Pylon didn’t really want to be a rock band. When art-school classmates Michael Lachowski and Randy Bewley started banging on cheap instruments in their Athens, Georgia, apartment in the late 1970s, they were more into performance art than music. “We are not musicians, we do not like to ‘jam’ or even practice,” Lachowski wrote to his art professor at the University of Georgia. “We only want to perform—we only care about the product, not the process.” Adding fellow UGA alum Vanessa Briscoe Hay on vocals and drummer Curtis Crowe (their landlord and neighbor, who heard their noise from a floor above), they called themselves Pylon and stuck to their art attack. They had one explicit goal: play a single show in New York, get written up in New York Rocker, and then immediately break up.
The first two goals were achieved so quickly that Pylon delayed the final one. But they only lasted five years, releasing just a handful of singles and two albums before dissolving. Pylon Box, a new 4xLP collection of those recordings and previously unreleased material, shows that their influence has survived much longer. In an accompanying book, musicians from all over testify to the example they set, while a biographical essay by Pitchfork contributor Stephen Deusner details the local remifications of their legacy. Though the B-52’s put Athens on the map (their success in NYC made Pylon want to play there), it was Pylon who built the town’s music community, through parties, concerts, and their own still-surviving show space, the 40 Watt. “If the B-52’s proved that good, original, compelling music could be made in Athens,” writes Deusner, “then Pylon proved that the town could sustain a scene.”
That wouldn’t have happened if Pylon’s music wasn’t so original. “We’d never learned how to play music,” said Crowe. “That was the secret to whatever success we had—the fact that we never had any idea what we were not supposed to do.” Bewley developed his own guitar language by starting with an alternate tuning, simply because he didn’t know any standard ones. He and Lachowski took turns playing repetitive grooves and unfettered improvisations; as Grace Elizabeth Hale points out in her recent history of Athens, Cool Town, this “gave birth to a remarkable independence between the bass and the guitar parts.” That became a chemical reaction once Crowe added nimble drumming and Briscoe Hay provided yelps, growls, and chants, taking her cues from Yoko Ono and Patti Smith. It all added up to something raw but sharp, minimal but unrestrained, brainy but swinging—a sound that was hard to predict but easy to dance to.
Their sound gelled with lightning speed. In the summer of 1979, just months after they began, Pylon got their dreamed-of New York gig—opening for Gang of Four—and a rave in Interview magazine from tastemaker Glenn O’Brien. That fall, they made their first recordings in Lachowski and Bewley’s apartment, taped by local record-store owner Chris Razz. As heard in Pylon Box, on an LP dubbed Razz Tape, this session spills out energy, with complex songs that slam hard and flow with ease. Take “Functionality,” a marvel of clipped angles, racing rhythm, and Briscoe Hay’s sneaky voice darting through criss-crossing lines. As the band whips up an evolving, syncopated loop, it seems they could giddily grind out variations on this jerky groove forever.
Razz Tape also includes the first recorded versions of two iconic Pylon songs: the rushing “Cool,” marked by an urgent Briscoe Hay slogan (“Everything is cool!”), and the contorted howler “Dub.” In his review of their NYC show, O’Brien guessed that “these kids eat dub for breakfast.” In reality, the quartet had never even heard of dub, but they were happy to use O’Brien’s claim as material. “I don't know what you're talking about,” snarls Briscoe Hay before chanting, “We eat dub for breakfast!” This kind of pop-art repurposing typified Pylon’s aesthetics, which were more down to earth than ivory towered. Some of the members had jobs at a local factory, where ubiquitous safety cones inspired their band name and a pragmatic work atmosphere spurred their straightforward approach. They called their music “feasible rock,” espoused ideas like “form follows function,” and favored one-word song titles and taut lyrics. Sometimes they took this brutalist minimalism to extremes: One early flyer showed just a picture of the band and the letters “FRI,” barely enough information to indicate their next show was happening on Friday.
As Pylon played, wrote, and recorded more, their functional minimalism persisted, keeping their music both accessible and exciting. In many songs, you can hear the building blocks come together as they play, while more complex tunes eventually reveal their sturdy structures with subsequent listens. Pylon’s first full-length album, Gyrate, was recorded in 1980 in three days, and the mix of elementary hooks and dizzying figures remains exhilarating. The third track, “Precaution,” has a clean punk beat but Bewley’s spiraling guitar line immediately turns hectic. The instrumental “Weather Radio” boasts a clucking swing, quickly rushes into a rave-up chorus, then settles back into a mesmerizing stomp.
Recorded in a professional studio, Gyrate doesn’t sound primitive, but it sticks pretty closely to what you might hear at a sweaty, dance-filled Pylon show. Three years later, after a few singles—compiled here on an LP called Extra—Pylon sought to use the studio more like a tool, and they ventured to North Carolina to record with Mitch Easter, who had recently produced Chronic Town, the debut EP by Athens comrades R.E.M. On the resulting second album, Chomp, the songs sparkle a bit more as the band mold their shapes to wider sonic dimensions. This helps their energy shine even brighter, from the ESG-style punk/funk of “Yo-Yo” to the shimmering guitars of “No Clocks” to the gothic jangle of “Crazy” (later covered by R.E.M. on their outtakes collection Dead Letter Office).
Not long after Chomp came out in 1983, Pylon were offered gigs with an up-and-coming band called U2. Dreading the drudgery of a long tour, they broke up instead. “I never planned on being a musician,” said Briscoe Hay in the 1987 documentary Athens GA Inside/Out, “so it’s not like any big loss in my life that I’m not in a band anymore.” A few short reunions came later; Bewley passed away in 2009. But Pylon’s legacy survives, through musician namechecks, archival releases (their final 1983 show came out a few years ago as Pylon Live), and Briscoe Hay’s semi-tribute act Pylon Reenactment Society. Their lasting influence comes from a simple idea: Anyone can make music—and maybe, in passing, start a scene, or even become a legend. “You don’t need training or authority or legitimacy,” Lachowski said. “Just figure it out.”
Buy: Rough Trade
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.