By Jimmy Ether
Rock punditry tends to beg for “who’s better” comparisons between bands. Either because they were rivals, peers, or part of the same scene. Beatles or the Stones? Nirvana or Pearl Jam? The Brian Jonestown Massacre or The Dandy Warhols? But if asked who from the 1980s Athens, Georgia music scene should battle it out for that trophy, you’re more likely to be asked “REM or The B-52s?” than you are to ever hear mention of the band Pylon.
In part, this was the band’s choice. Just as Pylon began to make serious waves in college radio and were slotted to open up nationally for U2’s first tour of the United States, they decided to call it quits. They were disinterested in the prospect of playing stadium shows, which felt like an alien environment. It offered “nothing exciting” compared to the small, intimate dance clubs they’d played for years throughout the country touring with the likes of Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, and The Soft Boys. So, they parted ways amicably at the prime of their careers going back to working at various odd jobs in Athens—bike repair and copier shops.
The B-52s had established the Athens scene, but soon after relocated to New York City. It was Pylon who stepped in to fill that void and really solidified the Athens scene. Pylon inspired, seemingly, every college student in town to start a band, including (in no small part) REM, whose drummer Bill Berry famously corrected Rolling Stone in an interview by proclaiming that, actually, Pylon was “the best band in America” when the magazine bestowed REM with that title.
Both Pylon’s first single, “Cool”/”Dub,”, and their debut full-lenth, Gyrate, were released in 1980 on their friend Danny Beard’s Atlanta-based dB Records, which had released the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” single the year prior. Along with a follow-up 10″ EP called Pylon!!, both the single and LP have been remastered and re-released as Gyrate + on the Dfa imprint.
While the band would find more acclaim in 1983 with their major label debut, Chomp, Gyrate is easily their most raw, potent, and jarring release. It’s chock full of angular rhythms which tiptoe along the razor’s edge of danceability. Randy Bewley’s oddly tuned, edgy-yet-clean Supro Dual Tone guitar chimes and spurts rhythmically over the steady pulse of bass and drums. Vanessa Briscoe’s gruff speak-singing oddly recalls the Eastern Bloc—or perhaps a protopunk Marlene Dietrich—shrouding her natural, heavily-rural southern Decula, GA accent. She punctuates the artfully spare lyricism with a raspy scream that pierces her otherwise shy exterior. It’s as if she becomes possessed through the band’s resonance and intoxicated by a smokey nightclub congregation.
While the entire Gyrate release is rock-solid, Pylon hits its heights with their more off-kilter material. “Precaution” is the quirky, misshapen rockabilly lovechild of Television and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Then there’s the Talking Heads-infused “Gravity,” which rolls along with steady terminal velocity. The stand-out track is “Stop It,” which may very well be the best song of 1980, if not the whole decade.
Pylon briefly reformed in 2007 to play shows “for fun” around the southeast and support the reissue of Gyrate +. They were even planning on recording some new material, but sadly, Randy Bewley passed away suddenly of a heart attack in February of 2009. Soon after, Dfa Records reissued their 1983 follow-up as Chomp More. While more refined and accessible, the later material doesn’t have quite the same bite. Regardless, both reissues are highly recommended.
Pylon is a band who never seem to receive their due outside a relatively small circle. I only hope their work, particularly with the material on Gyrate +, will ultimately be recognized as the seminal contribution it is, not only to the history of the Athens music scene, but as an influence on post-punk and new wave at large.