From Boston, USA, Pixies were possibly the most essential band of the late '80s/early '90s guitar scene. Their brand of harsh rock music won them fans all over the globe despite the fact that they had comparatively few hits (only two singles made the top 40 in the UK).
Their incredibly effective 'quiet verse - loud chorus' approach to song dynamics influenced many artists both during and since their lifespan, such as The Wedding Present and Radiohead. David Bowie has described them as 'the band of the eighties', Nirvana's drummer Dave Grohl claimed in 1997 to have loved everything by Pixies while Kurt Cobain was quoted as saying (in regard to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit') :
I was trying to write the ultimate pop song, I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.
- Rolling Stone Magazine, Jan. 1994
Throughout the career of the band, Pixies was an unchanging four-piece. Although from time to time they changed lead vocal duties and/or added session musicians1 during recording, generally speaking the band comprised:
- Black Francis - vocals, guitar
- Joey Santiago - lead guitar
- Kim Deal - bass guitar, vocals
- David Lovering - drums, vocals
In 1985, Charles Michael Kitridge Thompson IV woke up and decided that his six-month student exile in Puerto Rico had left him with only one course of action: to form a rock group.
Back in Boston he spent two weeks trying to convince his old college room-mate Joey Santiago to join him in his quest. Once Joey had agreed to drop out of college the pair began to rehearse and Charles changed his name to something he felt was more fitting for a rock star: Black Francis.
Joey Santiago was a member of a wealthy Philippino family who had moved to the US when members of his family began to disappear 'in mysterious circumstances' during the reign of President Marcos.
The name of the band came from Joey. Not having English as his first language he enjoyed looking through dictionaries, finding words that were new (to him), unusual or words that he just liked the sound of. Initially he combined two of these words to form the name 'Pixies in Panoply' but this was quickly shortened to just 'Pixies'.
Before joining Pixies, Kim Deal had already had some taste of musical success: together with her twin sister Kelley she formed a folk duo called The Breeders who reached the dizzying heights of supporting Steppenwolf in her native Dayton, Ohio.
The short career of The Breeders ended when Kelley went into catering and Kim married John Murphy, moving to his home town of Boston shortly afterwards. She saw an advert in a Musicians Wanted section of a newspaper asking for someone who was into 'Husker Du and Peter, Paul & Mary' which she thought was 'cute'. Being the only person to respond to such an advert she got the job as bass player, but only after she had convinced Charles to lend her $50 so she could fly her guitar from Dayton to Boston.
The original Pixies drummer was (apparently) no good and was sacked when Kim suggested someone she had met at her wedding reception - David Lovering.
David Lovering had spent years messing about in various Boston bands such as Riff Raff and Iz Wizard but by 1986 was becoming bored with such antics. Pixies, however, offered something fresh and original and so he leapt at the chance of an audition.
He had once ridden a unicycle through a Mormon church service for a bet and had played drums in his school marching band as a hobby. The other three members of Pixies when introduced to him considered these to be ideal credentials, and so David completed the band line-up.
A Brief History
Between 1987 and 1991 Pixies released five LPs at a rate of one per year, all of which are essential purchases for fans of the group. All were released on 4AD Records and all feature magnificent artwork by Vaughan Oliver.
1987: Come On Pilgrim
Tracks: Caribou / Vamos / Isla de Encanta / Ed is Dead / The Holiday Song / Nimrod's Son / I've Been Tired / Levitate Me
Pixies' first live show in Boston was by all accounts an unmitigated disaster - friends of the band openly laughed and David described it as 'possibly the worst gig in the entire history of rock'. By their second gig (which they played with fellow Bostonians Throwing Muses), however, they had much improved and began to receive enquiries from interested agencies and managers. One possible reason for the rise in interest levels was the posters printed for Pixies shows that pictured Charles naked in a semi-foetal position.
In March 1987, the band hired Fort Apache (a small studio in Roxbury, MA) to record some demo tracks, intending to send tapes to record labels with the hope of securing a contract. One man who received a copy was Ivo Watts of 4AD Records. So impressed was he by the tape that he released it six months later, using the title Come On Pilgrim. The album itself does not sound like a demo, which in itself is a credit to the producer Gary Smith. The album does not have a polished sound but alternates between fierce and melodic, its lyrical content covering subjects such as sex, religion and Black Francis' observations on life.
'She's a real left-winger cos she been down south and had peasants in her arms,
She said 'I can tell you stories that would make you cry, what about you?' I said 'Me too!
I could tell you a story that would make you cry' and she sighed 'Ohhh!'
I said 'I wanna be a singer like Lou Reed', 'I like Lou Reed' she says, sticking her tongue in my ear.
'Let's go, let's sit, let's talk, politics go so good with beer,
and while we're at it baby, why don't you tell me one of your biggest fears.'
