Classic Album: Pixies – Doolittle
On their third release, the Pixies unleashed a sublime album, one that transformed them from darlings of the underground rock press to mainstream chart success. As Neil Crossley explains, it was a transition that saw them emerge with their raw, abrasive spirit still intact…
Sift through the welter of adjectives employed by music writers over the decades and certain ones appear with alarming regularity. ‘Visceral’ and ‘iconic’ are popular choices, while ‘cathartic’ and ‘seething’ are also strong contenders. Positioned firmly near the top of the pile, smug and assured in its own authoritative status, is a word whose usage seems to have no bounds: ‘seminal’. So widespread is its use that at times it almost ceases to hold any value. But when it comes to describing a select few, rarified artists, it’s a word that still holds weight and meaning.
One band richly deserving of the word are the Pixies, who have cast a long shadow over music for the best part of three decades. This was the band whose loud-quiet, stop-start dynamics inspired Kurt Cobain to create Smells Like Teen Spirit; the band that Radiohead refused to go onstage after at a 2004 festival because they said “it would be like The Beatles supporting us”; the band that became the most important American guitar group of their era and who would go on to influence legions of artists, from PJ Harvey to The Strokes to Arcade Fire and beyond.
From 1988 to 1991, Pixies released four albums of stunning originality and intent. The first full-length, Surfer Rosa, was a raw and abrasive guitar-roaring record fuelled by biblical stream of consciousness lyrics that would transform the band into the darlings of the indie scene on this side of the Atlantic.
For some, that album remains the band’s most powerful and defining document. But it was their second album Doolittle, released in 1989, that would take their sound to the masses. Doolittle was the album that thrust the Pixies into the big time. Dark lyrical themes were condensed within short, sharp songs that were as hook-laden as they were menacing. Three decades on, it still sounds as vital as the day it was released.
Doolittle emerged into the world in April 1989, at the tail end of a period of profound innovation in US guitar-driven alt rock. Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and Soundgarden’s Ultramega OK were among a cluster of releases that sought to push sonic boundaries. In some ways, the Pixies seemed akin to their peers, but in other ways they transcended them.
‘Well, you want to be different from other people. So instead of having the typical four-line verse, we’ll only sing three lines’
Much of Pixies’ uniqueness stemmed from the bizarre background of frontman and founder Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, who spent much of his early years shuttling between the East Coast and California with his family. His father was a bar owner and it was bar tips that funded the purchase of Thompson’s first guitar, a Yamaha classical, when he was 11 years old. When Thompson was 12, his mother and stepfather joined a Pentecostal church. This upbringing and the familial practice of speaking in tongues would fuel a rich lyrical seam in later years.
By the age of 13, he had discovered the music of Christian rock singer-songwriter Larry Norman, who would also be a lasting influence on his future work. The Pixies first release, the eight-track Come On Pilgrim was named after one of Norman’s catchphrases.
After graduating from school in 1983, Thompson enrolled at University of Massachusetts to study human anthropology. It was here that he met Manilla-born Joey Santiago, who introduced Thompson to 70s punk music and the work of David Bowie. The two began jamming together.
In his second year of college, Thompson visited Puerto Rico, on an exchange programme for six months, sharing a room with a “weird psycho roommate” who would go on to inspire the track Crackity Jones on Doolittle. Towards the end of his time in Puerto Rico, Thompson abandoned his studies and wrote to Santiago, urging him to help form a band on Thompson’s return home. “We got to do it,” he wrote, “now is the time Joe”.
In January 1986, Thompson and Santiago moved to Boston and formed the Pixies, arriving at the name after Santiago plucked it randomly from a dictionary. They placed an ad in a Boston paper that asked for a bassist who was “into Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary”. The sole respondent was Kim Deal, from Dayton, Ohio, who turned up without a bass, primarily because she had never played one before. She passed the audition because she liked Thompson’s songs.
On drums they recruited David Lovering, a Burlington, Massachusetts native who Deal had met at her wedding reception. After rehearsing in Lovering’s parents’ garage, they began playing bars in the Boston area. In 1987, while supporting Throwing Muses in Boston, they were spotted by Gary Smith, manager of Fort Apache Studios, who proclaimed that he “could not sleep until you guys are world famous”. They recorded an 18-track demo tape at Fort Apache, which became known as The Purple Tape.
