Pixies: Surfer Rosa – [Record 74]
Surfer Rosa is the first full-length album by the American alternative rock band Pixies, released in March 1988 on the British independent record label 4AD. The album’s unusual and offbeat subject matter includes references to mutilation and voyeurism; this is augmented by experimental recording techniques and a distinctive drum sound. Surfer Rosa contains many of the elements present in Pixies’ earlier output, including Spanish lyrics and references to Puerto Rico.
Because of 4AD’s independent status, distribution in the United States was handled by British label Rough Trade Records; however, it failed to chart in either the UK or the U.S. “Gigantic” was the only single taken from the release (in a re-recorded version), and only reached number 93 on the UK Singles Chart. Despite this, Surfer Rosa was re-released in the U.S. by Elektra Records in 1992, and in 2005 was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Surfer Rosa is often cited as a favorite of music critics and is frequently included on professional lists of the all-time best rock albums. Many alternative rock artists, including Billy Corgan and PJ Harvey, have cited the album as inspirational; Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain frequently acknowledged that Surfer Rosa was a strong influence on Nevermind, and, in 1993, Cobain hired the album’s recording engineer Steve Albini to record his band’s album In Utero.
1, Bone Machine.
2, Break My Body.
3, Something Against You.
4, Broken Face.
6, River Euphrates.
7, Where is My Mind?.
9, Tony’s Theme.
10, Oh My Golly!.
12, I’m Amazed.
13, Brick is Red.
Background: Before the release of Pixies’ debut mini-album Come On Pilgrim in October 1987, Ivo Watts-Russell, head of 4AD, suggested they return to the studio to record a full length album. The original plan was to record new material at Fort Apache Studios, where the band had produced The Purple Tape and Come On Pilgrim. However, due to differences between the band’s manager Ken Goes and The Purple Tape producer Gary Smith, Pixies ended up looking for a new producer and recording studio. On the advice of a 4AD colleague, Watts-Russell looked to hire Steve Albini, ex-frontman of Big Black, as the record’s engineer and producer. Having sent a pre-release tape of Come On Pilgrim to Albini, Pixies’ manager, Ken Goes, invited him to a Boston dinner party at drummer David Lovering’s house a few weeks after Come On Pilgrim’s release.
Albini met the band that evening, and they discussed how the next record should sound and be recorded. According to Albini, “the band and I were in the studio the next day.” Paul Kolderie, who had worked at Fort Apache Studios with Smith, recommended the Boston recording studio Q Division to Albini. This created tension between Smith and Kolderie, and Kolderie later remarked that “Gary almost killed me for the suggestion, he thought I was scheming to get the project.”
Recording and production: Pixies entered Q Division in December 1987, booking ten working days of studio time in which to record the album. 4AD allocated the band a budget of US$10,000. Albini’s producer’s fee was US$1,500, and he received no royalties; Albini has a practice of refusing royalties from records he produces, viewing it as “an insult to the band.” Along with Albini in the studio, Q Division’s Jon Lupfer acted as studio assistant. The recording process took the entire booked period of ten working days to complete, with extra vocal mixes subsequently added in the studio. Albini planned to mix the record “somewhere else”, but according to Lupfer, “He was unhappy there with it.”
Albini used unusual recording techniques. For Kim Deal’s backing vocals in “Where Is My Mind?” and her lead vocals on “Gigantic”, Albini moved the studio equipment and recorded in a studio bathroom to achieve real, rather than studio, echo; according to John Murphy, Deal’s husband at the time, “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.”
The recording of a conversation held between Francis and Albini can be heard at the end of “Oh My Golly!”. According to Lupfer, “it was a concept he [Albini] was going for to get some studio banter.” As Deal was leaving the studio to smoke a cigarette, she exclaimed “If anybody touches my stuff, I’ll kill ya.” Francis replied with “I’ll kill you, you fucking die, if anybody touches my stuff”. The track begins at this point, with Francis explaining the conversation to Albini, whose voice is not heard on the track. Lupfer later admitted that Albini knew “perfectly well what was going on.”
