Alternative rock legends Pixies have been chasing the reformation dollar for the last decade and a half, playing festivals across the world and becoming the favoured name-drop of indie kids the world over, even those not old enough to remember them the first time around. They’re the kind of artists where everybody has almost certainly heard some of their songs, even if most of them are unaware that it was them. But what exactly is it about them that’s so special?
An enormous part of their legacy is their second album Doolittle. Released in the middle of
April in 1989, it’s a key point in the development of the genre we know today
as alternative rock. Though it’s a miscellaneous category, adjacent to ‘indie’
but kind of a catch-all term for everything from Arctic Monkeys to Dirty
Projectors, it would mean something quite different now if it weren’t for
Pixies. Doolittle expanded the
musical boundaries of their Steve Albini-produced 1988 debut Surfer
Rosainto a self-enclosed
little universe that speaks its own musical language, almost entirely unlike
anything heard before. That’s due to the presence of Gil Norton behind the
production desk, who was able to draw out another dimension of their music that
Albini’s heavy-as-hell anti-pop approach necessarily missed.
READ MORE: Pixies // ‘Surfer Rosa’ at 30 years old
Doolittle has the feel of an adventure playground where different-sounding tracks contribute towards a singular experience. Itfrequently veers from quite twisted and frenetic punk-pop to something a lot more straightforward and accessible. Such as when Black Francis goes from his demented screams on ‘Tame’ to the surf-pop melodies of ‘Wave Of Mutilation’ in one go. Or the squalling guitar histrionics of ‘I Bleed’ to the fist-pumping Beatlesque ‘Here Comes Your Man’. And the doomed eco-anthem ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ to the creepy sort-of-Latin rhythms of ‘Mr. Grieves’, and the eerie slide-guitar of ‘Silver’ following the desperate ‘Hey’… we could go on and on. But these sudden changes in mood are characteristic of the schizophrenia that typified Francis’ writing, and testament to the conviction with which his cohorts Kim Deal (bass), David Lovering (drums) and Joey Santiago (guitar) could turn their hands to many styles and sound so fresh, energetic and innovative. Several of Doolittle’stracks sound like they’ve been forged in the fires of hell, like metal twisted and bent out of shape but resembling something familiar.
Then there are the lyrics of these songs, which put together represent Black Francis’ finest collection and make Doolittle truly memorable. The surrealism of their trademark song ‘Debaser’, featuring sliced eyeballs and references to 1929 art-house film Un Chien Andalou, are just a taster. Francis takes you on a whistle-stop tour through his fertile, eclectic imagination. Biblical figures rushing to the toilet (“Uriah hit the crapper” – ‘Dead’), man-made environmental disasters (‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, ‘Wave Of Mutilation’), tongue-in-cheek deconstructions of love songs (‘La La Love You’), tattooed prostitutes (‘No.13 Baby’) and a supporting cast of freaks and psychos (‘Crackity Jones’) are just some of the wider themes and specific allusions that Francis fits in. The imagery is a cracked reflection of Francis’ strict religious upbringing as a child. Combined with the restless creativity of the music, the overall package is remarkably versatile, and has proved to be a source of inspiration for countless hundreds of bands subsequently.
Upon release, Doolittle
initially sold modestly, but its reputation and chart positions grew for
months afterwards, hitting the Top 100 in the US and the Top 10 in the UK and
exceeding sales of 100,000 more than six months after release. The sudden
loud/quiet dynamic had a clear influence on Kurt Cobain, who used the trick to
memorable effect on their breakthrough single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
just over two years later. The dynamism that Gil Norton brought to it continues
to land him production work with bands even now, who seek the same impact as
Pixies had. Opinion is split between fans of the group as to whether Doolittle or its predecessor Surfer Rosa is the superior album. Both
are undeniably extraordinary in their power and influence but, to our minds,
thisedges it on the basis of greater
accessibility. If you were to play a Pixies album to somebody who had never
heard of them before, you’d pick Doolittle.
READ MORE: Pixies // ‘Head Carrier’ – album review
On subsequent releases, Black Francis seized total control
of the songwriting and creative processes, resulting in the strange but classy Bossanova(1990) and the rather fragmented Trompe
Le Monde(1991) that
nevertheless didn’t slow their gradual increase in popularity. By 1992 they
were rewarded with a support slot on U2’s Zoo
TV tour before their split shortly afterwards. By the time that people began
to appreciate their influence, on Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, PJ Harvey among
others in the ‘90s and later a whole new generation of artists in the ‘00s,
Pixies had already vanished from the scene. Though they may now have been
adopted by jocks and fratboys, and their post-reunion albums struggle to live
up to the quality of their output during their original incarnation, they
remain one of the most important groups in indie history, and Doolittle represents their creative
Listen to Doolittle by Pixies here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Influenced: Pavement, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, PJ
Harvey, Guided By Voices, Radiohead, The Lemonheads, Brainiac, Built To Spill, Green
Day, Foo Fighters, Eels, Elastica, Ash, Blur, Idlewild, Neutral Milk Hotel, The
Shins, Spoon, Modest Mouse, Jimmy Eat World, Death Cab For Cutie, Yeah Yeah
Yeahs, Rilo Kiley, British Sea Power, The Cribs, Bloc Party, Arctic Monkeys,
Los Campesinos!, The Decemberists, The New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene,
Vampire Weekend, Japandroids, The Joy Formidable, Cage The Elephant, Bully,
Yuck, Wolf Alice, Cloud Nothings, Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Influenced by: The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, The Who, The Kinks, Dick Dale, The Beach Boys, Big Star, Iggy Pop, Ramones, Wire, Violent Femmes, Mission Of Burma, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, The Jesus & Mary Chain
Tags: 30 years old, 30th anniversary, 4AD, Black Francis, classic album, cult '80s, David Lovering, Doolittle, Frank Black, Gil Norton, Kim Deal
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