He has been known as Frank Black and Black Francis, but when he was born on this day 45 years ago, the frontman of the Pixies was called Charles Thompson IV. No matter what you call him, he has plenty to celebrate on his birthday, as Black Francis helped invent alternative rock and was part of an incredible group who didn’t need to go to the mainstream because the mainstream came to them.
Francis grew up shuttling back and forth between Boston (where he was born) and Los Angeles. He eventually settled in Boston and started a band with Joey Santiago, a friend he met while in college at the University of Massachusetts. They recruited bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering, and the Pixies were born. The dynamic songwriting, razor-sharp playing and Francis’ obtuse, literate lyrics made the group an instant success among indie-minded music fans when their debut EP Come On Pilgrim hit in 1987 (they were especially well-received in Europe). The band continued to release critically-acclaimed albums throughout the end of the 1980s, including Surfer Rosa (which contained the minor hit “Gigantic” and the iconic “Where Is My Mind?”) and Doolittle (a watershed album that contained “Here Comes Your Man” and “Debaser”).
Though the Pixies never sold many albums, their influence spread far and deep. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain openly told people that many of the songs he wrote were an attempt to copy Pixies tunes (admittedly, you can hear a lot of “Gouge Away” in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). Francis’ style of songwriting — quiet verse, loud chorus — became the de rigeur sound of ’90s alt-rock, heard everywhere from the Smashing Pumpkins‘ “Today” to Spacehog’s “In the Meantime.”
The Pixies had one of the best break-ups of all time, as Black Francis first announced the end of the band during an interview without consulting the other members (in a fantastically early ’90s touch, he informed Deal the band was over via fax — a move he later regretted when they reconciled in 2004 for a reunion). Francis embarked on a successful solo career, releasing albums under the name Frank Black (along with his new band the Catholics) and later again as Black Francis (he has a new one that just came out called Non Stop Erotik). The latter-day Pixies albums can be spotty (especially Trompe Le Monde), but Bossanova is an unsung masterpiece, full of crafty songwriting, New Wave flourishes and lyrics about UFOs. “Dig For Fire” is a giant arena-rock anthem dressed up as indie quirk and remains one of Francis’ finest contributions to the music world.