EVERYTHING IS COOL Pylon

Form followed function
for Athens
postpunk legends Pylon.

 

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

With the death this week of guitarist Randy Bewley, we felt
it appropriate to pay tribute to him and his band Pylon. Bewley, 53,
experienced a heart attack while driving and subsequently ran off the road and
flipped his van. He passed away Wednesday, February 25, at Athens Regional
Medical Center.

 

The following article originally appeared in significantly
edited form in the December 2007 issue of BLURT predecessor Harp magazine.

 

***

 

CARRBORO, N.C.,
1980: An enthusiastic new wave crowd, including your future HARP correspondent,
jams into a tiny club in Carrboro (near Chapel Hill)
called The Station. Eatery by day, rock venue by night, it’s destined to enter
the history books in a few short months when R.E.M. makes their very first road
trip from Georgia.
This evening, though, another Peach State act, Athens’
Pylon, is onstage, thundering forth their brawny-yet-cerebral brand of dissonance-tinged
punk funk. And here I am, tearing up the dancefloor with… my mother-in-law?

 

“I remember The Station!” Vanessa Briscoe Hay, vocalist then
and now for Pylon, hoots when I recount taking my wife’s parents to see her
band. (For the record, my father-in-law stayed opted to stay outside where it
was a tad quieter that night.) “And that’s interesting, too, because we have had some audiences in the past who
you wouldn’t think we’d convert over! Once we were playing in New Orleans and some sort of physicians’
convention was in town. There were all these doctors with their wives, and they
just went bananas.”

 

Didn’t we all. Anyone who came of age during the pre-MTV
era, back when the Amerindie underground was a vaguely defined network of
fanzines, college radio stations and pizza joints masquerading as punk clubs,
knows Pylon. The quartet of University of Georgia art students-Hay, bassist
Michael Lachowski, guitarist Randy Bewley, drummer Curtis Crowe-formed in 1979,
inspired by the upheavals of punk and New Wave and by the D.I.Y. success of
fellow Athenians the B-52’s. Their aim? “To go up to New York, play once, get written up in the New York Rocker, then come back and break up,” says Hay.

 

Hay elaborates on the band’s origins:

 

“We were all big music fans. There was a record store in Athens called Chapter 3.
We were art students, and at that point in time there was this new music
happening, punk, New Wave, all that, and it was brand new. You could buy
everything to do with that genre as it was coming out, and it was exciting to
get the single, play it over and over and over. Myself, I hadn’t personally
thought of being in a band. I was a major fan of the B-52s, as were most of the
other art students. Two of my friends from art school, Michael and Randy, were
roommates and after reading about some of this stuff they decided they could
form a band too.

“They didn’t know anything about playing these instruments,
so they went to Michael’s studio in downtown Athens and they learned how to play, just
doing the same thing over and over and over. Curtis was hanging out on the
upper floor there, and he and his friend were listening to the stuff coming
through the floor and it was just driving ‘em crazy. [laughs] Curtis was like, ‘They really need a drummer.’ And Curtis was a drummer, since he was a boy, so he
went and knocked on the door and said, ‘Hey, do you mind if I bring my drums
down here?’ So that’s the point when things started getting much better for
them. They started writing actual songs that had a beginning, middle and end,
and Michael was writing lyrics. He typed up some lyrics and they started
auditioning people.

 

“I was the last person they tried. They were about to give
up; they’d tried all these guys from art school and none worked out. Then they
went, wait, Vanessa’s a friend of ours-let’s ask her. So I came in, and they
couldn’t really hear what I was doing, but the fact that I put forth some
honest effort, and they liked the way that I looked, and they liked me as a
human being, they said, ‘Let’s ask her.’ I left that night and didn’t know if
I’d passed the audition or not. Then they asked me, and two weeks later we
played our first gig.”

 

Audiences, perhaps mindful of the Stiff Records credo “fuck
art, let’s dance,” responded so hungrily to Pylon that breaking up after a
single performance was never an option. Instead, Pylon kept going and became wildly
popular regionally as one of the foremost players on the bubbling-under Athens
scene, which would soon include the Method Actors, Love Tractor, the Side Effects,
Guadalcanal Diary, the Squalls and of course R.E.M. Pylon also began making
frequent drives up the East Coast to NYC-one early gig found them,
fortuitously, opening for Gang of Four at Hurrah-where the downtown club
crawlers embraced them just as they had the B-52’s a couple of years earlier.

