Having dropped out of the University of Massachusetts while on a college exchange program, Frank Black (real name Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV) teamed up with guitarist Joey Santiago in 1986 and posted an advertisement to recruit a bassist for their new band.
It was an incongruity perfectly fitting for The Pixies’ songbook, brought to life by Black’s remarkable screaming voice.
He once claimed to have developed his uncommon singing style after a Thai neighbour asked him to perform The Beatles‘ Oh! Darling but to “scream it like you hate that bitch”.
The Pixies – when unplugged – were so normal they were dysfunctional. Despite Goth-ishly renaming himself Black Francis (and/or Frank Black), Charles Thompson was a fat bloke in a cheap shirt and jeans who seemed to be a complete character blank.
Bassist Kim Deal was a self-confessed junkie who was always grinning cheerily and insisted on calling herself Mrs John Murphy for song credits as if wanting to rub her own identity out completely.
The other two (Joey Santiago and David Lovering) were the other two. They played guitar and drums respectively. That was it. But when they began to play all primal rock & roll hell was let loose . . .
Their speciality was a quiet bass-driven bit for the verse, then some brief warning signal, then WAAAAAGGGGHHHHHH!!!! for the chorus. Nirvana liked it so much they bought the company.
From their debut EP, Come On Pilgrim (1987), the band were respected but not overly successful in commercial terms.
A bizarre collision of biblically-steeped stream of consciousness lyrics, pidgin Spanish, roaring guitars, cranked-up drums and deranged barking and shrieking, Surfer Rosa (1988) was as raw and visceral a debut album as you could hope to find.
No song typifies the freakish pop instincts that made The Pixies stand out in a sea of gloomy Reagan-era bands better than Where Is My Mind? Joey Santiago’s lead guitar is catchier than most Top 40 hooks, and by the time Fight Club made this song iconic a decade after its release, it had already formed part of the DNA of countless alternative radio hits in the years between, from Nirvana to Korn.
Doolittle (1989) – The Pixies’ third album and big-label debut – garnered truckloads of critical acclaim for its disturbing, dizzying variations on alternative guitar rock themes, but the cracks had begun to appear by the time of Bossanova (1990).
Following a second US tour of Doolittle, the band took a break, having “grown tired” of each other’s company. During this time Black Francis went on a solo tour and Kim Deal formed The Breeders, with whom she would go on to have a number of hits.
The band hooked up again in the early summer of 1990 and returned to the studio with ‘fifth Pixie’ Gil Norton. Bossanova was released in the fall. Tellingly, it contained no songs by Deal and had a liberal sprinkling of more gentle surf-rock tunes penned by Charles Thompson.
The album reached #3 in the UK album charts and produced a couple of US single hits in the shape of Velouria and Dig For Fire.
Lyrically, Bossanova represented something of a departure too. There was less evidence of the trademark Black Francis surrealist sex and violence, and an infatuation instead with UFO’s; The Happening directly refers to the now-infamous Area 51, while Down To The Well references the tale of alleged alien abductees Barney and Betty Hill.
Trompe le Monde (1991) was the band’s final studio album and tension between Thompson and Deal eventually split the band in 1992. Thompson/Black disbanded the group by faxing the news to Deal and Lovering.
The Pixies returned to playing live in 2004 and began releasing new music in 2013, with bassist Kim Deal replaced by Kim Shattuck of California pop-punkers The Muffs.
Black Francis/Frank Black (Charles Thompson)