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Satan's Pilgrims: Plymouth Rock – Best Of

Satan's Pilgrims: Plymouth Rock – Best Of (MuSick 2004)
(Originally posted on Surf Guitar 101 and Reverborama on April 12, 2005)

It's been more than a few months since this has come out and several other people have reviewed it by now, but I just thought I'd throw my two pennies in (judging solely by the length, it's more like 'my $20' – the value is probably still two pennies ). I've been digging the hell out of this CD and I can't recommend it enough for all the surf music fans out there. Plainly speaking, this is a MUST buy! The Pilgrims have in many ways defined the nineties surf scene, and they are probably the most influential nineties surf band today (a Danish surf band El Ray have even named themselves after an SP song, as well as actually copied the SP sound; the Nebulas have never been shy in voicing what SP mean to them; and I see the Pilgrims come up quite often in interviews with other newer surf bands). They were among the most prolific of the nineties surf bands, as well, breaking the 'two-CDs-and-no-more' curse that afflicted many others (the Fathoms, the Penetrators, the Space Cossacks, the Treble Spankers, the Huntington Cads, Husky & the Sandmen, the Eliminators, the Volcanos, etc.). Between '94 and '99 they released five full CDs, each one packed with many, MANY brilliant and inspired moments.
Those of us that actually were fortunate enough to share a stage with them and get to know them as people can tell you two things: first, they were an incredible live act, and second, they are truly kind and friendly people. The first time the Space Cossacks played with them was in Baltimore on their first US tour, in 1996. It was just a few months after the Cossacks had formed and we really didn't know what we were doing yet. But I remember Ted being full of compliments afterwards, even saying that we were tighter than them, which I'm SURE wasn't the case – but it just shows what a good guy he is. More importantly, I remember seeing them that first time and being completely blown away. Having not seen many surf bands live at that point, we learned quite a bit that night. There they were, in white jeans, red shirts and black capes, backed with a wall of Dual Showmans and a sound so thick it seemed one could actually float in it! I already had their first two CDs ("At Home With..." and "Soul Pilgrim") by then, so I was familiar with their songs and sound, but seeing them live was something entirely different. The next time we saw them was as part of our West Coast tour in '98. We flew to Seattle, played a show with the Boss Martians, and then went down to Portland, on the Fourth of July. The Pilgrims had a very lucrative gig at a restaurant in Portland scheduled for that afternoon, but they simply GAVE US the gig so we could make more money on the tour. I'm still blown away by their generosity that day (and Dave even drove their van packed full of amps, guitars, drums, etc. to the gig to let us use whatever we needed). The deal was though that in turn we would play in their basement for their Fourth of July party that evening – hell, yeah!! We started the night, and then their garage side project the Chimps came on, and man, oh, man, that was FUN!! What a great night. It seemed that the entire Portland surf/garage scene was there. Afterwards, Mark English, the Cossacks rhythm guitarist, and myself stayed with Dave the guitar player/keyboardist in his huge house, while the rest of the band stayed at the Pilgrims HQ, where Ted (drummer), John (bass player) and Scott (guitar) lived (Bobby, the third guitarist, had left the band by then). I remember Dave plugging in an old Vox organ and playing in the living room while Mark and I were trying to go to sleep! He just wouldn't stop! I think it was something like 6am when he finally quit. But there's no way we could hold it against him, cause Dave is about the sweetest human being you could possibly ever imagine meeting. A prince – maybe a nocturnal prince, but a prince nonetheless! The next day we packed up and drove to Corvalis, Oregon, where we got to play a real gig with the Pilgrims – and again, they were awesome. Even without Bobby, they had a huge sound and the kiddies (Corvalis is a college town) just ate it up, dancing their brains out. That was the last time I saw those guys, but I will always very fondly remember our gigs together. And once again, thank you guys for everything you had done for us!

Unfortunately, over the last couple of years their CDs have been becoming more difficult to find. That's where MuSick came in. Art Bourasseau had signed the Pilgrims to MuSick for their final (self-titled) platter, and had somehow secured the rights to the rest of their catalogue to give us this double-CD collection which is simply overloaded with goodies. For those that don't have a whole lot of SP stuff, well, you gotta get this. For those that have everything (like me), there are more than enough extras here to make this an essential purchase. The first CD has 18 tracks culled from their five albums, while the second CD has four brand new songs by the recently reunited band (albeit on part-time basis), plus a couple of previously unreleased tracks, some rare comp- or vinyl-45-only tracks and finally a newly-compiled video of some live appearances by the band. It's a regular cornucopia of Satan! Here are some of the highlights, in my humble opinion.

