Doolittle, arguably the definitive album by the Boston-based alternative rock band the Pixies, hasn’t just stayed fresh over time—it’s actually gotten better. Or so it would seem from two different Rolling Stone reviews of the album: Somewhere between 1989 and 2002, Doolittle apparently went from merely being an above-average effort (three-and-a-half-stars) to being a proto-grunge Sergeant Pepper’s (five stars). The record has only improved since then. In 2003, NME magazine named it the second-greatest album in history, and in 2005, it landed smack-dab in the middle of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago says that during the Doolittle sessions, he had an inkling that he and his bandmates were creating something important. “I don’t want to sound corny, but I’ll admit it: When we were listening to it, I’d just go, ‘Oh, man. I think this is going to be a stepping stone for people,’” he states. “’Cause at the time, it was a little askew—really kind of alternative alternative. That’s not to take away … there was Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth, for crying out loud. So we weren’t the only weirdos out there.”
Yeah, but these weirdos had “Here Comes Your Man” up their collective sleeve. That uncharacteristically bouncy tune would reach No. 3 on the modern rock charts, calling a large and sometimes unlikely assortment of listeners to feast on Doolittle’s 40 minutes of focused psychosis. In keeping with the album’s recurring theme of surrealism, Arsenio Hall even invited the Pixies to play on his show at one point.
Much of Doolittle’s crossover appeal comes down to the album’s producer, Gil Norton. The band’s vocalist/rhythm guitarist, Black Francis, once told Rolling Stone that the record was the result of Norton “trying to make us, shall I say, commercial, and us trying to remain somewhat grungy”: a push-and-pull that created the ideal balance of rawness and accessibility. Santiago claims that these conflicting visions didn’t make for any bad blood between producer and band. “It was mutual respect,” he offers. “Some of [Norton’s] points were really, really good.” For instance, Black Francis added a bridge to “Here Comes Your Man” at the producer’s bidding. “It made the song propel in another way, and we upped the tempo a bit, ’cause [prior to Norton’s intervention] we played it really, really slow—kind of country-ish,” the guitarist says.
Back by popular demand as of 2004, the Pixies—Santiago, Francis, bassist Kim Deal, and drummer David Lovering—will play all of Doolittle and its related B-sides at The Civic, Monday, Nov. 21. This being the final date of the Doolittle Tour’s fall leg, Santiago has had some time to walk around in the audience before a show or two. He’s a little blown away by what he’s seen. “The people up front, and predominantly the whole crowd, are still young!” he exclaims. “They’re little babies, for cryin’ out loud.”
For this, the band owes much to the lip service of Nirvana, whose members have famously been forthright about the fact that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a blatant (though not entirely shameless) Pixies imitation. In light of the latter band’s status as progenitors of grunge, it’s somewhat poetic that the final Pixies album, 1991’s Trompe le Monde, was released one day before Nirvana’s Nevermind: The torch had been passed.
With grunge now an entry in the history books, the Pixies have reemerged as a far more stable unit than in years past. Gone is the internal bickering that plagued the group during its first go-round. “Back then we didn’t have time to gel to be like The Monkees,” Santiago notes. “It happened very quickly—within a year, we were in Europe.” More than two and a half decades later, they’re veritable Monkees gone to heaven. “We’re kind of half business partners and half comrades,” the guitarist offers. “We’re comfortable with that.”
But don’t worry—the band hasn’t lost any angst when it comes to live performances of songs like “Debaser,” “Gouge Away,” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven.” Like Doolittle itself, Pixies shows just keep getting better.