I’ve always shown an interest in support bands. I’ve played a few local arts festivals and I know how disheartening it is to look out to see you and your colleagues outnumbering the audience. I recall one particularly dispiriting experience when we were competing with the fire brigade who were letting local kiddies have a go at sounding the siren on their big red Dennis machine. The nuances of our acoustic jazz experience were somewhat lost that afternoon.
If I’m truthful though, a significant element of my keenness is fear of missing out or “FOMO” as I understand it is now known. Who knows, that unheard of “plus support” at the bottom of the tickets could be next year’s musical solution. Given the generally shitty nature of pubs near venues in many places (particularly growing up in the West Midlands), what’s to be lost by catching the opening act?
This behaviour was reinforced by possibly the most visceral and thrilling set I’ve ever seen, either by a main attraction or opening act.
Myself and my friend Simon had headed over early to the shiny chrome and sticky carpeted delight of Burberries in Birmingham on 26 April 1988. In the words of Marty Debergi – don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore. It was a clear spring evening and the temperamental pop up lights on Simon’s TR7 could wait until the journey home.
The star attractions were 4AD’s Throwing Muses. Their first eponymous album was a firm favourite of ours and the tour was to promote their new and slightly thornier record “House Tornado”.
One of the reasons for arriving early though was we knew the venue, which was a nightclub rather that a concert hall, would be packed and a good vantage point was hard to get, even at the more sparsely attended gigs. We took a spot to the left of the stage. Burberries had a layout that meant you could pretty much surround the band and then enjoy the bizarre impact of the myriad of mirrors that were plastered around the walls.
The support band took their place. They were a mismatched bunch. Closest to us was a Filipino guitarist with a Gibson Les Paul. Furthest away was a tall female bass player who looked like she could handle herself if necessary. The drummer looked pretty much as you would expect a drummer to look – wiry and athletic. The singer though was not what passed for front man material in the image conscious eighties. He was slightly chubby, carried a guitar and had a haircut that looked like it was done by his mum with a set of Ronco clippers. All of them wore non-descript stagewear.
These were the Pixies (let’s set us aside the contentious use of the definitive article) and they were about to blow us away.
They came out of the blocks with a kinetic hell for leather song about how “this ain’t no holiday.” They were straight into a headlong thrash which stopped with only the singer shouting “you are the son of incestuous union.” The pace was unrelenting. The drummer just kept upping it a notch. The bass player offered up harmonies and seemed to be enjoying herself, the Filipino guitarist produced shards of sound and the singer thrashed frantically at this guitar and added screams that curdled the blood. Apparently he was inspired by a Thai rock star who told him to
Scream like you hate that bitch!
This was dramatic stuff. Tempos changed within moments in the song. Instruments dropped out. Still the momentum kept going. Much of what was around on the UK indie scene at the time was insipid. This was the polar opposite. It was gothic horror, it was desert heat, it was blood in the sand. The lyrics, whilst often screamed, were clear. They were perverse – “he bought me a soda and he tried to molest me in the parking lot.” They were humorous – “this is a song about a super hero, this is Tony’s theme.” They were Spanish – “hermanita ven conmigo, hay aviones cada hora.“
The boy/girl harmonies were fascinating. There was already an obvious tension within the band but particularly between the bass player, Kim Deal (AKA Mrs John Murphy) and the singer, Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV AKA Frank Black AKA Black Francis. Kim took over vocals for the standout of the night, “Gigantic”. Joey frantically shook, scraped and banged his guitar, generating feedback. Dave kept ploughing away at the back of the stage.
At one point, some members of the audience started shouting “you fucking die” in unison, with the band and the audience joining in with “if anyone touches my stuff, they fucking die.” Unbeknown to us, they were simply playing back the interlude from their latest record, their first full album “Surfer Rosa”, which became clear when I picked the album up from Goulds in Wolverhampton the next weekend. They were obviously amongst friends given the audience interaction, given there had been little exposure for the band in the UK until now. After this bizarre interlude about possessions, the band launched into “Vamos”.
