Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#10)


Welcome to the Top 10. Let's waste no time and get straight to #10.

pixies1Oh, Pixies. How could I love something so demented? And make no mistake about it, my love is as powerful as their dementedness, which was plenty potent by almost any measure. From top to bottom, they were a breath of fresh (if poisonous) air. Or is that nitrous oxide I do inhale? I know I’m laughing and I swear I could pass out from the pain. Or the euphoria. Hard to tell with Pixies. It’s pop. It’s insane. It’ll put you out. It’ll turn you on. Music critic Robert Christgau described them as “S&M bubblegum.” Close enough.

Pixies are the most influential act of my lifetime. If you think you have a rebuttal for that, then I’ll limit it to being the most influential act of my lifetime for music worth hearing, and they inspired plenty of groups not worth hearing. And that cannot be refuted (unless your tastes are…questionable). Modern rock as you’ve known it for the last twenty years is the soggy, lumpy afterbirth of this band. Not just the risible stuff getting nationwide rotation, mind you, but everything in the alternative/indie/grunge/lo-fi/agit-pop/post-punk revival/etc. spectrum. Everything you love and everything you hate in rock music during that time came from Pixies. That would have made them the “Beatles of alternative rock” if they had sold all that well, but they were never a major mainstream force. I guess that makes them the “Velvet Underground of alternative rock.” Fitting, since the Velvet Underground is considered the so-called godfather of the scene. And pixies2let’s face it: it’s a lot cooler to be a VU ancestor than a Beatles ancestor. Company is much more exclusive, you see.

Now where was I? Ah, yes, Pixies. Pixies with their rude outbursts and their surf-punk hysteria and their bizarre lyrics. Pixies with their song sketches and surefire pop sensibilities. Pixies with their gorgeous noise and brutal hooks. Pixies with their fondness for touching on incest, molestation, abuse, lust, sexual frustration, self-loathing, mutilation. Pixies with their affection for David Lynch and Un chien andalou and extra-terrestrials and pidgin Spanish and Biblical judgment. Pixies and their eerie howls and yelps and gasps and grunts. Pixies and their soft/loud dynamic and a backbeat that hit like a wrecking ball and guitars that could scrape and vibrate playfully, spiral wildly, or thrash like a tidal wave. Pixies and their endearing name derived from the band liking its definition as being “mischievous little elves.” Merry mischief-makers, indeed.

Pixies didn’t come from outer space or Atlantis as some might assume (or the North Pole, for that matter), but rather Boston, MA. A fellow known as Charles Thompson traveled to San Juan on a student exchange to study Spanish and when he returned, he dropped out of college, convinced his friend Joey Santiago to do the same, and formed a band. Since Puerto Rico isn’t famed for UFO sightings, it is rumor at best that would suggest that little green men visited Mr. Thompson and either messed with his brainpan and/or DNA or else captured him for experiments and replaced pixies3him with an alien look-alike. But it was Santiago who showed Thompson punk, college rock and Bowie, three of the four food groups of any self-respecting alt-rock kid. The fourth food group would wind up becoming Pixies, because whatever happened to Thompson during his exchange caused him to change his name to Black Francis and express a need to give voice to hyperactive perversions of the violent, sexual, cerebral, religious and pop cultural nature. Stick to a balanced diet, kiddies.

Pixies weren’t whole until they filled the rhythm section, though. First came Kim Deal, who answered an ad looking for a female bassist—she had never played the bass before but she was the only one to answer, so the job was hers, naturally. Next came drummer David Lovering, who was suggested simply because Deal met him at her wedding. Now that the band was complete they could finally get down to making a racket. After being discovered by Fort Apache Studios manager Gary Smith, the band produced a 17-track demo in three days. Eight of them were issued virtually untouched as the group’s debut EP/mini-LP with indie label 4AD, Come on Pilgrim. Several more were eventually recycled for later albums. And the question remains: has any artist ever managed to crank out demos their very first time out, be able to release them “as is,” and end up with something even a fraction as astonishing as Pilgrim? Those aliens did something crazy to Thompson. Er, I mean: Francis.

pixies4Shortly after Pilgrim’s release, the group returned to the studio to record their “true” full-length debut Surfer Rosa. There they met engineer Steve Albini who would record the album. Notoriously opinionated and stripped-down, Albini emphasized the violence of the guitar and the bludgeoning impact of the drums while Francis’ vocals were all recorded in one day and mixed at the same level as the instruments. Of what he’s drawn to, Albini has said, “I like noise. I like big ass vicious noise that makes my head spin. I wanna feel it whipping through me like a fucking jolt. We're so dilapidated and crushed by our pathetic existence we need it like a fix.” Noise is what he got from Pixies, but not an endless industrial roar like his band Big Black used to deliver, but the kind that comes and goes. That come and go may be the most important of many important things that Pixies did for rock music—when you start out with the singer whispery and mumbling and the bass just sort of twinges and the drums are slow, hollow and steady and the guitar blinks and moans, leaping up to a fast, noisy roar just knocks the audience on its collective ass. They weren’t the loudest band around, but damn it if they didn’t seem like it, and instead of just getting the ears to ring, those surges and fades pumped the blood and energized the body. Watch a crowd at a Pixies show levitate and you’ll see what I mean.

pixies7Although Surfer Rosa was an “underground” record, it made Pixies a hot commodity (and Albini, too). It made a huge impact on the likes of Billy Corgan and J Mascis and artists from Nirvana to Bush to PJ Harvey sought out Albini to record their own albums based on what they heard. And had Pixies kept making records with Albini, they might have just been one of the ultimate underground bands, but instead they chose Gil Norton to produce their next album. Norton’s approach was much cleaner, with healthy polish and overdubs aplenty, and the resulting LP Doolittle was a kinder, gentler version of Pixies—which means it still sounded like lava-boarding down an erupting volcano followed by an icy plunge into Arctic waters. Just with a little extra frosting and sprinkles.

