FEATURE: “Slicing Up Eyeballs/Ha, Ha, Ha, Ho": Pixies’ Doolittle at Thirty




“Slicing Up Eyeballs/Ha, Ha, Ha, Ho”



Pixies’ Doolittle at Thirty


I recall the time when I fell in love with this...

 IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for Pixies’ 1988 album, Surfer Rosa/IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify

rare album that seemed to touch area of my being none others had. Pixies released Doolittle on 17th April, 1989 (in the U.K.; the following day in the U.S.) and I didn’t really get a real whiff of it until the early part of this century. Not too long after leaving university, I was working in a hardware/homeware store and, as part of my role, I was charged with arriving early to greet the delivery that came in – and then would have to unpack various kettles, nails and homeware goods and put them on the shelves. I was alone in the shop until about eight in the morning and so I was allowed a bit of flexibility regarding noise and my selection of music. I vividly remembering bringing to work a stereo – this was before Spotify – and having a selection of C.D.s alongside it. My favourite early-morning pick-me-up was Pixies’ Doolittle. From the vivid and terrifying Debaser to the equally intense Gouge Away, it was a real experience! That sonic experience, of a morning, was more intense than a caffeine enema and more eye-opening than having a herd of camels fart in my face – I am not sure what the collective noun for a group of camels is! I was already a big Pixies fan and loved Surfer Rosa and Come on Pilgrim. They had already released epic songs such as Caribou (Come on Pilgrim) and Gigantic (Surfer Rosa) but Doolittle was their most complete work so far. In fact, it is debatable whether the band hit such heights through the rest of their career – they are still together today, albeit without one of their cornerstones, Kim Deal.

Pixies’ work between 1987 and 1988 was modest in scale and ambition but unique. The band received positive reviews for Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa – essentially a twin-album rather than two releases – and they were working on a tight budget. Although Doolittle is not exactly a huge-budget extravaganza, one feels a definite increase in determination, quality and nuance by 1989. Doolittle, from its cryptic and memorable cover to its wide-ranging songs, is a true masterpiece. The album tackles subjects such as violence, torture; surrealism and death and, if that sounds intense and strange, it was handled in a very intelligent and mature manner. Doolittle never sounds too isolationist or intense; never quite as oppressive as its themes would suggest. The line-up of Black Francis, Kim Deal; Joey Santiago and David Lovering would not last too much longer owing to tensions within the band - which I shall address later. Whilst Steve Albini produced earlier work from the Pixies, Gil Norton was drafted for Doolittle and offered a more polished and cleaner production sound. That change of sound/producer was a sticking-point for some fans who felt the Pixies had lost some of their edge and raw sound by the time Doolittle was unleashed. One cannot argue against that. Whilst Norton did not create the commercial, mainstream album, Doolittle lacks the sort of grit and ragged edges that would have benefited the songs and band – a problem Nirvana faced on their second album, Nevermind.

Some would argue few of the tracks from Doolittle are commercially-aimed and would struggle in the charts. Here Comes Your Man and Monkey Gone to Heaven were released as singles and successes in the U.S. whilst Doolittle was an unexpected hit in the U.K. It is no shock that Doolittle captured a sense of energy and intent from Pixies. Surfer Rosa was a hugely-regarded debut and Black Francis was busy writing songs for the follow-up by 1988. Tracks such as Dead, Tame and There Goes My Gun were recorded during several sessions of John Peel’s radio show in 1988 and, by the middle of that year, the band were creating demos. It is a surprise the band managed to get recordings down considering they were in the middle of a tour at this point. They were putting down demos when they had breaks but one can imagine a certain tension and sense of expectation at this point. Liverpudlian Gil Norton was chosen to anchor Doolittle and, whilst this appointment proved divisive, he definitely took Pixies’ sound to new heights. It is the variety of material and the different moods explored that makes Doolittle so masterful. Rather than being an all-out attack or lacking any potency, you get these switches and polemics. Tame is a deliriously berserk track that lasts for a very short time but definitely sticks in the mind. Opener Debaser projects all kinds of evocative images: sliced eyeballs is among the most shocking, memorable and vivid Pixies ever created! Crackity Jones whips and sparks; there are barks and yelps and, yeah, it is distinctly the work of Pixies!


