GYRATE – PYLON (1980)
One point to clear up and get out of the way immediately – Pylon are not a footnote in someone else’s story. Sure, their fellow Athenians REM covered their 1981 single Crazy – but it was a devout act of homage to a band without whose influence and tutelage they might never have crawled from the South. In fact, Peter Buck felt driven to despair the first time he heard it, so far did he (wrongly) feel it was beyond his own band’s reach. This is Pylon’s story.
They emerged at the dawn of the ’80s, a time of mystery and wonder, when the reviews and releases pages of the NME and Sounds were filled with names which fascinated but which, short of turning up on one of about three reliable radio programmes, would remain unattainable and undiscoverable. Even if they appeared in a record shop, to gamble pocket money away on a potential disappointment was an overambitious folly and so there would be a lengthy wait before I would discover the truth behind Half Japanese, Tin Huey, the Bush Tetras – and Pylon, who were, for purely alphabetical and alliterative reasons, filed in my mind alongside Pyrolator.
Geographically, they were very much a Southern band – singer Vanessa Briscoe and drummer Curtis Crowe, both native Georgians, came together with Virginia-born, Georgia-based bassist Michael Lachowski and the late Floridian guitarist Randy Bewley in Athens, Georgia’s university town which was already a more invigorating and challenging musical proposition than some entire states. Georgia had previously offered vast riches – James Brown, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Otis Redding – but the common ground Pylon and their peers had with them appeared to amount to naught and Pylon less than most. It seemed like Rothko next to Grant Wood, ee cummings next to Walt Whitman.
Or so it seemed. In fact the band themselves have revealed to TNPC that the soul, country and blues which surrounded them all seeped in in some form. Not least the influence of Brown’s arid, frantic funk of the late ’60s and early ’70s, which pulsed far, notably at the end of the ’70s to Talking Heads and James Chance in New York and to Gang of Four and the Pop Group in the UK. Pylon closed this particularly spiny loop with their terse and quite thrilling interpretation. And while they were contorting rock into quixotic new shapes, they were still playing a form of edge-of-the-seat rock and roll and you can definitely trace a line back through to those ripest peaches.
One of the first things you notice about Gyrate, from the earliest seconds of opener Volume, is how far Crowe’s bass drum is shunted to the foreground. It remains a leitmotif throughout the album; it’s blunt force but not bludgeoning, a thing of knockout blows but not black eyes – the kiss of the Louisville Lip. It hunts in a pair with Lachowski’s bass, which declaims and proclaims as eloquently as the same instruments in the hands of Hook, Weymouth or Wobble, while Bewley’s guitar doesn’t so much jangle as oscillate and, yes, gyrate like a kinetic sculpture in a gale. And Briscoe is a proudly abrasive singer, less in rage than in exultant celebration of the fizzing commotion she describes and surfs upon.
So many moments rush through, like snapshots of an unforgettable holiday. Feast On My Heart, with its gleeful riff, deliriously seesawing bridge and wall-embracing climax, is what college radio was invented for. Precaution shares a plot of land with the Cramps’ contemporary Sunglasses After Dark (and therefore also Link Wray’s Fat Back) but races well ahead into the new decade, running into the Fall at the other end. Human Body is lighter, poppier almost, but is still several time zones away from anything that could be described as commercial. Danger uses every one of its 339 seconds to justify its title with deep echo, screams and slide guitar that slips along like a train through 4am silence. Driving School also cleaves the calm with what initially sounds like the intrusion of an alarm clock but, as it envelops the song, takes on the timbre of a member of Kraftwerk’s choir or even a heavily processed Jew’s harp (Pylon have revealed the source to be a TV set – see Q & A), all to a breathless sequence of postcards from behind the wheel (“Caution, red light, bus stop, turn right/Reverse, forward, neutral, low gear”).
Like much of Gyrate, Driving School’s lyrics are stacatto, almost cut-up, but one theme which does push itself forward is a desire for purpose. Working Is Not A Problem goes beyond the commonplace dead end job, sticking-it-to-the-man posturing and locates in it a drive to maintain a goal where there seem to be none (“Putting things in boxes/I look at them and pack them”) while Read A Book similarly transcends the notion of learning more from books than TV with the urgent exhortation “Don’t be afraid.” It may have on occasion been a source of mirth within the band but the intent is plainly there – nothing so trite as Follow Your Dreams but at least make some kind of mark.
