The Pixies: Wave of Mutilation: Best of Pixies

Adrien Begrand

The Pixies

Wave of Mutilation: Best of Pixies

Label: 4AD
US Release Date: 2004-05-04
UK Release Date: 2004-05-03

It certainly is a good time to be The Pixies right now. The college rock legends' reunion tour has been met with such a frenzied reaction by fans, their entire spring 2004 tour sold out in mere minutes, and many dates on their upcoming fall tour sold out seven months in advance. Merchandise at the shows is selling very briskly, limited edition live recordings of their concerts have been selling out just as quickly (and are rapidly sprouting up on Ebay), and MP3s of every show are easily found on the peer-to-peer networks. Few saw this coming, but it's great to finally see such a venerable band do so well. Of course, when there's money to be made, you've got to pull out all the stops, so why not put out a compilation? Who cares if it's the second such compilation in seven years... wouldn't you?

We can still remember the collective groan that came from Pixies fans in 1997 when the Death to the Pixies anthology came out. It wasn't that it was a terrible collection of songs; hell, with a catalog as deep as The Pixies' is, it'd be next to impossible to screw it up. No, what made this particular CD so irritating was its paltry running time of 42 minutes. You had all their singles, sure, but along with the eyebrow-raising inclusion of their cover of the surf guitar instrumental "Cecilia Ann", several important album tracks, like "Hey" and "Vamos", were nowhere to be found. Also, its tracklisting was annoyingly convoluted, something that was bound to confuse new listeners. Yeah, the disc sounded good, but it was a bit of a trainwreck, too.

With any high profile reunion comes a new host of curious people who want a good, thorough introduction to the band, and although a stranger to The Pixies would be better off getting all four of the band's studio albums, there's the newly-released Wave of Mutilation: Best of Pixies for anyone who's looking for a quick, single disc Pixies primer, and thankfully, it's a major improvement over Death to the Pixies. Clocking in at a rather hefty 66 minutes this time around, this disc is considerably more comprehensive, a quality introduction to one of the greatest bands of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Of course, the more well-known, classic songs are all here, just like they were on the previous collection (in fact, aside from the wisely-dropped "Cecilia Ann", the entirety of Death to the Pixies is on this new CD). From 1988's Surfer Rosa, you've got the jarring, booming "Bone Machine", the sound of which would become producer Steve Albini's trademark (a major influence on major artists like Nirvana and PJ Harvey), the desolate "Where is My Mind?", with those haunting vocal harmonies by bassist Kim Deal, and of course, the playful, sexually charged "Gigantic", Deal's finest hour. The band's second album, Doolittle (1989), yielded the stunning quintet of "Debaser", "Wave of Mutilation", "Here Comes Your Man", "Monkey Gone to Heaven", and "Gouge Away", which collectively set the artistic standard for every single alternative rock act that would burst on the popular music scene in the 1990s. Then, from the much maligned, sadly underrated albums Bossanova and Trompe le Monde, there's the slick powerpop of "Velouria" and "Dig For Fire", and the thunderous aggression of "U-mass" and "Planet of Sound".

What's most important about Wave of Mutilation, though, are the other track selections, and it's no coincidence that this album mirrors the band's reunion tour setlists. And yes, those glaring omissions from before, Surfer Rosa's frenzied, Latin-fueled "Vamos" (on which guitarist Joey Santiago lets loose), and singer/guitarist Black Francis's (now Frank Black) demented, yet plaintive love song, Doolittle's "Hey". Also from Surfer Rosa, there's the twisted, facetious incest tale "Broken Face" ("I got no lips, I got no tongue/Whatever I say is only spit"), and from Trompe le Monde, the tragically overlooked single "Alec Eiffel", one of Black's most inventive songs, both in structure and melody. Two noteworthy B-sides are included for good measure, the live staple "Into the White", and the straightforward, yet charming cover of Neil Young's "Winterlong", with Black and Deal engaging in some of their finest vocal interplay. Bossanova continues to be the most ignored Pixies album, both in the band's recent live performances, and on this CD as well, as the 77 second "Allison" is the only new addition.

Of course, when there's a career spanning anthology by a respected band, there's the inevitable debate about what was left out, and good arguments can be made for such songs as "Levitate Me", "Cactus", "I Bleed", "No. 13 Baby", "All Over the World", "Motorway to Roswell", and "In Heaven". It might irritate some people that the full 79 minutes of the CD wasn't used, as Wave of Mutilation has room for several more additional tracks.

As far as best-of compilations go, Wave of Mutilation is a very good one, especially when compared to the last attempt. However, if you're new to the Pixies, and can spare the cash, you'd be much better off to just go and buy the band's four albums. Or, if you know a diehard Pixies fan with a CD burner, get them to make a good, thorough mix of Pixies classics. If you can't manage either, then yeah, this one will do just fine.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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