Monday, December 17, 2007

[016] Surfer Rosa

Album: Surfer Rosa
Artist: Pixies
Release Date: March 1988 [UK], August 1988 [US]
Label: 4AD/Elektra
Producer: Steve Albini

“I was talking to Preachy Preach about Kissy Kiss
He buy me a soda
He buy me a soda
He buy me a soda and try to molest me in the parking lot
Hey hey hey hey”
- from “Bone Machine”

“I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies”
- Kurt Cobain in Rolling Stone, 1994

So, why are we here, people? Sometimes we have to ask ourselves why for everything. Why Surfer Rosa, for instance? I mean, I can’t just hand you all the answers, because I still have questions myself; I’m not a know-it-all, just a know-more-than-most. It took me all week to get to this point, where I actually know what to write about the Pixies’ debut full-length (it was preceded by the Come On Pilgrim EP, which was included on some old versions of the S.R. CD). Cracking open my various books and surfing the web, thinking long and hard on it, it has occurred to me that while Surfer Rosa is indeed a superb record, its classic status has been galvanized by all that has been said about it. I was sitting here trying to figure out what my exact point was, so I called my friend Bruce. Brucie is a few years older than me, so I knew he’d have an answer to my all-important question, namely “Did you listen to the Pixies before Nirvana’s Nevermind blew up?” Bruce, who was nineteen when said Grunge classic came out, said no, that he read in some magazine that Kurt Cobain considered the Pixies his paramount influence, etc etc. And that was the precise answer I was looking to get, the one that has essentially produced the legend of The Pixies – they were just another in a movement of college radio bands bubbling over in the late 80’s until Mr. Cobain was chosen as his generation’s supposed mouth-piece and had the chance to knight them when asked by the press. Ever since, the Pixies have been on the receiving end of what every great but less-than-famous band should be awarded – immortal status, due in large part to legions of Nirvana fans hitting the $8.99/2 for $15 bargain tables at their local music stores, and discovering this great little Art-Punk album.

Knowing that Cobain’s statements delivered us a decade plus of journalistic recalibration and late-to-the-party fandom – people liked the album when it came out, sure, but not like they would more than fifteen years later – it’s surprising when you listen to Surfer Rosa for the first time because it is the complete antithesis of an epic. At just 34 minutes, it’s almost cute and cuddly. When Black Francis starts “Broken Face” with his clipped child-like yelp, chirping “uh-huh uh-huh”, you can’t help but laugh, and what follows is 90 seconds of “Banana Splits” inspired pogo-punk-rock and something about having no lips or tongue that perfectly embodies the spirit of the album. It’s all about fun really, with their wacky stylistic shifts close to endearing. Everything in the future turned so serious and sour – the inter-band tensions and meltdowns, producer Steve Albini bad-mouthing the band in the press, etc. – it’s refreshing to just have a good memory of this great band. There are moments in “Gigantic”, one of the greatest songs-as-events in Rock history, when you can actually hear Kim Deal smiling as she sings this tribute to voyeurism and jungle fever, purring “Hey Paul, let’s have a ball”, flashing that broad toothpaste-commercial Cheshire grin that made punk boys-in-training swoon like girls at a New Kids concert. It warms the heart, and beyond that indescribably puzzle-piece fit of Frank & Kim’s voices, his high-pitched whine backing her here, while she returns the favor by cooing all in the background of “Where Is My Mind?” like a haunting morphine-drip take on “Sympathy For The Devil”, the aural equivalent of the eventual climax to the film version of Fight Club that it would soundtrack, the beautiful moment when Edward Norton’s narrator grabs Marla Singer’s hand as the world implodes; anytime Frank and Kim sing imperfectly in unison, a Rock angel gets its wings. And I don’t think I’m reaching when I say it’s the best song ever written about scuba diving.

What kept Surfer Rosa a classic once all those curious converts took the leap and bought it is that these moments of levity increase the replay value; it’s an album you want to throw in and just listen all the way through. No heavy concerns, no need to decipher the hidden messages or in some cases, Frank’s Spanglish; just the pleasure of good music. Black’s second language howl on “Oh My Golly”, merging with Joey Santiago’s buzzing guitar sounding like a swarm of bees rushing around your head, is as flawless as everything else he does with his voice, a bizarre cross between Bad Brains’ H.R. and the Talking Heads’ David Byrne with a perverse sense of humor and surrealism, and his M.O. set the stage for countless imitators across the years. The way that he stretches his voice is like the way the band stretches their music, not to be particularly arty or interesting, but just for the fuck of it. I don’t think there was any specific methodology behind following up the bluesy prison letter/T.Rex homage “Cactus” with the superhero surf rock of “Tony’s Theme”, complete with Frank’s chopped barks and lyrics about cards in spokes. It was whatever they felt like playing that day, completely devoid of pretension; Albini kept it light, at least it seems that way from the playful dialogue on the second side. The hardcore gallop of “I’m Amazed” neatly sums up 80’s punk for no reason, while the skanking guitar of the otherwise white noise “Something Against You” points its fat, accusatory finger at tons of Warped Tour bands. And for such a great album, “Brick Is Red” ends with a relative whimper, like maybe they just went out for lunch, but never made it back. Taking a step back, one might realize that the band’s stature as innovators might be helped by their lack of respect for conventions – they jump between all these styles with complete ease because they never stop to consider it might be weird. That assumption of freedom actually granted it, and in that way the Pixies broke new ground for the entire Alternative nation that funneled in behind them.

