Music Features

20 Years Of Noise

Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV, aka Black Francis, aka Frank Black is simultaneously my hero and my nemesis, my own private genius and my worst nightmare; a source of both slack-jawed wonder and crushing frustration. This man's contribution to what has come to be called alternative rock began twenty years ago and although this year's model is significantly different to the wiry, slightly spooked-looking, tender youth of 1987, the contribution is still significant and fascinating.

But it wasn't always so. Charles Thompson has had more makeovers and rapid shifts in direction than David Bowie has had hot dinners, and like the Thin White Duke, not all of them have been an unbridled success. However, our story begins in a time different to our own. A long time ago (1986) in Boston, Massachusetts (far, far away from me, at least) Thompson dropped out of U.Mass to form a rock band. They were to be inspired as much by Hüsker Dü as Peter, Paul & Mary and they came with one proviso - for Charles to vindicate his career choice, they had to be better than a trip to New Zealand to watch Halley's comet. Joined by Filipino room-mate Joey Santiago, Thompson placed the now infamous advert for a bassist willing to profess a likeness for the two previous bands. The sole respondent was one Kim Deal, and after recruiting, at Kim's recommendation, David Lovering, the Pixies - or rather, Pixies, for at the time it was noted that there was not even a friendly "the" to tame them - were born.

If you were a hip kid in those days, you would be listening closely to what the legendary Ivo Watts had to say. After all, this was the man responsible for unleashing the likes of Throwing Muses, Cocteau Twins and the like on the world via his label, 4AD. The Pixies didn't really fit into the label's swirly, ethereal aesthetic but nonetheless Watts was sufficiently swayed by their original recordings to release them straight away as debut mini, Come On Pilgrim. If you'd been used to the Cocteaus then you would, quite frankly, have wet yourself when Thompson started up his now trademark howl on opener Caribou. The album's combination of demented flamenco, Mary Chain-esque swathes of sound and guitar explosions of which Sonic Youth would have been proud provided the backdrop for the young Thompson's frenetic Spanglish, death-obsessed religious undertones and unearthly, guttural roars. It was a sound like nothing else before.

The Gary Smith-produced mini-album was followed by the band's first full-length, this time with legendarily grouchy Steve Albini behind the desk. The band never worked with Albini again afterwards and by all reports, due respect was not received by either party, (Albini later described the result as a "college rock record") but the fruits of their labour was Surfer Rosa, an abrasive, monumental punk album, infused with all the Latino mystery and dark sexual undertones that made its follow-up, Doolittle, the band's recognised magnum opus. The album was the first with Gil Norton with whom the Pixies would go on to have a lasting relationship with, and spawned the band's big hits, Debaser, Here Comes Your Man and Monkey Gone To Heaven the dark-centred light against the dark-centred dark of Dead, Gouge Away or No.13 Baby.

At this stage, Charles Thompson, or as he was more wont to be called, Black Francis was still the leader of a democratic band - Surfer Rosa's biggest hit was Deal-fronted, indie disco staple Gigantic - but from 1990's Bossanova onwards, his grip on the music took over. Kim Deal had almost no significant input into the album, or its follow-up Trompe Le Monde. Venting her creative output through her resurrected teenage band The Breeders, she caused Thompson no little frustration when her debut Pod went on to sell over a million copies. She was probably therefore little worried, if perhaps a little surprised - when Black Francis announced to the rest of the band early in 1992 - in a truly classy touch, by fax - that the Pixies were no more. Just as the band had finished a stadium tour with U2 and with Trompe Le Monde garnering much admiration, the Pixies were over.

Of course, it didn't take long for the newly re-christened Frank Black to branch out on his own and, recruiting Santiago and semi-legendary arranger/keyboard man Eric Drew Feldman released his eponymous solo debut. Full of the frantic twists and turns familiar to Pixies fans, the record nonetheless threw up a number of surprises, namely the synth-pop element explored on the Pixies' final release but never expected to be quite so prominent. Also in evidence here was Black's growing obsession with UFO's and outer space - more Ray Bradbury than Patrick Moore, it nevertheless fuelled an exciting record littered with excellent songs, including the opening swagger of Los Angeles, and the feasibly self-referential Beach Boys cover, Hang On To Your Ego.

Following in 1994 was what the majority of Frank Black's famously anal fans came to regard as his magnum opus, the sprawling, non-stop, fried gold of Teenager Of The Year. There's few standouts on this album - it's simply too difficult to pick from the multitudinous musical delights on offer. Black explores every genre under the sun, veering sharply between bubblegum falsetto and frightening roar, chord progressions going exactly nowhere you'd expect. Although by today's stripped-down Toerag ethics it could be considered a little over-produced, even dated, taken on its own merits it's an undeniable masterpiece.

