It’s true, there was great American rock in the years leading up to grunge, but the reason sweetly fierce alt-hardcore bands like the Pixies never made it big in the mainstream is complicated. Sure, if Black Francis had been a little younger, a little more attractive and a lot more depressed, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe the Pixies could’ve beat out Nirvana as the cold water to rock ’n’ roll’s face that killed off the barrage of pop-metal nonsense. Let’s be real: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which Kurt Cobain admitted was a Pixies parody just before his death) is a killer song, but the Pixies were among a significant number of groups that emerged before Nirvana and were arguably better than the subsequent multi-platinum “alternative” bands from Seattle.
In 1993, no less than David Bowie, who has covered the Pixies, remarked to a French magazine, “When I heard Nevermind from Nirvana for the first time, I was really, really angry. This was a total Pixies rip-off.” You simply can’t argue with the Goblin King himself.
So what caused the Pixies (formed 23 years ago in Boston) to release five imaginative and affecting albums from 1987-1991 and then call it quits, having never tasted widespread success? Francis has said that his main influences were Iggy Pop and the Beatles, but most of the uniquely violent and cuddly tunes he wrote for the Pixies included bursts of abrasive hardcore-inspired music that was much heavier than Funhouse or “Helter Skelter.” In fact, Nirvana even hired Steve Alibini to produce In Utero because of his brilliant engineering work on the Pixies’ incredible 1988 album Surfer Rosa but ended up remixing the whole record because it sounded too harsh.
In other words, spastic charges of razor-sharp guitar and lyrics about “gigantic” black penises and “tattooed tits” don’t sell in the States, even if they show flashes of genius. “Here Comes Your Man” made it onto MTV for a while, but unlike Nirvana, the Pixies didn’t really have any radio-ready hits to follow it, and thus the Pixies were relegated to cult-hero status while those who rode on the coattails of their sound (from Blur to Bush) became millionaires.
Still, despite the Pixies’ bittersweet career, one thing’s for sure: 1989’s Doolittle is a true American masterpiece. NME named it the second best album of all time a few years ago, and its darkly themed screamo-infused pop has deeply influenced everyone from Radiohead to Weezer.
Talking about his love of the Pixies in the band’s 2006 documentary loudQUIETloud, U2’s Bono said that the Pixies were “one of America’s greatest-ever bands” and featured “one of America’s greatest-ever songwriters.” Those facts are no more apparent than on Doolittle, which includes at least five bona-fide underground classics in “Debaser,” “Here Comes Your Man,” “Wave of Mutilation,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” and “No. 13 Baby.” Just in terms of songwriting, Francis took the most experimental aspects of the Talking Heads and David Bowie and infused it with early-’80s American punk; but as a band the Pixies coalesced brilliantly to create one loud, original sound on Surfer Rosa and Doolittle.
It’s one thing to lament the fact that Doolittle was the blueprint for many far-more commercially successful alt-rock bands that followed the Pixies, but a superior option is to just put the record on and be blown away by the simultaneously jagged, soulful, brash, charming, wicked and spiritual world that Francis and Co. created. Even better, you can see the reunited Pixies perform Doolittle in its entirety at the Fillmore in Denver on Monday and Tuesday.
The band broke up amid in-fighting and substance abuse in 1993, at least partly due to Francis’ unwillingness to share songwriting duties, but their ongoing reunion has brought the story behind the break-up to light. To begin with, talented bassist/singer Kim Deal, who would go on to front the platinum-selling Breeders, wanted more of her own original work on the Pixies’ albums. Francis, born in 1965 as Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV (a given name only outshined in popular music by Brian Eno’s Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno), wasn’t interested in democracy.
By 1993, though the band was on the heels of a succesful tour opening for U2, the animosity between Francis and Deal was too much, and Francis told the BBC that the Pixies were breaking up, informing Deal of the news via fax, which he later owned up to regretting. Francis went on to a diverse and occasionally incredible solo career as Frank Black, utilizing what Kristin Hersh once called his ability to “write any song in any genre and make it fly,” but the influence and attraction of the Pixies only grew in their years apart.
The band’s 2004 reunion tour was a massive success. Somewhat like Rage Against the Machine’s comeback, the Pixies’ second turn as indie darlings has included a large amount of high-paying festival gigs and multi-night runs in major cities. The group, who are now all on good terms with one another, have only released one new original song since 1992 (2004’s iTunes-only “Bam Thwok”) but plan to record a new album next year.
Living up to his customary capriciousness, Francis repeatedly stated last year that the Pixies reunion was over. He told the NME “whatever we do in the future is gonna have to be fresh. I have to see if the band as a whole wants to go into the recording studio for a new record. That makes sense on some level. For us, there’s gotta be an angle. It can’t be just playing our old songs over and over.”
Maybe playing one old album over and over is a way for the Pixies to duck Francis’ self-imposed standards. Either way, it’ll be a blast.
On the Bill
The Pixies play the Fillmore Auditorium on Nov. 16-17.
Doors at 8 p.m. Must be 16 to enter. Tickets are $50.
1510 Clarkson St., Denver, 303-837-1482.