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Members include Black Francis (born Charles Michael Thomson Kitteridge IV in Long Beach, CA; also known as Frank Black) guitar, vocals; Kim Deal, bass, vocals; David Lovering, drums; Joey Santiago, guitar. Addresses: Record company--4AD Records, 17-19 Alma Rd., London SW18 1AA, England, website: http://www.4ad.com.
Considered one of the most vital American alternative rock bands of the late 1980s, the Pixies attracted a huge European audience, as well as a moderate underground American following, between 1987 and 1993 with their combination of brash, intentionally tasteless punk and post-punk indie guitar rock, classic pop, and surf rock. Although the band never established strong commercial success in the United States, the Pixies' hard rock melodies and subversion of conventional song structures influenced many bands of the 1990s. The band disbanded in 1993, yet its raw, unstudied approach to music, combined with singer/songwriter/guitarist Black Francis' bizarre rants on religion, UFOs, mutilation, and pop culture, spawned a host of imitators that have summarily failed to match the Pixies' in either popularity or reputation. David Fricke of Rolling Stone called the Pixies "Boston's best gift to trash pop since the great Mission of Burma, and a roaring foursome who mix and mash abrasive guitar propulsion with [Francis's] quixotic melodicism and brutal, beguiling lyric surrealism."
The Pixies was founded in 1986 in Boston, Massachusetts, by roommates Charles Michael Thomson Kitteridge IV and Joey Santiago. The pair, who had traveled to Boston to attend the University of Massachusetts, decided to publish an ad calling for musicians to form a "Husker Du/ Peter, Paul & Mary band" after checking out the local club scene. Bassist Kim Deal (then Mrs. John Murphy, who reclaimed her maiden name following a divorce in 1986) joined the band shortly after, also introducing drummer David Lovering to Thomson and Santiago. According to Michael Azerrad in Rolling Stone, "One day Thompson's father joked about naming his next child Black Francis, and Thompson claimed the name as his own. Santiago chose the band's name by riffling through a dictionary."
Gifted Yet Eccentric Musicians
Born in Long Beach, California, Francis grew up in Southern California listening to such classic-rock legends as the Rolling Stones and Iggy Pop and attending a Pentecostalist church that instilled in him a congruent sense of religious fundamentalism. An anthropology major at the University of Massachussetts, in Amherst, he dropped out to found the Pixies (originally known as Pixies in Panoply) and quickly became its mouthpiece. Although most press has tended to focus on Francis, Azerrad declared guitarist Santiago "the lifeblood of the Pixies' sound, as well as their unhinged spirit. As someone close to the band only half-joking puts it: 'Joey is completely psycho. He's a dangerous character.'" Ian Gittins in Melody Maker characterized Kim Deal as "a regular sunbeam. She's fun to be with and whatever she thinks, she says. She's the drinkin', smokin', rockin' Pixie, the one who keeps the spirits up." Lovering, perhaps the most reticent member of the band, was often praised by reviewers as well as the purportedly egotistical Francis as perhaps the most gifted and exacting musician in a band of self-taught players.
In 1986, the Pixies played in Boston clubs and recorded a demo tape that eventually found its way into the office of a British independent label, 4AD Records, on the strength of a series of superior demo tapes. Although according to Deal the label found the Pixies' sound "too American, i.e. loud and obnoxious," the company was quick to sign the quartet and released the demo intact as a mini-LP titled Come on Pilgrim in 1987. The album prompted an ecstatic press response in the United Kingdom, with its abrasive, powerful sound and Francis' surreal lyrics. Blotcher noted that "the album offered twisted rockers and ballads, guitar-scarred and coodled, celebrating incest and animals and sex so fine (with an elevator operator). They're charged with a sound as rewarding as scabpicking was when you were a kid. Gleefully reckless. Good nasty fun. The Pixies have the eerie depth of old souls, yet their average of 22, explains their eagerness to offend, to aurally jar and generally rock people off their mental axis."
The Pixies' next album, Surfer Rosa, produced in 1988 by Big Blacks' Steve Albini, was more raw and voluminous in sound than its predecessor. The band generally attributed the change to Albini's dislike for "anything human sounding," which led him to elevate fractured, Jurassic guitar riffs over vocal melody in such hits as "Bone Machine" and "Gigantic." Francis commented to Marlene Goldman in Alternative Press: "Albini turned the guitars up real loud. That's not any criticism to him. That's a very basic thing. We've worked with a lot of other people and a lot of other people wouldn't dare do that."
