The Pixies’ Doolittle stimulated a slew of early nineties indie acts to shape their guitar-led onslaught with more imagination. The Boston quartet culled a sweeping sound, but although they harvested from an expansive musical field, they always sounded like The Pixies with Black Francis’ surreal lyrics and the band’s loud-quiet and stop-start dynamics.
Fragments of The Pixies’ now trademark sound were apparent in their debut Surfer Rosa as the listener could just about detect the kernels of great songs buried under the abrasive low-fi production of Big Black’s Steve Albini. However, the album failed to produce a radio-friendly single so the band enlisted the talents of Gil Norton. The Triffids’ producer caught The Pixies at my old teenage haunt The Rat, opening for soon-to-be 4AD label-mates Throwing Muses. Norton was producing the Muses’ debut but found them underwhelming following The Pixies’ sonic tempest.
Norton remixed ‘Gigantic’ and cast the instruments into sharper relief and lent a polished sheen that unequivocally helped make the single one of band’s biggest hits. The Pixies took Norton onboard to produce their sophomore effort and from the initial bass-line notes on the album’s opener ‘Debaser’, any fan could hear Doolittle was stepping up the mark with a more cutting sound that would come to define The Pixies. Although it was texturally refined, there was minimal studio trickery. Norton used compression and reverb sparingly as the band wanted to be able to recreate their sound live.
So was The Pixies’ signature sound molded in part by Norton? Did the band put up any resistance? Norton worked on the arrangements with Francis during pre-production and suggested tempo changes to some of the songs. There were tensions when Norton suggested lengthening some of the tracks but he was quickly ‘righted’ when Francis handed him a Buddy Holly record on which the songs clocked in around two minutes.
I will not speak for the band, but I am aware of the confusion and controversy that often surrounded an indie band intentionally or unintentionally stepping into the commercial arena in the wake of bands like U2 and REM. There was a fine balancing act between underground credibility and financial stability and nobody wanted to be coined a ‘sell-out’. Doolittle’s production budget was quadruple of that of Surfer Rosa and the album enjoyed a major label distribution deal, but did this make the band a tad uncomfortable?
It is telling that in a 1989 interview with the Canadian television show New Music, Francis affirmed their single ‘Here Comes the Man’ was in fact penned when he was sixteen, admitting, “We never bothered doing it when we first started the band because it wasn’t punk-y or quirky enough. So we always avoided playing it at the club figuring we would get booed off.”
Whether they liked it or not, The Pixies pulled it off, perching on the fulcrum between commercial success and artistic integrity. Doolittle was certified Gold by the RIAA and set the stage for Nirvana’s Nevermind to later be certified Diamond. They received major props when they were name-checked by Kurt Cobain, who conceded that Nirvana could almost be a Pixies cover band. And for former indie kids like myself, I am (I confess somewhat belatedly) proud that the music we championed on our college radio stations was able to channel the mainstream in a new musical direction. And I am not embarrassed to say, Doolittle sounds just as fresh and invigorating as when I slapped it on the decks at WNYU 25 years ago.
Recorded: Oct/Nov 1988 at Downtown Recorders, Boston MA and Carriage House Studios, Stamford, CT
Produced by: Gil Norton
Released: April 18, 1989