Letters from Somnolescent November 1, 2023

First Draft: Pixies’ Come On Pilgrim

by mariteaux

Rarely do albums come out right on the first shot. Labels reject them, bands disown them, and they get added onto after release. Here on First Draft, we take a look at albums that got cut down or remade and see what difference the changes made.

This review looks back on the Pixies’ debut EP Come On Pilgrim, the infamous purple tape it came from, and the re-records of the leftover material scattered throughout the rest of their initial run, and whether or not the EP would’ve been better served as a full album.

(Temporary note: to make sure this comes out on the 1st as intended, I’ve simply swiped art scans from other sites for the moment. I’ll add my own scans to this post in a few days when my copy of the Pixies EP arrives.)

So far on First Draft, we’ve mostly looked at albums that were recorded a few times, stuff that took more than one attempt. There’s another kind of draft, though: the band records a whole bunch of songs, but only releases some of them at the time. Sometimes, it’s due to label interference, and sometimes, it’s because the band wanted to save some of their best material for leaner times. Whatever the case may be, this band’s first sessions proved unmatchably fertile…and then only half of it came out, leaving the other half for redone B-sides over the next four years and a semi-official EP in 2002. What gives? Let’s find out.

You are the son of a motherfucker

David, Francis, Paz, Joey. Paz replaced Kim Shattuck in 2014, herself replacing their original bassist Kim Deal in 2013 after the recording of Indie Cindy. Needless to say, she won’t factor into the story much.

If Nirvana is the ideal entrypoint into alternative music as a whole, the Pixies are the ideal first gulp of weird rock. While the loud-quiet-loud thing the Pixies practically invented all their own was imitated by just about every 90s rock group (Nirvana very much included), that’s not all the Pixies were. Black Francis had a violent holler (and Kim Deal a pleasantly eerie contralto to match), his lyrics dealt in incest, mutilation, Biblical violence, grammatically off-kilter Spanish, and later science fiction, and their sound could effortlessly hop between screeching guitars, spaghetti westerns, and spacey surf like no other. Some of their songs are poppy enough to end up in CitiBank commercials, others left as deep cuts for generations of curious fans (like me) to discover.

While they found little commercial success during their initial run, they did rack up quite the word of mouth and entourage of famous fans. David Bowie covered Surfer Rosa‘s “Cactus”, the Pixies’ demented version of a ballad, where a jailed man begs for his wife to prove her continued existence by sending him a dress stained with her sweat, blood, and spilled food. Radiohead made a well-intentioned but odd tribute in the form of their early single “Stop Whispering” (and the single cover is a clear reference to Surfer Rosa‘s cover). Black Francis’ favorite cover of any Pixies song is Weezer’s version of “Velouria”. Surfer Rosa is directly responsible for producer Steve Albini getting the job on probably half a dozen albums, notably Rid of Me and In Utero. These days, they’re considered one of the finest bands to come from the 80s, and regardless of how their Deal-less reunion has gone, they’re still around and they’re still the Pixies–and that’s better than no Pixies at all, I think.

This human form, where I was born, I now repent

The original Pixies lineup, probably circa 1988
Kim Deal is in front. I only point her out because she wasn’t in the last band photo.

Like any good band, the stories of how the Pixies came together are effectively Chinese whispers at this point. Black Francis leaves the University of Massachusetts for Puerto Rico in 1986, only to return and convince his Filipino guitarist friend Joey Santiago to start a band with him. Kim Deal was drafted as a bassist by way of an ad in the Boston Phoenix: “Wanted: female vocalist for high harmonies, no chops,” and early on called herself Mrs. John Murphy as a feminist in-joke about her soon-to-be-divorced husband. David Lovering, the rock-solid magician/drummer, was drafted because he had a nice suit. This is only partially a joke.

In the derivative Boston scene, the weirdness of the Pixies stood out, and Gary Smith, who owned the fabled Boston studio Fort Apache, was hugely excited to work with them in any way he could, even bribing the band with his homemade fettuccine alfredo (Kim Deal is on record saying it was really good) in exchange for recording demos with him at home. His recordings with peer band Throwing Muses (whose Tanya Donnelly Kim would later start The Breeders with) landed them a record deal with indie upstarts 4AD, and Gary’s work on the seventeen tracks that make up The Purple Tape made its way into the Muses camp and finally to 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell, who offered the Pixies such a deal as well.

The Purple Tape was recorded in a three day sprint in a bitterly cold (“I remember people wearing snorkel jackets while doing parts, people wearing gloves while playing guitar,” recalled Gary) Fort Apache in March 1987 for roughly $1,500, or just over $4,000 in Clown World money. (Not factored into these costs is the amount of Jolt Cola the band reportedly consumed to stay awake.) As said, seventeen tracks were recorded in all, sixteen originals and a cover of Eraserhead‘s infamous “In Heaven” bookending the end of the first side of the tape. These tapes now fetch an average of $900 apiece on Discogs.

