1989 had a profound impact on me. That was the year I started DJing at KCSC, Chico State’s campus radio station (see flyer below), and discovered so much greatness in the vast American rock ‘n’ roll underground. It was like seeing in color for the first time. Music didn’t suck, popular music sucked, mostly. Worst. Drum. Sound. Ever. My arch-nemesis, the synthesizer. Always with the synthesizer. And that horribly compressed production style best described as Footloosey. Lies, damnedable lies.
KCSC showed me that living, breathing, cursing, laughing, traveling 400 miles to a gig rock ‘n’ roll was alive and well and possibly drunk in localized niches throughout the country. Our band could be your life. The unheard music. I got it and lots of other people got it, in lots of other niches, like a web, or perhaps a net of interconnectedness. It was 1989, the calm before the swarm. Life was good.
Chico was an underrated hub in the west coast’s network of punk rock venues and college towns. Bands from Seattle and Portland could play to a good crowd in Chico on a Thursday, and then go to the Bay Area and/or Los Angeles for the weekend. We were a much better option than Sacramento (Excremento, ugh), and a half-day’s drive from the Bay Area. The Burro Room (aka Hey Juan’s, aka Juanita’s) was Chico’s premier venue … and by “premier” I mean a pair of conjoined dives. One side served decent Mexican food and cheap beer, the other side had music, and the whole building is in the pantheon with The Chukker and Sam’s Town Point. The constant influx of touring bands helped nurture Chico’s music scene into a kind of “Athens West,” led by bands like 28th Day, Vomit Launch, and The Downsiders.
- Read Chico Rock City: The News & Review’s look at 30 years of Chico music, from 1977-2007. Good stuff, accessible even to outsiders.
What follows are the 13 songs that best sum up MY 1989. Experiencing a lot of this music at the grassroots level obviously made an impact. These were acts I played on the radio and were among my favorites to see live. If the list seems overwhelmingly young, male, and guitar-driven, I plead guilty. That’s how 1989 sounded when I was young, male, and guitar-driven.
1. Fugazi – Waiting Room
Fugazi – Waiting Room
Technically, “Waiting Room” first appeared in 1988 on Fugazi’s self-titled debut EP. However, I first heard it when the 13 Songs compilation was released. Consider it a transition piece between 1988 and ’89. The opening sequence is like the Jaws theme, mainly due to Joe Lally’s Hall of Fame bassline. Fugazi’s first song remained a kind of template for the rest of their career: Lurching, undulating rhythms, intense dynamics, and feather-sledgehammer vocal parts (i.e. Guy Picciotto‘s feather vs Ian MacKaye‘s hammer).
2. Operation Ivy – Unity
Operation Ivy – Unity
It might help to be 20 years old, but I still love this. Operation Ivy was one of the few bands to master the perilous ska-punk zone of suck. Jesse Michaels and Tim “Lint” Armstrong (both pictured right) were great singers and their lyrics were clever and brash. But, the real key to Op Ivy was the fact that Armstrong (guitar), Matt Freeman (bass), and Dave Mello (drums) were a killer, hard swinging power trio. Hard to believe they existed for only 24 months (May ’87-May ’89). Armstrong and Freeman later went on to form Rancid, who, to their credit, built a mini-empire from the ashes of Op Ivy.
3. Beastie Boys – Johnny Ryall
Beastie Boys – Johnny Ryall
Of all the albums released 20 years ago,Paul’s Boutique stands tallest. It’s a tour de force of sampling, song construction, pop culture deconstruction, rope-a-dope imagination, and having more rhymes than JD’s got Salinger. And it couldn’t be made today because of legal knots pulling at the residuals. All I’m saying is, any album that has me considering the $130 “20th Anniversary Commemorative Package” has to be top shelf.
Read Deconstructing Johnny Ryall
4. Flat Duo Jets – My Life, My Love
Flat Duo Jets – My Life, My Love
God bless the Flat Duo Jets. Guitarist/vocalist Dexter Romweber and drummer Crow furiously combined rockabilly, surf music, punk rock (both the music and DIY philosophy), ’50s music, Sun Records, and a thousand strange, primitive, mostly southern singles you’ve never heard of. The blues-infused, guitar-drums setup clearly anticipates White Stripes and Black Keys and the FDJ are an obvious bridge between The Cramps to The Sadies.