 

Soon enough it was time to document the band on record. The
result was the “Cool” b/w “Dub” single: the A-side’s pulsing Pere Ubuish
bassline, militaristic percussion, angular shards of guitar and Hay mantra-like
incantation “everything is, everything is, everything is coooool” proved irresistible to national critics and club and
college deejays alike. By early 1980 the band was back in the studio-using the
same console that Lynyrd Skynyrd had recorded “Freebird” with, no less- making their
debut full-length for Atlanta’s
DB Recs.

 

Hay remembers the sessions as “a very intense process. The
entire record was recorded and mixed in three days. And we had a date at the
688 Club that week too! We were basically recording our live repertoire, and
[engineer/co-producer] Bruce Baxter knew how to get a good live sound out of
us. We had this idea that we wanted all the instruments and the vocals to be
almost equal with each other, as opposed to something with the vocals blaring
out over the other instruments. We thought that would sound better, and maybe
in a way more democratic too-we were all equals.”

 

Such was the mentality of the Pylon brain trust that, she
adds, the band “approached the music in the same way we did our art. With art,
things like ‘form follows function.’ The idea that sometimes, with the first
line you make, the drawing could be finished. And you know, everything that
we’re doing, all the time, is going on in a ‘space.’ You could really get wild
with all these artistic ideas in approaching music, in a sense of not coming
from a trained musical background but more as artists. So we approached it in
the same way with our tools, except instead of brushes and spray paint cans we
had drums and the guitars and the microphone.”

 

An early ‘80s classic, the album holds up to this day as a
striking document of postpunk-tinged art-rock. Drummer Crowe once described the
Pylon sound to an interviewer as “round, with textured holes,” and fittingly
enough, they titled their album Gyrate.
Several songs followed the “Cool” template-Gang of Four, with a Southern drawl-while
others offered an intriguing marriage of Joy Division’s icy goth noir to a potent strain of humid
swamp-funk. One standout: sinewy disco anthem “Danger,” whose hip-grinding
rhythm (punctuated by a police whistle) is abetted by Bewley’s atmospheric sliding/detuning
fretboard runs; and in Hay’s alternately detached/cautionary lyrics (“I’ll
catch you unaware-look out!”), delivered in equal parts Siouxsie Sioux sneer
and proto-Courtney Love snarl, Pylon oozed an ominous yet undeniably sexual
vibe.

 

(One interesting side note: At early Pylon shows the band
performed stock-still, due partly to the members still getting comfortable with
their instruments and partly to, as Hay relates, “It hadn’t occurred to us [to
move around].” Eventually, though, the band would become caught up in the sonic
maelstrom just as the audiences were.)

 

Pylon toured heavily behind Gyrate, including to England where the Armageddon label
(home to the Soft Boys) had licensed the album, and on a North American trek
with Gang of Four. They also recorded a stirring new single, “Crazy” b/w
“M-Train” (years later, Pylon fans R.E.M. would famously cover “Crazy”), and
then in ’82 they journeyed to North Carolina to cut their second album, Chomp at Mitch Easter’s Winston-Salem studio
with Chris Stamey and Gene Holder of the dB’s producing.

 

Chomp retained all
the key Pylon elements while sounding sleeker and more expansive than its
predecessor-the mark of a steadily-evolving band. “That’s right,” agrees Hay.
“I think we’d just decided we wanted to try something different. We were
touring a lot and listening to a lot of other things that were going on, and we
thought, ‘You know, maybe we need to try working with another producer just to
see what kind of sound we could make happen.’

 

“The recording of Chomp took forever, and actually, the first part of the recording wasn’t [at the
Easter studio]. It was with Bruce Baxter at this studio in Atlanta called the Christian Broadcast
Studios or something like that, just this enormous place where they’d bring in
choirs to record. We recorded ‘Crazy’ and ‘M Train’ and some other stuff there.
But it was a lot of fun to be at Mitch’s studio. I really enjoyed meeting his
mom-that was actually my favorite part of being there recording, because a lot
of times in the studio it’s a bunch of people listening to tracks, smoking
cigarettes, stuff like that. But she was making us coffee and giving us
Moravian sugar cake, and she would sit there and talk to us and she just
enjoyed musicians and younger people. Working with Chris and Gene, they both
had such different personalities and they really complemented each other. Chris
was playing around with things, stuff we hadn’t thought of, like noisegating
the drums; he just thought outside the box, and he didn’t look at anything like
it was a problem, but more like, ‘Well, if this isn’t going to work, what else
can we do?'”

