Pixies

TrackAlbum
VelouriaBossanova
What Goes BoomIndie Cindy
U-MassTrompe Le Monde
DebaserDoolittle
DeadDoolittle
Blue Eyed HexeIndie Cindy
SubbacultchaTrompe Le Monde
TameDoolittle
Levitate MeCome On Pilgrim
Bone MachineSurfer Rosa

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Contributor: Matt Roberts

 

Pixies photo
Pixies (l to r): Joey Santiago, Black Francis, Kim Deal, David Lovering

 

When it was mentioned that I could go ahead and write about the Pixies for Toppermost, I was exceedingly happy. There are few bands on Earth that I love as much as I love the Pixies. Credentials, you ask? OK then, here are some facts about me:

– It’s entirely possible that I have listened to Doolittle more than any other album in my life. I have heard that album in its entirety hundreds of time. I never, ever, tire of it. A friend of mine and I had a C-90 with that on one side and Pop Will Eat Itself’s This Is The Day, This Is The Hour, This Is This on the other side. I don’t think it ever got removed from the deck and possibly died within the car’s confines.

– Of my six tattoos, two of them directly involve the Pixies. I have the spaceship that encircles the spindle hole on the vinyl copy of Trompe Le Monde around my nipple. Right next to that (or kind of in it) I have the number thirteen designed in the style of Vaughan Oliver – that’s right, I have a “tattooed tit, say number thirteen”, a lyric from No.13 Baby (Doolittle).

– I used to have three children, but when the Pixies toured Australia for the first time ever on the 2007 V Fest, my bank balance was super low. I now have two children.

Two of those things are true and the other I will admit to having considered, you decide which is which.

The first track I heard was Debaser. It was a monstrous, heaving beast of a track with rolling surf drums, plodding picked bass, simple tuneful backing vocals and an utter madman yelling dementedly over the top of it all. It tore my head off like nothing else at the time. It was an immediate alternative anthem and just as popular in Australian alternative circles as it was worldwide. We, too, joined the cult. Unfortunately, we never got to see them in their heyday as we were on the other side of the world, so I was left to peruse Glasto lineups in the NME in a jealous rage. I got let go from a job around the time of Doolittle’s release and commiserated by going to a Virgin record shop and buying it on CD. I took it home and it just never left the CD player.

The Pixies are important. Whether you like them or not they set fire to a generation of musicians who were inspired by them to create modern masterpieces. Radiohead and Nirvana have specifically mentioned Pixies as not only influences, but blatantly ripping them off. Johnny Greenwood, Radiohead guitarist, is quoted as saying, “The reason we don’t use as much guitar now is there are only a handful of Pixies albums. You can’t keep copying them.” Admirers include Bono and Bowie, who has said that the Pixies made “just about the most compelling music of the entire 80s”.

They pioneered several different musical devices that up until then hadn’t been incorporated into the indie lexicon with any real degree of success. Let’s call them ‘Quiet/Loud/Quiet’ and ‘What bar?’ shall we? In Quiet/Loud/Quiet there is an effort to enter a song in a softer, staccato form – beckoning the listener into a seemingly safe vehicle – until the door is shut and the chorus opens up the throttle, careening dangerously down the road toward a cliff. Just as you’re about to go over, you blink and you’re safe in the verse again, looking into the open door of the chorus. This works well in I Bleed (Doolittle), River Euphrates (Surfer Rosa) or Hang Wire (Bossanova). Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters) stated quite plainly that “The quiet/loud dynamic that’s dominated alternative radio for the last 14 years can be attributed to one, and only one, band, the Pixies”.

The second musical innovation is one that hasn’t actually been picked up by many other acts. It just seems to me to be a defining characteristic of their sound. Essentially, Black Francis does not give a crap about how many beats sound “correct” or if he’s “finished” the bar. If the song has finished saying what it needs to say in a phrase, it’s over and he’s moving on to the next thing. If he’s just going to vamp for those last couple of beats of the bar, he’d rather not play them at all. Have a listen to Velouria (Bossanova) or Indie Cindy (Indie Cindy) to hear this interesting way of dealing with musical time, i.e. complete disregard for meter.

At the end of the 80s, Pixies opened up a door to a whole new floor in the hotel of music I am constantly searching. If Debaser knocked me for six, going backwards to Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa sealed the deal. It became apparent that the Pixies emerged fully formed. They never went through a period of reinvention. Aside from production differences, the first album and the last sound like complete Pixies albums, they produced no crap. Even the albums that people deemed lesser at the time of release are now considered classic in fan’s eyes. Even the last album, Indie Cindy, produced over twenty years after their last one, has the same hallmarks, touchstones and Pixies tropes. And they still work – completely.

