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As 4AD releases a deluxe boxset to mark the 30th anniversary of Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, Gary Walker speaks to the chief protagonists behind one of indie music’s most influential and otherly classics. With contributions from Black Francis, Joey Santiago, Vaughan Oliver and Simon Larbalestier, Long Live Vinyl unravels the legacy of a stunningly dark debut…


The Pixies, circa Rosa (l to r): Joey Santiago, Black Francis, Kim Deal and David Lovering
Millicent Harvey

A thrilling wave of mutilation, voyeurism, violence, incest, superheroes, venereal disease, primal screaming, Catholic guilt and topless flamenco dancers… Billy Corgan called it “the one that made me go ‘holy shit’”, PJ Harvey gasped that it “blew my mind” and David Bowie said it was the best music made in the 80s. Kurt Cobain admitted to ripping it off and said of first hearing Surfer Rosa he “should have been in that band”. Pixies’ debut album turned 30 this year and remains as timeless, dark, surreal, unsettling and captivating as it was when four goofy kids emerged from Boston’s Q Division Studios with a scowling Steve Albini and the master tapes in hand, three decades ago.

In December 1987, the old order reigned over the album charts, with Rick Astley, UB40, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, George Michael and Fleetwood Mac dominating as Christmas approached. But a new disathected, exciting alternative wave was about to break, led by Charles formpson – aka Black Francis; Philippines-born guitar mangler Joey Santiago; Mrs John Murphy – aka Kim Deal, and drummer David Lovering. It would lead ultimately to Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead and the rise of grunge – a revolutionary breed hell-bent on washing away the cloying excesses of 80s rawk and replacing it with something provocative, urgent and raw.

To uncover the roots of Surfer Rosa, though, we first have to dig back to the 17-song Purple Tape demo produced by Gary Smith and recorded and mixed in a total of just six days in March 1987 at Boston’s Fort Apache Studios, using $1,000 borrowed from Francis’ father. the band’s then-manager, Ken Goes, sent the tape to a string of US and European record labels without sparking interest, before 4AD boss Ivo Watts-Russell bit. Popular legend has it that Watts-Russell was initially unsure, but was encouraged to persevere with the tape by his thengirlfriend. Yet he later recalled of the Purple Tape: “I absolutely adored it from day one, because my day one was marching around New York with it in a Walkman. It was very exciting. It was the obvious things, Joey’s guitar playing and the Spanish aspect to it.”

Surfer Rosa’s iconic album artwork was a collaboration between 4AD’s Vaughan Oliver and photographer Simon Larbalestier
Bassist and vocalist Kim Deal co-wrote Surfer Rosa’s only single, the anthemic Gigantic
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