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Draw a line between hardcore punks HUSKER DU and grunge-meisters NIRVANA, and the twisted ugly rabid rock of the PIXIES would lie plum in the middle. Led by self-confessed UFO freak and singer/guitarist, Black Francis (or Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV as inked in his birth certificate), the quartet threw out convention and song structure with the bathwater, and against the tide they strove to stamp their own detached brand of post-punk, post-surf, post-apocalyptic rock. Always on the fringes of mainstream success, lack of MTV exposure and radio airtime, probably led to the subsequent friction within the band, leading to the inevitable implosion after only several years in the business.
Formed in Boston, Massachusetts in 1986, by unlikely looking rock star, Black Francis, and his Manila-born roommate, Joey Santiago, the pair famously placed a newspaper ad requesting musicians to apply who’d a penchant for PETER, PAUL AND MARY and HUSKER DU. The only taker was Dayton, Ohio-raised bassist/vocalist Kim Deal (alias Mrs. John Murphy), who, almost immediately, brought in drummer David Lovering. Originally trading under the moniker of Pixies In Panoply, the band soon trimmed this down to the punchier PIXIES and began kicking up a storm in and around the Boston music scene with their spiky, angular noise-pop (that’s two-thirds noise, one-third pop) and wilfully cryptic lyrics.
Along with fellow Bostonians, THROWING MUSES, the band were signed to 4 a.d. Records by a suitably impressed Ivo Watts-Russell; the label releasing the PIXIES’ debut, COME ON PILGRIM (1987) {*7}. Stunningly different, the part-demo, 8-song mini-album galvanised the early primal PIXIES sound; a bizarre hybrid of manic, strangulated vocals (often sung in Spanish), searing melodic noise and schizophrenic, neo-Latin rhythms. Lasting little over 20 minutes, opening salvo, `Caribou’, and other college-rock gemstones, `Vamos’, `Ed Is Dead’ and sibling incest track, `Nimrod’s Son’, showed glimpses of their visceral vision.
The record drew an early core of believers, but it wasn’t until the release of SURFER ROSA (1988) {*9} that the band were hailed as the saviours of indie rock. Taking the formula of the debut to its brain splintering conclusion, the likes of `Bone Machine’, the incendiary `Something Against You’ and careering `Broken Face’ were utterly compelling in their blistering intensity. The sheer unhinged abandon with which Francis threw himself into these songs has to be heard to be believed. You begin to fear that the man really has lost it when he asks `Where Is My Mind?’ in his inimitable melancholy howl. Deal was equally affecting on the gorgeous `Gigantic’, the track building from a metaphorical whisper to a scream. Truly essential, their debut album proper remains one of the most pivotal, non-charting alternative rock records of the last fifteen years.
Following their first headline UK tour, the band hooked up with producer Gil Norton for the DOOLITTLE (1989) {*10} album. Previewed by the haunting `Monkey Gone To Heaven’, the UK Top 10 (US Top 100) record showcased a cleaner, more pop-friendly sound, most notably on second single, `Here Comes Your Man’. Swoon-fully pop-tastic, this song was guaranteed to have even the most miserabilist SMITHS fan grinning ear to ear, putting the toss that passes for modern “indie-pop” to eternal shame. The demented `Debaser’ and `Wave Of Mutilation’ were other highlights, becoming a dependable fixture at indie discos for oh, aeons.
As well as a mammoth world tour, Deal found time for her side project, The BREEDERS. A collaboration with the delectable Tanya Donelly (ex-THROWING MUSES), the pair released the acclaimed “Pod” album in 1990. Later that year came PIXIES’ BOSSANOVA {*8}, another breath-taking collection that had the music press in rapture. Lyrically, Black was in his element, losing himself in sci-fi fantasy (his favourite subject), while the band raged and charmed in equal measure; `Velouria’ and `The Happening’ were of two tracks aligned to the subject. A rare cover of a Surftones record, `Cecilia Ann’, back-to-back with the shout-y, IGGY POP-cloned `Rock Music’, were obvious highlights, as were `Dig For Fire’ and the acoustic-sticky `Havalina’. The album reached No.3 in the UK charts (but only No.70 Stateside) and the PIXIES could apparently do no wrong, consolidating their position as one of the biggest American acts in Europe.
