Formed in 1986 by University of Massachusetts roommates Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis) and Joey Santiago, Pixies’ eviscerating quiet-loud dynamic inspired everyone from Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins to PJ Harvey, David Bowie and Radiohead. The line-up completed by rhythmic powerhouse drummer David Lovering and their melodic beating heart Kim Deal on bass, they became one of the most cherished and influential alternative bands of their generation.
Philippines-born Santiago’s unconventional surf-thrash lead playing proved the perfect foil for Thompson’s solid rhythmic approach, with Deal’s angelic harmonies offsetting Thompson’s demonic screams and lyrics that burrowed deep into murder, sex, incest and twisted Biblical imagery. Santiago’s playing calls upon his love of Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery and George Harrison, the Beatle’s parts on Savoy Truffle setting in motion the development of an angular, idiosyncratic style dotted with dissonant double stops and squealing bends. Producer Gil Norton said of Santiago: “He can play one note and make it sing, make that note do things no-one else has ever done with it.”
Also central to Pixies’ unorthodox appeal is their warping of song structures. “The music is unconventional,” Thompson told this writer. “There’s a lot of half-steps, chords that don’t theoretically go with the key, but it seems to work.”
Our list ranks 20 essential guitar moments, from debut mini album Come On Pilgrim, via the untouchable Surfer Rosa and Doolittle and conflict-riven Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde through to the band’s three albums without Deal after she departed for a second time in 2013.
20. Greens And Blues (Indie Cindy, 2014)
After Kim Deal departed in June 2013, Pixies released a trio of EPs, collected as Indie Cindy for their first new album since Trompe Le Monde in 1991. Despite being described by The Guardian as “a craven cash-in” and certainly not matching the seismic brilliance of their early albums, Indie Cindy contains a handful of decent tunes. The band remained a blistering live act after replacing Deal with first Kim Shattuck and then Paz Lenchantin, and Greens And Blues was conceived because Thompson wanted something to supplant Gigantic, co-written with Deal, as their set closer. “I felt like we basically needed a better Gigantic,” he admitted, and there are clear melodic similarities in this classic I-V-IV-III-I progression in G major with its celebratory chorus. NME’s Mark Beaumont described the song as “the most grab-at-the-sky Big Pop moment the new EPs have produced so far”. Thompson plays the chords on an acoustic, with Santiago delivering a series of darting, crystalline riffs that are uncharacteristically shimmering.
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19. Dead (Doolittle, 1989)
After being given the title to this unsettling Doolittle track by Thompson, Santiago mulled the word over, trying to decide what it meant to him, before arriving at the infamous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. To emulate the shrieking violin stabs, he bends two strings simultaneously, switching positions quickly, with Thompson shrieking “DEAD”. There’s dissonance in the A/B/C chord progression, too, Santiago increasing the sense of tension by adding a G to the A chord and a B to the C. Further unease is brought by the song’s lurches between 6/4 and 4/4 – a favourite Pixies trick, while the lyrics are a take on the David and Bathsheba story from the Bible, twisted in Thompson’s hands: “We’re apin’, rapin’, tapin’ catharsis, you get torn down and I get erected”. The demo version was a mere 90 seconds and the album cut features only 61 words.
Did you know?
Doolittle was originally set to be titled Whore, but that name was dropped because “it was too strong” even for Thompson.
18. Levitate Me (Come On Pilgrim, 1987)
One of the eight selections plucked from the band’s 1987 demo the Purple Tape, Come On Pilgrim’s closing track was among the first songs Thompson played to Santiago, who recognised “it was definitely not standard stuff”. Gill Norton, who would later produce Doolittle, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde, thought it sounded like a “punk version of Supertramp”, while Santiago remembers trying to emulate Blue Oyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper in the descending five-note phrase at the end. In reality, Levitate Me is nothing like Supertramp or Blue Oyster Cult. Santiago’s thundering tremolo-picked riff on the bottom E burrows through the verses, sounding “like a helicopter”, while Thompson’s “levitate me” line is paired with unhinged minor-second dissonance against the G♯ chord. A lot of the jagged otherworldliness that makes Come On Pilgrim such a captivating and terrifying listen is present here.
