Pixies’ Black Francis: “It wasn’t about trying to represent our generation – it was high art”

Black Francis, Joey Santiago and co tell the full story of Pixies' rise and fall and rise

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Watts-Russell used eight unchanged songs from the demos as an introductory mini album, Come On Pilgrim, in October 1987. Vaughn Oliver, 4AD’s label-defining designer, discussed the sleeve with Thompson, beginning relationship that would be crucial to both men. “We were creating an image for a band that didn’t have one, that nobody had seen yet,” Oliver tells Uncut. “My subconscious and Charles’ met quite easily, I think. We talked about films: we both loved David Lynch then. It felt like a personal project. For Simon [Larbalestier, Oliver’s photographic collaborator on all the Pixies sleeves], too. We didn’t have to struggle for ideas. You put it on now and it’s amazingly sexual music. It does what rock music should do. There’s great intelligence, and sensitivity and a sense of humour and darkness and violence and a sexual drive. Everything you want, isn’t it? I became so submerged in the Pixies, I dreamed about the fuckers, over the years. They were a huge part of my life.”

Oliver’s tendency to conjure atmospheres more than explicit rock poses suited the Pixies, who were always so unhappy explaining themselves. Come On Pilgrim’s sleeve, suggested by Thompson’s desire for “nudity” and Lynch’s dark freakshow ambience, was the back of a bald man covered in hair. The album was a minor sensation, pushed heavily by early converts like Melody Maker’s Chris Roberts and Sounds’ Roy Wilkinson. But it was just a taster for the first full dose: Surfer Rosa.

Produced by Steve Albini in Boston, at the suggestion of 4AD’s then-warehouse manager Colin Wallace, a fan of Albini’s band Big Black, the recording was barely more sophisticated than Smith’s demos. It took two weeks to make, with Albini focusing as always on ambience and precise recording, placing mics with care, finding the sound in the room, even taping fragments of conversation. Thompson was left down in the mix, making his jerky squeaks and shrieks still stranger, as if coming from an unseen creature in a nearby room, while Lovering’s drums hit heavier, and Santiago switched personalities by the riff, grinding or smearing guitar seemingly by instinct. Everything was urgent, physical and alive, on a skeleton of addictive melodies.


Oliver’s sleeve, a proudly topless, full-breasted flamenco dancer with a crucifix behind her (suggested by Thompson’s Puerto Rico experiences, the music’s sexuality and Oliver’s Pixies-like desire to debase a pure image), struck against the prissy grain of ’80s indie, making it all the more indelible.

Released in March 1988, reviews were unanimously ecstatic, and it would be the Maker‘s Album of the Year. When its mysterious creators were booked straight afterwards for a UK tour supporting the Throwing Muses, no-one realised just how fervently adored they had become.

“I think reviews started running a quarter-way through the tour,” recalls Colin Wallace, by now the Pixies’ driver. “And by the end, it was really painful for the Muses, because they knew everyone was there to see the Pixies. But they were such good friends. Tanya and Kristin really looked after them. The Pixies were shocked by the reaction. Totally shocked. At that time, pre-Internet, it was unbelievably quick. They went straight through the roof. It was very, very exciting. By the time they got to the Town & Country Club [on May 1], there was a big expectation. But I don’t remember them being nervous. I don’t ever remember them being nervous.” Dave Lovering has talked of people pissing over the balcony that now-legendary night, and others remember leaving covered in blood. “Pissing?” Wallace smirks “I don’t remember that. That sounds like a myth to me. It was very, very exciting. But I don’t remember chaos.”


Footage of the show, on the Pixies DVD, shows a band tense with visceral energy, pouring it out through the music: Deal smiling delightedly, Thompson twitching unknowably, Santiago withdrawn but reeling out slashing solos, as waves of the crowd surge at the stage. What were they like afterwards? “The same,” Wallace smiles. “They just shrugged.”

“Shithouse,” is Santiago’s memory of the night. “They just went ballistic. But I had no other experience to draw from. We are kind of spoiled in that respect. ‘OK, this is what’s supposed to happen. You practice hard every day, you work out your craft, and then, of course, they’re gonna like it.'”

This relentless work-rate saw the Pixies keep touring through 1988, breaking only to record. August’s single “Gigantic”, reworked by English producer Gil Norton from Surfer Rosa, began a relationship that would last ’til they split. But the song, sung and co-written by Deal, also sowed less happy seeds. The DVD shows her easy, sensual charisma performing it, and it was the crowd favourite every night. Not everyone was pleased.

“‘Gigantic’? Fucking hell, Charles hated that,” Wallace laughs. “Because it was the one everyone used to shout for. Even though he co-wrote it, he was still seething, because everyone loved Kim. You could see when she was singing it, he’d just turn away.”

In the last six weeks of the year, though, the band returned to America to hammer out their third LP, Doolittle. Norton, known then for his work on artful, popular English rock bands like Echo & The Bunnymen, was the catalyst for the band’s biggest hit. With Thompson’s full involvement, he refined the formula already inherent in their work until it was gleamingly visible: the “quiet verse/loud chorus” cliché that Nirvana, Radiohead and the rest of rock would happily crib, right down the evolutionary scale to Coldplay and Keane, was all but minted here.

“I was trying to clarify stylistically what that was all about,” Norton recalls. “We were definitely working on that [quiet-loud] dynamic. He’s a very expressive singer; you didn’t need to hang much on it. I wanted to bring that out. I like strong songs, and I like things that make sense. I’m thinking of the listener, I don’t want to confuse people – I’d ask Charles, ‘Why are you doing that?’ It was never consciously: ‘We’re going to make a pop song today.’ You wouldn’t ever come at them with that mentality. Just clarifying the idea. Even if something didn’t have to make sense, we had to understand its nonsensicality.”

Thompson had assembled arguably his strongest set of songs, including a half-dozen candidates for the Pixies’ pop peak: “Here Comes Your Man”, “Monkey Gone To Heaven”, “Debaser”, “Gouge Away”, “Wave Of Mutilation” and “Hey”. They would not be wasted. After the previous rapid recordings, Thompson and Norton spent two days working on the songs before a further two weeks pre-production with the band, in a tiny rehearsal room. Only then did they enter their Connecticut studio.

“We went in there with a purpose,” Norton says. “Everyone knew what we were trying to achieve. We tried to do a song a day, pretty live. There was no dead wood there. That was the point. When we’d finished it was snowing. It was just before Christmas, and everyone had left. And I remember thinking, ‘That’s a classic.’ It had a confidence to it, a wholeness. We’d gone in with a purpose, and we’d done it.”

“I remember thinking it would make us a stepping stone band, like The Velvet Underground,” says Santiago. “I couldn’t hear it getting on the radio. But we kept playing it. We thought it was really good.”

If the UK music press were disappointed at Doolittle’s approachable version of their raw darlings, they hid it well in a flurry of gushing reviews. It reached No 8 in the UK charts in April 1989, and cracked the US Top 100. Compared to anything in the world then but the Pixies themselves, it still sounded savage and strange.

When they went on tour with The Cure in the US soon afterwards, they took to playing sets backwards, or in alphabetical order, treating whole gigs as art-objects, as if capable of anything. They did not know it. But the long slide down was just beginning.


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