HIGH FREQUENCIES: Everything's cool!
Pylon Reenactment Society are just 'part time punks'
Ask anyone who was around Athens when the 40 Watt Club was a small room above what is now a Starbucks at the corner of College and East Broad who their favorite band was and, chances are, they’ll answer Pylon. One of the most revered bands to come out of the early Athens music scene, Pylon was contemporaries with the B-52’s, Side Effects, Oh, OK, and Love Tractor, but they were also celebrated as a band’s band, with most of the bands they shared a stage with among their legion of fans.
It’s no wonder that now, with original Pylon vocalist Vanessa Briscoe Hay fronting a new band, Pylon Reenactment Society, reaction to the new group has run the gamut, from those praising Hay’s decision to resurrect Pylon’s songbook to others claiming it is tantamount to heresy.
The band — featuring Hay and a cast of latter-day Athens musicians, some of whom performed with her in Supercluster — is not a reformed Pylon, nor is it a tribute to the original band, with musicians carefully recreating each song to its minute detail.
Instead, Pylon Reenactment Society, formed at the urging of guitarist Jason NeSmith for a one-off gig at the 2014 Art Rocks Athens event, builds on the foundation the formidable progenitors of the Athens music scene laid down, tweaking the songs with idiosyncrasies and characteristics unique to the musicians onstage. NeSmith (Casper & the Cookies), along with Kay Stanton (Casper & the Cookies) on bass guitar and backing vocals, Damon Denton on keyboards (Big Atomic), and Joe Rowe (the Glands) on drums, may have originally learned the parts listening to Pylon records, but they perform them with an energy and abandon all their own. The music is not as angular, not as stark, as created by Randy Bewley, Michael Lachowski, and Curtis Crowe when the PRS musicians were probably still in elementary school, yet it still provides the relentless backdrop needed to propel Hay’s vocals into the stratosphere and around the planet.
The difference in Pylon and Pylon Reenactment Society is easily heard on the latter’s new EP, Part Time Punks Session. Recorded live in the studio for a Los Angeles radio broadcast, the songs are more layered, the subtleties more pronounced. In each song, the added textures don’t blunt the attack of the original compositions, but give them a fullness no less dynamic. And, throughout the six tracks, Hay is as aggressive as ever, her singing, her yelps, her caterwauls nothing short of liberating.
I asked Hay via Messenger, with all of the attention being given Pylon Reenactment Society now, why she thinks Pylon was not more successful the first time around, or with any of the original band's subsequent reunions?
Her reply was not what I expected.
“I suppose that it depends on how you measure success, and each incarnation of Pylon had a different goal. With Pylon I (1979-83), our initial goals were wildly exceeded. We wanted to go to New York, get written up in New York Rocker and disband. Pylon got a lot of attention right out of the box. Instead of New York Rocker, we were initially written up in “Glenn O’Brien's Beat,” (the influential column in Interview magazine which defined music of the punk era). We made three singles, an EP, and two albums. We also got to open for and play with some incredible bands during a pretty exciting period of music in the U.S.,U.K., and Canada. We disbanded while we were still having fun.”
Incredible bands, indeed. During their first go-round, Pylon toured with Mission Of Burma, Gang Of Four, Talking Heads and U2. Not only was Pylon having fun, but the band was at the height of its creative urgency. Their declared “final” show at the Mad Hatter, December 1, 1983, in Athens, GA, was an incredible night, at once triumphant and bittersweet, displaying the band’s power and confirming its musical veracity.
“During our second incarnation (1989-92), we got back together with the encouragement of people like R.E.M., Jim Fouratt (the noted club impresario who first championed many Athens bands in New York) and the B-52's who felt like Pylon might be more accessible to the general public (given the shift in musical attitudes at the end of the ‘80s). We approached things in a more business-like manner. We did arena shows with both the B-52's and R.E.M., as well as a lot of touring on our own. We had a manager (Jennifer Blair) and a lot of the associated support people that you would need in place. Pylon wrote more material and recorded an album. The slowness of moving forward to the next level was probably the impetus of Randy leaving. He had some internal timeframe goal that we weren't aware of. It was especially devastating to our manager. We all moved on.
