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Sunday, February 5, 2023

How Pixies inspired a new era of David Bowie

Since forming in 1986, Pixies have been hugely influential in the alternative music scene. Artists such as Pavement, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, U2, Alice in Chains, The Strokes and Arcade Fire have all cited the band as a significant source of inspiration. Furthermore, Kurt Cobain declared Pixies’ debut Surfer Rosa as the album that made him “finally admit that I’m a music lover”. In fact, Cobain even took his admiration for the band one step further by attempting to replicate their sound on ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. The Nirvana frontman once shared: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off Pixies.” 

However, while all the aforementioned names remain impressive, Pixies also profoundly affected an artist who had been creating music since the 1960s. David Bowie, one of the biggest rockstars in the world, dubbed Pixies one of the greatest bands of the 1980s. After discovering the group in 1988 upon the release of Surfer Rosa, Bowie stated that Pixies were “just about the most-compelling music outside of Sonic Youth in the entire 1980s. I always thought there was a psychotic Beatles in them.” 

When Bowie hit a creative wall, disillusioned by the failure of 1987’s Never Let Me Down and the Glass Spider Tour, the musician sought to return to making music solely for himself. He met Reeves Gabrels, the husband of one of the tour’s press staff, initially unaware that he was also a musician. The two struck up a friendship, and Bowie shared that he felt he had “lost his vision”. The pair decided to collaborate, creating Tin Machine with brothers Tony Fox Sales and Hunt Sales, who had previously performed with Bowie and Iggy Pop in the 1970s. 

During this period, Bowie cited Pixies as one of his biggest influences. Furthermore, according to Gabrels, Bowie also told him: “I need somebody that can do a combination of Beck, Hendrix, Belew and Fripp, with a little Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King thrown in. Then, when I’m not singing, you take the ball and do something with it, and when you hand the ball back to me, it might not even be the same ball.” To pay homage to their influences, Tin Machine covered ‘Debaser’ by Pixies at their 1991 Wolverhampton gig. Bowie also included a cover of the band’s song ‘Cactus’ on his 2002 LP Heathen. 

During an interview with the Rockstar, Bowie once detailed his love for the American rockers. He praised their “dynamic of keeping the verse extremely quiet and then erupting into a blaze of noise for the choruses.” Furthermore, he praised lead singer Black Francis’ lyricism and how “the permutations he created within the different subjects that he dealt with were so unusual that it caught my ear immediately. […] It’s done so effortlessly, and it’s done with such a sense of fun and enthusiasm; there’s a great sense of humour underlying everything [Francis] does.” 

Bowie labelled guitarist Joey Santiago as “underrated”, capable of supplying “extraordinary texture” to the songs. He also stated: “It’s a cliche, but 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.”

Tin Machine released two albums, Tin Machine and Tin Machine II, alongside a live album, Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby, before dissolving in 1992. According to Bowie, the project helped to revive his solo career, which he resumed in 1993 with the electronic-influenced Black Tie White Noise. Without the transformative influence of Pixies, who knows where Bowie would’ve ended up in the late 1980s and early 1990s?

Check out Bowie discussing Pixies below, as well as Tin Machine covering ‘Debaser’, below/

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