Doolittle is the defining album of the alternative rock that followed the punk rock revolution. Subtly inventive, perverse and cheerful, all at once, the Pixies came equipped with an arsenal of songs that were undeniable. Years on, it is still the benchmark of greatness for alt rock and indie. Here is how Doolittle, with its endlessly imitated loudQuietloud dynamics, sunny melodies, and apocalyptic lyrics, came to be.
Why is Pixies’ Doolittle so famous
To many fans of the Pixies, Doolittle represents the very best in the alternative rock music made popular to a certain segment of the listening audience by American college radio. The influence of the songs has been tremendous. The ingredients that make up the band and their songwriting have been replicated countless times. Indeed, it seems that every new generation has at least a few Pixies indebted bands of their own. And, there is little chance of this changing for the foreseeable future.
The hype surrounding the band arrived in waves. The album was mildly successful commercially upon its release. But, the admiration with which contemporaries, such as U2, spoke of the record offered it larger exposure. In the years that followed alt rock luminaries, such as PJ Harvey, Radiohead, or Nirvana all spoke of their love for the Pixies.
The band is also famous for its production and the DYI spirit that influenced it. The Pixies’ sound may have been fit to fill arenas. But, their ambitions had hardly been that colossal. The group had engineered their own demos and had played gigs around the college circuit.
They then signed to an independent record label, 4AD. The budget for recording Doolittle was slim by recording standards of the time. They were offered $40.000 by their label which was still a considerable increase from earlier releases (Surfer Rosa and Come on pilgrim).
The album was produced by Gil Norton who has worked with numerous high profile indie and alternative rock groups. The band’s first records had been produced by the soon to be famous Steve Albini. These are details worth mentioning as the production itself ended up being a watershed moment for alternative rock.
The production managed to find a comfortable middle ground between being crisp and clear sounding, yet retaining the aggressive edge of punk rock. It was a template that many bands built upon. During the hey-day of grunge, the dynamics employed by the band and their producers were persistent on rock radio.
Finally, the album has enjoyed sustained success, especially critically. Doolittle is often included on lists aiming to name check the greatest albums of all time. During their initial run, the group received extensive support from rock critics. It was not album that made the Pixies worldwide superstars, but it helped make them arguably the coolest band in the world. In spite of not selling an outrageous amount of copies initially, the band’s enduring popularity has helped the album reach gold certification. It can be argued that Doolittle remains the gold standard for all of alternative rock music.
History of Pixies before Doolittle
Pixies is the little band that could. The band started as an unassuming, albeit imaginative band, forged by the friendship of two former college-mates. Black Francis (singer, guitarists) Joey Santiago (guitarist) met while studying at the University of Massachusetts.
The two began jamming in their spare time. They briefly lost touch, time in which Francis had dropped out of college, before reconvening and deciding to take their musical ambitions a wee bit more seriously.
The Pixies was formed in 1986. The pair initially envisioned a sound that combined the classic 1960s songwriting of Buddy Holly, with the more aggressive sound of punk rock. Bassist Kim Deal joined the band upon answering a notice in the paper. Legend has it that Deal had little to no experience of playing the bass guitar, but that the initial relationship within the band was so good that she was asked to join the group. David Lovering, an acquaintance of Deal’s, later joined the group on drums.
The group began playing live gigs attracting the attention of members of the rock underground. Following a string of good reviews and compliments from their peers, the group set about recording a demo. Francis borrowed $1000 from family that would fund the recording of the demo recordings known as the Purple Tape to their obsessive fans. (The name is inspired by the color of the tape’s cover).
The demo is deemed good enough to warrant a deal from up and coming independent label, 4AD. It is deemed so good, in fact, that the label opts to release the songs in their original format. So, the record execs had pick eight songs out of the seventeen that had been recorded and package them as the Come on pilgrim EP.
The release receives a lot of critical attention, especially from the British press. Indeed, in 1987, the year of the EP’s release there are few bands like the Pixies. Their sound mixing hushed and loud vocals, as well as their knack for catchy melodies is novel. Their lyrics, occasionally featuring themes dealing with religion and sexuality, are wacky and provocative.
The reception to the first EP gives the band, and Black Francis, in particular, enough confidence to go one step forward on the band’s first full length album. Surfer Rosa fully establishes the group’s sound and their lyrical themes. Released in 1988 it is a strange mix of gentle and ferocious. The words shift from themes of love and nature, to images of mutilation, violence and sexuality.
It is also the album on which Kim Deal begins to play a larger role in the group. The album’s sole single released is Gigantic,a song written and sung by Deal. The pairing of Deal and Francis’ vocals on many of the group’s songs, begins to represent another defining characteristic of the band.
Where is mind?, Bone Machine, or Cactus,are not released as singles, but become bonafide alternative rock classics nonetheless. The songs are often featured on college radio, a medium that embraced indie rock music.
