CLEVO CALLING Human Switchboard

The late ‘70s
punk/post-punk sound of northeast Ohio
lives again via a crucial anthology. Kurt Cobain would have approved…

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

Back in the 1980s, when Cleveland
was trying to snare the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the knock on it was that no
historically crucial rock ever came out of northeast Ohio. Sure, deejay Alan Freed started out there
and popularized the term “rock ‘n’ roll,” but that’s a long way from actually
creating enduring music.

 

It’s now clear that at the very time that debate was raging,
rock for the ages had indeed recently come out of the area. The mass media and
record business – and the Cleveland
business leaders who successfully pushed for the Hall – just didn’t realize it
yet. But from the late 1970s into the 1980s, northeast Ohio was the spawning
ground for memorably idiosyncratic and innovative bands that pushed punk/post-punk
out of New York and England and into the American heartland – Pere Ubu, Rocket
From the Tombs, Devo, Dead Boys, Tin Huey, Bizarros, the Cramps, Pagans, the
Waitresses…and more.

 

And as awareness of these acts’ impact on rock has grown,
interest has deepened. Fans now want to rediscover all of the area’s
avant-garde bands. And the newfound interest in Cleveland’s Human Switchboard is an
especially good example. That band consisted of two students who met at
Syracuse University, Bob Pfeifer and Myrna Marcarian, plus Pfeifer’s friend
from hometown Cleveland, Ron Metz. From 1977 until their 1985 break-up, they
managed only one studio album -1981’s Who’s
Landing In My Hangar?.
 

 

Pfeifer played guitar, Marcarian keyboards and they took
turns on (and occasionally shared) lead vocals. The twin-lead guitar-organ
dynamic, as well as Marcarian’s melodically ominous vocals balanced by
Pfeifer’s anguished, urgent talk-singing, gave the band depth and
dimensionality. Metz
was the drummer; guests played bass and otherwise filled out the sound.

 

Because that record was so good and because the band played New York often enough in
its time to build a following, Human Switchboard has never been totally
forgotten. But it’s taken awhile for contemporary archivists to get to them.
Now, Bar/None Records has released on CD an expanded version of Hangar. It’s a veritable anthology,
containing 11 additional cuts recorded both before and after the album was
produced. (Three are live CBGB performances from 1984.) Plus, a download card
included with the CD accesses 19 more tracks.

 

On the album, the songs’ lyrically crackle with informed,
knowing romantic tension. Some build with wrenching drama – especially the
stop-start tension of “Refrigerator Door,” which Kurt Cobain reportedly once
called “the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of punk” and which features, at its chorus,
Pfeifer’s declarations of love in Slovenian, his parents’ native language.  The punk energy is also apparent in songs
like “(Say No to) Saturday’s Girl,” “No Heart,” “(I Used To) Believe in You”
and “Book on Looks,” all of which hold up well next to music of the era by
Elvis Costello, Blondie or others. It’s good to have it back.

 

 

“Different elements of the band have talked about doing this
for the last 15 years,” says Pfeifer, in a phone interview from his L.A. home. “There were
conflicts about how to do it and who to do it with. Once we decided, the
feeling was, ‘Let’s give a lot of music.’ And there is more music, too, that
wasn’t even included.”

 

Pfeifer currently plays with Tabby Chinos. He also
participated this year in the Cleveland Confidential book tour – three alumni
of Cleveland
punk bands who had written books. His, a novel called University of Strangers, is based on the Amanda Knox murder
case. Cheetah Chrome read from A Dead
Boy’s Tale
and Mike Hudson of the Pagans from Diary of a Punk.

 

He discovered on that tour a fascination by a younger
generation with the classic punk music of northeast Ohio. “When we were on that book tour,
everywhere we went we were like ambassadors for Cleveland,” he says. “Sixteen-year-old kids
in Berkeley
were asking obscure questions about people in bands there 40 years ago.”

 

At Syracuse,
where Pfeifer was studying philosophy, he met Marcarian in a class. He had
already made music in Cleveland with Metz, but found the
cover-band scene there boring. “I was at Syracuse
when Robert Palmer wrote an early review of Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel,
and I said, ‘Jeez, we should do this,'” he says. “So on a break we went home
and I discovered Pere Ubu and Rocket [Pere
Ubu evolved from Rocket From the Tombs, which included David Thomas, Chrome and
the late Peter Laughner and has itself recently reformed for a tour
], and
little things going on in Cleveland.”

