Human Switchboard – Who’s Landing in My Hanger? Anthology 1977-1984
Location, location, location!
Even though once he used L.A.’s Gold Star Studios, Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” maintained its east coast formalism. Psychedelics fueled Austin’s music scene in the ’60s. Near-fatal confrontation found its way into power chords from the MC5 and Sonic’s Rendezvous out of Detroit.
But Cleveland, Ohio has always been the cloistered crazed uncle in the attic. A cultural cornerstone in rock ‘n’ roll’s history that birthed Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Pere Ubu, The Cramps and Ghoulardi.
Human Switchboard came from there, and according to the New York Rocker at the time, they were described as “mid-American Gothic,” though one of their songs, “Refrigerator Door,” is sung in Slovenian!
Fished out of an ice cream barrel full of 45s at the old Peachtree Quality Salvage location in Brookhaven, sort of this post-apocalyptic freight supermarket, I found multiple copies of their first EP. Upon hearing “Shake It Boys,” I remember thinking they sounded like Question Mark & the Barbarians with dough-girl mutterings, a slightly distorted Farfisa and a rhythm track so sparse the bass is non-existent on “Fly-In.”
They were among the last few bands from the initial American punk days who’d obviously been exposed to Lou Reed’s dry heaves, icepick-punched by Tom Verlaine and Jonathan Richman. Quirky but compelling, recorded five years after the band formed, the songs on their debut studio album, Who’s Landing in My Hanger, are suitable extensions of the frustration over where things seem headed. A septic leak clogged the club scene with elitism. Having been headliners opening night at Danceteria and frequently booked at Harrah’s and Maxwell’s, theirs was a call-to-arms, not so much political as an appeal to like-minded artists to persevere.
I’ll admit that though Bob Pfeifer may have been the centrifugal pull on these songs, whenever Myrna Macarian leads the charge with her risky vocals, I’m reminded of Kendra Smith’s impact on the Dream Syndicate. Myrna’s Farfisa ramps up the mystery quotient that makes these songs so memorable. On “I Gotta Know,” she plays glockenspiel! I’d put her up there with Chris Cacavas (Green on Red), Martin Rev (Suicide) and Alan Price (The Animals) as among my favorite keyboardists. And Ron Metz is hands down the purest of minimalist drummers, more so than Moe T’s garbage can lid kit. His comes closest to that bottle cap sound!
After being exposed to the band on their EP, this record begins with a dramatically altered pop leaning on “Saturday’s Girl,” another Myrna-voiced opaque regret with the line, “I’ll still be hangin’ around…,” waiting for the one she lost to another. The other gem on this reissue, augmented by singles, EP tracks, live recordings, demos and the like, is an unreleased track, “Shy About You,” recorded in ’79. Slow to act, Pfeifer takes his most caustically Lou Reed-ish aim at personal relationships, evidenced on “Shy,” because though he notices the slit skirt and the way she walks, he’s nervously undone to the point that he admits, “I like you better/ When you’re away from me…” Reed wrote about hustlers and addicts. Pfeifer does quite the opposite; he’s not world-weary, but world-wary.
Grossly overlooked at a time when the extremes flocked to Henry Rollins or Madonna, both of whom used music as a springboard to “acting” careers, Human Switchboard went unnoticed. What gets me is this attitude today among musicians who cite U2 or Primus as their influences while unaware of a band like Human Switchboard or Tin Huey or The Mumps. Hipsters flaunt fluent Can and Krautrock, and might be able to recite obscure psychedelia, but are hard-pressed to grasp the impact of Cleveland’s rock heritage or how it seeded the New York punk holdovers. In a nutshell, that’s the point here: Human Switchboard weren’t about arrogance or attitude, but about exposure to what’s out there, but it stink or grime, obstacles or risks. Ultimately they’re among the few good bands who managed to cut through the bullshit.
The CD comes with a bonus download card so you get 40 songs in all from the heartbeat of America’s heartland.
Who’s Landing in My Hanger? Anthology 1977-1984