How ‘Surfer Rosa’ changed my world

On the 30th anniversary of Pixies debut album 'proper', 'Surfer Rosa', Mark Beaumont remembers how discovering the record changed his life forever.

So much incest. The guy in ‘Break My Body’ breaking down his mother’s bedroom door to fulfil his perverted desires like Borat’s cage-breaking brother Bilo. The ‘Broken Face’ offspring that result from another guy sleeping with the children he has with his sisters. The dude from ‘Vamos’ running away with his sister to have “well hung” sons. Had I known any Spanish or made much effort to decipher the lyrics, all the incest might have put me off. This stuff made Oedipus look like Forrest Gump.

Instead, all I heard was an unhinged flamenco punk maniac barking and yelping over some of the most beautifully brutal and cruelly melodic songs I’d ever heard. And ‘Surfer Rosa’ blew my tiny teenage mind.

 

I came to Pixies via the dark, Satanic ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ video, snuck onto a cheesy Saturday morning TV programme called The Chart Show in 1989 like that part of a horror film where an innocent home movie flickers to reveal the slaughter scene recorded beneath. ‘Doolittle’ sat in my local HMV rack like a death cult recruitment pamphlet daring me to believe in it. Ordinary pop kids with the souls of Biblical sadists, Pixies seemed laser-guided for the likes of teen me; dark-hearted, fascinated by the gorier end of classical literature, eager for the hard stuff but still besotted by Beatles hooks. I cut loose the bucket and dived headfirst into Pixies’ well.

From ‘Doolittle’, the fledgling Pixies fan has two options. Take the silver pill and wake up in ‘Bossanova’ believing any sci-fi, Area 51 conspiracy theories they want to believe. Or take the rusty pill, stay in Debaserland and see how deep the waves of mutilation go. I took the rusty pill, picked up ‘Surfer Rosa’ and entered a world where topless flamenco dancers clicked around Mexican ruins, incest was rampant, bones turned mechanical, prisoners were allowed gifts of bodily fluids through the mail and any old Tony could be a superhero.

 

At first, Surfer Rosa’ was a demanding tease. The grisly allure of ‘Bone Machine’ gave way to a series of urgent, rabid rants too hardcore for my then-sensitive tastes; I lit upon Kim Deal’s stupendous ‘Gigantic’ like a palm-swathed paradise in the eye of a tempest. The beguiling ‘Where Is My Mind?’ acted as a kind of soothing reassurance and the more light-hearted rampages of side two (as was) such as ‘Oh My Golly!’ and ‘Tony’s Theme’ were more welcoming than the initial assault of ‘Something Against You’ and ‘Broken Face’, and gradually I acclimatised. It was ‘Tame’, I surmised, but – well – wilder.

The more absorbed I got, the tighter it gripped. Where so much metal and hardcore music seemed out to deflect the passing interest of the pop hordes, there was something truly menacing about the way tracks like ‘Cactus’, ‘Bone Machine’ and ‘River Euphrates’ enticed and intrigued the pop-minded into these gruesome sonic and lyrical landscapes, or the way the record used the familiarity and sexuality of flamenco music to strip away some of the stolid attributes of rock and reform it in a refreshing new shape. The sound of bloodstained claws attacking Spanish guitars.

Obviously I became a deep-seated convert to the Church Of St Black Francis – to this day, a good four out of five of my favourite ever gigs are Pixies gigs and there was serious discussion about calling my daughter Velouria – but this gruesome yet melodic tone had just as much of an impact on my further listening. The arch, artful decay of the 4AD aesthetic drew me to fall for This Mortal Coil, and I became an unwitting disciple of Steve Albini’s production work; his stark, desolate approach to encrusting pop melodies made The Breeders’ debut ‘Pod’ and The Wedding Present’s masterpiece ‘Seamonsters’ amongst the most enduringly brilliant albums I’ve ever heard.

On the flipside, loving ‘Surfer Rosa’ seemed to instantly exclude me, a few years later, from liking Nirvana. Kurt would admit that he’d been trying to write ‘Surfer Rosa’ songs when concocting ‘Nevermind’ but to the Pixies diehard that was blatantly obvious from the moment the opening riff of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ turned to ominous bass. This was Pixies made glossy for the Guns’n’Roses crowd, I thought, who the hell would ever fall for that?

I may have been quick to judge, but I was young, snarly and freshly, defiantly anti-commercial. As Nimrod is my witness, Pixies made me this way. Perhaps they overdid the incest, mind…