A second album, Chomp, was at least as barbed and spidery as Gyrate. I could just as easily have chosen it but Gyrate edges it on the shock of the new test. Since then, they’ve continued to function, despite the sudden and shocking death of Randy Bewley 2009, and can currently be seen under the banner of Pylon Reenactment Society. The ripples from their boulder spread as far as Throwing Muses, Pavement and Sleater-Kinney – as far detached from the rock ‘n’ roll silliness they were born into as from the hipster whimsy that prevails today. Gyrate will make your head spin. (PG).
Q & A – Vanessa Briscoe Hay and Michael Lachowski
To an outsider, the music of Pylon appears to bear little relation to the musical heritage of the South in general and Georgia in particular. Received wisdom, rightly or wrongly, perceives Athens as an enclave apart from Georgia but to what extent has the state shaped Pylon’s sound?
VBH: I think being of the time and place that Athens, GA was at the end of the 1970s contributed to who we were and how the sound of the band progressed. There were influences from Georgia and the South that were in the background for me personally. Music from artists like Georgian James Brown and the proximity to Atlanta and the musical offerings there shaped a lot of my early interest in music. Blues, jazz, rock and funk were just a short drive away and on the radio. My parents were super interested in country music and I would be remiss if I didn’t credit early exposure to female artists like the Carter family and Patsy Cline with the innate knowledge that women could be equal to any man. But, the music of Pylon was tremendously influenced by music not on the Georgia family tree. The new music of our college years made a tremendous impression which was mostly coming from elsewhere — places like England, Germany and New York. We shared and listened to records at parties. If we liked the record, we might keep flipping it over and dance to it.
The bass drum sound on Gyrate is extraordinary. Was it a conscious decision to have it as powerful and prominent as it is?
ML: Ha! We just wanted Curtis’ drums to be kick ass on the record just like they were live — but that’s impossible. It sounds like the drums are in balance to me, maybe I’m just used to his style. I hear a clamped-down echo on the snare, probably our way of trying to fatten it up without just turning it up more in the mix; that’s what really comes forward in the mix to me. Curtis was a barely controllable power house and he saved our band from being a nerdier sound experiment.
How was the buzzing sound on Driving School achieved? I love it but I’ve never been able to pin it down.
ML: That’s made by interference from a cathode ray TV screen, and it is regulated by adjusting the vertical hold on the screen to make sounds that “rev up” and down — which sounded a little bit like car engine sounds, so we used it on Driving School. (The vertical hold control disappeared from TV’s long before the cathode ray screen did.) This was discovered by accident; Randy and I used to practice in our apartment (way before we had the rest of the band members), and we’d have my old black and white TV playing just for its industrial aesthetic — because in Athens we could barely pick up any TV channels over the antenna since all but one of them was coming from Atlanta which is over 100 kilometers away — and it would just display active static with shifting bands of grays and the occasional glimpse of an image. At one point I leaned close to the TV while adjusting the stereo or turning on our tape recorder, and we heard the buzz. I played with the controls until we found we could change the sound. We went through some considerable effort to bring a TV with us for our live shows, sometimes it was more trouble than it was worth — but people were always fascinated when that sound was created “somehow or another” live onstage with me fiddling around behind a television.
On songs like Read A Book and Working Is No Problem, there seems to be a real ardour for purpose and fulfilment. Did you feel this was something lacking in your peers, particularly compared with the nihilism of a good deal of US and UK punk?
VBH: I can only speak for myself and not point a finger at what was lacking in others. These two songs came out of a genuine feeling that I had that it was okay to read, to work, to be yourself. I came from people who worked very hard and took education seriously and who didn’t have a whole lot of respect for having others who had never worked telling them what they should think or do. Fulfillment for me has it’s roots in finishing the job, doing what I say I am going to do. There is nothing more satisfying than using creativity and knowledge to come up with solutions to complete a project. That said, Read a Book can be a very silly song. The band sang it to me at lunch one day and embarrassed the crap out of me.
ML: Ha ha, I’d love to be reminded of how we came to be singing Read a Book to you in a restaurant, Vanessa! Working Is No Problem is one of my favorite Pylon songs, and it is my favorite for the lyrics — I always loved the composition of those words and the revealing earnestness behind them. Vanessa wrote the lyrics to both of those songs. Pylon’s lyrics ranged from artsy to silly to earnest, but we always meant what was said and took our fun seriously.