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'Cannonball' by The Breeders is the ultimate quiet/loud song [August 15, 1993]
Plus: Bitty McLean, The Pogues, and The Boo Radleys
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to August 15, 1993!
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Living On My Own’ by Freddie Mercury, but let’s turn our attention to this week’s Number 40…
The Breeders, ’Cannonball’
1993 saw a bunch of hit singles that followed the indie pattern of (small quiet verse) followed by BIG LOUD CHORUS.
The biggest hit of the kind was Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, although the most dramatic version of this song structure was on PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me, where the title track has whispered verses and screamed choruses.
Nirvana returned in 1993 with their third album In Utero, which was packed with quiet/loud songs like ‘Heart Shaped Box’, following on from their quiet/loud megahit for the ages, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
Cobain credited one particular band for inspiring Nirvana’s experiments with the quiet/loud dynamic. In fact, he pinpointed one song as his chief inspiration…
It’s a song that starts with a gentle bassline, a faint howl, and then Kim Deal, purring, “And this I know, his teeth as white as snow…”
Spitting in a wishing well
A quick history of The Pixes:
Early 80s Boston, and U-Mass student Joey Santiago befriends the weirdo in the neighbouring dorm room, a man by the name of Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV. The two bond over a shared musical aesthetic and start jamming together. After Kittridge drops out of college, the two decide to form a band.
Kittridge and Santiago put an ad in the local paper looking for a female bass player (because Talking Heads had a female bass player) who was a fan of both Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary. One of the respondents is Kim Deal. Deal does not bring her bass to the audition because Deal does not own a bass, and she does not know how to play bass. Kittridge admires her gumption and invites her into the band.
They pick the name Pixies at random from the dictionary, enjoying the typographic appeal of the word and the fact that it means “mischievous little elves”. They neglect to confirm if they will be known as Pixies or The Pixies, which will lead to decades of debate among sub-editors. Kittridge changes his name to Black Francis, later becoming Frank Black.
The first Pixies’ LP, Surfer Rosa, is recorded in 1987 and contains what will eventually become their best-known song, ‘Where Is My Mind’. It is also an 11/10 masterpiece. Despite this, Surfer Rosa mostly flops—not uncommon for avant-garde indie bands.
The only ray of light is the album’s lead single, ‘Gigantic’, the only song with Kim Deal on lead vocals. It gets enough attention for people to really start noticing The Pixies.
And here’s where we get into a lot of the he-said/she-said part of Pixies history, with everyone accusing each other of being monsters. The common belief is that Black hated the fact that Deal was stealing his thunder; Black mostly denies the rumoues.
Here are a few concrete facts about what we know about ‘Gigantic’:
Frank Black dismisses the idea that ‘Gigantic’ invented quiet/loud rock songs, and claims he was mostly just trying to copy Sisters of Mercy.
Pixies associate Colin Wallace once said, “‘Gigantic’? Fucking hell, Charles hated that, because it was the one everyone used to shout for. Even though he co-wrote it, he was still seething, because everyone loved Kim. You could see when she was singing it, he’d just turn away.”
In 1992, Kurt Cobain said, “I wish Kim was allowed to write more songs for The Pixies, because 'Gigantic' is the best Pixies song, and Kim wrote it."
Whatever the truth of it all, Deal was mostly relegated to backing vocals and Black took over all of the songwriting.
The Pixies’ peak years were filled with tension between Black and Deal, a lot of which boiled down to one core issue: Kim wanted to have a more creative role, and Frank wouldn’t let her.
In 1990, Deal befriended Tanya Donnelly, who was also struggling with life in the shadow of her band’s lead singer (Kristen Hersch of Throwing Muses). The pair joined up with Kim’s twin sister, Kelley Deal, and recorded the album Pod under the name of The Breeders.
A year later, The Pixies recorded their final album, Trompe Le Monde. The band mostly worked apart from each other, and Kim’s involvement is minimal at best. Trompe Le Monde was released on September 21, 1991, a pivotal day in music history that saw a bunch of genre-defining albums appearing simultaneouldy, including the all-time masterpiece…
The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest.
Oh, and also Nirvana’s Nevermind.
In the shade, in the shade
The fact that the final Pixies record appeared on the same day as Nevermind just emphasises how much of their sound is in alt-rock’s DNA. Grunge seemed to hatch out of The Pixies, like a butterfly or a xenomorph.
Meanwhile, The Pixies themselves seemed to vanish. Frank Black went to work on his own solo album, then casually announced during a 1993 radio interview that The Pixies had broken up (he later phoned Joey Santiago to tell him; Deal was notified by fax).
The general expectation was that Frank Black would be the one to find post-Pixies success. After all, he had been the main creative force behind one of history’s greatest bands, so he should have no problem creating a strong solo LP.
Frank Black by Frank Black appeared in early 1993, and it was…really good! There are some very strong tracks in there, including a terrific cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘Hang Onto Your Ego’.
However, Frank Black by Frank Black did not set the world on fire. It is not as seminal as Surfer Rosa, and it does not have a song as irresistible as ‘Gigantic’. Black’s career afterwards is somewhat similar to Morrissey’s, with great solo records that aren’t quite good enough to make you stop wishing he’d reform his old band.
Meanwhile in Ohio…
The bong in this reggae song
Tanya Donnelly had left The Breeders to start her own band, Belly (who also released a very fine debut album in 1993). The new-look Breeders were now Kim and Kelley Deal, plus drummer Jim McPherson and English bassist Josephine Wiggs.
