Up until the late 80’s, if you referred to something as an indie (independent), what you were referring to was not the act but the record label. There were the big boys on the block (Warner, EMI, Sony, etc.) and then there was everything and everyone else: a vast constellation of vanity projects, mom and pop outfits, and outlaw operations. Where the major labels had major artists and major dollars to splash around on marketing and distribution and the perks of stardom, some of these independent operations weren’t much more than one or two people and a dream, working out of a basement somewhere.
By the late 80’s, though, through a weird confluence of fate and college radio and changing tastes, the term indie started to refer not to the labels but to their alt-rock artists. By 1993, the year ‘Cannonball’ was released, the indies were a real force, (sometimes) making real money. These alt-rock indie acts didn’t overtake the mainstream during this period so much as they overlapped it at the margins, existing comfortably — for awhile, at least — in a sub-mainstream all their own.
The Breeders were founder Kim Deal — whom you may remember from the Pixes’ ‘Where is My Mind?’ (#493) — and a rotating cast of dozens, usually featuring Kim’s sister Kelley, who was brought in to play guitar. (In what must be a Deal family tradition, Kelley did not in fact know how to play guitar when she was recruited for the band.) The line-up for Last Splash, the album from which ‘Cannonball’ is taken, was their most famous and successful, featuring Josephine Wiggs on bass and drummer Jim McPherson.
Written by Kim, ‘Cannonball’ itself is an odd mix of clever drums, killer bass lines, chunky rhythm guitar with a snaky hypnotic lead, and the Deal sisters’ whispery vocals. The song reached #44 on the Billboard Hot 100. This in a year in which Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Whoomp! (There It Is)’ and a UB40 song occupied the top three spots, which ought to give you some sense of the fundamental weirdness going on with pop music during this period.
What is ‘Cannonball’ about? Honestly, who the fuck knows? The lyrics taken on their own would support any number of interpretations, all of them equally valid (or invalid). Kim Deal herself once claimed in an interview that the song was a reaction to the writings of the Marquis de Sade…but given the in-song references to bongs and reggae, and Kim Deal being Kim Deal, she may well have just been fucking around.
Michael Strum: “The distortion grabs you right off the jump, a creative bear hug born (further) aloft by the groovy baseline and then rhythm guitar rolls in like the surf, energetic crashing but also rhythmic. This is Art Rock, beautifully constructed. The rightful heir to Velvet Underground & Nico, and also somehow suggesting / preceding elements of Gym Class Heroes’ ‘The Papercut Chronicles’ from 2005. ‘Driving on 9’ is off of the same album (Last Splash), and that actually recalled Springsteen to me, specifically ‘The River’ and ‘Nebraska’, not because they sound anything alike, but in the way that The Sydney Opera House and Sagrada Familia or St. Basil’s Cathedral are similar, in the care and in the deft beauty of their architecture. ‘Cannonball’ is utterly gorgeous.”
Rolling Stone: Notified by fax that her services in the Pixies were no longer required, Kim Deal called up her twin sister, Kelley, to be her new guitarist (never mind that she didn’t know how to play guitar) and had the last laugh when this absurdist gem became an MTV phenomenon in 1993. “When people were talking about the Breeders being a one-off,” Kelley told Rolling Stone, “I was like ‘No, actually … the Pixies are a side project.’” A little over a year later, the Breeders were on an extended break of their own, but the effortlessly fun trampoline bounce of “Cannonball” is one for all time.