On this day 22 years ago, something special happened to the world – Pixies’ masterpiece was released. The recording sessions have been described as difficult – so much so that the band chemistry was forever altered. The music was not commercially successful (peaking at #98 in the Billboard 200, and the “hit” single only getting to #3 in the Billboard Modern Rock chart). But here we are more than two decades later, still touched by the impact of this mammoth record. Doolittle is one of the greatest rock albums ever released.
But why is it still so revered? The hyper-saturation of modern music can make it difficult to see the singular nature of Doolittle. So let’s take a step back and consider popular and alternative music in April of 1989, and also see what other artists have said about Pixies.
Time and Place
Pixies were unlike anybody else getting airplay in the US when Doolittle was released. To illustrate this, we’re going to look at the top songs on the Hot 100 and Alternative Songs chart, and then the top albums in the Billboard 200.
For the weeks of April 15 and April 22 in 1989, the Billboard Alternative Songs chart was dominated by XTC’s song “The Mayor of Simpleton.” Other artists appearing in the top five during this two-week period included Robyn Hitchcock n The Egyptians, Morrissey, The Replacements, Fine Young Cannibals, and Elvis Costello.
The Hot 100 saw “She Drives Me Crazy” by Five Young Cannibals and “Like a Prayer” by Madonna holding down the top song spots for the weeks of April 15 and April 22. Other groups in the top five for these weeks included Roxette, Bangles, Milli Vanilli, Tone-Loc and Bon Jovi. The Billboard 200 Albums chart saw Tone-Loc and Madonna holding down the top spots in the weeks surrounding Doolittle with their respective records Loc-ed After Dark and Like a Prayer. The remaining top five artists were Debbie Gibson, Bobby Brown, Roy Orbison, and Five Young Cannibals.
It’s obviously difficult to make generalizations about the state of popular music just from a two week span, but the Alternative Songs chart does provide some insight as to the type of widely purchased alternative music. XTC were very heavy in the jangle-style, offering fluid melodies and flowing guitars. “Madonna of the Wasps” from Robyn Hitchcock wasn’t far off from this either.
Honestly, it’s not too hard to make the link to the rest of 1980s R.E.M. from these songs. The first five or six proper records from R.E.M. were truly cutting-edge, bringing a very distinctive style to rock music. Mumbled lyrics and artistic ambition aside, one of the defining features of 80s R.E.M. was Peter Buck’s ringing, singing guitar. It seems clear that even XTC (who existed before R.E.M.) were taken by the whole jangle thing
Of course, this shouldn’t be seen as a put-down to the music around Doolittle. It’s just that Doolittle was very different from everything else gaining attention in 1989. There was nothing quite so dynamic or angular happening in music. Let’s do a brief exercise, just to cleanse the ears before trying out Pixies.
First, play the whole of XTC’s hit song “Mayor of Simpleton.” In fact, you can do it here. We’ve got the video for you:
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, notice the generally even feel of the track. YouTube quality issues excepted, nothing is particularly bigger than the rest of the song. The chorus pops nicely and the lyrics offer some tonal changes, but it’s pretty straightforward. “Mayor of Simpleton” is a great song and often ends up in my play rotation, but it’s worth noting that it is quite smooth.
Now, let’s jump right into Doolittle with a very extreme example. This is “Tame,” the second track into the record.
It’s a very jarring example when taken directly after the XTC song. “Tame” exemplifies the quiet-loud-quiet song structure that Pixies developed. While you can argue if Pixies actually created the style, the sure pushed it to a new extreme that hadn’t been viewed in a public sphere before. The same thing goes for the guitars – we’re no longer dealing in jangle. We’re hearing general attack that had been left for thrash and punk before.
And that phrase is crucial to this listening exercise. We’re so used to strange dynamics and angular attacking guitars in recent rock music. But in 1989, Nevermind was still a few years from existing. OK Computer wasn’t there to show us “Paranoid Android.” Spoon weren’t developing a trimmed-down version of the Pixies style. Doolittle is that point of change and conversion. It is a singular record that was unprecedented and only comparable to its predecessor, Surfer Rosa.
Influence Beyond its Sales
It’s easy to dismiss my ranting as just another blogger with arbitrary and biased opinions. But it’s not so simple to push aside the opinions of the most influential current artists. Nearly anybody who is (or has been) viewed as musically innovated has cited Pixies and Doolittle as powerfully influential in their work. Typical members on the Pixies influence list include Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Thom Yorke, Spoon, The Strokes, and even TV on the Radio.
That’s pretty wild stuff. The band has been rightfully depicted as the catalyst of 1990s rock revival (Nirvana) once described their efforts as just an attempt to rip off Pixies.
Listen to Doolittle Today
So all the innovation, the history, and acclaim are all there. But what about the music? Is it still “good?” That answer is also still a resounding “yes.” The songs still have tight arrangements, the guitars still sound crisp, the dynamics are still exciting. Doolittle has done like other albums anointed with “all time great” tags – it has hardly aged. Crazy lyrics, emotional performance and instrumental excellence are still things that we value today and they all stand tall in current plays of Doolittle.
Yes, Doolittle is that good. Let’s celebrate its birthday and play the record. Play every song, don’t skip tracks (there are none worth skipping) and bask in its glory. This is both innovative and excellent. Get on board and celebrate 22 years of Doolittle.