Revenge of the Jangly ’80s

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Pylon (L to R): Randy Bewley, Curtis Crowe, Vanessa Briscoe Hay, Michael Lachowski. (Photo by Brian Shanley)

The phrase “’80s rock” brings to mind washes of synthesizers, booming drums, big hair, stadium-sized gestures and a plastic sheen. SiriusXM’s ’80s station harks back to “when greed was good, hair was high and everyone learned what a music video was. Prince, Wham!, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper and Culture Club!”

Yet there was an alternate pop-rock narrative to the decade, one driven by minimal flash, tight songwriting, lean production and guitars played with little distortion. Much of this music earned a nickname, “jangle,” as bands embraced Rickenbacker guitars a la Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, whose first hit was Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” (“In the jingle jangle mornin’ I’ll come following you”).

It also was labeled “college rock” as campus radio stations and indie record stores embraced these bands plus such harder or quirkier indie cousins as the Feelies, Camper Van Beethoven, Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. Until the late ’80s/early ’90s indie-rock breakthroughs that culminated in Nirvana, the mainstream rock world had little use for such upstarts.

This was music we could own.

“There was the MTV ’80s, and then there was the other ‘80s,” says drummer/songwriter Ric Menck, who lived in Barrington, Ill., when he formed his mid-’80s jangle band the Reverbs. “When people started complaining about the ’80s, I’d say, ‘Well, my ’80s was pretty cool.’”

Those ’80s are having a moment.

Two treasure troves from the era were released in recent weeks and flew off the proverbial shelves. New West Records’ “The Pylon Box” is a four-LP set from the groundbreaking Athens, Ga., band whose brittle, propulsive attack bridged the gap between that college town’s more famous exports, the B-52’s and R.E.M. Pylon released its first single, “Cool”/“Dub,” and album, “Gyrate,” in 1980 and broke up at the end of 1983, the year of its second album, “Chomp.” (The band reformed briefly to record a 1990 album not covered here.)

“Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983–1987” picks up where Pylon left off. This two-disc compilation, envisioned by the Brooklyn label Captured Tracks as a U.S. counterpart to the mid-‘80s British indie set “C86,” is a deep dive into little-known tracks released on independent labels. I was a jangle fan, and I recognized exactly one of these acts: the Windbreakers, a Jackson, Miss.-based band fronted by singer-songwriters Bobby Sutliff and Tim Lee.

Lee’s ears also are being opened by this collection. “Half the people on that record are great friends of mine from way back, and the other half I’ve never heard of,” says Lee, now based in Knoxville, Tenn.

But even if the band names aren’t familiar, the aesthetic and vibe are. Most of these songs are of the instantly catchy, verse-chorus, three-minute variety as they spread sunshine even while lamenting love gone wrong. Many evoke R.E.M., which blazed a trail rising from college faves to arena-conquering superstars without shedding its identity. It’s no coincidence that the final year covered by “Strum & Thrum,” 1987, coincides with R.E.M.’s commercial breakthroughs with the top-10 single “The One I Love” and album “Document.”

R.E.M. tipped its cap back toward Pylon by covering the fellow Athens band’s swirling 1981 single “Crazy” as the B-side to its 1985 single “Driver 8,” with more listeners discovering it as the lead track on the subsequent “Dead Letter Office” compilation.

In the hardcover book that comes with “The Pylon Box,” R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck calls Pylon “a huge influence on R.E.M. right through to our final days.” Drummer Bill Berry testifies, “To this day I haven’t seen a better live band.”

The four Pylon members were University of Georgia in Athens art students while three of them — singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay, bassist Michael Lachowski and drummer Curtis Crowe — worked weekend jobs at the nearby DuPont textile factory. The band took its name not from the identically titled William Faulkner novel but the safety cones scattered around the factory floor.

The industrial setting also informed the band’s aesthetic, including Lachowski’s choice of the “brutalist” font Microgramma Bold Extended (all caps) for all of the band’s printed materials, and a mechanical quality to the music itself. While guitarist Randy Bewley (who died from a heart attack in 2009) whips up inventive, circular figures, Lachowski offers one- or two-note counterpunches, Curtis Crowe puts the beat into overdrive, and Briscoe Hay delivers clipped phrases in everything from a murmur to a feral shriek.

