This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Pixies – ‘Doolittle’ (1989, 4AD Records)

The first Classics Critiqued of 2011 is ‘Doolittle’ by the Pixies. Voted as the No. 1 Album of All Time by the NME in 2003, this album signalled the beginnings of modern alternative rock making the crossover into the mainstream for the first time since late 1970s when punk rock surfaced in the UK. In this article I will explore the importance of ‘Doolittle’ and its legacy, its lyrical themes and musical tropes and why this album still sounds vital today.

Following hot on the heels of their debut full-length album ‘Surfer Rosa’, (they had also released a mini album ‘Come On Pilgrim’ in 1987) ‘Doolittle’ saw the Pixies (Black Francis – guitar/vocals, Kim Deal – bass/vocals, Joey Santiago – lead guitar and Dave Lovering – drums) team up with Gil Norton to record this classic album and define their trademark sound. The album went on to define both their label 4AD’s perceived aesthetic, along with earlier signings Cocteau Twins, and the sound of US alternative rock from that point onwards. ‘Doolittle’ did not sell healthily in the States, it just scraped in to the Billboard 100 at 98 for two weeks but it did very well in UK, reaching No.8 in the Album chart. This is another example of an album that sold modestly but influenced a majority of those who bought to form bands or make similar music. The Pixies’ first producer Gary Smith has remarked: “I’ve heard it said about The Velvet Underground that while not a lot of people bought their albums, everyone who did started a band. I think this is largely true about the Pixies as well.”

The album announces itself perfectly with Deal’s opening bassline on ‘Debaser’ before the guitars and drums crash in in perfect unison. This then quickly cuts down to the main guitar riff swiftly establishing the Pixies famous quiet-loud dynamic, one that has been co-opted by many lesser acts since. ‘Tame’ is a great example of how the Pixies excel at this structure. The devil is in the details. There are very few elements used in the song but each are expertly used and executed and when it impacts with all the instruments at once it rushes off with you, however, this is misleadingly simplistic as the breakdown shows with Francis and Deal heavy petting in the background with only a bassline and bass drum for company. ‘Tame’’s intensity builds to incredible levels before the chorus crunches back in.

By the fifth track, ‘Here Comes Your Man’, it is already evident that this is a group that has taken a great leap forward. More slow to mid tempo numbers like ‘I Bleed’, ‘Hey’ and ‘Gouge Away’ are present than on previous releases which allows for greater impact of faster and harder material and permits the band to show they are no one trick pony. Norton’s production is another key aspect that helps separate ‘Doolittle’ from similar albums. Whereas Steve Albini had recorded the band completely dry and live for ‘Surfer Rosa’ Norton uses double tracking of vocals, overdubbed guitars and gated reverbs to tracks to add ambience and depth to the mixes. However, Norton didn’t create stadium rock monsters with his treatment of material and his suggestions to slow down ‘There Goes My Gun’ and add extra verses to songs struck a balance that made a big difference to the impact and range of ‘Doolittle’, an important factor in why the album is still held in such high esteem.

Gil Norton’s production is not the only reason for its seminal status though as the release doesn’t contain a disappointing track and covers an impressive scope across its 38 minutes and 48 seconds, all seemingly effortlessly and without a hint of pretence. All members of the Pixies make great contributions to the album with Francis’s lyrics, vocals and rhythm guitar and Deal’s bass front and centre. Often overlooked is the lead guitar of Joey Santiago and Dave Lovering’s drum work, yet these are album highlights, particularly on ‘Crackity Jones’, ‘There Goes My Gun’, ‘Wave of Mutilation’ and ‘Hey’.

‘Doolittle’ has three main lyrical themes running through it: Biblical stories, surrealism and environmental disaster. The Biblical subject links back to Francis’s teenage years when his parents joined an evangelical church and manifests itself in lyrics such as ‘man is five’, ‘the devil is six’, ‘god is seven’. The Old Testament stories of David and Bathsheba and Samson and Delilah discuss sex, betrayal, adultery and death: matters that often run through ‘Doolittle’’s vivid lyrics. The occult crops up on ‘Wave of Mutilation’ as the lyric ‘cease to resist’ references the Beach Boys’ (Francis being a Beach Boys obsessive) song ‘Never Learn Not to Love’, a rewritten version of Charles Manson’s ‘Cease to Exist’. Surrealism is referenced on ‘Debaser’, which uses the lyric “slicing up eyeballs” to allude to a scene in the Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’ 1929 surrealist film Un chien andalou. In April of 1989 Francis remarked on his interest in Surrealism in the New York Times, “I got into avant-garde movies and Surrealism as an escape from reality. […] To me, Surrealism is totally artificial. I recently read an interview with the director David Lynch who said he had ideas and images but that he didn’t know exactly what they meant. That’s how I write.”

The band’s cover artist Vaughan Oliver and cover photographer Simon Larbalestier had access for the first time to the lyrics and used them to link the imagery directly with the music and lyrics: the stuffed monkey on the front cover wearing a halo with the number 5, 6, 7 above its head. Inside the sleeve more references to lyrics feature all in a suitably surrealistic style, these include: ‘Gouge Away’ is depicted by “a picture of a spoon containing hair, laid across a woman’s torso; a direct pictorial representation of Heroin, with the spoon and the hair being horses”, ‘I Bleed’ is represented by the image entitled “As Loud As Hell”; displaying a ringing bell with a set of teeth; this references the line “it shakes my teeth” and “Walking with the Crustaceans” depicting ‘Wave of Mutilation’’s lyrics. Larbalestier later commented that he was interested in “early Surrealist stuff” at this time.

The most famous example of ‘Doolittle’’s influence is that after Nirvana first rehearsed ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ the band members looked at each other and said “Pixies”, fearing the negative response from others. Indeed the grunge and alternative rock scene of the 1990s are most directly indebted to the Pixies and their quiet-loud dynamic. Other alternative rock heavy weights to acknowledge their influence includes David Bowie, Radiohead, Pavement and The Strokes. Pixies’ contemporary PJ Harvey said she was “in awe” of “I Bleed” and “Tame” and described Black Francis’ writing as “amazing”.

More recently the Pixies DNA can be found in bands such as frenzied alternative rockers Spoon and indie band Art Brut whose album ‘Art Brut vs. Satan’ was produced by Black Francis and, compared to their native England, they have been accepted more widely with American alternative rock audiences. ‘Doolittle’ was a milestone in rock music. An album that divided the genre into the blues influenced rock of the Sixties and Seventies and the new, alternative rock that it helped kick start into life. Nirvana might have taken it into the charts but the Pixies and the influence of ‘Doolittle’ will still be felt in another 20 years time.

Spotify playlist:

Pixies – Doolittle