Pixies – The Songs
Black Francis Vocals, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar
Kim Deal Bass guitar, vocals, acoustic slide guitar on Silver
Joey Santiago Lead guitar, backing vocals
David Lovering Drums, lead vocals on La La Love You, bass guitar on Silver
Arthur Fiacco Cello on Monkey Gone To Heaven
Karen Karlsrud Violin on Monkey Gone To Heaven
Corine Metter Violin on Monkey Gone To Heaven
Ann Rorich Cello on Monkey Gone To Heaven
Gil Norton Producer, engineer
Steve Haigler Mixing engineer
Matt Lane Assistant engineer
Dave Snider Assistant engineer
22 April to 6 May 1969
Downtown Recorders, Boston, Massachusetts
Carriage House Studios, Stamford, Connecticut
17 April 1989
This potent and aggressive opener was inspired by surrealistic film Un Chien Andalou by Spanish director Luis Bunuel. The lyrics, one line of which alludes to the scene in which an eyeball is sliced open, are largely nonsensical, the result of Black Francis being more interested in the sounds of the words than their actual meaning. “It has more to do with rhyming words and getting things to mathematically fit in a nice way in my songs,” he said. “I don’t think about the words too much, I just come up with them, things that just pop into my head.” The Pixies’ influence on Nirvana is well documented. But the loud/quiet dynamic, the lurching, discordant guitar solo and the bassline of this track had a particular impact on Kurt Cobain.
Pixies’ drummer David Lovering told MusicRadar that this was his favourite song on the Doolittle album to play. “It’s full of angst, kind of punky,” he said. “Even though it’s in a slightly odd time, it’s quick and moving, so I get to go all out on it.” With its heavy breathing and reference to “hips like Cinderella” the track appears to have an erotic theme, although it seems more likely to have been inspired by Black Francis’s distaste for some of the more affluent and arrogant students in Boston, where he grew up. “That song is just about all these fucking stupid ass students that live around this neighbourhood. Man, oh man, they are the rudest motherfuckers in the world.”
3 WAVE OF MUTILATION
This song was apparently inspired by Black Francis reading about Japanese businessmen who would commit murder suicides with their families by driving their cars off cliffs into the ocean. “It references the El Niño streams and weather patterns,” he told Esquire magazine, “and there are contemporary references in it but they all are there to kind of serve this nautical state. Water going up and down and moving across the earth and the churning up of organic material turning into rock, water turning into clouds. Like the Yoko Ono song says, ‘We are all water from different rivers’.”
4 I BLEED
Fuzz bass intros this track, followed by cracks of offbeat snare and Joey Santiago’s strident single-note guitar line.
It’s all melodically simple, formed around a single rhythmical repetition and within it a profound sense of space. Kim Deal provides sultry harmonies beneath Black Francis’s wistful, sardonic vocal. “As loud as hell/ A ringing bell/ Behind my smile/ It shakes my teeth/ And all the while/ As vampires feed/ I bleed.” Francis told NME in 1989 that this was a “very automatic” song to write, adding that the lyrics were inspired by a cave dwelling in Arizona. The song is PJ Harvey’s favourite Pixies track. “I just think I Bleed is a beautifully structured, very powerfully, haunting, scary and moving song,” she said.
5 HERE COMES YOUR MAN
Released as a single in June 1989, this is one of the purest pop songs in the Pixies’ canon and a real staple of the Doolittle album. In direct contrast to the fractured sonic style the band became known for, this is a relatively straightforward composition: verse, chorus, verse, chorus and all over within 3 minutes 30. There’s also a wry, cod country feel to the song. “It’s like a dark David Lynch movie,” Black Francis told Esquire magazine. “It’s a world that’s dark and edgy, inhabited by hobos. It uses a very common chord change in pop music, going from the D to the G to the A. It’s very singable. It’s got that riff, which I composed on a piano when I was about 14, so the song in different versions has been around since I was a teenager.”
Biblical violence is a central theme of this song, in which Black Francis retells the story of the saga of David and Bathsheba set against a one-note riff. “It’s all those characters in the Old Testament,” he told Melody Maker. “I’m obsessed with them. Why it comes out so much I don’t know.” Screeching monotone guitar stabs and megaphone vocals punctuate this vicious, angular construction. Lyrically, it’s rich and guttural. “We’re apin’ rapin’ tapin’ catharsis/ You get torn down and get erected/ My blood is working but my, my heart is/ Dead.”
7 MONKEY GONE TO HEAVEN
The killer track on the album, discordant and visceral enough to lend it gravitas but with a hook so strong that its radio-friendly credentials were assured. Deal’s voice is rich and mellow on the iconic chorus line, while her distinct, rounded bass and Lovering’s steady 4/4 beat are the languid backbone of the track. Monkey Gone to Heaven was the first Pixies song to feature guest musicians: cellists Arthur Fiacco and Ann Rorich, and violinists Karen Karlsrud and Corine Metter. The song’s lyrics reflect dark themes explored across the album and include references to biblical numerology and environmentalism. Or as David Fricke put it in Rolling Stone: a “corrosive, compelling meditation on God and garbage”.