The album is produced by Steve Albini and its production technique earns praises. Albini goes on to produce Nirvana’s In Utero album as a direct consequence of his association with the Pixies. In the subsequent years, Albini becomes one of the most sought after producers working with artists such as Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, the Breeders, the Stooges, or Veruca Salt.
The Pixies were well under way, the poster band for college radio and indie rock fans. It was a niche audience for certain. But, one for which the Pixies had begun, and would remain, one of the most important bands in existence.
The group’s next album Doolittle, an even more melodic, lyrically challenging record, would serve as the group’s peak. It would be the album that would get them on mainstream radio and MTV, albeit for short periods of time. It would also be the album that above all else would solidify their place in alternative rock history.
Alt rock had found its saviors. Predictability they were outsider, uncomfortable with success, whose merits were never fully recognized and capable of making consistently brilliant music.
Indie rock, DYI culture and college radio
The rock groups of the 1960s convinced millions of kids to buy instruments and start their own band. Then the glorious, often overdone, rock of the 1970s convinced kids that rock stars were constructed in some occult laboratories. Finally, the punk explosion of 1977 made rock n roll democratic once more.
Resilience was celebrated above strength. The idea of Doing It Yourself was more important than excelling. Creativity was more important then having a hit. It was an ideal embraced by some, college students especially. In the US, college radio stations began broadcasting the music that had influenced punk and the music that had resulted from it. When the Pixies finally arrived, they encompassed the auditory dreams of many of these stations listeners.
The DYI spirit had also encouraged artists to find new avenues of recording and promoting their music. Independent record labels began to appear. They would fill the gap ignored by the mainstream labels concerned primarily with offering radio hits.
Bands began getting involved in self-promotion (fliers, concert merchandise etc.) and having a closer connection to their, usually relative small, fan base. The bands no longer fit a designated model in terms of sound and look. Musicians were often odd, had challenging opinions, displayed virtuosity, or an almost complete lack of playing skills. All these things would end up being called indie rock. Few bands epitomized the credo of indie rock as much as the Pixies, whether they desired this or not.
Influences on the Pixies’ Doolittle
Like any great band that starts with a great debut record, the Pixies seemed to be somehow engineered for greatness. Their songs were short, rough, catchy, the ideals of punk. Their lyrics were cryptic, often touching upon taboo topics, an ideal of art-rock. The music was included both male and female vocals and the singles could be song along to, the ideal for a pop musician hoping to be widely successful.
But, when asked about the innovations the Pixies brought with them, the band members often shrugged. Were the lyrics so odd? Black Francis calls to attention fellow indie darlings, Violent Femmes for engaging with similar topics.
Pixies’ guitar sound was large, loud, brash. But, Joey Santiago had been raised on Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie. He enjoyed jazz, psychedelic music and even bossanova. Francis had developed his guitar playing by learning 1960s songs.
Buddy Holly, the 1950s singer/songwriter with a most tragic end to his life, is an unlikely source of inspiration for Francis’ own writing. Holly may seem a much too conservative place for Pixies to draw inspiration from. Yet, Francis would often cite him as a point of reference when recording Doolittle. The album’s producer, Gil Norton, would even be gifted a copy of Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits. The fact that almost all songs were under 2 minutes in length would not be lost on the and producer who made it a point to similarly deliver a concise record.
Pixies’ musical style
Most of the times a truly great idea appears, it feels as if it has always existed. When a concept truly connects with the public, it feels both familiar and novel. As if the audience and other creators had anticipated it. But, it had taken one bright mind to put their finger on the actual details that make it unique.
Such is the case with the Pixies. On their own, none of the elements that became emblematic for group’s sound were innovative. Together, it formed a sound that was instantly recognizable, exciting, forward thinking. It was almost as if there was a hidden, inside joke behind all of the songs, and only the band members and their fateful fans were aware of it.
There are two main elements to most of the classic Pixies songs. These apply especially to the songs on Doolittle. Both have to do with contrasts. The first is the fact that the songs combine sugary sweet melodies, with rugged guitars and drums. It’s almost as if the pop song is being put through a machine that is slowly destroying it. It’s a brilliant, simple, yet perverse idea that many had experimented with. Yet, it was Pixies who first managed to arrive at this sound.
Nirvana, a band heavily indebted to Pixies, utilized this strategy. From Kurt Cobain comes the quote that best defines the mix. In his Diaries, the singer says that it is as if “Black Sabbath [were] playing The Knack.”
The other simple, yet extremely striking element is the band’s use of loud and quiet dynamics. In fact, these strategy would come to be so popular in Doolittle’s wake, that it would largely come to define much of the alternative rock heard on MTV and rock radio during the 1990s.
Of course, by the time Doolittle had been released the group had somewhat tired of this idea, possibly seeing as a shtick. But, a defining characteristic it was nonetheless. Songs would usually start out slow, with hushed vocals, sung almost sheepishly. Without much in the way of a warning they would transition into screams, distorted guitars and raging drums. Soon, the song would shift back into a comfortable area, before being launched into another attack. The idea worked the other way around, of course.
