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Off the Beaten Tracks – mighty Pixies

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TAKE a smattering of surf rock and add a pinch of punk. Stir in a generous slab of Beefheart with a sprig of Buddy Holly and a dash of Iggy Pop. And prepare to enjoy Pixies.

Led by singer Black Francis and guitarist Joey Santiago, Pixies were at the heart of the 1990s alternative rock scene. Renowned for their jarring loud/quiet dynamics and surreal lyrics, they were witty, exciting and terrific entertainment. And however high the volume went there was always a sense of space between the notes, as typified by great British bands of the 1970s such as Free and Patto.

Black Francis was born Charles Thompson IV on April 6, 1965 in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents were keen on 1960s folk rock records which they played constantly. When they divorced his mother married again and with her new husband joined a Pentecostal church. His upbringing of course proved a major influence on Francis’s work. He told an interviewer: ‘I used to hang out with some misfits. We were the “we listen to oddball music” kids. I wasn’t trying to get into clubs to see bands, and I was buying records at used record stores and borrowing them from the library. I didn’t know punk music but I started to hear about it in high school. But it was probably a good thing that I didn’t know it, that I instead listened to a lot of ’60s records and religious music.’

Having graduated from high school in 1983, Francis attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he eventually shared a room with Santiago, a Filipino/American two months his junior. Joey introduced his new friend to punk and the albums of David Bowie, and the pair began to jam together.

Following a six-month student exchange trip to Puerto Rico to study Spanish, Francis dropped out of university and decided to form a band with Santiago. In 1986 they advertised for a bassist ‘into (the sugary folk trio) Peter, Paul and Mary and (the hard-core rock band) Husker Du’. Only one person responded – a married woman four years their senior named Kim Deal. She had never actually played the bass but liked Francis’s songs and was willing to learn. The band was completed by drummer David Lovering, whom Kim had met when he played at her wedding. For its name Santiago took a random stab into a dictionary and was attracted by the word pixies, defined as ‘mischievous little elves’.

While playing in a Boston club, Pixies were talent-spotted by entrepreneur Gary Smith, who told them: ‘I cannot sleep until you guys are world-famous.’ They recorded a 17-track demo tape at his Fort Apache studio and this eventually found its way to the British independent label 4AD. Owner Ivo Watts-Russell was not keen, finding the band ‘too normal’, but was persuaded to sign them by his girlfriend, who clearly had better taste.

Eight tracks from the tape were selected to form Pixies’ 1987 debut mini-album, Come On Pilgrim, much of which focuses on Francis’s time in Puerto Rico. The songs Isla de Encanta and Vamos describe the poverty there, while the title track is a phrase from a song by a Christian musician named Larry Norman. The record didn’t crack any pots commercially but the band persevered.

Their first full-length LP, Surfer Rosa, came out in early 1988 and was named album of the year by both Sounds and Melody Maker magazines in the UK. Far better appreciated on this side of the Atlantic, as always seems to be the case with true originals, Pixies began a European tour supporting another US alternative rock band, Throwing Muses, but gained so much acclaim that they became the headline act. The band’s biographer Stephen Erlewine remarks that they amused themselves with a number of in-jokes, including playing all their songs in alphabetical order.

Surfer Rosa, produced by Steve Albini, is terrific, an inspired mish-mash of musical styles both heavy and light, often in the same tune. For some tracks Albini moved the equipment into the studio bathroom to achieve greater echo. He was paid a mere $1,500 for his work and refused to receive royalties, saying that was ‘an insult to the band’. The album eventually sold getting on for a million copies.

First track is Bone Machine, a typical bass and drum intro leading into Santiago’s wild guitar and Francis’s deranged vocals. The rifftastic Break My Body keeps up the good work. One of Pixies fans’ top tracks of all time, Gigantic, features Deal’s vocals and brilliant bass – who’d have thought she’d been playing the instrument for only two years? Her precocious talent echoes that of another great female bassist, Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. 

Incidentally, Deal is billed on Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa as ‘Mrs John Murphy’ in a sly dig at feminism. River Euphrates backs light vocals with heavy rhythms in typical Pixies fashion. Where Is My Mind? is another perennial fan favourite.

Francis said he wrote it after scuba diving in the Caribbean. ‘I had this very small fish trying to chase me. I don’t know why – I don’t know too much about fish behaviour.’ Next comes Cactus  – a weird one in which a prison inmate asks his girl to smear her dress with blood and post it to him.

Surfer Rosa has appeared on several ‘all-time best album’ lists. One reviewer described as ‘well crafted, well delivered sketches which embrace commercial ideals as well as bizarre left-field out-of-control moments’. Another hailed it as ‘beautifully brutal’. Kurt Cobain said the record, which came out on CD combined with Come on Pilgrim, inspired him to make his own combinations of heavy noise and pop. He hired Albini to produce Nirvana’s 1993 album In Utero.

However Pixies dispensed with Albini’s services for their next album, which had a British producer in Gil Norton who was responsible for a clearer sound. Doolittle, released in 1989, is another sensational LP. It begins with Debaser, based on the surrealist movie Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. Tame is a prime example of the loud/quiet Pixies trademark. 

Wave of Mutilation’s jaunty feel belies the apocalyptic lyrics while Here Comes Your Man is as near to a pop song as makes no difference. Gouge Away is the closing track of an album which Rolling Stone magazine in 2002 declared ‘laid the groundwork for Nineties rock’.

In 1990 the group moved to Los Angeles, with the exception of Deal, who had clashed with Francis to such an extent that he threw a guitar at her during a concert in Germany. She formed a band called the Breeders and stayed in the UK with them but could not resist rejoining Pixies in LA for their third album, Bossanova. They had only two weeks’ practice before recording and several of the songs were written in the studio, which explains why the record released in August 1990 was a slight disappointment compared with its two immediate predecessors.

The opener, Cecilia Ann, is a fairly straightforward cover of a track by the sixties California band the Surftones. Other highlights include Is She Weird? All Over the World and the excellent Dig for Fire

For their next trick, Francis and Co abandoned surf pop to return to their trademark grunge. Released in September 1991, Trompe le Monde would be Kim Deal’s swansong, and some critics have described the record as Black Francis’s first solo album. He wrote every track with the exception of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Head On.

Trompe le Monde (Fool the World) is a play on the French phrase ‘trompe-l’oeil’ to describe an optical illusion. The opening title track is followed by the superb Planet of Sound,  with Kim’s bass to the fore, which was released as a single and made the UK Top 30. The album itself went to No 7 in the British charts but only No 92 in the US, showing once again how much better taste we have on this side of the pond.

Head On is as near as Pixies get to classic punk. U-Mass is a tribute to Francis and Santiago’s alma mater and includes a towering riff which dates back to their time there. Letter to Memphis is allegedly a nod to Chuck Berry’s Memphis Tennessee. If anything could be described as a typical Pixies song it is Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons, bass and drum driven, quiet and loud, screaming guitars and vocals. Clocking in at almost five minutes, Motorway to Roswell counts as a magnum opus.

Following a US tour supporting U2 (!) Francis decided unilaterally that Pixies were finished and announced his decision in a BBC radio interview. He then phoned Santiago with the news while Deal and Lovering had to make do with a fax apiece. Under the name Frank Black, he recorded several solo albums but his live performances included an increasing proportion of Pixies songs and the band reformed in 2004. They are still going strong, as weird as ever, and to close here is a song from their 2019 album Beneath the Eyrie

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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