The greatest thing about the expanded reissue of Human Switchboard’s lone studio album, 1981’s Who’s Landing In My Hangar? isn’t the depth or breadth of its curation. It does gather 21 tracks on one CD and 19 more via digital bonus, but this is a fairly obscure band with only one proper album to its name. That the previously unreleased 1983 Polydor demos were recorded at CBGB or that Pere Ubu’s David Thomas remixed two songs (“Fly-In” and “Shake It Boys”) billed together as “Fly-In Sessions” in 1977 are mere facts. Interesting tidbits, sure, but hardly worth the price of admission on their own.
It’s not the perennially fun “Where Are They Now?” game that these sorts of reissues always spawn, even though it’s particularly delightful for Human Switchboard. Keyboardist and singer Myrna Marcarian released the solo EP Human Touch EP in 1989, two years after frontman Bob Pfeifer released his lone solo album, After Words. Marcarian later released two albums with her band Ruby On The Vine. Pfeifer abandoned his music career for a music-industry career, eventually becoming president of Hollywood Records. In 2006, Pfeifer pleaded guilty to charges of paying private investigator Anthony Pellicano to wiretap an ex-girlfriend. He’s now promoting his first novel, University of Strangers . Drummer Ron Metz is a session musician and a member of The Schramms. And, yet again, all interesting but ultimately inconsequential facts.
The greatest thing about Who’s Landing In My Hangar?: Anthology 1977-1984 is, as it should be, the music. The album itself offers the greatest gems. The Marcarian-led opener “(Say No To) Saturday’s Girl” suggests the sultry-sarcastic vocal and keys-driven sound of Blondie’s prime. The title track is perhaps the most characteristic Human Switchboard cut, evoking the nervy funk of the Talking Heads before launching into an organ-buoyed chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Reigning Sound platter.
“Refrigerator Door,” which Kurt Cobain once called “the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of punk,” makes no secret of the Switchboard’s love for The Velvet Underground. Still, the counterpoint between Phifer and Marcarian is compelling and fresh. He dons his best Lou Reed, with a sneering talk-sing that lays flat the song’s melody. She pushes the song toward pop, offsetting her bandmate with swelling la-la-la-la’s.
Like New Jersey’s Feelies, at roughly the same time, the Ohio-bred Human Switchboard took the Velvet Underground’s template and made it something new, interesting, and far removed from the gritty urban setting that defined the Velvets and Lou Reed. “In My Room,” takes its title from a suburban sanctuary, but Phifer’s staggering, flat vocal details a dissolving relationship atop spare percussion and organ, and gently clanging guitar.
By the time of 1983’s Polydor Demos, the band was reaching farther toward pure pop. “A Lot of Things” puts Marcarian and her keyboards at the front, driven by Metz and a rhythm that could’ve been lifted from the English Beat. Pfeifer’s low mumble proves an apt complement in the chorus, unsettling the song’s smoothness enough to save it. “She Invites” plays its tangled guitar line for dramatic effect, casting it across a bed of soft synthesizers.
Still, these later sessions are clearly coming from the same band that recorded the rougher, garage-rock heard on “Shake it, Boys,” from the 1977 “Fly-In Sessions.”
It’s in the middle ground, though, between the early garage-rock tunes, the later pop tunes, and the artier diversions that Human Switchboard’s music is most compelling. This is the territory inhabited by Who’s Landing In My Hangar?, and the territory most worth revisiting regularly.