Everything is cool: The Athens post-punk icons get a welcome reappraisal via a remarkably vital-sounding archival release on Chunklet Industries.
BY FRED MILLS
The year 1983 was nearing its close, and Athens-based post-punk-slash-art-rock-slash-new-wave outfit Pylon was no longer, leaving behind a relatively pretty corpse: two LPs, a handful of singles, tours with the likes of U2, Gang of Four, and fellow Athenites the B-52s, and a whole lotta love from a devoted fanbase. Me, I’d witnessed ‘em in the fall of 1980, at a tiny bar/restaurant in Carrboro, North Carolina (near Chapel Hill), called The Station; as was the custom of the times, I pogo’d my tail off, but there was also no small amount of genuflection before the stage. This was not a so-called flavor of the month, despite the fact that the tiny Georgia college town that had birthed Pylon was already on the path to becoming one of those “scenes” rock fans talk about in triumphant tones.
The musicians’ abrupt announcement that they were splitting had caught the rock community off-guard. Serious rock fans know a serious rock band when they see one, and this was a group that had always oozed purpose; what possible rationale could they have for breaking up? It certainly wasn’t because the four members had grown sick of one another. As I myself adored Pylon, I realized I had been lucky to have glimpsed its greatness back in the day. And I’ve always wondered what the folks who attended the group’s final show that year, December 1 at Athens’ Mad Hatter venue, thought as well. They probably realized they were also lucky, but let’s face it, these types of notions rarely occur in the moment, usually only in retrospect, and typically when the artist in question did in fact go on to become the proverbial legend/icon/influence.
However, speaking to the band’s vocalist Vanessa Briscoe-Hay years later, for a 2007 Harp magazine profile of the band, I got the sense that the bandmembers themselves, though proud of having broken out of the regional scene—touring up the East Coast to NYC and such influential venues as Philly’s Hot Club, NYC’s Hurrah, Hoboken’s Maxwell’s, and Boston’s The Underground— and notching kudos worldwide for their music, weren’t quite sold on the whole “legendariness” of their musical journey. Their original aim in forming, in fact, was, according to Vanessa, “to go up to New York, play once, get written up in the New York Rocker, then come back and break up!”
The occasion of our conversation was a CD reissue of the group’s 1980 long playing debut on Atlanta’s DB Recs label, Gyrate, newly remastered and expanded with bonus tracks for the DFA label. (Chomp would subsequently get similar treatment, and both albums are cornerstones of any, er, serious rock fan’s collection.) Reflecting upon the group’s initial 1979-83 trajectory, and the decision to call it a day Vanessa told me that despite their status as fanzine critics’ and college deejays’ darlings, not to mention the recent high-profile tour opening for U2 on the Irish stars’ War trek, they realized they were having trouble breaking through to the next commercial level. If they soldiered on, it’s likely that the work aspect of their enterprise would quickly outweigh the fun part. Maybe they’d even wind up hating one another.
“We just felt like we’d done everything we could at that point,” she said, 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.”
There were several subsequent reunions, of course, starting in ’89 and a high-profile tour with R.E.M., and continuing, in a sense, to this day with the Pylon Reenactment Society’s respectful reappraisal of all that is Pylonesque. To their credit, they don’t call it “Pylon”—co-founding guitarist Randall Bewley passed away in 2009, following a heart attack—but even with additional musicians to flesh out the lineup, if it walks like Pylon and squawks like Pylon, well… you get the idea. (Go HERE to read a recent interview with Vanessa, conducted by BLURT blogger Tim Hinely.)
Meanwhile, Pylon fans were caught off-guard a second time when, a few months ago, it was announced that an archival album documenting that ’83 Athens gig, Pylon Live, was en route. It’s a chance for both the fans and the surviving members of the band—Hay, bassist Michael Lachowski, drummer Curtis Crowe—to dip back, if only for an hour or so, and get a delicious whiff of how the band originally walked and squawked.
Fairly crackling with electricity and oozing with a propulsive charisma, Pylon, on Pylon Live, doesn’t sound like a group saying goodbye. It’s easy enough to single out fan favorites like “Crazy,” as edgypunchysexycool as ever (and reaffirming R.E.M.’s decision to make it a staple of their setlist at one point). Or “Beep,” which is all militaristic thump ‘n’ sway, Hay doing arpeggio’d vocal acrobatics while the other three turn “angular” into an action verb. The dissonant, whooping “M Train” finds the Lachowski-Crowe rhythm section sonically creating a new language for future generations of musos to study and decipher. And of course “Cool,” which by ’83 had attained true anthem status, a kinetic, fist-pumping call to arms.
Unexpected delights abound too. There’s the instant seduction of concert opener “Working Is No Problem,” twinned with a sinewy “Driving School,” both serving as an announcement that Pylon was not going out on a calculated note purely for the sake of being crowd-pleasing. “K” is a showcase for Bewley, demonstrating what an innovative guitarist he was, with slurs, slides and glissandos that are nigh-on hypnotic. There’s even a fake Italian movie theme called, smartly enough, “Italian Movie Theme,” which will have you pondering everything you thought you knew about, ahem, Italian movie themes. And post-punk was never quite so subversive as when they do the classic “Batman” theme; the core riff and melody are front and center, but (spoiler alert) Pylon subsequently takes the tune way beyond those limited parameters. This was not a timid band.
The album additionally showcases some qualities of the band that may get overlooked at this remove, at least by younger fans who never saw the group perform. I’ve already suggested that Bewley was a monster on guitar; in his own way, he was as agile and innovative as U2’s The Edge, using tonalities and textures to surf over and around the rhythm section and really help sculpt the sound. Likewise, that Lachowski-Crowe team could unleash huge squalls of rhythmic waves capable of flattening listeners against the back walls of the club. And Hay, with her patented barks, snarls, and growls, would turn downright feral as if daring her bandmates to match her stomp for stomp. The Pylon setlist is just as cinematic, full of dramatic tension building, spikey with explosive dynamics; this is a group that could fill every corner, nook, and cranny of a venue in surround-sound fashion, and not in a random sense, either, as the four players were fully in control, purposeful and direct when necessary, subtle and nuanced at other points.
That’s Pylon for you, folks; long may they chomp. Despite the frequent gaps in the group’s timeline, there a very real sense of continuity and longevity seemingly always at play. As I noted in my above-mentioned 2007 story about the band, 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 then break up and then get back together again, and manage to make things fresh and fulfilling. In the case of Pylon, Hay attributed all of this to the relationships she and her bandmates forged years ago.
“We’ve always been really good friends, we really have,” she said, in a voice tinged with both wistfulness and pride. “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 [didn’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.”
Consumer Note: The double LP Pylon Live comes with a digital download and is pressed on black vinyl, limited edition clear wax or super-duper limited magenta. There’s also a companion 45, likewise of a tinted hue and limited format, for “Gravity” b/w “Weather.” Chunklet majordomo Henry Owings has clearly made this a labor of love, not only with his layout and packaging (Owings is the visual brain behind numerous archival projects of late, including the recent Betty Davis album on Light In the Attic), but also in his overseeing the audio transfer of the concert’s tapes; considering those tapes’ age, the album sounds remarkably fresh. Whether you’re a digital or vinyl devotee, this recording will have you pogoing like yours truly did at a Pylon show all those years ago.