The American music landscape was evolving rapidly throughout the 1970’s. Tired of the bloated corporatism rock and roll had taken a turn towards, underground music movements began gaining traction in both cultural meccas and isolated townships across the country, from the bohemian experimentalism of no-wave in New York City to the off-kilter industrialism of Devo and Pere Ubu in Ohio. It makes absolute sense then that Athens, Georgia, a sleepy Southern college town rich with conservative tradition, would soon become a hotbed of cultural vibrancy and institutional dismantling during this period of rebellion.
Party-starters the B-52’s and alt-rock torchbearers R.E.M. are the most notable groups to emerge from the early Athens scene. Funny enough, though, while those bands were blasting off and garnering praise from music publications across the country, its members were paying compliments to Pylon, a lesser known group of post-punks with a penchant for jagged yet danceable music and a thrilling live show. In fact, years into their career, Rolling Stone praised R.E.M. as “America’s Best Band,” to which drummer Bill Berry humbly sidestepped the accolade and passed it onto his art school peers.
Over the course of two albums and a handful of singles during their first incarnation, Pylon proved to be one of the most preeminent bands of their generation, setting the blueprint for what punk music with groove could and should be for decades to come. But despite a stellar discography, bills shared with countless other greats of the era and kudos from their Southern companions, the four-piece never achieved the same level of acclaim before disbanding in 1983, placing them somewhere between cult heroes and small-scale cultural icons.
Now, though, with a double live album to be released on July 25—deceased guitarist Randy Bewley’s birthday—Pylon is poised to remind audiences old and new that success isn’t always measured by the number of people that blended in at your arena concert or vacantly watched your video on MTV, but rather by the way one’s music shakes the absolute core of an individual, creating a connection that lasts a lifetime.
The idea to release a live album, or at least its initial source, can be traced back nearly ten years. The band began re-issuing their first two albums, Gyrate and Chomp, in 2007, but bassist and founding member Michael Lachowski was in search of an alternate cover to use for the new editions. A photograph of the original Gyrate cover with years of evident love and wear had been acquired, but finding one for Chomp took a little extra legwork. “I put online somewhere, ‘Does anybody have a cover that looks like that for Chomp?’ [Record producer and fan Henry Owings] ended up mailing his copy, and I photographed it,” Lachowski says. “I kept it for so long that he eventually had to ask for it back,” he adds with a laugh. Years then passed by before Owings approached the band again in 2014, this time with an interest in working with them to sift through their live recordings and release an album to the public.
“I never really liked live albums, but I also thought that Pylon live was the best way to experience Pylon. So a live album was at least partway there,” says Lachowski. “We basically were saying ‘If you can find a good recording, and it’s of a good performance, and it’s of a somewhat significant performance…it should at least be a show that means something, that we could at least remember it or cared about it,’” he says.
“I told [Owings] I had a box of Randy’s tapes, because Randy was basically the archivist in the band, he was the one that kept everything,” says singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay. “In there he found this CD that was a mix-down of four songs from this performance [the band’s last show at Athens club the Mad Hatter before disbanding in ’83], and he said, ‘The quality is really good, I’d like to find these tapes.’ So then he went on a merry chase to find these tapes,” says Hay. After an extensive search, the rest of the show’s mixes were located and the project was fully underway.
The show itself was billed as a send-off for Pylon, who had released its sophomore album earlier that year and been on tour with U2. Two investors had coordinated filming the night’s affair, which was co-headlined by the band and fellow Athenians Love Tractor, as a pilot for a PBS series on Athens music akin to Austin City Limits.
“When they edited their little show, they picked out four or five songs and they pulled footage from throughout the whole night, so some of it was actually synced and some of it was just sort of thrown in there. The rest of the video I don’t think has survived, only that mix-down part has survived. Thankfully the audio for the entire set was still intact somewhere,” says Lachowski.
Though they remember few specifics about the performance (other than members of the audience did eventually join the band onstage), the restored tapes demonstrate a band confident in their road-tested abilities to play and sway a crowd, with no indication that this would be their final show together.
“I think our performances were pretty rugged at times. But, having said that, I think that the kind of music—and, actually, the way we played it—allowed for a certain amount of roughness or rawness or an edge,” says drummer Curtis Crowe. “Even if we were ragged, it still was okay. A little roughness actually enhanced our sound,” he says. The band tore through a setlist culled from their two albums and closed the night with a cover of the Batman theme song.
Roughness and edge, in fact, were exactly what began to put them at odds with larger mainstream audiences in the months leading up to their first break. That and their disinterest in becoming the money machine others within the industry were attempting to turn them into. After the release of Chomp, the band hit the road opening select dates for U2, who had just released their breakthrough album, War, and were well on their way to rock stardom.
“I didn’t want to play for their crowd. It was like these people just can’t wait for us to get off the stage,” says Lachowski.
“If Jesus Christ had opened up for them, they would have booed him off the stage,” chimes in Crowe.
“We weren’t interested in that, so our booking agent goes, ‘Well, why are you doing this?’ That started the conversation. Why are we doing this,” says Hay. “In retrospect, maybe we should have hung out another year or two, but whatever.”
“There’s a lady I know who once said ‘It’s impossible to predict the past,’” responds Crowe, smiling and candidly pointing at Hay.
Though Pylon reunited multiple times over the years after their initial breakup, the band changed forever in 2009, when co-founding member Bewley suffered a heart attack while driving and passed away shortly thereafter. Their legend now lives on with a tribute act of sorts fronted by Hay.
Local musician Jason Nesmith, who had played alongside the singer in Supercluster—a veritable who’s who of Athens talent—approached Hay in 2014 to see if she would be interested in playing a short set of Pylon material for the Art Rocks Athens Foundation’s inaugural events.
“I started calling people. I told Vanessa she could do anything she wanted for fifteen minutes,” says Nesmith. “Honestly, I don’t know whose idea it was to play Pylon songs. I would like to think I would not suggest it myself, because that would be pretty ballsy to try to put myself in that situation. But she remembers it was me.”
Dubbed the Pylon Reenactment Society, the band was recently voted Best Tribute Band in Athens by readers of the local alt-weekly, Flagpole. Lachowski even joined the group onstage when they performed during the awards show—an addition Hay is open to again when they perform later this month in celebration of Pylon Live’s release. “We have a couple more Pylon songs worked up, so we can almost take requests now,” jokes Nesmith.
As the industry continues to evolve and fragment—pulled in one direction by major labels over-saturating the market but still struggling to survive, and in another by independent communities sticking to the ethics and practices maintained within for decades—Pylon’s philosophy is as essential now as it was thirty-five years ago. While our country is yet again in the throes of social and political unrest, dismantling the institutions that have led us to such decline and holding true to the values of unadulterated artistic expression proves most paramount. Getting people moving while doing so just makes it that much better.