Just by way of an aside from Josh Frank and Carolyn Ganz’s “Fool The World: Oral History of the Pixies”, it was a recording of a conversation held between Francis and Albini can be heard before the start of “Vamos”. According to the studio assistant Jon Lupfer:
“It was a concept he [Producer Steve Albini] was going for to get some studio banter.” As Deal was leaving the studio to smoke a cigarette, she exclaimed “If anybody touches my stuff, I’ll kill ya.” Francis replied with “I’ll kill you, you fucking die, if anybody touches my stuff“. The track begins at this point, with Francis explaining the conversation to Albini, whose voice is not heard on the track. Lupfer later admitted that Albini knew “perfectly well what was going on.”
In researching the post, I’ve drawn on some quotations from Martin Aston’s history of 4AD “Facing The Other Way” which shed further light on the emergence of the Pixies and what they meant to the label and its existing aesthetic.
It transpired that the Pixies and Throwing Muses shared management. I’m sure Throwing Muses were excellent but following this force of nature every night must have been some feat.
Kristin Hersh, the Muses’s leader said:
It’s true that to follow Pixies, it’s hard for audiences to get down and listen to subtleties when they want to crash some more. But it was such a great high to see a band that you love before you play yourself…….That Pixies got more attention than us was actually a relief. It meant I had the afternoon off or had more time for my songs. Pixies were driven and ambitious. They wanted to be rock stars.
Joey Santiago had suggested the band’s name and they all enjoyed the possibility of being “mischievous little elves”. The Pixies were rejected by many American labels and Santiago thought they were too strange to sell records but carried on just for the hell of it. Ivo Watts, 4AD’s label owner, heard some Pixies demos when visiting Throwing Muses in the USA and was hooked. None of the band knew of 4AD, who until 1987 were known for the dreamy floating music of the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. They broadened their horizons that year, signing the Pixies and getting a UK number one with “Pump Up The Volume” by M/A/R/R/S.
Ivo first met the band when they played as a trio as Kim was at a funeral. He said:
I’ll never forget Charles/Frank walking towards me to shake my hand with a big smile, a lovely bloke. Joey was a man of few words but he said “Make me famous in the Philippines because I love Filipino girls!” None of them had any attitude.
The Pixies burned bright, hard and fast. “Surfer Rosa” was widely acclaimed and became Melody Maker’s album of the year. Their follow ups, “Doolittle” and “Bossanova” went from strength to strength. Whilst both are fantastic albums, it is “Rosa” that still holds a place in my heart. I can put it now and for 32 minutes be transported both back to Birmingham and 1988 but also to an America that at that point hadn’t visited and was probably mythical in any event.
I saw them regularly over the next few years and within 3 years they were headlining a festival in Crystal Palace, across a lake amongst the dinosaurs. Nirvana followed soon afterwards taking their dynamic template, Tin Machine covered “Debaser” at Brixton Academy (another good night out) and the fireworks went off at the end of “Fight Club” to “Where Is My Mind.” The Pixies have been back now having split up in the early nineties. I’ve not been to see them. Kim’s left and I just want to preserve the memories of them at the peak of their powers.
There is a significant trainspotter element to music fandom, much of which is associated with getting in at ground level – being there at the first gig or tour, buying the first album. I suppose my affection from the Pixies is generated from the frisson of this initial encounter and seeing them develop so quickly and so wonderfully.
Talking of which, here’s a clip from the Town and Country club the following year. They had well and truly become the headliners and all of the qualities they’d shown at Burberries are still evident.
In researching the post, I’ve come across photos by Phil Nicholls which captures the evening. It pretty much is taken from the same vantage point as me. The roadie frantically propping up the speaker stack whilst the tornado whirls on stage. I’ve been in touch with Phil and he has kindly allowed me to use them in the post. His recollection too is of a stunning evening.
Finally, Deborah Edgely, 4AD’s head of press, said:
The venue in Birmingham was this little, low-slung sixties disco, which had a stage riser, and when Pixies played, the place went absolutely mental, and the riser came to pieces. Dave Narcizo (Throwing Muses’s drummer) was hanging on the edge of it, trying to stop Dave Lovering’s drums from slipping between the gaps, and then they swapped when the Muses played.
I know a few people who were there who equally blown away and it feels like a Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks at the Lesser Free Trade Hall moment. It really was one of those nights.
- The Holiday Song
- Nimrod’s Son
- Bone Machine
- Levitate Me
- Isla de Encanta
- Broken Face
- Break My Body
- Ed Is Dead
- I’ve Been Tired
- Something Against You
- In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)
- Tony’s Theme
- Wild Honey Pie