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The Gigantic Legacy of the Pixies’ ‘Surfer Rosa’

Thirty years since the release of the band’s iconic second album, it holds as much power as the day you first discovered it

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Just before embarking on a trip to Puerto Rico, UMass Amherst junior Charles Thompson transferred a couple of his favorite LPs to cassette tapes. He’d intended to bring the two Iggy Pop records he was obsessed with—Lust for Life and The Idiot—but he screwed up the transfer, and when he went to listen to the cassettes, they were blank. The only records he’d successfully copied were the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures and an unidentified Ramones album. “So that’s all I had,” Thompson recalled later. “A walkman. A Ramones record, a Talking Heads record, and whatever music I heard in Puerto Rico, salsa and meringue.”

It is hard to imagine this kind of music-supply scarcity now, in the age of Spotify and internationally omnipresent Wi-Fi; it is just as hard to imagine the local sounds of the street seeping as deeply into the subconscious of a visiting expat who wouldn’t constantly be hunched over and ear-budded into his phone. But back in the mid-1980s, something about the trip changed Thompson (eventual stage names: Black Francis; Frank Black). By the end of this several-month vision quest, he’d officially decided not to return to school and to play music, and he wrote letters home to his friend Joey Santiago encouraging him to do the same. It didn’t take much convincing. “Screw this academics,” went one of Thompson’s most persuasive missives, “let’s just start the damn band!”

And so those were the earliest seeds that would eventually grow into the Pixies: a worn-out Ramones cassette, “And She Was,” overheard street Spanish, overblown youthful rebellion against academia, and the hazy memory of a couple of beloved Iggy Pop LPs. Oh, yes, and a limber lack of musical knowledge: “[Compared to] all the people I knew in bands,” fellow Massachusettsian J Mascis once said of the Pixies, “they didn’t seem to know as much about music. They seemed like they got dropped from somewhere, they came out of a bubble or something.” Steve Albini, who produced the band’s landmark second record, Surfer Rosa, noticed this, too, though he thought it was a good thing. “People who taught themselves how to play had an advantage because they wouldn’t be mimicking,” he said. “Like, you weren’t gonna play guitar like Ted Nugent if nobody taught you how to do it. They were making music along unconventional lines partly out of ignorance, but I mean ‘ignorance’ in a flattering sense.”

This week, Surfer Rosa turned 30—which means it is now considerably older than any members of the Pixies were when it was released. (Drummer David Lovering and the eldest Pixie, bassist/singer Kim Deal, were 26; Thompson and Santiago were three years younger.) The irony is that it’s now a crucial entry in that rock canon of which its members were once so blessedly ignorant—the very ignorance of which made it so inventive and strange. But that anarchic, burn-it-all-down spirit still lives in Surfer Rosa, which is perhaps what’s kept it almost cryogenically fresh for future generations, even as the middle-aged adults who still call themselves Pixies did indeed grow up to be debasers of their own legacy.

Most great records are born of tension, conflict, and irreconcilable contradictions. For a long time, I thought what made Surfer Rosa great was that it is helmed by the voices of two people who hate each other. In recent years, though (and especially after realizing that Deal and Thompson didn’t really come to hate each other until after that record came out), I’ve come to believe that what makes Surfer Rosa great is that it was produced by a guy who kind of hated it and quite possibly several members of the band responsible for it. Either way, Surfer Rosa is a spittle-flung argument about something. Animosity is its animus.

Early on, Albini—one of indie rock’s proudest assholes—expressed to the band his distaste for “anything human sounding,” which they probably would have known had they been familiar with his industrial-punk band Big Black. “I never really liked [the Pixies’] music in the way that I liked my favorite bands’ music—like the Jesus Lizard, Television, Public Image, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Suicide, Kraftwerk,” Albini recalled in Fool the World, a 2006 oral history about the band. “I never really got to that level of interest with the Pixies. It’s awkward for me to say it because I feel like in some way I’m peeing on their birthday cake here.”

And yet it’s precisely that combination of piss and confectioners sugar that makes Surfer Rosa what it is—the cavernous graffiti-scrawl of the guitars cut through with the playground simplicity of the hooks. Sometimes the piss is quite literal: Deal’s eerie oooohh-oooooohh siren-call on “Where Is My Mind?” and David Lovering’s mammoth, echoey percussion on “Gigantic” sound the way they do because Albini insisted on recording them in the studio’s bathroom. “We were in a factory building and it was this giant urinal for, like, a hundred guys,” studio assistant John Lupner remembers of the Surfer Rosa sessions, “and we carted a drum kit in there.”

“When that record comes on,” Lupner continued, “I often recognize the room more than the song.” And yet I bet this is true for plenty of people who weren’t there when it was recorded. More than any other Pixies album, Surfer Rosa has a sense of physical space—it all sounds like it was captured live in some dank, haunted, possibly radioactive basement. Barely audible voices creep in from the back corners of the room: It took me years to realize that the huffed shouts in the background of “Cactus” were actually spelling out the band’s name (“P! I! X! I! E! S!”) like the chant of the mutant cheerleaders in the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song the Pixies would so famously inspire. Thompson’s grunts and screams are more disturbing because they seem to be coming from the background of these songs, like there’s some off-stage horror the listener can’t quite access. The later Pixies albums produced by Gil Norton sound like they were recorded on synthetic planets. Surfer Rosa sounds like it was recorded in a meth lab.

More than any other Pixies record, Surfer Rosa has a push-and-pull of masculine and feminine energies. Deal’s gravelly coo is deeper than Thompson’s hysterical shrieks. Information about the Pixies was scarce in the early days, and plenty of people who’d heard their early songs (see: the deranged-falsetto-driven “Caribou”) were probably uncertain of the singers’ genders. As were some of the first people to see them live. “I think we all thought they were women,” Throwing Muses frontwoman Kristin Hersh recalls of her first time catching a Pixies show in Boston. “Kim was obviously a woman, but they all had this kind of shaved-headed, pretty, soft look. … and they all wore eyeliner, so it’s kind of hard to tell, they were gender-free.”

The songs themselves are sex-obsessed—often in a puerile, confusedly horny, blurted-out-obscenity kind of way. “Broken Face” is a manic fairy tale about incest; “Bone Machine” paints a picture of a “preachy-preach” trying to “molest [the singer] in a parking lot.” “Gigantic”—which Deal has said was inspired by, of all things, the Sissy Spacek movie Crimes of the Heart—seems to tell a voyeuristic tale of someone (possibly a young girl) spying on a couple having sex in a “shady place.” But also, Deal insists, it’s not all that serious. The initial placeholder lyrics had been about “a big mall.” She changed it to “Hey, Paul” because, she says, “it had to rhyme.”

If Deal had her way, she’s said that Surfer Rosa might have been called NON PUSSY—an affectionate in-joke jab at Albini’s dismissal of everything they did as soft. But, increasingly, the whole point of the Pixies was that Kim Deal didn’t really get her way. By the band’s final two albums, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde, she’d been relegated to a marginal role in the band, and she had begun focusing much of her creative energy on the Breeders, which she fronted with her twin sister, Kelley. The tension between Deal and Thompson seemed to first spring from “Gigantic,” the bouncy, gleeful Surfer Rosa leadoff single on which Deal sang a charismatic lead vocal. “When journalists used to say things like, ‘Why doesn’t Kim sing more?’ Charles would leave the table,” Deal later recalled. “People liked it. People sang along even then. You’d have to ask Charles if that bothers him. I don’t know and I don’t care.”

“I have an ego,” Charles admitted. “You have to have an ego to do this. At the time, we would be playing and I would say to myself, ‘I’m doing all the work. She’s smoking a cigarette and the crowd is loving her. Why am I knocking myself out writing all these damn songs?’”

It had been Iggy Pop who’d first inspired the Pixies and, ironically, it was Iggy Pop who may have indirectly hastened their end. When Thompson finally got to meet his idol backstage at a festival shortly after Surfer Rosa hit, Pop had exclaimed, “Oh, yeah! ‘Gigantic’!” “Out of all the songs,” Thompson’s ex-wife Jean Walsh recalled, “it was the one Charles isn’t the lead singer on.”

“Lynchian” is an often overused adjective, but it is an appropriate word for the Pixies’ early, stream-of-consciousness lyrics (not to mention the fact that early in the Pixies’ life, Thompson dragged his band members to see Eraserhead and insisted that they cover the lady in the radiator song.) Like David Lynch’s inexplicably surreal cinematic nightmares, Pixies lyrics, at their best … just kind of mean what they mean. And so “Where Is My Mind?”, the song that, since its infamous appearance in the last scene of 1999’s Fight Club, has become cinematic shorthand for every Gen-X character’s overwrought existential crisis—a song that, in its subsequent appearances in The Leftovers and Mr. Robot, is now a meta-signifier for some kind of deep, spiritual split from oneself—is basically just “about” a time when a tiny fish was chasing Frank Black around while he was swimming on vacation.

Increasingly, from Bossanova onwards, Thompson started writing Pixies songs about things—which was perhaps stripping them of the very essence of a Pixies song. “It’s hard to keep that abstract surrealist thing going,” Thompson said in a 2004 Spin feature, shortly after the Pixies had reunited for a lucrative tour. “It’s like you start to get rid of the Jabberwocky ‘I’m going to sing the first words that come into my head’ approach. In a way, that kind of thing is good, but in a way that can become kind of hack. You sit down and you want to write a song about something.”

Maturation is healthy for a songwriter. And yet in this logic, I see the germ of the Pixies’ true undoing: The unfortunate pair of new albums they’ve released since their reunion, 2014’s Indie Cindy and 2016’s Head Carrier. (Deal, to her infinite credit, doesn’t play on either of these albums; also to her credit, the Breeders put out a solid new album earlier this year.) In a scathing but accurate Pitchfork review, the writer Jayson Greene called the post-reunion Pixies material “an increasingly mournful asterisk affixed to a beloved legacy.” Just the phrase “Indie Cindy” should give you a hint at what’s going on here: Thompson is trying to get back that “Jabberwocky” magic long after his self-consciousness of its existence has made it disappear. The latest, asterisked incarnation of the Pixies sounds like something particularly difficult to behold: sensible adults playing at being nonsensical kids.

As its 30th anniversary approached, I worried that these records would ruin Surfer Rosa for me. I’m pleased to report that they haven’t—in the grand scheme of things, I find Indie Cindy and Head Carrier blessedly easy to ignore. So powerful is Surfer Rosa’s urge to stay ignorant of the past that it becomes a kind of ignorance of the future, too. It feels violently separate from everything that came before and after it. Of all the Pixies albums, the U.K. music publication The Quietus recently wrote, “Surfer Rosa is the one that has aged into timelessness rather than becoming a period piece.”

I still remember what I was wearing the day I heard the Pixies for the first time—one of those bands. I came to them a generation or so late, so my chronology was a little mixed-up: Doolittle was the first Pixies album that reached me. What I happened to be wearing the day I put it in my CD player was a stupid-ironic thrift-store T-shirt, a frilly knee-length skirt, and Chuck Taylors. Among a billion other things, Doolittle asserted that this aesthetic hodgepodge—or any hodgepodge, including the one inside my teenage mind of which my outfit choices were a pretty obvious mirror—made perfect sense. I think I was 15. I was—how do you say—“not well-liked” at this time in my life, and a little later that school year, when some girls broke into my gym locker and stole my sneakers and my Discman, Doolittle was the CD that was inside. Whoever stole it probably just chucked the CD in the trash, but in my most benevolent moments, I have wished that they listened to it, that at least one of my teenage enemies gave the Pixies a chance. That it made them irrevocably weird.

At those first Pixies reunion shows in 2004, a lot of people noted how mixed the age of the crowd was: Not just people who’d been young when the Pixies were big, but new young people, actual present-tense teenagers and 20-somethings. At their best, the Pixies were able to bottle something eternally authentic about what it means to be angry, weird, and young. Even now, they exist somewhere outside of time. A teen I know is in a band that covers “Gigantic,” and when I once told her that I love that song, she looked at me with a scrunched-up face, doing the math: How are you young enough to know the Pixies?

Don’t trust anyone over 30, Surfer Rosa still screams to this day. But records over 30 don’t count.