BACK IN 1987, when R.E.M. were reaching a commercial breakthrough with their fifth album Document and its hit single “The One I Love,” Rolling Stone rightfully named them “America’s Best Rock & Roll Band.” But in the magazine’s accompanying cover story, drummer Bill Berry challenged this accolade. In his opinion, the best band in the US was Pylon, a broken-up outfit from their shared hometown of Athens, Georgia.
“I went back to them later and had to ask them, ‘You must really regret saying that,’ because it’s something that pops up all the time,” Pylon’s frontwoman Vanessa Briscoe Hay says. “But, no... They said they really meant it.”
Berry’s endorsement is just one example of the respect Pylon earned in the underground music scene of the early ’80s for their limber, anxious, and very danceable albums Gyrate and Chomp, as well as energetic live shows fueled by Hay’s growling vocals. The Athens band’s friends in the B-52’s gave their demo tapes to bookers, netting them gigs with Gang of Four and Talking Heads. They also landed on the Billboard dance charts with their 1982 single “Crazy/M Train.”
Despite these successes, Pylon never really found a way to break through commercially the way R.E.M. did, partially because the group’s existence has been erratic and, unfortunately, tragic. Right when they were picking up steam in 1983 with gigs opening U2’s first US tour, Hay, guitarist Randy Bewley, drummer Curtis Crowe, and bassist Michael Lachowski decided to pull the plug. According to Hay, “It ceased to be fun.”
“The original intent of the band was not be some kind of corporate machine,” she says. “We were a bunch of artists. It just started to become more and more business-like.”
The quartet re-convened in 1989 at the urging of R.E.M., who brought them on part of their Green tour. The reunion yielded another great album, the janglier Chain, but ground to a halt again when Bewley lost interest.
Since then, Pylon’s cult following has continued to grow. Groups like Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre cited them as influences. DFA Records’ reissuing of Gyrate and Chomp led to yet another reunion, with the four playing occasional shows around the US. Sadly, this all came to an abrupt end when Bewley passed away in 2009. “Really, Pylon died at that point,” says Hay.
But at 61, the singer continues to fortify the group’s legacy by fronting the Pylon Reenactment Society, a tribute act of sorts made up of members of current Athens bands like the Glands and Casper and the Cookies. Born from a one-off gig the ensemble played at a music festival in 2014, they’ve since been doing short runs of shows.
“It’s been inspirational, if that’s the right word, to be able to play this music again,” Hays says. “I really don’t want people to forget Pylon. These are different people and we are re-enacting this experience, so it’s not exactly Pylon, but it’s fresh and done in the same spirit.”