Despite The Purple Tape being recorded not as demos, but as a full work, Ivo opted to release only half the tape as the Pixies debut Come On Pilgrim, leaving the others to be released on obscure (often British, whose underground rock scene the Pixies had more sway with) magazine insert discs and redone as album tracks and B-sides on various singles throughout their career. Now-defunct indie label SpinART, who Black Francis later worked with as a solo artist, finally released the other half of the tape as the Pixies EP in 2002.

The Final Product: Revisiting Come On Pilgrim

Pixies' Come on Pilgrim

A lot gets made of how organic Surfer Rosa sounds, but it’s actually pretty abrasive for what it is. The drums crunch, Joey Santiago’s wild, squawking leads sound more like rampaging elephants, and the vocals are very stark and surprisingly treated. Nowhere is the difference more apparent between the two records than on “Vamos”, the song they both share. The Spanish intro is awkwardly barked and double-tracked on Rosa, the vocals bone dry, while on Pilgrim, they’re simply said, and a nice, natural ambience hugs the edges of the take. The drums thud more than they crunch, and the guitar leads have more twang to them. It’s just overall less tweaked, and I think the performances come out less forced for it.

What Pilgrim lacks in direct aggression, it makes up in its eeriness. “Caribou” crawls along with its self-loathing naturist sentiments (“I live cement/I hate this street/Give dirt to me/I’ve got lament”), dropping down to eerie falsettos that moan the title of the song and explode into wails of “repent” in the choruses. “Nimrod’s Son” brings up the specter of the Pixies’ country side, with its sharp acoustic guitars and driving beat, only for all the vocals to drop out in time for the protagonist’s sister to reveal, to what she thought was his bloody corpse, his incestuous origins. “Levitate Me”, which gives the EP its name, drones in tremolo picked guitars and basses as Black Francis begs and squeaks for the elevator lady to, well, do her levitation thing (“Won’t you please run over me?” he continues to track conclusion).

The few moments the Pixies do kick up the tempo, while not as directly aggressive as Rosa‘s loud moments, are no less memorable. “Isla De Encanta”, sung nearly entirely in Spanish, is one of the Pixies’ catchiest songs bar none, and while the lyrics depict a magical place of no suffering and rivers of rum, the buzzing chords and clipped and hissed vocal delivery remind you–it’s still Puerto Rico we’re talking about here. As upbeat as “I’ve Been Tired” is, it’s lyrically one of the most awkward (and fun) in the entire Pixies catalog: a traveling charity worker puts the moves on Black Francis, practically tonguing his ear, only for him to drop the mood in admitting his biggest fear is losing his penis to a whore with disease. Charmer.

I don’t think the EP is all killer, unfortunately. “Ed is Dead” is creepy, probably more off-kilter than most of Pilgrim, about a brain-damaged girl “rotting in stupid bliss” riding her bike aimlessly across L.A. with a transistor radio strapped to the handlebars, but the refrain is one of the weakest ever included on a Pixies record. While “The Holiday Song” might be the most graphic depiction of incest put to tape, I’ve never liked Black Francis’ absolutely tuneless vocal delivery on it, and the instrumental amounts to a dress rehearsal for “Tony’s Theme” off Rosa, another one I never listen to twice.

All that said–for a first outing, Come On Pilgrim is phenomenal. There’s a little bit of every side of the Pixies on display here, and it’s hardly meek, given that such a ramshackle band put it together. There was a method to the Pixies madness from day one–but it’s only half the tape. Let’s talk about what got left off.

The First Draft: Examining The Purple Tape

Pixies' self-titled EP

Instead of talking about the songs in Purple Tape order, partially for reasons I’ll return to in the “Comparing the Drafts” section and partially to avoid retreading Come On Pilgrim, I’m going to discuss them in the order they’re on on the Pixies EP. We’ll discuss each song’s more-famous re-recording as they come, should the song have one.

Pixies starts out with “Broken Face”, of course later made famous on Surfer Rosa. Of the songs that became album tracks, Surfer Rosa got the most of them, with three, as opposed to one on Doolittle (“Here Comes Your Man”), Bossanova (“Down to the Well”), and Trompe Le Monde (“Subbacultcha”) each. Despite my gripes about Rosa‘s “Vamos”, a lot of the time, that violence in the Rosa versions actually work to their advantage. “Broken Face” and “Break My Body” are effectively the same song, just without Steve Albini’s knob-twiddling to give them their battering edge. On the flip side of that, though, “I’m Amazed” has a nice, melodic bridge that Albini reportedly got the band to cut for being “too pussy”, and it easily tips the scales in the favor of the 1987 version.

