Surfer Rosa

The Pixies' Breakthrough album hits 30

Thursday 22nd March 2018

Some albums, especially in recent years incite a riot of adoration and public affection upon their release, often due to the marketing machine. big or small, behind the band, and of course the nature of the age of social media. Other albums in the history of popular music and counterculture though experience a different growth model, becoming regarded as great works, sometimes years after the band have split. 

One album that fits the latter description is The Pixies' 'Surfer Rosa'. Released on 21st March 1988, 'Surfer Rosa' was the Pixies' debut album following their mini-LP 'Come On Pilgrim' the year before. Both records were released through London based label 4AD who had marked out their camp in guitar-based music from the early 1980s with bands such as Bauhaus and saw something in The Pixies that they were keen to encourage and promote. 

While the Boston band were not conventional enough to get pigeon-holed as a rock band, they also didn't fit the punk ethos in the manner of their contemporaries Sonic Youth or that of Black Flag. The Pixies were arguably the first band to really wear the label of alternative rock.

The Pixies had effectively broken up within four years of 'Surfer Rosa', but at this point, the band comprised their definitive line up of Black Francis, Joey Santiago, David Lovering and Kim Deal who was credited on the album as Mrs. John Murphy. It was frontman and singer-songwriter-guitarist Black Francis who was credited with all of the album's writing other than Kim Deal's co-credit on the band's first single 'Gigantic'. 

'Gigantic' was, in fact, the only single to be released from 'Surfer Rosa' and eventually became one of the band's big songs with its huge chorus and Kim Deal's vocals taking centre stage. Producer Steve Albini employed one of his unconventional methods to record Deal's vocal, moving the recording equipment into the studio's toilets to get a more natural echo. At the time Steve Albini had boasted that the album's relatively simple songs could have been recorded much more quickly, but for the various experiments that he and the band had carried out.

Much like Sonic Youth, The Pixies' formation gave them options when it came to vocals. Surfer Rosa's other most recognised tune is certainly 'Where Is My Mind?' for which Black Francis reverted to frontman status. The lyrically surreal song reportedly came to Francis following an encounter with a small fish while scuba diving.

Another notable album track 'Cactus' which put obscure, slightly manic lyrics within a fairly unadulterated rock'n'roll container, went on to be covered by David Bowie. Bowie was a huge fan of the band with the icon often quoted: "I could never get over the fact that The Pixies formed, worked and separated without America taking them to its heart or even recognising their existence for the most part".

Bowie's statement sums up one of the most surprising facts about the life story of 'Surfer Rosa'. 4AD's release was a success in the UK and Europe and The NME, Sounds (still in print in 1988 albeit in its later years) and other European titles all gave it rave reviews. In the US, however, where 'Surfer Rosa' was released by Rough Trade, the album wasn't panned but was not as loved by the press as it was in the UK and also failed to chart. The World Wide Web wouldn't be invented for another year making any cross-pollination of music markets across The Atlantic that little bit harder. It appears The Pixies were ahead of their time.

One of the most surprising opinions of the period came from the album's producer Steve Albini who was quoted describing The Pixies as  "...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 stated that he regretted the comments, and went on to record with Kim Deal again with her other project The Breeders, but The Pixies went elsewhere for production when it came to recording album two ('Doolittle').

Still, the legacy of the Albini/Pixies collaboration remains one of the most longlasting echoes of 'Surfer Rosa'. While the US press and public might not have lapped up The Pixies, other musicians were smitten. Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins were among the bands that cited the album as a touchstone moment for their own earlier albums and Kurt Cobain sought out the production skills of Albini for the recording of 'In Utero' as a result, following the worldwide success of 'Nevermind'.

The juxtaposition of loud and quiet, contrasting as a painter might use black and white space, was a favourite Pixies method that frequently occurred throughout the clumsily named grunge and post-grunge eras of alternative American rock music that followed in the 1990s. Songs such as 'River Euphrates' clearly lend their lineage to the songs on Nirvana's 'Nevermind.'

'Surfer Rosa' was re-released in America by Elektra in 1992, crucially perhaps, after the success of 'Nevermind'. This release, in contrast to the previous release, quickly went gold and the rest is history, appearing on must-have-album lists forever more, its songs popping up throughout popular culture wherever a bit of discordant edge is needed, its use in the soundtrack of 'Fight Club' being a perfect example.

In 2009, 21 years after Surfer Rosa, Albini's production skills were sought out by British artists in search of a raw analogue sound to set them apart from the mass of landfill indie that had popped up on supermarket shelves. Jarvis Cocker, Manic Street Preachers and The Cribs all recorded with Albini producing critically acclaimed records.

The Pixies' output between 1988 and 1991 is now regarded, almost universally, as seminal work, with 'Doolittle', 'Surfer Rosa' and their songs being some of the most regularly included music in our playlists from bands on artists all over the world.


Read our rundown of some of our favourite influential independent American bands, including The Pixies and Sonic Youth here.

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