A week or so ago I received an email from Pixies’ mailing list. This was monumental enough in and of itself because I have been on Pixies’ mailing list for approximately a million years, and they send somewhere in the region of 2.2 emails a year, if that. The email was about their first new material in nine years, ‘Bagboy’, which in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, I’ll post here, because it has honestly been traveling through cyberspace faster than TRON (apologies to any sci-fi purists who don’t think this is an adequate or correct use of a TRON metaphor).
I then received another (!) email informing me that Pixies would be touring and that tickets were on sale NOW, prompting me to leap out of bed and straight onto my computer. Turns out they were going on sale for their London show the next morning at 9am, so I set two alarms, and bagged three tickets, financially bankrupting and culturally enlightening myself in the process. (Cue massive confirmation email anxiety.) By the time I’d satisfied myself that I had got the tickets, and my account had been charged, the show had long sold out. By my calculations, that means it took about three minutes for 5000 tickets to completely sell out. I mean, actually think about that. That is totally insane. Not only did the world of commuters (some of whom must surely be Pixies fans) have to be organised enough to get online at a really awkward time, but another 4997 people must have predicted how big the demand must have been, and refused to take any chances. Obviously, I wouldn’t have set two alarms and sat refreshing Gigsandtours.com for ten minutes if I hadn’t at least suspected that the tickets would sell out quickly, but 5000 tickets in under three minutes? That is truly impressive.
It’s an undeniable truth that Pixies are one of the most influential bands to grace the world with their music, and I’m not here to list all of the artists, both major label and independent, who’ve expressed explicit admiration for the four piece. I’ve made a little example diagram instead, as is my way, which illustrates a couple of major ‘influencees’ and how the trickle-down influence relation works:
Perhaps the best way to think about each arrow relation is as follows: if x hadn’t been influenced by y, then x wouldn’t have made the music that they did.* For example, if Nirvana hadn’t been influenced by Pixies, then Nirvana wouldn’t have made the music that they did, and if Nirvana hadn’t made the music that they did, then they wouldn’t have influenced say, Green Day, and so Green Day wouldn’t have made the music that they did and not influenced whoever they influenced, and so on.
*Note that I’m not claiming that they wouldn’t have made music full stop. I’m only claiming that they wouldn’t have made the particular music that they did – the influence relation is a subtle one and works in mysterious ways, and while I don’t claim to entirely understand how it works, I think it’s fair to assume that the absence of one influence is reflected in what’s being influenced.
But, let me be clear, I’m not here to talk about the Pixies because I love them and have a clearly very biased outlook on their musical outputs. I’m here to talk about them because they’re an excellent case study for how the independent realm can be more powerful than its accessible mainstream sibling.
Pixies, in many respects, are the independent paradigm (if there can be such a thing): ahead of their time and whose songs discuss unsavory topics (alien abduction, incest, Mexican prostitutes), completely unlike anybody else, completely ignored by the mainstream and only capable of finding an audience (albeit a small, niche one) on another continent, emphasizing of a raw DIY ethic, totally unglamorous (not necessary for independent artists but often correlative) and of course, not only ignored by major labels, but actively shunned.
Still, it’s hard to find any act which could feasibly sit within the ‘alternative’ category who doesn’t claim to be influenced by them. Their ‘Loud, Quiet, Loud’ dynamics single-handedly redefined the rules for rock music, and perhaps more importantly, they redefined these rules for the mainstream. Every record they made said “Hey, you, kid in band: major labels won’t tell you that you can do this in your music, but guess what? You can. We’re doing it right now and it sounds awesome, so what are you waiting for?!”
If you don’t believe me, then please believe David Bowie: “[Pixies] changed the format for delivering harder rock.” Thank you, Dave, I couldn’t have put it better myself.
And just in case you missed that last bit: “Somebody once said that The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many albums, but everybody who bought a Velvet Underground album formed a band, and I would have to suggest that the same thing really applied to the Pixies.”