Formed in Boston in 1986 (Kim Deal famously answering an ad seeking a bass player into Peter, Paul & Mary and Hüsker Dü), the Pixies hit their stride pretty quickly after a little bit of time treading the Boston bar scene. Recording a demo leads to signing with 4AD and recording Come On Pilgrim which leads to recording Surfer Rosa with Steve Albini, which then leads to recording the breakthrough album Doolittle with Gil Norton, cementing their standing as college rock and indie gods. I mean, that’s kind of it really – simple as that. Sure, there’s a little Deal-inspired tension there (Kim will go on to form The Breeders and The Amps and have both scuppered by her sister for a little bit, but will also find herself with one of the most loved indie songs ever in Cannonball) but generally the story of the Pixies is the story of four people with their heads screwed on straight enough to make great music, record it and play it live to rapturous audiences who consider them minor gods.

They finished Trompe Le Monde (1991), toured for a bit more and then basically just stopped dead. No more Pixies. That was it. In Australia, we mourned the death of a band we never knew; they had never toured out here and quite honestly we felt more than a little gypped. The best band that ever lived, and we had never seen them live.

Until the Deal-penned and sung Bam Thwok in 2004. Out of nowhere here was new material. Some people didn’t really dig it and, to be fair, it sounded like a Breeders track that Kim forced them all to play – but it was new Pixies material. Not only that, but it was new Pixies material! Also, the Pixies were back. I loved it but did keep an ear out with some trepidation. Bands getting back together after decades apart sometimes left a bad taste in the mouth. But when they announced a tour on the V Festival (seemingly a festival aimed at grownups) in 2007, we stood with thousands of previously ripped off fans and screamed the opening howl to Where Is My Mind? I was also there for the 20th anniversary of Doolittle and that was amazing. Kim Deal looked like a happy soccer-mum and that made me feel good for them. Since then, the’ve gone on to release another whole album’s worth of new material (2014’s Indie Cindy) that sits nicely in their collection. It may have better production and a more full sound, but it smells like a Pixies album, and that’s the main thing. I’ve come to love some of the songs more than older tracks.

It’s hard to think of a band that, for me, has had so much influence on so many people. Honestly, the Toppermost list provided here is almost random. Almost. If you’re going to like the Pixies, you’re going to like them from the beginning – it doesn’t matter what order the songs are in. Pixies songs really come in only one flavour – they all sound like a Pixies song.

And so do you.

 

Velouria (Bossanova)
A love song to some kind of alien being it seems. “Forevergreen, I know she’s here in California. I can see the tears of shastasheen”. An aching, distorted, minor chord opens the verse on a wandering, open-ended pattern. Kim’s plodding bass and seemingly uninterested BVs provide a perfect counterpart to the beautiful melody. The video is also genius, comprised of one shot of the band running toward the camera from mid-distance, slowed down to the point that it takes the entire song for them to get past.

What Goes Boom (Indie Cindy)
The opener to the newest album and the track I keep going back to from that collection. It’s a rolling beast of a song that kicks on until the chorus, where it gives you a little respite before smacking you over the head again. What goes boom? This fucking song, that’s what!

U-Mass (Trompe Le Monde)
The Pixies are a Boston band, with Joey and Black Francis living next to each other at U-Mass. One riff, one line, that’s the verse for a long time. Then into a chorus that basically suggests that whatever “it” is, it’s educational. It’s also the first time I heard an American band use the word “cunt” with any degree of accuracy, or really at all. It smashes through a forest of feedback and comes to the end with an atonal clunk. Beautiful.

Debaser (Doolittle)
The big one. Surf drums and guitar meet indie chunk feedback meet lyrics inspired by French surrealists meet a screaming maniac. In 1989 it was one weird, powerful song and had me from the first listen.

Dead (Doolittle)
Yet another Doolittle fave and a good indication of Black Francis’ career-long obsession with biblically-inspired lyrics. “You crazy babe Bathsheba, I want ya” and “Uriah hit the crapper” may not have been what the authors of the bible had in mind though.

Blue Eyed Hexe (Indie Cindy)
This may be the closest to the blues that the Pixies have ever gotten to, but I’ll be damned if I can tell you what the song is about. It’s got a vague feeling of New Orleans blues in there.

Subbacultcha (Trompe Le Monde)
A talky, story song, about as linear lyrically as Francis ever gets. A dark, slinking journey into the underbelly of the night. Interestingly, I heard the demo to this only recently and was surprised to find that it remained pretty similar in this version to the one they recorded on their first demo cassette!

