In 1979, Michael Lachowski wrote a lengthy letter to Robert Croker, his former art professor from the University of Georgia. Spanning nearly 24 pages in a college exam blue book, the letter was a fiercely convicted artistic manifesto of sorts, laying out the blueprint for a band that could define a new approach to musical expression. Lachowski proclaimed his vision onto the pages, sealed it in an envelope, addressed it to Croker and then … never got around to actually sending it. Instead, the envelope sat in a box, untouched, for nearly four decades.
While the letter may not have made it to the mailbox, Lachowski’s vision didn’t die on the table — instead, it went on to release two adored records, tour the world with a variety of the biggest acts in alternative music history and be described by R.E.M.’s Bill Berry as the best rock ’n’ roll band in America. That vision? Pylon.
Despite an initial run of activity that lasted just four short years, Pylon and its legacy became a cornerstone of the post-punk ethos of the past half-century — a fact that is now being celebrated by the Pylon Box, a comprehensive box set out on Nov. 6 via New West Records. Featuring a 200-page biographical photo book, the band’s two studio albums — Gyrate and Chomp — and a series of demos, B-sides, rarities and live recordings, Pylon Box offers a comprehensive view of the band and its members who went from being art students in Athens, Georgia, to helping define a genre.
While the four members of Pylon — Lackowski, Randall Bewley, Curtis Crowe and Vanessa Briscoe Hay — eventually grew out of certain elements of their “college band” origins, the letter Lackowski wrote to Croker in 1979 served as a constitution for the band — albeit, a slightly iconoclastic one. Focusing about half on art theory and half on Pylon itself, the letter outlined how the band sought to play New York City “at least once,” after which, they would likely disband and call their work complete.
“It was so presumptuous,” Lachowski remembers. “That letter was written before we played any significant gigs. It was precocious to the extreme that we were already making these announcements about the end game when we were first starting out. I think it proves that the fidelity of the art came first, sorta saying, ‘Art must come first — music is like an entertainment or something compared to art.’ We weren’t operating in a complete void because we were listening to a lot of music, but we were wide open to the purely sonic potential of instruments. It set the tone of our band when we were starting out.
“Eventually, we got so much more into the activity of being in a rock ’n’ roll band and being on stage and having fans and all that stuff. There were times when we probably felt less like artists and more like musicians or entertainers. But, it still carried through as a guiding principle of sorts for our band.”
And it’s true, Pylon did go on to be a formidable rock ’n’ roll band with stages and fans and all that stuff. After breaking onto the New York scene in the early ’80s — thanks to a little bit of help from their comrades from Athens, The B-52s — Pylon became a cult-hit, gaining fans across the country, finding their way onto countless punk mixtapes and opening for acts like Gang of Four, R.E.M., Talking Heads, U2 and more. But, as Lachowski says, the band held onto its core philosophy as a guiding light throughout it all.
“We were very irreverent at the time,” Hay says. “We were always joking around. It really was so much fun to go to practice. It was always a different thing, you’d never know what was going to happen. It was like being in an art class — we had a project, we had a goal. I think if you look too hard at a process like that it takes some of the … well, ‘magic’ isn’t quite the right word. It’s something that you can’t really explain if you think about it too much. It becomes too much of a pattern of thinking instead of being open to what you’re hearing and finding your part within it.”
That sort of mindset went on to directly inform the sound of Pylon. Marrying their artistic convictions with their humorous inclinations, the group found this amazing middle ground, this “taking your fun seriously” kind of philosophy that materialized into music that was dancey, rambunctious, industrial, percussive and inimitable. Between Bewley’s emotive and sometimes frantic guitar lines, Lachowski’s booming bass, Crowe’s rhythmically intricate foundation-laying and Hay’s other-wordly vocal performances, Pylon’s sound was a unified force of unstoppable, youthful energy.
“I think we were trying to have it all ways at once,” Lachowski says. “We were a little bit more devoted to this ‘punk’ idea, or at least ‘art’ idea — we thought that we didn’t want to be fun or humorous or, even worse, zany. That was the realm of the B-52s. In a way, we were a little bit more flat with more of a punk affect. Some of that came out of insecurity. We were so awkward about presenting ourselves as performers and musicians that we’d kinda clam up, which made us seem serious. So, maybe it was a defensive effort. We knew that our process and the content of our material was fun. In some cases, it was practically silly. But, delivering it as if it was completely serious kinda helped give it a different tone. I don’t know how to explain it. It was like we were trying to have two or three things at once. We were trying pretty damn hard when we were writing songs and performing them.”
For Lachowski and the rest of Pylon, the “serious fun” philosophy is embodied by the collaborative spirit the band was founded on.
