The Pixies ‘Doolittle’ is one of the seminal records of the late 80’s; it is hard to believe but the album turns 25 this month. To celebrate The Pixies are re releasing Doolittle with a three disc set to commemorate the anniversary. Included in the re release are a remaster of the original, a second disk of b sides and Peel Sessions recordings and a third disc of never before released demos.
The Pixies are a band reminiscent in some ways to the Velvet Underground, both did not originally have tremendous commercial success, but inspired and sparked off hundreds of bands. Both had and have fierce cult followings and in time both became legendary. The Pixies have been credited with laying the foundation for 90’s alternative rock. They have been a mythic influence, as they have been cited by numerous bands as a major inspiration. The list contains heavy weights such as Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, and PJ Harvey. Thom Yorke went as far as stating” The Pixies changed my life.” Some would say that’s a high accolade for a band that never had a number one single or album.
The Pixies in late 1988 and 1989 were looking to make their follow up to their debut full length Surfer Rosa. That album was a dark hard edged disc described aptly as being as abrasive as a chainsaw. Critics had admired Surfer Rosa but it had not made a dent commercially. Doolittle would be for many fans the initial introduction to the band.
A number of critics had championed The Pixies from the beginning. Many publications have cited Doolittle as one of the most influential albums ever. In 2003 NME ranked Doolittle as the second greatest album of all time. At the time of its release Doolittle received mostly positive reviews and reached #8 on the UK charts. It was giving major support by MTV and their show 120 Minutes which featured the band’s videos. The album sold well with 100,000 Copies sold in the first 6 months after release, and has sold steadily ever since, reaching gold in 1995 and by 2005 selling a million copies in America. There are some who feel Doolittle is the high water mark of the band as this is the last album that had the pervading feeling of “all for one and one for all”. The discs that followed always had that feeling of underlying tension that would lead to a two decade long hiatus.
The band was formed in 1986 by Black Francis or as he was known throughout The Pixies original incarnation as Charles Thompson IV and Joey Santiago as they lived in dorms at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For music trivia buffs Joey’s roommate was guitarist J. Mascis of Dinosaur jr fame. They toyed with forming a band and jammed and tossed ideas back and forth for a while. Finally deciding to go for it, they advertised for a female bass player and Kim Deal was the only person to respond. She did not play the bass at the time but they invited her to join because she liked their songs and shared mutual musical tastes. They added drummer David Lovering, who Deal had met at a wedding, and the rest as they say is history.
An important thing to remember when trying to understand the impact of The Pixies is that they were not your average looking or behaving “American” band. The paradox of The Pixies is they were average looking folks who made otherworldly madly great music. They looked like the roadies not the band members. They were very concerned with being perceived as sell outs to corporate music, to the point of not cooperating with the machine, famous for limiting interviews and looking to do as little P/R as possible. They infamously ticked off higher ups in the music business including MTV executives by not agreeing to lip sync in videos, most famously in “Here Comes Your Man,” It is hard to describe how revolutionary The Pixies were to those who were not present at that time. The band’s non sell out commitment would lead to an eventual musical bloodless revolution.
A colleague who is a few years younger than me did not experience The Pixies original run and has a hard time understanding the appeal of The Pixies. Much of this is because he looks at them through the hindsight filter of all the alternative/grunge acts that came after, inspired by The Pixies and followed in their footsteps. After the revolution The Pixies do not seem to be the game changers they truly were. The other question I get from younger critics is why were The Pixies so influential? Here it is, the idea that a band could look like they did in at time when bands were being totally styled and controlled in everyway, and that they were artists so musically gifted inspired many people to start a band. The idea that if The Pixies could do it then there was hope for everyone else was inspiring. Additional their commitment to producing music without kowtowing to corporate music executives attracted many followers. The Pixies offered pride in being average people, but also exhibited their self confident and intelligent with music that seemed deceptively simple but was audio magic.