And out of the underground they crept, with a Top 10 album in the UK and a pair of singles jumping to #5 on the Modern Rock charts in the US (“Monkey Gone to Heaven,” “Here Comes Your Man”). But they weren’t household names when they finished touring for Doolittle, and didn’t even seem likely to carry on at all due to fractures in the band, notably Deal’s frustration in Francis’ refusal to record more of the songs she had written. In 1990, the band moved to L.A. (minus Kim), Francis departed on a short series of shows as a solo act, and Deal founded the Breeders with sister Kelley. But the group soldiered on anyhow, with songwriting duties being handled exclusively by Francis (excepting covers of songs from the Surftones and the Jesus and Mary Chain). And out sprang Bossanova, their “straightest” album yet, with special attention not just to the pop-familiar (love life gripes, though still in Francis’ typically elusive, surreal fashion) but to new breeds of space rock mingling with the surf stuff, and obsessions with LGMs, UFOs, and other Mulder faves. That rumored alien in a Charles Thompson suit must have been getting bolder by the day.

They only had one more album in them (Trompe le Monde), which was even “straighter” than the last, and was virtually a Black Francis solo album with a dynamic backing band—right before he’d reverse his name and officially go solo as Frank Black. Considering the gradual decline in their last two albums, perhaps it was for the best that they’d split; if for nothing else, the world got some pixies5terrific Black and Breeders albums out of the deal. And there’s something cruelly appropriate in the fact that the group who inadvertently defined the monster of “alternative rock” would call it a day right before Nirvana made it a populist craze. Kurt Cobain admitted that he “ripped off” the Pixies constantly, but I have difficulty imagining Pixies being a stadium band touring the world to tens of thousands of screaming, springing fans. That is, I had difficulty imagining it until the group reconvened in the mid-00s for touring; in that time, the fanbase had expanded enormously and they slowly but surely witnessed two of their albums reach gold status and Doolittle went platinum. Not too shabby for a band that mixed the appealing with the hostile as surely as they did the gentle and the boisterous.

Of course, I didn’t get that purity of discovery. I, like most people of my generation, worked backwards, hearing Cobain gush about them and seeking out their music after memorizing that “grunge” stuff. But while I almost instantly recognized the link between them, it was Surfer Rosa I caught on my hook first and I found it an exhilaratingly unusual experience, the rawness and hissing spaces banking off of incredibly infectious hooks and vicious torrents of heavy rock riffs. My adoration wasn’t as immediate as it was with Nirvana, but I wore out Nevermind as a “background” record when I played it eight or nine times in a row while I did other things after first purchase. But even today when I put on Pixies records while doing other things—such as soundtrack inspiration while pounding this thing out on the keyboard—I am constantly pausing, losing track of pixies6my thoughts. Because even though Francis’ lyrics will forever remain impenetrable beyond a clever line here and a hilarious snatch there, they’re still absorbing in their curious strangeness. And when those greasy or razor-thin hooks do explode out of the speakers, it leaves me discombobulated. And God help me if I don’t love to scream, “TAME!”

No one before or since has managed to so perilously swap between serrated, violent chaos and ecstatically catchy melody with a fraction of the skill and success. Hell, forget swap; it’s coexistence, same breaths, same shrieks, same buzzing one and two-note riffs, same colossal thump. And that’s the essence, the f-cking beating, bursting heart of indie rock—be unpredictable and off-kilter but don’t forget to be quirkier and more appealing than the superficial, programmed pop cluttering the airwaves. It probably didn’t sound like a revolution at the time, but Pixies completely changed the future of popular music, and not a lot of artists can make that claim. And they’re just so raggedly adorable. Who makes you grin while hearing about “whores in my head, whores at my door, whore in my bed…‘uh’ is the sound that the mother makes when her fingers break”? Who makes you sigh sublime when a relaxing surf rock fiddle-dee erupts into shrapnel-rupturing thrash? Who makes you swear there must be “visitors” among us? Only Pixies.

The Holiday Song
Nimrod’s Son
I’ve Been Tired
Levitate Me
Bone Machine
Break My Body
Something Against You
Broken Face
River Euphrates
Where Is My Mind?
Tony’s Theme
Oh My Golly!
Cecilia Ann
Rock Music
Is She Weird
All Over the World
Dig for Fire
Planet of Sound
Alec Eiffel
Head On
Space (I Believe In)
Motorway to Roswell
…and the album Doolittle

Also endorsed: Frank Black (solo), the Breeders, the Raincoats

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Matt Medlock


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