Pixies and the story behind the classic Doolittle

Pixies (slicingupeyeballs.com)

Pixies (from left to right: Kim Deal, Black Francis, Joey Santiago, David Lovering)

Introduction

On April 17th, 1989, the second Pixies album was released. It hit a chord and the band and album were regarded as saviors to alternative rock. A look back at a magnificent album.

Pixies

At the end of 1985 Charles Thompson and Joey Santiago wanted to form a band in Boston. After they had placed an ad looking for a bass player (who had to like both Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary) in a music magazine, Kim Deal was added to the band’s line-up. Deal recommended drummer David Lovering and the band was set to go. Thompson would call himself Black Francis and the band was christened Pixies (a pixie is the name for a mischievous fairy or elf).

In 1987 the band recorded a demo, inciting interest in the band from the 4AD label. Eight of the songs from the demo were released in October 1987 on the EP Come On Pilgrim. In 1988 debut album Surfer Rosa was released, which caused great excitement among critics and reviewers. But, audiences didn’t care so much.

Pixies live (livebootlegconcert.blogspot.com)

Pixies live

Remarkably, the band did great in The Netherlands. The local press were enthused and concerts all sold out. It’s no surprise then that Black Francis had a good relationship with The Netherlands and Dutch artists (his 2007 solo album Bluefinger was a tribute to Dutch musician/painter Herman Brood).

In 1988 the band went on tour, initially as the support act to Throwing Muses (a Boston band also), followed by a headlining tour in the US. During intervals Black Francis was writing songs for a new album. Using the temporary title Whore demos were recorded at the Eden Sound studio in Boston.

The Pixies are known for their fast, yet organic, change in dynamics. From hard and wild to small and fragile in tenths of seconds, and back again. In the early years the contradiction between Black Francis’s voice and the (whispering) voice of Kim Deal added to the mix. It made for a totally new and exciting listening experience and earned them eternal respect from future generations of musicians following in the footsteps of the Pixies.

Doolittle

Pixies - Doolittle (discogs.com)

Pixies – Doolittle

On April 17th, 1989, one of the most important albums in the history of alternative rock is released: Doolittle by the Pixies. It would be their best-known and best-selling album in their career.

When the demos were done the band went looking for a producer. The person the band wanted was Gil Norton (an Englishman hailing from Liverpool). They knew him already: he assisted in recording the single Gigantic in May 1988.

Recordings for the new album started on October 31st, 1988 at Downtown Recorders in Boston. The 4AD label allowed the band a budget of $40,000 (4 times the budget for Surfer Rosa). Nowadays it seems a ludicrously low amount of money, but it’s the best spent $40,000 I can think of. Recordings ended on November 23rd, 1988.

A week later the band moved to the Carriage House Studios in Stamford, Connecticut. The final production and mixing were done there. Overdubs were done as well, creating the wall of sound guitars that characterizes the band and album.

The songs’ subjects are oftentimes dark, religious (or rather: Biblical), heavy, containing references to death, decay, torture and surrealism (Debaser). Gil Norton’s production is crystal clear and for me just another one of the reasons to love and admire this album to death.

But in the end, it all comes down to the songs. Except for two songs, all the songs run under 3 minutes. Just like all the songs of Buddy Holly, an artist greatly admired by Black Francis. If a message can be told in a short amount of time, why waste more? The source for writing these short songs stem from the past: the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll era, and not, as was the case for many other rock musicians and bands at the time, the punk era at the end of the 1970’s/early 1980’s.

Un Chien Anadolou (amazon.co.uk)

Un Chien Anadolou

Debaser

Got me a movie I want you to know! Black Francis shouts as an opener. The song is a tribute to the 1929 movie Un Chien Andalou, made by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. A movie that, most certainly at the time, caused a lot of controversy. One of the reasons being the cutting into an eye with a razor. Black Francis references the scene: slicing up eyeballs.

When interviewed by The New York Times in 1989 Black Francis stated:
I got into avant-garde movies and Surrealism as an escape from reality. To me, Surrealism is totally artificial. I recently read an interview with the director David Lynch who said he had ideas and images but that he didn’t know exactly what they meant. That’s how I write.

A classic Pixies song including a classic bass riff. the album immediately starts off with a highlight (on the album as well as in the entire body of work).

Tame

Kurt Cobain must have heard this song and must have had an ‘aha erlebnis’. The way the song explodes and implodes and the way Black Francis sings, have had an enormous impact on Nirvana.

Wave of Mutilation

A song about a man committing suicide by driving his car into the ocean. Mermaids come by. Despite the heavy theme it all sounds quite charming, primarily caused by Kim Deal’s background vocals.

Tame (titled Bad Shoes) (snapgalleries.com)

Tame (titled Bad Shoes)

I Bleed

The innocent sounding vocals by Kim Deal combined with the maniacal presentation by Black Francis give the song a ‘creepy feel’. The duality works like a charm.