Some writers have called the Pixies the most influential band ever on Indie Rock, and while I think that might pushing it a bit, it must mean something because, as I said, it appears that the Pixies have become whatever people say about them; there is definitely a lot to Surfer Rosa that informs the last 19 years of Rock music. In fact, if you look at their career on the timeline of all things “alternative”, underground or punk, the Pixies are very much to that genre’s movement as Eric B. & Rakim were to Hip-Hop’s development. Both came out with the intent of just making a name for themselves, making a good racket, but were so good and happened to be in the right place at the right time that the music had to bend to their lead. Looking even further, both pioneering acts had nearly identical careers, debuting in 1986, releasing four worshipped studio albums, of which the first two for each have been hailed as classic works, before both calling it quits in 1992. Like Hip-Hop being altered forever by Eric B. & Rakim, Alternative Rock turned the corner around the Pixies. For both these acts to have the careers they had, I think that says something special about the fertile commercial environment of the late 80’s, an era usually remembered for vapid hair Metal and even more dim mallrat Pop. It can be assumed that the movers and the shakers in the record companies, the ones out in dank clubs looking to sign new visionaries every weekend, were around the same age as the members of the Pixies and all the other independent label post-punk bands, and so they grew up getting lost in the same music, Ramones, Sex Pistols, whatever. They primed the industry for these bands to get their shot on the big stage; compared to the feeding frenzy that came in the wake of the Seattle bands, this was on a smaller scale, but something has to be said for the major label pick-up of bands like The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and R.E.M., and the Pixies snuck right in behind them.

And to look at Kurt Cobain and his peers, they were the ones listening to that music, getting excited about those scenes, and of course, unless your favorite band is selling multi-platinum each time out of the box, when you become an artist you’re going to want to use your newfound attention to give lip service to your favorite bands, and maybe more. Kurt Cobain famously chose Steve Albini to produce Nirvana’s In Utero because of his work on Surfer Rosa, the way he made David Lovering’s in-the-pocket drums sound so massive, or roughing up the edges of the six-string onslaught on “Bone Machine” and the callus anthem “Vamos” to make Joey Santiago sound like a schizophrenic with a penchant for filthy Neil Young riffs. This all makes me think about how me making this list is like Cobain talking up the Pixies; word of mouth is a powerful thing when it comes to music, and the Pixies’ present godlike stature is proof. And time allowed the reconsideration, revealing that Surfer Rosa was a bridge to the future, whether it was between the Talking Heads and Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello and Spoon, or between Hüsker Dü and Nirvana. Really, it is the 80’s, a bridge from the 70’s to the 90’s, but in order to go forward, we had to go back and have the Pixies with us to guide the way. Surfer Rosa is here because, like so many of these great albums, it’s was a roadmap to today.

01. “Bone Machine”
02. “Break My Body”
03. “Something Against You”
04. “Broken Face”
05. “Gigantic”
06. “River Euphrates”
07. “Where Is My Mind?”
08. “Cactus”
09. “Tony’s Theme”
10. “Oh My Golly!”
11. [untitled interlude aka “You Fuckin’ Die! (I Said)”]
12. “Vamos”
- “There were rumors he was into field hockey players…” [interlude]
13. “I’m Amazed”
14. “Brick Is Red”

"Bone Machine" [live at the 2004 T In The Park Festival]

"Gigantic" [live in London, 1988]

"Where Is My Mind?" [live in France, 2004]

"Vamos" [live in London, 1988]

- BONUS: "Bone Machine" [live, 2004]
- BONUS: "Break My Body" [live in London, 06.91]
- BONUS: "Something Against You" [live in London, 1988]
- BONUS: "Broken Face" [live, 10.86]
Super early home video footage
- BONUS: "Gigantic/Vamos" [live in Germany, 1989]
- BONUS: "Gigantic" [live at Lollapalooza 2005]
- BONUS: "River Euphrates" [live on Dutch TV, 1988]
- BONUS: "River Euphrates" [live in London, 06.91]
- BONUS: "Where Is My Mind?" [live in London, 1988]
- BONUS: "Where Is My Mind?" [live in Greece, 1989]
- BONUS: "Where Is My Mind?" [live in Manchester, 2005]
- BONUS: "Cactus" [live & acoustic at the 2005 Newport Festival]
- BONUS: "Tony's Theme" [live in London, 1988]

DOUBLE BONUS: excerpts from loudQUIETloud
a documentary about the Pixies' 2004 reunion
- Excerpt 1
- Excerpt 2
- Excerpt 3
- Excerpt 4

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