“Pop music,” Pixies singer Black Francis once opined, “is comprised of the hard and the soft” and few bands have ever nailed both those elements quite like Boston’s Pixies. The dream was to form a band that sounded like none-less-hip 60s folkies Peter, Paul & Mary blended with the furious hardcore punks turned alternative-rock masters Hüsker Dü. And they did. Indeed, the whole Quiet Bit, Loud Bit aesthetic that came to define a whole swathe of 90s rock bands came, largely, from the Pixies’ own songs. When Kurt Cobain wrote ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ he admitted he was, “trying to rip off the Pixies” and David Bowie declared them “the band of the 80s”, which sounds awful now, but probably didn’t at the time.
Yet despite huge critical acclaim and a feverish fan base the band never became the huge stars they should have been and in 1993 – after a tumultuous seven years together – they split. “I don’t care if I never sing ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ again,” Francis – born Charles Thompson IV – spat in the spring of that year. But life is long and bands like this one don’t come around too often, so in 2004 they reformed for a tour that pulled in over $14m in ticket sales. This summer bass-player and sometime singer Kim Deal left for good. Now there’s new music too. In 1986 Black Francis dropped out of college to form this band with his guitarist friend Joey Santiago and a drummer who worked at Radio Shack with Kim’s husband. Last night the band made their UK debut with a new line-up, Kim Shattuck replacing Deal. They’ll return in November to play dates across the country. So 27 years later the Pixies are providing a pathway for a whole new adventure. But what fired them up in the first place?
In The Beginning
Black Francis grew up flicking through Led Zeppelin and Ten Years After records in his local second-hand store, but he and Joey had their minds blown when they first heard Iggy Pop and Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Violent Femmes. Duly inspired, BF wrote ‘Here Comes Your Man’ when he was barely 15 years old. Kim Deal loved Rod Stewart and learnt guitar playing along with Roger Miller’s ‘King Of the Road’, but she got “hit pretty hard” by Whitesnake before James Blood Ulmer and Talking Heads grabbed her attention. Being a drummer, David Lovering loved Rush – well, it’s The Law.
Here Comes Your Band
While a teenager Charles’ parents split up, later his mother and stepfather joined a fire and brimstone Pentecostal church. Charles loved the “brutal sex and violence” of the Bible stories he heard there and fell in love with the wildest man in Christian Rock, Larry Norman and, in particular, his song ‘Watch What You’re Doing’. The new songwriter was taking shape, inspired by influences as diverse as Donovan and Captain Beefheart: “I wanted to be Bob Dylan,” Charles said later. “I didn’t want to be most popular on campus…”
Wave Of Improvisation
David Bowie, 70s punk and psych-rock and jazz guitar had a huge effect on the young Joey who would play along to Les Paul, Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix while focussing on his aim to “simplify the hell out of it.” In 2004 the guitarist said he got the idea for a muted verse and heavy chorus from listening to The Cars, while, as teenagers, Kim and her twin-sister Kelley (later reunited in The Breeders) began to perform regular gigs playing Hank Williams covers.
While on a college exchange program in Puerto Rico Charles wrote ‘Isla De Encarta’ and, soon after, wrote to Joey to demand they throw in their education and “start the damn band.” The band’s early sets were, basically, what would become the first two albums and a cover of the song ‘Lady In The Radiator’ from Charles’ beloved Eraserhead soundtrack. In late 1986 and early 1987 a series of local gigs with The Lemonheads and Throwing Muses led to a demo – known as The Purple Tape – which (through the Muses) eventually found its way to 4AD boss Ivo Watts-Russell. “I’d never even heard of 4AD,” Charles said later, while Kim remembers thinking upon being offered a deal, “Wow! Moody goth rock, cool!” The band’s first release, ‘Come On Pilgrim’, would go on to spend well over six months on the UK indie chart.