Start with Surfer Rosa and turn it up loud. Released in March 1988, Surfer Rosa – like “the purple tape” and Come on, Pilgrim which preceded it – introduced the world to four disparate personalities which fused to make music which stopped people in their tracks.
Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV was born in Boston but moved to LA as a child, where he, his mother and stepfather got involved with the Assemblies of God. Charles´ first guitar hero was Larry Norman, whose catchphrase, Come on Pilgrim! he appropriated. While at U Mass, majoring in anthropology, he met a Filipino-American called Joey Santiago who started jamming with him in the dorm-room.
Charles went off on a student exchange program, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, but after sixth months he wrote a letter to Joey from the island. “We gotta do it,” he wrote. “Now is the time, Joe, we gotta chase our dreams”. Santiago replied, “Yes, now’s the time.”
Back in Boston they worked day jobs and rehearsed at night, recruiting secretary Kim Deal, who was the only one to respond to their ad. Kim was a twin from Dayton, Ohio, and had been building instruments and singing in a group with her sister for years. She was married and had moved to Boston to be with her new husband, John Murphy, and it was her who suggested David Lovering to the group: David was a Rush-loving practical joker who´d been at Kim and John´s wedding.
Called Pixies after a trawl through the dictionary, the group rehearsed solidly and built up a strong live following. The songs were Charles´s, sometimes about incest, sometimes screamed in Spanglish, sometimes cooed. Kim, often in her work clothes and pumps, grinned, chatted and smoked through the live shows while Joey, lurking in the shadows, came to the fore to scratch his guitar with bottles and wires and shake his amps. Behind them all, powerful and insistent, a sweaty, head-down Lovering thrashed out the beat.
The Purple Tape and Come on Pilgrim, consisting of songs Charles, now calling himself Black Francis, had written in Puerto Rico, got the word around and they recorded Surfer Rosa for 4AD in 1988. Charles´ innate love of surrealism and David Lynch informed the music, Albini´s production gave the album a thrillingly up-close sound while Lovering´s drumming and Kim´s bass and background vocals played games with the listener’s head. Joey, so mild mannered and shy, howled.
Britain, and London in particular, went crazy for the Pixes. They went over supporting friends the Throwing Muses but finished up tour headliners. There was no way to follow them. Doolittle, recorded by scouser Gil Norton, joyfully confirmed their arrival but right at the top, even if US success was eluding them, cracks began to appear. The fun started to drain away.
Bossanova was a chilled-out, space-surfey delight but by Trompe Le Monde in 1991 the band was on the rocks. Lovering made them pull out of a tour with fans Nirvana as support fearing the same fate would befall them as befell the Muses back in England. Instead they played enormodromes and stadiums opening for U2: a soul-destroying experience.
Charles broke up the band, hardly bothering to tell the others.
Kim, always a bandleader, but side-lined in the Pixies, got The Breeders up and running and hit gold with Cannonball and its parent album. Charles – now calling himself Frank Black – made a solid debut and followed it up with a cracking second, Teenager of the Year, but interest was waning. Joey made film soundtracks and formed a band with his wife. David became a stage magician. The world moved on.
Gradually America came to realise the importance of the Pixies but by then the members were in a kind of limbo. Charles had formed a garage band, Frank Black and the Catholics, and started a family. Kim was battling with personal issues. In 2003 David was walking to the bank thinking about how terrible his life was when he got a call from Joey Santiago. “Guess what?” the guitarist asked him.
The Pixies reformed – “last time it was for the art; this time it´s for the money” Charles said – and as of 2016 they´re still motoring. Not the same, sure. Older. Calmer. Kim´s gone; the music´s not so vital anymore – could it ever be? – but this year´s Head Carrier has all the usual themes in place.
Like The Beatles, all Pixies fans know every word of every song. They call the band by first names and they feel they know them because they love them. Pixies are a band to love. And as with any band anyone has ever loved, nothing can repeat that first sensation, that first introduction, that first kiss of sound. The snap of the drum. The bass. The guitar. The howl. Bone Machine.
This is a sooooong for Carol!
Read my short story about Pixies here. Can you see Pixies?