A continuing series exhuming, exploring, and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.
The Human Switchboard – Who’s Landing in My Hangar
A recent theory posits that an artist needs to find just 1,000 “True Fans”–that is, people willing to invest one day’s pay a year for said artist to make a solid living, free from commercial or corporate control. Ideas like this make it all the more bittersweet when recalling a band like the Human Switchboard. What if legitimate alternatives to the 1980s music business model had been at their disposal? What if they existed in a time when it was possible to build a career and a following more easily? Maybe then there would be more to remember them by than a beautiful, solitary artifact. It’s so easy to believe they would have taken the 21st century musical landscape by storm, building a YouTube empire, making amazing records, and thumbing their nose at “the corporations”–the way great underground bands are supposed to.
The Human Switchboard were born in 1977 when Guitarist Bob Pfeiffer and keyboardist Myrna Marcarian were students at Syracuse University. Spending the summer in Pfeiffer’s hometown of Cleveland, the pair hooked up with drummer Ron Metz and recorded a 4-song EP mixed by Pere Ubu’s David Thomas. Pfeiffer and Metz transferred to Ohio State University in 1978 and Marcarian joined them. The single, “I Gotta Know b/w No!” arrived during spring break and they hit the road in summer, quickly building word-of-mouth following throughout the tri-state area: Akron, Dayton, Columbus, Detroit, Pittsburgh; They were a Rust Belt sensation in the great rock and roll tradition: If you hadn’t seen the Switchboard, man you missed it.
More touring and another single were followed by an invite to play Hurrah in NYC, where they became a regulars, as well as Maxwell’s in Hoboken, the Rat in Boston, and DC’s 9:30 Club. Though their search for a regular bassist was ongoing, the Human Switchboard were known as a band to watch; a fan recorded and released [band authorized] “bootleg” sold out of its 1,000 copy pressing almost overnight. But the majors would keep ignoring them until 1980. UK indie Rough Trade expressed interest, even paying for a 12” EP, but eventually backed out. The college-chic IRS label offered a deal on their Faulty imprint and the Switchboard decamped to Cleveland and conjured up their first and last studio album, Who’s Landing in My Hangar.
You can tell from the cover photo that “Hangar” isn’t going to be a glamorous pop affair or more of the big-ticket rock excess that held sway at the time. They look so normal they don’t/won’t even deal in the anti-glamour of bands like REM or the Velvet Underground [who they always cited as a big influence]. A decade or so later, people would love bands that rejected glitz and sheen, but in 1981, a stark, monochromatic cover meant “punk rock” to most people or “new wave” to record labels [i.e., music that nobody liked or bought]. Either way the Human Switchboard was at odds with the prevailing wisdom. Not that they cared: they were too committed to their sound and vision to take any of that stuff into account. It must seem comical to people too young to remember, but once upon a time, rejecting showbiz and “going for the music” was an act of rebellion bordering on career suicide. But it’s a lot easier to reject the career path when nobody around is actually offering you a career…you just do what you do and what you know, which is what makes Who’s Landing in My Hangar so great.
Because it’s a great album,Who’s Landing is unafraid to open with its best song. “Say No [to Saturday’s Girl]” shimmers into existence with Myrna Marcarian’s trembling Farfisa and vocals that deftly mix the melancholy and defiance of someone rejected for a person she may or may not be better than:
“Well You’re looking real sharp again / And if I’d only close my eyes / I wouldn’t see the things that you do”
It’s the sort of line you’d expect to hear from Levi Stubb or Otis Redding, not a tiny, bookish, dark-haired [i.e.: beautiful] woman like Marcarian, who pays it off in the chorus brave enough to admit that one person’s happy ending can often crush another’s world to dust:
“I’ll still be hanging around / I know there’s no place to go but I’m keeping my eyes open
Cause I’m just some kind of clown / They say a heart’s not quite a heart / Until it’s been broken”
Most bands would have nothing left after something so gorgeous and heart wrenching, but the Human Switchboard was not most bands. The moment “Saturday’s Girl” fades, Pfeiffer detonates the titled track, a growling, guitar-driven raver that finds him spitting out angry, jealous lines over pounding garage rock. “In This Town” paints a portrait of grey, crumbling cities, slumping towns and trapped inhabitants Pfeiffer probably saw a lot of touring in and around the region in the Reagan 80s. It’s the song Billy Joel was probably trying to write when he came up with “Allentown” — but couldn’t because he’d only seen Allentown from his limo.
What would have been Side 1 of Who’s Landing In My Hangar ends with “Refrigerator Door,” a seven minute mini-masterpiece that always stood out at live shows. The song radiates the regret and desperation of a couple’s broken relationship, told in the most mundane domestic and geographical terms.
“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
Ooh baby / Where you been too all night / I been sitting here waiting / For the ring ring on my telephone…”
As Pfeiffer and Marcarian trade lines in the chorus, you feel pulled back to your own lost moments that should be fond memories. Their duet is almost operatic: the sort of devastating, exhilarating music that’s hard to listen to but impossible to turn away from. If feels like we’re watching people we care about crashing on the emotional shore. There’s probably no world where “Refrigerator Door” could be a hit, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been heard by more people.
The rest of Who’s Landing in My Hangar has a job living up to songs like “Saturday’s Girl” and “Refrigerator Door,” but between Marcarian’s defiant, anthemic “I Can Walk Alone,” Pfeiffer’s jeering “I Used to Believe in You,” the fun and funky “Book on Looks” [which should have been a college radio hit], and the noisy abstraction of “Where the Light Breaks,” The Switchboard never slows down, never takes a song off. Every song on Who’s Landing would probably be the best song on someone else’s record. Every track feels like the sound of people who thought [or feared] they might not get another chance.
It turned out that this was their only chance. Despite glowing reviews in the then-nascent alternative record press, IRS let them go. They kept touring and writing songs and touring and writing songs, and a potential deal with Polydor fell through when John Stains, their champion at the label, was sacked. For a little while, the band kept touring, but eventually split up in 1983, leaving this album, a smattering of singles, and a scattering of fans around the region that still speak of them with admiration to this day. Somehow though, they never managed to build a decent cult of believers certain they were the next “__________” like Badfinger or Big Star before them. After the split, the band members made other music, some of it pretty good — Pfeiffer put out a solo album that even fewer people heard than the Switchboard album. Eventually he launched a career in A&R, even running Disney owned Hollywood Records for a few years. While that’s a kind of success, maybe even a moral victory, they had more coming …they should be at least as famous as X or Concrete Blonde or the Bodeans or any one of the other US post-punk bands that “made it” to “national prominence.” Of course that’s what music obsessives say about bands from this era all the time, but it would have been fascinating to see what a band like The Human Switchboard could have done with 1,000 True Fans in their corner.
NEXT: The Good Life…