[2 April 2014]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Although David Byrne’s sense of the absurd clearly influenced the Pixies’ songwriting, they never really sounded much like Talking Heads, at least until “Dig for Fire”. It sounds like nothing else in the Pixies discography—it was the first time they’d used a drum machine, almost wistful guitar work, and, most surprising, it sounded like it might actually have had something to say. Of course, the whole thing eventually devolved into the the kind of confusion and guitar acrobatics that Pixies fans were used to, but there was something more there. It’s perhaps too neat to read the song as an ode to the underground but at the same time, hearing lines about people “looking for the mother lode” only to turn it down because they’re “diggin’ for fire” certainly plays into that narrative all-too-easily. Ultimately the chorus has just enough ambiguity for anyone to write themselves into it. We all have one life to live and who wouldn’t want to spend it “diggin’ for fire”?
When you think of the Pixies, you don’t think of string sections and yet, that’s exactly what they brought in for “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, one of their heaviest songs both sonically and lyrically. Never really a political band, this is perhaps the closest they ever got to a message song. As he was wont to do, Frank Black used the sea as his canvas for human failings, singing about “An underwater guy who controlled the sea / Who got killed by ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey.” Later he sings about “a hole in the sky”, obliquely referencing the depleting ozone layer. Of course, this being the Pixies, there are still a few left turns along the way to any sort of moral and what makes “Monkey Gone to Heaven” so memorable are those nuggets of weirdness. No Pixies concert is complete without a crowd singalong proclaiming “If man is five… then the devil is six… and if the devil is six then God is 7!” Why the random bit of Hebrew numerology? Who’s to say. What does “This monkey’s gone to heaven” mean? No one really knows, but Doolittle‘s image of a haloed primate has become one of the great pieces of Pixies iconography, so what difference does it make?
Especially in America, the Pixies were a band for art students and hipsters. And yet neither Frank Black nor Joey Santiago had much stomach for college and, in fact, some of their best songs are ones that skewered the cool kids, such as “Subbacultcha” and, of course, “U-Mass”. Built around a nasty four-chord riff, “U-Mass” is pretty much three minutes of satirizing college students interspersed with throat-shredding and string-twisting musical catharsis. In fact, after spending a whole verse mocking self-serious college students and things they hold dear (“Like capitalist / And communist / And lots of things you’ve heard about”), Black barely pretends to phone in a second verse in a rush to get back to the chorus, saying “And here’s the last five” before returning to dementedly screaming “It’s educational” until the word had been contorted almost to the point of breaking. It’s good to know that anyone fed up with the bullshit surrounding school, students, or organized academia of any kind will always have an anthem of their own.
Rhythm guitar isn’t generally an instrument that gets a lot of love but, as a Lou Reed fan, Frank Black surely knows that it can make or break a song. A lot of early Pixies songs feature Black thrashing away on an acoustic guitar while Santiago’s leads run wild, giving the proceedings the feeling of unhinged, maniacal pop. None do this more effectively than “Nimrod’s Son”. As he rifles through guitar chords like they’re going out of style, Black bellows a first-person account of crashing his motorcycle only to be told by his own ghost, “You are the son of incestuous union”. The rest of the song is a blur of imagery that would land most people on a psychiatrist’s couch. Of course we know it’s all just a piss-take as Black ends every chorus with a bizarre chuckle of “The joke has come upon me”. No one feels cooler than the first time they’re let in on the joke—it means another Pixies fan has been born.
Surf music was not exactly the hippest influence to be throwing around in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s alt-rock scene. But the sensual, suggestive contours of the early ‘60s surf songs were clearly a major influence of the Pixies from the get-go. Many view 1990’s Bossanova as the beginning of the end for the Pixies because it lacked the ruthless pacing and subject matter of earlier albums. But for those willing to give it a shot, there was a lot to like in the band’s willingness to stretch its creative legs. “Ana” was the group’s most direct homage to classic ‘60s surf rock, with its meandering guitar lines and understated production. But Frank Black was never a strict traditionalist and slipped in a few curveballs starting with the acrostic lyrics spelling out “S-U-R-F-E-R” that feel almost meditative. Almost as if using words to conjure up the kind of mirage that surfy instrumentals aim for, Black’s lyrics about “undressing in the sun” and “rid[ing] the wave” feel like poetry cooked up by a blazing LA sun. Miles away from Surfer Rosa‘s merciless sonic assaults, “Ana” showed the world that the Pixies were anything but a one-trick pony.
It’s hard to describe “Hey” because it’s a song without any real direct descendants or antecedents. There’s really only one long verse that gets interrupted by a chorus as well as what would normally be called a guitar solo, only here it’s more akin to a six-stringed lead vocal part. However you classify it, it’s a master’s course in creating tension and twisting song dynamics. This is the apogee of Frank Black’s debauched songwriting period as he yelps, grunts, and occasionally sings his way through a tale of missed connections and, of course, whores. Lots of whores. Kim Deal’s bass matches his spare guitarwork note-for-note while her backing vocals on the chorus, as always, give the lyrics color and depth that Black alone couldn’t muster. But it’s Joey Santiago who really takes things to the next level. Throughout the verses, his daringly simple leads and bent notes give the song expressive texture, but it’s the guitar break in the middle where he steps into the spotlight and makes it feel like his instrument is singing without words. “Hey” feels like a delicate tightrope walk where everything has to fall exactly into place just so, and when you get to the end and see that they’ve made it, the tension releases and you’re all the more impressed.