In some cases, the cult can yield more power than the mainstream, even though we typically think of the mainstream as an all-powerful dictator, unstoppable and always dominant. The best the independent sector can ever aspire to becoming is a powerful underdog, but always an underdog. This is just patently false, though.
If the mainstream thinks it can resist the power of the cult and independent it is much mistaken. Let’s think of the mainstream as some stereotypical popular kid at school: they never feel threatened by misfits, even those who have power, because the misfits only have power over other misfits, and the mainstream doesn’t want to yield influence over those weirdos anyway, why would they? The truth, though, is never like that. Powerful misfits have great influence over the mainstream. They always have. Their greatest defense is that they keep it secret and Pixies are a great example of this phenomenon. Obviously, there are a million other examples, but given their current status as a hot topic, and my dear love of them, I decided to discuss them. I could’ve picked one of numerous other independent acts, though.
Most people had never heard of Pixies until ten or so years ago. Nirvana? Everyone knows who they are, and what was it that Kurt Cobain famously told Rolling Stone magazine in 1994 about ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’? Oh yeah, this:
“I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.”
The truth is independent acts don’t seek influence or power, but often enough they end up with it; it’s just not acknowledged. The best leaders are often those who don’t want leadership, like politicians: the best ones are those who do it despite the lifestyle, not those who want the power and glory.
The chain of Influence works in mysterious ways – that much is true, but if you’re not convinced that the independent has more power over the mainstream than the mainstream, then allow me to take Pixies as my paradigm (as ever) and give you three artists who definitely couldn’t have existed without them, artists for whom a key element of their appeal was derived directly from something pioneered by the Pixies. This is not just people who were influenced by Pixies. These are artists who got popular because something they learned from the Pixies (whether directly or indirectly) was exactly what people liked about their music, or they got popular because some action within the music-making process was made possible only by the work the Pixies did.
1. Obviously, Nirvana
Seriously, listen to this:
2. The White Stripes
Where would The White Stripes be without Pixies’ unique mastery of artfully not being able to play their instruments? For many, Nirvana signaled the end of overblown stadium rock nonsense and guitar solos, and had the Pixies not existed, Nirvana never would have kicked hair metal to the kerb. WE COULD HAVE BEEN STUCK WITH IT FOREVER. Luckily, we never had to face that reality and bands like The White Stripes, neither of whom really care how well they’re playing their instruments, can just make their music and get on with it. Sometimes trying to get good at something hinders productivity. Pixies played music without being musical geniuses, making it OK for Nirvana to do the same. Nirvana got crazy famous and suddenly it became OK for lots of people to play badly. If Pixies hadn’t existed, The White Stripes would still be learning their scales and arpeggios right now.
3. PJ Harvey
Surfer Rosa was the album that defined legendary producer Steve Albini’s signature production sound. If he hadn’t produced that album, he may never have produced another, let alone the many brilliant albums he did go on to produce. One such album was ‘Rid of Me’, which contains the scuzzy production and textured guitar that Pixies made room for. These sounds would not have been possible without Surfer Rosa. Just categorically, they couldn’t have been. Just no. Sorry.
Anyway, I’ll leave you with a quote from Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead guitarist, composer and all-round musical genius:
“It’s what the Pixies always said about music – they were writing songs and just trying not to be boring. That was their main motivation and it worked for them. I remember reading that and thinking that was the way to do it.”
Pixies will always embody the independent spirit, and this is due in no small part to the fact that they never set out to pave the way for other independent artists, nor did they set out to infiltrate mainstream musical consciousness. Independent artists will always try stuff out before anyone else and when something ‘works’, that’s when the mainstream starts to pay attention. The power of independent music and its fans lies in their collective understanding of right and wrong. For us, there is no wrong (or right) – there can be boring, or tried-and-tested, but we’ll pay attention to things even if the mainstream thinks they’re not working. Until mainstream music learns that there is no right or wrong, it’ll always be one step behind, and the independent realm will always be able to take comfort in the knowledge that it’s actually more powerful than its very vocal cousin.