The best part of getting into music while growing up is the constant sense of discovery. This feeling disappears as the years go by. Most adults who spend a lot of time and money on music know the lay of the cultural land. The new albums we hear (or that I hear, anyway) come with heaps of info — press clippings, band bios, membership histories, label tags, and countless other bits of data. But as kids, we’re still vulnerable to the happy surprises that come with context-free songs and albums.
I miss this phase in my musical upbringing. Now that it’s over, I’ll likely never have another experience like the one I had with Pixies. A friend introduced them to me by way of Surfer Rosa when I was about 14. I knew nothing about them, and couldn’t really place them in a genre. The short, fast songs said punk rock, which I was familiar with. But Pixies sounded too happy to be punk, and the songs weren’t about politics or anything else I could make sense of. (That they sung in Spanish half the time didn’t help.) I just knew that I liked whatever it was that they were doing.
At the time, I hadn’t heard producer Gary Smith’s famous Pixies epigram: “I’ve heard it said about The Velvet Underground that while not a lot of people bought their albums, everyone who did started a band. I think this is largely true about the Pixies as well.” I didn’t know that many of the more popular bands I listened to at the time owed them a huge debt: Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, (early) Radiohead, and Nirvana, who famously modeled “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Pixies’ soft/loud dynamic. I had no clue that Pixies had verged on breaking into real rock stardom, and had even opened for U2 on an early-’90s tour. I didn’t know that Steve Albini had recorded Surfer Rosa, that he had slammed them in the press a few years later, or that he later publicly (and even sincerely!) expressed regret for doing so. Hell, I didn’t know who Steve Albini was. Black Francis’s erudite lyrics in particular escaped me; his puns and allusions mostly soared over my early-teen head.
It was a joy to uncover this oddball band’s story bit by bit over the years that followed. It made sense to me that Pixies would be a bigger deal than I had initially realized. They had the requisite ingredients, after all: Joey Santiago’s snaggletoothed surf riffs; Kim Deal’s stoic rhythms and ghostly voice; Dave Lovering’s herk-a-jerk drumming; and Black Francis’s big voice out front, as elastic and unstable as a Loony Tune. These four elements could have catastrophically exploded at any time, but Francis’s ruthless pop sensibility (only five songs exceeding four minutes in their whole career!) kept them bottled up for seven productive years.
Unlike so many of their peers, Pixies were a band without a program. Francis, with his love for surrealism, would never have let himself be bound to something so limiting and rigid as an ideology. In the absence of concrete politics, Pixies overflowed with personality — they had so many charming quirks that, to appropriate a line from Doctor Who, they could have opened a charming-quirk shop. Like most real people, Pixies were far more unpredictable than their formal and technical limits suggested. And like the supernatural tricksters that gave them their name, they were all the more charming for it.
Pixies recorded some 70 songs during their run, and few of them qualify as less than killer. Choosing just 10 tunes from that larder of awesomeness was torture, but it was a good hurt — memories came back to me with each album. I aimed to choose ten songs that each represent a different facet of Pixies’ zany character. But, as always with them, interpretations and results may vary. Let’s hear your favorites in the comments.
10. “I’ve Been Tired” from Come On Pilgrim (1987)
A few years before Pixies formed, Black Francis spent six months in Puerto Rico studying Spanish. It was a formative experience for him. You can hear echoes of the trip throughout the band’s catalog, including in this gem from Come On Pilgrim, their debut mini-LP.
Musically, “I’ve Been Tired” is an early exemplar of the bopping/blaring contrasts that would come to define Pixies — it’s springy ska verse gives no hint of the pounding chorus to follow. It’s the lyrics that drive this tune, though; “I’ve Been Tired” is one of Francis’s funniest and most voluble efforts. The narrator (presumably Francis during his time in Puerto Rico) tries to stave off a sexually aggressive leftist girl without calling his own manliness into question: “Please, I’m a humble guy with healthy desire / Don’t give me no shit, because I’ve been tired!”
Characteristically, Francis manages to sneak an erudite reference into the proceedings. The song’s most striking image — “breasts like a cluster of grapes” — comes straight from the “Song Of Solomon,” a Biblical erotic poem Francis name-checks a few lines later.
9. “Planet Of Sound” from Trompe Le Monde (1991)
Trompe Le Monde, Pixies’ final album, is something of an aberration in their catalog. Black Francis’s creative control was at its tightest here, and Kim Deal features less prominently than elsewhere. The band itself was tight too — Trompe Le Monde features Pixies’ most professional-sounding instrumental performance. Longtime producer Gil Norton equipped it with crisp, beefy tones that differed noticeably from the ragged sonics of their earlier work.
