Formed in: 1986, Boston, Massachussets
Key Albums: Surfer Rosa (1988), Doolittle (1989), Bossanova (1990)
The Pixies are, perhaps, the definitive alternative rock band. Across five records and six years, the quartet perfected a brand of spiky, abrasive, coiled-up songwriting that made amazing use of dynamic shifts from quiet to loud. Though their legacy is utterly legendary, in their day The Pixies were only modestly successful, commercially. Their lasting impression was on the generation of bands that followed them: Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl, Pavement, Radiohead, Spoon, The Strokes, and TV on the Radio are just some of the bands to have cited The Pixies as a defining influence.
Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV —who would, in the future, be known as Black Francis, then Frank Black— grew up in Long Beach, California, in a Pentecostal family. "I grew up exposed to a lot of preaching and righteous rage," Thompson would recall, to Melody Maker, "and though I've rejected the content of all that, the style has kinda left an impression on me. It certainly left me f***ed up, that's for sure."
Feeling that the handclapping, performative aspect of the church was pushing him towards rock'n'roll, Thompson started learning guitar, piano, and drums, inspired by his hero Iggy Pop.
In 1984, Thompson leaves California to school at the University of Massachussets, where his roommate is a Filupino guitarist named Joey Santiago. The two spend much of their freshman year jamming together, smoking dope, and listening to punk records.
Thompson studies Spanish for a year in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he, in his isolation, focuses on writing songs. By the end of the school year, he gives himself a choice: either travel to New Zealand to witness Halley's Comet, or return to Boston and start a band.
He picks the latter, and convinces Santiago to drop out of UMass and join him. They place a newspaper advertisement that soon enters the stuff of legend: "Band seeks bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary. Please - no chops."
There's only one response, from Kim Deal, a young musician who's just moved to town from Dayton, Ohio, to be with her husband, John Murphy. She brings along a drummer who she met at her wedding, David Lovering, to the try-out. With one rehearsal, The Pixies line-up is set; it never changes.
The Pixies play one "terrible" show at infamous Boston venue The Rat, then decide to enter Gary Smith's newly-built studio Fort Apache to record. “There was no nurturing whatsoever,” Thompson later said. “We just formed a band, played a gig and began recording shortly thereafter. We were very quick.”
The Pixies record 17 songs (including a cover of "In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)" from David Lynch's film Eraserhead), a demo that becomes known as The Purple Tape. Playing around the Boston area, the band makes fans of Throwing Muses, the local outfit who've just become the first Americans to sign to England's impossibly hip 4AD Records. The Muses' manager, Ken Goes, begins managing The Pixies, and passes their demo onto 4AD head Ivo Watts-Russell, who initially dismisses the idea of signing the band, hearing them as "too rock'n'roll." He soon changes his mind, and remixes eight of the Purple Tape songs, releasing them as the 'mini album' Come on Pilgrim in 1987.
Taking its title from a song by Christian singer Larry Norman, the record is full of a mish-mash of lyrical influences; Thompson's gonzo ramblings jumbling Christian, sexual, and surrealist imagery. "Eighty percent of it's baloney," he'd later confess, to Melody Maker, of his lyrics. "A bunch of five words might mean something, or stand for something. But the five words after it, or preceding it, sure as hell won't have anything to do with them."
Instantly embraced by English music weeklies Sounds and NME, The Pixies are, from the beginning, bigger overseas than at home; something that will hold throughout their career. Come on Pilgrim spends 29 weeks in the English Indie Charts, but has no American release.
Hoping to capitalize on the success of Come on Pilgrim, 4AD send The Pixies into the studios with infamous Big Black frontman Steve Albini, to make their first album. The resulting record, Surfer Rosa, is a stunning debut by anyone's measure; swinging from sweetly beautiful to brutally loud. "I like him because he likes loud," Thompson exhorted of Albini. "All the needles were on red. He totally overloaded the tape!"
Though doused in distortion, Surfer Rosa is a showcase for Thompson's brilliantly-melodic songwriting. The LP is wildly acclaimed in England, where it peaks at #2 on the indie chart. The Pixies arrive on European shores in April 1988 to support Throwing Muses, a match the hype-loving local press dub "the finest double act since the Romans decided to put the Christians and the lions on the same bill."
Melody Maker and Sounds go on to crown Surfer Rosa as '88's best album. By that time, The Pixies have already recorded a follow-up album, provisionally titled Whore ("Whore is a great word with a lot of connotations," Black explains, "mercantile connotations and politics, everything"), with Englishman Gil Norton in Boston.
4AD employed Norton to forcefully 'clean up' The Pixies' sound. "We had to fight a lot with Gil," Black would tell The Catalogue, "playing the songs with him for three weeks, eight hours a day, and fine-tuning every little nook and cranny."
The recordings turn into Doolittle, one of the most influential and well-regarded albums in rock'n'roll history. Loaded with countless killer songs —"Here Comes Your Man," "Wave of Mutilation," "Debaser," "Monkey Gone to Heaven"— Doolittle is hailed as an instant classic by critics, and peaks in the UK Pop Charts at #8.
Doolittle is released on Elektra in the US, but initially achieves only modest sales. It will, eventually, go on to sell over 1 million copies, long after The Pixies break up. With tensions building between Deal and Thompson, that almost happens sooner rather than later.
Next: The Pixies on Hiatus and the Birth of The Breeders...