When Ric Menck was a young rocker in Barrington, he didn’t associate 1980s music with the synthesizer washes, booming drums and the slick sheen commonly found in such big-haired acts as A Flock of Seagulls, Def Leppard and Cyndi Lauper.
He was part of the decade’s alternate pop-rock narrative, driven by tight songwriting, lean production and guitars played with little distortion or flash.
Much of this music earned a nickname, “jangle,” as bands embraced Rickenbacker guitars a la Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, whose first hit was Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” with its “jingle jangle mornin’.” It also was part of the college rock scene that paved the way for such ’90s breakthroughs as Nirvana and Pavement.
“There was the MTV ’80s, and then there was the other ’80s,” says Menck, who now manages a Minneapolis-area record store while continuing to drum with Matthew Sweet and others. “When people started complaining about the ’80s, I’d say, ‘Well, my ’80s was pretty cool.’ “
Those ’80s are having a moment:
- “The Pylon Box,” out Friday on CD after selling out its vinyl edition, is a four-disc set that showcases this groundbreaking Athens, Georgia, band. Pylon’s brittle, propulsive attack bridged the gap between that college town’s more famous exports: the B-52’s and R.E.M.
- “Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987” picks up where Pylon left off. This two-disc compilation is a deep dive into little-known tracks released on independent labels.
I was a jangle fan. And I recognized exactly one of these acts: the Windbreakers, a Jackson, Mississippi, band fronted by singer-songwriters Bobby Sutliff and Tim Lee. Lee’s ears also were opened by this collection.
“Half the people on that record are great friends of mine from way back, and the other half I’ve never heard of,” says Lee, now living in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Most of these songs are of the instantly catchy, verse-chorus variety as they spread sunshine even while lamenting love gone wrong. Many evoke R.E.M., which rose from college faves to arena-conquering superstars over this period.
R.E.M. tipped its cap back toward Pylon by covering its swirling 1981 single “Crazy” in 1985. In the hardcover book that comes with “The Pylon Box,” R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck calls Pylon “a huge influence,” and drummer Bill Berry testifies, “To this day I haven’t seen a better live band.”
The four Pylon members were University of Georgia art students. Three of them — singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay, bassist Michael Lachowski and drummer Curtis Crowe — worked weekend jobs at the nearby DuPont textile factory. The band took its name not from the identically titled William Faulkner novel but the safety cones scattered around the factory floor.
The industrial setting also informed the band’s aesthetic visually, sonically and lyrically. While guitarist Randy Bewley (who died from a heart attack in 2009) whips up inventive, circular figures, Lachowski offers one- or two-note counterpunches, Curtis Crowe puts the beat into overdrive, and Briscoe Hay delivers clipped phrases in everything from a murmur to a feral shriek.
“I was fitting into those spaces,” Briscoe Hay says from her Athens home. “It’s like we were a machine, and everybody had their place in it.”
Over the speed-surf attack of “The Human Body,” Briscoe Hay sings with typically intense commitment, “I have my safety glasses/I have my safety shoes/I’m putting in my earplugs/Use caution in what you do!”
In “Driving School” Briscoe Hay shouts, “Caution! Red Light! Bus Stop! Turn Right! Reverse! Forward! Neutral! Low Gear!”
“There’s good information in there, but these gotta be the funniest lyrics ever,” Briscoe Hay says. “We had our tongue in our cheek so firmly sometimes.”
Pylon’s deadpan humor contrasted with the campiness of the B-52’s, who didn’t stick around Athens after breaking through with their self-titled 1979 debut album.
“We were in Athens, stayed in Athens and were on the scene and at the parties when all the subsequent bands were emerging,” Lachowski says, referring not only to R.E.M. but also such bands as Dreams So Real, Love Tractor and Flat Duo Jets. “We were right there listening to them. And they were listening to us.”
But as the music industry’s demands were “getting more annoying,” as Lachowski put it, Pylon called it quits. (It regrouped to record a 1990 album not included in the box.)
Still, the band had a lasting impact on musicians such as Chicago producer/engineer Steve Albini, who saw Pylon as a Northwestern undergraduate and founded his band Big Black in 1981.
“Hearing them play validated a lot of ideas I had at the time, about how music could be all kinds of things, instruments and voices didn’t need to fit a pattern, and all of it could be presented frankly, without showbiz, and still be invigorating,” Albini writes in “The Pylon Box.”