 

So in 1977 in Ohio,
the band recorded a four-track EP. “I asked David (Thomas) to mix it and he
did,” Pfeifer says. It featured “Fly-In,”
“Distemper,” “Shake It Boys” and “San Francisco
Nights.” And it debuted the band’s memorable moniker: “We had the
EP done and had to come up with a name,” he says. “Ron and I were sitting
around watching some Cary Grant kind of film where (someone) said something
like, ‘Oh, your human switchboard has your calls for you.’ And we said,
‘Hmmm…Human Switchboard…  Sounds good.

 

“We pressed it up and sent it to, like, Bomp, NME, Melody Maker and some people in New York,” Pfeifer
continues. “It’s not like today with a million voices on the Internet. And all
of a sudden these reviews started coming out and John Peel started playing it
in England
and we sold 3,000 records in a week. That was the beginning.”

 

Human Switchboard: “No
Heart”

 

 

 

Bowing to his father’s wishes, Pfeifer enrolled in Ohio State
University’s graduate
program in philosophy. But Human Switchboard stayed together in Ohio and a couple well-received
indie singles, especially “In My Room” with its Van Morrison-meets-Jonathan
Richman intimations, followed in 1978 and 1979. Reception was good enough
Pfeifer was ready to break from academia.

 

“I figured if I went with the track I was on I was going to
be a professor, but all these things were going on,” he says. “I thought,
‘Let’s stop graduate school, go to New
York, play a gig and see how we are.’ In the meantime
was the question of what do we do. The idea of a used record store came up.
Those things usually happened around college campuses, so we opened a record
exchange around Kent, near Cleveland. And then we
played a New York
gig that was well-received and we went from there.”

 

That gig, in summer of 1979, was at the club Hurrah – a hot
spot for live alternative music. It went well and the band developed a
following – especially for its male/female yin-yang. “That was something no one
was doing,” Pfeifer says. “That was kind of a conscious way we’d be different,
and the point of music at that time was to be different. I remember the reviews of X, when they came east, were that
they were a West Coast us.

 

“But since that was a distinguishing feature we had, it was
easy for people to jump on the male-female thing as romantic tension, when
really I often listen to music as sounds,” Pfeifer explains. “So voices are
instruments to me – I don’t even listen to lyrics a lot of the time. What is
interesting to me is having the variation in voice when performing. Typically,
I’d write all the music and then if Myrna sang she’d write her lyrics.”

 

Human Switchboard:
Live at Hurrah, 1981

 

 

 

Pfeifer says there was the occasional criticism, however.
One came from the leader of the band that first inspired him, Television. “When
Tom Verlaine came to see us, he said he really liked the band, hated the organ
– because he’s a total guitar guy.”

 

Record-industry interest was keen, and Human Switchboard
signed with Faulty Products, an imprint of then-super-hot I.R.S. Records, home
of the Police and R.E.M. The tracks were recorded in Painesville, Ohio,
with production by the band and Paul Hamann. But while I.R.S. releases proper
went through powerhouse A&M Records, Faulty Products had independent
distribution, which limited Hangar‘s
potential reach somewhat. Still, says Pfeifer, “It did well enough we were able
to tour. We were able to live on it – that’s an accomplishment making a living
with what you love.”

 

But when it came time for a follow-up, the band and the
label had a falling-out. Other labels showed interest – the CD reissue includes
demos recorded for Polydor in 1983 – but Pfeifer says A&R changes always
stopped a deal from being made. After the band called it quits, he released a
1987 solo album, After Words on the
Passport label. (Both Marcarian and Metz
have stayed musically active.)

 

Then, despite Switchboard’s problems with record companies,
he went into major-label A&R as a career. He rose with Epic Records,
signing Alice Cooper for a huge 1989 comeback with “Poison.” He became
president of Hollywood Records for a brief period in the 1990s, and in the last
decade became ensnared in the wiretapping case against L.A. private investigator Anthony Pellicano.
He eventually pled guilty to one charge of aiding and abetting and was fined
and sentenced to time served and community service, according to an L.A. Weekly story. “I have no comment on
any of that. I can’t,” Pfeifer says.

 

Pfeifer, however, has fond memories of his time with Epic.
“I envisioned a Jerry Wexler/Ahmet Ertugen kind of A&R, which is exactly how
I did it,” he says. “I was in the studio and worked with people. I got to make
an Ornette Coleman record (Virgin Beauty). I got to bring back Alice Cooper. I got the Screaming Trees. I didn’t sign
anybody I didn’t love. I signed very few people and most had some success. To
this day, I’m proud of being involved with those people.”

 

And he’s proud, too, of Human Switchboard’s Who’s Landing in My Hangar being readily
available, again, as more people than ever come to realize northeast Ohio’s role in punk/post-punk
rock.

 

 

Human Switchboard:
Live at the Peppermint Lounge, 1981

 

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