MusicMusic Features

Discovering Pylon Through Flagpole, 30 Years Later

The big 3-0: Though this is a milestone I passed some time ago, many of the foundations of my music collection are now coming of the age “not to be trusted.” This has prompted me to relisten and revisit these recordings to see if they hold up. The year 1988 was an odd one, and one I remember well, but what is to be done when an editor requests that I make these pieces more Athens-focused? How can I provide that focus when it was four years after ’88 that I began living in the Classic City? That’s easy: Thanks to the internet, I read 30-year-old issues of Flagpole online.


Today, we browse the July 13, 1988 issue and the article by then-editor Jared Bailey titled “Pylon: Surprise Attack”—a review of the July 2, 1988 Pylon performance at the 40 Watt Club, which, it’s important to note, broke a five-year hiatus for the band. The issue also includes announcements for performances by Widespread Panic, Hillbilly Frankenstein, Meat Puppets, Bar-B-Q Killers and Love Tractor; a story of a “suprise R.E.M. performance of new songs for their “first major label record”; and an editorial response to censorship overreach. The advertisement in this issue for the 40 Watt lists its address as 256 W. Clayton St., which is the current location of the Caledonia Lounge.

In his glowing review of the show, in which he feels “embarrassed by such a string of incessant superlative heaping,” Bailey assesses the performance with a three-part test, the first part being danceability.

“Pylon was the dance band in town where the whole scene was based on dancing, before crowds became complacent and forgot how to feel the music,” he writes. “The second part of the test was there also. The music was nearly note perfect to the recordings. This was quite an assurance to the young fans who had never seen live Pylon on fire, proving the band as powerful as the legend. The third part of the test were the smiles—not those of the faces in the crowd, even though they were beaming all over the room from sweat-soaked dancing faces—but those of the band.”

Now is as good a time as any to admit that I’ve never listened to Pylon. The year of that show mostly found Poison and Van Halen in my boombox, along with very healthy doses of Fox 97 and 96 Rock. I was not yet into “college,” “alternative” or “new wave” music, though I am sure I had watched “120 Minutes.” In years to follow, I would make my way to Georgia State University’s Album 88 FM, on which I imagine Pylon got some play. I’m sure I would have seen them in Athens, GA: Inside/Out, but in 2005, when Pylon headlined AthFest, I was at home drinking too much beer and playing with the new iPod I got for Father’s Day.

So, understanding that this may disqualify me and Flagpole from having a working relationship, if I were asked if I knew anything other than what I’ve just cataloged about Pylon, the answer would be “no.” (Incidentally, I do not call Creature Comforts’ popular offering “Trop,” nor do I visit the “Bot Gardens.” I only include these details for readers to gauge my relative hipness before moving forward.)

To conduct the experiment, I listened to most of Pylon’s Gyrate and Chomp, as well as singles I could find online. I was careful not to include recordings that would not have been available on the date of the 40 Watt show. For added context, I briefly scanned (so not to influence my listening) Pitchfork’s review of the reissue Gyrate Plus, which has Pylon as a “kind of militaristic disco. No, wait, I meant: android reggae. No, wait, I meant: post-punk without the melodrama.”

“Feast on my Heart” and “Volume” certainly live up to this description. To me, anything rock, pop, country or soul released in the early ’80s still has disco dripping from it like rank grease. But what is different here is the staccato nature of the drums and bass that would, if Saturday Night Fever-era dancers hit the floor, induce jerks rather than sways, shakes rather than spins… wait, that is the recipe for the new-wave dance, amiright? This is post-disco in the finest sense—leaving behind the flabby beats and melodrama for a razor-sharp assault that punctures much deeper than disco ever cared to.

“Functionality” has the stripped-down simplicity of late-’70s punk with foot-hopping movements that straddle post-punk and new wave. The guitar that buzzes like a drunken bee defies the idea that Pylon was picking up where Blondie left off, but there are plenty of examples to support this statement, as well. The first that comes to mind is “Beep.” I would say, “What if you had the Talking Heads, but a bit less snotty?” Then, as I am writing this, I hear the single, “Crazy”—yeah, here is where I tell you I did not know until this moment that this was not originally an R.E.M. song.

As the last notes of “Cool” resonate through my head, I am reminded that there is not much I can say that has not been said hundreds of times before about Vanessa’s pop growl, the attacking snaps of Curtis’ drums and the bouncing interplay between Randall and Michael’s strings that would become the template for new wave for years to come. All I really have to offer is fresh ears to hear if this music that is more than 30 years old holds up. In my opinion, it surely does, and maybe more importantly, it gives me the much-needed context to Jared’s review from this week in 1988.

“They looked strong and shining new and bold like gods showing us revelations of how things were and can be again in this jaded musical society,” he writes. “Strong, fawning praise—but all it took was seeing monoliths come alive. Vanessa seemed to be the Pygmalion it took to end the reign as statutes by just dancing her dervish-inspired trance that caught the band back up it its fury. She didn’t even notice she had cut her foot and was bleeding out of her soul and the band played on.”