No artist has mastered the art of sound experimentation quite like frontman Frank Black. Creating Pixies amid the 1990s alternative rock boom, Black was instrumental in creating the “loud-quiet-loud” with complimentary sombre imagery. This original sound catapulted the band into infamy, along with its fearless leader. So, in honour of Black’s 56th birthday, we’re taking a look back at the ten best Frank Black songs with and without the Pixies.
Born Charles Thompson in Boston, Massachusetts, he soon relocated to California, where he continued to move around throughout his childhood. It was in this uncertainty and constant movement that he picked up a fusion of influences. Thompson later spoke of his eclectic musical upbringing by saying, “I used to hang out with some misfits. […] We were the ‘we listen to odd-ball music’ kids. I wasn’t hanging out at all-ages shows or trying to get into clubs to see bands, and I was buying records at used records stores and borrowing them from the library. You just saw Emerson, Lake & Palmer records. So I didn’t know [punk] music, but I started to hear about it in high school. But it was probably a good thing that I didn’t know it, that I instead listened to a lot of ’60s records and this religious music.”
These influences were scattered throughout his accomplished career with the Pixies and as a solo artist, especially in his vocal performances. His vocals varied from theatrical scream-singing to a more tempered, melodic tone in his later solo career. After reaching immense success with the Pixies and launching an equally successful solo career, Black showed his ability to adapt to the changing world and still have a fresh perspective to add.
In a surprise 2004 move, Black put his solo career on the back burner and decided to revive the Pixies after 12 years of not playing live together. As recent as 2019, Black has released music with the Pixies and even lends his magic touch to other artists’ works, proving the legend is here to stay.
Although Black presents a brilliant discography, here are the ten best Frank Black songs with and without the Pixies.
10 best Frank Black songs:
Released as the sole single from his second 1994 solo album Teenager of the Year, ‘Headache’ garnered acclaim from critics and fans alike.
The single was co-produced by Black and Eric Drew Feldman, reached number 53 on the U.K charts and number ten on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks.
Accompanying it is a black and white music video shot by Adam Bernstein, which matches the surrealist tone of the song using science fiction-inspired imagery.
9. ‘Hate Me’
During a 1994 solo performance, Black revealed: “Tried to go to a club the other night, and they wouldn’t let me in because of the way I looked. Imagine that.” This sparked the inspiration behind ‘Hate Me’ was subsequently about dress codes in bars and clubs.
In it, he sings: “Hate me, my jacket’s not right. Hate me, and my thousand hairs and my shoes look bad tonight.” The song was, according to Black, a song recorded in 1996 and carried a sound that was heavily inspired by Joe Strummer, co-founder of punk band The Clash.
Released on his compilation album Oddball, which consists of songs recorded between 1994 and 1997, Black wrote in the albums liner notes: “I got together with [engineer] Dave Schiffman in Los Angeles in 1997 to review B-sides and outtakes, some to be remixed for this compilation, and so this is not a completist collection, just some songs that I liked.”
8. ‘I Don’t Want to Hurt You (Every Single Time)’
Included on his third studio album The Cult of Ray, which was a reference to author Ray Bradbury, ‘I Don’t Want to Hurt You (Every Single Time)’ gave the album a softer edge with its dreamy melody.
To accompany the sweet song, a rare film noir-esque music video was shot. Much like ‘Headache’, it featured surrealist imagery, this time with an edge of silliness as we follow Black around New York.
Black produced the album completely alone, in contrast to his two previous releases, which had been produced by former Pere Ubu keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman. The album later peaked at number one on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and in 1996, reached number 127 on the Billboard 200.
7. ‘I Heard Ramona Sing’
Giving back to one of his greatest influences, Black wrote ‘I Heard Ramona Sing’ as an ode to the iconic punk band The Ramones.
In a 1993 interview, Black said: “[The Ramones] are the best. Let’s pretend you’re a musicologist or musical anthropologist from Venus. You’re here on earth, you’ve got a five-minute interview with me, and you want me to play you some examples of rock music or pop music. What would I play for you? I think the Ramones are the best example and taking into consideration 1955 to the present that they have taken in the best influences. They don’t encapsulate everything but little pieces.”
