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Publicity photo courtesy of Capitol Records

The Effect of the Beatles’ White Album on 1988-1995’s US Alt-Rock Explosion

The Beatles’ White Album was the single biggest influence on US alternative rock as it burst into the mainstream in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Pixies – Surfer Rosa

pixies Surfer Rosa

Boston band the Pixies sprang up in the wake of Hüsker Dü’s emergence from the underground to inject White Album-style eclecticism into their own music, beginning with their debut LP Surfer Rosa, released on the British indie label 4AD in March 1988. The group’s chief songwriter Charles Thompson has declared, in no uncertain terms, his indebtedness to the Beatles’ 1968 album in the making of this work, by calling it “the best record ever made” and stating: “I think that record has probably influenced me more than any other record.” He cites particularly what he sees as the Beatles’ purity of expression in its grooves: “you see the arc of that band, and all the stuff they went through, and the changes in their styles and their productions… and then they get that one moment, and it’s the toughest and the most beautiful record at the same time” (The Daily Beast, 20 September 2013).

Taking on the persona of Black Francis, Thompson succeeded in creating a similar sense of artistic outpouring on Surfer Rosa as on the White Album, along with “Mrs. John Murphy” (Kim Deal), Joey Santiago and David Lovering. The band instilled the album with impetuous expression and jarring contrasts, with little in the way of cohesive unity aside from a lyrical preoccupation with incest. It is here therefore that pop guitar songs like “Break My Body” rub shoulders with the violent hardcore assault of “Broken Face” and the slower, more melodic “Where Is My Mind?”, as well as the seemingly improvised, flamenco-flirting “Vamos”. This is not to forget the jubilant pop surge of “Gigantic”, a major stylistic diversion on the LP in view of it being the sole track to feature Kim Deal as the lead vocalist and co-writer.

On Surfer Rosa, the Pixies also evoked the Beatles’ preference for minimalism above stylization on the White Album, of the kind that relegated George Martin to the sidelines. Their appointment of Big Black frontman Steve Albini as engineer, not producer (underlined), was integral to this, his self-proclaimed role being to “capture” rather than “manipulate” the sound of a band, without threatening the artistic control of their product (Sound on Sound, September 2005). Albini, therefore, applied a “live in the room” approach to the Pixies’ debut LP and eschewed technological polish in favor of subverting the studio sound altogether.

He famously put amps in the bathroom to record “Gigantic”, for instance, to channel the natural echo and distortion. He further filtered Thompson’s vocal through a guitar amp to give it a terrifyingly contorted effect on “Something Against You”, while allowing verbal idiosyncrasies to seep into the recordings as a characteristic feature of the band, not so much “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” as the more prolonged sequences that include “You fucking die!” (from Thompson) and “There were rumors that he was into field hockey players” (from Deal).

With Albini serving as the hands-off Fifth Pixie, the band assimilated as much of the White Album’s episodic vitality as possible into Surfer Rosa, with particular attention to its most fragmentary tracks. Thompson has claimed “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” as the apotheosis of the kind of raw, loud, organic and naïve expression he aimed for on the record, being a piece that McCartney improvised in the studio with Ringo Starr as an experiment in bluesy minimalism that saw him sing the same line over and over at varying levels of intensity. Thompson has cited it as overall justification for “Something Against You”, on which he also howls one phrase repeatedly over a short series of chords: “It’s a ‘ditty’, and it’s a valid form” (Uncut, September 2018).

Thompson has further claimed “Savoy Truffle” as a major influence, this being the brass-infused soul song on side four of the White Album, which George Harrison originated on the theme of his friend Eric Clapton needing to break his addiction to quality confectionary. The Pixies frontman told Rolling Stone that it is one of five songs he wished he’d written, citing its deceptively dark lyrics as the reason.

The track, indeed, begins quite happily as a list of varieties of chocolates (“Creme tangerine and Montelimar”), yet then descends into the realm of tooth decay and tooth extraction while adopting language more akin to drug withdrawal (perhaps its real topic): “You might not feel it now, but when the pain cuts through, you’re going to know and how.” Thompson has, therefore, said: “There’s a riddle to it. It’s names of candies from a fancy box, but the punchline is that you’ve pulled out your teeth. It’s way darker than it appears” (Rolling Stone, 26 October 2016). He has also made this kind of frivolity atop macabre subject matter a dominant feature of his own lyrics on Surfer Rosa, invariably in relation to incest, as on “Broken Face”: “There was this boy who had two / Children with his sisters / They were his daughters / They were his favorite lovers.”

Joey Santiago, meanwhile, has claimed “Savoy Truffle” as the source of the Pixies’ defining guitar sound, which might even be called the defining sound of alt-rock, so influential has it become. He has pointed to Harrison’s note-bending guitar solo on the track, which marked his compelling return to the electric guitar, after his lengthy commitment to the sitar under the guidance of Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar. Santiago has expressed his excitement at the solo: “When you hear that song, you go, ‘Ah, there it is!'”

He has further described it as “a bluesy E that veers upward nearly half a step in a quick, mousy squeak”. He has, in fact, been refreshingly honest about his adoption of the same technique, saying how he “milked it for all it was worth”, it being responsible for the squealing and squalling on many a Surfer Rosa track, from “Where Is My Mind?” to “Vamos” and “Broken Face” (Ben Sisario, The Pixies Doolittle). The dissonance it creates is in many ways the only possible accompaniment to Thompson’s brilliantly demented vocals.

In all this devotion to the White Album, the Pixies made Surfer Rosa into the antithesis of the bombastic, overproduced, and glam-aspiring soft-rock then dominating the airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly in the form of sentimental power ballads soaked in power chords, tortured vocals and synthesizers. They ensured, particularly, that it provided relief from Bon Jovi’s “Never Say Goodbye” (1987), Aerosmith’s agonizing “Angel” (1988), and Whitesnake’s “Give Me All Your Love” (1988), and that it served as an ongoing corrective to the stylized sounds of Cinderella. They also saw to it that it became the Melody Maker and Sounds album of the year in the UK, where it gained a surer footing than in the US.

Furthermore, with this breakthrough success, they conceded the debt they owed to the White Album by recording “Wild Honey Pie” for their first BBC session on 3 May 1988, this being another fragment of a track that McCartney made up in experimental mode at Abbey Road in 1968, as a twangy sing-a-long “home-made” affair. They, therefore, took probably the Beatles’ least coverable track and made it into something loud, angry and threatening, and wholly representative of the kind of raw expression they aspired to achieve, enough to turn it into a staple of their live set.

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