In this video, David Bowie adroitly breaks down the influence of the Pixies, not just on his own output, but all of popular music that followed.
Like much of the mainstream public, Bowie first encountered the band as they made their recording debut, and what many consider their creative peak in 1988. Four seminal recordings demonstrated a seemingly sui generis style: Surfer Rosa, Surfer Rosa (1988), Doolittle (1989), Bossanova (1990), and Trompe le Monde (1991). Bowie’s praise for this era is towering:
The first time I heard the pixies was around 1988. I found it just about the most compelling music outside of Sonic Youth in the entire 80’s.
Bowie points to several elements that distinguish the group’s style and songwriting from their peers that, in his words, “made them important as a “sound” band.” These include:
Pure dynamics; Very obvious now but not obvious at the time, dynamic of keeping the verse extremely quiet and then erupting into a blaze of noise for the choruses.
This technique, which influenced bands such as Nirvana who emulated the dynamic style in a more forward manner, is on display on the opening track of Surfer Rosa, “Bone Machine” from the beginning of the track. The opening drum and bass groove erupts at 0:17 with the addition of guitars. The guitars will come down for the verse at 0:33 and alternate these distorted terraced dynamics throughout the track. The impact of this riff is coupled with the accent and entrance on beat 4, which will create an unsettled syncopation throughout the track and is doubled by the lyric placement.
The interesting juxtapositions that Charles brought together of quite sordid material at times. Charles’ his lyrics actually dealt with common variety subjects, but the permutations that he created with in the different subjects that he dealt with were so unusual that it caught my ear immediately.
Permutations are on display within the lyrics to “Where is my mind?” and begin with the first verse:
With your feet on the air and your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head will collapse
If there’s nothing in it
And you’ll ask yourself
The koan-like nature of the verse is previewed in the first line, where “ground” and “air” have been flipped from their more colloquial positions in the line. The cuteness of this play on words evaporates with the quickly following reference to a trick that will collapse your head, but only if nothing is in it. This causes ones bring to twitch somewhat, is the idea of a trick is one of a skill that takes some attention, presumably one you would not be able to do when attempting such a feat let alone for the first time.
It was the sense of imagination, and I use “imagination” not likely, not in terms of it being a fantasy (which most people define imagination as) but being able to understand the affinities of something and have those affinities illuminate a subject. It’s done so effortlessly and with such a sense of fun and enthusiasm. There’s a great sense of humor that underlines everything that Charles does.
This metaphor of mindlessness is reflected in the chorus through the bluntly obvious question of “where is my mind?” The answer comes in the form of a Freudian water image where apparently we can’t “see it swimming.” This leads to a reference to the inspiration for the song, a swimming expedition in the Caribbean and an interaction with a small fish:
Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Way out in the water
See it swimming
I was swimming in the Caribbean
Animals were hiding behind the rocks
Except the little fish
Bump into me
I swear he’s trying to talk to me, coy koi
First verse and both repeats with a seeming emphasis on the command of “try this trick and spin it.” In the same way a cold one is an irresistible mental puzzle, the seeming intellectual skills required to decipher its message actually takes you further away from the goal of the Koran itself. In the same way this song is perhaps best enjoyed just through listening to the melody, rhythms, and composition and even singing along without thinking to consciously of what the peace my intend.
The colors that Santiago provided as a guitarist. As a guitar player he is terribly underrated. It’s much more about texture. He supplies extraordinary texture.
Unlike some of the more daring sprawling soundscapes heard on sonic youth records from this era, Joey Santiago’s adventurous guitar textures and interjections of distortion and noise are often fully integrated into what are often some of the most sugary offerings from the band. This is on display during the last minute of “Tony’s theme begging about 1:13. The screeching atonal distortions quickly Give Way, outro, and are even eclipsed by the barking noises coming from the vocal.
I always thought that there was a psychotic Beatles in there, a great reverence for earlier rock music with Charles.
For all the larger-than-life impact of the bands Ross sound and adventurous topics, the subtle influence of a myriad of earlier rock styles lies just underneath the surface of many of the pixies songs from this era. The rather overt references two bands like the Ramon’s and the early 80s infantile Punk aesthetic dominate songs like Tony’s theme and also in the way of the song is put together. The simple Ramones-like power chords, tempo, and even a slightly disguised nod to “Hey ho, let’s go!” don’t stick out as an homage to the Pixies’ punk predecessors, but rather demonstrate the ability to take earlier stylistic components of a pioneering band and integrate them into the Pixie’s aesthetic as a whole. Examples of this are contained all over these early pixies albums, including the not too early piano rock contained in the song “Gigantic” at 2:48:
All of these elements combine to form an often brutal and/or subtly unique musical impact. As Bowie concluded, “What they’ve done is change the format for delivering harder rock. I don’t think that format really existed before they came along.” While not delivering the chart topping success of some of the bands that were directly influenced by them, the pixies have an important place in late 80s rock because of the profound influence the exerted on bands to come and existing artists such as Bowie.
It’s a cliché, but somebody once said that the velvet underground didn’t sell very many albums, but everyone that bought a velvet underground album formed a band. I have to suggest that the same thing applied to the pixies. Once you heard them, you wanted to have a band just like them.