By PROJ (@onaproj)
Dallas, TX. 1992. My auntie was working as a nanny for a fairly wealthy family and we were out visiting for the first time since she’d left, maybe three or four years previously. We stayed at a hotel, but spent most of our time hanging around the house with my auntie, the family’s three kids and another nanny. There was plenty to keep us busy: the pool, the food and the trips out. It was on these journeys – to the slice of Americana that is Chuck E. Cheese’s, a birthday party for my sisters at a bowling alley, the site of JFK’s shooting – that my eleven year old musical taste was moulded. We drove in the car that my auntie and the other nanny shared, and as we travelled through the suburbs and over freeways, under the gaze of the iconic Reunion Tower, ‘Surfer Rosa’ by Pixies became my soundtrack. As annoying and whiney as the youth of America are said to be, I’m sure that my constant pleading to “flip the cassette and play it over from the beginning” had them matched.
The allure of the album, at first, was to make sense of what the actual fuck was going on. Recorded by indie legend Steve Albini, the thirteen tracks capture the band at their rawest; their truest. Although many offer 1991’s follow-up ‘Doolittle’ as Pixies at their peak, ‘Surfer Rosa’ and its frantic energy was, and remains, my absolute favouritest anything ever. Listening now, I still feel the same excitement, and terror, that I did back then. This is the album that does things to me.
Opener ‘Bone Machine’ comes in on the almost backwards drumming of Dave Lovering, his thudding bass drum, whipcrack snare and crisp cymbals mirrored in the pulsing bassline from Kim Deal. Joey Santiago stabs and jabs and wrestles layers of discordant beauty from his guitar while Black Francis rants, yelps and howls about Japanese food and car park molestation. I mean, what is there not to love..and fear? Pixies race through the next few tracks: the dissonant pop sensibilities of ‘Break My Body’, visceral aggression of ‘Something Against You’ and incestual horror of ‘Broken Face’ keep things agitated.
The next song, and only single from the record, ‘Gigantic’ is my personal highlight. Kim Deal’s lush, breathy vocals wrap around an endless, circular chord progression that bursts into pop gorgeousness as she proclaims her ‘big, big love’. Let’s get it straight though, at eleven years old I had no idea that I was singing along to the voyeuristic imagery of watching on as an attractive black man makes love to another woman – the song inspired by the movie ‘Crimes of the Heart’ according to Deal. As much as I imagine that particular relationship ending messily, so too does the track, looping and swelling until it bursts and breaks.
‘River Euphrates’ showcases the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic associated with Pixies, inspiring the likes of Nirvana to experiment with their approach to songwriting; side A finishing with Black Francis’s imploring scream of ‘RIDE THE TIRE!’. Side B continues with arguably the band’s most ‘famous’ song; ‘Where Is My Mind?’ (y’know, the one from the end of Fight Club? *eye roll*), the prison-cell love letter of ‘Cactus’ and driving ‘Tony’s Theme’.
The band mix it up on the next couple of songs, injecting a Spanish flavour into both ‘Oh My Golly!’ – wherein we meet the “Besando chichando con surfer rosa” from the album’s enticing artwork, put together by the 4AD / v23 graphics master Vaughn Oliver – and the extended jam of ‘Vamos’ and its relentless rhythm and squeals. Both tracks also feature clips of Deal and Francis engaging in studio banter: “I said you fuckin’ die!” jokes Francis, and I remember thinking it cool as fuck. Still do. Deal’s story about a former teacher being ‘into field hockey players’ launches us into the thunderous ‘I’m Amazed’ and there’s barely time to breathe before ‘Brick Is Red’ closes out the album, all blocky chords and dancing guitar play before it bleeps to a finish, and you say “flip the cassette and play it from the beginning.”
It’s been 25 years since I first heard this record, and it still crackles with the tension and verve I found then. Today marks ‘Surfer Rosa’s 29th birthday, and it’s more fresh and inventive to me than a lot of the garbage that’s been peddled out since. I’ll still be listening in another 19 years with that same excitement..and terror.