“I’m Amazed” begins with Deal recounting a story in which one of her former teachers who was “into field hockey players” was discreetly fired. Francis finishes Deal’s sentences, joking that her response to hearing of the teacher’s activities was to try and join the team. Albini later observed the use of studio banter on Surfer Rosa: “It’s on their record forever so I think now they are obliged to say that they’re ok with it, but I honestly don’t know that that idea would’ve ever come up if I hadn’t done it. There are times when things like that are revealing and entertaining and I kind of felt it was a bit gimmicky on this record.”
Music: Like Come On Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa displays a mix of musical styles; pop guitar songs such as “Broken Face”, “Break My Body”, and “Brick Is Red” are featured alongside slower, more melodic tracks exemplified by “Where Is My Mind?”. The album includes heavier material, and prominently features the band’s trademark quiet-loud dynamic. Frontman and principal songwriter Black Francis wrote the material, the only exception being “Gigantic,” which was co-written with Kim Deal. “Gigantic” is one of only two Pixies album tracks on which Deal sang lead vocals.
Surfer Rosa’s lyrical content includes examinations of mutilation and incest in “Break My Body” and “Broken Face”, while references to superheroes appear on “Tony’s Theme”. Voyeurism appears in “Gigantic”, and surrealistic lyrics are featured on “Bone Machine” and “Where Is My Mind?”. Puerto Rico references and Spanish lyrics are found on the tracks “Oh My Golly!” and “Vamos.” The latter track was previously featured on Come On Pilgrim, and appears on Surfer Rosa as a rerecorded version of the original song. Many of the themes explored on previous recordings are revisited on Surfer Rosa; however, unlike on the band’s later albums, the songs in Surfer Rosa are not preoccupied with one overarching topic.
Other unusual and offbeat subject matter is raised on the album. “Cactus” is narrated by a prison inmate who requests his girlfriend smear her dress with blood and mail it to him. “Gigantic” is an “unabashed praisesong to a well-endowed black man,” and borrows from the 1986 film Crimes of the Heart, in which a married woman falls in love with a teenager. Francis was inspired to write “Where Is My Mind?” after scuba diving in the Caribbean. He later said he had “this very small fish trying to chase me. I don’t know why—I don’t know too much about fish behavior.”
Release: Surfer Rosa was released in the UK by 4AD on March 21, 1988, entering the UK Indie Chart the following week. It spent 60 weeks in the chart, peaking at number 2. Until August of that year it was only available in the U.S. as an import. Although the label held worldwide distribution rights to Pixies, they did not have access to a distributor outside the UK. When 4AD signed a distribution deal with Rough Trade’s U.S. branch, the album was released on vinyl and cassette as part of the Surfer Rosa/Come On Pilgrim release. While Surfer Rosa/Come On Pilgrim has remained in print on CD in the UK, subsequent U.S. releases have seen the two released on separate CDs. These separate releases first appeared in January 1992, when Elektra Records first reissued the band’s first two albums. After 4AD reacquired rights to the band’s U.S. distribution, they released both as separate CDs. Surfer Rosa was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in 2005, 17 years after its original release.
“Gigantic” was the only single taken from Surfer Rosa. The track and its B-side, “River Euphrates”, were rerecorded by Gil Norton at Blackwing Studios in London, early in May 1988. The remixed single was well met by critics. The single failed to sell, and spent just one week at number 93 on the UK Singles Chart. Despite the poor commercial performance of both Surfer Rosa and “Gigantic”, Ivo Watts-Russell has said that the response to the album was “times five” compared with Come On Pilgrim.
Packaging: Surfer Rosa’s cover artwork features a photograph of a topless “friend of a friend” of the band, posing as a flamenco dancer, pitched against a wall which displays a crucifix and a torn poster. Simon Larbalestier, who contributed pictures to all Pixies album sleeves, decided to build the set because “we couldn’t find the atmosphere we wanted naturally.” According to Larbalestier, Black Francis came up with the idea for the cover as he wrote songs in his father’s “topless Spanish bar”; Larbalestier added the crucifix and torn poster, and they “sort of loaded that with all the Catholicism.” Commenting on the cover in 2005, Francis said, “I just hope people find it tasteful.” The cover booklet expands on the theme, and features photographs of the flamenco dancer in several other poses; there are no song lyrics or written content, apart from album credits, in the booklet.