Yet the critics turned on them with the release of TROMPE LE MONDE (1991) {*7}, in keeping with the times a decidedly grungier affair. Accusations of “heavy metal” were way off the mark. In reality, the record was still chokka with stellar tunes, you just had to dig deeper to find them. `Planet Of Sound, `Space (I Believe In)’, `Alec Eiffel’ and `Motorway To Roswell’ were all quintessential PIXIES, Francis as endearingly fascinated as ever with the mysteries of the universe; the straight-laced cover of the JESUS & MARY CHAIN’s `Head On’ was also timely.
Sadly, the singer was soon to turn his obsession into a solo venture, the PIXIES gone to a musical heaven almost as quickly as they’d arrived, leaving behind a brief but rich sonic legacy. Solo albums as FRANK BLACK (alongside CAPTAIN BEEFHEART/PERE UBU alumnus Eric Drew Feldman), group sets with The Catholics, and returning to his BLACK FRANCIS nom de plume, the man was quite prolific in his post-PIXIES days.
And thus it arrived, the great spastic exploding inevitable that was the PIXIES reunion; to coincide with the band’s return, the good folks at 4 a.d. released another best-of compilation (UK Top 20), “Wave Of Mutilation” in 2004, although long-time fans were much more interested in concert document, LIVE IN MINNEAPOLIS, MN – 04.13.04 (2004) {*7}. For evidence that Frank/Francis, Kim, David and Joey could still shred a gorgeous melody with more lovingly gratuitous spite than any band that ever walked the planet, those who missed the shows could try and get their hands on the latter, or any other of the PEARL JAM-style official bootlegs which the band sold in frustratingly limited quantities through their website.
Comprising songs from 3 digital-only EPs intermittently released over 2013 (ex-MUFFS/ex-PANDORAS bassist Kim Shattuck was a brief tour member), the Gil Norton-produced INDIE CINDY (2014) {*6} saw PIXIES (Francis, Lovering and Santiago) back in the limelight. Deal or no Deal (Kim would re-unite with The BREEDERS), the volatile trio couldn’t quite recreate their planet of sound from a generation ago. Francis’s spine-scrawling vox was in tact and ticking over (even on the spoken-type `Bagboy’), while the rhythm and spacey lead of Santiago defined their once-true, pre-grunge dynamic. With the exception of the bold `Magdalena 318’, the poppy `Ring The Bell’ and the head-banging `What Goes Boom’, everything unaffectedly merged with former glories.
Finally finding someone with the C-indy-pop credentials to match the missing PIXIES lineage of Kim, seasoned Argentinian-born bass player/part-vocalist Paz Lenchantin (ex-A PERFECT CIRCLE, ex-SILVER JEWS, ex-ZWAN, ex-ENTRANCE BAND et al) came on board fully for 2016’s HEAD CARRIER {*7}; note that she’d featured on live numbers extracted from the deluxe-CD version of their previous effort. On one side of the spectrum, nostalgic and nihilistic (`All I Think About Now’, `Baal’s Back’ and `Bel Esprit’ pulling respective riffs from `Where Is My Mind?’, `Debaser’ and `Here Comes Your Man’), PIXIES’ other side was jangle-jarring pop in the.. er… mold of `Plaster Of Paris’ and `Classic Masher’. Plucked from the dozen quick-fire cues, the download single `Um Chagga Lagga’ was the rambunctiously punk track of the pack, whilst the opening title piece was steeped in grunge – and why not!
Maintaining a link with their previous producer, Tom Dalgety, and archiving each fresh cue to be roundly included on a 12-part podcast hosted by writer Tony Fletcher (premiered in June 2019), PIXIES resurfaced that September with a UK Top 10 album, BENEATH THE EYRIE {*8}. Besides doppelganging very early ROXY MUSIC on `This Is My Fate’ and almost shanty-esque for `Ready For Love’, the superb Black Francis and Co had now thrown away their own rulebook on how a post-grunge act should behave; with the exceptions of `On Graveyard Hill’, `Long Rider’ and the tale of `Catfish Kate’. For example, `Bird Of Prey’, gave the impression maybe they’d dug out something from TOM WAITS’ or LEONARD COHEN’s back catalogue, whilst `This Is My Fate’ was pure NICK CAVE en route to a possible inclusion on TV’s “Peaky Blinkers”; the lively `Los Surfers Muertos’ was not exactly what it said on the tin.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2013-Sep2019

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