It was followed by the slightly disappointing Cult Of Ray, in which the howl was turned down, the aliens were turned up, and a romantic ballad even crept in. Perhaps it was the schmaltz of I Don't Want To Hurt You that pushed Black over the edge, back in search of his roots. The solo outfit brought to a temporary end, a new group was formed and in 1998 Frank Black & The Catholics released their own self-titled debut. Recorded straight to two-track tape, the record heralded a return to rootsier, gutsier rock'n'roll but was marred by the occasionally lifeless production which turned what could have been a rock monster into a mid-paced, medium energy, slightly - dare I say it - middle-aged man's beat combo.

1999's Pistolero continued in a similar vein, although at least a consistent quality of song had returned by Dog In The Sand (2001) - a little self-indulgent, still a little flat, but there was some monster songs in there. Bullet, St. Francis Dam Disaster and Robert Onion all displayed the lyrical and harmonic nous that has come to characterise Black's solo career - if there's one thing that Frank Black has pulled out of the bag without fail, it's songs with incredibly ingenious wordplays and references.

2002 saw a double release for the Catholics, the underwhelming twosome of the rockier Devil's Workshop balanced by the more wistful acoustics of Black Letter Days, then in 2003 the Catholics released their final record before their somewhat acrimonious split, the more dynamic, country-tinged divorce songs of Show Me Your Tears. Black and the band then went their separate ways - a disappointment to most, as the Catholics had been getting continually better on record, and were without fail superb in the live arena. But it was surely time for a change: the audience was dwindling, and the finances clearly were, as evidenced by Black's career choices for the new millennium.

Thompson had long been wanting to release his own Blonde On Blonde and the opportunity finally came via the man responsible for Wilson Pickett's career revival, Jon Tiven. But their work together remained somewhat stashed away by the aftermath of their recording sessions - immediately after Black had finished recording in Honeycomb he - and a couple of others - announced to the world at large that yes, in fact the rumours were true, and the Pixies had in fact reformed. There followed a coffer-reinvigorating world tour in which the Pixies were finally awarded their due credit via the medium of commercial acceptance - the tour was huge, and was followed by several more. Four nights at Brixton's cavernous Academy were sold out in seconds, a mark of the respect that the band had accumulated posthumously since their breakdown. Deal and Thompson appeared to be buddies again, Joey whacked his guitar with a drumstick, and Lovering showed off his magic glowing pickles, and everyone was happy. Coinciding with the tour was the curious FrankBlackFrancis. A two-disc set, this featured a fan-pleasing early recording session and a more ephemeral set, a variety of rerecorded Pixies tunes played around with by Two Pale Boys, erstwhile of collaboration with Pere Ubu's David Thomas. Distinctly odd, this had the odd moment of pure, creepy beauty thanks to the Boys' electronic trumpet and string arrangements.

Never a man to rest on his laurels, however, Black released his first solo record in eight years. Honeycomb was the result of some monster recording sessions in Nashville, featuring not only Tiven but a crowd of familiar faces: Blues Brother Steve Cropper, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldman and Billy Block all contributed to the country-soul stylings of Black's new direction. The screaming teenager hit adulthood with a crooning, falsetto take on Dark End Of The Street and his warm, smooth songs hit a chord with his fans - the majority of those that enjoyed the record being the indie kids who had pogoed to Debaser, now Sunday supplement-reading AOR types.

Despite some decent songs and an enviable cast of legends, Honeycomb failed to hit the spot, as did its successor from the same sessions, Fastman/Raiderman. These are the albums to which I never turn; the bland, lifeless production hardly bringing out the best in a range of, kindly-put, mediocre songs. The initial excitement of seeing your hero in front of a Blues Brother lasts a surprisingly short time when whatever the Blues Brother is churning out is put through the smooth machine. The Nashville albums were 80's Motown to the Pixies' 60's Stax.

And so we come to the present day, and my enthusiasm for the icon of popular culture for me, as I knew him, is dead. Forget Mascis, Cobain, Vedder, I never had time for Davis or Durst, I never cared for Gallagher or Albarn. To be a slacker but to be a genius, that was the sole reserve of Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV, years 1986-1994.

And then I heard Bluefinger. Gone is the sheen. Gone are the lifeless sound and mid-tempo blandness. Gone are the Blues Brothers, the Catholics, the Pixies. Gone are the frankly boring, worthy numbers and in their place stands a rock beast, a pared-down, honed album of brutality as well as beauty, of sex, drugs and death. That's rock'n'roll, that's the Frank Black I love. Happy twentieth anniversary, you mentalist.