Did you know?
The Purple Tape was recorded in six days, costing $1,000 leant to the band by Thompson’s father. Surfer Rosa cost $10,000, with producer Steve Albini paid a flat fee of $1,500.
17. Cecilia Ann (Bossanova, 1990)
Pixies kicked off their more polished and varied third album with a Surftones cover. The seismic crash that introduces the song will be familiar to every guitarist, a sample of original co-writer Steve Hoffman giving his Fender Twin a good kick and causing the spring reverb unit to shake. While most fans would opt for either Surfer Rosa or Doolittle, Santiago is on record as saying Bossanova is his favourite Pixies album and the twangy Dick Dale-esque riff that winds through this electrifying instrumental points the way to a subverted surf masterclass from the guitarist. “I guess the reason why we got into surf rock is because we both have guitars, and subconsciously, I suppose, it’s the most interesting way two guitars could react with each other,” Santiago explained. “When we play, I veer off into some other space with a riff or a guitar line that’s not playing the chords, and that lends itself to surf rock.”
Did you know?
Initial sessions for Bossanova at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood had to be wrapped up by 6pm because after that time producer Gil Norton found the studio mixing desk picked up pirate radio stations.
16. Planet Of Sound (Trompe Le Monde, 1991)
By the time of the final album of the first act of the Pixies, Deal’s role in the band had been heavily curtailed, with AllMusic’s Heather Phares calling the record “essentially Black Francis’ solo debut”. Despite being the sound of a fractured group, Trompe Le Monde contains some of Pixies’ most aggressive and outlandish moments. Santiago was more readily embracing effects, and his parts brim with off-kilter noises and barely controlled feedback. His initial double stop bend at the 15th fret explodes out of the speakers, and his simmering sonics and unison bends detonate in the shadows until he crashes into the chorus with a savage chord progression and bluesy pull-offs faintly reminiscent of AC/DC’s Whole Lotta Rosie. Thompson’s voice is drowned in modulation, while 90 seconds in, Santiago executes a sizzling solo with bucketloads of wah, finishing with another wild bend up from the 15th fret of his top E as a plume of feedback builds in the background.
Did you know?
Planet Of Sound was remixed for release as a single and Thompson re-recorded the song for his 2004 solo album Frank Black Francis.
15. Vamos (Surfer Rosa, 1988)
Thompson and Santiago were driven by a desire to kick back against the vapid “typewriting” of 80s hair metal. Vamos, included on both mini-album Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa, is the sound of Santiago “making fun” of over-indulgent guitar solos. Encouraged by Albini to use metal plectrums for additional abrasiveness, the result is a violent collision of dissonant chord shapes, brain-melting lead excursions, uncontrolled feedback and pick scrapes, as Thompson yelps and gurgles in Spanish and English. Santiago told us in 2018: “The flashes of memory I have are being in a little side room with my little Peavey amp. I remember throwing things at the guitar, I want to say they were tennis balls.” Check out the live footage from the Surfer Rosa 30th anniversary shows at London’s Roundhouse venue of Santiago using his guitar lead as a slide, then milking ear-splitting white noise from the unplugged cable, before plugging back in, swinging his Goldtop over his shoulder and playing it down his spine.
