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Slaying Cynics In Its Path – The Joyous Heartbreak of Human Switchboard

Human Switchboard
Who's Landing In My Hangar (Anthology 1977-1984)

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As a fan of American post-punk, one of the many impressions that may wash over you while listening to Human Switchboard’s Who’s Landing In My Hangar? – An Anthology 1977-1984 would have to be:  Where’s our compilation series, our Nuggets/Pebbles/Boulders?  Where’s our curator, our Lenny Kaye?  Albums like this – and they seem to be cropping up with some regularity; Factory 25, for instance, just recently released a full length from Chicago band DA! – more than ably demonstrate that lurking in the shadows of the scene’s greater lights were probably hundreds of so-called lesser artists.  In the larger group photo they’d be those faces leaning their way into the spaces between David Byrne’s widened shoulders and the high-cheekboned, stick-figure frame of Tom Verlaine (and yes, Television do belong in the picture.  They were throwing post-punk shapes even as punk itself dawned, and nearly everyone from The Fall to The Loft wanted to sound like them in one way or another).  Bands like Human Switchboard and DA! always benefit from a retrospective like this, because even as they weren’t the cream of their class, their sound was still redolent of their time – in HS’s case that quicksilver burst of gritty creativity that defined the late 70s/early 80s NYC music scene – and as such these re-releases can’t help but shine an inspired spotlight on legacies that deserve much better than the kind of obscurity in which only an aging congnoscenti even remembers their existence.  How many more lost bands must there be, even if their only output was an EP or a handful of DIY 45s?  The UK’s done a decent job of this – that whole Messthetics series alone filled much of the void – the US could use the same if not more.  Where’s the Denver scene?  What about Indianapolis?  Vast uncharted territory, and to anyone ambitious and devoted enough that’s reading this, consider the gauntlet truly and brashly thrown down.

As for Human Switchboard specifically, anyone alive and buying records back then might well remember this LP.  It was a small, quiet release (on Faulty Products, 1981), not a lot of fuss or fanfare, and possibly because of that it seemed to arrive with a kind intimate preciousness, an album – and a band – you wanted to protect.  There couldn’t help but be something hopeful in their strivings, the way the music was gawky and genuine and post-teenage snotty all at the same time.  In a sense, they sounded like DIY’s last hope.

Beyond the yearning for a 20-disc boxset compilation of US underground post-punk, what also might well hit you listening to this album is its overall tone of naiveté.  It seeps through the sound, through the proficient broom-closet production, it’s in the words and the way in which they’re sung, confessional, defiant, vulnerable, pissed.  And if this should give you the impression that things really were ‘simpler back then,’ well, you’re right, they were.  Mostly, of course, this was due to the still relative youth of rock music.  Depending on one’s preferred origin story – Bill Haley’s 1954 stylistic birthing with “Rock Around The Clock” or, more conventionally, Elvis’s fuller birth package in 1956, the look the swagger the snarl and the songs – the form was barely a quarter century old and hadn’t had time to splinter into the dozens upon dozens of sub-genres that have piled on over the years.  By now, 2012, there’s an almost oppressive knowingness, wherein listening to The Knife or Burial or even Animal Collective, good as each of them is, can’t help but lead to the feeling that they’re all having to work so hard to forge a path forward.  Trying to distill those many dozens of rivulets/influences into a cogent – and listenable, and exciting – new stream carving its own path through the sedimentary rock is akin to harnessing a tsunami and often sounds like it.  In 1980, in NYC (the No Wave set aside), this wasn’t so much a concern.  It was OK to try and put your arms around a memory and sound like a fallen Phil Spector disciple doing it.

With Human Switchboard this wasn’t, it should be said, naiveté for the sake of it, it wasn’t artifice.  It was more a flow of honesty that ran all the way from working-class Cleveland to the dark and sneering avenues of the Big (at the time rather rotten) Apple, retaining the homier flavor of their origins while absorbing the frenetic energies left over from the prime years of the Gotham punk scene.  What you get from this is a Midwest garage earnestness kissing smack on the lips the heroin decadent, cold water flat-living edged-out chic of New York City.  What you get is Jonathan Richmond if he’d been Lou Reed’s younger brother, a kind of music that, despite the glimpses of period de rigueur angst in its lyrics, would nonetheless slay cynics in its path.

At heart, the success and foibles of this album derive almost solely from the person of Bob Pfeifer, the guitarist/lead male vocalist (boy/girl trading with keyboardist Myrna Marcarian, on whom more in a sec), the guy on the cover projecting the rather Teutonic mien that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a Joy Division photo shoot.  Of the 21 tracks on the CD proper (encompassing the one studio LP plus various sessions, demos and live tracks – 19 more are available for free download), 18 are credited to him alone.  The remaining three are co-writes with Marcarian.  Notably, and this credits both Pfeifer’s productivity and Bar/None’s obvious desire to put out the most complete document possible, none of the extra tracks repeat the original LP’s tracklisting.  21 tracks, 21 different songs.  How rare is that?

