Call them what you want – a quasi-demonic cult, a UFO fantasist sect, Satan’s own Beach Boys – but don’t call Pixies a band. Mark Beaumont explains why they’re so much more than that
Boston’s indie noir legends Pixies are a fundamental force of rock nature, the molten bedrock upon which modern guitar music was built and arguably the best live act on this particular planet of sound right now. As their gargantuan new album ‘Head Carrier’ hoves into view like something out of Indie-pendence Day, let’s celebrate the things that make Pixies the most influential and compelling rock force since sliced Ziggy…
They invented grunge
Quiet/loud? That was Pixies. Radiohead cited them as a major influence and David Bowie hailed them as leftfield US giants, but their most notable testimonial came from one Kurt Cobain, who admitted that when writing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ he was basically copying the electro-therapy dynamic that Black Francis and crew had perfected on tracks like ‘Gouge Away’ and ‘Tame’. Alongside Hüsker Dü and the ’80s US hardcore scene, the grunge movement was rooted in Pixies’ early records – ‘Come On Pilgrim’, ‘Surfer Rosa’ and ‘Doolittle’. So any time you hear an alt-rock band making a noise like melodic excavation machinery – from Wolf Alice to Savages – that’s Pixies gnawing at their souls.
Their live shows are religious experiences
Clad in black and never uttering a word to the crowd, Pixies march onstage and set about their business without mercy. Whether opening with the cruel clatter of ‘Bone Machine’ or a honeytrap of a tunelike ‘Wave Of Mutilation (UK Surf)’ (their sets are randomised night by night), they transport fans into their demented pop dungeon and, for two hours, make them their thankful gimps. There’s a Pentecostal power to their gigs; they roar through ‘Broken Face’ as though whipped by Beelzebub, lead devotional singalongs to ‘Hey’, and get 5,000 people screaming the ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ refrain “IF THE DEVIL IS SIX THEN GOD IS SEVEN!” like a cult taking over Sesame Street. Then they leave, safe in the knowledge that you’d willingly give them your worldly possessions.
They’re intelligently evil
Most daughter-slaughtering metal bands of the ’80s gargled on about virgin sacrifice and Satanism beneath inflatable goat skulls as if they’d just binge-watched a Hammer Horror box set. Pixies were far more seditious: their songs were based on twisted stories of incest, mutilation and cruelty that Black Francis – AKA Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV – had come across during his hardcore Christian upbringing, his travels in Puerto Rico and his studies in anthropology. References to Nimrod and Samson gave their records a Biblical and mythological import. In songs that veered between bubblegum pop melody and barking insanity, babies were broken, motorcycle crashes hideously detailed, eyeballs sliced open. Their artwork was full of rusted torture implements and arcane symbols. Pixies’ music was insidious, and all the more wicked for being so damn catchy. When Francis growls “Baal’s back” on the new album, it’s the most seductive of the Dark One’s generals he’s invoking – the Johnny Depp of Hell’s minions.
They’ve pulled off the greatest reunion ever
Most comebacks consist of a half-hearted festival tour and a disappointing cash-in album. Not Pixies. Since reuniting in 2004 they’ve toured relentlessly, survived the exit of original bassist Kim Deal – her position is now filled by Paz Lenchantin, after Kim Shattuck was fired for crowd-surfing – and released two new records. Whereas the glistening pop noirs of ‘Indie Cindy’ were a continuation of their pre-split direction, ‘Head Carrier’ dives back into the grimy brilliance of their earlier material, and amazingly isn’t dragged down by the pocket bricks of their own weighty history.
They’re literally magic
If Pixies’ songs are awash with myths and witchery, it may be because they have an in-house warlock. During their 12-year hiatus, drummer Dave Lovering indulged his love of conjuring. Backstage at Pixies gigs today, Dave will always have a trick or two at the ready, and while he might not be levitating his drum kit across Brixton Academy, can David Blaine or Dynamo drum like a demon? Can they f**k.
Sign up for the newsletter
They have the world’s weirdest guitar god
When Black Francis intones “Rock me, Joe” before the solo in ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, he means to be rocked in ways unknown to mortal man. Joey Santiago plays guitar like most people wrestle hyenas. His instrument howls, squeals and gibbers in his hands and when he’s done tormenting it during ‘Vamos’, he unplugs the lead and ‘plays’ the feedback buzzing out of the jack. The root of all of the Pixies’ sonic evil, we salute him.
They’re loving the alien
When Black Francis’ attention turned from mythology and bloodshed on ‘Doolittle’ to sci-fi stargazing on 1990’s ‘Bossanova’ and 1991’s ‘Trompe Le Monde’, it was with a slightly unhinged sense of obsession, empathy and intuition. ‘The Happening’ imagined Frank worshipfully racing to Las Vegas to greet the alien ship landing on the Strip. Tunes such as ‘Velouria’, ‘Havalina’ and ‘Ana’ had him falling in love with extraterrestrial totty. As his obsession deepened he began thinking he was the alien, having visions of flying over Martian landscapes on ‘Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons’ and casting himself as an intergalactic road-tripper searching for the ‘Planet Of Sound’ (i.e. Earth) or famously crash-landing in Nevada on ‘Motorway To Roswell’. Thirteen years later, when their comeback album ‘Indie Cindy’ was released in 2014, his sci-fi interests showed no sign of having dampened during the break. Now, in the solar system’s toughest long-distance relationship, he was falling for a woman who lived on an asteroid (‘Magdalena 318’) and getting it on with the queen of the androids (‘Andro Queen’). Quick tip for the lads here: make sure she’s earthed.
They made Fight Club brilliant
It was a decent enough film already – who’d have possibly imagined that SPOILER was SPOILER and SPOILERing himself all along? But Fight Club’s most memorable moment came at the very end, when because WILL YOU STOP IT WITH THE SODDING SPOILERS ALREADY an entire city is demolished to Kim’s angelic “Ooo-oooh”s from Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind?’. The scene turned a whole new generation on to the cult of Pixies, and made the song so iconic that some editing genius even made an online video re-creating it from animal noises taken from other online videos.