8 MR GRIEVES
Soulful, echo-drenched strokes of reggae guitar, toms and spartan bass motifs give way at 0:41 to a frantic, incomprehensible 4/4 thrash. Doubled-up pummelling bass at 0:52 thrusts the track along and reminds the listener of what an assured and pivotal asset Kim Deal is. Lyrically, this is one of Black Francis’s stream of consciousness lyrics, which also provides the album with its title. “Pray for a man in the middle/ One that talks like Doolittle”. Style wise, it would have fitted easily within the band’s earlier sound, as drummer David Lovering told MusicRadar. “Coming up with it was like going back to our older, harder punky style,” he recalled. “It was a nod back to our club days where we had to go kind of all-out. To me, it almost sounds like it could have been on Surfer Rosa.”
9 CRACKITY JONES
The titular subject of this track is the terrifyingly violent man who shared a room with Black Francis in Puerto Rico when he was on a six-month exchange programme from the University of Massachusetts in 1985. “Looking back, he just had some mental health issues,” Francis told Mojo magazine in 2014. ”I found him frightening, a little mysterious.” As in many Pixies songs, Spanish words and phrases are scattered disjointedly within the lyrics. “Please forgive me, José Jones/ You need these walls for your own/ I’m movin’ out of this hospedaje/ I’m afraid you’ll cut me, boy”.
10 LA LA LOVE YOU
David Lovering takes lead vocals on this track, which was given to him by Black Francis as a song to sing “like a Ringo thing”. According to Norton, Lovering initially refused to sing but once he got a taste for it the producer couldn’t “get him away from the microphone”. Cheesy, carefree and resolutely ironic, there’s a real purity to the track, with Kim Deal and Black Francis’s wolf whistles and spoken ‘I love you’s adding a middle American kookiness to the whole affair.
11 NO. 13 BABY
There’s a raw punk simplicity to this track, an edgy abrasive 4/4 thumper which opens with some fragile falsetto vocal moments from Black Francis. As is so often the case with the Pixies, the dynamics are heightened by the simple adding and subtracting of instruments. Four bars into this track, Deal’s bass drops out as Santiago’s twisted guitar squall kicks in. The lyrics refer to the street gangs Black Francis heard of while growing up in California. “Stripes on her eyes when she walks slow/ But her face falls down, when she go, go, go/ Black tear falling on my lazy queen/ Gotta tattooed tit say number 13”.
12 THERE GOES MY GUN
Pop sensibilities are at the fore of this potent and soaring sonic gem. “Yoo hoo” bellows Black Francis against an infectious shuffle beat, pounding bass from Deal and echo-drenched slabs of roaring guitar from Santiago. As ever, Francis’s screeching, growling vocal delivery is offset and echoed by Deal’s warm, measured backing vocal response.
The track has a fluid, skipping groove that is enhanced by Kim Deal’s assured, rounded bassline. Deal always plays bass with a pick, and her clipped, rounded sound has a real purity to it. Once again, Black Francis’s Pentecostal upbringing rears its head as biblical meets profane on this dynamic and emotive track. Santiago’s trademark discordant single-note motifs add light and shade throughout.
“A parched and eerie country drone” is how Alexis Petridis described this track in a retrospective review of Doolittle in The Guardian. There’s a deep textural feel at the core of this song, co-written by Kim Deal and Black Francis, on which drummer David Lovering plays bass and Deal sings and plays slide guitar. It’s dark and intoxicating. “In this land of strangers/ There are dangers/ There are sorrows/ I can’t see this lady/ It is shady/ I am leavin’ tomorrow/ Tomorrow/ Tomorrow.”
15 GOUGE AWAY
Biblical themes resonate throughout Doolittle, as on this track which focuses on the Old Testament story of Samson, who had his eyes gouged out by his enemies and eventually killed them all after being chained to two pillars in their stronghold. “Sleeping on your bed/ You break my arms/ You spoon my eyes/ Been rubbing a bad charm/ With holy fingers.”
Drummer David Lovering told MusicRadar that this is the perfect example of a true Pixies song. “It’s got the quiet verse and then it goes all-out for the chorus. The way it’s structured, it’s two opposing layers. I remember when we recorded it, I thought it was the most compelling thing we ever did.”
Sound And Space
Things started to happen for the Pixies when Boston promoter Ken Goes passed the band’s demo to British indie label 4AD. Label co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell signed the band and eight tracks from The Purple Tape would become the band’s first release, the mini-LP Come On Pilgrim. At this point, Thompson adopted the alias ‘Black Francis’, a name inspired by his father. “He had been saving that name in case he had another son,” he recalled.
Soundwise, the Pixies were like no-one else. From the outset, they forged a trademark loud-quiet, stop-start dynamic, pioneering a sound that melded punk, surf rock, classic pop and indie guitar rock, all infused with stadium-sized melodic hooks. Heavy, brooding basslines underpinned roaring, jagged guitar, a style that Santiago described as “angular and bent”, while the half-spoken, half-screeched vocals of Francis were intertwined with Deal’s breathy and assured harmonies.
