The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #179: Tame by The Pixies (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #179: Tame by The Pixies.

In 1861, scientists discovered the fossilized, skeletal remains of a dinsoaur that came to be named “Archaeopteryx”. This dinosaur was about the same size as a modern-day turkey. Unlike many of its meat-eating, Theropod cousins, Archaeopteryx wasn’t all that physically impressive nor imposing. However, there was something unique that scientists noted when they examined the fossil… was the presence of, what appeared to be, feathers. In fact, what Archaeopteryx turned out to be was something extremely important and that was, proof of the link between the birds of today and the dinosaurs of the past. Archaeopteryx was an evolutionary “missing link” that connected species that, on the surface, appeared to be quite different. As such, despite its less than imposing physical stature, Archaeopteryx turned out to be one of the most significant finds of all-time.

From a musical point of view, the same story can be told about the song, “Tame” by The Pixies. It is a song that is not important because of album sales or the position it held in the music charts. “Tame” is an important song because, just like Archaeopteryx was for the dinosaurs, “Tame” is an evolutionary stepping stone when it comes to explaining how Rock n’ Roll is connected to Punk Rock and then, to Alternative Rock and then, to the Grunge Rock that made Nirvana so famous. So, in this post, I will spend a bit of time placing this song in its proper evolutionary context and then I will talk about the band and the song, itself. So, strap in! Its’ gonna get loud! Let’s go!

The 1950s and 60s were an exciting time in modern music history. Thanks to the work of singers such as Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, along with bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the music scene transitioned from the Era of the Crooners, to the Era of Rock n’ Roll. One of the main differences that came to pass was a dramatic increase in the amount of energy being created on stage by these performers; in terms of the loudness of their playing, the speed of their notes and the amount of counter-reaction they were receiving in reply from audiences. One only has to remember the reaction of Ed Sullivan’s audience when The Beatles made their debut on his TV show to realize that the staid, buttoned-down days of the 1950s had come to an end. That music could be used, not just to produce melodies and harmonies but, to create energy, was a revolutionary concept that changed music history, going forward and remains one of the defining characteristics of Rock n’ Roll as a musical Era of its own.

As so often happens when something new and exciting comes along, innovative people begin to experiment with it and often end up creating new variations built upon the central construct. In this case, a man named Iggy Pop (Iggy and the Stooges, specifically) teamed up with producer, David Bowie, to create something that took the Rock n’ Roll sound to an extreme. They created an album called, “Raw Power” which many critics point to as one of the foundational albums that helped spawn the Punk Rock/Alternative and Grunge genres that formed in the decades that followed. “Raw Power” featured songs that, above all else, were loud and fast and filled with an explosive energy. The production values were sparse, in keeping with the album title, “Raw Power”. This stripped down form of musical expression was very new at the time and, in Iggy Pop’s case, was primarily a sexually-charged form of energy that he was transmitting from the stage to his audience. Audiences found this transformative and electrifying. Music, as energy, became a tool for modifying the behaviour of those who listened to it. Iggy and the Stooges weren’t creating music to please God, they were releasing music as tools for societal change.

A decade later, that model of music making proved to be exactly the right fit for those rallying for social change in the UK. The confining, socially-limiting class system so entrenched in English society in the late 1970s proved the perfect breeding ground for a disaffected generation determined to change their world. Music as energy lay at the core of what became known as The Punk Rock Movement. Bands like The Sex Pistols, for one example, played their brand of loud, fast, raw music with the intention that it cause an similar level of energy in response from their audiences. The difference here was that, instead of that energy being sexually-charged, it was aimed at destroying social norms. It was music as a form of political protest. As John Lydon, aka, “Johnny Rotten”, lead singer of The Sex Pistols so famously opined, “Anger is an energy”. And so, he and his bandmates and fellow bands like theirs, created music as anger. Their songs acted like a social battering ram against the walls of their world that they felt held them in so.

