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The Pixies’ initial six years of existence blew a breath of fresh air through both the independent and national charts.
From the backwoods of Boston to headlining festivals worldwide, the band combined blistering guitar work with a unique approach to songwriting and became one of the most acclaimed acts in independent music. Sun-kissed Long Beach, California proved too hot for Beatle-loving Charles Michael Kitridge Thompson IV to handle. Uncomfortable at the ten schools he was to attend while his publican father moved from bar to bar, Charles took inspiration from the likes of Iggy Pop, re-christened himself “Black Francis”, and began to master the guitar, bass, piano and drums. All that was needed to complete the process from beach bum to rock musician was the voice. And Charles took advice from the most unlikely sources. He befriended a Thai rock star (cousin to the manager of the flower shop where he worked) who told him to “scream it like you hate that bitch”, in the style of The Beatles’ ‘Oh Darling’.
More contemporary music soon filtered through Charles’ collection when he began a three year college course, boarding with Filipino guitarist Joey Santiago, who introduced him to the ’70s sounds of punk and space age David Bowie. The rest of term was spent writing songs, playing guitar and smoking dope. While the religious overtones in Black Francis’ songwriting seem to stem from his parents’ “born again” days in the Pentecostal church, his much-publicised use of Spanish lyrics was no doubt encouraged by a student exchange trip to Puerto Rico’s San Juan. Unfortunately, he wasn’t too proficient in that language and spent the initial weeks without money, unable to make himself understood in a “welfare state where so many people are screwed up”. Tales of squalor from this time spent 50 stories up in the seedy apartment with a “weirdo, psycho, gay room mate”, were later immortalised in ‘Crackity Jones’ on the Doolittle album.
After six months of lurid living, things came to a head in a local bar when Charles faced the option of either spending the next year in New Zealand witnessing the spectacle of Halley’s comet or forming a band in Boston. He resumed his friendship with Joey, and the pair became the Pixies, because of their liking for the dictionary definition (“mischievous little elves”). A celebrated newspaper advertisement – “Band seeks bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary” – introduced Kim Deal, who’d previously been in a truckstop folk ensemble, The Breeders, with her twin sister Kelley. The Deals had been playing around their home town of Dayton, Ohio, even supporting ’60s veterans Steppenwolf. But with Kelley gradually moving into catering, and Kim marrying Bostonian John Murphy (whom she divorced in 1988), The Breeders ground to a temporary halt. Kim also brought along drummer David Lovering, a guest at her wedding reception. He’d been living in Massachusetts and had played in local bands Iz Wizard and Riff Raff. Now that the Pixies had settled upon a stable line-up, they began rehearsing in David’s father’s garage in the summer of 1986. “Possibly the worst gig in the history of rock” followed at the aptly named Rat Club in Boston where they performed early versions of ‘Build High’, ‘Here Comes Your Man’ and ‘Dig for Fire’.
Further dates, and nights staying in “roach-infested hotels in unknown places like Kansas”, followed, before a chance to support fellow Bostonians, Throwing Muses at the Rathskeller alerted the group to several managers and agents. Out stepped Gary Smith, manager and producer at Boston’s Fort Apache studios in Roxbury, who’d recently sent the Muses to the UK for a lucrative deal with 4AD. Smith heard the band and felt he “could not sleep until you guys are world famous”. Work began on the Pixies’ first mini-album, Come On Pilgrim, for three consecutive days during March 1987. The band got through 18 songs, including a cover of ‘In Heaven (Lady in The Radiator Song)’ from David Lynch’s film Eraserhead (often cited as an influence on Black Francis), an almost acoustic ‘Here Comes Your Man’, ‘Down To The Well’ and ‘Rock A My Soul’. These last two recordings eventually turned up on a Sound Waves EP alongside tracks by The Pogues, Sugarcubes and The Wedding Present. Funded by Francis’ father, the $1000 sessions were mixed over a further three days, eventually resulting in The Purple Tape. Copies were sent to interested parties, including local promoter Ken Goes (who immediately became the band’s manager) and Ivo Watts-Russell, head honcho at 4AD, “the coolest record company to pay on time”.
