Once upon a time in America, college radio was THE vital ingredient in breaking new bands of the post-rock disposition.
REM, U2, The Cure and The Smiths enjoyed heavy rotation on the hundreds of student run university and college campus radio stations spanning the country. Commercial radio programmers who kept an ear on the underground subsequently tried out these acts on AOR and Top Forty stations and this soon resulted in a ‘modern rock’ / ‘alternative rock’ take-over.
In the late eighties I was Program Director of WNYU, one of the country’s most significant college rock stations due to our location in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village and our transmitter’s wide tri-borough area reach that ensured a listenership of over 100,000 non-student listeners. I was a host on our daily afternoon drive show, The New Afternoon Show, a three-hour program that featured what we deemed to be the best in new music: bands like Butthole Surfers, The Sugarcubes, Nurse With Wound, Nick Cave and of course, Pixies.
Pixies debut album ‘Surfer Rosa’ was a college rock stalwart and featured heavily on The New Afternoon Show’s playlist along with its producer, Steve Albini, whose abrasive chain-saw sound was showcased in his own acts such as Big Black. Although there was a similar sonic sensibility between Albini’s own music and the Boston band he produced, there was a major gulf in terms of the song writing as unlike Albini, Black Francis was able to pen the perfect pop song.
One could hear the kernels of great pop songs on ‘Surfer Rosa’ but the production often obscured it even if it wonderfully embodied the band’s live energy. The sound was exemplary of the college rock sound but it would have ended there had producer Gil Norton not been brought in to redo the song ‘Gigantic’ which was then released as the album’s first single. Norton’s history was mired in the poppy post-punk of Echo & The Bunnymen and new wave of OMD and he was introduced to Pixies when in Boston producing their 4AD label-mates Throwing Muses. The recipe worked and Norton was enlisted to produce their sophomore effort ‘Doolittle’.
With its more polished production that aptly highlighted Pixies’ trademark stop/start and loud/quiet dynamics, ‘Doolittle’ became the band’s big breakthrough. The dissonance and feedback were still there but this time it was more balanced and the songs shone through. Norton and Francis spent a lot of time on the arrangements during pre-production ensuring the songs worked on a sole acoustic guitar before adding the other elements. With the essentials worked out, in the studio they were able to focus on getting the best live performance down on tape.
Although there is more of a sophisticated sheen with the use of compression and reverb, overall studio trickery such as overdubs and effects were kept to a minimum. They wanted to keep the songs ‘portable’ so that the band could play the songs live in keeping with the album’s sound. However, there is one song on which they did break with the brief by adding another element.
‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ was the first single to be released from the album and best encapsulates the album’s mash of pop, punk and surf-rock. In the song Black Francis speaks of ecological disaster and explores themes of environmentalism and divinity with imagery that deploys Hebrew numerology. This is accomplished in less than three minutes.
It is the only song on the album with guest musicians as it features a string section. Norton got the idea to add two cellos and two violins when bassist Kim Deal began picking the strings of the studio’s grand piano. The strings are subtly mixed in and enhance and embellish the song’s beauty.
The song is a balance of dynamic: heavy themes examined in a playful manner, Black Francis’ screeching lead vocal juxtaposed against Deal’s smooth and sensual BVs, the full-throttle power intro and chorus balanced against the songs sparse guitar-less verses, the clean full bass sound contrasting the firebrand guitar and the attack of a toy snare set against a full weighty kick.
It is this brave dynamic that gives ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ its impact. When I first played the song on WNYU, I could sense the band were going places and that they wouldn’t remain a big fish in a little pond for long. When ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ did get its due commercial radio airplay it jumped out of the speakers, especially when played next to the over-produced banalities that permeated late-eighties heavy rotation. Pixies got the balance right and we college radio purveyors of the underground could still claim Pixies as our own while being happily reminded that sometimes cream does rise to the top.
Classic Album Sundays pays tribute to The Pixies massively influential album with listening sessions of Dolittle
Date: 6th April – SOLD OUT
Time: 5 – 8pm
Address: The Hanbury Arms, 33 Linton Street, London N1 7DU
Ticket information: SOLD OUT
Date: 13th April
Time: 5 – 8pm
Address: The Panther Room at Output, 74 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11249
Tickets: $10 on the door, $10 + service charge here
If you can’t make this event, grab a decent copy, turn the lights off and listen in full at home.