Doolittle was The Pixies first international release. Francis initially want to call the album Whore, after the Great Whore of Babylon from the Bible. Eventually it was called Doolittle, the title taken from lyrics in Mr. Grieves, following a tradition of taking the title from lyrics on the album, such as on Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa. The initial demo sessions were done in a hair salon basement while on a break from touring in 1988. The band was given $40,000 to record the album excluding producer fees. Not exactly a wild amount of money, possibly indicating a lack of firm commitment from their record company. The recording sessions lasted three weeks and worked out to a track a day. Gil Norton was brought in to do the producing.
The album was recorded at Downtown Recorders Boston, Massachusetts and Carriage House Studios, Stamford, Connecticut. Steve Haigler was the mixing engineer, Matt Lane and Dave Snider assistant engineers, Burt Price and Rob Sylvain the second assistants. There was a bit of contention between Norton and Francis on recording the album. Norton pushed for adding verses and increasing track lengths. At one point Francis took Norton to a record store and showed him a Buddy Holly’s greatest Hits LP pointing out most of the songs were less than 2 minutes in length. He then said, “If it is good enough for Buddy Holly it is good enough for me.” In the end Norton produced a lustrous, silvery smooth record that made the Pixies oh so appealing.
Doolittle was a marriage of poppy listen-ability and the undercurrent of serious surreal depravity. The songs were simple on the surface using repeated chord progressions and three chord formulas. However underneath many things were going on. The whole quite/loud dynamic was on full display. Kim Deal played bass like a lead guitar. The music was melodic and erratic as it wheeling though various panoramas and influences. The dark subject matter was an amalgam of surrealism, Biblical violence, death and monkeys. It was original and engaging. The album kicked off with Debaser a song that was inspired by “Un Chien Andalou” the surreal silent movie by Luis.Bunuel and Salvador Dali.
The thudding bass, Francis’ manic singing, Kim’s great vocal echo and the driving beat made for a musical tract to the unconverted. It was strange lyrics with a dance beat, nihilism set to music. Tame was a rant about the supposedly carefully raised but uncouth, ignorant college students Francis observed around him in Boston. It was taken as an erotic song because of all the heavy breathing and the lyric “Hips like Cinderella.” The song has a lovely bass line and was a stellar example of the quiet/ loud technique.
Wave of Mutilation is a powerful song that takes no prisoners; it still sounds as amazing 25 years later as it did when it first exploded out of the speakers. The song was infamously about as Francis describing how Japanese businessmen were committing murder suicides as their businesses failed. Filling their cars with their families and driving into the ocean.
I Bleed changed the tempo and vocals with Kim coming to the front, her bassline underpin the song with Joey’s apt guitar chords. There is a crazy fuzz guitar attack at the chorus. Ask yourself if you can remember another rock song that uses the word “Prithy”, no I didn’t thing you could. The song’s theme is the mind numbing horror of the nine to five routine of people’s daily lives and settling for the mediocre. The duality of the vocals between Kim and Francis make this an exceptional song.
Here Comes Your Man is a song many thought was about a drug deal. Francis says it was really about hobos and their dying in the California earthquakes. Francis had been working on this song since he was fifteen and living in California and where he had experienced earthquakes. Francis never meant for the song to be recorded because he felt it was too whimpy poppy. The song certainly has a bright pop feel and became a concert favorite. It is Francis singing in a most appealing way with out his usual manic howl. It also became a college radio and MTV staple.
Dead is a sonically heavy song, it sounds like a jam session with a schizo guitar lick. The underlying beat is garage punk at its finest. You could mosh or dance to the song take your pick. This is a song that has many imitators, Nirvana anyone.
On Monkey Gone to Heaven Francis has always said that the song lyrics are surreal and meaningless despite everyone interpreting it a bazillion ways. The most popular interpretation it is a screed against environmental problems. The song does point out three environmental problems, sludge, ozone depletion and greenhouse gases. There is also Hebrew numerology in the song which Francis has fessed up to saying he intentionally used because he was interested in the meanings, man as 5, Satan as 6 and God as 7. This is the first and only time the band used as string section and outside musicians. Kim is playing the bass like lead guitar and the strings provide the Heaven of the title. It is a catchy song that once heard cannot be gotten out of your head. In its day it won many a convert to the Pixies. The forlorn lyrics matched to an engaging accompaniment.
