Publicity photo courtesy of Capitol Records

The Effect of the Beatles’ White Album on 1988-1995’s US Alt-Rock Explosion

The Beatles’ White Album was the single biggest influence on US alternative rock as it burst into the mainstream in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Pixies – Doolittle

pixies doolittle

After Ciccone Youth channeled the White Album to disrupt the rock LP format, the Pixies utilized the Beatles’ double record as a model for their exhilaratingly assorted sophomore album, Doolittle, produced by Gil Norton and released in April 1989 on 4AD. Ben Sisario, in his incisive study of this hugely influential disc, remarks that the White Album, “as a work of fragmented, jarring pop”, is, in fact, an “aesthetic precursor” to Doolittle.

Sisario makes specific reference to the way Charles Thompson riffs on the multitudinous range of character voices available on the Beatles’ record, which contributed to its mix of styles. He further points out that Thompson does this while reviving the persona of Black Francis on Doolittle, quoting him as acknowledging that he does “sing a little bit differently” with the Pixies: “Some other little character or something enters in. It’s more nasally, more spazzy or something.” Sisario observes that the end effect is that the album is “sung by a cast of mostly two-dimensional figures”, making it “a riddle that teases the listener” and the launchpad for “a tradition of rock built on eclecticism and obscurity” (The Pixies’ Doolittle, 2006).

Thompson, without question, mimics the Beatles’ penchant for singing in character on the White Album, with its rich vein of first-person songs from “Honey Pie” to “Martha My Dear”. He summons up “Rocky Raccoon”, particularly, in the way McCartney semi-improvises a situation where he is an inhabitant of the Old West reciting a country ballad about the eponymous “young boy” who sought revenge when “his woman ran off with another guy”, and who was determined “to shoot off the legs of his rival”.

Thompson injects his own stories with characteristic darkness, however, as when he applies the first-person-narrative voice to “Wave of Mutilation”, which concerns a man who has seemingly attempted suicide: “Cease to resist / Giving my goodbye / Drive my car into the ocean / You think I’m dead / But I sail away”. He also sings as a death-obsessed figure in “Mr. Grieves”, who talks crazily about the end of the world and how humanity should find a medium — like Dr. Doolittle — to converse with the dead. He further becomes the sporadically Spanish-speaking narrator of “Crackity Jones”, who is forced to seek new accommodation after contending with a demented roommate for too long: “Please forgive me, José Jones / You need these walls for your own / I’m movin’ out of this hospedaje / I’m afraid you’ll cut me, boy.”

While Thompson drew on the White Album to populate Doolittle with an array of troubled and otherworldly characters, Joey Santiago repurposed the note-bending guitar squall he’d inherited from “Savoy Truffle”. He applied it to “I Bleed”, “This Monkey’s Gone To Heaven” and “Gouge Away”, its role on the latter song being to add intensity on the chorus, at the moment just before Black Francis suddenly kicks off about “Missy Aggravation”. He certainly made it a factor in the quiet-load-quiet dynamic that the band famously implemented on many tracks on the LP, with the help of Norton’s more textured production techniques.

Thompson further contributed to the assimilation of “I’m So Tired” into this dynamic, a track on which the Beatles play in a slow and restrained fashion on the verses, yet burst into life on the chorus, with Lennon adding some psychotic yelling. Thompson’s comment on “Yer Blues” is also revealing on this matter of where the Pixies sourced their quiet-loud-quiet signature sound: “You don’t start off on top volume. You turn it up as your frustration increases” (Lament for a Straight Line blog, 5 July 2011).