I said 'Losing my penis to a whore with disease - just kidding' I said,
'Losing my life to a whore with disease' and she said 'Excuse me please?'
I said 'Losing my life to a whore with disease', I said 'Please,
I'm a humble guy, with healthy desires,
Don't gimme no shit because, I've been tired'
- Black Francis, 'I've Been Tired', 1987
One could be forgiven for thinking that eight tracks clocking in at under 20 minutes was going to be a speed-punk affair but the switch from acoustic to heavily distorted electric guitar, and from Spanish lyrics to English showed that there was much more to the band than that.
Critics were divided as to the influences of the band, listing artists such as The Seeds, Pere Ubu, The Fall, MC5, Husker Du and The Stooges. In reality, though, Pixies refused to be pigeon-holed and were a truly original and imaginative group. Black Francis once conceded that his inspiration came from a short excerpt from 'Loose' by The Stooges, but that did little to inform the unsuspecting listener.
1988: Surfer Rosa
Tracks: Bone Machine / Break my Body / Something Against You / Broken Face / Gigantic / River Euphrates / Where is my Mind? / Cactus / Tony's Theme / Oh my Golly! / Vamos / I'm Amazed / Brick is Red
The band moved quickly to record the follow-up to Come On Pilgrim and released Surfer Rosa in January 1988, the sleeve of which featured a picture of a semi-naked flamenco dancer. It was because of the rather large breasts of the dancer that the group decided against the original title of 'Gigantic', for fear of being misinterpreted. Recorded by Steve Albini (member of Big Black and Shellac, and producer of Seamonsters by The Wedding Present) it unleashed Pixies in a way that no other producer could have done. Albini was (and still is) notorious for refusing to let bands record multiple takes of songs, prefering instead to capture and work with the magic of the first take. This approach suited Pixies to a tee and created a raw intensity in recorded music that had been lacking since the early days of punk.
As one fan rather arrogantly (but quite truthfully) recalls:
Around 1988 I was waiting for a bus listening to 'Surfer Rosa' on my Walkman when a group of teenagers started hanging around nearby. They were doing their best to appear 'hard' - smoking cigarettes, skateboarding across the path of pedestrians, shouting to each other, that sort of thing - and I remember thinking during one of the songs 'You know nothing about cool.' I felt on top of the world to the point that I looked down on and pitied those kids.
On the LP we hear for the first time Black Francis' 'devil's microphone' (ie, distorted, screaming vocals) that soon became a trademark for the group, and Kim Deal's first lead vocal performance in the shape of the epic 'Gigantic'. Lyrically Surfer Rosa deals with death, mutilation and the human anatomy, and has been described as an LP in the style of David Lynch's movies. Charles freely admitted that he wrote chord progressions, sounds and syllables that became songs, and was once quoted as saying:
In the end nothing beats volume and lights and drunken people. The songs just have to sound cool.
- Black Francis, Melody Maker2
To which the music paper replied in their review, 'This album kicks ass.'
In September 1988, Pixies undertook their first headlining tour of Europe and by December Surfer Rosa had been voted album of the year in both Melody Maker and Sounds (a rival to Melody Maker). At that time Pixies had still to achieve any commercial success, with both LPs and the one single failing to make any impact on the charts.
Tracks: Debaser / Tame / Wave of Mutilation / I Bleed / Here Comes Your Man / Dead / Monkey Gone to Heaven / Mr Grieves / Crackity Jones / La La Love You / Number 13 Baby / There Goes my Gun / Hey / Silver / Gouge Away
March 1989 brought a new single 'Monkey Gone to Heaven' which drew attention even from national newspapers, one such publication hailing Pixies as 'the most important band from the East coast of America'. 'Monkey Gone to Heaven' was a 'green' anthem, protesting the dumping of waste material into the sea that causes such death and injury to marine lifeforms:
'there was a guy,
an underwater guy who controlled the sea,
got killed by ten million pounds of sludge
from new york and new jersey,
this monkey's gone to heaven'
- Black Francis, 'Monkey Gone to Heaven', 1989
Doolittle was released a month later to huge critical acclaim. Produced by the experienced Gil Norton it is a very accessible LP that included another single 'Here Comes Your Man' and a host of tracks that could have been singles ('Debaser'3, 'Gouge Away' and 'Wave of Mutilation' to name but three). Black Francis returned to his favoured themes of mutilation, death and religion but they were tempered by the addition of cellos and violins - a combination that produced an LP that is in places both polished and abrasive.
During the European 'Sex and Death' tour and the US 'F..k or Fight' tour, the band met and mixed with their contemporaries in the form of REM's Michael Stipe, Nick Cave and The Cure. Robert Smith (singer in The Cure) later said that Pixies were one of his favourite bands at that time.
