The Velvet Underground and Nico. Never Mind the Bollocks. Doolittle. What do these albums have in common? They are all rock albums that were originally embraced by enthusiastic cult audiences while, at best, looked at askance by everybody else. Particularly in America, for a long time even knowing about these albums was a dividing line, one that indicated which side of a cultural cold war you stood with. (This cold war was one that the more populous side was usually blissfully unaware was even a concern). Year by year music evolved, and what was once a step too far for one generation of listeners slowly began to filter into and shape successive movements and sounds. All three albums steadily racked up sales and grew in stature as the decades rolled by, and more and more the number of devotees who spoke of them in reverential tones swelled from isolated cells to legion. All three albums have now aged into totemic classics; if they were removed from history, rock would lose some of its most praised masterworks, and it would be difficult to comprehend how differently the form would sound without their gargantuan influence.
The Pixies’ Doolittle is both an unlikely and an obvious well of influence. Many of the Pixies’ readily identifiable stylings — Kim Deal’s unassuming eighth-note basslines, Joey Santiago’s squalling guitar leads, the drastic, dramatic shifts between quiet and loud sections — are genius simplicity, ripe for easy replication but hard to execute with the masterful command this alt-rock group possessed in its prime. Even amongst the quartet’s innumerable followers and imitators, the music of the Pixies remains idiosyncratic and readily identifiable. The quiet verses/loud choruses formula could be readily appropriated, and other musicians could strive for the same balance of jagged dissonance and cotton candy pop, but aping Black Francis’ off-kilter songwriting (full of Biblical allusions, bizarre imagery, and random interjections of Spanish) and the group’s underlying quirkiness has proven far trickier. Then there is the matter of Black Francis’ body-quaking shrieks, primordial howls so violent and sudden they can turn the sweetest tune into the scariest nightmare. Then and now, his screams cannot be mistaken for anyone else.
Though never a sizable unit-shifter, Doolittle has, either directly or by way of enormously effective emissaries like Nirvana and Radiohead, permeated the very DNA of modern rock music. Doolittle is oft-regarded as the best Pixies album, and is often the point of introduction for listeners new to the band. It’s certainly the best-selling of all the quartet’s records, having inched its way over two decades and change within spitting distance of the magic one-million sales mark in America. Perhaps more crucially, it’s probably one of the most effective introductions to the alternative rock genre available, occupying a rarefied strata alongside better-known touchstones Nevermind and Ten. To deny the greatness and importance of Doolittle is in a sense to deny the greatness and importance of the Pixies, and by further extension the validity of the entire alt-rock genre.
Thus, this lavish 25th anniversary edition isn’t yet another excuse for a record company to mark a hollow milestone for a release that has simply existed for a certain length of time. This is one birthday that definitely calls for celebration, and 4AD has booked the party reservations. If you have even the most fleeting interest in alternative rock, Doolittle is essential — nay, mandatory — listening. The record really is that good, almost cruelly so. From stem to stern, from the deathless “Debaser” (a song that would be held up as the Platonic ideal of an alt-rock anthem, if Nirvana’s Pixies-inspired “Smells Like Teen Spirit” didn’t already possess that honor) to the portentous “Gouge Away”, the tracklist is a veritable murderer’s row of oh-my-God-this-song-is-amazing treasures. Aside from the bookends, this record is also home to the singles “Here Comes Your Man” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, the jaunty oceanic surge of “Wave of Mutilation”, the unhinged “Crackity Jones”, the lovably stupid “La La Love You”, and more besides. Between Doolittle and 1988’s Surfer Rosa, you would own the majority of Pixies material you could ever want, as well as possess what might as well be certified the first rock albums of the ’90s.
Though the similarly worthy Surfer Rosa has the benefit of Steve Albini’s raw production and its own share of top-shelf songs, Doolittle maintains the edge in the Pixies catalog. While Surfer Rosa seeps down into every nook and cranny with its own willful sense of purpose, Doolittle is a compact whole that might as well have come into existence fully-formed. Gil Norton’s comparatively clean production shapes it into order, and he lets the band’s pop instincts finally shine in the forefront. Being too poppy was a concern for the Pixies early on, which is why “Here Comes You Man”, originally written and recorded in the mid ’80s, was shelved until 1989. Norton helped prove that such fears were unfounded, for the band’s weirdness ran farther than skin-deep. Listening to any Pixies record is akin to entering a disturbing and disconcerting fairytale book, and even the most tuneful songs on Doolittle threaten to take a sudden malevolent turn. Even a slow burn isn’t warning enough: put on “Tame” and listen as childish chants build up to the bracing roar of the final chorus, which them mutates into an inhuman and unholy bellow.
It wouldn’t hurt to ask for this three-disc anniversary set as a present this holiday season if you don’t already own Doolittle, that’s been established. For those who already have the basic edition, any purchasing or wishlist decisions rest on if they’ve already hunted down the album’s singles and their fondness for raw demos of their favorite tunes. Of the b-sides, “Manta Ray” is the most tempting draw, being the equal of some of the better selections to make the Doolittle tracklist. The so-called “UK Surf” rendition of “Wave of Mutilation” is also frequently sought-after. More enticing are two full recording sessions for John Peel’s BBC radio show. If you think the album versions are brief, listen to the Pixies blaze through their 1988 set for the British DJ with an unhinged intensity. Amongst the Peel Sessions, the “UK Surf” incarnation of “Wave of Mutilation” is the real prize, and a slight uptick in tempo also makes it superior to the version released on the “Monkey Gone to Heaven” single.
The disc full of demos is a dicier proposition, particularly if you don’t want the album’s aura spoiled. Listening to the demos is like peeking behind Oz’s curtain: here you hear languid and halting efforts by four people in a room in the process of plotting out how the songs are supposed to proceed. The passion comes later. The common exception is Black Francis’ screams, a gale force the man is able to seemingly summon at will when needed. The early renditions of “Debaser” are some of the more underwhelming offerings from this batch, which is unfortunate since the first stab at demoing contains an alternate set of lyrics it would be nice to hear as part of a more refined performance. Of greater interest are a more menacing take on “Crackity Jones” (if that was even possible), the energetic second version of “Wave of Mutilation”, and the holy grail that is the original 1986 demo of “Here Comes Your Man”.
In the scope of deluxe-sized repressings, Doolittle 25 could’ve gone farther — certainly, there’s more period live material that could have dredged up, or a making-of documentary that could’ve been produced? In addition, the bonus tracks from the “Debaser” single are absent (in fairness, that song was issued as an a-side in 1997 to promote a Pixies compilation, but it would’ve been a welcome inclusion). Nevertheless, the original album is unblemished, all the contemporary b-sides are accounted for, the Peel Sessions are a nice bonus, and as usual, the striking packaging by Vaughan Oliver is incomparable. If this is all that could be rounded up for the album’s quarter-century birthday festivities, it will suffice, for the original artifact at the center of attention continues to astound, and anything added (bar the additional cost) is an added luxury. Who would’ve guessed 25 years ago that a record that began with some maniac screaming about slicing up eyeballs would become the template for much of rock music to come? Independent of its sizable merits, the vast impact of Doolittle and its authors remains an astonishment.