 

The front of Chomp featured a memorable close-up of a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex model at the
Dinosaur Natural History Museum in Utah; in an artful twist, the record came in
a die-cut sleeve designed to look like something had taken a bite out of the
top, and the band also slipped T-Rex postcards featuring the same image into
early copies of the album. (Hay: “We’d bought a bunch of them at the Dinosaur Museum while on tour, so we contacted
the photographer because we wanted to use [the picture] for the cover. He
thought we were some huge band and wanted to charge us an arm and a leg-he
found out different!”)

 

Chomp was a hit
with the critics and deejays again, although as artistically fulfilling as it
may have been, and despite a high-profile tour opening for U2 on the Irish
stars’ War trek, the band was having
trouble breaking through to the next commercial level. By the end of the year
Pylon decided to disband before the work aspect of their enterprise outweighed
the fun part. “We just felt like we’d done everything we could at that point,”
says Hay, adding that it wasn’t a particularly bittersweet or emotional
decision. “I remember waiting outside the 688 Club one night, before the
encores; this was before the final show. And it was about 110 degrees on the
inside there, I’m just covered with sweat, and I was thinking, gosh, I won’t be
doing this anymore! That wasn’t a relief, just kind of an observation. So I
guess I just kind of accepted it.”

 

And as was the case with scores of bands during the early
‘80s, that would have been that for Pylon. But a funny thing happened on the
way to the legacy shelf-twice.

 

In 1987 a film about the Athens music scene, Athens, Georgia: Inside/Out, was released, and among the groups
featured was vintage footage of Pylon. That same year also saw the release of
the R.E.M. odds ‘n’ sods collection Dead
Letter Office
, featuring Pylon’s “Crazy” as the lead-off track. With R.E.M.
constantly talking Pylon up to interviewers, the band started “getting mail
from all over the country,” says Hay. “R.E.M. were getting huge and being big
cheerleaders for us, and we seemed to have more interest [in us] that we had
when we were last together. So we talked and said, well, maybe we should get
back together…”

 

Thus was born Pylon Mk. II, at an unannounced club gig in Athens in 1988.
Rapturously received, they would recommence touring, including opening for the
B-52’s as well as for R.E.M. (on the Green tour) and making a trip to Austin for the annual South by Southwest festival.
In 1990 DB Recs issued a Pylon compilation bearing the cheeky title Hits, and that year the group also
recorded their third album, Chain (Sky Records), produced by Scott Litt (R.E.M.) and Gary Smith (Throwing Muses,
Pixies) at Charlotte’s Reflection Studios.

 

“For that particular incarnation of Pylon,” says Hay, “we
decided to approach things in more of a businesslike manner. We got a manager,
got a booking agent, bought a van, went out on the road with the B-52s and
R.E.M. We did some pretty decent touring there, in fact. We said, let’s just
take this and see how well we can do with it.”

 

Guitarist Bewley, however, gradually grew weary of touring,
and in 1991 he announced that he was leaving the band. “Randy just didn’t want
to do it anymore. We could not talk him out of it,” recalls Hay. Pylon
fulfilled their touring commitments and played their final show in November of
that year at Athens’
40 Watt Club. Once again, the band went out on a pure note, as Hay explains.

 

“Pylon is the four of us; it is not one guitarist who used
to be in Pylon along with three people he auditioned and brought in. It is
these particular four people, so if one of us didn’t want to do it, it wasn’t
going to be Pylon anymore. So… [laughs]
we broke up! And we all went on to our separate lives there for awhile.”

 

For the remainder of the decade and into the new millennium the
former members of Pylon busied themselves with family duties and day jobs in Athens. Hay gave birth to
her second daughter and became a Registered Nurse; Lachowski operated his own
retail business and went into graphic design; Crowe became a set designer for
movies and television (one notable entry on his resume: Lost); Bewley became an art teacher. Then in early 2004…

 

“We’re like locusts or something, coming up every few years!
Oh, they’re gonna kill me for saying that!”

 

Hay laughs loudly as she outlines the improbable emergence of
Pylon Mk. III. One night Bewley called her up and said he wanted to get all the
band members together for a conversation: “He said he really missed us, was
apologetic, and wanted to get back together and play for fun. So that’s what
this incarnation of Pylon is all about; we’re playing for fun when we can, and
there’s no pressure.”

 

Since playing a packed, secret-gig-that-wasn’t-so-secret in Athens in August of that
year, Pylon has continued to perform regionally, but as this time around band
duties have to be slotted around the members’ personal schedules, not the other
way around. Self-imposed low profile or not, ongoing interest in Pylon has
remained high. Journalists often namechecked the band as a post-punk pioneer; a
couple of fan websites devoted to Pylon popped up; and most recently, Matador
Records act Love Of Diagrams covered the band’s “Cool” on their self-titled EP.