Judging by “Planet Of Sound,” Pixies would’ve made one hell of a mainstream radio-rock band if they’d wanted to. Its classic-rock-escapee chorus riff would’ve flopped on an earlier album; here, it sounds muscular and mean beneath Francis’s fuming vocal hook. Joey Santiago’s rote blues solo works the same way — conservative, but effective in context.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Pixies song if they played these ingredients straight, and so strangeness creeps in. “Planet Of Sound” crams three verse-chorus iterations into just two minutes, dispensing with the AOR indulgences implied by that chorus riff. Francis’s phasered vocals inhabit the mind of an itchy-footed alien. Like most of his best work, the lyrics suggest many interpretations while endorsing none. I prefer to think of them as autobiographical — even now, Francis still hasn’t found the planet of sound.
8. “Oh My Golly!” from Surfer Rosa (1988)
Though Black Francis took his influential trip to Puerto Rico to pursue Spanish fluency, he never quite mastered the language. His imperfect understanding never stopped him from regularly penning Spanish lyrics, as he did on this bizarre Surfer Rosa cut.
Aside from its titular refrain, “Oh My Golly!” is sung entirely in Spanish. If you speak the language — or if you’re like me and can use Google, despite lacking Spanish proficiency — you’ll figure out pretty quickly that “Oh My Golly!” is lyrically unambitious, by Pixies standards. The narrator is a beach bum with a girlfriend named Rosa; he sexually disappoints her; he feels like crap.
Musically, though, “Oh My Golly!” is one of Pixies’ wackier experiments. It opens with a 5/4 tom beat that disappears after just a few repetitions. Raging surf-punk (with non-distorted guitars!) and Francis’s bilingual ranting roar in to replace it. And then there’s the chorus, which loops every eleven beats. Not that you’d notice all these tics without looking for them — they exist only to support an ear-worm chorus: “Rosa! Oh-whoa-whoa-whoa Rosa!”
7. “Velouria” from Bossanova (1990)
Because Pixies were such frugal songwriters, it’s easy to miss their experimental bent. They used unconventional tactics frequently but subtly. Even the weird stuff slavishly serves the song.
“Velouria” is both Bossanova’s strongest track and a great example of Pixies’ disciplined adventurism. It features a theramin, the early electronic instrument whose warble brings spookiness to countless early science-fiction movies. Most bands would spotlight the shit out of a theramin guest appearance. Like a violin or a bagpipe, it’s not the kind of instrument that you can easily hide.
But true to Pixies form, “Velouria” doesn’t ballyhoo the theramin. It’s not even the first thing you notice about the song — that would be Joey Santiago’s shimmering riff, the triumphant chorus, or even its lyrics (an ode to an unshaven Northwestern hippie girl … who might be a time traveler). The theramin hovers around the margins throughout, providing counterpoint to Francis’s vocals and sustaining Bossanova’s sci-fi vibe.
6. “U-Mass” from Trompe Le Monde (1991)
Whenever people talk about Black Francis’s lyrics, his bent sense of humor comes up quickly. The jokey fragments and hidden references are usually the icing on the cake — an extra giggle atop a song that otherwise carries itself just fine.
On “U-Mass,” the entire band gets in on the act. Francis and Joey Santiago met at the University of Massachusetts’s main campus in Pioneer Valley. Evidently they did not think much of their classmates; the song lampoons the scholarly pretension and vapid hedonism of the school’s social world. Francis implies that the student body is no better than the reactionaries they rail against: “And redneckers, they get us pissed / And stupid stuff, it makes us shout.”
“U-Mass” wouldn’t be such a pitch-perfect parody without appropriate accompaniment. The song’s main riff, which was purportedly written while Francis and Santiago were still in school during the early ’80s, is a hip-thrusting sendup of the day’s party rock (and, I suspect, a nod to forerunners that influenced Francis). Its cowbell-driven backbeat completes the satire. “U-Mass” demonstrates that even deliberate schlock can get stuck in your head. It’s educational, indeed.
5. “Wave Of Mutilation” from Doolittle (1989)
Black Francis’s fascination with surrealism manifested itself mostly in his lyrics. In one interview, Francis compared himself to the surrealist director David Lynch, who purportedly made his movies without really knowing what they meant. Ironically, Francis often knew exactly what he was talking about in his lyrics; his subjects were often just too weird or too fragmentary for most other folks to interpret accurately.
Without a bit of authorial perspective, “Wave Of Mutilation” is borderline indecipherable. It deals with a false suicide and with living in a fantastical sea, but otherwise eludes interpretation. Francis, though, had a specific meaning in mind when he wrote the song — he revealed in one interview that the protagonist is a disgraced Japanese businessman who tries to kill himself and his family by driving off of a pier. The only hint in the lyrics themselves is the presence of the Marianas Trench, which is near Japan. At least, that’s one interpretation; in other interviews, Francis has said variously that the song is about “sea currents and nice animals” or “nothing.”
A definitive answer isn’t required to appreciate “Wave Of Mutilation.” The song offers fabulous pop charms on its own. Even its double-time chorus lays back, as relaxed as its newly liberated narrator.
4. “Broken Face” from Surfer Rosa (1988)
Lots of rock bands talk about sex, and Pixies were no exception. It’s a lyrical pillar for the genre; there’s a reason the famous Ian Dury tune wasn’t called “Leftist Politics & Drugs & Rock & Roll.” But Black Francis, in his characteristically mischievous way, wrote about sex in the ickiest ways he could devise, often tingeing steamy lines with implied violence or incest.