Ivo was so impressed with the recordings that he signed the band and released eight of the tracks from the original demos as Come On Pilgrim, housed in a distinctive sleeve by 4AD’s resident design company, 23 envelope. For the band’s next album, Ivo brought in Big Black frontman and sound engineer Steve Albini to unleash “lazy evil” into the Pixies sound. The resulting Surfer Rosa featured many gems, none more so than Kim’s instant classic ‘Gigantic’. An uneasy physical presence dominated ‘Bone Machine’ and ‘Broken Face’, while ‘Cactus’ was spiked with T Rex’s ‘The Groover’ and inspired by a prison inmate’s pleas for his girlfriend to rub her dress with blood and send it to him. Then there was the brief comic book heroism of ‘Tony’s Theme’ and an extended reworking of ‘Vamos’. The album was completed in a fortnight, apart from some vocal mixes added afterwards.
Two years later, Albini, in typically provocative fashion, described Surfer Rosa as “a patchwork pinch loaf from a band [who] at their top dollar best, were blandly entertaining college rock”. However, most people who heard it were blown away by its abrasive dynamics and breathtakingly original songwriting. The record established the Pixies in the UK, topping the independent charts, and was named Album Of The Year by both Melody Maker and Sounds.
The Pixies arrived on British shores in April 1988 to support Throwing Muses on a tour beginning at London’s Mean Fiddler. One writer described this as, “the finest double act since the Romans decided to put the Christians and the lions on the same bill”. The setlist featured some new songs, which were given a wider airing via a Peel session in July. These included ‘Wild Honey Pie’, which continued the band’s fascination with The Beatles’ White Album, plus ‘In Heaven’ and ‘Hey’. For a second trip to the BBC on October 1988, the band chose ‘Dead’, ‘Tame’, ‘There Goes My Gun’ and ‘Manta Ray’. A live version of ‘Hey’ also appeared on The Sounds Machine EP1, given away with Sounds magazine, alongside Throwing Muses’ ‘Mania’. Both bands’ sets had been recorded on the last date of their tour at London’s Town And Country Club. This gig was also the source for the live version of ‘Vamos’ and ‘In Heaven’ that backed a remixed version of the ‘Gigantic’ 12″.
It was around this time that the Pixies struck up a relationship with British producer Gil Norton, who led the band into a Boston studio during the last six weeks of 1988 to work on their forthcoming album, provisionally titled Whore. The band returned to the UK in spring 1989, and caused a little mischief at their two London shows. The first featured songs played in alphabetical order, while the second reversed the order of the setlist, with the band leaving the stage after one song (the previous night’s encore) only to return for the rest of the set. It was during this tour that the band signed to Elektra Records in the US, who slipped out a live promo album featuring ‘Bone Machine’, ‘Cactus’, ‘Gigantic’, ‘The Holiday Song’ and ‘Nimrod’s Son’, together with two teasers for their next project, ‘Debaser’ and ‘Gouge Away’. Inspired by the eyeball-splicing exploits depicted in Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s film Un Chien Andalou, ’Debaser’ was the deranged opening cut of the band’s third album and an instant favourite. ‘Number 13 Baby’ and ‘Dead’ opened up the listener to further aural surgery, while tracks such as ‘Gouge Away’, ‘Wave of Mutilation’ and ‘I Bleed’ suggested an unhealthy yet alluring obsession with violence and bloodshed.
However, the album’s eventual title, Doolittle, seemed to be more about earthly matters, balancing nature against man’s desire for progression. This was typified in the lighter – “but the songs are much harder” – feel of the record and, especially, its two singles. ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ was interpreted as a eco-anthem, with man, God and the Devil at sixes and sevens over the ozone layer. The atypically jaunty ‘Here Comes Your Man’, meanwhile, nearly landed the Pixies a promotional mimed appearance on the BBC’s primetime chat show Wogan. More characteristically, the band cut another Peel session, performing ‘Down to the Well’, ‘Into the White’ and ‘Wave of Mutilation’. ‘Into the White’ and the B-sides to ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ were recorded at Boston’s Fort Apache studios with Gary Smith in the producer’s chair. These sessions also spawned a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Winterlong’, which later graced a Young tribute album alongside tracks by Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Bongwater. Black Francis later rated the Pixies’ rendition as “the best thing we ever recorded – kinda depressing if you think about it”. All proceeds from the album were to benefit San Francisco’s Bridge School for handicapped children.