Albini’s name does not appear on the original record sleeve. The booklet’s photographs were taken in one day at a pub opposite the 4AD offices, because, according to Larbalestier, “it was one of the few places that had a raised stage”. In an 1988 interview with Joy Press, Black Francis described the concept as referring to “a surfer girl,” who “walks along the Beach of Binones, has a surfboard, very beautiful.” When questioned about the topless element, he replied, “For the first record, I told them I liked nudity. I like body lines—not necessarily something in bad taste, didn’t even have to be female, just body lines… like that Obsession ad, you know?” According to Melody Maker, the album was originally entitled “Gigantic” after Deal’s song, but the band feared misinterpretation of the cover and changed it to “Surfer Rosa.” The “name” of the cover woman, and the album title, comes from the “Oh My Golly!” lyric, “Besando chichando con surfer rosa.”
Critical reception: The UK music press reviews of Surfer Rosa were generally positive. Q’s Ian Cranna wrote that “what sets the Pixies apart are their sudden bursts of memorable pop melody,” and noted that “they could have a bright future ahead of them.” NME’s Mark Sinker, reviewing the album in March 1988, said “they force the past to sound like them”; he awarded them nine and a half stars out of ten. Dave Henderson, writing in Underground magazine, gave the album 22⁄3/3, calling the songs “well crafted, well delivered sketches which embrace commercial ideals as well as bizarre left-field out of control moments”. Surfer Rosa received positive reviews from American critics. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau gave the album a B rating, and remarked that the band were “by consensus the Amerindie find of the year,” and that the album featured “guitar riffs you actually notice.” Spin described it as “beautifully brutal,” and named Pixies as their musicians of the year.
Surfer Rosa was included on several end-of-year best album lists. Independent music magazines Melody Maker and Sounds named Surfer Rosa as their album of the year; NME and Record Mirror placed the album 10th and 14th, respectively. However, Surfer Rosa failed to appear on the annual Pazz & Jop poll of Village Voice critics, and it did not appear on any end-of-year list in the United States. A number of music magazines have since positioned Surfer Rosa as one of the quintessential alternative rock albums of the 1980s. Rolling Stone gave the album three stars when it reviewed the album in 1992 for Elektra’s Surfer Rosa/Come On Pilgrim re-release. However, when the magazine reviewed the album again in 2004 as part of its Rolling Stone Album Guide, it awarded Surfer Rosa the maximum five stars. The album has appeared on several all-time best album lists, and is consistently placed as one of the best albums of the 1980s in any genre.
Legacy: Both Surfer Rosa and Steve Albini’s production of the album have 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. He remarked in 1993 that he “heard songs off of Surfer Rosa that I’d written but threw out because I was too afraid to play them for anybody.” Cobain hired Albini to produce Nirvana’s 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. Musician PJ Harvey said that Surfer Rosa “blew my mind,” and that she “immediately went to track down Steve Albini.” Cobain listed Surfer Rosa as number 2 of the top 50 albums he thought were most influential to Nirvana’s sound in his journal in 1993.
People connected with the band were impressed by the record. Ivo Watts-Russell recalled: “I remember when I first heard Surfer Rosa thinking, ‘I didn’t know the Pixies could sound like The Fall.’ That was my immediate reaction, in other words, incredibly raw.” Gary Smith, who at the time was in a disagreement with the band, admitted he “was really happy that they had made such a forceful, aggressive, record.” Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, comparing the record to the later Pixies albums Bossanova and Trompe le Monde, said he thought that Steve Albini’s production “sounded way better than the other ones.”
In 1991, as Pixies were recording Trompe le Monde, Albini described his impressions of Pixies during the recording of Surfer Rosa to the fan magazine Forced Exposure: “A patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock. Their willingness to be “guided” by their manager, their record company and their producers is unparalleled. Never have I seen four cows more anxious to be led around by their nose rings.” Albini later apologized for his remarks, saying, “to this day I regret having done it. I don’t think that I regarded the band as significantly as I should have.”