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Pixies: Many Happy Returns To...'Doolittle'

Friday, 25 April 2014 Written by Graeme Marsh

There is little doubt that Pixies’ ‘Doolittle’ is one of the most influential albums of all time. Whenever such things are up for debate, it consistently appears near the top of the resulting lists. But, that enduring influence came at a cost, as the album’s creation and aftermath seemed to produce conflict at every turn.

One notable clash is a retrospective one between the band’s fans. Hardcore followers - on board from their demos and 1987 mini album ‘Come On Pilgrim’ - feel that their first studio album proper, ‘Surfer Rosa’, from 1988, is their definitive statement, rather than its follow up.

With the prickly yet renowned Steve Albini on production duties, the sound was raw and vibrant, rough around the edges, and like ‘Doolittle’ it inspired Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana, with the famous loud/quiet/loud structure used to great effect for Smells Like Teen Spirit. Albini was later handpicked by Cobain to produce a future Nirvana classic, 1993’s ‘In Utero’.  

‘Doolittle’ was different to its predecessor. More cohesive, perhaps, certainly possessed of a more accessible, pop-inspired sheen amid the chaos, it marked their major label debut in the US and produced some of the most recognisably ‘Pixies’ songs of their career.

Kim Deal, bassist and later a talismanic figure for fans, joined the band in 1986 after replying to an advert placed in the Boston Phoenix newspaper by college friends and guitarists Joey Santiago and Charles Thompson IV, a brilliant songwriter who would later adopt the Black Francis moniker. The short notice called for someone with a liking for both Hüsker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary. Needless to say, Deal’s was the only reply. The band would later find their drummer, David Lovering, through Deal’s (now ex) husband, John Murphy.

Lovering and Santiago, as it would turn out, would play supporting roles to one of the great rivalries in rock ‘n’ roll. Thompson, he of a uniquely eloquent rage, would assume control of the band in a creative sense, butting heads with the charming and later iconic Deal, whose vocals would become synonymous with the band’s sound, just as Thompson's idiosyncratic yelp would. By the time that ‘Doolittle’ came around, the pair’s relationship was beginning to run on fumes.

Gil Norton, who had previously helmed records by Throwing Muses, Pixies’ regular tour-mates, and worked on the Gigantic single, was selected to produce with a much bigger budget. The change of producer brought a sheen to the Pixies’ sound, which still rankles some fans.

“A song like Debaser, to this day, it doesn't sound commercial to me,” Thompson told Spin in 2004. “Nothing we do is very commercial. Not that what we were doing was so radical or so intense, but it wasn't what was being played on the radio. We never thought, ‘Oh, we're selling out.’ It was just like, ‘Now you have more money to make a record.’”

Norton also drove at Thompson to elongate Pixies’ short, sharp songs, something that he was frequently unwilling to do. This stand off culminated in a visit to Tower Records. “When we started doing pre-production for Doolittle, I wanted to sit with Charles for a few days and go through some ideas before it got loud,” Norton told Roland. “We sat with an acoustic guitar and he’d play me his songs. The songs were short...if you get two minutes from a Pixies song it’s getting long.

“I was trying to encourage them to put choruses in and extend the songs with intros and middle eights. Then one day we went for a walk to Tower Records. He picked up Buddy Holly’s greatest hits and he said: ‘Look at the times on these songs Gil’. They were all about one minute thirty…what do you say to that? Hats off!”

So, the songs themselves. ‘Doolittle’ is an album of striking subject matter, but one that lends itself to over-analysis. Thompson frequently dips into Biblical violence - Dead is the story of David and Bathsheba and Gouge Away Samson and Delilah - while surrealism is a constant, from Monkey Gone To Heaven to Debaser's now iconic eyeball slicing in homage to Luis Buñuel​, Salvador Dali and Un Chien Andalou. Elsewhere, torture, suicide and death are also well represented.

Pixies are commonly accepted as being far from easily accessible, but ‘Doolittle’ is as comfortable an introduction as you will find. From the opening bass pummel of Debaser, arguably their best work and a song that distills the band’s nature for many, to the cacophony of punky guitars that close the album on Gouge Away, the memorable moments are numerous. The jaunty second single, Here Comes Your Man, penetrates the brain with its catchy, recognisable guitar melody, while the incessant basslines of Monkey Gone To Heaven and No.13 Baby worm their way in and refuse to budge.

Following the release of ‘Doolittle’, cracks would again appear. Deal returned to Albini and released ‘Pod’ with the Breeders, almost getting kicked out of the band after Thompson, Lovering and Santiago decamped for L.A without her. The cracks would only widen between Thompson and Deal before the end.

Also in 1990, Pixies headlined Reading Festival. They were, as they had been throughout their career, much bigger in the UK than they were back home. ‘Doolittle’ had reached a respectable peak of #8 in the UK album chart but barely scraped into the top 100 of the Billboard charts in America. They are a band whose appeal became amplified as time passed.

They would release two more albums - ‘Bossanova’ in 1990 and ‘Trompe Le Monde’ in 1991 - before fizzling out. In April 1992 they played their last show, following a miserable run as main support to U2. Deal was recording the second Breeders record when she heard Pixies had split, and a popular myth would emerge that the deed had been done by fax. It would be over a decade until Thompson re-opened the book to write a new chapter.

The band would tour ‘Doolittle’ to celebrate its anniversary in 2009, having released just one new song - the Deal-penned Bam Thwok - after their initial reunion. It was last year that the Deal/Pixies issue reared its head again. The bassist announced to the band in a Welsh coffee shop that she was leaving, halfway through recording new material. Her parts have been re-recorded on the resulting album, ‘Indie Cindy’, while her boots have been filled on stage by Kim Shattuck, of the Muffs, and Paz Lenchantin, formerly of A Perfect Circle.

A new Pixies album was once the holy grail for many fans, and finally, following the surprise release of Bagboy and a series of EPs, it’s here. Deal, meanwhile, is still touring with the Breeders and has released a series of brilliant 7” singles in the last year. It appears that the rules have changed, but the competition continues.

Pixies Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon June 30 2014 - CORK Live At Marquee
Wed July 09 2014 - ST AUSTELL Eden Project
Thu July 10 2014 - MANCHESTER Castlefield Bowl

Click here to compare & buy Pixies Tickets at Stereoboard.com.



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