It was difficult to find a guitar player’s rig during the 90s that was not built for these purposes specifically. Going back to Kurt Cobain, a self described Pixies fan, his guitar rig usually included two items. One of them was a chorus pedal that he would use on soft parts, such as the intro to Lithium. The other, was a distortion pedal (of any brand or variety) that he would step on for most of the band’s choruses. Loud – quiet – loud, was a simple idea. Yet, it was groundbreaking. As many great concepts in art, it took great vision and courage to see the obvious answer.
Lyrics and themes
One can only imagine the reaction to hearing Black Francis’ lyrics for the very first time. After all, here were these beautiful melodies. But, the words built on them had to do with topics such as sex, death, prostitution, mutilation etc.
The lyrics also contained humor, but hardly in a way a parody song would. Once the group began appearing on television it seemed all the more odd. Was this an orchestrated plot? Was the band hoping to garner mainstream attention to their catchy singles, yet reveal more sinister things to those initiated.
Likely, it was hardly that intricately planned. Francis was gifted with immense and unpredictable imagination. One would guess that some of the lyrics were simply made as a way to amuse himself and his bandmates. Others dealt with topics that greatly affected him. The singer’s catholic upbringing seems to have played a large role here, with images of guilt, religious fervor and otherworldly curses entering the big picture.
The words sung on Doolittle find balance between quirky and straightforward. Here comes your man sounds like a love song. But, it likely references homelessness. Black Francis told Esquire magazine “It’s sort of about something, but it’s not at all what it sounds like. It’s misleading.” It would become, probably, the group’s most enduring radio hit.
Monkey gone to heaven plays with Lewis Carroll like images, may be an environmentalist anthem, and references occult philosophy. ( ‘If man is five, the devil is six, then God is seven’). Hey is a song about a love relationship, but references hookers. Gouge away uses the biblical imagery of Samson’s eyes being gouged out by his enemies after not having followed the Lord. Debaser uses the imagery of sliced eyeballs found in the surrealist movie Un chien Andalou a movie written by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. The song lyrics are hardly the topics found on most pop music albums of the time. Yet, it is the alternative rock version of the pop music of the time.
The lyrics were Pixies’ secret weapon. It made them seem all-telling and nonchalant about it. Few other bands had this going for them. In fact, most other bands seemed to be trying a little too hard achieve recognition. Pixies, much like the Replacements, seem to operate on the motto of Never let them see you try.
The album title
The album’s title is directly derived from the lyrics found on the song Mr. Grieves. “Pray for a man in the middle / One that talks like Doolittle”. Francis was a fan of the movie. Ultimately it was deemed that the name fit some of the environmental themes of the album.
However, in typical Pixies fashion a different title had originally been planned out. Black Francis wanted to call the album Whore. In fact, the early demmoes of the album contained this name. Francis is said to have wanted to reference the biblical image of the Whore of Babylon and even saw the songs as a kind of operatic accompaniment to the concept.
Francis later recalled that he made the decision to the ditch the Whore moniker fearing it would lead to bad connotations in the general public’s eyes. He especially feared a connection being drawn between the catholic imagery and the title. It may have been a saving grace for the album, with Doolittle an easier sell to mainstream audiences.
The artwork carries on with the theme laid out by the lyrics and name. The front cover is a visual representation of the song Monkey gone to heaven. The inside artwork is heavily influenced by early surrealist art. Both the artists Simon Larbalestier and Vaughan Oliver, who worked on the album, and Francis were big admirers of it.
Larbalestier says that he worked closely with Francis’ handwritten lyrics to find accompanying photographs that would fit the mood of the music. “From my perspective, Vaughan and Charles very much supported my dark fascinations in decay, texture, the macabre and surrealism and their visual expression in the resulting photographs. The darkness in the Doolittle images was inspired by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou (1929),” the artist said in a 2009 interview.
The booklet images referenced the songs on the album. Each image included two clashing symbols. One image is that of a spoon used for heroin filled with beautiful hair. Another is a Barbie doll and stiletto shoe. There is also an image of a bell complete with a set of teeth.
Aftermath of Doolittle
Pixies’ impact on rock music, especially on its alternative and indie branches is incalculable. Much as it followers, Nirvana, the band’s style and their ultimate success caught everyone, even the band themselves by surprise. Here was not a sound, an image, or themes that had been cooked up in some PR lab. Pixies were a band whose sound was immediate, as most of their ideas already existed in some form or another. However, the way in which these ideas were set up were entirely original and deserved of a host of Pixies imitators.
The years have done nothing to lessen Doolittle‘s strength. Its songs are just as forceful in their mix of catchy and aggressive, childish and maturely perverse. It’s an unplanned masterpiece the likes of which very few other bands will ever get close to accomplishing on their own terms.