“Broken Face” uses dollops of both. They appear in the disturbing verse that follows the scratched-record opening refrain: “There was a boy who had two children with his sisters / They were his daughters / They were his favorite lovers.” Then, in the second verse: “There was this man who snapped his poke in little pieces / And then they drilled holes / And then they put ‘em back in there.” True to its word, “Broken Face” adds facial disfigurement to forcible incest and genital mutilation with its chorus: “I’ve got no lips, I’ve got no tongue / Where there were eyes, there’s only space.”
None of this stuff would be remarkable in a metal or industrial song, where dire subjects commonly accompany dire music. But “Broken Face” sounds fun; its rollicking chorus is among the most infectious in a catalog full of catchy choruses. This song leaves you feeling dirty but satisfied, like an illicit shag should.
3. “Where Is My Mind?” from Surfer Rosa (1988)
Thanks to its appearance in the credits of Fight Club, this tune has likely reached more ears than any other song Pixies ever recorded. Fight Club came out six years after Pixies broke up, and the film exposed this strange, singular band to a younger and broader audience. Pixies probably owe director David Fincher a beer or two for helping to perpetuate their legend.
He certainly could’ve chosen a worse song to represent Pixies. “Where Is My Mind?” evokes an unusual mood for a band that so often pushed itself deep into the red. It drifts instead of rages; Pixies lay off the throttle so much that Black Francis’s acoustic-guitar rhythm strumming is actually audible. Joey Santiago’s unforgettable lead lick is wistful on its own, but Kim Deal’s bathroom-‘verbed backing vocals are haunting enough to summon up dead relatives and absent friends. The chorus sounds like a lament; Francis actually misses that mind of his.
Francis’s lyrics shy away from transparency, as usual. It’s tempting to impose meaning on their Rorschach-blot vagueness — Francis has said publicly that the second verse comes directly from a literal experience SCUBA-diving in the Caribbean, but everything else defies clear interpretation. Thanks to the Fight Club connection, this song probably stumped precocious teenagers all over the country back in ’99. Fortunately for the rest of us, it communicates plenty even without words.
2. “Debaser” from Doolittle (1989)
Pixies defined themselves with contrasts. They didn’t rely strictly on quiet-versus-loud; they set fast against slow, direct against deceptive, and cheery against creepy. “Debaser” deploys this last tension to brilliant effect.
If you listen to “Debaser” without paying attention to the lyrics, you’ll probably conclude that it’s a happy song. If anything, it sounds a little too happy — there’s an undercurrent of mania. Dave Lovering drives the sunny melody to a caffeinated allegro; Santiago’s guitar chimes away idiotically; Francis screams himself to ecstasy in the verse. “Debaser” smiles broadly, but you can hear molars grinding behind the grill.
That’s where Francis’s lyrics come in. “Debaser” is as clipped and elliptical as anything in the Pixies catalog, but it makes great use of its limited space. Francis was fascinated with surrealist films during the years leading up to the recording of Doolittle, and this song marks the apex of his obsession. He gets hot and bothered over a particularly gruesome scene from Salvador Dalí’s 1929 film Un Chien Andalou: “Got me a movie, I want you to know / Slicin’ up eyeballs, I want you to know / Girlie so groovy, I want you to know / Dunno about you, but I am un chien Andalou.” His Freudian freakout is our windfall; “Debaser” is one of the most instantly classic songs Pixies ever recorded.
1. “Tame” from Doolittle (1989)
I know what you’re thinking: a seemingly throwaway track like “Tame” has no business at the top of this list. Understandable; it doesn’t often get trotted out alongside Pixies’ best-known numbers. Nonetheless, I maintain that this is the quintessential Pixies tune and a master class in everything that made them great.
Like many Pixies songs, “Tame” sticks to a strict pop song structure: verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus. But despite its conventional layout, “Tame” renders itself unpredictable with a simple trick. Though the song is written in rock’s customary 4/4, each riff in the song lasts for three four-beat measures, instead of four. This counterintuitive pattern makes each transition a rude surprise.
And what transitions they are. Pixies’ signature dynamic reaches its apotheosis here; saying that “Tame” goes from quiet to loud is like saying that Mount St. Helens went from cool to warm on May 18, 1980. Its explosive chorus is just as infernally catchy as it is violent, despite the vocal hook consisting of just one screeched word: “TAME! TAME! TAME! TAME! TAME!” Francis’s lyrics are as sardonically sexy as ever; he and Kim Deal pant in lascivious unity during the bridge.
“Tame” has it all: sex, violence, whispering, moaning, screaming, funny timing, backing vocals, snarky commentary, a riveting refrain, and the famous soft/loud. Remarkably, it packs everything into less than two minutes. This compressed maximalism was a major point of pride for Francis — he once told Gil Norton that “If it’s good enough for Buddy Holly, it’s good enough for me.”
Listen to this playlist on Spotify.