But the band members began to feel the effects of their rapid ascent: Kim crashed a moped in Greece, Joey smashed up his guitar and then stormed off stage in Boston, and all four were too tired to attend the end of tour party held for them in New York. Despite the numerous accolades handed them by music papers for Doolittle, the band took a much needed holiday over the Christmas period in order to recuperate before their next album.
Tracks: Cecilia Ann / Rock Music / Velouria / Allison / Is She Weird / Ana / All Over the World / Dig for Fire / Down to the Well / The Happening / Blown Away / Hang Wire / Stormy Weather / Havalina
While Joey went to the Grand Canyon and David visited Jamaica both Charles and Kim kept busy musically: Charles drove across America in his new car playing solo gigs to support himself, while Kim formed the second incarnation of The Breeders with Tanya Donelly (from Throwing Muses) and Josephine Wiggs (from The Perfect Disaster). The Breeders got as far as recording (also with Steve Albini) and releasing the LP Pod before Pixies regrouped.
Released in July of 1990 'Velouria' is, by comparison to most Pixies songs, a tame (although very catchy) affair chosen purely to attract the mass market and project Pixies into the stadium-rock category. Peaking at number 28 in the UK singles chart it was followed by a headline appearance at the Reading Festival during August, although the next single 'Dig For Fire' let slip much that had been gained in terms of mass marketing, not even reaching the top 60.
The LP Bossanova, again produced by Gil Norton, was a distinctly less harsh affair than the band's previous outings. The album opens with a cover of The Surftones' 'Cecilia Ann' and the screaming 'Rock Music' (the sound of a singer truly screwing his vocal cords) but then settles down, weaving tales of surfing, time travel and aliens. It is this tameness that marks the LP out as being possibly the weakest by Pixies - interesting both musically and lyrically, but lacking much of the excitement. Kim Deal described the LP as 'More ET and Indiana Jones than Eraserhead or Blue Velvet'.
1991: Trompe le Monde
Tracks: Trompe le Monde / Planet of Sound / Alec Eiffel / The Sad Punk / Head On / U-Mass / Palace of the Brine / Letter to Memphis / Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons / Space (I believe in) / Subbacultcha / Distance Equals Rate Times Time / Lovely Day / Motorway to Roswell / The Navajo Know
Pixies final LP Trompe le Monde continued the pattern of an album per year and was produced by Gil Norton in four studios across the US and Europe. Using tablas and keyboards to once more diversify their sound, Pixies seemed doomed never to repeat the intensity of their first two LPs. The only single taken from the LP, 'Planet of Sound' was only their second to achieve success in the UK singles charts but the band fell apart before a follow-up could be released. Late in 1991 Black Francis announced to the band (during a public radio show) that Pixies had split.
Since the Split
Shortly after his announcement via the radio, Black Francis changed his name to Frank Black and launched his solo career with an eponymous LP that included a catchy yet lacklustre cover of The Beach Boys' 'Hang On To Your Ego'. This was followed by further LPs and most recently he has recorded and toured with a band as Frank Black and the Catholics.
Kim Deal persisted with The Breeders, releasing (among others) the huge indie hit 'Cannonball' in 1993, by which time Kim's sister Kelley had replaced Tanya Donelly. Joey and David have remained relatively low-key: Joey joined his former colleague on Frank Black while David recorded with Front 242 during the 1990s and has recently played with Nitzer Ebb.
Other Noteworthy Releases
1997: Death to the Pixies
Tracks: Cecilia Ann / Planet of Sound / Tame / Here Comes Your Man / Debaser / Wave of Mutilation / Dig For Fire / Caribou / Holiday Song / Nimrod's Son / U-Mass / Bone Machine / Gigantic / Where is my Mind? / Velouria / Gouge Away / Monkey Gone to Heaven
The 'best of' LP that (naturally) favours tracks from the most accessible third LP Doolittle, although it is interesting to note that all six 'b-sides' released on the two 'Debaser' CD singles (subtitled 'studio' and 'live') came from the first two LPs. Some lucky people who bought Death to the Pixies were treated to a bonus live CD featuring 21 tracks recorded in 1990.
1998: Pixies at the BBC
Tracks: Wild Honey Pie / There Goes my Gun / Dead / Subbacultcha / Manta Ray / Is She Weird / Ana / Down to the Well / Wave of Mutilation / Letter to Memphis / Levitate Me / Caribou / Monkey Gone to Heaven / Heaven / In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)
Tracks are mostly taken from sessions recorded for the John Peel radio show.
2001: Complete B-Sides
Tracks: River Euphrates / Vamos (live) / In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song) (Live) / Manta Ray / Weird at my School / Dancing the Manta Ray / Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf) / Into the White / Bailey's Walk / Make Believe / I've Been Waiting for You / The Thing / Velvety Instrumental Version / Winterlong / Santo / Theme From Narc / Build High / Evil Hearted You / Letter to Memphis (Instrumental)
The enhanced CD also features promo videos for 'Here Comes Your Man' and 'Allison'.