23 Years Ago: Pixies release Doolittle
On April 18, 1989, the Pixies released their second album, Doolittle. Unlike their previous releases, 1987's Come On Pilgrim EP and 1988's Surfer Rosa, Doolittle received a proper American release, their label 4AD Records having signed a distribution deal with Elektra for this album.
That connection brought the formerly underground band a much higher level of visibility: MTV not only started playing the videos for the singles "Monkey Gone To Heaven" and "Here Comes Your Man," the band even hosted the nightly alt-rock series PostModern MTV for a week. (In typically difficult style, they did the entire week's worth of shows in the style of the video for "Here Comes Your Man": the band members sat in front of the cameras with their mouths open, while their pre-recorded voices were supplied by off-stage tape recorders.)
It certainly helped that even aside from those two songs, the album was filled with instant classics: the ironically poppy "Wave of Mutilation," "I Bleed, "Gouge Away" and the opening "Debaser," whose repeated lyrical references to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's controversial short film Un Chien Andalou inspired both a generation of artsy indie kids' fascination with surrealism and the name of the popular '80s-alt-rock blog Slicing Up Eyeballs.
Produced by Gil Norton (Echo and the Bunnymen, China Crisis), the album sounded less brash than the Pixies' earlier work, incorporating strings on "Monkey Gone To Heaven" and slide guitar on "Silver." The cleaner sound actually emphasized both Black Francis' non-sequitur lyrics and the band's sonic trademark, a quiet-LOUD-quiet dynamic that would become one of the blueprints of the alt-rock sound.
Contrary to some histories, the Pixies hardly invented this dynamic -- Throwing Muses, another Boston-area band signed to 4AD who had worked with Norton, used it to good effect as well -- but they're the ones who brought it into the mainstream, tangentially: Kurt Cobain always acknowledged that Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was basically the Pixies genetically spliced with Boston's "More Than A Feeling."
Unfortunately, Doolittle turned out to be the beginning of the end for the Pixies: the mercurial Francis started pushing bassist Kim Deal out of the spotlight starting with 1990's Bossanova, and his own songwriting started to verge on self-parody by 1991's Trompe le Monde. The band split shortly after that disappointing last album, and although they've had a fractious on-again, off-again reunion holding for live shows, a new album seems unlikely.
Still, even if they were only able to keep up this level of quality for one album, that's more than a lot of other bands can manage. And frankly, even at the time, not everyone on Boston's indie rock scene knew they had it in them. As my Bostonian wife once put it, half-admiring, half-baffled, "The Pixies were just that band who opened for everyone at Bunratty's. Then they go to England and become superstars. Go figure."
|Here Comes Your Man|