Pylon’s second album, “Chomp,” was engineered by Mitch Easter at his Drive-In Studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Given how many chiming guitar bands he wound up producing — R.E.M.’s debut EP and first two albums plus Game Theory, the Windbreakers, the Connells and his own Let’s Active — Easter could be considered the Godfather of Jangle, but he’s no fan of the term.
“The word ‘jangle’ still makes my hair stand up a little bit,” says Easter, who still operates a studio in the Winston-Salem area. “Some people think it’s actually like you sign a pledge. For us, it was just playing our [expletive] guitar and writing our stupid songs.”
Easter, like Buck and others, played a Rickenbacker. But the guitar wasn’t the point.
“Guitars had gotten so associated with blues electric guitar and a heavier tone,” Easter says. “That’s what these bands didn’t do.”
“We all went in different cars and wound up in the same place, kind of,” says the Windbreakers’ Lee, who cited inspiration from the Southern power pop of Big Star, the dB’s and Dwight Twilly plus Zion’s own Shoes.
“Strum & Thrum” documents how a sound became a movement before technology made it easy for musicians in far-flung regions to keep up with each other’s work.
“I was obsessed with all that stuff and was buying those singles when they were coming out, but there were not a lot,” Menck says. “I don’t know if I’d call it a scene, but there were five or six cool bands in every city.”
Two of Menck’s bands appear on “Strum & Thrum.” The collection kicks off with the Reverbs’ “Trusted Woods,” one of those bright jangly tunes that instantly embeds itself in your head. Menck said the Barrington band, which released one EP in 1984, played a total of just six shows, including opening gigs for Oingo Boingo, the Bluebells and the Clash.
“We were about to go on tour opening for R.E.M., but we broke up after the second Clash show,” Menck says.
After moving to Champaign, Menck formed the Springfields with singer-bassist Paul Chastain, also his partner in the popular ’90s power-pop band Velvet Crush (whom Easter produced). With its arpeggiated chords and gentle harmonies, the Springfields’ “Sunflower,” floats past like a sunlit cloud.
“Strum & Thrum” also features Archer Prewitt playing bass on the Bangtails’ driving “Patron of the Arts” before he became a Chicago music fixture in the Coctails, the Sea and Cake and his own solo career. Future Smashing Pumpkins/Nirvana producer and Garbage member Butch Vig recorded the White Sisters’ “Misery, Me, & You” at his then-new Smart Studios in Madison.
Several of these bands are fronted by women. Barbara Manning sings 28th Day’s “Pages Turn” before finding acclaim in World of Pooh and as a solo artist. Donna Esposito supplies lead vocals and lead guitar to the Cyclones’ “I’m in Heaven” as well as the Riff Doctors’ Easter-produced “Say Goodbye.”
Credit Brooklyn label Captured Tracks not only for its savvy song selections but also the snazzy, relatively affordable “Strum & Thrum” package. The $35 two-LP edition, currently being re-pressed, comes with extensive liner notes plus a full-color, 86-page book featuring an oral history of the period. A two-CD set is available for $22 on the label’s website.
New West Records’ even more elaborate “The Pylon Box” offers the band’s first two albums, “Gyrate” and “Chomp,” and discs featuring an otherwise unavailable early work tape (“Razz Tape”) and stray recordings (“Extra”) plus a 200-page hardcover book. The $150 vinyl version sold out quickly, but the $85 CD collection includes the same book. “Gyrate” and “Chomp” can be bought separately on CD and vinyl.
Briscoe Hay says she’s “flabbergasted” that this short-lived art-music project is drawing an enthusiastic audience today.
Credit the music’s immediacy; While many ’80s songs, great or not, have a time-stamped feel, Pylon’s 40-year-old debut and much of “Strum & Thrum” burst from the speakers with contemporary power.
Shortly before Pylon pulled the plug on its first incarnation, Lachowski recalls, it was playing the same venues as A Flock of Seagulls, all while the clubs were outfitting themselves with video monitors.
“All of that was threatening,” Lachowski says. “[We felt] if this is where the culture is going, we’re probably about to become passe.”
Yet it’s the alternate-narrative ’80s that now are inspiring us to, as Briscoe Hay sang, turn up the volume.
Mark Caro is a freelance writer.