“During the big long period of time that Pylon was broken up, I would occasionally listen to Pylon’s albums and I would just fall in love with our band,” Lachowski says. “I would listen to the albums and think, ‘Oh God, Vanessa is the shit! Listen to what she’s doing.’ Everything I heard with the vocals — the seriousness of the presentation, the ridiculousness of the sentiment and the lyrics, like ‘don’t rock ’n’ roll/ now rock ’n’ roll’ — would make me think, ‘Well, that’s the answer to the mystery of our band’s success.’ Then, I would listen to it on other occasions and come to a similar conclusion but about Curtis or about Randy.
“I never really tired of thinking about the band as a project that everybody contributed to with stuff that was fun and fierce at the same time. Not ‘fierce’ in a deep way, but in a way that seemed serious. That’s what ‘taking our fun seriously’ means to me. We had so much fun and humor at the root of our process that by the time it came to present it, we didn’t want to sell it short by making it seem goofy or something you could toss off. We presented it with a certain amount of intensity and conviction. Conviction was important to us because we were visual artists trying to make music. We had to really believe in it in order to get other people to come along.”
And other people did come along. Throughout the Pylon Box, anecdotes and stories about the band’s influence can be read directly from the folks who they inspired — including all four members of R.E.M., Jon King and Hugo Burnham of Gang of Four, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, Steve Albini, Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, Kate Pierson of The B-52s, Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, Sam Fogarino of Interpol, Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening and K Records, Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate, Clint Conley of Mission of Burma, Chris Stamey of the dB’s, Anthony DeCurtis and more. For Pylon, the full extent of their influence actually remained a mystery of sorts until Hay started playing shows with Pylon Reenactment Society, a band devoted to keeping the music and legacy of the original Pylon alive.
“We started getting all these requests to perform,” Hay says. “We performed across most of America. Last year, we were one of two Georgia acts invited to perform at Primavera in Barcelona, just on the basis of Pylon’s legacy. Going out there — here I am, a retired nurse with two children — I had no idea what was going on. I had so many young people come up to me and go, ‘We love your band, we listen to you all the time!’ Then I found out that they were in another band playing at the festival and I was like, ‘oh, wow.’ I had no idea. I had been in my own domestic bubble. So, that blew me away. I had been told, personally, by many musicians that they love our band. They’re all much younger. I don’t know what it is that just draws them. Maybe it’s that it’s real. They can tell that it’s authentic. Who knew that today in 2020 we’d be sitting here discussing this? It’s amazing.”
Pylon’s initial run ended in 1983 after the band felt that their ability to be spontaneous and evocative had been diminished by industry pressure. After that, the band reunited from 1989 to 1991, and then again from 2004 to 2009, at which point the band called it quits for good due to the untimely death of Bewley. Now all that remains is the legacy and memories.
Yet, Lachowski, Hay and Crowe are not passive in their efforts to keep that legacy and those memories alive and kicking. Beyond commemorating their journey with the Pylon Box, the band has been busy wrapping up other loose ends. Remember that letter that Lachowski wrote to Croker in 1979? Well, in 2014, after nearly 40 years of sitting unread, the band finally got the opportunity to share the letter with its intended recipient.
“Croker came back into our lives around 2015,” Lachowski says. “I had a little event at my house with him and Vanessa and Curtis, and I thought, ‘Well, I have to present this letter.’ It was still sealed in the envelope from when I meant to send it to Professor Croker back in 1979. It was a little nerve-racking, but it was presented to him. He opened it up and read the entire thing out loud to the audience — it was the first time any of us heard the content of that letter since I wrote it. It was long!”
After that inciting incident, Hay, Lachowski and a team of devoted industry professionals set about creating the Pylon Box to put all of these timeless tunes, photographs and stories in one consolidated place.
“It was a long process,” Hay says of putting the box set together. “This is the end of a years-long process for me to make sure that this music is available to people who want it. It feels really good that this project is concluded. And I’m glad that our guitarist Randy will get his due and will be remembered.”
Lachowski agrees. “The Pylon Box is such a thorough look at the band,” he says. “There’s an amazing amount of photographs, a wonderful history of the band and the graphic design is really satisfying. It’s been a lot of work for quite a few people. It’s really fun and a little over-the-top.”
And maybe it’s that quote that best captures the spirit of Pylon — “really fun and a little over-the-top.” Through all of their endeavours, the members of Pylon always remained true to their artistic identities. They embraced their humor and over-the-top ridiculousness while still holding onto a strong conviction of what art can be. They bent the rules of the modern consumer-driven world of music. With no formal training whatsoever, they not only redefined what a great band can be, but what a great piece of art can be. For that, Pylon will always be one of the finest testaments of American musical brilliance.
Photo Credit: Brian Shanley