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14. Dig For Fire (Bossanova, 1990)
Les Paul convert Santiago had added a Black Beauty to his collection ahead of recording Pixies’ third album, along with a 1965 ES-345, which he frequently uses for this song live. Released as a single in October 1990, Thompson drolly described Dig For Fire as a “bad Talking Heads imitation”. It’s certainly one of the most radio-friendly and of-its-time entries in Pixies’ catalogue, and Thompson contributes some of his most orthodox yet evocative lyrics, singing wistfully in the second verse: “There is this old man who has spent so much of his life sleeping/ that he is able to keep awake for the rest of his years”. The two guitars are locked in melodic conversation throughout, Thompson’s scratchy muted funk rhythms and a nagging G-string riff tangling with Santiago’s surfy patterns, all underpinned by Lovering’s none-more-80s stadium-rock drum sound. Deal played a Music Man StingRay for its “lazy growl”. The song reaches its high point in the penultimate E/F♯/D chorus, Santiago summoning a beautifully lyrical solo that repeats the vocal melody.
Did you know?
Pixies were the support act for the first leg of U2’s Zoo TV tour in 1992, further stoking tensions between Thompson and Deal ahead of the band’s eventual break-up the following year.
13. Caribou (Come On Pilgrim, 1987)
Another selection plucked from the Purple Tape for inclusion on Come On Pilgrim, Caribou is one of Thompson’s all-time favourite Pixies tracks, although he confessed to NME to having “absolutely no memory of writing” it. The mini-album opener begins with the slow, aggressive attack of Thompson’s Spaghetti Western double stop riff and raked Am/E/C/D chords before settling into a 6/8 swing, a relative calm prevailing in the verses, which alternate between G and Cm chords, punctuated by Santiago’s spearing riff centred around a 12th-fret G. The chorus explodes into life, both guitarists thrashing through the serrated barre chords and Thompson screaming “REPENT” before Santiago departs for a piercing seven-second solo, bending the 13th fret of his top E wildly. “It kind of runs the whole gamut of things that we do with music,” says Thompson of a song he’s suggested is about reincarnation and animalism.
Did you know?
After leaving Pixies, drummer Lovering became a magician, occasionally performing as an opening act for Frank Black & The Catholics.
12. Velouria (Bossanova, 1990)
Somehow, amid all the animosity and exhaustion that dogged the Bossanova sessions, Pixies managed to turn in one of their most complete performances on this single. Burnt out from the “Fuck or fight” Doolittle tour, Thompson was under-prepared, scribbling his lyrics on napkins prior to takes. Yet he nailed this peculiar love song that references the “Rosicrucians of 1920s San Jose California”. Both guitars are tuned up half a step, and the growling distorted intro is a brilliant example of the push and pull of Santiago and Thompson’s irregular song structures, dropping additional notes into the rising F/F♯/Bb/B progression. Santiago’s wailing double stop riff joins in, before Thompson delivers the wonderfully odd opening line “hold my head, we’ll trampoline”. Deal’s propulsive bassline carries the sparse verses, with the intro chords returning in a devotional chorus and the final section elevated by Santiago’s stop-start phrase on the low E and A, Deal’s cooed harmonies and the ghostly whistle of a theremin. Weezer’s version of the song on 1999 tribute album Where Is My Mind? is Thompson’s favourite Pixies cover.
Did you know?
Pixies were booked to play Velouria on Top Of The Pops, but a BBC rule stated that only songs with a video could be included. The band responded by slowing down and stretching 23 seconds of footage shot in a Manchester quarry, but never appeared on the show.
11. Wave Of Mutilation (Doolittle, 1989)
Another scorching track from Doolittle, with Thompson channelling news stories he’d read about Japanese businessmen committing suicide and taking their families with them by driving off cliffs into the sea. Over Lovering’s echoey skipping snare intro, Thompson plays the chords while Santiago punches out rich octaves. Norton’s painstaking production work paid off, with 10 different lead vocal tracks stacked together for the final version. It’s all over in little more than two minutes. Thompson delivers the wonderfully dreamy couplet “I’ve kissed mermaids, rode the el nino/ walked the sand with the crustaceans”, his “cease to resist” line inspired by The Beach Boys and Charles Manson. Listen out for Santiago’s brief flurry of crying bends introduced in the final 30 seconds.
Did you know?
