What replaced the rock epic were simple moments captured in concise lyrics, propelled by extremely basic musical stylings. Moments like New York’s downtown No Wave scene didn’t sophisticate punk so much as reveal the art house leanings at its heart. Fresh as it was, punk was a little late to the party; art movements had been pushing us to the brink of nihilism for nearly six decades, championing the art of marginal groups like children and the insane. This is where the Y Pants come in. They combined the sensationalism of punk with a new emphasis on the everyday. They put the theory into action. Listening to the Y Pants was an event, a minor manifesto, a small explosion in the bedroom.
In 1979, the Y Pants came together out of a few impromptu jam sessions between filmmaker Gail Vachon and No-Wave mainstay Barbara Ess. Ess had previously played with The Static and Theoretical Girls, while Vachon found herself increasingly distracted by the soundtracks to her films. The two soon enlisted the help of Virginia “Verge” Piersol, who, despite never having played drums, would provide the rhythmic groundwork for all of Y Pants’ music. Vachon played a toy grand piano she found on the street, while Ess brought along a thumb drum and a ukulele. Piersol’s first drums were “a Mickey Mouse kit with paper heads, combined with a regular tom-tom.” The Y Pants were born.
Of course, everyone loved them. With their toy instruments and quotations from Emily Dickinson and Brecht set to music, by December of that year they were opening for Glenn Branca and would soon head to the studio with the No-Wave godfather as their producer. Summer of 1980 saw the release of their debut EP on 99 Records, Y Pants, and the trio was regularly playing clubs like CBGBs, Tier 3 and Irving Plaza. They were also big on the gallery scene: gigs at Franklin Furnace, White Columns, etc. The liner notes to Periodic Document’s 1998 discography collection, long out-of-print and now re-pressed for the first time, is filled with quotes from the likes of Kiki Smith and Dan Graham, confirming the fact that everything I know about punk I learned from art history. Graham even placed their “percussive primitivism and girl vocal teasing playfulness” in the same league as The Slits and The Raincoats. But soon after the release of their sole LP, Beat it Down (Neutral, 1982), the Y Pants broke up and quickly faded to obscurity. They weren’t featured on Eno’s No New York, nor did they morph into a new wave hit machine. They simply came and went, leaving some sixteen songs behind them.
The music is beyond reproach – otherwise I wouldn’t have already written so much. A few comments on some of my favorites, though. “Magnetic Attraction” first appeared in an issue of Tellus Magazine in 1982 and is probably the catchiest Y Pants song: quickly strummed ukulele, bass up front and clear in the mix, chanting voices, uptempo and repetitive drums. There are the occasional detours into multi-tracked vocal loops and discordant breakdowns, but on the whole it’s a marvelously crafted pop tune. “Magnetic attraction / you can’t resist / magnetic attraction / you can’t resist / High voltage humans, / high voltage humans.” The Y Pants always had a way of saying a lot in very few words. Here they seem to be poking fun at the militarism of most punk rock, the magnetic attraction that unifies its audience into a crowd of so-called high voltage humans. In a spoken interlude, they tell us: “Doctor doubted the stories he’d been hearing about the young girl’s charge / of high voltage electricity / So he reached out / and took her / by the hand.” Songs like “Beautiful Food” and “Favorite Sweater” took a more modest approach, exploring what Barbara Ess called “small music” by singing about exactly what their titles described. “I washed my favorite sweater tonight / There it is, on the line.” The songs’ toy piano and wonky guitar helped express just how magical those small moments could be.
“Obvious” is another classic. Stripped down to essentials, the song features ratchet-like percussion, watery piano and gently sung vocals, occasionally interrupted by punctuations from Gail’s Casio keyboard and Verge’s crashing cymbals. Author Lynne Tillman guest-wrote the lyrics. “Do the Obvious, it’s so exciting,” they tell us. “Don’t be afraid to be boring.” The Y Pants’ music must have been frustrating; they sported a DIY aesthetic in line with the time, but their music was decidedly undanceable. It didn’t sound like the catalyst for the revolution, just a melancholy ditty with a quirky sense of humor. Perhaps that’s why Y Pants has been left in the dust of history: their music reflects a less inspiring moment than the raw, empowering records of 1977. With Reagan as president, 1982 must have felt rather similar to the disillusion following the failed promises of 1968.
I love the sprightly keyboards of “The Fly,” the gentle lyricism of “Lulu,” the anger of “Beat it Down” that comes through in the music’s shambling, atonal jangle. The songs covered a huge range of emotions with an entirely new syntax; it’s easy to see how the group could capture a generation, if only for a brief moment. For someone like Kiki Smith, “many of their lyrics had become part of my vocabulary… They’re my youth.” It was “girlie punk music” with a hidden bite to it. Just listen to “That’s the Way Boys Are,” a détourned Lesley Gore hit. “When I’m with my guy and he watches all the pretty girls go by / That’s the way boys are / And I feel so hurt deep inside I wish that I could die / That’s the way boys are,” the three chant, a capella, while in the background one can hear a woman’s screams – Smith’s, ironically – that immediately call to mind a murder victim or a rape. It’s terrifying, a bile-filled comment on the sad state of gender politics that persists even today. That was the Y Pants: three girls who saw something wrong with the world and did the most that anyone can do to change it. They made a record.
Y Pants - Obvious.mp3 (192 kbps, 4 mb)
Y Pants - Discography (Periodic Document, 1998/2007)