Precoda’s violent guitar scribbles. It has a lot more life than the 15 Minutes version, not to mention a frazzled paranoia that recalls the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.”

The quartet spent much of 1982 practicing and playing shows around Southern California. In May they booked a short set at a vintage store called 1313 Mockingbird Lane, a show notable primarily for the debut of an eight-minute instrumental called “It’s Gonna Be Alright.” It’s not a jam so much as a distension and distortion, with the band rending the song as they play it. The rhythm section of bassist Smith and drummer Dennis Duck (who’d just defected from Human Hands) holds everything together with what could be a krautrock cover of “Gimme Some Lovin’,” while Wynn and Precoda sound like they’re cramming in bits of every other song they know. At any given moment it’s a Can jam, a lysergic Pink Floyd freakout, a psych-rock rave-up, an act of punk aggression, a hoedown. It’s a mess, but an exciting one.

When they played the song again in September—live on KPFK, at 2 a.m., with a live audience—they were calling it “Open Hour” but still capturing that same barely contained chaos. It didn’t make the final tracklist for their debut LP, perhaps because it was too unwieldy for an album of such controlled sprawl. Eventually it did morph into “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” on their 1984 follow-up, This Is Not the New Dream Syndicate.

All of these experiments and experiences culminated in The Days of Wine and Roses, which focused the band’s wilder forays while sharpening their songcraft. “Definitely Clean” has the tumble-down-the-stairs energy and lascivious feedback of prime Kinks, with Wynn and Precoda’s guitars racing toward a finish line. A similar riff works in a completely different way on “Halloween,” which sounds like the players turned their sheet music upside down. Rather than carry momentum, the guitars disrupt it in a deeply unsettling way. There are moments of sunny clarity on these songs, yet most of the album exists in a woozy, dreamlike space: “I dreamed last night I was born a thousand years ago,” Wynn sings on “When You Smile,” which locates a queasy existentialism in the imagery of silly love songs: “It seems like the end of the world when you smile.”

In some ways, it really was the end of the world. Before The Days of Wine and Roses even hit record stores, Smith left the band; she would soon form Opal with David Roback. The Dream Syndicate weathered frequent turnover throughout the rest of the decade, finally breaking up in 1989, before reuniting in 2012. During their initial run, they released a string of perfectly fine albums that sound overthought and overproduced compared to their debut. That makes the nostalgia of the album title sound like a self-fulfilling prophecy, as though they already knew that it was all downhill from 1982. But Days isn’t about the past, despite their fascination with both the avant-garde and the mainstream of the ’60s. It’s more about the present moment and all the possibilities it holds; by focusing on the immediate now—not any one point in 1982 but the point of inspiration and creation—this crew of young, inexperienced thinkers and players managed to translate heady ideas into visceral music.

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The Dream Syndicate: The Days of Wine and Roses (40th Anniversary Expanded Edition)