5. Maria McKee – Drinkin’ In My Sunday Dress
Maria McKee – Drinkin’ In My Sunday Dress
This is the Maria McKee I want cloned and kept in a vault. That Voice, plus her spirited appreciation for classic roots music from Hank Williams to X is/was a potent combination. Unfortunately, the woman who could’ve been the cowpunk Patsy Cline was knee deep in her Stevie Nicks phase in 1989. Thankfully, “Sunday Dress” escaped the industry’s lacy, twirling subterfuge. It pays stylistic homage to the heady early days of Lone Justice and looks ahead to 1993’s outstanding You Gotta Sin To Get Saved.
Read Lone Justice and the Workin’ Man Blues: 1983-85
6. Elvis Costello – Deep Dark Truthful Mirror
Elvis Costello – Deep Dark Truthful Mirror
“I had encountered the Dirty Dozen Brass Band a couple of years before (Spike), and it was the first attempt to use people — to use horns on a record in other than a quite typical R&B pop way. They were a jazz ensemble that came out of the marching band tradition.”
—Elvis Costello, in Jazz Times
The Dirty Dozen backup is inspired as Elvis channels Van Morrison or perhaps even Sam Moore (from Sam & Dave). A soulful gem from an underrated album. If Spike was 11-12 songs instead of 15, it would be perfect. Actually, this reveals one of the hidden drawbacks of the CD era, which more or less replaced the vinyl era by 1989. Because CDs could be 80 minutes long, there arose a deeply flawed intellectual conceit, which was that as much of those 80 minutes needed to be filled up with music otherwise consumers might feel like they weren’t getting their money’s worth. This of course is fucking bullshit. In rare cases — London Calling, Exile On Main Street, etc. — artists have more than 50 minutes worth of quality material to give us. Most of the time, they should just give us their best 35-45 minutes and save the rest for reissues and box sets. Just trust me on this.
7. Thelonious Monster – Lena Horne Still Sings Stormy Weather
Thelonious Monster – Lena Horne Still Sings Stormy Weather
One of Bob Forrest’s finest moments as a songwriter and one of Thelonious Monster’s finest moments as a band, “Lena Horne” is essentially a folk song done as rootsy punk rock. Forrest’s songwriting triumph — especially in the context of both Reagan/Bush and post-punk’s golden age when the song was released — was in transcending a predictable vitriolic rant against “the system” to produce a compelling song of hope and belief.
There’s no reason for the protagonist to feel hope, especially against a backdrop of depressing and destructive forward-thinking materialism. Two of Los Angeles’ most distinctive googie-style coffeehouses, Ships and Tiny Naylor’s, were torn down because that’s what Los Angeles, and by extension, America, does. We don’t preserve the village green. We raze it and open a Starbucks. We’ll do just about anything to squeeze an extra dime, we’ll probably even sell our own grandmothers.
And yet, the song’s message remains one of perseverance and hope. Forrest doesn’t say things are bad and getting worse. He says things are bad, but they could get better. We may be working our asses off and can’t afford to pay our bills, maybe Ships and Tiny Naylor’s were torn down, and maybe there are people who’ll sell their own grandmothers. But, we have to believe they can get better and work and hope and pray and wish and give it our all.
Read Thelonious Monster: A 12-Step Program
8. Pixies – Debaser
Pixies – Debaser
“I’ve always loved Kim’s bassline. It’s a great part, very hooky. She’s a real stickler for the timing. I know she’ll start the song out her way and I’ll come flying out of the gate and make it go just a little bit faster. I love the energy, but she holds her ground. It’s a little push-pull thing we have together.”
—David Lovering to Music Radar for a track-by-track review of Doolittle
The leadoff track from Doolittle and the album many consider the Pixies‘ masterpiece. I like Steve Albini‘s dryer, more abrasive production on Surfer Rosa, but Doolittle is a classic and almost a self-contained Greatest Hits.
True story: I saw the Pixies twice in this era. Once on the Bossanova tour, the second for Trompe Le Monde. They were terrible both times, one of the most stultifying live acts I’ve ever seen. Just stood there, ho hum, and yes, maybe I just wanted to use the word “stultifying.” Sue me.
9. Nirvana – School
Nirvana – School
“I’m the first to admit that I’m no virtuoso. I can’t play like Segovia. The flip side of that is that Segovia could probably never have played like me.”
