The Pixies are one of those bands with more of an influence of other musicians and pop culture than on the sales charts. Over the course of a few short years from the late-80s and early 90s they created a righteous noise immortalized on five albums and then they were gone. Having such a compact legacy has helped cement their legend with fans: There's hardly a bad song in their catalog, which includes at least two of the finest rock albums ever released.
By now more compilations and live albums have probably been released of Pixies music than the band put out the first time around. To that pile add Pixies, a DVD collection of live material, videos and documentaries. Actually, the live portion is the real reason to pick up this set. (I'll discuss the rest of the disc in the extras section below.) Consisting of a complete concert from 1988 in London, the show perfectly displays what was so special about the band. Their appearance was strictly no frills: Vocalist Black Francis (A.K.A. Charles Thompson, and later Frank Black) looks pudgy and sloppy in a sweaty T-shirt and jeans. Guitarist Joey Santiago is skinny and awkward. Bassist Kim Deal wears an oversized college shirt. Drummer David Lovering is equally unassuming. They approach the front of the stage looking like they accidentally wandered in off the street.
Then they tear into their opening number, "The Holiday Song," of their 1987 debut Come On Pilgrim, and all hell breaks loose. Francis' vocals are beyond intense, with a rawness and energy that no other rock singer possesses. He's closer to Screamin' Jay Hawkins than any of his peers, but with a reckless abandon that's disarming in the setting. And the sound perfectly complements the twisted lyrics. Francis' songs use bizarre language and images to create really vivid stories. Lines like "You're so pretty when you're unfaithful to me" from "Bone Machine" and "Losing my penis to a whore with disease," from "I've Been Tired" don't come from the standard songwriting textbook but the impassioned delivery ensures that they have real impact. There is a crazy blend of biblical, sexual and just plain surreal content, especially in these early songs, that adds to the overall feeling that the band is creating something new, both sonically and lyrically.
And the musicians match his ferocity step for step. Deal and Lovering lock into a simple, driving groove that changes tempo or keys at magically perfect moments, with Francis' rhythm guitar jangling along for the ride. All this is topped off with the innovative Santiago whose lead guitar can cut like a buzzsaw, then trail off into a lovely melody and finally collapse into straight white noise. There is no rock star pretense. Considering that bands like Poison and Winger were at their peak while Pixies were touring it's shocking how pure the musicianship really is. And this is really one of those bands where it would be unthinkable to remove or replace any one element. The sum of the parts what it's all about.
The show on the DVD comes at a crossroads for the band. Here they're touring with their 1988 masterpiece Surfer Rosa, a dissonant collection of hollers and screams punctuated with some of the finest pop melodies around. The band was refining this sound for their next album, the equally masterful Doolittle (maybe the best introduction to the Pixies sound), so only one Doolittle track appears here (the incredible "Hey") but the sound of the show is still widely varied. From the punishing noise of "Something Against You" to the slow, seductive build of "Caribou" (which has one of the weirdest choruses of all time: "Caribooooou…Caridoooooooooouuuu…REPENT! REPENT!") Deal's sweet lead vocals on "Gigantic" add a new element to the band's sound, and the melodic verses of "Where is My Mind?" (which fans of Fight Club will recognize at the closing credit song) drive the band closer and closer towards the perfect song.
This is really outstanding music. Watching it being created is a treat and the force and passion of the musicians just makes you smile. Even though the concert only runs 40 minutes, it's really a memorable performance that merits repeat viewing.
The music videos are the least interesting aspect of the disc. The Pixies never seem to have warmed to making music videos and were never rewarded with MTV exposure. The clips are mostly terrible, with only a clip of the band playing "Allison" in an empty sports arena and the strange boxed-in "Head On" of any visual interest. The worst video here, "Velouria," is still the only video I've ever seen an MTV VJ bad-mouth on air. (I remember Dave Kendall lamenting the clip and saying that he wished he didn't have to play it.) The nice thing about this section, however, is that it gives viewers a chance to hear some of the songs off The Pixies' final two albums. The music videos are: "Monkey Gone To Heaven," "Here Comes Your Man," "Velouria," "Dig For Fire/Allison," "Alec Eiffel," "Head On," and "Debaser."
Of far more interest is Gouge, a documentary on the band. I was expecting a short clip reel but got a nearly-hour long piece filled with interviews with the likes of David Bowie, Bono, PJ Harvey and members of Radiohead and Blur, along with 3/4 of The Pixies (Deal is sadly absent.) This is an excellent chance to get to meet the band and learn about their history. There are also plenty of clips from club shows (although most of the clips come from the London show on the DVD, strangely looking somewhat better here, sepia-toned and a bit sharper.) It's nice to hear Bowie so enthusiastic about the band. He really seems to know their music inside and out, something that must seem amazing to the band.
The final feature on the disc is a collection of road footage taken by touring crew member Myles Mangino. This half-hour sequence is unpolished but features a lot of interesting, unguarded moments from tours in Europe and America. Kim Deal in particular is very funny as she buys cheap tourist crap and takes time to list who each piece is set aside for. There is also a very funny segment where Deal berates Lovering over his taking a phone number from an underage fan. It's really funny to compare the snippets of mundane road life with this clever bunch of folks with the raw, powerful music they created as a band. There are also plenty of short clips from shows over the course of the tour. Another outstanding feature.