Featured prominently in that manifesto for every angry, wanna-be existentialist teenager, Fight Club (no offense, we’ve all been there), “Where Is My Mind” is doomed for many to be the one Pixies song that people who don’t like the Pixies like. While that’s a criminally unjust fate for a song this good, it’s not hard to understand the song’s mass appeal. Built around a catchy-yet-wistful chord progression (one that Weezer would later successfully ride to chart success on “Say It Ain’t So”), the mixture of scratchy acoustic guitar and Santiago’s piercing electric backing land perfectly in an aural sweet-sport. When you add in Kim Deal’s cooing backing vocals, the atmosphere is unbeatable—at once both ragged and lush. Little production touches like the quick-cut intro and the instruments dropping out a few bars before Deal’s vocals were happy accidents that made the song seem charmingly ramshackle rather than slick and distant. The lyrics are typical Frank Black stream-of-consciousness stuff about a time he went scuba diving in Puerto Rico. But he manages to turn that relatively simple experience into a meditation on the feeling of confusion and vertigo that everyone feels about their life every now and again. It makes no sense but at one time or another we’ve all had our feet in the air and our heads on the ground and asked ourselves, “Where is my mind?”.
With two studio versions and an officially-released live version, “Vamos” is the old warhorse of the Pixies catalog, changing as necessary to suit the circumstances. Perhaps that’s because it’s the quintessential Pixies song—there’s singing in Spanish, a ridiculous guitar solo, and lyrics that veer wildly from obscene to nonsensical. It’s become a live favorite because it’s the closest the band gets to jamming. The version on Surfer Rosa featured Steve Albini stitching together a guitar solo from various takes (some looped in backwards) and ever since then, Joey Santiago has tried to match that sound in live performances. The live version released as a “Here Comes Your Man” b-side finds the band stampeding through the song like they’re double-parked until the solo hits, at which point Santiago turns on his guitar with the fury of a Mongol horde. He punches the body, slams the amp, wrenches switches, and even runs a beer can along the neck until he’s exhausted the sonic possibilities of his instrument and the song can resume. One of the most underrated guitarists in rock history (yeah, I said it), “Vamos” exists as a showcase for Santiago’s prowess with six strings and a fretboard, a prowess he continues to demonstrate a quarter-century after the song was first written.
It starts innocently enough with a few plodding bass notes but as soon as it gets going in earnest, “Debaser” is the kind of song that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. It’s one of the hookiest pop songs the band every put to tape (there’s a tambourine and everything) but it’s also laced with a lacerating guitar that agitates the mix and ensures that it never feels too sugary. Written about Luis Buñuel surrealist short film, Un Chien Andalou, Black found the perfect totem for the Pixies’ unique brand of outré songwriting. Buñuel called his film “a violent reaction against… the artistic sensibility and… reason of the spectator” and that’s pretty much the feeling of the song. I’m not sure if “debaser” was actually coined by Black, but it perfectly encapsulates the feeling of wanting to take everything that is good and burn it to the ground. Of course, this being the Pixies, it’s still being played for laughs as Black tells us he’s slicing up eyeballs then chuckles like a madman afterwards, but that doesn’t negate the utter exhilaration being expressed. Kim Deal’s soft vocals that answer Black’s turn this from a simple chorus to a scientifically-engineered ear worm. “Debaser” is one of the most giddying moments in rock history—it’s joyful and profane, mystical and meaningless in the most addictive way possible.
If ever there were an aptly-titled song, “Gigantic” is it. It’s a massive chunk of alt-rock history, a gargantuan heap of sex and guitars and feedback and debauchery. The song started as just a riff and a title when Frank Black handed it over to Kim Deal to work on. She took it home and started brainstorming lyrics with her then-husband John Murphy. After watching in Crimes of the Heart (of all things), she decided it was going to be about having sex with a black man. Murphy threw in the phrase “big black mess, hunk of love” and the rest practically wrote itself. It’s a song that’s looking for trouble, from Frank Black’s first moans to the way Kim whispers seductively in your ear, to the tugging bassline that seems to go straight for the hips. It’s the most effective example of the Pixies’ famous soft-loud-soft dynamic as the verses tease and toy with the listener, guitars in the background grating like they’re champing at the bit before finally ripping into the massive chorus. “Gigantic! Gigantic! Gigantic! A big big love!” Deal howls, the sly grin on her face practically audible as the band pile drives the song’s massive riff harder and louder into the ground, chaos swirling all around. Deal’s song was the most iconic the band ever made, the sound prurience sung sweetly and put through a feedback-laden wringer in a way no one had ever done before. You might as well call the Pixies alternative rock’s Helen of Troy because this was the song that launched a thousand bands.