–Kurt Cobain to Fender Frontline, 1994
Great riff, great vocal, great song, and a great excuse for wanton destruction. Am I crazy or do I hear, “You’re in high school again,” “You’re on acid again,” and “You’re an addict again”? Nirvana rules.
Read Barney Ties Me to the Chair: Remembering Nirvana
10. Mudhoney – You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face)
Mudhoney – You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face)
“You give it away like free samples,
But I don’t want what anyone can have.”
The forgotten band of the “Puget Sound,” Mudhoney wrote dozens of anthems, toured seven galaxies, were instrumental in breaking Sub Pop in England (opening the floodgates to world domination), and were the legit heirs to both The Stooges and The Sonics, two pillars in the grunge exoskeleton. I feel like they’re something of a historical footnote and shouldn’t be. Every good boy deserves Mudhoney. Let’s make it happen … for the children.
Read Every Good Band Deserves Drums
11. Superchunk – Slack Motherfucker
Superchunk – Slack Motherfucker
Superchunk in the very early days, with Chuck “Chunk” Garrison on drums and Jack McCook on guitar. “Slack Motherfucker” sounds like a young band doing an impression of Soul Asylum doing an impression of the MC5. And I’m OK with that. While this tune gained wider fame on the band’s self-titled 1990 debut, it was originally released in 1989 as one of Merge’s first singles (pictured left). For a band a year or two away from its prime, this was a clarion call that perhaps we should keep an eye on these young North Carolinians.
Read Superchunk: It Is My Life, It Is My Voice
12. Neil Young – Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World
Neil Young – Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World
“There’s a warning sign on the road ahead
There’s a lot of people saying we’d be better off dead
Don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them
So I try to forget it, any way I can.”
I’m an idiot and inexplicably overlooked Freedom during my first run at 1989, so “Free World” replaces fIREHOSE‘s “Some Things.” God knows I love the ‘HOSE, but this is one of my favorite Neil Young songs. Truth be told, I think Freedom is a bit overrated, but “Free World” is a scathing indictment of George W Bush and a disintegrating American society that tolerates homelessness and drug abuse, at least until it criminalizes it.
Read Rescued From Obscurity: Don’t Be Denied
13. Public Enemy – Fight The Power
Public Enemy – Fight The Power
“1989 the number!
Another summer (Get down!)
Sound of the funky drummer!”
Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad at the height of their powers. Brutal, abrasive, cacophonous, and swings with James Brown‘s hard, late ’60s funk. Spike Lee‘s appropriation of “Fight The Power” for Do The Right Thing was an angry texture to the film. Does any hip-hop act have a better 4-year peak than PE from 1988-92? Doubtful.
The third verse of “Fight The Power” pays the bills (the one beginning with “Elvis was a hero to most”), but the start of the second verse features one of my favorite lines from Chuck D. It’s not particularly political, but it encourages both dancing and thinking.
“As the rhythm’s designed to bounce what counts
Is that the rhyme is designed to fill your mind.”
I’m a rhythm > rhyme kinda guy, but this is persuasive. Chuck’s stentorian voice is like the voice of God, acknowledging the fundamental truth of Duke Ellington‘s axiom, “It Don’t Mean A Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” However, that swing (or bounce) is best accompanied by intellectual stimulation (filling your mind) and Chuck uses a brilliant meta-rhyme to make his counterargument.
- Download Full 13-song playlist [73.5 MB]
God damn this is in my wheelhouse….the Burro Room as a whole needs a tribute page. It’s amazing the bands that rolled through that narrow pit that probably only met fire code since the walls were non-combustible brick.
I had more written about the Burro Room, but thought it might’ve been too “masturbatey.” But damn right, we saw a ton of legendary shows there. Fugazi, which was stopped cold when someone got kicked in the face; fIREHOSE and Primus a few times each, both bands in their prime; Scream, the night before they played in SF and the Nirvanas met Dave Grohl, what a show, helluva band; Flaming Lips in 1989-90, arc-welding ‘Five Stop Mother Superior Rain’ into my synapses; the mighty twin guitar assault of Guy Kyser and Thin White Rope, totally underrated band, a better version of Television; Screaming Trees opening for Redd Kross and destroying them with bad Ellensburg mojo, Gary Lee Connor rolling around on stage, wailing on guitar; that rap group Matt Brown brought to the joint who inexplicably began destroying the house mics, fucking hilarious; Superchunk on what had to be their first tour; Flat Duo Jets, also on one of their early tours out west; and didn’t Mudhoney play there a couple times? I know I’m leaving out hundreds of other bands, shows, and personalities … like Ted Shred and Sideshow Paul, wherever they may be … but there weren’t many better places for a young kid to cut his teeth. RIP Burro Room.
