Pixies at Budapest Park, August 30, 2022

Here come your men (and woman), Kurt – slightly timeworn

As Nirvana stormed the world with their album “Nevermind” and their single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the early 1990s, frontman Kurt Cobain came out with the surprising admission that “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it”. Cobain was soon to die before he got old. If he were still around, we wonder what would he think now of the reformed, ageing and diminished version of the Pixies that will appear at Budapest Park on August 30 this year?

The Pixies and Nirvana were contemporaries, with the Pixies forming in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1986, the year before Nirvana got together in Seattle, Washington State, US. The Pixies’ tumultuous career spanned just seven years before the pressures of touring and personality clashes collapsed the band in 1993. Nirvana’s demise came with Cobain’s suicide in April 1994.

In 2003 the Pixies reformed and have toured and released three albums. The 2022 incarnation may still be able to excite Budapest but it is generally agreed that the early spark has mostly gone. Crucially, much-loved bassist Kim Deal quit in 2013 and has been difficult to replace.

Of the two bands, and Cobain’s quote ties them together, it was Nirvana that was perhaps the most iconic band of all the 1990s pack. They had achieved huge success by 1994 with hard music dubbed grunge, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is surely one of the defining songs of the decade. Here was the world’s first triple-platinum punk rock band.

Cobain made his now-famous statement when talking to Rolling Stone magazine’s David Fricke in 1994 about recording their breakthrough cornerstone album “Nevermind”. He said of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band – or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”

Cobain’s respect for the Pixies was profound. According to Kerrang! magazine, he considered the Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa” to be his second-favourite album ever, topped only by Iggy and the Stooges’ “Raw Power”, from 1973. Critics agreed that “Surfer Rosa” proved you could marry pop smarts with a punk edge and create music that was alive with both romanticism and surrealism in equal measure.

The Pixies unique blend of punk rock’s aggression and pop music’s infectious melodies helped establish the sound that would define alternative rock in the 1990s. The original members were Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV (also known as Black Francis and Frank Black, born on April 6, 1965, in Boston), Joey Santiago (born on June 10, 1965, in Manila, Philippines), Kim Deal (born on June 10, 1961, in Dayton, Ohio, US) and David Lovering (born on December 6, 1961, in Burlington, Massachusetts, US).

Singer-guitarist Thompson and his former Boston University roommate, guitarist Santiago, decided to form a band, and they advertised in a local newspaper for a “bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul, and Mary”. Hüsker Dü was an American punk rock band formed in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1979. Peter, Paul and Mary were an American folk group formed in New York City in 1961 (Thompson had a sense of humour). The ad was answered by Deal, who brought along her friend Lovering as a drummer.

The Pixies quickly earned a reputation as part of the local Boston club scene. After  an eight-track mini-LP, “Come on Pilgrim”, in 1987, they released their full-length debut, “Surfer Rosa”, in 1988. The album was an instant critical favourite and received considerable airplay on United States college radio.  But while American critical response was positive it was also muted, and the real acclaim came in Europe, a reaction that persisted for much of the band’s career.

While rougher than the Pixies’ later work, “Surfer Rosa” established their signature sound: an aggressive blast of searing guitars and Thompson’s screeching vocals, which were oddly but effectively counterbalanced by enchanting pop melodies and Deal’s gentler backup vocals.

Equally distinctive were Thompson’s strange, cryptic lyrics that over the years encompassed references ranging from his Pentecostal upbringing to UFOs to Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film “Un Chien andalou” of 1928 (“An Andalusian Dog”).

“Surfer Rosa” was album of the year in British music weeklies Sounds and Melody Maker. Sounds opined that Pixies “are a rock ‘n’ roll band without parallel at the moment, reaching some kind of dark heart while teetering deliciously on the edge of a precarious cliff of self-deprecating comedy”.

In 1989 the group released “Doolittle”, its most revered album, which built upon the Pixies’ existing formula and perfected the stop-and-start dynamics that would perhaps become its greatest legacy to later alternative bands, especially Nirvana. It featured favourites “Here Comes Your Man” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven”.

“Bossanova”, a surf music-inspired variation on the earlier albums, followed in 1990. By this time, tensions were rising in the band. Deal, once a co-songwriter, contributed little to the album, and the group had effectively disbanded by the time of the release of “Trompe le Monde” (1991), which is generally considered the Pixies’ weakest effort. (It sounds great here at The Budapest Times.)

Then the band was over. Thompson (changing his stage name from Black Francis to Frank Black) went on to release some memorable solo albums, some as Frank Black and the Catholics, and including “Teenager of the Year” (1993), “Dog in the Sand” (2001) and “Honeycomb” (2005).

Deal shifted her focus to her onetime side project, the Breeders.

In 2004 the Pixies reunited for a much-anticipated multi-city tour, captured in the documentary film “loudQUIETloud” (2006). (Of course, in truth, others had been loud-quiet-loud before; the Pixies didn’t “invent” it.) Although Deal left in 2013, the group continued to tour and record. Subsequent albums “Indie Cindy” (2014), “Head Carrier” (2016) and Beneath the Eyrie” (2019) are not really considered by fans or critics to be up to the high bar set by the first four.

Many say the Pixies are not the same without Kim Deal.  Kim Shattuck joined for an autumn 2013 European tour but was fired five months later and replaced by Paz Lenchantin (born Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1973), so all three bassists have been female.

The Pixies aren’t what they were, though it’s probably a disservice to condemn them as a “nostalgia act”. And what might Cobain think now? His death made him a member of the “27 Club” alongside Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Nick Drake, Amy Winehouse and, earlier, Robert Johnson.  “Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse” is an oft-repeated quotation from the 1947 book “Knock on Any Door” by Willard Motley, also found in the 1949 film version starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

For Kurt Cobain, sadly it was “better to burn out than to fade away”, the Neil Young line from his song “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” that Cobain included in his suicide note in 1994.

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