“I was fitting into those spaces,” Briscoe Hay says from her Athens home. “It’s like we were a machine, and everybody had their place in it.”

The factory influence was felt in the lyrics as well. Over the speed-surf attack of “The Human Body,” Briscoe Hay sings with typically intense commitment, “I have my safety glasses/I have my safety shoes/I’m putting in my earplugs/Use caution in what you do!” In “Driving School,” amid a constant buzzing and more furious forward motion, Briscoe Hay shouts, “Caution! Red Light! Bus Stop! Turn Right! Reverse! Forward! Neutral! Low Gear!

“There’s good information in there, but these gotta be the funniest lyrics ever,” Briscoe Hay says. “We had our tongue in our cheek so firmly sometimes. We were amusing ourselves.”

Pylon’s deadpan humor contrasted with the campiness of the B-52’s, who didn’t stick around Athens after breaking through with their self-titled 1979 debut album. Pylon never had the ambition to move.

“We were in Athens, stayed in Athens and were on the scene and at the parties when all the subsequent bands were emerging,” Lachowski says. As shown in the 1987 documentary “Athens, GA: Inside/Out,” those bands included not only R.E.M. but also Dreams So Real, Love Tractor and Flat Duo Jets. “We were right there listening to them, and they were listening to us.”

Even though Pylon called it quits just as it was building momentum — the music industry’s demands, Lachowski says, were “getting more annoying” — the band had long coattails. In “The Pylon Box,” producer/engineer Steve Albini (the Pixies, PJ Harvey, Nirvana) writes that hearing and seeing Pylon while a Northwestern University undergrad had a massive impact on his own music-making.

“Hearing them play validated a lot of ideas I had at the time, about how music could be all kinds of things, instruments and voices didn’t need to fit a pattern, and all of it could be presented frankly, without showbiz and still be invigorating,” writes Albini, who founded his band Big Black in 1981.

Pylon’s “Chomp” was produced by Chris Stamey and Gene Holder of the dB’s, a Winston-Salem, N.C., band whose first two albums were available only as imports. Stamey and fellow frontman Peter Holsapple wrote tight, melodic, emotionally direct, often darkly funny songs while coming across not as singers but people you know who sing.

Mitch Easter, who played in earlier bands with Stamey and Holsapple, engineered “Chomp” at his Drive-In Studio in Winston-Salem, and he credits Holsapple with pointing another Athens-based band his way. Easter recorded and produced R.E.M.’s debut single “Radio Free Europe”/“Sitting Still” in 1981, followed by the EP “Chronic Town” and albums “Murmur” and “Reckoning,” all groundbreakers.

Given how many jangly guitar bands he has produced — including Game Theory, the Windbreakers, the Connells, his own Let’s Active and several of the “Strum & Thrum” artists — Easter could be considered the Godfather of Jangle. But he’s no fan of the term.

“The word ‘jangle’ still makes my hair stand up a little bit,” says Easter, who continues to operate a studio in the Winston-Salem area. “Some people think it’s actually like you sign a pledge. For us it was just playing our [expletive] guitar and writing our stupid songs. We were people of limited ability doing what we could pull off.”

Like R.E.M.’s Buck and many guitarists heard on “Strum & Thrum,” Easter played a Rickenbacker, but he insists the instrument didn’t define the sound.

“Guitars had gotten so associated with blues electric guitar and a heavier tone,” Easter says. “I think that’s what these bands didn’t do. More than the tone itself, it was the lack of bluesiness that identified these bands.”

Easter says he took inspiration from the British band the Move and the ahead-of-its-time gnarled pop of Big Star. Growing up in Jackson, Lee says he appreciated how Big Star, from Memphis, as well as the dB’s and Tulsa-based singer-songwriter Dwight Twilly, expanded the definition of Southern rock to include power pop, a genre that also covered another Lee fave, the Zion, Ill.-based Shoes.