The brightest point of the entire EP, perhaps of the entire tape, is the track that had previously appeared on a completely obscure 7″ given away with Sounds magazine and no place else in the band’s catalog, “Rock A My Soul”. This song fucking rules. Lyrically, it’s abstract and elliptical, but musically, it’s perhaps the best summation of the Pixies as a whole besides “Tame”. The seismic shifts between the stomping instruments on the verse, punctuated by dead silence, Joey Santiago’s rumbling leads in the “I’m waiting” post-refrain, Black Francis’ juiced up squeals, and the extreme length–this song makes its grand statement in a grand total of 1:40. I think I adore it. This might be my favorite Pixies song.

“Down to the Well” and “Here Comes Your Man” are kissing cousins in no one’s head but mine, but here’s how I relate the two in our discussion: both got radically reworked for their later renditions. On Bossanova, “Down to the Well” is slow, kinda neat atmospherically, but incredibly showy and performative in a way I don’t think suits the song or the band very well. Here, it’s a lot more natural, with the trudging rhythm and Kim Deal’s monotone backing vocal rolling out a great bed for Black Francis’ sex-in-code ramblings. “Here Comes Your Man” meanwhile, is recognizably the same song, but structurally it’s a lot more drawn out (Francis doesn’t start singing for a whopping–in Pixies time–35 seconds into the song), and the extra verse in the Doolittle version helps to build the world of the song in a way you don’t get from the Purple Tape version. The Purple Tape version is a pop song trying to sabotage itself; the Doolittle version embraces being one.

“Subbacultcha” is both the beginning and the end for the band. Written in 1986 about the, well, subculture of the freaks at the band’s old stomping grounds of U-Mass (sample lyrics: “We did the clubs, what ass?/I was hoping to have her in the sack/I was looking handsome/She was looking like an erotic vulture”), it finally found a place on their swan song, 1991’s Trompe Le Monde, sounding snottier, somehow more bored, and without the major key sunshine that comes from the “We’re having fun” bridge on the Purple Tape version (that became its own song, though separating the two wasn’t for the better, I don’t think). The EP closes on a note not dissimilar to Come On Pilgrim, topped off with a Pixiesified version of Eraserhead‘s eternally-unsettling “In Heaven” that easily wins out against the one on the Gigantic single (let’s be real, studio reverb versus a drunken crowd–for this song?).

Comparing the Drafts

Pixies proves to be just as strong as Come On Pilgrim, more varied in quality, but the highs in some cases outweighing not just anything on Pilgrim, but the Pixies’ own attempts at new versions of these songs years later. Sometimes, you just gotta let the band do what they do naturally! It does speak to the insane amount of inspiration and songwriting talent that Black Francis during their initial run had that he had so many leftover tunes that were quality enough to return to throughout equally-strong later albums. Most bands write the ten songs that appear on the album and a few extras; he had practically another album’s worth of unreleased material in him by the time their first full-length hit shelves.

So now, what of combining the two? They’re mastered slightly differently, so you can definitely tell where each EP begins and where each one ends, but can you make a playlist of the two with the Purple Tape‘s running order and have it be the best of both worlds? I wouldn’t say so, for one big reason: The Purple Tape was sequenced like dogshit. “Levitate Me” is not an opener; as much as that song rules, it starts too abruptly, it doesn’t set the mood for an album correctly. It’s hard to imagine “Vamos” anywhere other than track two, “Isla De Encanta” anywhere other than track three, and “Ed is Dead” anywhere but a weird aberration somewhere in the middle of the running order (it’s also not a closer like The Purple Tape sets it as).

As much as I sympathize with the idea that all of the songs altogether are a far more accurate picture of the Pixies’ range than the two separate EPs on their own are, I do think splitting them was the right call in the end. Come on Pilgrim definitely establishes its own sonic world as one singular work, while Pixies is hard to separate from being a whole bunch of songs that were redone later, even if half the time, the originals prove better than the redos. Even if it’s only because of context, I do think Pilgrim is the ideal place to start, and Pixies is the ideal EP to get if you really fucking liked Pilgrim (and I do).

That said, neither of them are perfect discs. You can probably cut them down into a single, perfect 13-track disc not unlike Surfer Rosa and beyond–though which songs to take out depends on who you are. As much as I’m indifferent towards the early versions of “Here Comes Your Man”, I’ve seen way more people swear by them and their particular, weird ambience. The Pixies divide people more than most highly-regarded bands, but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s a sign of risk. Rock could use more of that.

It was nice to write a First Draft that didn’t require a lot of new listening and thought on my part, since I’m busy with so many other projects. The Pixies were huge favorites of mine in high school, and I’ve been long familiar with both of these EPs (though I only just got Pixies in the collection! Had to import it from Australia).

I’ve got enough of these now that I can start calling attention to the blog tag for First Draft entries, if you’d like to read more. These come out every month, ideally on the 1st, so stay tuned! Next month, we discuss what happens when Marcy Playground accidentally steals your album art.

About mariteaux

Somnolescent's webmaster with way too much to write about and a stack of CDs he'll never finish.

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