Transplant the early Velvet Underground to the late ’70s, trade that band’s kinkier concerns for conventional male-female issues, and you’ve got Kent, Ohio’s Human Switchboard in a nutshell. Repeated disclaimers aside, leader Bob Pfeifer sings in a dry, ironic style suggestive of young Lou Reed, and Myrna Marcarian’s wobbly organ playing adds an amateurish tint that evokes White Light/White Heat.
The Human Switchboard debuted with a junky-sounding 7-inch (mixed by Pere Ubu’s David Thomas) whose four songs clearly (if ineptly) demonstrate the two sides of the trio’s sound. “Distemper” and “Shake It, Boys” are straight garage rock, while “San Francisco Nights” is a total Lou Reed imitation.
On the Switchboard’s sole studio album, Who’s Landing in My Hangar?, Pfeifer creates a neurotic, high-strung persona that makes for gripping listening. Two uptempo cuts (“Book on Looks” and “(I Used to) Believe in You”) celebrate the ups and downs of romance, while the LP’s high point, “Refrigerator Door,” carefully weaves an intriguing web of personal details. It all seems embarrassingly confessional, which is a pretty neat trick.
The Switchboard’s other two releases are live recordings that overlap material extensively with Hangar. The 1980 disc, an authorized bootleg, features Marcarian’s haunting rendition of “Downtown.” Coffee Break is from a November 1981 Cleveland radio broadcast.
Time mellows even a sourpuss like Pfeifer it seems. Without the Switchboard behind him (though ex-members of the defunct group appear on After Words), he’s looser, more willing to play off the rhythms, which themselves are less constricted than before. Pfeifer’s still got an obvious affinity for Lou Reed’s plainspoken approach to interpersonal tales, offering diary-like accounts in “She Always Smiled” and “I’m Better for You.” In “Knock-Knock,” he finally succumbs to the urge to do a straight Reed imitation. Otherwise, worthwhile.
Myrna Marcarian’s solo EP may leave folks wishing she’d stepped out sooner. Apart from a track in a Switchboard vein that finds her sounding unpleasantly like Stevie Nicks, she successfully tackles some tough, driving rockers here, assisted by nimble guitarist Jack Johnson and Switchboard drummer Ron Metz, more recently of the Schramms. Pfeifer went on to become an A&R man, a record company president and later pleaded guilty to “aiding and abetting wiretapping” in the Anthony Pellicano scandal.