1987 Week: Pixies shape the sound of alt-rock with ‘Come On Pilgrim’

This week on Vanyaland we are celebrating all things 1987 with a look back at moments, trends, and icons in the worlds of music and film. Follow along #V87.

They did not know it yet, but in 1987 a whole generation of soon-to-be disciples of the unnatural side of rock were awaiting their awakening. When the Pixies released their clamorous debut Come On Pilgrim late that year, legions of unsuspecting fans were introduced to a brand new world of jaggedly beautiful noise, demonic possession, and illicit sexual fervor.

The cult that was the Pixies began a year earlier, in 1986, when a man who called himself Black Francis and his college pal Joey Santiago placed an ad in the Boston Phoenix seeking a bassist who’s influences were equal parts Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul, and Mary. They received only one response, from a woman named Kim Deal, and the trio formed the Pixies along with drummer and part-time magician David Lovering. They were like nothing anyone had ever heard, switching seamlessly between smooth pop hooks and frantic noise, and as they developed their sound the cult that had surrounded them grew as well, eventually attracting such devotees as Kurt Cobain, Pavement, and Radiohead. 

Come On Pilgrim was the staggering initiation to that cult. Clocking in at only 20 minutes of playtime, the Pixies’ debut served as both a fiercely distinctive statement and an indication of what was to come. Its eight tracks included some of the band’s most inventive work alongside its most accessible.

On “Holiday Song,” for example, the Pixies came about as close as they would ever come to a high-flying guitar-pop song, while just two tracks earlier they delivered a pair of high-octane punk songs in “Vamos” and “Isla de Encanta” that feature Black Francis barking in Spanish over Santiago’s frenzied guitar. These relatively straightforward cuts are contrasted by tracks like the thrashing “I’ve Been Tired,” which finds Francis growling about unrequited desire, or the roiling closer “Levitate Me” that spirals from murky depths into an undeniably poppy chorus without a second thought.

However, the true embodiment of the energy of Come On Pilgrim comes on the opener “Caribou.” In many ways, the first song that the public heard from the Pixies was their most representative and ambitious, reaching heights that were not often overcome on later albums. Employing the powerful dynamics that the Pixies would become known for, “Caribou” combines some of Black Francis’s sweetest singing with his most raw and explosive, making it sound right at home even among the band’s more refined later work like Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. For the band’s most fervent disciples, the squealing guitar line that announces the Pixies’ arrival to the world has become synonymous with everything new and exciting in rock music.

While it was followed up in just six months by the hugely influential Surfer Rosa, Come On Pilgrim remains one of the strongest and most unique inaugural statements in rock music. Providing a brief but potent teaser of what was to be a long and celebrated career, the Pixies’ first album set the standard from which they would develop their sound and become one of the most important bands of the pre-grunge era.

While some critics refer to the Boston band in somewhat reductionist terms for their contributions as the “quiet-loud band” of alternative rock, the unique sonic idea that the Pixies brought to the table went much deeper and spoke to a furious and yet somehow repressed energy in those who listened.

With Come On Pilgrim, the Pixies not only carved a place for themselves in the traditions that they were joining but also forged a new movement, one of self-discovery in gnarled and beautiful noise, of letting the world see and hear your own visceral and often unpleasant truths and feeling okay with it all. 

Featured Pixies photo via 4AD. Listen to two vintage Pixies recordings from 1987 below, the first a full broadcast from Emerson College’s WERS Studios in January 1987 and the second a performance of “Nimrod’s Son” at Green Street Station in Jamaica Plain.