That music could create an energy that could raise the hackles of the powers that be was always at the root of Rock n’ Roll. So, it was of no surprise that intelligent, creative people such as the lead singer of The Pixies, Black Francis, would come along a decade after The Sex Pistols and take their form of music-as-protest and add a slight twist of The Arts (surrealism, to be precise) and create a hybrid form of Punk, which ended up becoming known as Alternative music. The Pixies were the fresh face of music in the 1980s. They took the example set down by The Stooges and The Sex Pistols and refined it a tad, without losing any of that inital rawness. However, the one innovative thing that they did was to play around with the volume of the lyrics within their songs. The Pixies pioneered a musical song structure known as quiet-loud-quiet. In this format, the band would alternate between verses that were sung softly and alternate that with verses that were at primal scream-calibre levels. The use of the quiet verses was to build up an emotional tension within songs which would then, be released in an eruption or explosion of energy. One of the best examples of this is from the song, “Tame” from the album, “Doolittle”. If we were to leap forward one decade, when Nirvana released their very first album, “Bleach”, which helped to launch the Seattle-sound Grunge Movement, many of their songs replicated The Pixies’ quiet-loud-quiet song structure. In fact, lead singer, Kurt Cobain, was initially worried that people would think that NIrvana were simply copying The Pixies and would think that they had nothing fresh to offer themselves. Regardless of how one may feel about that, it is easy to observe how direct a line of connection there is from the early days of Iggy and the Stooges in the 1960s, to the Punk Rock of The Sex Pistols in the 70s, to the Art-infused energy of The Pixies in the 80s and, finally, to the power of Nirvana in the 90s. Thus, a song like “Tame” can exist, as Archaeopteryx did in the dinosaur world, as a song that may not be as grand and orchestral as some other famous songs but, because it acts as a direct evolutionary stepping stone that connects so many other genres and eras, “Tame” easily ranks as one of the most important songs in modern music history.

A quick look at The Pixies shows us that they formed in Boston in the late 1970s and came to be, as a musical force, in the 1980s. They have formed, broken up, re-formed and had line-up changes several times but, the core of the original band remain intact and still tour actively today. Lead singer, “Black Francis” wrote the song, “Tame”, as he does most of The Pixies’ songs. At the time he wrote, “Tame”, he was attending university at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (which is about an hour west of Boston). It is important to note this because, if you are familiar with the movie, “Good Will Hunting” you will know that there is a great divide that exists within Boston when it comes to higher education and social status. Boston is known all over the world for its’ two famous places of higher learning: Harvard and M.I.T. Many of the students who attend those universities come from out of state and tend to come from families that are financially well off. The locals from the Boston area who wish to get a university eduction often end up going to the “public” university in Amherst. Because of the societal implications of attending UMass, as it is known, there is often an under-current of resentment that exists there. As well, there is an anti-establishment Arts scene that is prominent there, too. In the 1960s, Bob Dylan and Buffy St. Marie played in the coffeehouses of Amherst. Van Morrison hung out in Amherst while his contractual issues in New York with his first record company were being ironed out. In the late 1970sand early 80s, it was bands like Dinosaur Jr. and The Pixies who called Amherst home. And, specifically with The Pixies, it was this cultural divide between the rich kids who went to Harvard and M.I.T. and the locals who were forced to go to UMASS that inspired the song, “Tame”. “Tame” is basically a rant against the phoniness with which Black Francis views the rich kids. He viewed them as pompous, arrogant and socially cruel. His use of the word, “Tame” was meant to show that, even though they may have felt they were “all that”, he knew differently and thought that they were boring and not worth his time. There is a lot of anger and energy built into this song which, as noted earlier, is a pioneering example of the use of quiet-loud-quiet song structure that helps to build up the emotional energy levels being released.

I will leave you with a video for the song, “Tame” by The Pixies that does not feature The Pixies at all. This video was created by a film collective known as Groundup Films. These actors translate the energy of the song using mainly facial expressions only. The editing on display is fantastic! The song has quiet parts that deal with Black Francis’ distain for the Harvard kids but, he reserves his anger for the loud counter-balanced sections where the word, “Tame” is screamed derisively, with ever-increasing amounts of vigor as the song goes along. The facial expressions of the actors helps put a visual “face”on the energy that is being released as a result of the quiet-loud-quiet song structure.

I know that some of you will not view this song as being “good music”. That is ok. You probably didn’t view Iggy and the Stooges, The Sex Pistols or Nirvana as being “good music” either. But, for me, the energy of music is why I love it so much. There are times when a song like “Tame” (which is only two and a half minutes long, btw) is exactly what I want and need. For what it is worth, I think this video is amazing and I like it a lot! For those who feel likewise, I look forward to your comments below. For now, let me clear the decks and get out of the way because one of modern music’s most important songs is about to begin. This is music, as emotional energy. Enjoy!

The link to the video for the song, “Tame” by The Pixies, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Pixies, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting the best bands and artists throughout the course of music history. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.