The Highs and Lows of Pixies

A chronological breakdown of the Boston band who put the "alt" in alternative rock


    Highs and Lows is a feature in which we chronologically track the peaks and valleys of an artist, band, or filmmaker’s career. This time, we look at a seminal Boston band who helped bridge the gap between indie and mainstream.

    As music fans, we love to romanticize the influence and importance of our favorite bands. What’s not as appreciated is how thorny and complicated the path toward greatness often is for those bands that achieve it. Take any band tagged as “underrated” or “underappreciated” in its time, and it’s not hard to find the various bumps in the road.

    Pixies, for one, have navigated their way through a myriad of ups and downs over the course of their 30-year career. In their initial seven-year run, they built a musical legacy that any self-respecting indie rock band would kill for. Surfer Rosa and Doolittle weren’t just outside-the-box, underground smashes upon their release in the late ’80s; they’re records that have continued to grow in stature in the decades since. No longer is it apt to call Pixies a cool indie band. It’s not a stretch today to hold the band’s influence up alongside many of the very best bands in rock and roll history. Kurt Cobain openly admitted that the now-legendary guitar intro to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a Pixies rip-off while Thom Yorke, Bono, and David Bowie have also sang the band’s praises.



    That all sounds positively storybook, but Pixies’ creative highs have been counterbalanced by some difficult lows over the years. Frustrations among band members brought the band to a halt, just as the alternative sounds they helped pioneer were bearing fruit on radio and MTV. They returned to prominence more than a decade later with a handful of successful reunion tours, only to stall creatively upon regrouping in recent years to pen new music. Band members have been replaced, as have their replacements. In this installment of Highs and Lows, we look at a seminal indie rock band’s long, choppy road to mainstream acceptance, culminating with the release of Pixies’ second post-reunion effort, Head Carrier

    –Ryan Bray
    Senior Writer



    January ‘86: Pixies form in Amherst, MA

    To a certain extent, band origin stories all begin the same. Two people meet, typically at school, while the rest of the band is recruited by word of mouth, seeking out a friend of a friend, or by someone answering an ad. That’s a rough but fairly common sketch, and Pixies more or less ticked every box on the checklist when the band formed in 1986. Charles Thompson III, soon to be Black Francis, met guitarist Joey Santiago while studying at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. By 1984, the duo had relocated to Boston, working in a warehouse while piecing together what would be the band’s earliest material. Kim Deal answered an ad seeking a bass player who liked Peter, Paul and Mary and Hüsker Dü (in retrospect, an oddly perfect way of describing the band), even though at the time she didn’t know how to play bass. Deal’s then-husband recommended that the band seek out David Lovering to play drums, and the rest is history. –Ryan Bray

    March ‘87: “The Purple Tape” Demos

    After a show at the legendary but now-defunct live music hole The Rat, Pixies were introduced to Gary Smith, a talent manager and record producer who at the time was managing Fort Apache Studios in Roxbury, MA. Smith invited the band to record a demo at the studio, and they accepted. The 17-track demo, now known by fans as “The Purple Tape”, was knocked out for $1,000 over three days in the winter of 1987. “We drank a lot of Jolt cola, and I remember spending the night on the floor of the control room,” Deal recalled. “It was non-stop. We barely slept the whole weekend.” –Ryan Bray

    September ‘87: Come on Pilgrim

    Pixies got plenty of mileage out of “The Purple Tape”. Eight of the demos received minor face lifts before being unleashed on the world as the band’s debut, Come on Pilgrim. Well, on part of the world. While Pilgrim scaled the UK indie charts, it failed to get distribution in America until nearly a year later when Rough Trade bundled it with Surfer Rosa. Those who could actually snag a copy got a good mouthful — if not a full course — of what makes Pixies so unique: roughed-up melodies, Black Francis’ lyrical idiosyncrasies (¿Qué?), Deal’s unpredictable harmonies, and let’s face it — a near total disregard for sane song structure. Thirty years later, I’m still trying to figure out how the band crammed about seven songs’ worth of ideas into two-minute tracks like “The Holiday Song” and “Levitate Me”. Come on, pilgrim. You know you love it. –Matt Melis