A Ranch They Call No. 51: Mapping The Pixies’ Alien Fixation


I know that The X-Files pretty much had to be based in Washington, what with the FBI and the underground bunkers full of planet-running aliens and whatnot. It still seems like Las Vegas should have gotten more than one episode of the show (Season Six’s “Three of a Kind,” written by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan!).

As hotbeds of alien activity go, we’re the top of the food chain, aren’t we? If it isn’t us, we’re 1 and 1A with Roswell, but you’d think the fact that scads of secret alien autopsies and secret government meetings with Rigellian ambassadors took place at Area 51 would give us the edge over that one overblown weather balloon incident that New Mexico stubbornly clings to. (Come on, New Mexico. Move on to Breaking Bad tourism. It’s the only thing you have left to supplement your turquoise jewelry-based economy.)

So it’s particularly fitting that The Pixies roll into town February 23 at The Joint. Starting on 1990’s Bossanova, lead singer Black Francis revealed a new dimension (pun!) to his lyrics when he started writing UFO-centric songs.

At least I’m pretty sure they were UFO-centric. Black Francis lyrics are somewhere between “Beck” and “Handful of Scrabble tiles” in their scrutability. Let’s take a look then, at seven Pixies and solo Frank Black songs, ranked on a scale of Plan One to Plan Nine from Outer Space, for how well they reference both alien and Vegas culture.

Song: “Cult of Ray”
Sample lyric: “What is there to say, still I can’t be silent/Hear the cult of Ray/And you’ll be enlightened/People, they’re no fun.”
Analysis: The song is about sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury, so it’s not exactly an alien manifesto. Still, there’s a yearning for a Martian Chronicles-type future in lines where he talks about waiting a century or two, in a dark place in the deep sky.
Final ranking: Plan One from Outer Space. Tangential, really.

Song: “The Marsist”
Sample lyric: “Take me somewhere cool/Take a long time, take as long as it takes/Take me somewhere cool/I want to touch that face.”
Analysis: Frank Black really wants to go to Mars, you guys. And hang out with the big stone face there. Which seems like it would get boring, but maybe he found a way to hack into the Mars rover and use it like an R/C car or something, I don’t know.
Final ranking: Plan Three from Outer Space. It’s definitely about actual space travel, and possibly about alien ruins, but it doesn’t really have that “Alien Nation was an accurate portrayal of the future” vibe to it.

Song: “Distance Equals Rate Times Time”
Sample lyric: “We got to get some beer/We got no atmosphere/From looking into the sun.”
Analysis: Another one that seems like it’s about space-travel without being too alien-involved. But the closing and opening lines “I had me a vision/There wasn’t any television/From looking into the sun” could be alluding to the 1961 Betty and Barney Hill abduction, the first big-ticket alien abduction story, that was often discredited as being the product of some kind of dream or vision.
Final ranking: Plan Four from Outer Space. If only he’d made some oblique reference to the abduction, but not much rhymes with “Lancaster, New Hampshire.”

Song: “Men in Black”
Sample lyric: “Dinner plate specials, the shapes of cucumber/I’m going to the papers, I am going to sing/In the cool, cool night and in the middle of the day/I’m watchin’ my back/I’m waitin’ my visitation/From the men in black/Are they gray or is it my omission?”
Analysis: Now we’re getting somewhere. “Cucumber” or “cigar” shaped objects are a staple of UFO lore, and those classic, big-eye, skinny-body aliens like from the first season of South Park are sometimes called the “grays.”
Final ranking: Plan Five from Outer Space. Points docked for the possibility the song could be about a paranoid freak-out.

Song: “Places Named After Numbers”
Sample lyric: “A gravity that slumbers/At the center of places named after numbers.”
Analysis: Couple that with the later lines, “And though it seems from here/That she was never there/ Light beams disappear/Into her blackened hair/I wonder if they reappear” and we’re definitely talking about black holes here. One possibly byproduct of black holes? Wormholes. Like, say, the type of wormhole that would connect a secret, named-for-number government installation to an alien world.
Final ranking: Plan Six from Outer Space. It all makes sense! Unless he’s talking about the normal convention of star catalogs to identify celestial bodies by number. But I like mine better.

Song: “Motorway to Roswell”
Sample lyric: “On a holiday, for many miles/Looking for a place to stay/Near some friendly star, he found this mote/And now we wonder where we are/How could this so great turn so shitty/He ended up in Army crates/And photographs in files, his tiny boat.”
Analysis: Interstellar traveler crashes down, winds up on an Army autopsy slab. It’s such a tender song, it’s like Black Francis wants to carry the alien’s tiny body home and give it a dignified burial. Or at least make it play bass, because God knows he can’t keep a bass player around for long.
Final ranking: Plan Eight from Outer Space. This one would be perfect if it didn’t name-check Roswell right in the title. Thanks again, New Mexico.

Song: “The Happening”
Sample lyric: “They got a ranch they call/Number 51 … They’re gonna put it down/Right on the Strip … I’m almost there to Vegas where they’re puttin’ on a show/They’ve come so far, I’ve lived this long at least/I must just go and say hello.”
Analysis: There it is! We’ve got Area 51 by name, a mention of the Strip and Francis being chased by the Army while he tries to go visit aliens, like it’s some kind of ultra-secure petting zoo there. There is practically zero chance that “putting it down right on the Strip” refers to the ending of Con Air.
Final ranking: Plan Nine from Outer Space. Welcome home, Francis.

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