Thirty years ago this week The Pixes dropped their début full-length album, Surfer Rosa (4AD/Rough Trade), and changed alternative rock eternally. The eccentric, genius-level talent in the band made for a lot of well-documented personality clashes between the members, but what was left when the shouting was over was undeniable. Although there were many alt-rock bands founded in the 80s that would have a lasting impact (See also: Joy Division, Husker Du and Sonic Youth for starters), the ascendance of the most infamous non-punk band from Boston that would go from playing smokey clubs on Landsdowne Street to opening for U2 and touring the world in a few short years cannot be understated.
Recorded in just 10 days in late 1987 with future legend Steve Albini (Nirvana, Helmet, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, PJ Harvey, Mogwai), Surfer Rosa sounds as amazing today as you would expect, even after all these years. Albini’s production is so crisp, no-nonsense and dope, it is an audiophiles wet dream, even from that era. Of course, the sound of the record also has to do with the compositions. Every song is a perfect little novella, a complete story from the lyrics, heartfelt phrase, harmonized vocal, layers of guitars, sweet bass lines, and rock-solid backbeats. A songcraft masterclass all in all. All the tracks are really a capsule of that time too; the Gen X doom generation angst, but super smart and not at all whiny. Bands that copied The Pixes, those chumps whined and cried in the 1990s across their weak imitation tracks. This band arrived grown up, well-read and cooler than you. When they were vulnerable, they owned it, not just using it as a contrivance.
Yes, Albini doused the brilliant tracks with a lot of musiq concrete; conversations, half told jokes, Greek choruses, studio trickery, and situations so funny they seemed pre-planned, but weren’t. Albini just kept running tape. I remember going to the old Tower Records on 66th Street in New York City and just standing there at the old listening stations, and being floored. I was unable to move while this messy, brilliant album played in my ears.
Any discussion of The Pixes has to start with Frank Black (Black Francis) and Kim Deal. Although Black is well-known as the main progenitor of most Pixies songs, the interplay between him and Deal can’t be overlooked. The magic of the band is the two of them. They compliment each other spiritually, vocally and musically and the songs that feature them both always seem to be the most impactful to me. Joey Santiago’s masterful, chameleon-like guitars and David Lovering’s powerful, perfect drums laid it down hard.
From the opening jangly majesty of-of the ‘Bone Machine’, to the incredible riffing on ‘Break My Body’, the bizarro punk ‘Broken Face’, the epic rock of ‘Gigantic’, and slick tracks like ‘Cactus’, ‘Tony’s Theme’, ‘Vamos’ and more, there is not a weak track here. Of course, thanks to the closing credits of Fight Club over ten years later, ‘Where Is My Mind?’ is the best-known, most covered song from the band. It certainly isn’t their best, but it’s the one that non-fans cite as playlist must-haves. Sure, it’s a great track, but if you’ve never dug deeper on Surfer Rosa, you kind of missed the point of the album.
The band would barely make it six years and four releases before suffering a few breakups and a long-term one starting in 1993. Even their big comebacks, most recently started earlier this decade couldn’t last that long with the original lineup. They are just too volatile (Black and Deal) to stay together, it seems. However, the remaining band led by Black still tours, puts on phenomenal shows, sans Deal and performs quite of bit of this album live. The fan response is predictable: ecstasies and silly smirking. Fans of The Pixes cherish Surfer Rosa as if they are in on a joke no one else has ever heard before. While the band certainly has other great albums (Doolittle, duh), they never quite served the promise of their greatest, most raw and unpretentious moments like they did on this one.