The first CD set out to do the impossible – pick 20 or so tracks from around 70 that appeared on their five albums – yikes! Now, obviously not every one of those 70 tracks is essential, but there are definitely more than 20 that are, so consider this simply a sampler platter. For a true fan, nothing but having all the CDs will do, and I suspect that once most people hear this collection, they'll quickly become true fans. Anyway, given the limitations, I have to admit that the selection of songs is really good. I miss a few (such as Small Craft Advisory, Goulash, El Rey, Brokendown Deuce, Black Marquis and their covers of Scatter Shield, Morpheus, and Wave), but in a world of scarcity hard choices must be made (that's the economist-me speaking). What IS on the CD is incredible. Though the Pilgrims are often simply labeled a trad-surf band, they were much more than that. First of all, they featured two other major influences: mid-to-late-sixties biker-fuzz-music (a la Davie Allan) and even more importantly the sixties Northwest r&b/garage/early-punk stuff like the Wailers and the Sonics. I don't know of any surf band that has that same mix of sounds and influences, which is what made the Pilgrims unique. What I appreciate even more is that they were not afraid to follow their inspiration and do things differently. They definitely pushed trad surf into new territories. Just check out the title track of their fourth platter, "Creature Feature" (probably my favorite CD by them) – after a LENGTHY intro of some canned, tense horror-film orchestral music, the song itself is completely unlike anything done by any sixties surf band, but yet SO RIGHT! The mood of this four-minute epic is supremely creepy with a forlorn melody that somehow seems to build and build in intensity until you're just overwhelmed by the tension of it all. Harmonically this song is unlike almost any other sixties song. But when they play it with that beautiful traditional surf sound and feel, it clearly becomes a surf song. And then throw the crazy fuzz guitar that seems to come straight from a Cleeshays album into the middle of the song, and it's all too much. Absolutely brilliant! From the same album comes "Scorpio 6" which is again completely unique. A beautiful-but-dark melody evokes an Eastern European feel that is vaguely reminiscent of the Atlantics, but yet it is very distinctly a Satan's Pilgrims song – I can't imagine anybody else writing and performing something like this. It's worth saying that these guys were also master arrangers, knowing how to write and put the parts together in a way that would make the songs unfold like stories. And their little touches made all the difference – the organ part here, the harmony guitar part there, it all added up to truly inspired and inspirational songwriting. Speaking of harmony guitars, with their three-guitar attack they were able to throw them in quite a bit (another element pretty much non-existent in sixties surf), and I love it. Check out "Que Honda?" from their first album, a gem of a song if there ever was one. The song unfolds in layers, one of them being the addition of some harmony guitar, which just works so well it's scary. Another thing about the Pilgrims was the utter lack of ego among all the players. Taking their cue from the Ramones, they all went with the last name of Pilgrim. And you can hear that lack of ego in the music. Solos were rare – instead, each member played a part that made the song better. And though they're all clearly excellent musicians, it was never about showing off chops – just do what's right for the song. The first song on this CD shows that off very well – "Vampiro" is as simple as it gets, reminiscent of "Morpheus" by the Toads in a sense that the lead melody is not much more than two or three notes. But what glorious notes! You gotta have serious musical talent to be able to make something so simple so good. And this is always where the Pilgrims excelled. They could take the most hackneyed, worn-out I-IV-V progression and make it sound cool and fresh, as they did often. Though those types of songs were not my favorites by them, they definitely got the dance floor moving and added a big element of fun to their albums. Though there are a few songs of this type on the CD, such as the title track "Plymouth Rock", "Grave-Up", "Shit Sandwich," "Soul Pilgrim", the emphasis is instead on their more melodic material. But what becomes clearly evident is how diverse and imaginative even their melodic material was. I drive my wife crazy with surf music, but recently when listening to this CD she asked me who it was – when I answered, her reply was that it's much more listenable than most surf music. I think that's a perfect testament to the Pilgrims appeal. Besides the tense and scary songs like "Creature Feature", "Scorpio 6", and "Vampiro", they also had beautiful, evocative ballads such as the moody "The Lonely Pilgrim", which is simply incredible, or the exotic "La Cazuela", or the wistful "Chi Chi". And then there are the memorable trad-based surf monsters such as "Super Stock" which takes the Astronauts into the 21st century, and "Boss BSA," "Badge of Honor," and "Surf Lyre", all of which are about as good as melodic-but-energetic surf music gets. Whew. Stunning.

