When, in a 1994 Rolling Stone interview, Kurt Cobain famously admitted that Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was just another Pixies rip-off, he wasn’t telling the Pixies diehards anything they didn’t already know: He was just clueing in the suckers who thought that the Pixies upgraded soft-loud dynamic began and ended with Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”
It is exceedingly hard to speak or read of the legendary Pixies without hearing the dreaded N-word – that is, Nirvana. But only because it took Kurt Cobain’s public worship to get American music fans, which have been known to be late to the greats before, on the pop-punk practitioner’s tip – and away from the misconception that Nirvana set the scene for the Pixies.
But now, more than a decade after Cobain’s suicide and months after the band that he idolized decided to table their significant personal issues and reunite, the truth about which group had the greater impact on modern rock is no longer a toss-up. There is little doubt that Cobain himself wouldn’t challenge the claim that the Pixies – four unassuming musicians named Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering – have had, more than any other band in recent memory, an indelible influence on alternative, college, indie or summarily othered rock. For so long, the Pixies labored under the long shadows cast by bands like U2, R.E.M., The Cure and more, but the more time passed, the more music fans and artists came to realize – as Bowie did the first time he heard “Debaser” off of the Pixies’ brilliant third full-length “Doolittle” and immediately incorporated it into his live set – that modern rock had its own Beatles. They just never cared enough to find out.
“I don’t think you can be someone from our generation or later and not be influenced by the Pixies,” explains Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, whose own band is spearheading a mirror-image modern rock resurgence similar to the one that invaded video and radio airwaves the last time a president with the name of Bush was bumbling his way through the White House. “The Pixies were part of that ‘There’s gotta be something else on the radio’ starter pack that we all received when we were younger. Everyone that’s into music has that revelation at some point in life. But the Pixies continue to be one of those bands. I think they’re important to anyone who likes music. I don’t think you can find someone involved with contemporary – for lack of a better term – alternative music that can say they never liked them.”
That theory is being thoroughly tested this year in arenas and clubs across the world. Although the Pixies were a touring machine ever since first hitting public consciousness like a hammer with the release of their 1987 EP “Come On Pilgrim,” the reunited foursome has spent much of this year rocking crowds from Slovenia to Santa Barbara and all points in between. The response, to say the least, has been one of utter delirium. The band easily sold out almost all of their early American warm-up dates within minutes, and has shattered sales records in venues across the world – and that’s not even considering the festival headliner status they’ve been afforded in California, Washington, Japan, Italy, England, Austria and pretty much any other country that appears on a map. Whatever tickets weren’t immediately snapped up somehow made their way onto eBay, where they commanded three to four times the face value. Yeah, audiences like the Pixies. They really, really like them.
And it’s not hard to see why. The band’s light-speed output – five brilliant releases in five years from 1987 to 1991, including the canonical “Surfer Rosa” and “Doolittle” – featured Thompson’s cryptic lyrics and cathartic howls, Deal’s angelic vocals and driving bass, Santiago’s bent guitar solos and consuming feedback, and Lovering’s precise timing and relentless energy, all of which added up to a hook-filled catalogue that was as compelling as it was groundbreakingly alienating. Sure, there wasn’t a college student around at the time that didn’t freak out when the Pixies’ covered “In Heaven” – a song sung by a mutated angel who lived beneath a radiator in David Lynch’s cult classic “Eraserhead” – or played “Debaser” – a nod to Bunuel and Dali’s surrealist film “Un Chien Andalou.”
But the Pixies’ appeal went further than the cryptic abstracts that set them apart from so many clichéd bands of the time. They were arrogantly anti-commercial at a time when pop culture was saturated, as it is today, by so much glossy, pointless product. They didn’t dress like rock stars, didn’t look like rock stars, didn’t ape the styles of other rock stars and were resolute in their approach to making nothing else besides the music the point of their existence.
And even though Black Francis – known also as Frank Black during his decade-plus solo career, and Charles Michael Kittredge Thompson IV to his parents – probably owns the most apocalyptic scream in music history, he never let theatricality invade the organic nature of the Pixies material. In a mainstream world of alt-preeners like The Cure’s Robert Smith or bubble-metal’s David Coverdale and Vince Neil, Black Francis was just an Average Joe with, as the “Surfer Rosa” tune so eloquently and loudly proved, “something against you.”