The punk-surf guitar riffs and wailing lead vocals of Black Francis with the bass and voice of Kim Deal is a combination that influenced all indie rock. Inspiring greats like Nirvana, Spoon, The Shins, Blur and Radiohead.
Pixies added subtle-to-explosive dynamics, guitar echoes and softer melody lines to the basic punk formula. Black Francis’s vocal roller coaster rises and drops into the side bend of Kim Deal’s warm backups on the song “This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven.”
Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV (who would go on to become Pixies founder Black Francis) had parents who moved a lot. He grew up in the suburbs of both Boston and Los Angeles. At University of Massachusetts he started composing songs with fellow student and guitarist Joey Santiago.
In his senior year of college Mr. Soon-To-Be-Black-Francis dropped out to move to Puerto Rico. There he decided he would either visit New Zealand where Halley’s Comet was supposed to appear or he was going to try his hand at leading a band. He called Santiago and they moved to Boston. There they found the band name “Pixies” randomly in the dictionary and put in an ad for a bassist who was interested in Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary. The ad was answered by the talented Kim Deal. She brought in friend David Lovering on the drums.
Pixies played around Boston and laid down a demo recording The Purple Tape. From the first note you can hear the strength of the sexy, surfy riffs and male-female vocals that would make them famous. You can stream the whole glorious thing here. (*Not for children or work places.)
The Purple Tape got Pixies noticed by UK label 4AD who edited the recording and re-released it as Come On Pilgrim in 1987. That same year the band worked with producer/engineer Steve Albini to record their first full-length (and still their best record) Surfer Rosa.
The whole record is edgy, sexy and high-energy. “Cactus”, “Bone Machine”, “Break My Body” and “Where is My Mind” are all indie classics. The real high point is when Kim Deal takes the lead vocals on “Gigantic.” Here’s a vintage video from 1988.
Pixies toured with Throwing Muses in 1988 and switched spots on the bill partway through. With Pixies changing to become the headliner since they had fast become the more popular band.
That fall they recorded Doolittle, the only other record they’d make that could rival Surfer Rosa for greatness. The best songs are the ones with a surf-pop feel and indie edge. Pixies got noticed on MTV – “This Monkey’s Gone To Heaven”, “There Goes My Gun” and “Here Comes Your Man.”
After Doolittle Pixies toured with the Cure and released another full-length Bossanova in 1990. Rumors are that there were problems because Kim Deal wanted to sing more songs like “Gigantic” and Black Francis would rather do the vocals himself.
That same year Kim Deal would put out a record with her new band the Breeders, working with Throwing Muses’ Tanya Donnely. The next studio sessions for Pixies 1991 release Trompe Le Monde were even more tense. The band broke up soon after. Black Francis continued to record and tour as solo artist. (He still performs and records, now under the name Frank Black.)
In 2004 Pixies reunited and have been touring ever since. Real fans should check out Death to the Pixies. The first of this 2-disc set is a greatest hits collection. The second disc is a concert recorded live in 1990 in the Netherlands where the entire audience does backup vocals. It’s possibly the best version of “Where is My Mind.”
Keep up with the latest from Pixies and get a free download of their famous Coachella show here.
Tune in to DJ Michele Myers Friday nights at 9pm on KEXP. Music Supervisor, Historian and Producer, Michele’s made over 200 radio stories for KEXP Documentaries. She’s written scripts, lesson plans and features for Experience Music Project, University of Washington and NPR.