As a writer, Pfeifer favored a territory sandwiched on a tightrope between the Feelies’ joyous shots of adrenaline and Johnny Thunders’ broken-hearted resignation.  Nowhere is this strange but potent marriage more evident than on “No Heart.”  Stuttering hiccupped vocals, Pfeifer spitting out the chorus “There’s no heart, no heart in my eyes/ there’s no heart in you” then chasing after it with a guitar attack that’s half garbage can charm, half staccato wonderment that eventually crashes into a tangle with the whirl of Myrna’s organ and…stops, a breathless silence for an abrupt half-measure before Pfeifer declaims “When I look in your eyes, I see your eyes, I come,” an arresting moment that rivals Thunders’ iconic ‘when I say I’m in love you best believe I’m in love L-U-V’ for instant memorability.

Central to the band’s sound throughout, its heart really, is that organ.  Myrna Marcarian is credited with keyboards and vocals which might imply a piano or synth somewhere in the mix but it’s exclusively organ (OK, glockenspiel on bonus track “I Gotta Know”) and as such, more than any other element, it provides Human Switchboard their unique identity.  Even on ostensibly guitar-centric cuts like the title track, which announces itself with every instrument but, it’s the swirling presence of Myrna’s organ, dizzy here, stabbing there, that grounds the song and helps turn it into a highlight.  On seven-and-a-half minute semi-opus “Refrigerator Door” – aside from being both the epitome of the two singers’ trade-off vocals and a whacked-out paean to obsessive, unrequited, deflated and desperate love (and hey, almost certainly the only rock song you’ll ever hear that veers off into Slovenian) – it’s that organ lending its support, laying down a subtly ominous floor while everything goes gradually manic above it, that ensures the song’s signature status.

One ironic side note to the HS story was the lack of a permanent bass player – the trio of Pfeifer, Marcarian and tighter-than-a-fist drummer Ron Metz was a constant – when, apropos of the time, the bassline is up-in-the-mix crucial to almost every song.  On the ten tracks that comprise the LP proper, three different bass players are used, and three additional fill out the bonus material.  Tom Carson’s liner notes from the back of the original album cover allude to this as one of the band’s nagging frustrations, alongside the almost-but-not-quite interest of major labels and relentless poverty, while the band themselves take a swipe at this situation in this current anthology’s credits for extra track ‘Fly-In’: “bass – none, aren’t you listening?”  But in reality, whereas a permanent fourth member would no doubt have offered a sense of band cohesion, solidified their visual identity, the fact is that the Human Switchboard sound is immediately identifiable regardless, so this perceived weakness in their line-up ultimately reflects on the strength of their material.

With the exception of this collection’s last five songs, which were culled from a couple of CBGB’s sessions, everything here was recorded in Ohio, pointing to a native sensibility that aligned them, in spirit at least, with fellow Buckeyes Pere Ubu and Tin Huey, and to a lesser extent Devo.  In part, this helps explain the slightly woozy eccentricity that infuses their sound.  Overall, yes, they slot into the schematic that was the loft-and-dive environment of their adopted NYC, but they never escaped Ohio.  And as uptown funky as the occasional use of horns might otherwise imply, the appearance of sax on opener ‘(Say No To) Saturday’s Girl’ and the hooktastic, era-defining “Book On Looks” actually lends those songs a kind of Friday night bar band feel, albeit a bar band that knows its early Motown sides from its Asbury Jukes from its Captain Beefheart, and knows how to rope them all into a single strand of influence.  On the one hand, Human Switchboard is the band that headlined opening night at famed New York club Danceteria, while on the other, on what are called here The Prime Of Life sessions and were recorded prior to ‘Who’s Landing…,’ employed a certain Terry Hynde, older brother to Chrissie and a member of legendary Ohio outfit The Numbers band, which included among its revolving ranks one Gerald Casale.  Lovely fun as that is as trivia, it also says it all.

What lingers after listening to this album is indeed its inveterate, and endearing, oddness.  It’s a kind of outsider pop that marks itself as a brand alone, too straight-ahead conventional, perhaps, to land itself in the annals of avant-pop, far too delightfully quirky and ramshackle DIY to find itself popping up too often on nostalgia’s playlists.  It is, in short, essential.

That the idiosyncratic style that resulted from Human Switchboard having their feet planted in two such disparate patches of culture no doubt accounted for, or at least contributed to, the lack of major label interest and related frustrations, leading to eventual dissolution, is a given. But it also created a singular legacy, a piece of work that well deserves inclusion in the US post-punk canon, and Stereo Embers would like to nominate “Book On Looks” (or maybe “Refrigerator Door,” or “No Heart,” or…) as opening gambit on the Nuggets-like double album that is surely on its way.