“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).