High-Class Karaoke: Indo Piece on Pixies, 2009.

Why I would not cross the road to see the band that changed my lifeis a piece I wrote for the Irish Independent in 2009. My old friend & HP colleague Nick Kelly, then an Indo columnist, was on holidays and asked me to sub for him. Pixies were touring to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Doolittle and this is about why I wouldn’t go. I love this band and still have the t-shirt I got outside the Point in June 1991. But I couldn’t go. Fergal Bunbury responded to this piece here last month with reference to Death to the the Pixies and AHOUSEISDEAD. In 2015, I posted this as an addendum to another post on Psych & Songs, an irritated attempted evisceration of nostalgia, but given Fergal’s energising and appreciated contribution, I thought I should pop this on a page of its own. I still believe most of this and can’t stand rock’n’roll as taxidermy. By 2015, though, I’d realised I was wrong in my castigation of Iggy Pop for his Raw Power shows and insurance ads. By the way, Black Francis took inspiration for his nom de guerre from Iggy. James Osterberg is to Charles Thompson as Iggy Pop is to Black Francis. In 2015, repentant, I asked “Where did I get off? Iggy doesn’t owe anyone anything.” Just as true in ’22.

Why I would not cross the road to see the band that changed my life. 1st October 2009.

For the last three nights, the legendary Pixies used the Olympia as the launching pad for their keenly awaited Doolittle tour. The tour commemorates the twentieth anniversary of Doolittle, their magnum opus, the album that led music website Pitchfork to acclaim the Pixies as “the most influential alternative rock band of all time”.

At the time of writing, the shows haven’t happened, but rapture will abound. Like a handful of records of its era (Murmur, The Queen is Dead, The Stone Roses), Doolittle has acquired sacred text status. This is the first time it has been played in its entirety on stage. The Olympia is a great venue. Rock fans of a certain age are pretty excited.

And why not? Doolittle was a landmark moment, for rock and for this writer. In any list of key moments in my life, reading the Hot Press review by Graham Linehan that sent me scurrying into town for a scratched vinyl copy of the album in April 1989 is right up there.

At the time I read Graham’s piece I was just feeling my way into pop via REM, U2 and the Beatles. Doolittle completely exploded my concept of what rock music could do: the ideas a writer could address; how a singer could sound; the language that qualified as lyrics; the distance artists could and must go beyond what is considered acceptable. (‘Dead’ is barbarous.)

Right from the urgent opening bass notes of ‘Debaser’, Doolittle was an epiphany. Anyone who has obsessed about music can cite two or three records that were life-changing; I have even been known, after a couple of pints, to trace back to ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ the evolution of my entire adult personality. This is not an entirely comfortable notion.

So why not wait till after the Pixies have actually played to write about the Doolittle tour? Because I didn’t go. I couldn’t go. I love Doolittle too much to watch it being mummified.

It’s not just that the Doolittle tour is such a nakedly commercial venture. (A box set, Minotaur, is being released to coincide with the tour; that is, the Pixies’ discography is being sold to us again, but with shinier packaging and a book. A book! How lovely.)

It’s not just that there is no creative reason for the tour, although Black Francis has mentioned new material. Ever since reforming to support the Chilli Peppers in 2004, they have promised new material, as if they were a going artistic concern. None has arrived, and none will.

In fact, the Doolittle tour is part of a wider and disturbing trend in rock, particularly in independent music, which has long-laughable pretensions to being adventurous.

The last few years have seen ever more bands reforming to play shows at which they perform single classic albums years after the event. As the Pixies are doing with Doolittle, so Echo & the Bunnymen did with Ocean Rain, and even Iggy and the Stooges with Raw Power.

At the last true Stooges show in 1974, recorded on Metallic KO, Iggy roared abuse at bikers while beer bottles smashed against the amps either side of him; he ended the night in hospital. Now, he sells insurance while playing ‘Gimme Danger’, dissonance unnoticed or ignored.

There’s more to my antipathy to these reformations than disappointment with former renegades pandering to the phoney nostalgia of a now-moneyed audience that, tired of the present and wary of the future, wants to pay to relive a mythical past–though there is that.

There is the principle that bands should know when to break up. Bands should be Fawlty Towers, not Friends. They should then stay broken up. Other than ABBA and The Smiths, it’s hard to think of a band of consequence that refuses on principle to reform. That Agnetha Fältskog could have more artistic integrity than Iggy Pop would once have been shocking.

There is the stifling notion that albums should be commemorated. They are just songs, and unless they live and breathe in the present, they’re nothing. Pixies, the Bunnymen and Iggy Pop are making museum pieces of their music. It is rock’n’roll as taxidermy.

And with the best will in the world, the Doolittle shows can only provide a faint, sad echo of the Pixies at their peak; high-class karaoke, but karaoke all the same. Pixies Rock Band.

Doolittle can’t be revived in this way–how could it? It was a moment.

It was a glorious confluence when four people in one room channelled something mysterious. It was like flames descending on the heads of the apostles on Pentecost Sunday, or lightning hitting the DeLorean in Back to the Future. It would only happen once.

The Pixies couldn’t tell you how they did it; Black Francis was often asked. It happened, and the moment passed, and it was gone. You can’t ask the Pixies, twenty years on, to reproduce the unearthly unwilled wonder of Doolittle. You may as well ask them to speak in tongues.

3 responses to “High-Class Karaoke: Indo Piece on Pixies, 2009.”

  1. […] management greeting me in the foyer with—are you Bill Graham? Em… no. I’ve written elsewhere about my distaste for reunions and I’ve hosted a piece here by Fergal Bunbury on the same […]

  2. […] I wrote in the Irish Independent why I would not go and that is an addendum here. (It’s also here.) My essential point was “I love Doolittle too much to watch it being mummified.” […]

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