When David Bowie poured praise on the Promethean 1980s force of the Pixies, he declared them as the producers of the “most compelling music outside of Sonic Youth in the entire eighties.” However, ever the analyser, he didn’t just praise the band and move on, he probed into what made them great.
For the forever forward-thinking Bowie who once said, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming,” he saw a trio of 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.”
Thankfully, for my sake, Bowie was a brilliant analyser of art, and the twisted realism that he identified in the Pixies is just one stop down the sonic road bus route that the surrealist Salvador Dalí played on canvas. As Bowie also adds in his glowing appraisal: “One of the strongest songs that I heard at the time was ‘Debaser’.” And it was with this track that they mimicked the ways of the Spanish melting clock fanatic and mustered up a masterpiece of their own.
The textbook definition of debasement in the moral sense is to lower or devalue the moral standards of the world – essentially, it is an act of ethical sadism – and beneath that textbook definition is a picture of a certain twizzled tached surrealist. From a young age, Dalí was prone to fits of bizarre sadism. On one occasion, he pushed his friend from a six-metre bridge and watched on with a bowl of cherries as his friend’s mother tendered to her badly injured son. Moreover, when he was caring for a wounded bat, he saw one morning that it had been swarmed by ants, thus he unthinkingly picked it up and simply bit its head off.
Aside from these sporadic miscreant peculiarities, Dalí exhibited artistic ability from an early age. By the age of 14, he was already transfiguring the otherworldliness of the pocked lunar landscape and creature laden rockpools that he revelled in alone on vacations in Cadaqués, Spain, as a boy, into impressionist pieces worthy of an exhibit.
When he moved to Madrid to continue his training as a painter, despite the intense political turmoil of the city at the time, he became entwined with an artistic circle struggling to make sense of the depravity of it all and aiming to reflect that in their work. One person he met was an aspiring film director named Luis Buñel. In 1929, they produced a Franco-Spanish surrealist film called Un Chien Andalou which the Pixies chant throughout the track.
The film sees the duo present stark, surrealist images in a frankly mad frenzy as dead animals are pulled over pianos, and as the Pixies sickeningly suggest, a woman’s eyeball is sliced upon with a razor blade (fortunately it isn’t real, but that still doesn’t stop the jaw from clenching even at the thought of it).
Much like the Pixies, it wouldn’t be quite right to say that the film was ahead of its time because that would imply that its time has since come. As Bowie also said of the great band, “Someone once said that the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many albums, but everyone bought one started a band.” That somebody was Brian Eno, and it represents high praise indeed for the debasing Pixies.