There's a Silver Jews line, one of the many aphorisms that David Berman seems to have plucked pre-written from the air, that goes, "All my favorite singers couldn't sing." Apply that sentiment to a whole band and you've got the Pixies. Midway through the ‘80s, a group of non-musicians banded together to hurl the snow globe of rock music at a dilapidated brick wall. Charles Thompson, better known as Frank Black or Black Francis, met Joey Santiago in the dorms at UMass Amherst. They both liked Iggy Pop and the Violent Femmes, and they both had vague dreams of being in a band. They could play guitar, kind of. They knew more or less what a song was supposed to sound like. So they dropped out of college and put an ad in the local alt-weekly: "Wanted: musicians to join a Husker Du/Peter, Paul, and Mary band."
Kim Deal, who remembers the ad also specifying "no chops," was the only one who replied. She showed up to audition and agreed to play bass, having never played one in her life. She knew a drummer, David Lovering, who had shelved his drums years ago, so she looped him in, too. The four of them started playing together with Francis at the mic, and what came out of their sessions was as feral as you might expect. There was no one to impress, no arbitrary standards to meet. The Pixies made noise until it took the shape of a song.
It's not that the Pixies reinvented the wheel. They just started rolling it down a street no one had visited before. Eschewing the notion that pop music should be personal, that it should supply a pressure valve for the tortured frontperson singing it, the band looked to the Bible and other surrealist artworks for lyrical material instead of their own lives. They adapted movies to weird uptempo pop songs and howled about the spoiling earth. Their lyrics either work on a mythic scale or spiral off into absurdism; in their best songs, they do both.
Over the nine years of their initial run, Pixies spewed some of the most enigmatic and uproarious rock music of the '80s and early '90s. It's not an exaggeration to say that the Pixies are responsible in a large part for the sound of alternative rock, as it came to be known on the radio. Though they didn't make a huge media splash during their first incarnation, Pixies earned themselves some well-placed admirers. Kurt Cobain declared himself a huge fan of the band in 1994, claiming that when he wrote "Smells Like Teen Spirit," he was only trying to rip off the Pixies. David Bowie covered their song "Cactus" on his 2002 album Heathen. And of course David Fincher's 1999 movie Fight Club ends with what became Pixies' best known song; "Where Is My Mind?" plays while all the credit card buildings are collapsing in the distance as Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter look on from an empty skyscraper.
The Pixies' long echo stretches into this decade. On September 13, they'll release a new album called Beneath the Eyrie, but their influence has extended outwards too. You can hear Francis's wail in the ragged vocal acrobatics of twenty one pilots. Santiago's tone rings out in Cage the Elephant's sour guitar leads. You could even make the case that Lil Peep's screech-strum dynamics derive from the Pixies. While alternative rock, like a bevy of other subgenres, dissolved with the rise of cross-pollinating technologies like file-sharing and streaming, the Pixies ethos lives on: It's not the skill you bring to the table that matters. It's the fire.
So You Want To Get Into: Sci-Fi Surrealism Pixies
One of the very best Black Francis vocal takes comes on a brief live cover of "In Heaven," the eerie song performed by the Lady in the Radiator in David Lynch's surrealist nightmare Eraserhead. Originally written and sung by Peter Ivers, "In Heaven" takes on a new desperation in the hands of the Pixies. Francis' feral delivery makes the subtext text: in heaven everything is fine, but he’s so far down in hell that singing about paradise is the closest he'll ever get to it.
That strange and abject spirit followed Pixies through most of their songs, but it bores through most clearly when they delve into uncanny cinematic micro-dramas. "Cactus" is some kind of horny mystery; "Debaser" has Francis "slicing up eyeballs" in homage to Buñuel and Dali. "The Happening" might be Pixies at their most sublime: driving out to the middle of the desert to witness aliens who have come to visit earth. Francis launches into a fragile falsetto for the chorus in what might be his most earnest expression of yearning. Who doesn't want to be rescued? Who wouldn't drive to the UFO landing site just to say hello to whoever's stopping by?
Playlist: "The Happening" / "Manta Ray" / "Debaser" / "In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)" / "Planet of Sound" / "Cactus" / "Where Is My Mind?" / "Dig For Fire"
So You Want To Get Into: Apocalypse Pixies
The Pixies don't so much panic about the end of all things so much as they luxuriate in it. Some of their most desolate songs are also their chillest, like "Silver," an Americana dirge with Kim Deal on lead vocals. "Stormy Weather" sees Black Francis beckoning a hurricane like an old pal. "Here Comes Your Man" ranks alongside "Where Is My Mind?" on the list of Pixies radio hits and it's about an earthquake wreaking devastation on the land.
Even "Monkey Gone to Heaven," one of the Pixies' most dramatic and bone-stirring songs, looks upon the boiling of the earth with grim acceptance and maybe even a wry smile, not fear. The title, which Deal and Francis repeat in harmony at the chorus, strips humankind of its hubris with a reminder that we're all primates who rely on an ecosystem we've almost destroyed. We've evolved out of equilibrium to be a gangrenous stain on the planet, so the planet is gearing up to amputate us like any sensible organism would.
Playlist: "Here Comes Your Man"/ "Into the White" / "Monkey Gone to Heaven" / "Wave of Mutilation" / "Mr. Grieves" / "Silver" / "Stormy Weather"
So You Want To Get Into: Horny Bible Study Pixies
The Pixies' discography is studded with references to Bible verses, but not the ones you'll find marked with a cross in the greeting card section. Black Francis zeroes in on the blood, guts, and cum of the sacred text, the gnarly stuff most for-profit evangelists would rather gloss over.
On "I've Been Tired" and "Nimrod's Son," both from the Pixies' debut EP Come On Pilgrim, he digs into the incestuous relationships and baby-slicing threats of the Old Testament. With Kim Deal singing along sunnily, he goes tubing down one of the primordial rivers feeding Eden on "River Euphrates." On "Dead," Francis assumes the perspective of horny King David as he lusts after that "crazy babe Bathsheba" (the same babe who bathes on the roof in Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"). Even the light and irresistibly catchy "Hey" pulls in a reference to the Virgin Mary. The Bible, it turns out, is metal as hell in the right light, and the Pixies were never afraid to mine it for its most salacious bits.
Playlist: "River Euphrates (Version Two)" / "I've Been Tired" / "Down to the Well" / "Hey" / "Nimrod's Son" / "Dead" / "Gouge Away"
So You Want To Get Into: Pixies Shreds
Kim Deal and Black Francis get most of the spotlight in this band, but Joey Santiago carries the Pixies. He's the perfect welterweight counterpart to their vocals—that guitarist who can slide effortlessly between clipped, clean, muted chords and corrosive distortion.
The wail Santiago twists out of his instrument on Surfer Rosa's version of "Vamos" sounds like an honest-to-goodness animal in pain. On early pop delight "Holiday Song," he lets his riffs bleed just enough to lend a little heat to Francis's vocals. Then there are the instrumental tracks where he really gets to shine: the surf-rock storm of "Cecilia Ann," the playful B-side "Velvety." The Pixies even covered the theme song to the 1988 arcade game NARC, where Santiago got to try his hand at emulating chiptune. Because he never really aimed for sheer virtuosity, he ended up carving his own niche as one of the era’s most inventive guitarists, chasing down new textures rather than perfecting established forms.
Playlist: "Vamos (Surfer Rosa)" / "Cecilia Ann" / "Make Believe" / "The Holiday Song" / "Tame" / "Velvety Instrumental Version" / "Bone Machine" / "Theme from NARC"