In the post-punk wildcat days of 1977-84—that wide-open stretch of years before the doctrinaire genre restrictions solidified—a new band would pick up bits from hometown influences, popular likeminded national acts and living legends, and whip up something amazing, and more often than not in those days, timeless. Such was the case with Human Switchboard, three New York-by-way-of-Ohioans (singer/guitarist Bob Pfeifer, keyboardist/singer Myrna Marcarian, drummer Ron Metz, plus a revolving door of bassists) who mixed (among other influences) Buckeye State heroes Pere Ubu and the Pretenders, the Talking Heads and the Velvet Underground with a unique pop and lyrical sensibility. In doing so they came up with something far bigger than the sum of its parts, which is why we’re talking about them here in 2011, far beyond the seven-year footprint this anthology covers. The only question is, Why did it take so long for them to be unearthed?
The first half of the disc is the band’s lone LP, 1981’s Who’s Landing In My Hangar? and opener “(Say No To) Saturday’s Girl” immediately announces that this was a band that had more than half-a-clue: think Midwestern Blondie (Marcarian had a great husky pop voice, with some Chrissy Hynde thrown in there too) anchored by a roller-rink keyboard and an out-of-nowhere saxophone solo—great stuff! Really, it’s a shame that Marcarian doesn’t sing more on the record. Chief singer/songwriter/guitarist Pfeifer, who later went on to a career as President of Hollywood Records, seemed especially interested in the intersection of pop and art, upbeat and druggy, men and women—and the fluid dynamics of the musical era were the perfect backdrop to explore them. “No Heart” morphs from a guitar skrabble/keyboard battle to a windows-down rocker; “In My Room” finds the common ground between Richard Hell and Jonathan Richman; and for every codeine-soaked Velvets narco-jam like the 7:30 “Refrigerator Door” (“I found your sympathy stuck inside of my refrigerator door / next to my stove / and one thing’s for sure / you’re out of heat again”), a tune which apparently Kurt Cobain called “the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of punk” though it strikes me as more of a very sleepy outtake from Wild Gift, released around the same time, there’s the joyous ‘60s frat rock of “Book on Looks” and Nuggets-y “(I Used To) Believe In You”—where Pfeifer’s disgusted narrator drops the poetry of “Refrigerator Door” and wonders why anyone would ever want to have sex with his ex-girlfriend.
Simply, a reissue of the album proper—here making its CD debut, after 30 years as a vinyl-only release—would be cause enough to celebrate, but the anthology tacks on another eleven songs with even more available via download card, plus Tom Carson’s original liner notes, where he laments “the death of the scene” in 1981, and they’re all every bit as strong as the album tracks. “I Gotta Know” is pure New Wave power pop; the Myra-led “Shake It Boys” makes the titular request over strolling keys—it’s one of the band’s earliest recordings (June ‘77) and was remixed by Pere Ubu’s David Thomas. Meanwhile, on “She Invites”, Pfeifer conjures up one of the more complicated scenarios you’ll ever run across in a catchy pop song when he sings “When it came time to be her man / he shrank in the face / of his friend’s wife”. A handful of live tracks from ‘84 prove the band was a tougher, tighter group than their Farfist-fueled studio adventures suggest and also suggest Pfeifer was already plotting a move out west: hell if circa-‘84 Human Switchboard didn’t sound a lot like Medicine Show-era Dream Syndicate (another band that worshipped at the Velvets’ shrine) and More Fun in the New World X.
In retrospect, at least, those connections are easy to make. At the time, HS were just two regular joes and a jane (dig that unassuming album cover) trying to navigate their early twenties and playing music they loved. “Maybe it’s stupid to think that it was better before,” muses Pfeifer on “Maybe It’s Stupid”, but maybe it’s not. There’s a refreshing, unassuming honesty here that’s more than overdue for rediscovery.
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