When Pixies originally released Doolittle in 1989 they were already massively popular in underground music circles. Everybody who’d heard them loved them and if you had an interest in indie music any time up to the mid-nineties, it almost went without saying that they were a band you listened to.
They looked like shit – “Charlie Brown made flesh” and his backing band of misfits – but nobody else sounded like them. They screamed about mutilation, surrealism, biblical slaughter and incest, they used weird time signatures and song dynamics, they did touching love songs, and sometimes they sung in Spanish. They enjoyed the same artistic kudos as contemporaries My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, but were much more accessible. They’re responsible for some of the best and most influential guitar music of the last 30 years and Doolittle was their creative peak and finest hour.
Pixies started up without any drama in in 1986. Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV and Joey Stantiago were at college in Boston and started playing some of the songs that Charles had written. They recruited Kim Deal, the only bass player to reply to their personal advert in the Boston Phoenix, who knew of a drummer, David Lovering. For no reason he’s ever adequately explained, Charles adopted the stage name Black Francis, and that was it – their definitive line-up was in place for the next seven years.
Their first demo tape was so well received that eight songs from it were released as a mini album, Come on Pilgrim, in 1987. This record received glowing reviews and sold more than anyone expected. For their first full album they were recorded by one of the few people in the music industry who didn’t like them. Steve Albini famously described Pixies as “a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock”, (a remark he later retracted and apologised for). But Surfer Rosa, the album that he worked on with them (and described as “a patchwork pinchloaf”) was even more enthusiastically received than its predecessor, particularly in the UK where they recorded four sessions for John Peel and the album topped album of the year lists for 1988.
Doolittle was the follow up to Surfer and Gil Norton was recruited to produce. Norton was both highly talented and a huge fan, so it seems natural that the album should be a triumph. But the band was starting to implode. Tensions among the members generally, and particularly between its two main creative forces – Francis and Deal – were high. The pair had collaborated often, including on Gigantic which had become the most popular song on Surfer but, despite this, Francis had now decided that this was his band and he was writing all the music and all the lyrics from now on.
Despite this tension and self-inflicted pressure, Black Francis wrote an album of brilliant songs. Kim Deal put her resentment aside and her song writing energies into producing material for The Breeders’ incredible debut album, Pod, which would be released in 1990 (and put another nail in the coffin of Pixies). Every one of the fifteen tracks on the album is great, despite the diversity of styles, from the melodic power pop of opener Debaser, with its surrealist twist in the lyrics ‘slicing up eyeballs/I want you to know’ – to the brooding quiet, loud, quiet of Gouge Away at the finish. Generally it’s more melodic than Pilgrim or Surfer Rosa, with the Beatles-like Here Comes Your Man and uplifting rock murder-suicide fantasy that is Wave of Mutilation, but it gets abrasive too on Tame and on Dead. The Spanish-tinged Crackity Jones and There Goes My Gun wouldn’t sound out of place on Come on Pilgrim but the stand out song is the least typical of the band. Monkey Gone to Heaven was released as a single and is a catchy, bass-led meditation on environmental issues and God. Francis is sometimes criticised for undercooking his lyrics and he happily admits that for him it’s the least important part of a song, but on Doolittle and especially on Monkey Gone to Heaven, he hits it just right, provoking thought without prescribing what to think.
Norton got great performances from the group and spent more time on production than anyone had previously, maintaining the prominent rhythm section, but adding subtle flourishes – overdubs, multi-tracking, strings on Monkey Gone to Heaven – without overwhelming the songs. Against all odds, the band sound like they’re having a good time and Lovering even gets to sing for the one and only time on La La Love You, a parody of the band’s own love songs. The album hangs together perfectly, like it was conceived as a whole, as all great albums do.
As well as receiving near-universal critical acclaim, Doolittle became the Pixies’ biggest selling album. The band couldn’t keep their internal tensions from affecting them for much longer and their next two albums suffered as a result before Black Francis split the band up and went solo as Frank Black. In 2004 they reformed and starting touring again and in April 2014 released their first new album since 1993, Indie Cindy. A few months later in December, 4AD have released an expanded edition of Doolittle on CD and vinyl, featuring the original album, Peel Sessions, B-Sides and unheard demos. Indie Cindy was welcomed by a good proportion of fans of the band from 25 years ago and it has its moments, but Doolittle 25 invites comparisons with the band at its height, from which there can only be one winner. Popular as they were, for many reasons – timing, lack of ambition, the fact that their frontman looked like “Charlie Brown made flesh” – Pixies never got as big as they should have. Anyone who’s missed this band and this album up to now should take the opportunity to right that wrong.
First published in Sabotage Times, December 2014 ahead of Doolittle’s 25 year re-issue.
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