Beyond Indie

Vanessa Briscoe Hay Looks Back at 40 Years of Pylon

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Vanessa Briscoe Hay remembers the evening of Aug. 25, 1980, like it was yesterday. Her fledgling post-punk combo Pylon opened for its fellow Athens, Georgia trailblazers The B-52’s at no less a daunting location than Central Park for a Dr. Pepper Summer Festival. And talk about innocents abroad, she laughs. “I had to quit my job to do that concert,” the 64-year-old recalls.

“We all got in a van and drove straight there, and when we got to the gates in Central Park and said we were playing with the B-52’s, they pointed us vaguely in one direction and said, ‘It’s over there, past the carousel.’ So there we were, tromping over the grass in Central Park until we finally found backstage. It was the biggest show we’d ever played, and at that point in time nobody was the least bit interested in us.”

Hay had even heard that John Lennon and Yoko Ono watched the punk-fueled show from their nearby Dakota window and were aesthetically inspired by the bold new sound– a nice picture to reimagine over the ensuing years. She was recently reminded of this halcyon moment when a photographer friend discovered a shot of the singer onstage there.

“And I still have that same original dress I was wearing that day,” she says proudly. Naturally, the image would figure into the elaborate new Pylon box set being issued by New West, an exhaustively-researched saga of an indie art student outfit that — in a brief five-year existence — clambered to the top of the R.E.M.-led Athens scene. The collection — which comes in multiple configurations — includes the group’s two main groundbreaking albums, 1980’s Gyrate and Chomp in 1983, both remastered, along with a third Razz Tape of newly unearthed early recordings, a fourth Extra LP containing Pylon rarities and alternate takes, plus a 200-page hardbound book, titled simply Book.

Razz Tape is the gem of the set. The 13 track recording session – which was their first —  has never been heard prior to the release and pre-dates the recording of their debut single and the features rarity “Modern Day Fashion Woman (Version 2).”

The band amassed so many images and artifacts for the coffee-table-sized tome that many items are now housed in the Special Collections Library at the University of Georgia (and its tandem Museum of Art) where an all-Pylon exhibit is running through May 31, 2021.

Hay — who left Pylon for good shortly after reforming in 2009, when founding guitarist Randall Bewley died; she couldn’t imagine the group continuing on without him, she says — has recently been keeping the flame flickering with the Pylon Reenactment Society, a tribute band she fronts with younger Athens musicians. They were just preparing to record a full-length debut disc when the coronavirus lockdown occurred this spring.

“So right now, because I can’t perform, I’ll be out on my little deck here in Athens, singing, and I’ll sing into my phone’s voice memory and I’ll write down stuff every day, and then I try to paint when I can. I don’t know where my ideas come from, but I’m grateful that I do still write songs,” she says.

And this naivety, captured in that Central Park pic and the edgy, intellectual music it was making at the time, was a big part of Pylon’s enduring allure. The band’s first single “Cool,” for instance, built a rickety guitar line from Bewley into an imposing mansion of haunted sound, with Hays’ oblique observations fluttering like bats trapped in its attic: “There these forms I like to watch/ There are these shapes which talk to me/ I love shapes, and shapes love me/ The more you look, the more you see.” Disarmingly simple sentiment — even when she sang some songs with lupine ferocity — wrapped in an equally sparse melody that always sounded much bigger than the sum of its parts, just like the B-52’s before them, and R.E.M., which would soon follow.

Hays is always pleased to discover new fans online, and she attributes Pylon’s staying power to one thing: “We weren’t contrived, and we didn’t have a big plan in place,” she says. “We didn’t know what we wanted to do, but we knew what our process was about. And now, the idea that 40 years later, people are going to be listening to us again through this box set? Something like that never even occurred to us.”

How has her own creative process changed in 2020?

She utilizes a painting she just completed to explain. It started with a Nemo-iridescent fish in Australia, a nice, family-friendly image. “But then I started painting all of these things at the bottom, like a bunch of plastic with garbage in it, an old corn cob, even a drug store receipt, all across the ocean floor,” she snickers. “So then there’s this poor fish, just trying to look beautiful. People have told me that I should be a children’s book illustrator, but I think my paintings are a little bit scarier than that.”

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