The Meaning Behind “Cannonball” by The Breeders and the French Libertine Who Inspired It

Before “Cannonball,” The Breeders were known as Kim Deal’s side project, overshadowed by her first band, Pixies.

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However, by 1993, Pixies singer/songwriter Black Francis had broken up the band by fax, so The Breeders were no longer a side project. Deal was in San Francisco recording Last Splash when her twin sister Kelley told her the Pixies had broken up.

Pixies were responsible for alt-rock’s biggest bands, and The Breeders enjoyed the commercial fruits of that labor.

Cool as Kim Deal

Many musicians work hard to be cool, but Dayton, Ohio’s Kim Deal is carelessly cool. Her indie-aloofness inspired The Dandy Warhols to write a song about her in which singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor pleaded for a girl as “Cool as Kim Deal.”

Moreover, the combination of “whatever” and meticulousness makes Last Splash imperishably special. But, on “Cannonball,” what are the Deal twins singing about?

Marquis de Sade

In 1996, Deal told Phoenix New Times that Marquis de Sade inspired “Cannonball.” Said Deal, “The message of the song as a whole was making fun of Sade and his libertarian views that if he was better off than someone, then they were just fodder for him. Playthings. It was saying, ‘Come on, life’s not a contest.’”

Spitting in a wishing well
Blown to hell, crash
I’m the last splash
I know you, little libertine
I know you’re a real cuckoo

The intro voices (“Ah-hoo-oh”) are the Deals’ nod to the Oompa Loompa song from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. And “Cannonball” was originally called “Grunggae” because of its mixture of ’90s alt-rock and island sounds. (The “Grunggae” demo appeared on the 20th-anniversary edition of Last Splash.)

I’ll be your—whatever you want
The bong in this reggae song
(Hey now) In the shade

Perfect Mistakes

Deal opens the song, checking a distorted harmonica microphone as it squeals before the song breaks for its iconic bassline. However, the memorable bass part was the result of a mistake. A timid entrance that’s one fret off the correct note is repeated twice before the band begins and the right note is played.

Garage Band

Kim Gordon and Spike Jonze directed the music video for “Cannonball.” The Breeders perform the song in a garage, and the video cuts to scenes of Deal singing underwater. Throughout the video, a cannonball rolls down the streets of Los Angeles.

The video was ever-present on MTV, and “Cannonball” was played in full rotation on modern rock radio, reaching No. 2 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart (formerly Modern Rock Tracks).

The Beginning

In 1990, Deal formed The Breeders with Tanya Donelly from Throwing Muses. Pixies had opened for Throwing Muses in the ’80s, and Deal and Donelly were hanging out in Boston while both bands were on a break.

Ivo Watts-Russell, co-founder of 4AD, signed The Breeders and released their debut Pod in 1990. (4AD was also home to Pixies and Throwing Muses).

Deal told Marc Maron the name “Breeders” came from a slur that some LGBTQ+ people used against heterosexuals. She also said the 1979 horror film The Brood inspired the name.

Producer Steve Albini recorded Pod, which also featured drummer Britt Walford (from Slint) and British musician Josephine Wiggs (from The Perfect Disaster), who plays bass on “Cannonball.” Kelley Deal joined the band on the Safari EP (1992), and Donelly eventually left the group to form Belly.

Continuing Legacy

Producer Gary Smith said about the Pixies’ legacy, “I’ve heard it said about The Velvet Underground that while not a lot of people bought their albums, everyone who did started a band. I think this is largely true about the Pixies as well. Charles’ [Black Francis] secret weapon turned out to be not so secret, and, sooner or later, all sorts of bands were exploiting the same strategy of wide dynamics.”

He continued, “It became a kind of new pop formula and, within a short while, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was charging up the charts, and even the members of Nirvana said later that it sounded for all the world like a Pixies song.”

The Breeders’ Masterpiece

The Breeders aren’t as influential as Pixies, but Last Splash is an alt-rock masterpiece. Deal became known as the Pixies bassist and co-vocalist, but she became a star as the frontwoman and primary songwriter of her own group.

For Last Splash, the Deal sisters, with Wiggs, were joined by drummer and fellow Dayton native Jim MacPherson. “Cannonball” was a hit, and the album sold a million copies.

Last year, The Breeders released a 30th-anniversary edition of Last Splash, remastered from the original analog tapes. It includes a 1993 co-write by Kim Deal and Black Francis called “Go Man Go.” The expanded edition also features “Divine Mascis,” which is a version of “Divine Hammer” with vocals by Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis.

“Cannonball,” though not as ubiquitous, is Kim Deal’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

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Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images

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