In March 1987, Pixies entered a studio in Boston, Massachusetts to record a demo tape. The resulting 17 tracks ended up on a cassette known as The Purple Tape; the songs that featured would go on to reappear in various forms across their career, but an initial eight were trimmed and remixed by 4AD to become Come On Pilgrim. Songs sung in Spanish, religious references and a slow-fast, quiet-loud dynamic all featured heavily, forging a template and building a foundation for a group who, in many ways, would go on to be the ultimate alternative-rock group of the era.
Joey Santiago’s guitar is wiry and minimal yet also frenetic and crunchy, David Lovering’s drums are sparse yet heavy, and Black Francis’ vocals ricochet between scorched screams and angelic coos, as Kim Deal’s bass hammers away and her vocals add the perfect counterpoint to Francis’. For a band’s opening statement, they came out almost fully formed; tracks such as Ed Is Dead capture those sustained guitar notes singing out against Deal’s chugging bass and Francis’ inimitable vocals and hyper-rhythmic acoustic guitar. Such songs are sonic statements that define what people love about the band – but by the time of their 1988 full-length debut Surfer Rosa, they’d taken that formula and amped it up to new and blisteringly ferocious levels.
Bone Machine is a steroid-injected horse bolting out of the starting gate, and it sets an explosive tone. Not only is the production so much crisper and tauter from the off, but the band feel tight and in-sync. Francis’ and Deal’s vocals meld into one another or dance and hop around; the guitars sit so high in the mix, it’s as though Santiago is perched in your ear. Yet despite all the strong individualistic characteristics that burst through as everyone finds their place, every member feels in perfect service of the overall sound – on a record where space, punctuation and restraint are as fundamental as the blasts of noise. Aside from standout tracks Where Is My Mind?, Gigantic and Broken Face, 30 years on, the most rewarding element of Surfer Rosa is the vitality that oozes from this record. Something Against You explodes with a confidence, energy and spunk that can only come from a young band knowing they’ve hit on something special – and then hitting on it as hard as they can. Also included in the Deluxe Edition is Live From The Fallout Shelter, a previously unreleased radio session for WJUL, first aired in late 1986 that captures the band in incendiary form, featuring early airings of Caribou, Broken Face, Vamos and The Holiday Song.
Surfer Rosa is as challenging and odd as it is accessible: there aren’t many records that can kick out a pop gem like Gigantic one minute and then fire out the screeching noise assault of Vamos the next. These two opening-statement records still remain as vital as they are vivacious.
Written by Daniel Dylan Wray. Released on 4AD.