Listen to this track by prolific songwriter and one-time Pixies lead Frank Black, neé Black Francis, neé Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV along with a band which he had formalized as The Catholics. It’s “All My Ghosts” the opening track to their 1998 debut album craftily entitled Frank Black & The Catholics.
The song, and the rest of the album was recorded very quickly in a matter of days on two-track tape. Because of the nature of the recording set-up, the parts were all played live off of the floor. You can hear on this song that there is something of a false start, with a snippet of the theme from the ’60s TV show Green Acres quoted before the band kick into the proceedings. The record was committed to tape at Sound City in Van Nuys California, the site of many a famous recording session, including Nirvana’s Nevermind. Besides being recorded at such a famous site, the single and the record would make history in the way it was initially distributed, too; as a legal download in Mp3 format, and the first of its kind on a major label (American Recordings) to do so.
With all of that said, let’s not forget about the songs! This song in particular would hook into some recurring themes for its author since his Pixies days, in particular the business of myth through a biblical lens.
Biblical references run thick and fast for Frank Black, from “God Is Seven” assertions to album title Come On Pilgrim, a quote from Christian rock artist Larry Norman, a favourite artist who’s song “Six-Sixty-Six” is covered on this album. This may be because Charles Thompson’s stepfather was a religious man way before the birth of Black Francis or Frank Black for that matter. His family attended an Assemblies of God church when Thompson was a child, and Thompson himself went to a Christian summer camp at which Norman played, among his first experiences with live rock music, albeit in a Christian vein.
As a result, the influences of Biblical teaching filtered down into his own songwriting, although often mixed in with other references to space, aliens, UFOs, and other more left-of-centre subjects. In this song, the reference to:
… the heavenly angels
How they came to earth and met some ladies
With whom they mated?
And their young became giants every one
is an actual Biblical reference, Genesis 6:1-4, to be exact, kind of like a science fiction story in four short verses. As Frank Black, and Black Francis beforehand, it was the odd and dark corners of the Bible which seemed to interest him the most. In this sense, Black as a writer is not the a figure of contradictions that he may seem on the surface: the religious Larry Norman fan versus being one of the progenitors of the grunge era. In fact, there is a screaming, squalling, apocalyptic quality to this tune, and others too in Frank Black’s catalogue, that root this music in an important musical strain that helped in the development of all rock music, that being the blues, and gospel music.
There was a time when many, if not all, innovators in the rock field had some connection to the church, with their childhoods full of the same weird and supernatural references that would eventually play into their lives as adults. Elvis Presley cut gospel records. So did Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Little Richard became a minister! That strain of mythology and imagery had always been a part of the rock tradition. When you think of it that way, it’s not too much of a stretch here at all in the context of a ’90s alternative rock tune. God has as many good tunes as the devil, and maybe more.
Presented here, this reference to the Bible reads like a child wrote the words (“some ladies” in particular), and in the song seem to just float free form in the middle of the verse. But, the delivery makes it effective, seeming like a statement about the enormity and mystery of the universe, rather than a weird and mythic series of images derived from group of oblique verses from the first book of the Bible. In a sense, perhaps this is what “All My Ghosts” refers to: those odd and random thoughts from childhood that come back to haunt one’s thoughts as an adult, tales that seem fantastic, striking in their illogic and disconnectedness. They are in fact the ghosts of a childhood brain that has since made more connections, and yet still retain the old ones that produce memories and thoughts that were impressed upon us before we grew up, and perhaps grew out of. This is primal territory in a whole new light.
Speaking of primal, Frank Black & The Catholics would continue to approach their recording methods in the same way as this first record; live on the floor with minimal overdubs. The last record would be 2003’s Show Me Your Tears. But, the real news would come the year after, when The Pixies re-united and with the name Black Francis reclaimed, and with all of the shadowy corners full of Biblical portent in Frank Black’s songwriting mind intact.
Learn more about Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV by any other name at FrankBlack.net.