“Strum & Thrum” documents how a sound became a movement at a time before technology made it easy for musicians in far-flung regions to keep up with each other’s work. “We all went in different cars and wound up in the same place, kind of,” Lee says.

Menck, who now manages a Minneapolis-area record store while continuing to drum with Matthew Sweet and others, recalls: “I was obsessed with all that stuff and was buying those singles when they were coming out, but there were not a lot. It was this cool underground network of guys — mostly guys — that were hip to what was going on. Each town or city had their own — I don’t know if I’d call it a scene, but there were five or six cool bands in every city.”

Two of Menck’s bands appear on “Strum & Thrum.” The collection kicks off with the Reverbs’ “Trusted Woods,” one of those bright jangly tunes with instantly embeddable hooks. Menck says the band, which released a sole EP in 1984, played a total of six shows, including opening gigs for Oingo Boingo, the Bluebells and the Clash.

“Every show we did was a cool show with a cool band,” Menck says. “We were about to go on tour opening for R.E.M., but we broke up after the second Clash show.”

After moving to Champaign, Ill., Menck formed the Springfields with singer-bassist Paul Chastain, who also would be his partner in the popular ’90s power-pop band Velvet Crush (which Easter produced). With its arpeggiated chords and gentle harmonies, the Springfields’ “Sunflower,” floats past like a sun-lit cloud.

“Strum & Thrum” also offers early samplings of Archer Prewitt, who plays bass on the Kansas City-based Bangtails’ driving “Patron of the Arts” before becoming a Chicago music fixture in the Coctails, the Sea and Cake and his own solo career; Jon Ginoli (Pansy Division), who wrote and sings the Outnumbered’s jangly barn-burner “I Feel So Sorry Now”; and Barbara Manning, who would find acclaim in World of Pooh and as a solo artist.

Manning, who sings 28th Day’s Paisley Underground-style “Pages Turn,” is one of several women fronting bands here. Donna Esposito does double duty with lead vocals and lead guitar on the Cyclones’ “I’m in Heaven” as well as the Riff Doctors’ “Say Goodbye” (produced by Easter).

Then there’s future Smashing Pumpkins/Nirvana producer and Garbage member Butch Vig, who recorded the White Sisters’ “Misery, Me, & You” at his then-new Smart Studios in Madison.

Credit Captured Tracks not only for its savvy song selections but also the snazzy, relatively affordable “Strum & Thrum” package. The two-LP edition, produced in a limited-edition Record Store Day orange-vinyl pressing and standard black vinyl, comes with extensive liner notes plus a full-color, 86-page book featuring an oral history of the period. Priced at $35 -40, the first pressings sold out quickly, and black-vinyl and CD editions are being re-pressed. (Order them here.)

“The Pylon Box” is even more elaborate. The vinyl version includes “Gyrate,” “Chomp” and two otherwise unreleased albums featuring an early work tape (“Razz Tape”) and stray recordings (“Extra”), plus a 200-page hardcover book autographed by the surviving band members. Even with a $150 price tag, the boxes have become tough to find. An $85 CD-and-book version is scheduled for release on March 26, 2021, and “Gyrate” and “Chomp” can be bought separately. (Order them here.)

None of this would be happening if not for the music’s immediacy. Much ’80s music, great or not, has a time-stamped feel, but Pylon’s debut, recorded 40 years ago with minimal fuss, bursts from the speakers with contemporary power.

Briscoe Hay says she’s “flabbergasted” that this short-lived art-music project is drawing an enthusiastic audience today. Lachowski recalls that shortly before Pylon pulled the plug on its first incarnation, it was playing the same venues as MTV darlings A Flock of Seagulls, all while the clubs were outfitting themselves with video monitors.

“All of that was threatening,” Lachowski recalls. “[We felt] if this is where the culture is going, we’re probably about to become passé.”

Fast forward to the end of 2020, and it’s the other ’80s inspiring us to — as Briscoe Hay sang on Pylon’s first album opener — turn up the volume.

Written by

Author The Foie Gras Wars, The Special Counsel; coauthor Take It to the Bridge, Behind the Laughter. NY Times, Chicago contributor. Ex-longtime Chicago Tribune.

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