PIXIES – Surfer Rosa (1988)

Pixies released their debut album Surfer Rosa on 4AD Records, March 21st, 1988

Both Surfer Rosa and Steve Albini’s production of the album has been influential on alternative rock, and on grunge in particular. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain cited Surfer Rosa as the basis for Nevermind’s songwriting. When he first heard the album, Cobain discovered a template for the mix of heavy noise and pop he was aiming to achieve.

Kurt described the experience of listening to Surfer Rosa as life-changing. He said: “I was completely nihilistic up until about four or five years ago, when I first heard this. It changed my attitude. It made me finally admit, after being into punk rock for so many years, that I liked other styles of music as well.”

Nirvana hired Albini to produce their 1993 album In Utero, primarily due to his contribution to Surfer Rosa. The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan described Surfer Rosa as “the one that made me go, ‘holy shit’. It was so fresh. It rocked without being lame.” Corgan was impressed by the album’s drum sound, and acknowledged that The Smashing Pumpkins used to study the record for its technical elements. PJ Harvey said that Surfer Rosa “blew my mind,” and that she “immediately went to track down Steve Albini.” Even David Bowie cited the album as a major influence saying this was “the most compelling music outside of Sonic Youth made in the entire 80s”

Pixies entered Q Division Studios in December 1987, booking ten working days of studio time in which to record the album. 4AD allocated the band a budget of $10,000. Albini’s producer’s fee was $1,500. Q Division’s Jon Lupfer acted as studio assistant. The recording process took the entire booked period of ten working days to complete.

During Kim Deal’s vocals takes for “Where Is My Mind?” and “Gigantic”, Albini moved the equipment to record into a studio bathroom to achieve more “roomy” echo. John Murphy, Deal’s then husband, said that “Albini didn’t like the studio sound. Albini later said that the record could have been completed in a week, but “we ended up trying more experimental stuff basically to kill time and see if anything good materialized.” An example was “Something Against You”, where Albini filtered Black Francis’ voice through a guitar amp for “a totally ragged, vicious texture.”

Central to the chilling brilliance of this strange, unsettling album is the balance and contrast between the main players. Black Francis (real name Charles Thompson), Philippines-born lead guitarist Joey Santiago, bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering.

Francis’ more controlled rhythm guitar playing is a steadying counterpoint to Santiago’s wantonly unorthodox approach, while Deal’s chugging basslines bring a melodic levity to the seething brew. Try to imagine Gigantic without her simple yet immediately evocative contribution.

The very essence of Surfer Rosa is strange, blisteringly loud, horribly discordant and utterly enlivening. It was the catalyst for countless bands to use as a springboard into the world of alternative rock. Surfer Rosa was stuffed with tales of incest, venereal disease, sex and blood-curdling violence. It was an explosion of Catholic repression made by a gaggle of “rough and ready” musicians, twisting together the unlikely stylistic bedfellows of flamenco, surf, punk and thrash.

It’s fair to say Surfer Rosa is not an easy listen. Yet Pixies‘ debut album is widely regarded as one of the most influential records of the modern era, its primal aggression and quiet-loud dynamics doing much to inspire the grunge movement that followed.

Writing on the album’s 30th anniversary in 2018, NME‘s Mark Beaumont summed it up best when recalling the first time he heard the album, “All I heard was an unhinged flamenco punk maniac barking and yelping over some of the most beautifully brutal and cruelly melodic songs I’d ever heard. Surfer Rosa blew my tiny teenage mind.”