Here Comes Your Man

At first listen a kind of mellow surf rock song. Seemingly about the calm before a catastrophic earthquake.

Dead

The Biblical story on David and Bathsheba put to music, which builds up as only the Pixies know how to do.

Monkey Gone To Heaven

This is a really good song my 10 year old son commented while I was listening to the album while writing this article. He immediately picked this song out of all the other ones. Rightfully so. Rare beauty: If man is five, and the devil is six, then god is seven. The song is about an impending ecological disaster:

There was a guy
An under water guy who controlled the sea
Got killed by ten million pounds of sludge
From New York and New Jersey

This monkey’s gone to Heaven

The creature in the sky
Got sucked in a hole
Now there’s a hole in the sky

© 1989 Black Francis

Mr. Grieves

Hope everything is alright Black Francis sings on top of a reggae/ska beat. What’s that floating in the water? and the song morphs into a surf rock song.

Wave Of Mutilation (titled Walking With The Crustaceons) (snapgalleries.com)

Wave Of Mutilation (titled Walking With The Crustaceons)

Crackity Jones

A glorious up-tempo song, with a punk-like rhythm and surf-punk like riffs.

La La Love You

Sung by drummer Lovering: All I’m saying, pretty baby, la la love you, don’t mean maybe. Good song.

No. 13 Baby

The longest song of the album and proof that Black Francis’ ‘shorter is better’ rule is indeed right.

There Goes My Gun

Fairly good song. I can’t shake the idea that its title has influenced the greatest Nirvana song Come As You Are.

I Bleed (titled Loud As Hell) (snapgalleries.com)

I Bleed (titled Loud As Hell)

Hey

Great bluesy song, wherein the joint effort of Black Francis and Kim Deal’s voices once again create something extraordinary. Beautiful song.

Silver

Ennio Morricone’s wild west gets portrayed by Black Francis and Kim Deal. An impressive feat, that really conjures up the atmosphere.

Gouge Away

A song on Samson and Delilah. Just as Debaser is the perfect opening, this song is the prefect closer.

Cover

Photographer Simon Larbalestier and artist Vaughan Oliver had access to the album’s lyrics and created the cover and booklet based on their themes. See some of them within this article.

Title

As stated above, Black Francis initially planned on calling the album Whore, but along the way changed his mind and picked Doolittle. The term is used in the Mr. Grieves lyrics.

Review

Dead (titled Dead) (snapgalleries.com)

Dead (titled Dead)

The album only lasts 38 minutes, but has had a major impact on future generations. What is it that makes it so powerful? And why is the album that good?

As is the case with any good album, the rhythm section is tight and good, very good to be exact. The guitars create beautiful melodies and can produce a ‘wall of sound’, all within the context of one song. The vocals are passionate, hard, soft, innocent and threatening. Black Francis and Kim Deal’s voices really go well together and really add value to the songs.

And, probably the most important, the album contains highlight after highlight. Songs like Debaser, Tame, Wave Of Mutilation, Here Comes Your Man, Monkey Gone To Heaven and Hey are magnificent indie rock songs. It all sounds equally great and the production is clear and bare.

This is one of those albums every (rock) music lover just has to have. Very highly recommended!

Singles

Two singles were culled from the album. Monkey Gone To Heaven was released as a single one month prior to the album and was an unexpected success, particularly in the US. In June 1989 Here Comes Your Man was released as a single.

In 1997 Debaser was released as a single promoting the release of the Death to the Pixies compilation.

Songs

All songs written by Black Francis, unless stated otherwise.

  • Debaser
  • Tame
  • Wave Of Mutilation
  • I Bleed
  • Here Comes Your Man
  • Dead
  • Monkey Gone To Heaven
  • Mr. Grieves
  • Crackity Jones
  • La La Love You
  • No. 13 Baby
  • There Goes My Gun
  • Hey
  • Silver (Black Francis, Kim Deal)
  • Gouge Away

In 2015 Doolittle 25 was released, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Doolittle. The cd release contained two extra discs with Peel sessions, B-sides and demos.

Musicians

  • Black Francis – vocals, guitar
  • Kim Deal – bass, vocals, slide guitar on Silver
  • Joey Santiago – guitar, background vocals
  • David Lovering – drums, vocals on La La Love You, bass on Silver

Aided by:

  • Arthur Fiacco and Ann Rorich – cello on Monkey Gone To Heaven
  • Karen Karlsrud and Corine Metter – violin on Monkey Gone To Heaven

After Doolittle

Monkey Gone To Heaven (titled Monkey Gone To Heaven) (snapgalleries.com)

Monkey Gone To Heaven (titled Monkey Gone To Heaven)

In the meantime things were not great within the band. Black Francis and Kim Deal in particular couldn’t get along. Early on during recording Doolittle big differences in opinion arose, during the following European tour fights were frequent, sometimes even on stage. At one time Black Francis even threw a guitar at Deal, sometime later followed by Deal’s refusal to on stage, which almost resulted in Deal’s immediate dismissal. Black Francis and Kim Deal stopped communicating.

