Pylon - Biography
By Oliver Hall
Pylon, from Athens, Georgia, was the great American postpunk band. Guitarist Randy Bewley and bassist Michael Lachowski created a strange, seductive harmonic interplay around the hard, minimal dance beat of drummer Curtis Crowe, while singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay chanted in a way that made the plainest English phrase sound unfamiliar. Throughout the band’s career, the strength of Pylon’s rhythm section and the beat they picked up playing dance parties in Athens got them compared to Gang of Four, with whom Pylon toured in the late 70s and early 80s. The resemblances between the two bands are tempting, but at this point, such comparisons tend to obscure Pylon’s contributions as original stylists. Bewley’s sudden death in 2009 brought Pylon’s latest reunion to a sad and unwelcome end.
From the Pylon feature in the March 1981 issue of New York Rocker: “Pylon was formed in the fall of 1978 when Randall Bewley bought a guitar for a dollar at a flea market and convinced his roommate Michael Lachowski to buy a bass at a local pawn shop.” At first, Bewley and Lachowski played these discount instruments through their home stereos. “You know where the ‘secret guitar tuning’ from Randy came from?” Lachowski asked Mike Mills in Mojo. “He didn’t realize that he was tuning his guitar incorrectly when he got it and he just wrote around the way it sounded and we stuck with that because we liked it.” After Curtis Crowe, who rented one of the studios beneath his apartment on College Avenue to Lachowski as a practice space, had heard Bewley and Lachowski playing through his floorboards several times, he went downstairs, knocked on their door and volunteered to be their drummer. Bewley, Crowe and Lachowski initially used found sound vocals appropriated from records, television and radio before Bewley approached Vanessa Briscoe Hay (then Vanessa Ellison), with whom he had attended University of Georgia’s art school, about singing for the band. Lachowski had also gone to art school at UGA and had worked with Hay at DuPont. “I never imagined being in a band, I just kind of fell into it,” Hay told XLR8R in 2008. “I hadn’t had any fantasies about it. I thought I was going to be an art teacher.”
Pylon participated in and helped create a scene that gathered at house parties rather than traditional rock venues. In R.E.M.: Talk About The Passion (Da Capo 1998) Crowe says, “When the B-52’s left town, someone had to play at the parties, so Pylon was the next in line.” Crowe’s top-floor apartment above Pylon’s practice space was the original site of Athens’s 40 Watt Club, named for the single bulb that lit the room at dance parties. The 40 Watt has persevered to the present day through numerous Athens locations. Lachowski ran the APT, or Athens Party Tape, an answering machine that listed house parties and shows in the city on any given night.
Hay auditioned for the band on Valentine’s Day 1979. At Vanessa’s Pylon Blog (http://www.netnik.com/jollybeggars/pylon.html), she writes that Bewley and Lachowski “had decided to create a band who would go to New York, play once, get written about in a magazine like New York Rocker and then disband. On arriving to my audition, Michael handed me a notebook that had lyrics to some songs neatly typed within and pointed me to a mike that they had set up. I listened for awhile and then tried to make the words fit the music.” Pylon played their first show on March 9 at a party above Athens’s Chapter Three Records, opening for the Tone-Tones. Fred Schneider of the B-52’s gave a Pylon tape to Jim Fouratt at New York’s Hurrah, and Fouratt booked Pylon to open for Gang of Four. Pylon also opened for Gang of Four in Philadelphia and Boston, and on subsequent Gang of Four tours in the early 80s. DB Recs owner Danny Beard, who had released the B-52’s first single, agreed to release a Pylon single after the band delivered a poster and a tape to his Atlanta record store. Pylon recorded “Cool”/“Dub” (DB Recs 1980) in October 1979 at Stone Mountain Studios in Atlanta with engineers Bruce Baxter and Kevin Dunn; according to Hay, the single was recorded through the same board Lynyrd Skynyrd used on “Freebird.” Hay took her chant on the B-side, “we eat dub for breakfast,” from Glenn O’Brien’s review in Interview of Pylon’s first New York show.
Hay and then-husband Jimmy Ellison of the Side Effects separated sometime close to the recording of Pylon’s first single and were soon divorced. Bewley, Lachowski, and various subsequent combinations of Pylon members lived on Barber Street in a building that came to be known as Pylon Park. (When most of R.E.M. moved in next to Pylon Park in late 1980, Barber Street was playfully nicknamed Athens’s “Street of Stars.”) Pylon and Bruce Baxter returned to Stone Mountain to record Pylon’s classic first album Gyrate (DB Recs 1980). Pylon opened for the B-52’s at a summer 1980 show in New York’s Central Park, and toured the UK in December to promote the British release of Gyrate on Armageddon Records.
Pylon and Baxter recorded the “Crazy”/“M-Train” single (DB Recs 1981) at Atlanta’s Christian Broadcast Studios, according to Hay, though the single sleeve says “Recorded at Channel One, Atlanta, GA.” The band recorded the single “Beep”/“Altitude” (DB Recs 1982) and most of their second album Chomp (DB Recs 1983) at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio in Winston-Salem with Chris Stamey and Gene Holder of the dB’s producing.
Pylon broke up shortly after opening some of the dates on U2’s first US tour. Hay writes at her blog that “the members of Pylon were beginning to feel that things were becoming less fun and the band was becoming too much like work, without any of the financial rewards associated with it. […] Randy was married and starting a family. Breaking up seemed to be the thing to do, while we were still having fun.” They played a farewell show in Athens with Love Tractor in 1984. The following year, R.E.M.’s version of “Crazy” appeared on the B-side of their “Driver 8” single (I.R.S. 1985).
Hay worked at and then managed a Kinko’s Copies following the breakup. She had been romantically involved with Bob Hay of the Squalls since they met at a Thanksgiving dinner in Athens in 1981, and they were married in July 1986. The documentary Athens, GA.-Inside/Out (1987) includes interviews with members of Pylon and early footage of the band, and the soundtrack album (I.R.S. 1987) includes Pylon’s “Stop It.” Hay gave birth to her first daughter, Hannah, in January 1987.
Pylon reunited in 1989 and released the best-of compilation Hits (DB Recs 1989), which collects most of the tracks from Pylon’s singles and includes songs from Gyrate and Chomp. They opened some of the dates on R.E.M.’s Green tour. With the exception of “Sugarpop,” recorded by Scott Litt in Athens, the band recorded the new album Chain (Sky 1990) in Charlotte, North Carolina with producer Gary Smith, followed by dates opening for the B-52’s on their US tour. Hay remembers, “We had some trophies engraved with World's Best Waitress and gave them out on tour to outstanding waitresses that we met along the way.” Bewley grew dissatisfied and decided to quit in 1991, effectively breaking up the band. Pylon played another farewell show in Athens that November.
Following the band’s second breakup, Hay got a nursing degree from Athens Tech and took a job as a registered nurse. She gave birth to Victoria, her second daughter with Bob Hay, in 1993; in 1997, Victoria underwent successful surgery for a brain tumor. Lachowski opened a store called Candy, Bewley worked as an elementary school art teacher and in a health food store, and Crowe went into TV and film production.
Pylon reunited at Bewley’s suggestion in early 2004. On August 5, the band played a secret show in Athens, and according to Hay, the college radio station WUOG went off the air at showtime out of respect to the band. Pylon continued to perform across the US when their schedules allowed, and released expanded editions of their first two albums on CD: Gyrate Plus (DFA 2007) and Chomp More (DFA 2009).
Randy Bewley suffered a heart attack while driving his van on Barber Street on February 9, 2009. He died later that day at Athens Regional Medical Center, aged 53.