 IN THIS PHOTO: Pixies (circa 1988/1989)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The quiet-loud dynamic Pixies had mastered at this point would be taken on by other bands after Doolittle’s release – Nirvana among the more famous and prodigious exponents. Pixies had definitely matured and expanded their palette following their debut. I Bleed and Here Comes Your Man reveal a softer side and make Doolittle a more rounded, challenging and eclectic album. Pixies were not only relying on the basic structure of guitar-vocals-drums-bass for their explosion: violins and other strings were brought in to give songs such as Monkey Gone to Heaven extra depth and, strangely, elegance. There is a lot of sonic range on Doolittle and that is one of its big strengths. The band could have gone for an all-out thrash or something quite basic but, instead, they created this genre-fusing and cross-pollinating animal that was unlike anything at the time. They were also tackling themes such as ecological and environmental destruction and death alongside more traditional themes such as love and commitment. In fact, the lyrical individuality of Doolittle makes it such an enduring and enriching work. The band looked at prostitution (Mr. Greives) and the environmental ills of Monkey Gone to Heaven; Biblical imagery on Gouge Away and Dead and the terrific Kim Deal-penned song, Silver (Black Francis co-wrote the song). Francis was deeply into Surrealism and avant-garde films at the time of Doolittle so it was no surprise his lyrics would come with more trip, weirdness and eyebrow-raising imagery!

I will end by talking about the reception Doolittle was afforded and its influence but, only a short time into their careers, there were stressed and strains with Pixies’ camp. The source of the tension was between Black Francis and Kim Deal and, actually, one suspects that Francis was main instigator regarding hostilities and arguments! Although Doolittle started quite fun and professional, things soon changed and the mood became sour. Members of the production team and those close to the band – including the rest of Pixies – were often in the middle as Francis and Deal squabbled and fought. Following Doolittle’s completion, the band went on a tour (Fuck or Fight) and soon took a break – it was clear that there needed to be changed in the ranks and time away from one another. One is not entirely sure what the main issues were or whether it was a matter of control (Kim Deal wanting more input regarding songwriting) but I am amazed Pixies, as a unit, have survived to this day – even if Kim Deal split from the band a while ago. Deal would have limited say when the band recorded Bossanova in 1990 and Trompe le Monde the following year; the band was broken up by the start of 1993. Even though the spirit and unity of Pixies started to fade after Doolittle, one can attribute some of that nervous and combative energy to a certain quality on Doolittle. The album is hugely influential and has received scores of impassioned reviews.

In 2014, Pitchfork assessed the catalogue of Pixies and included a review of Doolittle:

“It’s in Doolittle's margins—the faux-hillbilly cackling of “Mr. Grieves,” “There Goes My Gun” and “Dead”—that the album becomes what it really is. At heart, the Pixies were a kind of American goth band, fascinated by rural violence, the intersection of lust and danger, creepy innkeepers and the sexual magnetism of strangers who wander into roadside cafés from parts unknown. Their biggest crossover single, “Here Comes Your Man,” is less tied to European dada than the rustic imagery of a pulp paperback: The boxcar, the nowhere plains, the big stone and the broken crown”.