Hey there. Just came across this page, not sure if anyone still monitors it. I have a bunch of my booking calendars still from the Burro Room days if anyone is interested in taking a look at pictures of them. It’s great looking back and realizing how lucky we were. Booking was much easier back then, artist fees were manageable and rent for venues was much easier as well. I still work in the business, toured for years as a tour manager and sound person and now I have been the managing partner of The Crocodile up here in Seattle for the past seven years. i would love to share any stuff i have around from the Burro Room if anyone is still interested. Thanks for the kind words about The Burro Room above. Adam Wakeling email@example.com
Let’s see….other Burro Room alumni…Smashing Pumpkins ( an obscure midwest band that never really made it bigtime), the legend that is TAD, Overwhelming motherfuckin’ Colorfast ( hands down the best band to come out of Antioch since TRAK ), Mr. Bungle in their pajamas, Mordred, the Rev Horton Heat, M/16, Beat Happening…Didn’t we sneak in through the back door to see Field Trip for a 21+ show? I know Mudhoney played the Blue Max, not sure if they did the Donkey. I know there’s gotta be a vintage original t-shirt with the burro skull logo out there somewhere, I gotta find it.
I need to pay some MFin respect to the Colorfast. What a band. They were like Sabbath huge when they wanted, but Bob could also throw down the crazy good pop hook.
That Bungle show was epic. I seem to remember Mike Patton hanging from the ceiling. Is that a false memory?
Ugh, Smashing Pumpkins. My arch-nemesis. They were great in 1990-91, I admit. But they quickly hit the Suck Lane at top speed. I don’t think anything will ever top Corgan getting nailed in the head by a water bottle at Lollapalooza. Whining for a half-hour about how Mountain View wasn’t a proper venue for a rock concert, nevermind that it didn’t bother P-Funk or the Beasties any. Someone … and I’m pretty sure it was Jim Plunkett … lofted an unopened water bottle about 35-40 feet in the air and it doinked that shitwaffle right in his encephalitic dome. Brilliant.
the Hell? Get outta my record (er, tape) collection! Good to see the love for fIREHOSE, esp. the EP that nobody remembers
Burro Room: Mudhoney (twice), The Fluid, Seaweed, The Jesus Lizard, Helmet, Surgery, Helios Creed, Cop Shoot Cop, Afghan Whigs, Cows, Melvins, Neurosis, Tragic Mulatto, Victims Family, Coffin Break, Skin Yard, Killdozer, This is what I could come up with off the top of my head.
Ted has been in NYC for a couple of years—I think he's still here.
Limey Paul—should be deported after attacking a girl with a fork in SF several years back.
I always figured Paul would end up stabbing someone, I just didn't think it would be with a fork.
Man, I forgot how many of those loud-ass AmRep bands came through town. Good times.
Anonymous was speculating on the wherabouts of former Burro Room DJ Ted Shred. He's right here in Chico! In fact, Ted was recently featured on the local news. Seems he's started a bike courrier service.
Bob, thanks for the heads up on Ted. And upon further reflection, I always saw English Paul (aka Sideshow Paul) as less forky and more sporky. But hey, maybe that's just me.
a couple more that were not mentioneed…Feb 1 1989 Doggy Style ( with a manager vs lead singer knife fight at the party later that night).
Caterwaul in 1988 me thinks
I phlemed on Mike Patton of Mr Bungle between the nips whence he asked for volunteers…
my best $5 Burro Room show had to be Fugazi
Mr. Bungle show, so great!
I “worked” at KCSC and was lucky enough to drive Mike Watt from sound check at HJ to the station for an interview. He was the super cool big brother you never had. I think he was a bit taken aback by how excited everyone was to talk to him, yet he was so up for it. Somebody who loved music as much as we all did. That was a good day.