The second disc is a bit more uneven, as can be expected. The four new songs are good, but not essential, I think. "Soul Creepin'" is minimalistic, building on the Ventures' "Swingin' Creeper" but giving it a more of an r&b twist with an organ and a rave-up section; "The Outsider" is a full-on circa-'66 garage-rock instro, with a lot of syncopated rhythms, and dry and fuzz guitars. These two tracks are very cool and the recordings sound great, but where's the surf? After all, that's what we want from the Pilgrims!! The surf is there with the other two new tracks: "Seaside Run" is kinda different for the Pilgrims, with a happy melody (played mostly with a lightly fuzzed-out guitar) and a bit of a playground feel; "Green Chili" is very pretty and kinda mellow, evoking the setting sun over the ocean as a beautiful Summer day comes to a close – it even features an acoustic rhythm guitar, which I think is a first for them. Of the unreleased tracks, "Hot Coco" is another r&b workout, with an excellent groove, though not much melody, and "If You Wanna" and "The Hondell" are happy surf songs that sound a bit derivative of some of their other stuff. Still, all three are cool tracks. "Spanish Head" sounds the same as the version on the "Around the World" CD, so I don't know why it says it's previously unreleased – maybe a different take? [Ed.: Ted later informed me later that this version was recorded in their basement some six months before the released one, and actually features Dave playing the lead on a Stratocaster!] Anyway, it's a great surf mid-tempo cruncher. The last unreleased one is a cover of Richie Podolor's (well, actually the Hondells') fantastic song "Black Boots and Bikes," and they do an exceptional job with this one. I know this was one of Rip Thrillby's favorites, so maybe this cover stands as a bit of an unintended tribute to him. Of the songs that were already released, there are a couple of note: "Haunted House of Rock" is the single version and is different from the one that was on "Soul Pilgrim" (notably in the absence of the Hammond organ). It sounds a bit fuzzy, probably taken straight from vinyl, but is still supremely creepy, maybe even more so due to the fuzziness. Probably my favorite on the whole second CD is their Ventures tribute (one of the many highlights on MuSick's "Swingin' Creepers") "Escape/ Psychadelic Venture". Only one word to describe this – wow. Simply sublime and perfect. These guys knew and understood their Ventures.

The CD also has great liner notes by Jeff Martin of the long-running Portland surf/punk/garage band the Surf Trio. Jeff does an awesome job putting the band in the historical, cultural and regional context, and really explaining exactly why the Pilgrims were just so damn COOL! Included is also a short note by Art B. talking about his history with the band, which is clearly heartfelt and enthusiastic. He's above all a big fan. Finally, the second CD has a 10-minute video that compiles various live moments captured by camcorder through the years, as well as their few TV appearances. I think this is the sort of a thing that most people that had never seen the band will flip-out over. It consists mostly of short excerpts of different songs, but it effectively demonstrates what a mighty live act these guys really were. The surreal moments come towards the end, with the Pilgrims performing "Surfin' Bird" on Spanish TV (??!), and then leading into and coming out of commercials on a men's morning talk show from Portland - the host looks clearly a bit uncomfortable and most the audience is over 50 and kinda perplexed - but it's all a beautiful thing!

There you go. If you don't have this CD, please go order it right now. I'll be accepting Thank-You notes later. Now, let us hope that the 2005 Pilgrims reunion is followed by many more, and that there is more new material on the way, as well as (we can dream!) a full tour. Welcome back guys, we've really missed you! Please stick around for a while – the surf music world needs you! There aren't many as good as you....

This story has 4 comments.


Awesome review, Ivan! I just ordered this one, and it looks like I'm in for a treat!

Jon | 12-May-2006 12:33:54 | Flag

Wow what a review, I forgot how over the top(in a good way) you were for this best of comp.

I still really really think that the 5 studio cd's should be repressed. But untill that happens, if you are not aware of the Satan's Pilgrims, do your self a favor, and pick up this Best of to hold you till you find the actuall albums. But this is also essential for all the Comp. stuff and
rarities and New songs.


bigtikidude | 12-May-2006 21:44:36 | Flag

If you don't have any Pilgrims, buy this. If you have Pilgrims, buy this.

Brian | 12-May-2006 22:41:53 | Flag

Weird ... I was in Seattle just this weekend and we stopped in a record shop just down the street from my sister's home. And, there among the myriad of local and regional recordings, was this very CD. So, not having read this great review but being a major Satan's Pilgrims fan, I bought it. I had seen them live at Bruce Willis' bar some years ago, and their performance was every bit as inspired as Ivan remembers. Suffice it to say, Ivan has once again produced an exceptional review with the kind of background that really brings the band to life.

This is a great CD, and should be in everyone's collection. Near the top of the pile. Or in constant rotation in their CD changer.


WindanseaBeachBoy | 17-May-2006 22:19:44 | Flag

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