Kurt Cobain admitted trying to replicate Pixies on Smells Like Teen Spirit, telling Rolling Stone: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies… I should have been in that band – or at least in a Pixies cover band.”
10. Bone Machine (Surfer Rosa, 1988)
After the splashy metallic drum sound captured by Steve Albini and Deal’s subtly suggestive bass, the first we hear of Joey Santiago on Pixies’ full debut is the lacerating riff that enters Bone Machine after 16 seconds. It’s an arresting introduction as Joey plays four stabbing double stops, bends half a step up from a D on the G string, drops to a C and then strikes a dissonant ringing open B. His chorus melody is a classic blues riff in D, followed by a melodic run that underpins Thompson’s “Your bones got a little machine” lyric. Santiago returns for a dizzying six-bar tremolo-picked solo. With its disturbing line about molestation in a parking lot, Thompson explains Bone Machine is about: “Girlfriend. Unfaithfulness. Creepy pastor whose intentions I later questioned. In that order.”
Did you know?
After playing the Hammond organ as a child, the first song Santiago learnt on the guitar was The Velvet Underground’s Rock And Roll.
9. Hey (Doolittle, 1989)
Intimate, vulnerable and brutally affecting, Hey starts out with Thompson’s frustrated “hey, I’ve been trying to meet you” exclamation, before the rusty rhythm guitar enters the picture. Already a gig favourite the band knew their way around well, the album version was recorded live, Thompson cutting the vocal while playing the rhythm guitar part, and Deal answering his anguished howls with her own plaintive “chained” backing vocal. “The only way I could get isolation was to have him in this little cupboard,” says Norton. “He had to have his guitar up towards his head.” Santiago contributes a lovely winding solo, culminating in a series of hot unison bends, as well as a subtle tremolo-picked lead line in the right channel during the final verse. It was nerve-wracking in the studio, recalls Norton: “We get to the solo and I’m just going ‘Come on Joey, just do it, please! This is going to be fantastic’”.
Did you know?
Santiago could have had a different role in Pixies, given the choice by Thompson of playing either lead guitar or bass before Deal, credited initially as Mrs John Murphy, was recruited.
8. Gouge Away (Doolittle, 1989)
Doolittle closes with a retelling of the Old Testament story of Samson, who shorn of hair and his eyes gouged from their sockets, wrought his revenge by pulling down the temple of Dagon. The broiling dynamics on this simple song do justice to the chilling tale, opening from Deal’s tense three-note bassline and a gated reverb on the snare, the antithesis of the hi-fi drum sound dominating radio at the time. Deal’s joined by a palm-muted descending rhythm from Thompson on his Telecaster, Santiago ratcheting up the sense of anticipation as he frets B♭ and C notes then makes a huge bend up from a G#. Sonic fury is unleashed in the second half of the verses, both guitarists chopping out the distorted G♯/B/E chords before falling away to let Thompson’s chorus vocal permeate. It’s utterly scintillating and all over in 2 minutes, 43 seconds.
Did you know?
When asked to headline Coachella festival in 2004, playing directly after Pixies, Radiohead’s Tom Yorke replied “No! That’s just not right! The Pixies opening for us is like The Beatles opening for us. I won’t allow it.”
7. Gigantic (Surfer Rosa, 1988)
Surfer Rosa’s only single is unique in Pixies’ catalogue for being co-written and sung by Kim Deal, inspired by 1986 movie Crimes Of The Heart. It may or may not be about a particularly large penis, but it is Kurt Cobain’s favourite Pixies song, yet Black has claimed credit for its conception, telling Uncut: “I wanted to do a song that didn’t change chords, like Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane. So I just said to Kim, ‘let’s do a song called Gigantic, this is the bass riff, quiet in the verses loud in the choruses’.” Lovering’s drums and Deal’s vocal were recorded in the bathroom at Q Division studio. Deal’s instantly memorable phrase endures all the way through the song, the guitars introduced by howling musical feedback in G, which returns alongside Deal’s “Hey Paul, let’s have a ball…” pre-chorus lyric. The rhythm guitar is all powerchords, and Santiago fires off a ramshackle four-bar solo that sounds constantly in danger of falling apart. A glorious minute-long instrumental section, both guitarists tremolo picking for all they’re worth, carries us home.
