Human Switchboard
Who’s Landing in My Hangar?
Faulty Products/IRS, 1981

In our era of media over-saturation, it’s hard to attain and sustain “cult” status. For example, I was recently trawling IMDB, and the main comments for Videodrome listed it as a cult film. This after I had just watched a bulging two-disc Criterion DVD set. There was a time when “cult” meant mysterious and nearly impossible to find. Given Google, basically nothing is cult anymore, or at least not the way Human Switchboard still, somehow, is.

Sure, you can find the band on Google, but you won’t find much, and their music is undoubtedly out there somewhere in bit torrent terrain. But “cult” usually means that an obsessive cluster of fans has slowly risen—via collectors and traders, fanzine interview name-drops and overheard conversations at record store counters—around a certain “lost” band over time. But “over time” now means three weeks. There will be fewer and fewer rock “second acts,” a la the mid-80s Velvet Underground reissues and subsequent reunion gigs in the early ’90s, no reappearances of near ghostly figures like Mission of Burma or the Silver Apples. Consider that there are only two Human Switchboard clips available on YouTube (from the same show, no less). Somewhere, right now, a possibly legendary new band is playing their first show. Tomorrow, there will be 10 clips of it online, and with them, any hint of mystery or potential future cult status will have been effectively erased.

Thanks for the indulgence in future shock, that quaint term sprung from the 1970 Alvin Toffler book that peered into the future and saw a disoriented dystopia. That was this northeast Ohio band all over, only Human Switchboard mainly stuck to the future prospects of any given end-of-the-century, Great Lakes region, broke-ass, post-graduate couple muddling their way through the miasma of modern love. Ohioans Bob Pfeifer (vocals/guitar) and Myrna Marcarian (vocals/keyboard) met at Syracuse University in 1977, but hopscotched back and forth to Columbus, then the Kent/Akron nexus, while opening a record shop, adding and subtracting members, and recording their early singles.

On their sole full-length, Who’s Landing in My Hanger?, the fright associated with the rapid advance of technology hid below Human Switchboard’s midnight poker game yelling matches and subsequent make-up sex, expressed mainly by their basic set-up (guitar, bass, drums, wobbly vox) constantly twitching and suspicious, the kid brother heebie jeebies to first-era punk rock’s pogoing. Songs like the title track, “No Heart,” “(I Used to) Believe in You,” and “Book on Looks” harken back to the band’s three early, messier singles. If not viciously hilarious enough for the Killed By Death canon, they’re most definitely the equal to the cardigan-core end of that latter-day genre, right up there with the Embarrassment. Oh sure, they looked the part of gawkish indie rock precursors, but Hanger pulses with some of the sexiest music of the original new wave. Drums rumble under wittily bawdy lyrics sung in Pfeiffer and Marcarian’s smoky, low voices. Good ol’ early-80s endearments like parenthetical song titles and occasional, simultaneously Stoogey and cheeky sax solos add neon urbanity.

But it was the shouldabeen hit, “(Say No to) Saturday’s Girl,” and the spare, shadowy slinker, “Refrigerator Door,” that got them attention, mostly on the East Coast DIY tour circuit. If “college rock” had not quickly become the dorky quirk-fest of the They Might Be Giants and Camper van Beethovens of the world, both tunes might be considered classics today.

Anyone who might’ve mulled over reissuing the Switchboard’s catalog (they had two limited live records too) missed the buzz boat back in 2001, when the Strokes et al. were all the rage. Note Pfeiffer’s slate grey Lou Reed drawl and the album’s overall neatly raw production. Pfeiffer twisted out rent-due nervous anxiety rather than Julian Casblancas’ privileged practiced disinterest. Then there’s the yearning sad croon of Marcarian’s sensually shy-cries, often sounding like Debbie Harry spending the weekend at some aunt’s house in Michigan (especially on “I Can Walk Alone”). It all would’ve made for a head-slapping, “Where has this record been?!” moment for many a turn of the century neo-garage trend seeker.

Human Switchboard was kind of the rust belt equivalent to X’s big city dueling couple. Marcarian’s Farfisa organ seemed to be a sticking point in early reviews (the few that there were), but again, this was party to another strain of that first new wave crest: the ’60s garage clean out. If X was their West Coast kin, then the B-52s were Human Switchboard’s batty Southern cousins. Both analogies explain no musical connection except to say that there was some fucking thorough musical zeitgeists haunting the end of the 1970s. You can assuredly add the Human Switchboard to the ’70s punk rock line of crinkley Velvet Underground–deifying crunch—Modern Lovers to Neon Boys to Television to the Mirrors to the Feelies to Felt to Yo La Tengo.

There were some demos made for Polydor that never panned out, and Human Switchboard wound down around 1985. Pfeifer doled out a solo record in 1987, but soon made a name as an A&R rep and head of Hollywood Records for a spell. Marcarian had a 1991 solo salvo, and more recently has had her Ruby on the Vine band playing dates around the Midwest, with a new album, Along King’s Highway, coming out this spring.

And what do you know? A couple emails have revealed that Bar/None will finally be making with a reissue in the near future, adding various singles’ sides and unreleased tunes. Ah, cult status is overrated anyway.
Eric Davidson