In June 1989 the group played Glastonbury, which they summarised as “a real sort of green thing, but still a rock ‘n’ roll type festival, which is fine”, followed by several European dates supporting Francis’ favourite band the Cure. Apparently, Robert Smith returned the compliment. September saw the ‘Fuck Or Fight” jaunt of the States, which was intended to promote the US release of ‘Monkey gone to Heaven’ and Doolittle.
The band’s gruelling schedule – three albums in two years, plus constant touring – was starting to take its toll. Their homecoming gig in Boston found Kim in a drunken state and Joey smashing up his instruments then storming off stage. So tiring was the final date in New York that the band were too drained to attend the next night’s end-of-tour party. A vacation was in order: Joey went off to the Grand Canyon “to find himself”, while David jetted to Jamaica. Charles’ aversion to flying resulted in him buying a canary coloured Cadillac and crossing America with his girlfriend. Along the way he performed occasional “play to pay” solo shows to raise funds for the furniture in his new LA apartment. Kim, meanwhile, enlisted Throwing Muses guitarist Tanya Donelly and Perfect Disaster bassist Josephine Wiggs for a session of girl’s night out-takes. These eventually morphed into a reconfigured model of her previous band The Breeders, the line-up rounded out by Slint’s (male) drummer Britt Walford, here trading under the alias Shannon Doughton. Recorded by Steve Albini in Edinburgh, The Breeders’ debut album Pod was released in May 1990.
The Pixies reconvened at LA’s Master Control Studios to record their fourth album. Despite the natural distraction of an earthquake, the sessions went well and the result was Bossanova. Science fiction and surf music were Black Francis’ new obsessions – the former represented by lunar lament ‘Is She Weird’ and alien abduction scenario ‘The Happening’; the latter by a cover of The Surftones’ ‘Cecilia Ann’ and shimmering acrostic ‘Ana’, where the first letters of the song’s six lines spell out the word SURFER. Further highlights included ‘Allison’ (a tribute to jazz pianist Mose Allison), Talking Heads homage ‘Dig For Fire’ and the romantic, theremin-driven ‘Velouria’. After supporting long-time fan David Bowie in Germany, the band returned to Ireland and the UK for another headlining tour, which culminated in a date at London’s Brixton Academy that Kim declared “our last show”. Whatever this meant, it was certainly the last chance to view the Pixies in concert for some time.
An extensive 1990 US trek was cancelled due to exhaustion. Kim hitched to Brighton to work up more Breeders material with Josephine Wiggs, while Joey and David returned to the US for vacations. Black Francis soon followed on QE2, having paid for his boat fare back with three sold-out solo spots at London’s Borderline in the first week of November.
The Pixies’ fifth and final studio album (to date) was Trompe Le Monde, released in September 1991. Boasting a bigger, vaguely psychedelic sound – thanks in part to Captain Beefheart keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman – this underrated set was by turns anthemic (space/time travel saga ‘Planet Of Sound’), explosive (The Jesus & Mary Chain cover ‘Head On’), sardonic (‘U-Mass’, ‘Subbacultcha’) and oddly poignant (‘The Sad Punk’). Trompe Le Monde crashed into the UK Top Ten, though curiously it stalled at 92 in the States. The band’s winter tour of America sold out completely, culminating in a TV appearance on Tonight With David Letterman. They also contributed a track, ‘I Can’t Forget’, to the all-star Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Man. In March 1992, the Pixies accepted the opening slot on U2’s mammoth Zoo TV tour, but by the end of the year they were “on vacation” again. On January 13, 1993, Black Francis was invited to play a live session for BBC radio DJ Mark Radcliffe. When asked if rumours that the Pixies had split were true, the frontman answered, “Yes… in one word, yes”.
The band’s demise came just at that moment when a host of ‘alternative rock’ groups – most notably Nirvana – were about to find a vast new audience with music that was heavily influenced by the Pixies. Undeterred, Black Francis inverted his stage name to Frank Black, an alias under which he continues to release solo material. Kim Deal, meanwhile, revived her former band The Breeders and scored a surprise hit with their second album Last Splash. In 2004, Pixies hysteria reignited across the globe when the band reformed for an ongoing series of live dates, including festival headline slots at Coachella, Reading and Leeds.