A Dumb Comparison
In April of 1989, Pixies released their second LP Doolittle. In May of 1989, The Stone Roses released their self-titled album The Stone Roses. Some would say the similarities between the two end there. Their sounds are extremely different, which I suppose makes sense. The Stone Roses are from the UK, and their influences are pretty clearly based in the UK, as well. Most people would probably hear The Beatles, The Smiths, Primal Scream, and The Jesus and Mary Chain in The Stone Roses. Pixies formed in Boston, and their influences were naturally all American–The Cars, surf rock like The Ventures, and then American hardcore bands like Hüsker Dü and Black Flag.
So, The Stone Roses and Doolittle sound nothing like each other, the bands in general take their influences from entirely different sources, and they formed on different continents. And yet, whenever I listen to The Stone Roses, I think about Doolittle, and whenever I listen to Doolittle, I think about The Stone Roses.
Leaving aside the fact that the albums came out a month apart from each other, I think I make the comparison because both albums sum up what I love about each country’s indie rock tendencies in under an hour. That’s probably a dumb and simplified way to look at the two albums, but I’m pretty sure being dumb and simple is only a bad idea if you’re being negative. And I could never find a reason to be negative about Doolittle or The Stone Roses.
The Stone Roses
Might as well start with the album that came out second. My favorite part about British indie is how big it all sounds. The Smiths, The Cure, The Chameleons, etc., all drenched everything in reverb, and each instrument sounded like it was jumping out of the speakers. The Stone Roses took that idea and sprinted with it. It’s easy to hear in the opening of “She Bangs the Drums.” The cymbals and bass immediately start driving the song, and then the guitar comes in like a wave. It seems impossible that anything could sound bigger after that, but the chorus adds double-tracked vocals and a guitar line that completely seal the deal.
The next song, “Waterfall,” begins with just an echoey guitar line. The drums don’t come in until beyond the :30 mark, but again the sound is so huge that you barely even notice there aren’t drums. “Waterfall” is an apt name for the song, because the whole thing–particularly the rave-up outro–drowns the speakers in bright-sounding guitars and drums. This album is so bright that even when lead singer Ian Brown gets dark lyrically, there’s still a pop hit going on in the background. The 8th track, “Made of Stone,” starts out much moodier than the rest of the album. The band can’t help themselves, though, and the chorus breaks the tension and provides one of the catchier moments on the album. And when I say they can’t help themselves, I really think that’s true. Allegedly, “Made of Stone” is about a car crash, and the cover of the single is in black and white to indicate the song is dark. But the chorus is a legitimate sing-along.
Ultimately, The Stone Roses is a completely over-the-top, hook-filled marvel that took the best of so much British music and mixed it all together to create a sound as bright as its album cover. “She Bangs the Drums” notes that “the past was yours/but the future’s mine.” I’d say Ian Brown was spot on about that; his band set the formula for British indie rock for the next decade plus.
If the defining element of British indie was its expansiveness, then the defining element of American indie was its aggression. The Replacements, Minutemen, Minor Threat, etc., played music that was purposely confrontational. Pixies took that sound to its logical conclusion a lot like The Stone Roses did with their country’s sound, but while The Stone Roses accomplished that by adding layers, Pixies accomplished it by carefully stripping layers away. Doolittle is famous for its “soft-loud-soft” sound, where the verses are pretty quiet, and then the choruses are laughably loud. Minor Threat, an American indie band pre-Pixies, were extremely loud right away, didn’t let up for about a minute, and then moved on to the next song. Pixies were content to let their aggression simmer for a while, which made their outbursts even more shocking by comparison.
A good example would be the second track, “Tame.” Lead singer Black Francis literally whispers the first verse, and legendary bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering play a steady rhythm. At around :20, chaos strikes, and Black Francis screams at the top of his lungs for a good ten seconds while a guitar comes in that sounds like factory equipment. By the :35 mark, the guitar falls out and Black Francis is back to whispering.
“Gouge Away” closes the album, and follows pretty much the exact same formula as “Tame.” I think “Gouge Away” works even better, though, because if you’ve listened to the album all the way through, you’re not tricked by the opening quiet verse. You know the explosion of the chorus is coming, which somehow makes the verse more exciting. Every song on Doolittle seems like a game: how will the band wind up at a point where they all sound like they’re participating in an exorcism?
What I like most about Doolittle is that it sounds menacing and angry, but the lyrics don’t reflect that at all. American indie in the ’80s involved a lot of screaming about the government and drug abuse and alienation. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of topics Pixies yell about on Doolittle: a Spanish movie from the 1920s, Samson and Delilah, Hebrew Numerology, College Roommates. There’s plenty of politics on the album, too, but you have to look hard to find it. Pixies were way more oblique than most American indie at the time, and helped usher in more surreal bands like Pavement into the scene.
Doolittle completely changed the landscape of American indie rock. Essentially every indie band in the 1980s started as a pure hardcore punk band, and that style was reflected even if they ultimately abandoned that style. Just like The Stone Roses, Pixies were a primary influence for nearly every other indie band in their country for over a decade.
Wrapping It Up
I wouldn’t say that The Stone Roses and Doolittle are necessarily my favorite British/American indie albums. I don’t really like ranking music in that way. But I’m willing to say that the two albums defined the sounds I associate with indie rock, and a lot of my favorite guitar-based music that came out in the 1990s and 2000s are indebted to them in a huge way. Again, this is way too simple of a statement, but to me, The Stone Roses are the British indie band and Pixies are the American indie band. How crazy is it that they both released their best albums within a month of each other? Music’s cool.