Thankful that he didn’t attempt a cover of The Ramones, Black later added: ”It would have been difficult to do a Ramones song and do it justice. The Ramones deserve to have a song written about them, and lo and behold.” In 2010, the song was included on the soundtrack of the now cult-classic film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and garnered a new appreciation.
Black was known for exploring science fiction themes in his work, and the 1990 Pixies hit ‘Velouria’ is a perfect representation of this fascination. This song features a theremin, which was used in several sci-fi movies in the ’50s and ‘60s to create an eerie sound.
Although on the surface ‘Velouria’ is essentially a love song about a girl named after a soft furnishing fabric (velour), Frank later revealed about the ambiguous lyrics, “It’s folklore based; the Rosicrucians of 1920s San Jose California had some pretty interesting ideas.”
5. ‘Los Angeles’
During the recording process of the Pixies’ last album Trompe le Monde, Black had discussions with the album’s producer, Gil Norton, about possibly venturing into the solo world.
By 1993, the band had officially called it quits, and when an executive from his record company 4AD wanted to hear what he had come up with as a solo artist, Black quickly came up with ‘Los Angeles,’ which he later released as his first single.
Black described the song as, “Loosely a sci-fi poem with a kind of Blade Runner outlook, i.e., futuristic Los Angeles.” The song is filled with Black filled the song with jumbled imagery of Los Angeles, including the “pouring sun” and counting helicopters, a Los Angeles tradition.
4. ‘I’ve Been Tired’
After being discovered at a show by the manager of Fort Apache Studios, Gary Smith, the Pixies created a 17-track demo known by fans as the Purple Tape. The band chose eight of those records to appear on their debut mini-LP, Come on Pilgrim.
On that release, Black created an ethereal, Lou Reed-Esque track in ‘I’ve Been Tired’ and drew upon themes of south American culture and even sexual frustration, both things Black experienced in his travels and Catholic upbringing.
In this album and track, Black introduced his obscure lyricism, which would later become his signature.
Although not a single on Dolittle, ‘Hey’ continues to be remembered as one of the more acclaimed tracks. With the album’s title named after the ‘Mr. Grieves’ lyric “Pray for a man in the middle, One that talks like Doolittle.”
‘Hey’ is a reflection of the religious imagery being explored as Black’s lyrics often did. And it’s added an edge of funk to their mystical discography.
Since its release, Doolittle has continued to sell consistently. It was certified gold in 1995 and eventually platinum in 2018 by the Recording Industry Association of America. It has also been ranked as one of the most influential albums ever and is often cited as an inspiration to many punk artists.
2. ‘Here Comes Your Man’
From the early stages of the Pixies career came one of their longest-standing hits. ‘Here Comes Your Man’ was included on a group of early demos sent to labels to score the band a record deal. But when they finally landed at independent label 4AD, Black revealed he had no intention of actually recording it.
Due to the persistence of fans, he later changed his mind revealing, “People have been telling us to record it ever since, so we finally did.”
In an interview, Black said the song was about “hobos travelling by train and dying in a big earthquake in California.” But despite the dark meaning, the upbeat pop tones created a commercial appeal for the song and became a hit, despite the band not giving any effort to promote it as a single.
1. ‘Where Is My Mind?’
Releasing on the Pixies’ second studio album, ‘Where is my mind?’ was inspired by a snorkelling adventure he’d been on. In a 1997 interview, Black revealed, “That [Where is my mind?] came from me snorkelling in the Caribbean and having this very small fish trying to chase me. I don’t know why — I don’t know too much about fish behaviour.”
From this seemingly innocent encounter came an anthem of disorientation, a theme he’d continue to use throughout his songwriting career. In another interview, Black said about the song, “In terms of the content, you don’t know where that’s going to come. It’s such a ricochet, ‘pinball wizard’ kind of thing – these things bouncing into each other: words, concepts, manic thinking.
“Half the songs I’ve written, I had no idea what I was talking about. Certainly, anything that appears into the abstract, I don’t know.”