The Breeders were working on their second album, Last Splash, when Black announced the end of The Pixies. According to Kim:
“I was in the studio literally recording ‘Cannonball’ when Kelley came down the hallway and said, “Pixies broke up”. I said, ‘OK, get out of my way,’”
Nobody expected ‘Cannonball’ to be a hit, including Kim Deal herself. She originally called the song ‘Grunggae’ because of its oddball blend of alt-rock and reggae. (Reggae was in fashion in 1993, but not like this.)
It sounds like nothing else before or since. Everything about it is bizarre, from the ridiculously long intro (the first vocal appears after 48 seconds), the shrill whistle during the intro, the loose-limbed bass riff that occasionally sounds like Happy Mondays, the impenetrable lyrics (“Want you! Cuckoo! Cannonball!”).
Despite this, it went on to become one of the biggest alt-rock hits of the year. The video, directed by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and a fresh-faced Spike Jonze, saw heavy rotation on MTV. NME and Melody Maker voted it Single Of The Year. It became a permanent fixture on indie disco playlist. Like ‘Gigantic’, it is one of the most beloved quiet/loud songs of all time.
If you view the history of The Pixies as a bitter war between Black Francis and Kim Deal, then ‘Cannonball’ probably confirms Deal as the winner. ‘Cannonball’ is a rare unicorn: the catchy and popular pop hit that’s also a genuinely great song; the bounce of ‘Gigantic’ meets the ingenuity of ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’.
Alternatively, it might be proof that Kurt Cobain was right and it’s a shame that Deal and Black didn’t write more songs together. Another alternative: the tension between Deal and Black is what made The Pixies so special, and ‘Cannonball’ is the sound of that tension being released.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number 3 ↑] Bitty McClean, ‘It Keeps Rainin (Tears From My Eyes’
The Year of Reggae continues with this quite pleasant version of an old Fats Domino song. Good vibes.
[Number 12 ↑] Sarah Washington, ‘I Will Always Love You’
The era of deranged novelty dance tracks in the Top 40 is now over. We’ll never get another ‘Sesame’s Treat’, thankfully, but we’ll also never get another ‘Poing’.
Now, we enter an era of a fairly dismal era of dance-flavoured cover versions. There were millions of these in the mid-90s. Some were entertainingly bananas (like the Europop version of Cranberries’ ‘Zombie’), but most were just plain boring.
This is one of the boring ones.
[Number 21, New] The Pogues, ‘Tuesday Morning’
Spider Stacy’s time as the lead singer of The Pogues (following Shane MacGowan’s ejection) is generally regarded as a disaster, but ‘Tuesday Morning’ was their only Top 20 hit apart from ‘Fairytale of New York’, so maybe it wasn’t that bad?
‘Tuesday Morning’ is a pretty good song without being brilliant—and that’s the problem with post-MacGowan The Pogues. They’re a very solid band with a knack for mixing trad music with New Wave. But MacGowan is a mad alchemist who can turn pretty good records into masterpieces.
[Number 29 ↓] Juliet Roberts, ‘Caught In The Middle’
A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the unfortunate coincidence of Us3 and Oui 3 existing at the same time. If you think that’s hard though, imagine being named Juliet Roberts in the early 90s. Even today, Google will include Pretty Woman and Erin Brockovich in Juliet’s search results.
Anyway, this is a neat little house record. Fun times.
[Number 36 ↓] Jamiroquai, ‘Emergency On Planet Earth’
The kids have this new internet meme called The Hat Man, a mysterious figure who appears in your doorway when you drink too much cough syrup and get sleep paralysis.
Older folks know: that’s not The Hat Man. That’s Jamiriquai.
Album of the Week
The Boo Radleys, Giant Steps
“For 64 minutes, they were the greatest band on the planet,” reads one retrospective review of Giant Steps. It’s not clear whether that means that The Boo Radleys squandered their potential, or that they got lucky on Giant Steps. Maybe it’s a little of both.
The Boo Radleys came into Giant Steps off the back of their quite good debut, Everything Alright Forever. The plan was pretty grand: not just to make a record, but to make something like The Beatles’ white album—an epic, ambitious montage of huge ideas.
And from the first riffs of opening track ‘I Hang Suspended’, it sounds like they might pull it off.
Giant Steps is mostly borrows influences from the 60s, adding a bit of grungey scuzz to give it a 90s feel. The result often feels like a blueprint for the future of Britpop, with songs like ‘If You Want It Take It’ and ‘Barney and Me’ providing clear inspiration for Oasis (although Sice is a sweeter vocalist than Liam G).
On top of that, there’s a huge layer of experimentation, like the crazy horn section on ‘Butterfly McQueen’, reggae beats on ‘Upon 9th and Fairchild’, and the extremely white album-ey structure of ‘Thinking Of Ways’.
All of this comes together on the centerpiece of the album—and The Boo Radleys’ discography—the epic single, ‘Lazarus’.
The difference between “good” and “great” is often a matter of opinion, but I think ‘Lazarus’ clears the boundary with ease. It’s the ambition of early Verve with the songwriting craft of Blur. It’s really something.
The Boo Radleys ended up as Britpop also-rans, which is a shame when you hear what they’re capable of. Giant Steps might not quite be the sound of “the greatest band on the planet”, but it is one of the most interesting and exciting records to appear in 1993.
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