In January 1972, David Bowie spun the 1970s into a new wildly bohemian direction when he first took to the stage as Ziggy Stardust. What followed was a decade of kaleidoscopic musical experimentation. However, by the mid-80s, a slow and steady synth sedation of music had begun. Amid this commercial wallow, David Bowie, and man who forever had his finger to the pulse of society and culture, identified two bands who dragged the alternative industry out of the doldrums.
When we recently spoke to Dougie Payne of Travis, he described hearing Hunky Dory for the first time and initially feeling a perturbing sensation. This is a recurring theme in art—so often new creative horizons disturb the norm and allure thereafter. Sam Fogarino of the band Interpol once told Q Magazine in 2011 that he thought Pixies were the most influential band of the last 25 years. Fogarino recalled the weird sonic wallop they delivered, stating: “I felt vile, then I felt violated, then I thought it was the most brilliant fucking thing since sliced bread and that hasn’t changed because it’s ageless music and that’s a very rare thing to stumble upon.”
When Bowie was assessing the impact of Pixies, he borrowed a quote from his friend and collaborator Brian Eno about another band who landed in the unfortunate clichéd realm of ‘being ahead of their time’, in the form of the Velvet Underground. Eno’s oft-miscredited opine goes as follows: “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself in thinking that some things generate their rewards in second-hand ways.”
While many people in Europe will wonder how that same 30,000 records quote can apply to the Pixies, as it happens, their debut record Surfer Rosa was actually first released in the UK via the ever-reputable 4AD label and was only available in the US as an import where the MTV market was a little less welcoming of weirdos. Bowie even offered up an explanation for this, positing: “In America, they just didn’t ignite people the way they ignited them in Europe. There was such a lot of sludge in America at the time and I think the Pixies had a real hard time pushing their way to the surface.”
Mick Rock: A photographic history of David Bowie’s rise
However, for the forever forward-thinking Bowie who once said, “tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming,” and he saw a trio excellence in their stylings from the off. As he explains: “Three elements, I think, made them important is the sound of the band which is the pure dynamics of keeping the verse extremely quiet and then erupting into a blaze of noise for the choruses.”
Before adding: “The other thing is the interesting juxtapositions that Charles [Black Francis] brought together, quite sordid material at times I suppose. The permutations that he created within the different subjects that he dealt with were so unusual that it caught my ear immediately. It was the sense of imagination, and I use imagination not lightly, not in terms of it being a fantasy which most people define imagination as but being able to understand the affinities of something and have those affinities illuminate the subjects.” In fact, he lauded them even more than that, adding: “The first time I heard the Pixies would’ve been about 1988, I found it just about the most compelling music outside of Sonic Youth in the entire eighties.”
And when it comes to their ultimately hugely melodic structures, and wry sensibilities built around the twisted melon of a giant screaming man who makes his guitar look like a ukulele, Bowie saved his finest analogy till last. “There’s a great sense of humour underlying everything that Charles does,” he remarked, “I always thought there was a psychotic Beatles in there.”
Together Sonic Youth and Pixies became Bowie’s favourite bands of the era. He even thought about setting up his own label to sign them up. He might not have ended up bringing this idea to fruition, but he did book ‘The Sonics’ to perform alongside him at his I’m Afraid of Americans birthday bash in New York City, 1997, indicating that his love of the Manhattan outfit was a lasting one.
When Thurston Moore of The Sonic Youth reflected on the passing of ‘The Starman’, he recalled: “In 1997, we in Sonic Youth were amazed when we got word from David Bowie, inviting us to perform with him onstage at Madison Square Garden in celebration of his 50th birthday. That he even knew who we were was amazing to us! We had been so inspired and influenced by his music for so long, and it was a huge thrill to join him in performance. Hanging out with him leading up to the concert, it was clear that he was still fully engaged and informed about all kinds of music and art going on around him, curious and open to new influences. Not many of his generation were tuned in to the kind of thing that we were doing, but he certainly was.”
This natural bent of Bowie’s towards the avantgarde explains a lot about why he was so enticed by The Sonic Youth when they came out. In an era where quick pop hits fit for the booming new MTV medium were all the rage, Daydream Nation marked itself as an outlier even before it had been heard. When press releases touted it as a whopping 70-minute onslaught, eyebrows were sent rocketing into orbit. No doubt many R&R folks followed their surprise soon after by muttering: ‘What’s the point in that?’ It was an era whereby if something couldn’t be said in five inoffensive minutes then it wasn’t worth saying at all. Daydream Nation stands as a lecture against that notion, and it opened up an alternative way forward, much in the same way he had with Ziggy Stardust almost two decades earlier.