With 1989's Doolittle, the Pixies burst into the British Top 10. This album retained the rough sound of Surfer Rosa, yet reveals a softer touch in Francis's smoother melodies."You just get tired of listening to yourself scream. You just want to sing. So we sang a lot more," Francis told Marlene Goldman in Alternative Press. In 1989, the Pixies played over 150 dates on their world tour and became a highly fashionable attraction as much for their emerging grasp of melody as for their hard-driving sound. Their live performances evoked a strongly enthusiastic response in the press and enhanced their growing reputation with such standards as "Debaser," "Wave of Mutilation," and "Bone Machine." Fricke contended that "the way Thompson shoehorns sexual obsession, graphic violence, goofy humor, and religious iconography into musical telegrams---bursts of rage and revelation in 'Wave Of Mutilation,' 'I Bleed,' and 'Monkey Gone To Heaven,' a corrosive, compelling meditation on God and garbage---transcends mere naivete."
The latter song, perhaps the band's most endearing single, became the title cut of the Pixies' next album, Monkey Gone to Heaven (1989). The song plays on the designation of Man, the Devil, and God into numerological values in Hebrew scriptures (5, 6, and 7, respectively). Speaking to Goldman, Black characteristically disclaimed the significance of his lyrics while hinting at a deeper meaning: "It's a reference from what I understand to be Hebrew numerology, and I don't know a lot about it or any of it really. I just remember someone telling me of the supposed fact that in the Hebrew language, especially in the Bible, you can find lots of references to man in the 5th and Satan in the 6th and God in the 7th. I don't know if there is a spiritual hierarchy or not. But it's a neat little fact, if it is a fact. I didn't go to the library and figure it out."
The Pixies' 1989 album, Here Comes Your Man, attracted less attention than its predecessor. The same year, the Pixies contributed to Neil Young's 1989 tribute album, The Bridge (covering "Winterlong"), and Deal formed her own all-female band, the Breeders. Over the next two years, Deal found an outlet for her singing and songwriting that she later implied had been stifled in the Pixies, which came to be increasingly dominated by Francis.
The Pixies' 1990 album Bossanova put the Pixies back in the public eye as one of the most widely acknowledged top albums of the year. Deal described the Bossanova album as "more Steven Spielberg than David Lynch," with several songs in Bossanova reflecting Francis' life-long interest in extraterrestrials. Francis told Roy Wilkinson in Sounds: "We've tried to elevate the sci-fi thing, make it more opera-ish, more of a serious rock thing.... We want UFOs to be an acceptable topic. They're romantic." "The Happening" is about aliens in Las Vegas, for example, and "Ana" describes an otherworldly surfer girl. Bossanova also reflects another of Francis' obsessions, surf music. Michael Azerrad commented in Rolling Stone: "Bossanova opens with a cover of 'Cecilia Ann,' an early-Sixties obscurity by the Surftones, and the twangy sounds of the genre snake throughout the record."
Despite its generally positive critical response and emphasis on patently popular themes, Bossanova failed to make an impact on the mainstream charts. Wilkinson commented: "For although a brilliant performance at Reading proved that large-scale shows were no problem to them, Pixies' music remains too quirky, too abrasive for the perceived dictates of daytime radio." Long-time fans of the band's harder-edged early albums complained in some quarters that the Pixies had sold out to commercialism. Francis retorted: "So many people comment on the drastic changes between this record and the last one. And they really aren't listening, because to me it's the same 'old sh**,' sort of. There are certain things that have changed, but those are obvious---like having more money to spend on your record, so your 'production values' get a little more sophisticated. But it's the same TYPE of material."
The Pixies' next major release, Trompe Le Monde, returned to the Sturm und Drang of their earlier works, prompting some critics to describe it as "the Pixies Heavy Metal album." The rage apparent to many in the 1991 work was perhaps due in part to increasing tensions within the band. Deal barely sang on the record and was reportedly angry that she wasn't allowed any space for her songs on either Trompe or Bossanova. Following a tense final tour opening for U2, Black Francis disbanded the group in early 1993. Azerrad had reported earlier in Rolling Stone: "Frictions reportedly developed within the band toward the end of Doolittle tour and the beginning of Bossanova sessions," and general rumors in the press were finally confirmed. Speaking on Mark Radcliffe's Radio 5 show "Hit the North," Black admitted: "Nothing really happened. I decided to disband the group because I didn't want to be in the group any more. I just think that some groups are maybe cut out for the long haul and being together for ten or twenty years, but no way am I going to do that. I don't even know whether I'm going to be in the music business for that long."
