History is written by the winners, and music history is no exception. But that doesn’t mean it’s any clearer whether bands that did break through truly deserved their recognition. Chuck Warner’s Hyped 2 Death compilations, which showcase lost bands from the late-’70s and early-’80s, have shown why most bands were left to wallow in music history’s vast lands of obscurity: lack of ambition, inter-band drama or, most common (yet least acknowledged), lack of talent. One of the bands Warner featured in his Homework series was Washington D.C.’s Crippled Pilgrims. Now, rescued from obscurity, Reaction has released Down Here: Collected Recordings 1983-1985, and another band from American indie-rock’s golden era is liberated from the dusty dollar-bins of time.
Like a lot of the bands Warner featured, Crippled Pilgrims could never really get started. At a time when Minor Threat and Trouble Funk were playing shows together and the city’s hardcore scene was a strict and elite sub-society, Crippled Pilgrims found themselves to be the wrong band at the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite the band featuring members with tenure in Government Issue, the Pilgrims’ seventeen-year-old drummer, Dan Joseph, could never even admit to being a full-time member of the band for fear of losing cred in the punk scene. When guitarist and singer Jay Moglia moved to New York City to try the band there, none of the other members followed him.
So it’s amazing the Crippled Pilgrims got around to recording any material at all. In their short career, they released an EP, 1984’s Head Down, Hand Out, and one LP, 1985’s Under Water. The EP showcases the bands nifty and chiming guitar work. Upon its initial release, it was impossible for most critics to avoid the inevitable R.E.M. references. Twenty years later, the comparison is, for better or for worse, apt. Lead guitarist Scott Wingo displays a deft picking capability and Moglia provides an ear for melodic songwriting. Often cryptic lyrics are delivered from the non-singer in a capable Lou Reed imitation, which would have fit perfectly with contemporaries like the Dream Syndicate, the Rain Parade, or the Feelies.
Under Water displays more experimentation and more overt psychedelic underpinnings than its predecessor. In a way, with the current crop of psych- weirdness infecting the American underground, the Crippled Pilgrims’ relatively straightforward psychedelia seems a welcome return to a time when sonic oddities and wit combined equally, rather than overshadowing every aspect of the music.
But something must be said about this type of reissue. A small cult following is often accompanied by a hyperbolic reverence, but when it’s made available to all, the stakes change. Once a criminally lost artifact, the albums’ new ease of availability begs for a critical analysis within the larger musical context. Thus, all hyperbole aside, the charming Pilgrims have way too many songs that sound exactly the same and go on one verse and chorus too long. Still, though the music does sound dated, Down Here is ultimately a valuable collection from the vaults, proof that many worthwhile bands are indeed still lurking in the once murky — but now increasingly clear — past.