Classic Album: The Pixies - Surfer Rosa

If ‘Doolittle’ is their classic, ‘Surfer Rosa’ is their underground effort.
The Pixies - Surfer Rosa
Most acclaimed bands have one ‘classic’ record and an ‘underground’ one. In the former category are those that contain most of their best-known songs and tend to clog up those interminable ‘Top 100’ lists. The latter category comprises albums that did not attract the same level of critical and commercial success at the time of release, but score points for showcasing the band in its rawer or more experimental form.

These ‘underground’ records are usually introduced in conversation thus: ‘Yeah [insert classic album title] is alright, but [underground album] is the one the real fans prefer’. This is often nonsense. The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ is supposedly their ‘underground’ work, but only the cloth-eared would favour it above their melodious eponymous album of 1969.

Sometimes, though, the argument holds water. If ‘Doolittle’ is the Pixies’ classic – packed as it is with indie disco staples like ‘Debaser’ and ‘Here Comes Your Man’ – then the abrasive, ragged ‘Surfer Rosa’ is their underground effort.

‘Surfer’ doesn’t have the consistency of songwriting that ‘Doolittle’ can boast. Compare and contrast their respective last tracks: while ‘Doolittle’ strides off confidently with the malevolent ‘Gouge Away’, ‘Surfer Rosa’ fairly limps off with ‘Brick Is Red’ – pleasant enough, but something of an anti-climax after the preceding maelstrom. But ‘Surfer Rosa’ has a thrillingly propulsive energy that ‘Doolittle’ lacks. Despite being twenty years old today, the album genuinely hasn’t dated. That’s due mainly to Steve Albini’s production – sorry, recording – methods. Compared to other records from the era - which tend to sound indistinct now, as if wrapped in aural gauze – ‘Surfer Rosa’ still sounds razor sharp. You need only listen to the opening bars of its first track, ‘Bone Machine’ - a barrage of immense, rib-shaking drums, jagged, Magic Band-style guitars and bizarre lyrics about attempted molestation and infidelity.

The album as a whole sounds like it was recorded in an aircraft hangar. Black Francis would seem to have been locked in the room next door throughout recording, which may explain why he spends most of the album screaming his head off. OK, so neither was the case, but Albini’s recording methods were indeed unusual. He’s like a less extreme Martin Hannett. For Kim Deal’s vocals on ‘Gigantic’, Albini moved the studio equipment and recorded in a studio bathroom to achieve real, rather than studio-induced, echo. On the vicious ‘Something Against You’, Francis’ vocals go through a guitar amp for maximum distortion.

But this is far from a being a precious, studio- crafted ‘headphones’ LP. Like, say, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Surfer Rosa’ sounds as if it was recorded in a single, frenetic session (it was actually ten days). Adding to the off-the-cuff atmosphere are the snippets of intra-band studio banter. One – an awkward encounter between Francis and an off-mic Albini – is a track in its own right. The other, in which Kim Deal gabbles excitedly about a teacher with a sordid predilection for "field hockey players", crops up before ‘I’m Amazed’.

Like all the very best albums, ‘Surfer’ has a memorable, highly apposite cover. The image of a topless dancer sashaying before a crucifix is the perfect representation of the music inside – sexy, a little unhinged and replete with religious imagery. You’d imagine it was shot in some seedy Mexican cantina, but it was actually taken in a London pub where the photographer built a suitably evocative set.

Pixies’ influence on alternative rock – in particular their use of loud/quiet dynamics - has been spoken about ad nauseum. Let’s not add too much to the subject’s word count here. There are, however, a few musical connections which haven’t been pointed out before: for instance, the bassless ‘Cactus’ could easily be a White Stripes number. (Despite MIA dropping some lyrics from ‘Where Is My Mind?’ into her 2007 track ‘20 Dollar’, the album’s influence on hip-hop remains negligible.)

But, overall, Pixies were a truly singular band. Their most interesting elements are those which have been copied the least. Which other band has merged flamenco with punk rock, as the Pixies do here on ‘Oh My Golly!’ and ‘Vamos’?

Like many underground albums, ‘Surfer Rosa’ was widely ignored upon its release, a reminder that ‘alternative rock’ was appropriately termed in the late 1980s. In 2005, seventeen years after its release, it was finally certified gold in the US. It’s indicative of the band’s unwavering popularity, something that that led to their reunion in 2004. Recent interviews with band members suggest another album will not be forthcoming, but fans can content themselves with this evergreen classic – sorry, underground - album.

WORDS BY CHRISTOPHER MONK

Released: March 1988
Produced by: Steve Albini

Tracklist

01. Bone Machine
02. Break My Body
03. Something Against You
04. Broken Face
05. Gigantic
06. River Euphrates
07. Where Is My Mind?
08. Cactus
09. Tony’s Theme
10. Oh My Golly!
11. "…You Fuckin’ Die"
12. Vamos
13. I’m Amazed
14. Brick Is Red

Musicians
Black Francis : vocals, guitars
Dave Lovering : drums
Mrs. John Murphy (AKA Kim Deal) : bass, vocals
Joey Santiago : Lead guitars

1988: In The News
• The Iran/Iraq war comes to an end, with an estimated one million lives lost.
• George Bush wins the US presidential election, and Benazir Bhutto is sworn in as Prime Minister of Pakistan.
• Pan Am Flight 103 is blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing a total of 270 people.
• Actor and raconteur Kenneth William dies after an overdose of barbiturates.
• Wimbledon beat Liverpool 1-0 in the FA Cup Final.

1988: The Albums
‘Daydream Nation’ Sonic Youth
‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ Public Enemy
‘...And Justice For All’ Metallica
‘Bug’ Dinosaur Jr
‘Tender Prey’ Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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