Admitting that he failed to inform the group of his decision before announcing its demise to the press, Francis said that he had simply become "bored" with the Pixies. Black Francis inverted his stage name to Frank Black and released his first solo album three months later. Lead guitarist Joey Santiago played with Black; drummer David Lovering also played intermittently with Black before joining Cracker. Deal returned to working with the Breeders, which soon became a much bigger commercial success than any Pixies record in history.
While individual members continued to pursue multiple projects, speculation persisted of an eventual Pixies' reunion. Black added one track to Santiago's Crime & Punishment in Suburbia album in 2000, and Santiago joined Black in London for his Dog in the Sand tour. Black also told a reporter in 2003 that he sometimes got together with former band mates Deal, Santiago, and Lovering to play music for fun. These "jam sessions" soon led to an official reunion and a series of concerts.
In the spring of 2004 the Pixies reunited after 12 years. "After a 12-year hibernation," wrote Aidin Vaziri in the San Francisco Chronicle, "the Pixies might look like a pack of wet bulldogs, considerably more bald and fatter than when they went away, but their music still startles." The group toured the United States in the spring and fall, and embarked on a set of shows in Europe and the United Kingdom in the summer. The Pixies also recorded each of its 15 North American shows and sold a thousand copies of each one online. "Gone are the synths and added guitarist found in the lineup before the split," wrote Jeremy Wheeler of Live in Minneapolis, MN. "This is the Pixies back to basics as the four-piece [band] that everyone knows and loves." The Pixies also planned to record a new studio effort. "Reunion shows can leave a hollow feeling--the vaguely pitiful sense of watching ghosts," wrote Devin Gordon in Newsweek. "But the Pixies beat the rap because their music still feels so fresh; any one of their albums could come out tomorrow."
by Sean Pollock and Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr
The Pixies's Career
Group formed as Pixies in Panopoly by Black Francis in Boston, MA, 1986; secured a recording deal on British independent label, 4AD Records, based on demo tapes, 1986; attracted a wide underground popularity for blend of hard-driving, guitar-heavy rock sublime melody and bizarre, surreal lyrics, 1986-1989; burst into the British Top 10 with Doolittle, 1989; Bossanova widely acknowledged as one of the top albums of the year, 1990; disbanded, 1993; re-united for a series of concerts in Europe and the United States, 2004.
- Selected discography
- Come on Pilgrim 4AD/Rough Trade, 1987.
- Gigantic 4AD/Rough Trade, 1988.
- Surfer Rosa 4AD/Rough Trade, 1988.
- Surfer Rosa & Come On Pilgrim 4AD/Rough Trade, 1988.
- Doolittle 4AD/Elektra, 1989.
- Here Comes Your Man 4AD/Elektra, 1989.
- Monkey Gone to Heaven 4AD/Elektra, 1989.
- Bossanova WEA/Elektra Entertainment, 1990.
- Dig for Fire 4AD/Elektra, 1990.
- Velouria 4AD/Elektra, 1990.
- Planet of Sound 4AD/Elektra, 1991.
- Trompe le Monde 4AD/Elektra, 1991.
- Death to the Pixies (2 CD set), WEA/Elektra, 1997.
- Pixies Spin Art, 2002.
- Live in Minneapolis, MN Disc Live, 2004.
- Alternative Press, September 1989.
- Guitar Player, April 1991 Melody Maker, December 1989; November 3 1990; December 14 1991.
- Music Express, October 1990.
- Musician, February 1992.
- New Musical Express, January 23 1993.
- Newsweek, April 26, 2004, p. 55.
- Reflex Magazine, May 1988.
- Rolling Stone, June 15, 1989; November 1, 1990; February 4, 1993.
- San Francisco Chronicle, September 27, 2004, p. H1.
- Sounds, December 1990.
- Spin, November 1996.
- "Pixies," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (October 22, 2004)
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