Pointless Nostalgia: The Pixies on 120 Minutes, 1991

As I eluded to last week, when I found the bounty of Steampipe Alley tapes, I was looking for something else. That something else was an episode of MTV’s 120 Minutes from 1991 that featured an episode-long appearance by The Pixies, mere months before they broke up.

When this show aired, I did not actually have cable in my house. But my grandparents, who lived next door, did. So I would monopolize their VCR in the wee hours, taping either Mystery Science Theater 3000 or 120 Minutes. Despite being an MTV product, 120 Minutes was a pretty decent window into the amorphous world of “alternative” music back then, and also the only way that I could hear about new-ish stuff in the pre-internet days, since I lived nowhere near a cool records store.

This particular episode is an odd time capsule piece, because it comes from one of those in between periods of music. The indie music scene that launched The Pixies was largely dead. The Nirvana phenomenon had yet to begin, although it was just about to (the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” aired during this episode, and had just debuted a few weeks previous). So in most cases, alternative = British. By my rough estimate, 75 percent of all the videos that air in this episode come from English bands, most of them being shoegazer types like Ride, Curve, Lush, etc.

But my main reason in presenting these clips to you is not to highlight this very brief era. I’ve digitized them because they’re some of the most uncomfortable video you’ll ever see.

For one thing, The Pixies were already well immersed in the tensions that would doom the band. But rather than exercise that misery on each other, they aim it squarely at the show’s host, Dave Kendall. The poor man has to dig and scrape to get the most mundane answers out of them.

This first clip is benign enough. The band is introduced, and Frank Black talks briefly about the inspiration behind the “Here Come Your Man” video. But the fact that he’s wearing a panama hat and sunglasses for this interview should have thrown up some huge red flags. As should have Joey Santiago’s weird fuzzy hat.

Things start to get awkward when Mr. Kendall tries to get the band members to comment on the 120 Minutes compilation, Never Mind the Mainstream (which I once owned on cassette, and I’m pretty sure I still have it somewhere–DON’T JUDGE). Frank Black pronounces Depeche Mode in an odd way that may or may not be mocking, while Joey Santiago desperately tries to mime his own choices. (As a personal side note, it sounds like all of the songs they pick are ones that didn’t wind up on the cassette version.)

Ironically, this clip closes out with Kendall asking them if they like Nirvana. Even at this early stage of Nirvana’s popularity, that would have been a touchy question. By Kurt Cobain’s own admission, he pretty much stole everything he knew from The Pixies.

Things get no better when Kendall tries to get Frank Black to comment on the meaning of “Trompe le Monde”, and attempts a cringe-worthy segue involving Red Hot Chili Peppers. I particularly like Joey Santiago’s fake shock at hearing the song title “Suck My Kiss” (which has to be in the top 50 of dumbest song titles ever).

In this segment, Frank Black answers a few questions about how Pixies songs are named, and the legendary ad that Kim Deal answered to join the band. But when Kendall turns his questioning to Deal, her deadpan, straightforward answers bring the interview’s brief momentum to a screeching halt.

They all looked much more comfortable performing, as they do here, playing “U-Mass”. They were joined on keyboards by Eric Drew Feldman, ex-member of Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. As a kid, I was particularly impressed by Frank Black’s ability to sing up.

But then, it’s back to the awkwardness. Kendall asks Black why they covered Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On”, and his answer is not exactly forthcoming, or informative, or technically English, I think. I’ve included their video in this clip because they play the song live in the video, and I think this version is better than the version that wound up on Trompe le Monde.

In this segment, Kendall tries to involve David Lovering by asking him his opinion of the one-name British shoegazer bands I namechecked earlier. Kim Deal pipes up, apparently sick of being ignored for a good chunk of the show.

Frank Black says he can get excited about playing for crowds every night, even though he doesn’t look very excited while saying this. He also opens up about the songs he tortures the rest of the band with; apparently they didn’t like playing “Manta Ray” very much.

Where is the strangest place The Pixies have filmed a video? Amazingly, Kim Deal is allowed to answer.

The show closes out with the band playing “Planet of Sound”, then jamming on a tune that sounds suspiciously like Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”