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Some out-of-town musical commentators imagine the ’80s as a sort of dark ages for nonhardcore bands in Washington, an era in which arpeggio-friendly groups such as the Crippled Pilgrims were virtually banned. At least that’s the story Illinois-based reissue Reaction Recordings is advancing to publicize Down Here: Collected Recordings (1983–1985), its new compilation of the Pilgrims’ long-unavailable discography. The jangle-rock quartet, a Reaction press sheet trumpets, was “the band the storied D.C./Dischord punks couldn’t stomach.”

Two former members of Crippled Pilgrims, however, don’t remember the group’s situation quite that way. As they sip dark beer in a Capitol Hill pub, singer-guitarist Jay Moglia and lead guitarist Scott Wingo, both now of the Rambling Shadows, agree that their first band was limited more by internal issues than external hostility.

“My feeling at the time wasn’t so much that people couldn’t stomach the group, but that people were perplexed,” says Wingo. “Particularly by my role, because I’d been hanging around in the punk scene.” The band, he notes, “played with Scream, No Trend, Bloody Mannequin Orchestra, and the Velvet Monkeys. We didn’t play with the Dischord bands, but we were right there in the scene.”

In fact, Moglia remembers one mid-’80s performance by Death Camp 2000, a psychedelic-punk supergroup conceived by Velvet Monkeys singer-guitarist and absurdist impresario Don Fleming, during which the Pilgrim played alongside ex–Minor Threat mainstays Jeff Nelson and Ian MacKaye. Nelson, he recalls, “quickly bailed” from the evening’s two-drummer lineup, but MacKaye was “a good sport.”

The Pilgrims’ own music was more typical of mid-’80s college-radio rock. The lyrical guitar embroidery of their debut EP, 1984’s Head Down—Hand Out, was a natural fit with the music of such contemporaries as R.E.M., the Church, and Robyn Hitchcock. Still, Reaction partner Ric Menck says, its six songs have held up so well that when he first heard them almost 20 years later, “it sounded like [the band] could put out a record today on Merge.”

“If you didn’t tell somebody it was recorded in the ’80s, they wouldn’t really know,” explains Menck, who drums for long-running power-pop trio Velvet Crush and often plays with Matthew Sweet. “I thought the songwriting was so strong. The musical aesthetic was so solid and cool.”

Under Water, the band’s subsequent album, was tougher—which should have come as no great surprise. After all, Wingo had been in Trenchmouth, a hard-edged if not hardcore punk band, and bassist Mitch Parker was a veteran of Government Issue, one of the first D.C. hardcore outfits. The Pilgrims’ drummer of record, Dan Joseph, played in the caterwauling 9353, and the Pilgrims, who never quite found a permanent percussionist, also relied on Tommy Carr, of Brit-style local punk quartet Black Market Baby, and the Monkeys’ Jay Spiegel.

Rather than being estranged from their peers or overlooked by local audiences, Wingo suggests, “I think any kind of neglect came from ourselves. I remember at the time we were getting played on WHFS. We were doing really well on the college-radio circuit. But we just didn’t take advantage of it. I guess it’s fair to say that we blew it.”

Wingo and Moglia, who are both 44, met through Charles Steck, another Velvet Monkey and now the Rambling Shadows’ bassist. (He’s also a Washington City Paper photographer.) Originally, the two musicians were looking for something to do, not thinking of posterity.

“I was living with Charles in Arlington, and he started playing with the Velvet Monkeys,” says Wingo. “And he”—meaning Moglia—“was living at the house where the Velvet Monkeys rehearsed. Finally, Charles put two and two together: Jay’s hanging around at the house, looking for something to do. And I was practicing my scales all the time, trying to some kind of band going. And so he connected us.”

Wingo thought he was going to meet “this punk-rock dude, and he was wearing, like, this golf sweater. Kind of the antithesis of what I was expecting. I think at the time I was looking to get into something a little more hard-rock, sort of toward the Black Market Baby end of the spectrum, but this ended up being a fine fit.”

Initially, Moglia’s songs “were kind of Dylan-esque,” Wingo recalls. “There’d be verse after verse after verse. I wasn’t sure about that approach. I figured maybe as the song chugged along, it would somehow spiral up to a higher level. And maybe sometimes that happened, but usually it was just a plodding bore.”

That changed when Parker arrived, following the sudden departure of the original rhythm section. “One of the first things that Mitch did was get things shipshape,” says Wingo. “He just said, ‘We have to snip big chunks out of this stuff, and get them down to bite-sized portions.’”