Mr. Grieves has a Ska like start then slides into rockabilly as only the Pixies could do it. Francis is singing at his most manic, this interweaves with Kim’s vocal for a captivating track. The song Crackity Jones was inspired by Francis’ weird psycho gay roommate, his description, whom he lived with when he was on a student exchange to Puerto Rico. There is a lot of aggression in this song that led in its day to a lot of action in the mosh pits when it was performed live. The track was fast paced and frantic. The lyric that illuminates it, “Chasing voices he receives in his head” is an apt description of paranoia.
On La La Love You drummer David Lovering does the honors vocally. The story goes he had to be cajoled to do it, but then enjoyed singing so much they could not get him away from the mike. This song is a Kitschy send-up to pop love songs and the catcalls of construction men. I always enjoy the beginning with the command to” Shake your butt but not too hard.” It harkens back to the Sixties Go Gos. Lovering’s great vocals have always left me wondering when Joey is going to get a shot at a vocal lead.
No 13 Baby This is a song that could have come straight from Surfer Rosa. It is probably the rawest song of the collection. It has a great punk ethos and utilizes the quiet/ loud technique to great effect. The song addresses the coming ethical controversies of designer babies. “Don’t want no blue eyes I want brown eyes.” The song is an infusion of punk goodness.
There Goes My Gun has a wonky guitar that establishes the direction of this track. The drum provides the rat atat of the gun. There is a western movie vibe to the song and energy galore. The bass solo is stellar and Francis and Kim’s vocals bounce off each other to a nice effect.
Hey is a song about love gone seriously wrong. The whore of the song is not so much a literal whore as much as a symbol of the unrealistic expectations of every relationship that can’t match up with reality. The bass kicks off the song and then Joey works on top as David jumps in to the fray. This track always reminded me of Lou Reed’s work. The song continues to build the torture of a relationship turning from bad to worse throughout. It is a dramatic track with crystal clean instrumentation.
On Silver It feels like high noon in the desert, or maybe it is just a dreamy strung out heroin trip. Either way it is a lulling and mesmerizing song that again showcased Joey’s great guitar and the way the band could shapeshift into the unexpected on each track producing magic.
The final track, Gouge Away has its standard Pixies eye violence imagery, but is a song well worth the wait. It was inspired by the Biblical story of Samson, and is a quiet/loud master class. Drummer David Lovering stated about the song,” I remember when we recorded it; I thought it was the most compelling thing we ever did.” The song was aggressive and attacking in contrast to the dreamy Silver. The song just left you begging for more with the driving beat and lofty guitar. It created excitement for whatever would be released by the Pixies in the future. It displayed The Pixies at the top of their game.
Unfortunately this album would plant the seeds for what would eventually break up the band. Bickering and standoffs between Francis and Deal during the recording sessions would escalate to their untimely breakup in 1993. Santiago and Lovering described what happened as “It went from all fun to all work.” The band would only endure for six years before the unofficial breakup, their last recording in that time period being Trompe Le Monde in 1991, which was almost completely recorded with Deal and Black not in the same room or studio at the same time, and the recording output suffered. The final blow for the band would be when The Pixies were opening for U2 on the Zoo TV Tour and Spin magazine published an article where Kim and her then husband John Murphy said derogatory things about U2. Francis blew up and was furious and embarrassed. After a major altercation Kim left the band and formed The Breeders with her sister. It would take over ten years for the band to reunite. Kim would again be in and out of the band. Currently she has left the band as the remaining members released Indie Cindy in 2014 without her as a member.
Few bands produced such consistently stellar works as The Pixies did over a short six years. For many admirers The Pixies no longer existed as a band by the time they knew of their works. Whatever the cause of the personal animus between the band mates during and after the recording of Doolittle, it is an exceptional masterwork from four amazingly talented people.
Doolittle is a perennial album, timeless as it holds up to scrutiny even 25 years later. For musical aficionados who were born too late to personally experience The Pixies in their original manifestation and don’t get it, I guess you just had to be there.