Debaser (the Pixies).
Debaser (Tin Machine, live, 1991).

That’s the whole formula of the Pixies, that one song,” Joey Santiago once said of “Debaser.” “All the sound qualities are there. That’s what it represents.”

Bowie had loved and name-dropped the Pixies ever since he’d first heard Surfer Rosa in 1988. (It’s never been clear whether Reeves Gabrels had turned Bowie onto them or if Bowie had found them on his own.) He was taken by the band’s dynamics, Santiago’s guitar playing, Black Francis’ lyrics, their mingle of trash TV and surrealism, and Francis’ stage presence itself (“his mass of screaming flesh”).

And his favorite Pixies song was “Debaser,” the lead-off track of Doolittle. Bowie saw it as a quintessentially American song, dealing with religion and debasement and, most of all, ambition, with a crackpot joy running through it. It’s a disciple’s song, a boy somehow stumbling across Un Chien Andalou* on television and getting worked up, entranced by the idea of being a professional irritant, a worm in society (the original lyric was “Ma, I wanna be..“) As Francis screams “De-BASE-ER,” Kim Deal quietly repeats the word after him, as though she’s trying to coach a demented child, while Santiago’s riff cycles around him.

So Tin Machine covering “Debaser,” which they played in nearly every show of their 1991-92 tour, was both tribute and evangelism (Bowie considered the Pixies shamefully underexposed in America). Bowie gave it to Tony Sales, but as the tour went on, he turned it into a duet, Bowie becoming a hype man for the song, jabbing and weaving into Tony, his phrasings ranging from the manic to the robotic (in a Tokyo performance, Bowie blankly intoned the “ha ha ha ho” lines). While Tony didn’t come anywhere close to Francis’ yawp (and his “Andalucia,” which Francis had sung in exaggerated Castilian, sounds like “Andalooser”), he was game enough and seemed to get caught up in the song each night that he sang it. The band, especially Hunt Sales’ bludgeoning 4/4, discarded the clockwork precision of the Pixies’ original–how the song quickly crests from Deal’s bassline to Santiago’s riff to David Lovering’s fills—in favor of just thrashing away at the song as though they meant to beat it into submission.

Performed throughout the “It’s My Life” tour, with the above recording from one of their last US concerts, the Warfield in San Francisco, 17 December 1991.

* Or Purple Rain. The original chorus lyric was “shed, Apollonia!,” a reference to Apollonia’s nude scene in that film.

Top: Kevin Westenberg, “The Pixies,” outtake from the Bossanova photo shoot, 1990; included in the Trompe Le Monde tour program, 1991 (scan via this site).

13 Responses to Debaser

  1. Maj says:

    Yay! Finally a song I know! πŸ˜€

    Erm. Anyway. Yeah, the cover is shite. The arrangement is, to be exact. Tony’s singing is OK, actually.

  2. Jaf says:

    I remember watching Un Chien Andalou in Wembley Pool (now Arena) on the Thin White Duke tour. At the end the screen rolled up and a spotlight shone on Stacey Hayden starting Station To Station. Blew my 16 year-old mind…*sigh*

  3. BenJ says:

    Bowie and Black Francis/Frank Black are a touching mutual admiration society, actually. I think Bowie was thrilled that these American kids knew and appreciated Marc Bolan. His “Cactus” cover from Heathen is fun, if not matching the original.

  4. Mike says:

    A great song that’s nearly impossible to cover — TM embarrass themselves again.

    Please stop, gentlemen. Please.

  5. Mike F says:

    Here is an energetic and punky TM cover that I actually like. For once, TM don’t sound like they are about to fall asleep midway through a song.

  6. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    For all the crap going on, Bowie had one thing going for him that (save for Neil Young) the other dinosaurs didn’t – he was still paying attention. That would end up being what redeemed him, I think.

  7. Sky-Possessing Spider (formerly PH) says:

    Great band,The Pixies. I was more or less into them from the beginning after a friend put me onto them. They didn’t get down to Oz much in their early days unfortunately, but I did have the fortune of finally seeing them in 2007 at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. The support act was the equally legendary New York Dolls, whose only surviving original members by then were David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain.
    Incidentally, can anybody pick the obscure Bowie reference in my new moniker?

    • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

      …”Formerly PH”? Are you trying to steal my identity!?

    • Diamond Duke says:

      S-PS, your new moniker is inspired by a line from the first verse of Take My Tip, the very first original Bowie composition to ever be officially released! πŸ˜€ It’s actually the B-side of I Pity The Fool, recorded with the Manish Boys.

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        Got it in one. But I have to say it’s nice to be on a forum where people automatically get obscure references like that, rather than looking at you blankly.

  8. susannamowo says:

    The marvelous Gil Norton is undeniably responsible for “that” sound on Doolittle. Charles and Gil have been working together again recently, apparently

  9. Steven says:

    This is the first song on the blog that I will not listen to even once.

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