‘The 15 tracks could be released now and still wipe the floor of many of the late-noughties efforts.’
Like all great bands, Pixies understand the power of space within their music, adding and subtracting instrumentation for maximum impact. Lyrically, they’re dark and impenetrable, with Francis drawing on themes of biblical violence, sex, mutilation, outer space and pop culture.
“Well, you want to be different from other people, sure,” Thompson told Simon Reynolds of Melody Maker in 1988, “so you throw in as many arbitrary things as possible. So instead of having the typical four-line verse, we’ll only sing three lines. Or when we stop for a pause, we won’t wait the usual eight beats, we’ll go rest for 10 beats.”
Just like their sound, the band’s image also defied expectations. Thompson, Santiago and Lovering looked anonymous, wholly at odds with the blistering power of their music. Deal, by contrast, had a strong onstage persona from the start. As Alexis Petridis wrote in The Guardian in January 2014: “Visually, the only member of the Pixies who looked like they actually belonged on stage was Kim Deal, cool, languid, angular and charismatic.”
In December 1987, the band entered the Downtown Recorders studio in Boston to record their first full-length album, Surfer Rosa. All the tracks were written by Black Francis except Gigantic, which was co-written with Kim Deal and became an indie hit single. At the helm was producer was Steve Albini, who was hired by Watts-Russell on the advice of a 4AD colleague. Albini was renowned for his dislike of overdubbing and ability to capture the raw essence of bands in the studio.
Released in March 1988, Surfer Rosa spent 60 weeks in the UK Indie charts. Like many US bands before them, Pixies would go on to find a far more enthusiastic fanbase in UK and Europe than they would on their home turf.
Sex And Death
In April 1988, Pixies arrived in the UK to support Throwing Muses on the European Sex And Death tour, which one writer described as the finest double act since “the Romans decided to put the Christians and the lions on the same bill”. The tour kicked off at the Mean Fiddler, London, and took the band to Holland, where the Pixies had already received enough media attention to be headlining.
They recorded a session for John Peel and undertook a US tour before returning to Holland and the UK in September 1988. By now, the band had struck up a close relationship with the Liverpool-born producer Gil Norton, who had produced albums such as Ocean Rain for Echo & The Bunnymen. Norton would become the band’s first choice to produce their next album, provisionally entitled Whore.
Work on the album that would become Doolittle started on 31 October 1988, at Downtown Studios in Boston. While Surfer Rosa exuded Steve Albini’s raw, minimal aesthetic, Doolittle was the sound of a band making a concerted bid for the mainstream. While Albini had recorded Surfer Rosa in 10 days, the band gave themselves a month to complete all the basic tracks for Doolittle.
Norton did what all good producers should do: help the artists to realise and transcend their vision for their work. But his suggestions were not always welcome. On a number of occasions, his advice to add verses and increase track length were met by frustration from frontman Black Francis. At one point, Francis took Norton to a record store, where he handed him a copy of Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits on which most of the songs are about two minutes long. “If it’s good enough for Buddy Holly…” he told Norton.
In a Rolling Stone interview at the time, Francis said that “this record is him trying to make us, shall I say, commercial, and us trying to remain somewhat grungy”. Despite concerns, the partnership worked. The album brought the band mainstream acceptance, yet they remained true to their roots. “The sheer weirdness of the Pixies still seeped through,” wrote Alexis Petridis in The Guardian in 2014. “You could tell from the tracklisting that their notion of a lunge for mainstream acceptance didn’t involve toning down Francis’s obsession with violence: Gouge Away, Wave of Mutilation, I Bleed.”
Production on Doolittle continued until 12 December, 1988, with Norton and mixing engineer Steven Haigler adding extra effects. At the end of the month, the master tapes were sent for final post-production.
Doolittle was released on 17 April 1989 to largely critical acclaim. The singles Monkey Gone To Heaven and Here Comes Your Man gave the band a real foothold in the US, a market that had so far eluded them, although they remained a bigger draw in the UK and Europe. The album reached No.8 in the UK, which came as a complete surprise to the band.
Some critics bemoaned the fact that Doolittle had less rawness and integrity than Surfer Rosa. But others recognised the stellar achievement of an album that is often regarded as their finest moment.
The Pixies had broadened their reach without compromising their integrity, a fact highlighted by Ian Wade in a BBC review in 2009. “Black Francis had distilled death, horror, whores, biblical imagery and undersea myths into a succession of short sharp chunks of immense catchiness,” he wrote. “There is little flab or room for negotiation with Doolittle, its 15 tracks could be released now and still wipe the floor of many of the late-noughties efforts.”