The Name Of This Band Is Pixies

Thirty years ago, the Boston alt-rock giants kissed off the 80s with a masterpiece called Doolittle

Pixies 1989

Pixies were always going to be a band fraught with tension. The explosive personalities of bandleader Charles ‘Black Francis’ Thompson and emerging talent Kim Deal were destined, as if by crossed stars, to collide in a chaotic band that laid much of the groundwork for the alternative gold-rush they influenced.

The story could’ve, and maybe should’ve, ended there. But an ill-advised 2000s reunion has irrevocably tarnished the once-unimpeachable Pixies name, and in the wake of resuming inter-band conflict and disappointing new releases, Kim Deal has once again, probably wisely, fled the scene.

Standing at roughly the center of their first-run discography is Doolittle, their most eccentric and adventurous work. Surfer Rosa, with its wails of primal torment and cavernous Steve Albini production, will always have its advocates as their strongest LP, but Doolittle is where all the instinctual conflict of the Thompson/Deal partnership came to a head, with stunning results.

That Kim Deal’s own project, The Breeders, would soon attain the kind of mainstream pop success that Pixies never approached is no coincidence. Pushed to the shadows on Doolittle, Ms. Deal hones her promising pop instincts in small flourishes that lift compelling songs to classic ones. Matched with typically esoteric Thompson lyrics, mapping out his usual territories of violence, The Bible, surrealism, and pollution, and paired with the higher-fidelity touch of new producer Gil Norton, Doolittle can be seen in retrospect as the time where all the ingredients briefly, magically merged. Pixies would continue releasing compelling work, but they would never again scale such heights.

Pixies Dolittle, 4AD 1989

Recording for Doolittle began in the band’s home base of Boston on Halloween, 1988. These sorts of odd gestures, like the band’s comical parody of lip-syncing in the video for their best-known song, “Here Comes Your Man,” belie the dark and harrowing nature lurking in the songs, at least lyrically. Norton once complained that the tracks were too short and needed extra verses to court commercial attention, but Thompson wasn’t interested in compromising what he envisioned.

“Here Comes Your Man” bears a Feelies/R.E.M. jangle and sway that made it a modest hit anyway, while elsewhere “Monkey Gone To Heaven” is awash with gentle violins and cellos, expanding the band’s sonic reach beyond their indie and punk roots. Thompson’s screams are still downright demonic, even in the context of a poppy, almost Smiths-like swooner (the opener “Debaser”). “Gouge Away” is a bit of bass-driven fuzz grunge that foreshadows the rise of a certain band from Aberdeen, Washington a few years later, a band that admitted to shamelessly coping that Pixies style.

 

VIDEO: Pixies – Live at Leeds Polytechnic 1989 (ful album)

Mythical creatures and women of ill-repute haunt these songs’ desolate landscapes, but they’re held aloft by the sparking stardust of Joey Santiago’s guitar and the nimble bounce of drummer David Lovering. Lovering’s lone vocal contribution, the crooning and sweet ‘La La Love You’, is an often overlooked highlight, buoyed by the band’s usual dose of cascading surf guitar and Deal’s inventive bass.    The post-Surfer Rosa bump to Elektra did little to increase the band’s public visibility, as the suits floundered when considering how to promote such an inscrutable and idiosyncratic band.

 

VIDEO: Pixies – Live at Rock Werchter 1989

A few years later, that sound would be everywhere, leading to a major label feeding frenzy that killed so much of what made first-wave indie so remarkable. Laughable post-grunge and nu-metal would become specters terrorizing the airwaves throughout the 90s and early 2000s as a result. Pixies were long dead by then, the rest of the band having been infamously dismissed by Thompson via fax. The organic growth of their influence and renown would push them back together, eventually, but the years in between were sufficient for word-of-mouth and retrospective critical acclaim to broaden their cult, with Doolittle being an important entry point for the neophyte.

In 2004, when a coworker at the Walgreens photo lab in my hometown passed me this CD, it was both exactly like so much I had heard the decade previous and also so entirely alien and different. Doolittle might not be everyone’s favorite Pixies album, but its undeniable that their legacy was forever cemented in its grooves.

 

VIDEO: Pixies – On the Road – 1989 documentary, part 1

VIDEO: Pixies – On the Road – 1989 documentary, part 1

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Zachary Corsa

Zachary Corsa is a musician, poet, and music writer living in Memphis, Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter at nonconnahdrone.

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