“The third (and final) time that we got together in around 2004, we had no goals other than the main goal of the pleasure of performing together. We remastered and reissued our first two albums (Gyrate and Chomp) on CD which was a goal. Our fans were unhappy with the sound quality of (the) Hits (compact disc compilation) compared to the vinyl versions of those songs. Probably the major problem with Hits was the era in which it had been manufactured. Another problem, that we found out later, was that Hits had been run straight from the tapes and had missed the vinyl mastering step which Greg Calbi had added at the Record Plant in New York. Randy and I took great interest in this process and with the help of Jeff Calder got the tapes together and the appropriate tracks identified. They were restored and taken by us to Rodney Mills’ Masterhouse in Duluth where we sat in on the mastering sessions. Unfortunately Randy passed away about six months before Chomp More could be released.
Summing up life in Pylon, Hay is to the point. “The short answer is I feel like we were successful. Not every band is going to be a major financial success. A lot of the things you have to do, to achieve that level, we weren't interested in doing. We had a great time for the most part and all surviving members remain friends. We are mostly happy with the music that we produced. There is more than one type of success.”
That’s nothing to argue with, and many bands would do well to learn from her assessment.
Chunklet Industries’ decision to release Pylon Live, a double album recorded at the band’s “final gig” in 1983, serves as a testament to all that Pylon was. That same label’s decision to release Part Time Punks Session by Pylon Reenactment Society exhibits a new interpretation of what those songs can be. It would certainly be a shame if the Pylon canon was relegated to recorded media only. Pylon Reenactment Society sees to it that that is not the case. PRS brings the fun to Atlanta this Saturday (Oct. 21), when the band returns to the Earl, along with Five Eight.
Vinyl collectors’ score card dept. … The 12-inch EP, Part Time Punks Session, comes in four different varieties. As Hay explains, “We had three colors in pressings of 50 each. Black initial pressing is 200. They look beautiful with the labels.
“Clear red is to be sold at live shows only, except four ended up in Athens record stores. About 30 are left after the Westobou Festival (in Augusta).” Half will be made available at the Athens show Friday night and half in Atlanta Saturday night.
“Clear orange” was the color shipped with some “pre-order sales. Those are sold out.
“Clear vinyl went mostly to promo, except a few clear got out to Atlanta stores and a few were sold online. Sold out.”
Additionally, cassettes, scheduled to be available only at live shows, “won’t be here in time” for this weekend’s performances.”
And I like it dept. … Watching television the other night, I was struck by the commercial for the iPhone 8 Pro. While it’s visually-alluring, with an impish, almost waif-like model walking down a street sidewalk, her image being “captured” by the various studio lighting effects of the smart phone’s portrait mode, it was the music that first caught my attention. An infectious pop song with haunting, breathy vocals and staccato guitar, it’s a remake of the Kinks’ “This Strange Effect,” sounding every bit as youthful and vibrant as the onscreen focus of the smart phone’s lens.
As it turns out, the subject of the camera’s attention is not a model at all, but the singer of the song. Shannon Wise is one half of the Shacks, the other half being Max Shrager. Together they recently released their first, self-titled EP via Big Crown Records. A collection of original compositions just as intriguing — and retro, as they are contemporary — as their cover of the Ray Davies-penned song from 1965, the Shacks music is a throwback to days of innocence, when music was meant to go pop and simplicity was the goal.
Recalling Rainy Day, Opal and early Mazzy Star, they do so without the West Coast psychedelics as much as with an East Coast sense of reality. Nonetheless, their songs are ethereal and dreamy, soundscapes of relationships realized, though unencumbered with the baggage of time.
Founded in the boroughs of New York City, the band’s unintended beginning resulted when Shrager was adding guitar on an El Michels Affair track, “Strange Boy.” Needing a vocalist Shrager encouraged Wise to go into the recording booth. In one take, the vocals were done — and the Shacks had begun.
The Shacks make their Atlanta debut this Sunday night (Oct. 22) at Terminal West, opening for Chicano Batman and Khruangbin.
Around town dept. … Emily Saliers, one half of Indigo Girls, once Little Five Points and Decatur’s best kept secret, but now the pride of Atlantans the world over, has embarked on her first-ever solo tour. Backed by a group of musicians hand-picked for the road, Saliers plays the Buckhead Theater Saturday (Oct. 21) in support of her first solo album, Murmuration Nation. … Marshall Ruffin continues his third Friday of the month residency at the Elliott Street Pub Oct. 20. … Atlanta’s Yacht Rock Revue presents Michael Jackson’s Thriller the same night at the Variety Playhouse. … And, if you care to contribute to the retirement accounts of a bunch of old guys who don’t need the money as much as you probably do, the Eagles play two nights this weekend at Philips Arena without founder Glenn Frey. Ticket prices range from the ridiculously-priced, at $100, to the absurd, at over $700.00.
Tony Paris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org since you already know he doesn’t answer his Facebook messages.