In May 1985 Frank Black (AKA Black Francis AKA Charles Thompson) had a decision to make—he was living in Puerto Rico, avoiding his classes, and decided that he needed to do something different. His options were either go to New Zealand to see Haley’s Comet or to Boston to start a band with his college buddy, Joey Santiago. He chose the latter and quickly added an electrical engineering student named David Lovering on drums and a bassist named Kim Deal when she was the sole respondent to a classified ad seeking someone with a fondness for Peter, Paul & Mary and Hüsker Dü. They were four fairly ordinary-looking people without much musical experience, but it’s not overstating things to say that as the Pixies they would go on to change the face of modern rock music.
Their first gigs were immediately met with acclaim and it wasn’t too long before the band had cooked up a 17-song demo tape that was so good that the best eight were quickly rushed out as the Come on Pilgrim EP in 1987. This was followed quickly by two world-class albums: Steve Albini’s harsh production style gave birth to the college rock classic Surfer Rosa in 1988 and Englishman Gil Norton sanded down just enough of the rough edges for the somehow even more popular Doolittle the following year. During this time the band had taken England by storm more thoroughly than anyone since William the Conqueror and was playing massive festivals throughout Europe while failing to get past the status of indie darlings in their home country. After Black moved to Los Angeles the Pixies started branching out with the space and sci-fi influenced Bossanova in 1990. During this time relations in between Black and Deal grew increasingly tense and she became less of a songwriting presence, instead saving her material for her own increasingly popular band the Breeders. Finally, in 1991 they released Trompe le Monde, which, despite undeniable high points, was seen as a sign of the band’s exhaustion and frustration. This was confirmed in summer 1992 when Black informed his bandmates via fax that he wished to make their temporary break permanent.
And for over a decade, that was all we had. The Pixies became a cult band right up there next to the Velvet Underground in terms of influence with everyone from Kurt Cobain to Thom Yorke to Bono and David Bowie paying homage to the group and dozens of bands riding their quiet-loud-quiet song structure to money and stardom during the ‘90s alternative boom. After years of rumors though, the Pixies reunited in 2004 for the Coachella Music Festival and toured sporadically for years after that, playing almost strictly old material. That all changed last year when Deal left the band and the remaining members hired a string of new bassists to record and tour new material (for more information see these reviews).
Now, as we approach the 25th anniversary of Doolittle‘s triumphant release and the April 28th release of Indie Cindy, their first new album since President Bush, Sr., PopMatters looks back at the best songs from the band’s original lineup. For the uninitiated, it may not initially feel like “important music”, with songs about sex and violence, whores and the Bible, aliens, sea gods, hobos, and surfers. There’s sounds on here you didn’t think a guitar was capable of making and screaming that sounds close to inhuman, but it’s all laced with a humor, curiosity, and a taste for the surreal that make them undeniable cornerstones of the underground music cannon. Our list of the top 15 Pixies songs is presented below. We trust it will be met with unanimous agreement.
(available on Complete B-Sides)
Submitted for your approval: everything you need to know about the Pixies aesthetic can be found in this cover. I know it wasn’t written by Black or Deal, but their version of “In Heaven”, taken from David Lynch’s Eraserhead highlights most of the traits that made the Pixies the Pixies. Said Frank Black of Lynch, “He’s really into presenting something but not explaining it. ‘This is an image, this is an idea, isn’t it cool?’ The way I understand it, that’s the only way to be surreal.” That pretty much sums up the appeal of most of the band’s great lyrics—a mishmash of images and ideas that may not make a ton of literal sense but rarely fail to provoke some sort of reaction. Initially released as a live b-side to “Gigantic”, it has become a concert favorite and a nod the band’s artier ambitions.
(Trompe le Monde, 1991)
Bossanova and Trompe le Monde are sources of controversy among Pixies fans, with many being disappointed at the band’s shift away from the brutal imagery and production style of their earlier records. But Frank Black’s focus on surf and sci-fi elements allowed the group to explore a dreamier, more expansive sound. This corresponded with Black’s move to LA and songs like “Motorway to Roswell” are just as suited to the expansive weirdness of the American West as earlier songs were to the gritty, industrial claustrophobia of Boston. Black sings sympathetically about the Roswell alien, imagining him as an intergalactic vacationer who gets lost and ends up running afoul of the US government in New Mexico. “How could this so great”, Black wonders, “turn so shitty?” Which seemed like a fitting question for the penultimate song on what seemed like the group’s last record. It felt like a fitting way to say goodbye (just ask Kurt Cobain, who used it as exit music on many Nirvana tours). As it now stands, “Motorway To Roswell” is proof that the Pixies’ weirdness could be just as compelling when not presented with screaming and distortion.
The Pixies themselves were always a little ambivalent about “Here Comes Your Man”, worrying that it was too poppy and jangly to really be a “Pixies song”. But while the band jokingly referred to it as “the Tom Petty song”, it was, for all it’s catchiness, still a song that couldn’t have been written by any other band. Although the twangy guitar hook and chorus are what stick most in your head, it’s not for nothing that Frank Black was singing about hobos having their skulls crushed in an earthquake. Released as a single in 1989, any fears that it would break the band big in America were quickly soothed by the creepy fisheyed music video. Although it’s still a bit of an outlier in their catalog, “Here Comes Your Man” gives us a peek at just how brilliantly hooky the Pixies could be.
(Come on Pilgrim EP, 1987)
This was most people’s introduction the Pixies, track one, side one of Come on Pilgrim, and it’s a brilliant but confusing way to introduce the band. It starts with a prickly guitar part, followed by a guy saying something about hating his humanity and moaning the word “caribou”. Suddenly everything explodes into a chorus that where the guys starts roaring at you to repent like a preacher who sees your soul dangling just above the eternal hellfire. What makes “Caribou” such an great song is the guitar work. Black’s scratchy rhythm playing provides a crunchy sonic foundation while Joey Santiago’s Les Paul provides other-worldly textures that roam playfully across the verses and slice brutally through the chorus. It’s the kind of introduction that knocks you sideways and leaves you wanting more.
(Surfer Rosa, 1988)
Speaking of track one, side ones, “Bone Machine” kicked off Surfer Rosa by announcing to the world that Steve Albini had arrived to make the Pixies sound somehow even more brutal. Albini makes David Lovering’s thundering backwards drumbeat sound absolutely cavernous and Kim Deal’s bassline grab you with even more dark seductiveness than anything heard on Come On Pilgrim before the metal-picked guitars start lacerating the mix on both sides. “Bone Machine” was a new kind of sonic assault for the Pixies, but what makes it so appealing is that the brutal noise hides some of Frank Blacks most nonsensical and hilarious lyrics. “This is a song for Carol” he throws out at the beginning, the first in a string of non sequiturs—“I was talking to peachy-peach about kissy-kiss”, “You’re so pretty when your unfaithful to me”, “Our love is rice and beans and horses lard”: the mixture of anger, self-loathing and playfulness in these phrases is hard to find anywhere else in alternative rock. Only Nixon could go to China, and only the Pixies could have recorded “Bone Machine”.