Did you know?
As Surfer Rosa lacked any obvious singles, 4AD boss Ivo Watts-Russell asked the band to record an alternate version of Gigantic with Gil Norton, landing the producer the job for Doolittle the following year.
6. Tame (Doolittle, 1989)
Pixies’ loud-quiet dynamic whittled down to its purest three-chord embodiment over 116 seconds of control-and-release fury, Thompson lashing out at “these stupid ass students that live around this neighbourhood”. The singer whispers maliciously over Deal’s probing bassline and Lovering’s snare hits in the verses, before the guitars are unshackled in the choruses, Thompson screaming the song’s title murderously over his D/C/F barre chords as Santiago hammers away at an E7♯9 chord he borrowed from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Purple Haze. “It’s the one where everyone’s hitting three chords and I’m hitting that chord and that’s all I’m hitting,” explains Santiago. “It’s one of those chords that’s either a question mark or an answer. It’s very neutral, but more interesting than a major chord.” Santiago’s discovery of the Hendrix chord “tapped a hidden rage that matched the horror of Thompson’s scream,” writes Ben Sisario, in Doolittle 33 1/3.
Did you know?
Thompson’s live guitar arsenal includes two vintage Telecasters, a 1950s Martin D-28 and D-18 and a 1963 Gibson SG Jr. Santiago favours a ’57 Les Paul Black Beauty, as well as a Goldtop and a 1965 ES-345.
5. Here Comes Your Man (Doolittle, 1989)
The closest Pixies have begrudgingly come to a radio-friendly pop single opens with the band’s own Hard Day’s Night moment. At Downtown Recorders studio in Boston, Thompson and Santiago stacked up guitar parts to produce the dissonant chord strike that introduces the song. Debate rages on fan forums over what exactly the duo played, but the loose consensus is it’s Thompson strumming a D, Santiago a Hendrix-inspired D7♯9 chord, and somewhere in the mix an additional open E ringing out. The band have never been comfortable with the song, deeming it too commercial and rarely playing it live. It was left off both Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa, with Norton battling through countless versions before arriving at the finished cut. Thompson’s acoustic D-G-A chord progression, written on the piano when he was a teenager, is joined by Santiago’s Byrdsy riff, double-tracked on a Rickenbacker 12-string and a Telecaster. With its evocative images of boxcars and endlessly infectious chorus, it was pure hit material, despite the band’s objections. Thompson noted the REM similarities, while referring to Here Comes Your Man as the “Tom Petty song”.
Did you know?
In July 2005, Frank Black released the album Honeycomb, a collaboration with Nashville session players including Steve Cropper, Spooner Oldham, Reggie Young and Anton Fig.
4. The Holiday Song (Come On Pilgrim, 1987)
When Santiago and Thompson placed an ad for a bassist who liked “Husker Du, Peter, Paul and Mary” and specified “please, no chops” early in 1986, Kim Deal was the only applicant, and she agreed to join the band after the duo played her The Holiday Song. It’s not surprising she was drawn in by this two-minute blast of pop perfection that bears its teeth. The opening riff on Come On Pilgrim’s fifth track is one of Santiago’s most memorable. It’s a melodic thrill ride of double stops and a simple phrase based around an A minor shape that arrows straight into your consciousness. Thompson gleefully bashes out the G and F chords as he sings “This ain’t no holiday/ but it always turns out this way” before landing on a D. Despite the gleeful pop overtones, it’s another song that sees Thompson probing his grim fascination with incest: “He took his sister from his head and impregnated her on the sheets”.
Did you know?
