Heathen album coverWritten by: Charles Thompson IV
Recorded: August – September 2001
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti

Released: 10 June 2002

Available on:
A Reality Tour


David Bowie: vocals, guitar, piano, keyboards, synthesizer, saxophone, drums
Tony Visconti: bass guitar, vocals

‘Cactus’ is the second song on David Bowie’s Heathen album.

The Pixies’ song ‘Cactus’ is really an underrated song, in my opinion, as is so much of Charles’s writing. I never could get over the fact that the Pixies formed, worked and separated without America taking them to its heart or even recognizing their existence for the most part. It was a downright disgrace. Pixies and Sonic Youth were so important to the eighties.
David Bowie
Livewire magazine, 16 June 2002

Along with ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’ and ‘I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship’, it is one of three cover versions on the album. ‘Cactus’ was written by Black Francis (Charles Thompson IV), and recorded with Pixies for their first full-length album, 1988’s Surfer Rosa.

What I do play a lot of while driving are favourite tracks by three of my favourite artists from over the last 20 years or so: Pixies, Sonic Youth and Scott Walker. Their works never cease to enthral me. Call me old-fashioned. I would have loved to have written [Pixies’] ‘Debaser’, one of the greatest rock songs in my opinion, but how about [Sonic Youth’s] ‘Teen Age Riot’? It would also have been nice to have had Walker’s ‘Nite Flights’ in my catalogue and up my sleeve, too. But at least I can get to sing them, a pleasure in itself.
David Bowie
Q magazine, November 2006

‘Cactus’ was almost recorded entirely by Bowie, a rare occurrence in his career, to allow the raw nature of his demo to remain.

The interesting thing is that although we brought in, over the weeks, a number of people to play these parts, most often they never sounded right. They started getting slick. I was delighted that so much of what I played remained on the finished work. That’s me playing drums over my own loop on ‘Cactus’. In fact the only thing I didn’t play on that track was bass. That was Tony.
David Bowie
Livewire magazine, 16 June 2002

The original recording featured the band and members of the production chanting the letters “P! I! X! I! E! S!”, a nod to T. Rex’s 1973 single ‘The Groover’. Bowie’s version retained the idea, with the letters changed to “D! A! V! I! D!”.

You can hear them spelling ‘Pixies’ in the break, which T. Rex did in one of their songs, ‘T-R-E-X,’ and they were copying it. I was against it, I was like, ‘No way, I’m not doing it,’ because that’s so trite. And I’m the only one that didn’t do it. Steve [Albini, producer] went along with it and liked it.
Kim Deal, Pixies bass guitarist
Fool The World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies, Josh Frank, Caryn Ganz

This song was an afterthought recorded on the last day of the sessions, everything recorded in that last day. It was only David and me left. David played drums, from which we made a loop. He played guitar and piano, I played bass. We both sang backing vocals. Afterwards we moved operations to Looking Glass Studios (Philip Glass’s) for mixing and further overdubs.
Tony Visconti, April 2023

Bowie’s recording featured the very same EMS Synthi AKS that Brian Eno had used on the 1970s Berlin Trilogy. The instrument was shown at the David Bowie Is exhibition with a plaque which read:

This synth was used in the recording of Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger. It is a key element of their pioneering electronic soundscapes. It was gifted to Bowie in 1998 with a letter from Brian Eno that read, “Look after it. Patch it up in strange ways – it’s surprising that it can still make noises that nothing else can make.”

Although the exhibition made no mention of a fee, Bowie is said to have paid a considerable sum for the synthesizer – reported figures range from £5,000 to £13,000.

Some years ago, a friend very kindly bought me the original EMS AKS briefcase synth that Eno used on so many of those classic records of the seventies. In fact, it was the one he used on Low and “Heroes”. It was up for auction, and I got it for my fiftieth birthday. We’ve put that back into service again, most obviously on ‘Cactus’. Everything on the EMS is miniaturized beyond belief; nothing like it existed at the time. Taking it through customs has always been a stomach turning affair as it looks like a briefcase bomb in the x-ray. Eno got pulled out of the line on several occasions. I wouldn’t even dream of taking it through these days.
David Bowie
Livewire magazine, 16 June 2002

Live performances

David Bowie performed ‘Cactus’ 160 times live, throughout the Heathen Tour and A Reality Tour, and on a number of TV and radio appearances. An edited November 2003 live performance is included on the A Reality Tour DVD, and the full version can be heard on the A Reality Tour album.

The media performances included a BBC concert on 18 September 2002 at London’s Maida Vale Studios, which was seen by fewer than 100 people. Other appearances were on Top Of The Pops, The Today Show, Hypershow, Live And Exclusive, Quelli Che… il Calcio, The Early Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and at the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards.

The Pixies played the song at a Bowie tribute concert in 2016, as a Bowie cover.

On 31 March 2016 Pixies performed ‘Cactus’ during a Bowie tribute concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Well, let’s start from the beginning here. Do I like David Bowie? A big yes. How do you feel when David Bowie covers one of your songs? Uh, really great. You know. It’s like having Jesus Christ come out of the clouds and say, ‘You have done well, my son.’ It doesn’t get any bigger than that.
Black Francis, Pixies
Monterey Herald, 13 August 2009
Previous song: ‘Sunday’
Next song: ‘Slip Away’
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