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‘Surfer Rosa’ – A Look Back on an Indie-Rock Classic

Pixies Surfer Rosa
4AD / Rough Trade

At the time of its release, ‘Surfer Rosa’ was no big deal. The Pixies’ debut album came less than six months after their first EP, ‘Come on Pilgrim,’ which included a handful of songs remixed from their scrappy demo tape.

But ‘Come on Pilgrim’ didn’t stir much interest outside of a small college-rock cult audience. So when ‘Surfer Rosa’ hit shelves on March 21, 1988, it wasn’t like tons of fans were waiting for it.

But over the years the album’s rep grew. And grew. And grew. Today, ‘Surfer Rosa’ is considered an indie rock cornerstone, a masterpiece of the soft-loud-soft dynamic used by everyone from Nirvana to the Smashing Pumpkins to Spoon. It’s an essential record that connects the dots between ‘80s college rock and its evolution toward ‘90s indie. And the musical, lyrical and emotional tensions that drive the album come from very real places.

From the start, the fractious Boston group didn’t fit too squarely into the indie rock scene. For one thing, their abrasive noise pushed them closer to punk at times. But they also played around with traditional pop sounds occasionally, giving ‘Surfer Rosa’ (and their subsequent albums) a melodic pull that so many similar records, and music influenced by the Pixies, are missing. Then there’s that surrealistic element that runs through so many of their songs.

Steve Albini, best known at the time as frontman for abrasive Chicago punks Big Black and not as indie rock’s No.1 keepin’-it-real producer, captured the band with little studio effect. What he heard is pretty much what you get, from the glorious guitar explosion that fuels ‘Gigantic’ (sung by bassist Kim Deal) to ‘Where Is My Mind?’ (which has since upped its legend after an appearance in the final scene of ‘Fight Club’) to Black Francis’ slow-burning ‘Cactus’ (an exercise in expert restraint by a band that exhibited little).

You can hear ‘Surfer Rosa’’s influence, even if it’s just a tiny part, in almost every indie record that’s come out over the past 10 years. It never made the charts, and it took a while before it eventually went gold, but like the Pixies’ music, that quiet beginning gave way to something very loud indeed.

Listen to the Pixies’ ‘Gigantic’

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Next: Everything You Need to Know About the Pixies

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