AllMusic, in 2013, had their say:

Though Doolittle's sound is cleaner and smoother than the Pixies' earlier albums, there are still plenty of weird, abrasive vignettes: the blankly psychotic "There Goes My Gun," "Crackity Jones," a song about a crazy roommate Francis had in Puerto Rico, and the nihilistic finale "Gouge Away." Meanwhile, "Tame," and "I Bleed" continue the Pixies' penchant for cryptic kink. But the album doesn't just refine the Pixies' sound; they also expand their range on the brooding, wannabe spaghetti western theme "Silver" and the strangely theatrical "Mr. Grieves." "Hey" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven," on the other hand, stretch Francis' lyrical horizons: "Monkey"'s elliptical environmentalism and "Hey"'s twisted longing are the Pixies' versions of message songs and romantic ballads. Their most accessible album, Doolittle's wide-ranging moods and sounds make it one of their most eclectic and ambitious. A fun, freaky alternative to most other late-'80s college rock, it's easy to see why the album made the Pixies into underground rock stars”.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press

Doolittle is seen, by many critics, as one of the best albums of the 1980s. The quiet-loud dynamic Pixies perfected was hugely influential on the Alternative-Rock scene. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was especially hooked and claimed that Smells Like Teen Spirit was a Pixies rip-off. Not only did Pixies’ Doolittle make a huge impact on bands coming through in the late-1980s and 1990s but, thirty years after its release, it is still viewed and a hugely important achievement. This article suggests which records influenced Pixies’ masterpiece whilst this piece from 2014 brought together Sean O’Neal, A.A. Dowd; Josh Modell and Evan Rytlewski as they discussed Doolittle at twenty-five. It is an interesting article and drew some illuminating reactions:

Josh Modell: Doolittle is nearly perfect, and yeah, it seems almost insane to think that this is a watered-down version of anything. In fact, my first thought after hearing these demos—which are fascinating, though essential only for huge fans—was that whoever provided the direction for the album versions (whether that was Norton, the band itself, or some combination thereof) did an incredible job. Take the demo for “Wave Of Mutilation,” which has plenty of spunky energy but very little of the weird alchemy that the actual Doolittle version does. They took a song that was essentially a mess and sharpened its claws. It got stronger as it got slicker. In fact, I can’t point to a single demo on this disc that I prefer to the album version: “I Bleed” gets close, but that might be because its version here is notably close to Doolittle’s anyway. But “Dead” is actually far less crazy than the album version, as is “Crackity Jones”…

A.A. Dowd: I certainly won’t. As much as I’d like to voice some objections, and transform this Pixies lovefest into an honest-to-God debate, I just can’t throw any shade Doolittle’s way. The songs, the sequencing, the performances—they’re all too perfect. Unlike you, Josh, I still spin almost all of the band’s records (excluding Indie Cindy, because I don’t hate myself). Come On Pilgrimhas the funniest lyrics. Surfer Rosa has “Where Is My Mind?,” which conventional (and correct) wisdom will tell you is the Pixies’ greatest song. Bossanova has that gorgeous floating-in-space quality…

Sean O’Neal: Ultimately, the Pixies were as “real” as any major rock group, of course. Black and Deal each had careerist aspirations, and those came to a head almost immediately after Doolittle. By the time I got to them, they’d already broken up in the wake of an anxiety-ridden stadium tour with U2 (but a stadium tour with U2 nonetheless). So while I would probably also offer some very minor contrarianism here and suggest, gun to head, that the unhinged snarl of Trompe Le Monde is probably my personal favorite Pixies album, as Alex points out, I think the reason we regard Doolittle as the apex is because it’s the last record that truly feels like those four “regular people” made it together”.

Thirty years after its release, Doolittle sounds remarkably fresh; offering up new insights and revelations. You can hear so much of the album in bands of today working in all manner of genres. Whether it is a certain braveness regarding lyrics or that Doolittle-esque sound, the album continues to influence musicians and resonate. I listen to Doolittle and go back to my time, years ago, when I was in retail and was listening to the record at the crack of dawn and had that freedom. I think we should all mark its thirtieth anniversary on Wednesday and understand what an important record it is. A lot of seismic albums turn thirty this year but few have the same clout and reputation as Doolittle. It inspired Nirvana to take their music to new places and, as such, inspired a raft of bands following their split. In honour of its big birthday, I am going to put Doolittle and immerse myself in its sliced eyeballs, ecological foreboding and incredible band interplay. It is a wondrous record and, thirty years after its release, it still sounds…


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press

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