The Pixies: The Best Band I've Ever Seen Live

In the late 80s Francis and co rocked my world, 25 years on at Brixton they still have the power to shake you to your core...
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In the late 80s Francis and co rocked my world, 25 years on at Brixton they still have the power to shake you to your core...

When it comes to band reunions, I am at the cynical end of the spectrum. So many rebirths have littered the rock landscape for far too long and we have become both weary and wary of them and the motivation behind them. At best they seem self-indulgent exercises “hey everyone look at us, we used to be cool several decades ago and we can still ROCK”; at worst they are merely cash generating operations, all exploitation and expenses.

So when Pixies announced way back in 2004 they were reforming some ten years after one of the most acrimonious splits in popular culture my knee jerk reaction was one of concern. Black Francis and crew had been the catalyst for so much great music and had touched a nerve in so many souls in the late 1980s /early 1990s. They were critically acclaimed and wore the true badge of distinction in that they far more popular in the UK than in their native USA, they were also simply the best band I had ever seen live.

That peculiar brand of raw, naked energy was founded on the iconic song writing of Francis and the sublime skills of Joey Santiago’s guitar, who dropped out of college together in 1986 to form the band. This was underpinned by the sultry bass riffs and vixen-like vocals of Kim Deal, who departed the band this summer after many years of simmering rancour, to be replaced by another Kim, Shattuck who filled Deal’s boots with aplomb and Cruella Deville inspired hairstyle. This potent combination was rounded off by the magical drumming of Dave Lovering (who appositely went on to be a magician in the 1990s after the band split). As a frontman, Francis exuded a sense of brooding menace mixed in with a dollop of romanticism. It was just as well he had such a strong aura as he hardly ever said a word during performances, preferring not to waste valuable stage time gassing but just getting on with the business of generating powerful, brilliant songs, one after the other. A high class sausage machine or maybe considering their strong Hispanic influence, a premium chorizo factory.

I was fortunate and honoured to attend their first ever gig in the UK. April 1988 a few of us went to the less than salubrious surroundings of The Mean Fiddler in the midst of the drabness and dinginess that was (and still is) Harlesden High Street. We were attracted there because The Throwing Muses were headlining. Despite its unpromising location The Mean Fiddler was a cracking venue and we pitched up in time to catch the support act whom we watched initially from the balcony with the usual mixture of disdain and disinterest that any secondary artist would attract. As they came on stage our first impressions were focused on their name and their appropriately diminutive stature. Having only heard a couple of songs off Come on Pilgrim, this was always going to be relatively unfamiliar territory. But hang on a minute…..

“Well sit right down, my wicked son

And let me tell you a story

About the boy who fell from glory

And how he was a wicked son”.

From the very first lines of that inaugural set opener, The Holiday Song, we were transfixed and transported to the world of Pixies and this was indeed no holiday. Joey’s screeching guitar sucked us in and Francis’ venomous lyrics spat us out, begging for more. So fast forward 25 years, just the quarter of a century on and am sitting in a tapas bar, incongruously located under a church in Brixton. I am with the three ladies in my life, wife Yvonne and daughters Jessica and Amelia. As we nibble on chorizo (natch), patatas bravas and padron peppers I muse on the strange twists of life’s giddy journey. I had been over-excited for several weeks about seeing Pixies again, intrigued to see how the experience of going with the family would compare with original foray in 1988. Having seen them nearly ten times in the intervening period both pre and post-split, this was going to be a different ball game.

As a result of having woken up at 2.30am on the morning of the gig and, like a kid on Christmas Eve, not being able to get back to sleep because of the anticipation of the presents that the slightly rotund Santa was going to bring, ‘I’ve Been Tired’ was my leitmotif on entering The Electric. Expectations grew in delicious leaps and bounds as the allotted start time of 8.30 approached, no support band to discover tonight we were going straight to the main course without any hors d’oeuvre, apart from the earlier tapas. An overheard discussion around the merits of heart surgery just prior to the gig was a suitably grave reminder of our mortality and weaker constitutions.

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But fortunately all that was forgotten as the Boston Four arrived and proceeded to startle nearly everyone by kicking off with a pair of cover versions. Not many bands would have the cajones to launch ‘Head On’ into ‘Big New Prinz’ but they did so, courtesy of The Fall and Jesus and the Mary Chain. One of the most endearing features of Pixies for us Brits is their affinity with the UK so their choice of those two songs as openers proved that their radar is focused very much on our music scene and we love them all the more because of it. Francis took the decision very early on in the band’s development, to leave the cosy environs of Boston and its cliquey college atmosphere because it was all too safe for true, edgy creative expression. Thank god they did and that they were so welcome on this side of the pond.

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When they finally broke into Charles Thompson IV’s sack of goodies we were immediately riding the ‘Wave of Mutilation’, the raunchier original not the gentler UK Surf version, which is so beloved by my eldest, Jessica.  We were then begged ‘to run over me’ by a desperate Francis “Come on Pilgrim, you know he loves you”. ‘Levitate Me’ harks back to those seminal days in downtown Harlesden and alongside ‘Caribou’ was a central pillar in that baptism of fire and brimstone back in 1988.

As for the handful of new songs that were sprinkled through the evening, ‘Indie Cindy’ stood out with Francis back to his acerbic, fragmented best:

“Look out for that hot plate

Guess that’s all you got. Great

You put the cock in cocktail, man

Well I put the tail in – wait!”  The tune lollops along with Santiago chopping away only as he can.

As for Joey he was as masterful as ever and during the freewheeling encore of ‘Vamos’ he even toyed with us as he stopped and started, held notes, killed notes stone dead like a playful ringmaster. The best description of the sounds Joey concocts with his trusty Gibson Les Paul comes from BBC6 Music’s Shaun Keaveny “like twelve angry tigers in the back of a hot van.” Precisely.

One of the visual/aural highlights came as this Fab Four, bathed in a violet, velveteen velour, unleashed the swirling ‘Velouria’. Pixies aficionados have heated debates about the relative quality of some of the later albums such as 1990’s Bossanova and many can barely mention them in the same breath as Doolittle. But there are gems in them there hills (sic) and Velouria is one of those sparkling jewels as is ‘Havalina’, one of the calmer, more soothing tunes that offers us a glimpse of the misty-eyed romantic that accompanies and provides balance to the more manic elements.

After the balm comes the brooding, stormy ‘Gouge Away’ at which point my sleep-deprived weariness left the building and it was a headlong rush to the majestic ‘Planet of Sound’, that paean to power pop, which concluded the Electric set.

“This ain’t no fuckin’ around

This ain’t no planet of sound”.  But it is that Planet of Sound where we all want to reside and remain for ever. Thank you Pixies for taking me backwards and forwards over the last 25 years and look forward to the 50th anniversary. This Monkey has gone to Heaven.