Retrospective: Pixies

The music business is a strange beast. Maybe that’s because no industry deals with something as intangible, magical and elusive as the wonderful gift that is music. Not surprisingly, mysteries, misconceptions and myths abound about this most misunderstood of all industries. And it needs to be said that the business itself does very little to dispel these. How many of us know, for example, that The Beatles were almost broke by the time they split up? Who can believe the heartbreaking stories of Jimi Hendrix having to beg his manager for pocket money, when he was already an international star?

It's a sad truth that the very qualities that make one a genius musician all too often make one particularly unsuited for navigating the shark-infested waters that is the music business. It's no coincidence that Joe Glaser, the manager who made Louis Armstrong a household name, had strong ties to the mafia. The kneecap-breaking, 'cement overshoes' manufacturing cosa nostra has more in common with the music industry than most of us would care to know.

Pixies are the perfect example of the mysterious ways in which the music business works. Started by Frank Black and Joey Santiago when they met at the University of Massachusetts, the line up was completed with Kim Deal on bass and David Lovering on drums.

From their first album Oh Pilgrim, recorded in a ramshackle building in a bad part of Boston, it became clear that Pixies were in a class of their own. Joey Santiago's alternate tunings on his gold Les Paul gave Pixies their trademark guitar wail, and the dual vocals of Frank Black and Kim Deal were just as instantly recognizable. A pounding rhythm section propelled the band's sound but the most unique thing about Pixies was Frank Black's songs. The lyrics were street savvy, witty, absurd, and eclectic with plenty of black humor. Frank had no problem singing about mass killers, the Old Testament, and extraterrestrials, or incorporating Spanglish lyrics into his songs. Kim Deal's songs often dealt with physical love, with lyrics bordering on the graphic. As if that wasn't enough, Pixies' greatest musical innovation was their use of dynamics, where a song would go from whisper quiet to ear splittingly loud at the drop of a hat. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain readily admitted to copying the idea, thereby inadvertently establishing one of indie rock's greatest clichés: the soft verse/loud chorus format, since beaten to death by a thousand major label 'indie' style bands.

Pixies released five albums in their brief existence on a variety of labels, and as usual for indie bands, relentlessly toured the US and Europe. After five gruelling years they called it quits, with members reportedly barely on speaking terms, thus ending one of indie rock's most influential combos.

But Pixies legend did not end there: rather, it could be said that that's where it began in earnest. Countless indie musicians quoted the band as a major influence, including as mentioned, Kurt Cobain. It can be said that Pixies opened the doors for almost the entire indie explosion of the nineties, without themselves ever truly enjoying the fruits of their labours.

To this day their records stand out as the work of a stubbornly iconoclastic band of musical misfits who managed to parlay their influences and personalities into one of rocks' most unique outfits. The post Pixies period was a strange one. Frank Black at one point was without a record deal and resorted to making records on a four track. Kim Deal did better with The Breeders, scoring a hit with the irresistible “Cannonball” and touring successfully in the US and Europe.

The surprise Pixies reunion tour of 2003, eleven year after their break-up, was immensely successful, with tickets selling out within minutes. The following world tours allowed the members to finally reap the rewards of all their hard work and groundbreaking musical exploits. To be playing sold out stadiums as middle aged indie rockers, almost twenty years after they initially got together in a converted warehouse to bang out their quirky songs to tape, ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world, must have been a bittersweet victory for Frank Black and co. In a world where today's prophets are tomorrow's losers and vice versa, the music business is a very strange beast indeed.


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