 

Pylon’s members also frequently found themselves being asked
by fans how they could obtain copies of the group’s records. One such
conversation was with Perfect Sound
Forever
publisher Jason Gross,
who had previously profiled Pylon for his webzine and urged the band to
consider reissuing their back catalog. Not long after the band resumed
operations in 2004 they obtained the master tapes to Gyrate from DB Recs in the hopes of shopping a CD reissue. (Hay: “The
tape was in bits and pieces, actually! The original tapes had been cut apart to
make Hits, so [it had to be] restored
it and put back together. Tapes from that era are naturally very fragile and
can fall apart, so they had to be baked, too.”)

 

Pylon hired a lawyer, and among the labels that contacted
them about the album was DFA, the label run by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy;
a longtime Pylon fan, Murphy had frequently been spinning their song “Danger”
in his DJ sets. Hay says a Pylon-DFA alliance “felt right. We didn’t know we
had this major cheerleader who loved our band and who wanted to do it right, so
we didn’t even shop it after him.”

 

DFA’s Gyrate Plus features the entire Gyrate album in
superbly remastered form; it adds “Cool” and “Dub” from the first single along
with an alternate, dubby version of “Danger” called “Danger!!” and the
previously unreleased “Functionality.” Glowing liner notes courtesy Michael
Stipe, Fred Schneider from the B-52’s and the Gang of Four’s Hugo Burnham round
out the package. Hay confides that Pylon also hopes to have Chomp reissued in the near future “but
we’ll have to see how well this does. [laughs] You know-we’re indie!” She adds that a
new Pylon album is not out of the question either, as they have about an EP’s
worth of fresh tunes written plus some older unrecorded songs as well. “We just
need to have more material, and to be in one place at the same time long enough
to record it.”

 

Nowadays, it’s the rare band that can last for more than a
few albums; rarer, still, are those that can break up, get back together again (and
break up and get back together again),
and still make things fresh and fulfilling. In the case of Pylon, Hay
attributes Pylon’s phoenix-like longevity to the relationships she and her
bandmates forged years ago.

 

“We’ve always been really good friends, we really have. Like
any friends, if you think about it, you’ll ebb and flow like the tide;
sometimes you get to see each other a lot and sometimes not at all. That’s what
it’s like, and we’ve all known each other since we were about 20 years old.
That’s a long time! We don’t reap the financial rewards, but you know, money’s
not everything; and we’ve seen the worst and the best of each other and we’re
all still friends.

 

“These guys are like my brothers.”

 

[To read Vanessa
Briscoe Hay’s exhaustive history of Pylon, go to http://jollybeggars.netnik.com/pylon.html.
]

 

 

[Photo Credit: Ruth Leitman]

 

***

 

PYLON: SELECTED
DISCOGRAPHY

 

Gyrate Plus (DFA,
2007). Original Gyrate LP (DB Recs,
1980) plus bonus tracks “Cool,” “Dub,” “Danger!!” and “Functionality.”
Remastered 2005; liner notes by Michael Stipe, Fred Schneider and Hugo Burnham.

“Cool” b/w “Dub” 7-inch (Caution, 1979)

Pylon !! 10-inch
(Armageddon, 1980)

“Crazy” b/w “M-Train” 7-inch (DB Recs, 1981)

 “Beep”/”Altitude”/”Four Minutes” 12-inch (DB
Recs, 1982)

Chomp LP (DB Recs,
1983)

Hits (DB Recs,
1988) CD compilation of 1979-83 material.

Chain (Sky, 1990)

“Sugarpop” + Band Interview promotional CD (Sky, 1990)

 

***

The surviving members of Pylon paid tribute to Randy Bewley
earlier this week on the band’s MySpace and Facebook pages:

 

This past Monday
evening, Randy Bewley had a heart attack while driving his van on Barber Street in Athens, GA.
He was taken to Athens
Regional Medical
Center. Today, our
bandmate and brother passed away at a little before 5 p.m. with his family and
friends at his side. He will be missed, even as we celebrate his life and
creativity. His guitar sound was as special as he was and always will be.
Randy’s guitar work defined not only a generation of sound but Randy himself.
His visual art, painting and photos, combined with his signature sound formed a
loose set of boundaries that helps understand him. His quiet devotion to family
and friends will become a benchmark for those he leaves behind.

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply