It was my friend Tim that introduced me to the Pixies, though I didn’t get them right away. They were just so radically different from the AM radio I was still transitioning from at the start of the 1990s. But he definitely tried. Every mixed cassette tape I got from his direction included a Pixies track (along with a Mission and a Sisters track, but those are other stories) so I got used to seeing their name. One Friday night, during my weekly ritual of watching and recording music videos off MuchMusic’s City Limits, I pressed the Record button and added the video for “Alec Eiffel” to my collection. It was this knee jerk reaction to a band name I recognized that became my gateway to the now legendary quartet from Boston.
I shortly thereafter bought a used copy of their second long player, “Doolittle”, which I now love unconditionally. However, the debut album took me much longer to appreciate. Perhaps even a decade, I couldn’t tell you now how long I held out but it all seems silly now, given that I hold all four of their original albums with such reverence. “Surfer rosa”, though, was a game changer. David Lovering, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, and Black Francis let their don’t give a shit attitudes carry over from from their first ever recorded release, the mini-album “Come on pilgrim”, mixing punk, surf-rock, and whatever else they pleased into their incendiary noise. It is seen as a template for what 90s alt-rock would eventually become, not just for the sheer brashness of the music but also its iconoclastic production, netting future jobs for Steve Albini with artists like PJ Harvey and Nirvana.
So for an album that didn’t sell particularly well (taking decades to reach gold status), it is quite an influential one and one that sits high on many best rock album lists, even winning over many of the critics that didn’t quite get it at the time. And though the whole album has become ingrained in my musical fabric, I still have my favourites and I’ve included them here in my three picks for you.
”Bone machine”: “This is a song for Carol.” Except that it’s not, it’s really a song about sexual deviancy in a few forms. Namely, molestation by priests (“I was talking to preachy-preach about kissy-kiss”) and infidelity and possibly, nymphomania (“Your blistered lips have got a kiss, they taste a bit like everyone”). The opening track on the album, “Bone machine”, is discordance personified, pummelling drums, punished guitar strings, screaming and yelping and carrying on. And then, they just pause everything while Black and Deal harmonize sweetly together: “Your bone’s got a little machine.” Oh, the Pixies.
”Gigantic”: “Gigantic” was the only single to be released off the album and happens to be the second longest track on an album of short bursts of adrenaline. It was one of only two tracks not sung by Black Francis in all of the Pixies’ catalogue and bassist Kim Deal, who did sing it, also co-wrote it with Francis. It is also remarkable for its muscular and big bass line that sets the tone and feel. Deal’s vocals are a case in contrasts, see-sawing between soft and delicate and violent rage, especially when she is joined by Francis at the choruses. Everything I’ve read suggests the song is about a married women watching a teenaged black man making love to another woman and fantasizing that it is happening to her. “Gigantic, gigantic, gigantic / A big, big love.” No, their lyrics aren’t irreverent at all.
”Where is my mind?”: If it wasn’t iconic beforehand, it definitely was after it was used to soundtrack the final moments of 1999’s “Fight club”. Indeed, “Where is my mind?” was never released as a single and yet it is considered one of the band’s best known songs. Francis has said that the song was inspired by a scuba diving experience but true to form, there definitely seems to be a lot more going on here than just talking to fish under water. It’s all very surreal and confusing and the music doesn’t help to steady the ship. Discordant (there’s that adjective again) and topsy-turvy, Santiago’s electric guitar line rolls over and over like crashing waves while the acoustic guitar stands timidly in its shadow. Lovering’s drum is big and sparse while Francis’s vocals range from soft coos to yells and yelps and Deal adds her echoing howl throughout. Wonderful stuff.
Check back next Thursday for album #3. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:
10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”
9. Erasure “The innocents”
8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”
6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”
5. R.E.M. “Green”
You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.
7 replies on “Best albums of 1988: #4 Pixies “Surfer rosa””
I almost missed this because it didn’t show up in my WordPress feed – I think sometimes weird punctuation throws it out?
I support this album for top 5, although I think the three tracks you mention (as well as ‘River Euphrates’ and ‘Break My Body’) overshadow the rest.
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I was wondering if WordPress somehow was censoring and kept the post from appearing in people’s because of the nudity on the album cover photo,
I do like Break my body as well as well Tony’s theme.
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Pretty sure that’s what happened, as happened to me a few weeks ago and those speech marks look curly. Think it happens when you copy and paste from something like Word.
[…] 10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good” 9. Erasure “The innocents” 8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime” 7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking” 6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man” 5. R.E.M. “Green” 4. Pixies “Surfer rosa” […]
[…] shocking” 6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man” 5. R.E.M. “Green” 4. Pixies “Surfer rosa” 3. The Waterboys “Fisherman’s […]
[…] shocking” 6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man” 5. R.E.M. “Green” 4. Pixies “Surfer rosa” 3. The Waterboys “Fisherman’s blues” 2. The Wonder Stuff “The eight legged […]
[…] my favourite albums of 1988 last year, Pixies’ debut long player, “Surfer rosa”, was at the number four spot on that list. And I wrote then how “Doolittle” was the first album by the band to which I was […]