Tame (Doolittle)
A really good example of Quiet/Loud/Quiet. Quite creepy. “I’m making good friends with you when you’re shaking your good frame. Fall on your face in those bad shoes.” In this instance, the title is no indication of the feeling of the track at all. It should really be titled “TAME!!!”

Levitate Me (Come On Pilgrim)
Another roller, but this time, an early one from the first proper album. The chorus is a killer. “Elevator lady, levitate me.”

Bone Machine (Surfer Rosa)
The opener from Surfer Rosa and a good indication of the album as a whole. Steve Albini went to town and his signature sound is all over it. They sound big, unwieldy and weird. The super-compressed drums start with a tribal flavour and Black Francis doesn’t hold back in the lyric department. “You’re so pretty when you’re unfaithful to me” and “I’ll make you pray, you make me hard” bring the Saturday night/Sunday morning, faith/fuck dichotomy right to the forefront.

 

Pixies official site

Frank Black official site

Kim Deal official site

David Lovering official website

Pixies biography (iTunes)

Matt Roberts is a musician, audio engineer and graphic artist from Sydney, Australia with a blinding love of all things sound. His tastes are catholic, ranging from Esperanza Spalding to Slayer and everywhere in between. He writes angular pop and rock, crafts and remixes many varieties of electronic music, and fronts a Frank Zappa tribute act called Petulant Frenzy. More about Matt here and catch up with Petulant Frenzy here.

TopperPost #455

5 Comments

  1. Darren Butler
    Jul 2, 2015

    I had a tape with Surfer Rosa and Come on Pilgrim on one side and The Sugarcubes Life’s Too Good on the other. Like your cassette, mine was played and played for months and I still expect to hear the couple of scratches and jumps that were recorded on that tape every time I hear those songs. I saw them a couple of times around ’90 which was amazing. They provided the soundtrack to my college years and I love them still 🙂

  2. David Lewis
    Jul 2, 2015

    The thing with the Pixies is while they rocked hard, and hard heavy distortion, they were about 2 cms from being a pop band. Debaser, in other hands, could have been a power pop song easily. Also, both Debaser and The Weight (by the Band) were influenced by Un Chien Andalou. I always enjoy remembering that.

  3. Glenn Smith
    Jul 3, 2015

    Great list, phew! I think there is an axiom out there in the post modern zeitgeist that says nothing is random, or almost random, but I do like the idea that it’s all Pixies take your pick! I have a friend whose wedding song was Gigantic (a Kim Deal co write)….if only for that reason I’d argue that the song should be on any Pixies appraisal. My other personal favourite is Wave of Mutilation, even though it is probably a suicide song (if you can ever be so literal with Black Francis). There is a smashing cover of Wave on Grant Lee Phillips nineteeneigthties album which is also worth checking out.

  4. Calvin Rydbom
    Jul 25, 2015

    As the guy who told our esteemed webmaster, Yeah the Pixies are on my list of “To Do” Toppermosts but I got a book due in July and I wont get to it in forver – good job. Probably better than I would have done as frankly I lean more towards songs people know and you got into some deeper tracks. Loved your reasoning as well.

  5. Eric M. Van
    Jan 9, 2016

    Kudos for pointing out the dropped beat protocol as the band’s defining musical feature (that this is so rarely done is an indictment of the state of rock criticism, alas, but then again, you’re a musician). The big question in my mind now is whether your nipple is a giddy and dizzying 3 1/2 bars long like the outro progression to “No. 13 Baby.” Another fave of mine is the chorus to “Alec Eiffel,” which sandwiches its half-bar between two before and three after.

    The other point worth noting is that Quiet/Loud/Quiet unquestionably comes straight from Mission of Burma’s classic “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver,” ubiquitous in their mutual Boston hometown for the five years previous to the Pixies’ formation. I think it says a lot about two of the three best post-punk bands to come out of Boston in that era (the third, Throwing Muses, shared a manager and label with the Pixies) that one built an entire career around a device that the other used in their biggest hit but never used again! (Then again, it often sounds to me that the entire career of R.E.M. derives from 11 seconds of Burma’s “Trem Two” (1:36 to 1:47)).

    In terms of omitted songs, I think “Monkey Gone to Heaven” has to be on any list. And a special mention must go to “Cactus,” where Francis proves he can write an excellent conventional lyric (i.e., one that makes obvious sense) if he wants to. It’s been a goal of mine to take 10 great Pixies songs and put all the verses in one column and all the choruses in another and then see if people unfamiliar with them can match them up. I’m unsure if it can be done.

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