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(Credit: Pixies)

Music

Pixies re-shape the foundations of rock with 'Surfer Rosa'

Once Pixies had proven themselves with the burgeoning rock album, they followed it up quickly with Doolittle, which impressed grunge legends Nirvana with its tight production design, and air of condemnation and release. But there was more to the band than idiosyncratic production styles, as was heard on their first album, recorded in a more deliberate and frenetic style that cautioned listeners to the possibilities of the stage as well as the studio.

Decades after its release, the album still sounds tight and unrelenting, exhibiting a freshness that still sounds impressively put together. The work sounds spontaneous, largely because it is so meticulously well planned out, allowing plenty of space for the screaming, shuffling and general mania to ensue. As the riffs whizz past, it’s easy to get caught up in the urgency and the general sense of unease that cements the album in its entirety. There’s a love of mutilation present on the record, not least on the bone-crunching frenzy of ‘Bone Machine’. And yet there is a guileful innocence to the album, presenting itself as the work of disciples in search of adventure, without resorting to out and out voyeurism.

‘Where Is My Mind?’ is the most successful track, despite being the most atypical, and the recording centres on Black Francis’ chiming guitar bouncing off Kim Deal‘s soaring falsetto. Consider the lyric, “With your feet on the air and your head on the ground; Try this trick and spin it,” densely creating a new orbit from which the central characters can express their greatest failings and disappointments.

In its most primitive form, the song exhibits the yearning and lust of a character in search of a newer path in life. Kim Deal sounds animated, harbouring a voice that was utilised on the scintillatingly produced ‘Gigantic’, a trembling power ballad that pivoted focus away from the jangly guitars, and onto the central bass in question. It recalled the tenser moments of punk, not least from Joey Santiago’s sparky guitar patterns that linger within the track.

Elsewhere, the album turns into more barren territories, rejecting the modern hardware for a more impassioned style of performance that showed that the otherwise cerebral band had a beating heart. Love and lust enter the proceedings, and each member carries the weight of their responsibility thoughtfully. ‘River Euphrates’ captures the band in full rock mode, every riff soaring, every cymbal clipping behind the thorough vocal deliveries.

‘Break My Body’ is one of the band’s best rockers, yet it has surprising levels of melody and pacing, creating a riveting sense of energy and infectiousness. ‘Vamos’, sung in pidgin Spanish, offered a more salient view of the world at large, while ‘River Euphrates’ gave a denser sense of accomplishment to the world as a tangible whole, creating whole strands of work revolving around a solitary scintillating riff.

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The band were clearly firing on all cylinders and were determined to let some of the sparks rubs off on the cover. The album cover features a topless woman, dressed in a flamenco dress. The band thought it was tasteful, although it must have raised eyebrows in Ireland and Spain, where manners were always a bit more conservative during the 1980s. But there is an innocence to the cover that matches the more sedate and cerebral flow of the album, showing that the band were more than capable of pandering to a more pedestrian form of the audience when it suited them.

But the work was destined to sound better onstage than the studio, and many of the tracks still stand within the band’s live catalogue, brimming with energy and bolstered by the new setting. Barring the barrelling drums that date the work, the album sounds effectively timeless, heralding the trappings of the 2000s with its raw, back to basics approach to performing music. Best of all, the album holds a sense of truth that keeps it locked in the time capsule that rock permits.

In their efforts to ignore the tricks and trades of the 1980s, the band inadvertently started a new form of music altogether, permitting other bands to record as they meant to go on. In their efforts to re-produce a sense of finality to the work, the band toured with the album for a period, bringing new meaning and pathos to the songs.

“Charles’ screaming with a sweet female voice underneath it, it’s a good contrast,” said Joey Santiago. “I think it’s great [Francis’ writing], I think it’s bizarre. I knew he was going to be moving into that direction when ‘Debaser’ was going to be called ‘[Shed,] Appolonia’, and then he just said: ‘Nah, come on, it’s too typical, singing about a girl, all that kind of stuff’, and he started singing about a Dalí film [Un Chien Andalou] and slicing up eyeballs.”