By: Eric Greenwood
The Pixies' legendary "purple tape" consisted of seventeen songs recorded by Gary Smith at Boston's famous Fort Apache studios in March of 1987. Bankrolled by Black Francis' father, these seventeen songs were strong enough to land the band its recording contract with lauded English label, 4AD. Eight songs from this session ended up comprising the Pixies' debut 4AD release, Come On Pilgrim, later that same year and were released "as is", which says a lot about the quality of both the recording as well as the songs. The remaining nine songs from this session have been heavily bootlegged over the years and, rightly so, as they reveal historical insight into one of the greatest American bands ever.
The question of who is the best "American" band often comes up in today's showy, elitist, critical culture. The typical answers invariably make me yawn. No, it isn't the Beach boys. One great album the best band ever does not make. The Velvet Underground is often bandied about with equal haughtiness, but points should be taken away from bands that revel in utter pretentiousness in the name of art, despite a few catchy songs. Why no one ever thinks to suggest the Talking Heads or the Pixies is beyond me. After all the Pixies were a great band AND unbelievably influential. Remember "Smells Like Teen Spirit?" Kurt Cobain admitted he was blatantly ripping of the Pixies…
These nine songs that didn't make the cut for the Come On Pilgrim EP will be familiar to most Pixies fans, as almost every song has appeared, albeit in a slightly altered forms, on the band's four studio albums, which were all released in four consecutive years. "Build High" was reworked during the sessions for Trompe Le Monde in 1991, but only made it as far as the b-side to "Planet Of Sound." "In Heaven" was a live staple and often the show-closer in the band's early days, and it was, of course, the b-side to "Gigantic" in 1988. Only One song is previously unreleased- the rollicking "Rock A My Soul", which sounds like an outtake from the Bossanova period.
The most striking aspect of these sessions is how ready the Pixies were – having only been a band for a few months – to unleash such original and truly weird music on the unsuspecting independent rock underground in the late 1980's. Mixing brash, piercing guitars with melodic male/female vocal harmonies, unpredictable loud/soft dynamics, and enigmatic (to say the least) lyrics, the Pixies revolutionized college radio. The band's first seventeen songs were astonishingly good. Black Francis was not only prolific in his songwriting but also unique and sharp as nails. These demos reveal a band of its own time. There are threads of post-punk, surf rock, doom and gloom, and pop throughout, but it's the Pixies' unbridled sense of experimentation that sets it apart.
Gary Smith's simple production doesn't give the Pixies the directness or the jarring blast that Steve Albini did on Surfer Rosa, but he manages to showcase the band's talents well enough. I think his philosophy was to let the songs speak for themselves; they were demos, after all. Black Francis sounds somewhat restrained vocally on classics like "Broken Face" and "Break My Body." I guess he just hadn't developed his caterwauling shriek at that point. The playing is a bit looser than you'd expect, and several of the songs are noticeably slower than their more famous versions. It's crazy to me that the band culled songs from this demo all the way through its final album, Trompe Le Monde in 1991. Hearing these early versions is like spying on a band in its practice space. It's both exciting and surreal.
I know most of these songs as well as I know my own face. They are embedded in my consciousness. This release is as exciting to me as the Anthologies were to Beatles fans. American bands never seem to get any respect when the "greatest bands of all time" are mentioned because the damn limeys always hog the spotlight. Beatles, Rolling Stones, my ass. Here's to the Pixies.