With their 1989 sophomore album Doolittle, Pixies found the perfect balance between punk music and pop music, and ultimately between underground and mainstream. Two years later, Kurt Cobain, wearing a Pixies influence on his sleeve, would break alternative rock into the mainstream with Nirvana’s Nevermind. After that, alternative rock would backlash in the form of indie rock, adhering to the same DIY aesthetic that guided its 1980s influences, but with less aggression and, to a certain extent, determination. Indeed, quintessential indie albums like Weezer’s Blue Album and Yo La Tengo’s Painful would take a markedly defeatist turn, leaving behind some of 1980s-style alternative rock’s abrasive innovation for self-pity and comfort. But of course the Pixies didn’t know – or really even care – about any of that stuff. They pretty much just wanted to rock.
Doolittle cannot be hailed as punk’s last great battle-cry before it was neutered for the radio. That title belongs to Fugazi’s Repeater, which came out in 1990. However, it’s also not a simple matter of timing and nothing more. Had Pixies’ 1988 debut, Surfer Rosa, come out two years later, it might have shared the title with Repeater. Not so for Doolittle. Surfer Rosa and Repeater are albums whose recording qualities, instrumentation, and production are “punk,” in every sense of the word: the tape hisses audibly, messy takes are left in, and the guitars and vocals fight for dominance in the mix. Doolittle on the other hand, was an album marked by compromise. The band’s budget for the album quadrupled that of Surfer Rosa. They ditched their renowned underground producer Steve Albini for the more pop-oriented Gil Norton, who managed to make the Pixies, if just for one or two songs, sound as if they might be at home on a popular music station. And, in addition to their independent record label 4AD, the band enlisted major labels Elektra and Polygram to aid in the distribution of the album. These seemingly small but significant changes disqualify Doolittle from being a real statement of punk music. They instead make the album part of something much bigger.
In some ways, Pixies remained punk on their second full-length. But punk in the 1980s is rarely called punk by music enthusiasts. By the middle of the decade, certain aspects of the genre, namely its fast-paced energy and rudimentary guitar playing, were far too prevalent in popular music for the alt-rockers to proudly define themselves with the label. But the aesthetic of punk remained. Alternative acts like The Replacements, Half Japanese, Sonic Youth, and many others held on to the fundamental values of punk: the favoring of emotional expression over technical ability and quality of sound, the rejection of commercial success in favor of artistic freedom, anti-establishment beliefs, etc. While on Surfer Rosa, Pixies satisfied all of the requirements, Doolittle found the band deviating from the formula towards a cleaner, more accessible sound. Yet they did this while retaining all of their intensity. Lead singer Black Francis destroys his vocal chords screaming about college girls (“Tame”), weird roommates (“Crackity Jones”), and adolescence (“No. 13 Baby”). Lead guitarist Joey Santiago creates a scathing, sinister atmosphere with his two-note vamps (“I Bleed”) and atonal string bends (“There Goes My Gun”). And bassist Kim Deal fails to provide any bassline that exceeds the difficulty level of an introductory tablature book specifically marketed to partially paralyzed chimpanzees.
But the Pixies also sound like pop music on Doolittle. Pop music is characterized by ease of listening. Listeners should be able to, on the first or second listen, settle into the catchy melodies and hooks of the music with little difficulty. No one genre defines pop music; rather, pop music, for the sake of this article, will be defined as music for the sake of enjoyment rather than artistic appreciation, and therefore, relatively accessible. Doolittle adheres to this definition for all but a few tracks. The easily recognizable 1-4-5 chord progression on opener “Debaser” ensures that the listener is captivated from the start. “Here Comes Your Man” is the album’s most obvious pop song, complete with a Buddy Holly-style chorus and sensual backing vocals from Kim Deal. And each song, thanks to Gil Norton behind the boards, comes pre-programmed with 80s-pop style gated reverb drums (if you are unfamiliar with this sound, see the song “Intruder” by Peter Gabriel or really any other song released on a major label in the 1980s from R.E.M. to David Bowie).
Yet what makes the album achieve the perfect balance between the two extremes of punk and pop is not the elements of each genre distinguished from one another; it is where they meet. The perfect microcosm of the album’s balanced aesthetic comes from its sixth track, “Dead.” The track opens with a duel between drummer David Lovering and Joey Santiago. Lovering plays a scathing double-time romp, alternating between kick and bongo. Santiago picks a one-note riff that sounds like a distorted police car siren. Gradually, he overdubs more guitars into the mix, none of which play anything melodic. The result is a high-tension auditory abomination, over which Black Francis delivers his rather offensive verse. Lyrically, the song is a retelling of the story of King David and Bathsheba that ends with the lyric “Uriah hit the crapper.” However, the song’s refrain, a simple guitar riff, dissolves all of the tension perfectly. It serves to place the despicable actions of the song’s narrator within a broader context. Its melody is almost life-affirming. It is sinfully catchy, and within twelve seconds it’s over and another verse begins.
Doolittle as a whole takes a similar shape. Much of the music on the album, like the verse of “Dead,” is incredibly unpleasant and hard to bear. However, certain aspects, whether they be individual parts of songs like Kim Deal’s tantalizing backing vocals on “Tame” or the majestic jamming at the end of “No. 13 Baby,” or entire tracks, serve to charm the listener on first listen and offer a sense of relief when they are listened to again. Other aspects of the album, including but not limited to Black Francis’ insistence on singing/screaming about biblical violence, the entire band telling you that they love you on “La La Love You,” and the sheer musical atrocities that the rhythm section cooks up in songs like “Mr. Grieves” and “Crackity Jones,” are too confrontational to enjoy before giving the album some time. But ultimately, Doolittle’s magic comes from the presence of both of these characteristics.
In 1995, six years after its release, Doolittle was certified gold, having sold 500,000 copies. But the Pixies never really got their due. Nirvana, having borrowed heavily from the Pixies’ loud/quiet/loud dynamics and song structure on Nevermind, thought for sure that they were going to be sued for ripping them off. But shortly after Nevermind’s release, it became evident that the lawyers Nirvana could afford with their record sales would dominate anybody the old Pixies sent over. The Pixies’ sound became popular, while the members of the group were left to wallow in loneliness and misery (as depicted in an excellent but depressing collection of found tapes entitled loudQuietloud: A Film About the Pixies that can be found on YouTube).
But by avoiding the commercial success and the limelight of fame that would be cast on Nirvana, Pixies were able to stay in the pool of influences that later alternative and indie acts would draw from. Essentially, they remained cool. While Pixies were never monetarily rewarded for their tremendous achievements, their legacy strikes the perfect balance between underground and mainstream. On the one hand, their albums Surfer Rosa and Doolittle are milestones in the genre of alternative rock, with many prominent artists such as PJ Harvey, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and David Bowie citing them as an influence. On the other hand, they indirectly played a part in getting the song “Unskinny Bop” by Poison off the charts. And for this, we will be eternally grateful.