Meanwhile reports started to appear about Black Francis’ dictatorship within the Pixies. He was the one who dictated the musical content and direction. This collided quite a bit with Deal’s own ambitions, who wrote songs as well and (understandably) wanted to play them. When the tour (aptly titled Fuck or Fight) moved to the United States, fatigue and the constant rows got the better of the band. Immediately following the last date of the tour the band went on hiatus.

During the break Black Francis went on a solo tour and, more importantly, Kim Deal realized her ambitions with the release of the fabulous album Pod by her own band The Breeders in 1990.

The following Pixies albums would be produced by Gil Norton as well, but the level of Doolittle would not be matched. The musical contrast between Black Francis and Kim Deal, an important ingredient of the Pixies music, was gone on future albums.

Early 1990, the band reconvened to record a new album. Kim Deal joined later, as she was busy with the album by The Breeders. The recordings resulted in Bossanova, which was released in August 1990. Deal’s influence had diminished considerably. On the following 1991 album Trompe Le Monde that was even more obvious. On allmusic.com the album is even called Black Francis’ first solo album.

The band went on tour (at times playing as support act to U2). The arguments escalated once again and the band went on another hiatus. Early 1993 Black Francis announced that the Pixies had disbanded. The band members were oblivious. Guitar player Santiago received a telephone call, where Deal and Lovering just received a fax. End of the Pixies.

After the Pixies

Mr Grieves (titled Mr Grieves) (snapgalleries.com)

Mr Grieves (titled Mr Grieves)

After the band’s collapse Black Francis renamed himself to Frank Black and started a solo career. Some of his releases appeared using the moniker Frank Black and the Catholics. Kim Deal continued with her band The Breeders, releasing the hugely successful 1993 album Last Splash. Guitar player Santiago frequently played on Frank Black’s albums. Lovering drummed on several albums and became a magician (!), and opened up some Frank Black and The Breeders shows as The Scientific Phenomenalist.

During those years the Pixies’ music never left the public arena. One of the reasons of course were the releases of compilation albums like the great overview Death to the Pixies in 1997. But, more importantly, the band was identified as a major source of inspiration by every important (alternative rock) band. Bands and artists like Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Nirvana, The Strokes, Alice in Chains, Weezer, Bush, Arcade Fire, Pavement, Everclear, Kings of Leon and Smashing Pumpkins all hailed the band’s genius and its major influence on their music. Greats like David Bowie and U2 professed their love for the band and their dynamic music.

Reunion

Gouge Away (titled Gouge Away) (snapgalleries.com)

Gouge Away (titled Gouge Away)

Of course it had to happen: in early 2004 it was announced that the band, consisting of all four original members, would go on tour. The entire tour sold out in a matter of minutes. On April 13th, 2004, the first reunion show was played at The Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The tour lasted for the remainder of the year, with ticket sales coming in around $ 14 million.

The band continued to perform in the upcoming years and recorded new music, like Bam Thwok (written by Kim Deal), but a new album was not in the cards. At times Black Francis hinted at it, but named Kim Deal’s reluctance as the reason for it not happening.

Twenty years after Doolittle‘s release, the Pixies toured with the album. The entire album was played, including B-sides from that particular period. The tour lasted almost 1.5 year and ended in the spring of 2011.

Exit Deal

Pixies reünie (livebootlegconcert.blogspot.com)

Pixies reunion; an amicable split?

On June 13th, 2013, the Pixies stated that Kim Deal had left the band. The split was seemingly on friendly terms. Since then Deal has released both solo work and music as member of The Breeders.

Two weeks later Bagboy, a new song, was offered on-line. On July 1st, 2013, Deal’s replacement was introduced: Kim Shattuck. However, this didn’t last too long. After only two months, on September 3rd, Shattuck announced she had been fired from the band earlier that day. In December 2013 Paz Lenchantin was introduced as her replacement.

In 2013 and 2014 a number of EP’s were released, called EP1, EP2 and EP3, as download and on vinyl. The EP’s got thrashed by the press, rating from 1 to 2 (on a scale from 1 to 10). In April 2014 the first album since 1991 was released: Indie Cindy. That album got thrashed as well.

On September 30th, 2016, the album Head Carrier was released. In September 2019 a new album will be released, whose title is still unknown at this time.

In closing

What do you think of the Pixies and Doolittle? Let me know!

Video/Spotify
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Pixies and the story behind the classic Doolittle. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.