Soon after Head Down—Hand Out was released by local label Fountain of Youth, the Pilgrims’ frontman vanished. He had moved to the New York area, it turns out, with the vague notion of relocating the band. “It was kind of dumb, in retrospect,” Moglia concedes, “[but] at the time it really appeared that nothing was going on. Dan was back in 9353, Velvet Monkeys were going strong, and we just had no drummer. We always felt like we were begging. We’d have somebody, and we’d be rehearsing for a show, and it just wouldn’t gel….

“Because the EP was doing well,” Moglia continues, “I had this idea that I could just move to New York. I’ll find a place to live, and these guys will move up, and we’ll get it going up here. But I didn’t tell them about it or anything. That was just in my head. I was kind of impulsive.”

“We knew that it was happening,” Wingo says to Moglia. “But it was never really clear what the purpose of it was. I thought it was because you were freaking out about a girl.”

While working as a bartender in Hoboken, N.J., Moglia recorded a six-song solo EP that was accepted by the fledgling Bar/None label. But he then decided he didn’t want it released. “That’s another unwise thing I did,” he says, to Wingo’s laughter. “I didn’t really realize what kind of musician I was, that I needed to be with the people I was with to really what make it work. It took me a long time to sort of piece that together.”

Moglia started commuting to D.C. so the band could record Under Water, also for Fountain of Youth. When the record was released, in 1985, the singer-songwriter returned to town permanently. The album ended up topping local indie charts in several U.S. cities, Wingo recalls, and was hailed by Bucketfull of Brains critic Fred Mills as “a surreal blending of Television, Grateful Dead, space cowboy Byrds, and Meat Puppets.”

Such successes inspired Moglia to find a booking agent, yet the band’s first tour, tentatively set for a series of Southern colleges, never happened. “We started rehearsing,” he says, “but it just got stupid.”

Drummer Spiegel, who then was playing regularly with the Pilgrims, brought the Velvet Monkeys’ snarky approach to the band, often antagonizing Parker. The bassist quit, and the group became CPU (for Crippled Pilgrims Unlimited) for a few years before finally disintegrating. Though this lineup played several private parties, the Pilgrims’ last official show had taken place before Under Water was even completed: on Sept. 7, 1984, at the 9:30 Club, opening for Los Angeles swamp-punk outfit the Gun Club.

“It just never got off the ground,” says Moglia. “It was silly. We should have just said, ‘Let’s get 10 songs and go out and play ’em.’”

By the time the first edition of the Rambling Shadows formed, in 1996—with Parker and current drummer Davis White, but without Wingo—the two Pilgrims guitarists both had new interests. The lanky Moglia, who works as a bike courier, was a successful bicycle racer. Wingo, meanwhile, had become fascinated by computers—an interest that eventually led him to post some Pilgrims and Shadows songs on the Internet Underground Music Archive.

“On a whim,” he recalls, “I decided, I’ll throw it off into the digital ocean. I wasn’t really expecting much to come of it.”

What came was an e-mail from Bill Johnson, who then worked for Parasol, Reaction’s parent company. He responded, Wingo recalls, as if the Pilgrims were “the Dead Sea Scrolls of ’80s underground rock.” Johnson had been a fan since a college dormmate bought a copy of Under Water almost two decades ago. In a 1997 Parasol staff poll, he listed the album as both his “fave record that no one else has” and his “favorite record that you can’t find on CD.”

About 18 months after Johnson’s first e-mail, the latter situation, at least, has been rectified. With the location of the Fountain of Youth master tapes a mystery, the CD was remastered from unplayed copies of the vinyl releases. The result sounds crisp and, if not quite prescient, far from dated. In his liner notes, Johnson argues that hearing the Pilgrims now is not unlike listening to Slint’s Spiderland LP: “Your jaw hits the floor not because it sounds like a terrific record from 1991, but because it sounds like a great record. Period.”

Menck agrees: “The music is so timeless,” he says. “[It] needed another life.”

Moglia and Wingo hope Down Here will lead listeners to the Shadows, who after a long hiatus began playing again last year with the current lineup of Moglia, Wingo, Steck, and White. The new band’s guitar style is less rippling than the Pilgrims’, but it still displays those Television and Grateful Dead influences.

“To our minds, what we’re doing now is just an extension of the Pilgrims,” the guitarist says. “Basically, the same people are involved. It’s the same formula, just 20 years later.”

With his bike-racing career slowing due to age and injuries, Moglia notes, “It would be nicer just to play music. I just need to have a bona fide outlet that I can put everything into.”

Wingo, now an application-development specialist who lives in Burke, Va., who considers himself middle-aged, volunteers that “for a while, I felt silly about being this age and getting up there and doing the rock. But now it seems like the kind of thing we’re doing—bass, two guitars, drums—has almost become as traditional as bluegrass or bebop or whatever.

“It’s OK for geezers to get up there and do it,” he adds. “It’s old-timey music. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”CP