Before there was the "next Seattle" craze that led the music industry drooling in the direction of Chapel Hill, there was Athens, Ga. And before Athens' R.E.M. became a household acronym, there was R.E.M.'s favorite band, Pylon.
Being from the South, Pylon was an anomaly, something to root for. In Pylon, the New South had a brash, politically minded party band inspired as much by abstract visual art as the colorful keg parties of its hot college town.
"For sure, there was a Southern aspect that helped generate the freshness and confidence of the early Athens bands," bassist Michael Lachowski says just before leaving Athens for a Pylon mini-tour. A key element was the universal quotient in rock 'n' roll: killing time. "In the case of The B-52s, I think they just felt incredibly bored and free to do whatever they wanted, just to amuse themselves and amaze their friends. For Pylon and for my own experience in Athens, I can mainly identify a huge sense of ... ease."
For Pylon's Vanessa Briscoe Hay, it was a colorful time, much like The B-52s' song "Party Out of Bounds." "We had to manufacture our own fun at house parties where dancing and drinking from a free keg were the thing," she remembers. "[There were] other things: skinny dipping, water balloons, cross dressing for fun, vinyl records, thrift stores, beer, heat, sprinklers."
The band's jolting party music soon started echoing outside the walls of those Georgia houses. Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson of The B-52s were telling people in New York about them, and Pylon was opening for Gang of Four there, as its first single, "Cool" (backed with "Dub"), came out in 1980. The members of Pylon were finding favor within the circles they admired, the New York and British new wave scenes. They won the favor of those bands and many critics.
Pylon had invented its own sound, its members innocently unfamiliar with their instruments, with the exception of drummer Curtis Crowe. Crowe anchored Randy Bewley's odd guitar tunings and Briscoe Hay's short, sharp and penetrating voice. The band's strict, simple structure was like a jungle gym, allowing them to try much with little. Pylon made a handful of 7-inches, recording at Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studio and working with Chris Stamey and Gene Holder of The dB's, before breaking up for the first time in 1983. They had just finished a tour with a young U2.
Fast-forward to the last decade of post-punk revival. Gang of Four reunited and made a new record. Scores of young bands aped the punk-funk vibe and spoke truth to power like their forebears. But where was Pylon? Still in Athens, of course: Briscoe Hay is an R.N., and she and Bewley have a new recording project, FFFM. Lachowski runs a design company. Crowe does broadcasting production.
But in New York, the DFA Records crew was throwing old Pylon records into buzzed DJ sets while the critics and many bands continued to overlook Pylon. DFA impresario and LCD Soundsystem mainman James Murphy decided to do it himself, reissuing Pylon's Gyrate, effectively stamping them with a hip blessing equaled by few others. Funny, when Pylon—kids in a hot Southern college town—just wanted to have fun.
Pylon plays Monday, Nov. 5, at Local 506 with New Sound of Numbers (which features Pylon guitarist Randy Bewley) and locals Violet Vector and the Lovely Lovelies. The show starts at 9 p.m. and costs $10.