The summers were long, and hot.
The summers were always long and always hot, back then. It’s a well-worn trope of recollection. One of those biased slices of memory by which youthful exuberance is framed. And whilst it no doubt rained as hard and as frequently back then as it does in the here and now, that’s not what remembering implies; the summers were long, stretching out across the landscape as if Nebraskan cornfields. The sun shone down like marmalade, and covered us in glue – and the soundtrack of our lives was imbued with a swagger. Records that accompanied those illicit cigarettes, those initial (fumbled) clinches, the first flexings of an adult appreciation.
Attempting to reach some definitive statement on a band’s legacy is a complex and drawn-out affair, totally ill-suited to the restrictive nature of the blog format. Far better to follow subjective tendrils; routes beginning with band, their records, and the footprints such sound make in the consciousness of the listener. I first encountered a Pixies track when played on a wind-up gramophone by a tribal elder on the Tibetan steppe – that kind of thing. I first stumbled across a Pixies record when hiding out in the tour bus of Dinosaur Jr during their maiden European visit. At the back end of the ‘80’s I was hitch-hiking across Massachusetts when a guy called Joey S picked me up in a beat-up VW Beetle, and when I replied in the negative about hearing his new band, he fired up the car stereo and suddenly it all made sense.
And as much as the above scenarios are blatant fabrications, these mechanics of first encounter implicitly ring true – Pixies are forever a summer band (and it truly was a long, scorching summer). ‘Velouria’. Sci-fi Pet Sounds. Black Francis, aka Frank Black, aka Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV– he’s always been a huge Brian Wilson fan. See also: the version of ‘Hang On To Your Ego’ from his Teenager Of The Year solo LP. The theremin here is straight from ‘Good Vibrations’. Each verse floats upon the solidity of the rhythm section; each spike of chorus is marked by the inherent vigour of vocal and lead guitar keeping each other in check – and then Kim Deal begins to coo. These are the set of prerequisites behind significant songcraft, and as such ‘Velouria’ sounds like it was recorded on Sputnik One. By beatniks. High on rocket fuel and surf movies and Aldus Huxley novels.
And perhaps this song (from third album Bossanova) was a high water mark; certainly the rest of this LP doesn’t radiate with quite the same intensity of its lead single. Then, on September 23rd 1991, Pixies released Trompe Le Monde. Album #4 – their final. I recall feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the time I’d rushed from my teenage bricolage to hit the record store just prior to closing time (Our Price, Bournemouth); the following thief hours didn’t particularly take to the consciously-trying abrasion of ‘Planet Of Sound’, the straight-laced cover of the Jesus And Mary Chain’s ‘Head On’, or the gratuitous cosmic references stapled hither and thither…
To which: context beyond the subjectivity. They were never really a band after Doolittle; creative tension – one man’s musical vision being Kim Deal’s idea of an over-inflated front guy’s ego. From Come On Pilgrim through Surfer Rosa to Doolittle, the songs were crafted, glowed with genesis and an intellectually feral interpretation of the prevalent power pop vogue rippling through American college radio at the time. Angularly angry and intense yet perversely accessible (in a fashion hewn from growling guitars), you can select pretty much any track from the début EP or albums #1 or #2 and be thrilled by the visceral depth. The Spanish influences and sub-apocalyptic inflexion that (unlike Black Francis’ later UFO fetish) never feel clumsy or overcooked, but perfectly necessary.
Bossanova, meanwhile, was written mostly in the studio. Not forced as such – the composition is all about a widening of inspiration, the execution indicative of a growing musical confidence. But ‘Velouria’ excepted there’s the preliminary evidence of spark misplaced. There’s less easy interplay between rhythm and lead. Less natural toying between Francis’ bluff, urgent annunciation and Deal’s quirky harmonies. Which is how trends begin, I guess. Trompe Le Monde was (and is) something of a disappointment. Frank Black’s subsequent career has featured feints and shimmies yet hasn’t truly shaken the mental image of a cork, bobbing in the bathtub of US alt-rock. Kim Deal – an underrated songwriter forced to play second-fiddle in the Pixies era – gravitated towards personal and professional cul-de-sacs, no matter the catchiness of ‘Cannonball’. And for me the attraction lay burnished, stilted, records by Frank Black & The Catholics, the Breeders, The Amps left unpurchased well before the listless reformation and the playing of old tunes for cold hard cash.
Conventional analysis of the Pixies legacy would dictate that last paragraph harsh. From a British perspective especially, the quartet’s influence is enduring – from the groundwork for mainstream buy-in of grunge to constant name-checking from sprightly young things new to the evil world of guitar-based indie rock. But then these words were never intended to be about legacy – not really. More strands of vantage. Personal interpretation. Memories of summer. A first, chance meeting with a band from Boston. First drink, first smoke, first kiss. Hold my head – we’ll trampoline.
On the remote possibility that you’re new to ‘Velouria’ – seriously, where the fuck have you been? – this link will help you out. Terrible video, mind.