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
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
March ’88: Surfer Rosa
Nothing like being an American band who are breaking out across the pond but can’t get heard at home. Poised after Pilgrim to make their presence known in their homeland, Pixies’ full-length debut, Surfer Rosa, for several months, could only be picked up as an import in the States. But, like The Velvet Underground before them, those who heard and were blown away went on to define the alternative landscape in the years to come. Yes, that’s Kurt Cobain in the corner taking notes on the band’s “Gigantic” quiet-loud dynamics. Uh-huh, you spotted Billy Corgan hovering around David Lovering’s drum kit getting tech tips. Oh, and producer Steve Albini? We have PJ Harvey on the line; she wants to record Rid of Me with you. As for us mere fans, we can flip a cosmic coin from now until the end of time between Rosa and Doolittle being the band at its studio zenith and never be disappointed with what Lady Luck decrees. This album absolutely put the alt in alternative rock. –Matt Melis
April ’89: Doolittle
Pixies fans might forever be doomed to argue which record is better, but maybe it’s more apt to look at how well Surfer Rosa and Doolittle compliment each other. Both have loud, sweet, fantastically catchy songs, but the approach to both records couldn’t have been more different. Shedding the forceful abrasiveness that Steve Albini brought to the Surfer Rosa sessions, Doolittle curbed the bombast in favor of a more streamlined, accessible sound. With songs like “Here Comes Your Man” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, the band for the first time sounded like it could make a real play for radio and MTV. By that measure, Doolittle was a win not only for Pixies, but for the American rock underground at large. –Ryan Bray
Late ’89: Hiatus
Loads of constructive chaos and tension can be felt at the core of Pixies songs. That’s part of the appeal — not knowing what to expect from what, in the hands of another band, could be a straight-ahead rock song, all elements in harmony one moment and at odds the next. That dynamic works remarkably well on record, but not many relationships can endure that type of strain. During the Doolittle sessions and on the subsequent “Fuck or Fight” tour, tensions came to a head between Black Francis and Kim Deal. By all accounts, Deal wanted to play a greater role in the band’s musical direction, and Francis refused to make room. How bad did it get? Deal almost got fired for refusing to play a show in Frankfurt, and Francis hurled a guitar at her during a gig in Stuttgart. Given those developments, I think we can all agree that some time apart was a good thing. –Matt Melis
December ’89: Kim Deal forms The Breeders
If anything positive came out of the infighting between Black Francis and Kim Deal, it’s The Breeders. Dissatisfied with her opportunities to contribute songs for Pixies, Deal began a side project with Throwing Muses guitarist Tanya Donelly. Originally dubbed “Boston Girl Super-Group,” the band would later become The Breeders and go on to release a string of critically-celebrated and even commercially-successful albums with a revolving lineup around Deal. Not only had Deal found a creative outlet that she could return to during her Pixies downtime, but no less than Kurt Cobain cited The Breeders as a personal favorite and Deal as a songwriting influence. Pretty cool for a “Boston Girl.” –Matt Melis
August ’90: Bossanova
Bossanova saw the band bid Boston farewell and relocate to Los Angeles. It also saw Black Francis take over as the band’s sole songwriter going forward. Unlike previous albums, most of these songs came together quickly in the studio, Francis sometimes completing lyrics minutes before a take. This looser method could be seen as a proactive move following the comparatively grueling and undeniably heated Doolittle sessions and supporting tour. And while critics and fans judged Bossanova to be a slight step backwards on the heels of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, there’s no denying the demonic surf rock of “Cecelia Ann”, the melodic chug of “Dig for Fire”, or the spaced-out “Is She Weird”. The third LP was still the charm for these Pixies. –Matt Melis
September ’91: Trompe le Monde
Trompe le Monde might not represent peak-era Pixies, but that’s hardly a criticism in the wake of its genre-defining predecessors. The band’s swan song was its weirdest, reveling in Black Francis’ obsession with aliens and space mythology. It’s also their heaviest, a quality that allowed for some of the record’s best moments in “Planet of Sound”, “U-Mass”, and the amped-up Jesus and Mary Chain cover “Head On”. But in retrospect, the record’s surlier edge served as a troubling indication of the inner turmoil that was pulling the band apart. –Ryan Bray
January ’93: R.I.P. Pixies
Kim Deal had a hand in writing some of Pixies’ most memorable and enduring songs, namely “Gigantic”. Logic would suggest that two great songwriters are better than one, but the increasing grip that Black Francis assumed over the band’s later work (Bossanova and Trompe le Monde were written entirely by him) ultimately fractured the band. Many consider Trompe le Monde the first unofficial Black Francis solo record, and it would be the last one recorded during Pixies’ initial run. Francis reportedly brought the band to a close by announcing his departure via fax, an example of the extent to which communication had broken down by the time Pixies disbanded. –Ryan Bray