Pylon came out of the small college town of Athens, Georgia, at the dawn of the Eighties, playing a new kind of Southern rock that stunned people at the time and has continued to make converts ever since. Spare but fun, disorientating but inviting, their sound was in step with the stentorian dance-punk of U.K. bands like Gang of Four or the Au Pairs, but it was much more wide-open, driven by possibility rather than angst — the sound of slackers dreaming, not punks ranting.
The late Randall Bewley played piercing, zig-zag guitar with a spacious, agrarian feel, which fit drummer Curtis Crowe’s clipped, driving, symmetric beats and bassist Michael Lachowski’s spartan disco rumble; singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay could belt it out with the best hardcore shouters, then flip into spacey wonder, seeming scary and friendly at the same time as she cut through trendy alienation towards something more alluringly opaque. “Volume is pleasant,” she sang on one song. Another summed up rock & roll kicks in a kind of postmodern cheerleader chant: “2, 4, 6, 8/Why do we gyrate?” It was the sound of the greatest arty party band of all time: indie-rock’s own Velvet Underground.
Championed at the time by their Athens friends and contemporaries the B-52’s and worshipped by the slightly younger R.E.M. (who included a Pylon cover on 1987’s Dead Letter Office), the band has kept on accruing influential fans for 40 years. The new four-CD/LP Pylon Box comes with a 200-page book that includes testimonials from luminaries like the B-52’s’ Kate Pierson, every member of R.E.M., Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney, Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, Steve Albini, Clint Conley of Mission of Burma, Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson, and Hugo Burnham and Jon King of Gang of Four, who had Pylon open their first East Coast shows in 1980, among others.
All those accolades ring true. Containing the band’s two early-Eighties albums (1980’s Gyrate and 1983’s Chomp), a recording of a 1979 rehearsal, and a singles/demos/outtakes disc, Pylon Box tells the story of art-student refugees living in the middle of nowhere who used their very remoteness to create freedom and invention out of unique and in some ways contradictory impulses. Because they were from the South, some writers assumed Pylon was a reference to a minor 1935 William Faulkner novel of the same name. In fact, the band was inspired by something at once weirder and much more ordinary: the utilitarian, minimalist design of the traffic cones that were used to cordon off certain areas in the DuPont factory where three band members worked weekends (quite contentedly, according to this set’s excellent liner notes), so they could use their weekdays to live cheap, hang out, and make music. They sang about the experience on “Working is No Problem,” from their first LP, as if making their own low-key separate peace with the capitalist grind.
Gyrate is full of similarly uncanny moments. On “Volume,” Bewley’s big, radiant guitar rings out as if a door is being opened to the future as the rhythm section rolls tensely and Briscoe Hay repeats the phrase “turn up the volume, forget the picture,” as if arguing for the purity of sound itself; on “The Human Body,” she sings, “The human body is a very useful tool/They know how to function without going to school,” over a speedy, stop-and-start beat that gets you moving, then throws you off, causing you to feel your own human body’s responses in a new way. The hyped-up “Read a Book” is an earnest advertisement for being smart (“I’m learning more almost every day!”). The most arresting moment is “Danger,” an eerily pulsing song that slowly leads you into dark unknown space as Briscoe Hay warns “caution!” and “I’ll get you unaware,” playing stalker and protector at the same time. The album is high-concept, but the music never feels like theoretical grad-school-rock: Led by a searing Bewley riff, “Feast on My Heart” is a relentless banger, and the spiky, ebullient instrumental “Weather Radio” lifts you into jangle heaven.
In the three years between Gyrate and Chomp, a Southern college-rock scene had grown up around R.E.M., Let’s Active, the dB’s, and other new bands. Produced by Chris Stamey of the dB’s, Chomp replaced the minimalist cohesion of Gyrate with a more varied, fuller, poppier sound, going from playful tunes like the synth-y “Yo Yo” and “Beep Beep,” where Briscoe Hay makes funny speeding car noises over Bewley’s New Wave chicken-scratch guitar, to the beautifully crushed-out “No Clocks,” the no-parking-on-the-dancefloor lo-fi thrust of “M-Train,” and “Crazy,” their finest pop moment, a masterpiece of mysterious tension and magisterial release. Pylon got asked to open for U2 after Chomp was released, but they decided to break up instead, reuniting for another album, 1990’s less inspired Chain, and again for some shows in the 2000s. Recently, Briscoe Hay started Pylon Reenactment Society, performing her old band’s songs with musicians from various Athens bands.
Pylon Box only covers the band’s first run, which gives it a nice narrative cohesion. The disc titled Extra contains their amazing 1979 debut single “Cool/Dub,” as well as an untitled song recorded by a pre-Pylon iteration of the band called Diagonal, the more urgent-feeling single version of “Crazy,” a couple demo versions of Chomp songs recorded in a stripped-down style closer to Gyrate, and live versions of two great unreleased songs (one, “Danger III,” sounds like a tripped out Public Image Limited). Razz Tape, the box set’s 1979 rehearsal recording, sees Pylon inventing their sleek sound and elastic ideas about modern life as they knock their way through “Functionality,” “Efficiency,” and “Information.” One song, “Modern Day Fashion Woman,” could be a circa-1993 riot grrrl satire of received gender identity. From the very first moment they started playing, this was a band that was eons ahead of its time. Pylon Box is exactly the deep dive their incredible legacy deserves.