Come On Pilgrim is named after the catchphrase of Christian rock singer-songwriter Larry Norman, who Thompson saw play at a religious summer camp when he was a teenager.
3. Monkey Gone To Heaven (Doolittle, 1989)
Thompson was already discussing climate change in 1989, picturing Neptune drowning in “10 million tonnes of sludge from New York and New Jersey” and a gaping hole in the ozone layer burning us all to dust on Doolittle’s first single. Blender magazine called the song, featuring a rare appearance from a strings section, the first “grunge ballad” due to its orchestral flourishes. Four distorted introductory chords (Em/F♯/A/D) give way to a spacious verse in which Arthur Fiacco and Ann Rorich’s cellos swirl elegantly beneath Thompson’s vocal, following another classic Deal bassline. Santiago piles in for the choruses, personifying the wave of pollution Thompson depicts, with the strings section playing on the fly having arrived to find no charts had been drawn up for them. You can just about hear Thompson shouting “Rock me Joe!” before Santiago returns for a euphoric solo lit up by unison bends and accompanied by violins, trailing off into a vicious howl of feedback, Thompson yelling “if man is five, then the devil is six… then God is seven” with murderous intent.
Did you know?
Doolittle charted at No.8 in the UK, where the band were signed to independent label 4AD, while in the US it peaked at No. 98 in the Billboard chart. The album went on to be Platinum certified on both sides of the Atlantic.
2. Debaser (Doolittle, 1989)
“That’s the whole formula of the Pixies, that one song,” says Santiago of Doolittle’s searing opening track. Referencing Salvador Dali’s 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, slicing up eyeballs and all, it’s a murky masterpiece in three sections. Introduced by Deal’s memorable bass hook, Santiago’s performance is electrifying, zipping between a surfy major-scale riff and scorching discordant phrases and double stops higher up the fretboard. Thompson busies himself with the growling syncopated rhythm part in the key of F, his screeched chorus vocal contrasted by Deal’s soothing harmony. The spotlight is thrown once more on Santiago for an incendiary outro section layered up by producer Norton. “I remember having quite a tough time filling those bars at the end,” says Santiago. “That was the only part that stressed me out. But when it was done, Gil said: ‘Wow!’” Thompson was not so impressed, and is said to have wanted to leave Debaser off the album, but was thankfully persuaded otherwise by Norton. An indie disco classic was born.
Did you know?
The titular character in Doolittle’s Crackity Jones was named after a “weird psycho roommate” Thompson had during an exchange programme in Puerto Rico.
1.Where Is My Mind? (Surfer Rosa, 1988)
Surfer Rosa’s seventh track and the song Thompson says pays his mortgage contains Santiago’s favourite Pixies riff – and who are we to argue? Written as Charles strummed the E/C♯m/G♯/A chords in his apartment, while his wife was doing her makeup in the bathroom, the song is about a little fish Thompson met in the Caribbean on a high-school trip. For its writer, it epitomises the band’s loud-quiet dynamic: “There’s something about the major to minor chord shift in the song that resonates,” he told The Guardian. “Sonically, if you had to pick a song to sum up our band, this would be it.” A gripping sense of anticipation is created by Santiago’s churning phrase, switching between eighth and 16th notes at the 4th and 5th frets of his E and B strings, while in the solo he carves out notes from the B minor pentatonic scale over major chords. Albini played his part in the studio by encouraging Santiago away from his Peavey Special and Thompson from his Vox AC30 to use a pair of Marshalls, while Deal’s haunting “oooh” backing vocals were recorded in the bathroom for maximum reverb. Already a huge cult favourite despite never being released as single, the song was delivered to a whole new audience when it featured at the denouement of 1999 box office smash Fight Club.
Did you know?
Deal’s bass on Surfer Rosa was an Aria Pro II Cardinal Series. At Norton’s suggestion, she used a 1962 Fender Precision on Doolittle. Throughout her Pixies career, she played with a plectrum – a green 0.88mm Dunlop.