Saturday, 29 March 2014

50 albums to take to my grave #2: Doolittle

Music will always present you with a new ‘first’. Your first record, your first gig, your first slow dance; everyone has these. But there are a lot of less obvious ‘firsts’ that many never experience. How about your first jawdropper? The first time you heard something that literally made you stop in awe and think: “Holy crap! What the hell is this?” Sometimes these are bad, but I’ve been fortunate to have had two or three great jawdropping moments, and my first occurred when I was about 19.

The NME used to publish various charts. The most relevant to me at the time were the Indie charts, which only featured records released on independent labels. One particular week in 1990, the indie albums chart was dominated by one band, who held the top three slots.

That band was Pixies.

All I knew about Pixies at the time was they were American and I owned a 7” EP that was given away with an issue of Sounds featuring two of their tracks[1]. On seeing that chart, I knew I had to check this band out, so on a hunch, I nipped into my nearest record stockist[2]  and bought that number one album ‘Doolittle’.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, this record would change my life!

Never in my life had I heard anything quite like ‘Doolittle’. Just the opening track gave me goosebumps, shivers and *whomp!* that first jawdropping moment. Debaser's first few seconds - Kim Deal’s simple bass intro – are innocent enough, but when Joey Santiago’s searing guitar kicks in, you know there’s no going back. But what really did it for me was Black Francis’ vocals. No restrained build up for him – oh no. It was a full on howl from the moment he opened his mouth.


The chorus took it to another level: “I am une CHIEN Andalucia!” repeated four times, with each ‘CHIEN’ accentuated by multi-tracked yells. I had absolutely no idea what the hell he was going on about[3] but I was now officially a Pixies fan. That song, to this day, turns me into a gibbering wreck. Whenever it comes on, just forget about even trying to talk to me for three minutes; I’m gone.

When Debaser ended, I remember simply muttering a dismayed “Fuck…” to myself.  But before I had the chance to pick my jaw off the floor, Tame began. If I thought the opener was intense, then this was just off the scale. Francis’ terrifying screams of “Taaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaame” throughout the song’s conclusion sounded like he was possessed. Forget Janet Leigh in ‘Psycho’, Black Francis nailed the blood-curdling shriek in this moment.

There was respite – the unashamedly pop stylings of Here Comes Your Man gave one room to breathe, and Kim Deal’s spaghetti-western slow-burner Silver lent an eerie swampy sound to the proceedings. But overall, ‘Doolittle’ was the most intense thing I had ever heard.  

The thing is, ‘Doolittle’ covers so much ground in its 15 songs, you come out of it feeling exhausted, yet at barely 38 minutes in length it is somewhat brief. That’s not a criticism – on the contrary, it is exactly as long as it needs to be. There is no filler, and every single second of it exists because it needs to. It bristles with energy and tension throughout. The variety it offers is not so obvious on first listen, but it is rich with sounds, textures, rhythms and tempos. Check out, for example:

  - The twangy surf guitar on Wave of Mutilation
  - The warped reggae skank of Mr. Grieves;
  - The classy plucked strings and bowed cello on Monkey Gone to Heaven;
  - Dave Lovering’s seldom-heard baritone voice on La La Love You;
  - The band’s trademark quietLOUDquiet structure of the scorching closer Gouge Away.

‘Doolittle’ is, in my opinion, the closest thing to a perfect record I have ever heard/will ever hear. Very little has even come close to matching it. And it hasn’t dated. For a record released 25 years ago, it remains remarkably fresh. Perhaps it is because it was so far ahead of its time in 1989, time just hasn’t caught up with it yet. Or maybe so many artists and bands continue to be heavily influenced by it, it is as though ‘Doolittle’ is as relevant as anything released today. It’s certainly far better than 99.9% of things released today could ever dream of being. I want to die to this record.


[1] Demos of Rock-a-My Soul and Down to the Well which originally featured on the band’s demo ‘The Purple Tape’, but remained officially unreleased for a number of years.
[2] At the time, this was upstairs in the Tuck Shop in Torrington, which I have to say had a pretty decent selection and a top-notch ordering service.
[3] Surrealist movies, as it turns out.


  1. Try as I might, I have never really gotten into either The Pixies or Throwing Muses. I probably shouldn't lump them together, but I get the same "meh" reaction to their work, and these days their members seem sort of interchangeable. I used to think I just had an issue with American bands, being a devout Anglophile, but I realize that isn't it. I get that they had a great deal of impact on listeners, but I think I was still very much living in my post punk world of bands who grabbed me from 78 - 83.

    1. I guess it's a matter of timing. I was discovering all kinds of amazing new music around the late 80s-early 90s - R.E.M., Pixies, Muses etc - and my life at the time was extremely challenging. The fact these bands offered something completely different at a time when I needed some form of escape may be one of the reasons I still hold them in such high regard.

      Or maybe I'm completely wrong about that. Either way, I'm sorry Echorich - this is Pixies week on Is This The Life? The love-in starts here...

    2. I thoroughly get it Robster - I would need a hour to list the number of bands that I love that NO ONE thinks worthy of written words, much less a second listen. I have to say that they sparked some interest when singles were released, but the albums never moved me. R.E.M. is one of those bands I loved until a certain period and then they became a singles band. R.E.M. lost a lot of what was special about them when they broke through on the charts and MTV. It's funny how many bands are important to me until they become important to everyone else. Guess it's a pitfall of fandom.