Formed in Kent, Ohio during the late Seventies, Human Switchboard was one of a slew of bands who sprung up throughout the benighted American heartland in the wake of punk-rock’s initial explosion in New York and London — from the Gizmos in Indiana to the Embarrassment in Kansas to the Suicide Commandoes in Minnesota and on and on. And while they only released one full-length LP, 1981’s Who’s Landing In My Hangar, it remains an absolute classic — as this sweet vinyl reissue from Fat Possum attests. The band’s was of its time — mixing Velvet Underground guitar churn, Sixties garage-rock organ, rubbery Pere Ubu-like basslines, skronky sax and athletically spazzy drumming. Singer-guitarist Robert Pfeifer was a Lou Reed superfan; co-leader and organ player Myrna Marcarian had a husky, searching voice like Patti Smith.
What set the apart was the good-old fashioned Middle American normalness that came through in their music. Where a lot of cool post-punk bands of the time were filling their albums with dada screeds about modern alienation, Human Switchboard sang about basic stuff like love and loss, the thrills and setbacks and weirdness of trying to find someone. They wore their passions on their sleeves as much as their influences, and even when the music is kind of arty, the sentiments almost never are. They were a little like L.A.’s X (who also just had a spate of classic LPs reissued by Fat Possum), right down to the fact that, like X’s John Doe and Exene Cervenka, the Switchboard’s Pfeifer and Marcarian were in a relationship, co-writing music and lyrics and even running the hip record store in Kent together.
Who’s Landing In My Hangar opens with Marcarian’s eternal ‘Say No to Saturday’s Girl,” a pop hit in a better world with a big sax solo in which she sings about watching someone she wants go off with someone else, inhabiting a resigned forlorn vulnerability that was usually the province of sad boys at the time. On “I Can Walk Alone,” she sings about commitment and betrayal and deciding to go her own way. “Refrigerator Door” is truly special, a strange, slow seven-minute “Heroin”-meets-Horses ode to the contours of their shared drama and intimacy; Kurt Cobain would later called it “the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of punk.”
Some of the bracing honesty in Pfeifer’s lyrics hasn’t aged so well, On the album’s ferocious title track, he sings “the girl I’ve been inside of all night says that she hasn’t been with me.” (Hmm, wonder why.) On the explosive “I Used to Believe In You,” he sings, “all I see in my eyeball is you with your legs spread and his inside of you.” But the roiling intensity of these songs is undeniable, with noise and tuneful shards flying off in every direction and drummer Ron Metz pushing the tempo so hard you wonder how the sound can stay together. Whether they’re bouncing around like their playing a Sixties sock hop with a mosh pit (“Book on Looks”) or unleashing wolf-eyed avant-punk (“Where the Light Breaks”) or even sounding a little too much like the Doors (“Don’t Follow Me Home”), the album has a fantastic balance of New Wave elasticity, punk rock orneriness and moody purehearted rock and roll hunger.
If Who’s Landing In My Hangar sounded in many ways of its moment, it also looked ahead. Pfeifer’s pushy-geek take on the Lou Reed deadpan would become an indie rock touchstone in the Eighties, heard in Jad Fair of Half Japanese, Ron House of the Great Plans and other nerds determined to get theirs. Marcarian’s conversational honesty echoes through bands like Scrawl right down to Liz Phair and Rebecca Gates of the Spinanes. This is the kind of record that shows how much you can do with a little romance, especially when it’s driving you nuts.