End of Part Four

17 Aug

intro-hnh

Youtube playlist
Spotify playlist

It’s the end of another era in the history of the group, and as usual I’ve put together an alternate tracklisting for the album. This time is a bit different, though; Intro and His ‘n’ Hers are interweaved to the extent that chronological separation is nigh-on impossible, and reducing the entire four years into one handy LP is made even more difficult due to the extremely high quality of the songs involved. If I were putting together a single-CD best-of perhaps half of the tracks would come from these years. Intro is already the only flawlessly sequenced Pulp LP – cutting out tracks spoils the flow a little – and while His ‘n’ Hers has its faults, my least favourite tracks at least have some part to play in the overall story, while better tracks from b-sides and EPs don’t exactly seem to fit.

Here’s my compromise, then – a long two-part LP, the first half being largely from Intro and the second from His ‘n’ Hers. In order to get here I’ve cut quite a few songs that would be shoe-ins to any other compilation, and stuck largely to Ed Buller productions – while he has his flaws I still feel that the positives greatly outweigh them, and his production style works well across multiple tracks without interruption from session or live versions.

Side A (Intro)
Space
O.U. (Gone, Gone)
Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia)
Babies
Your Sister’s Clothes
Sheffield: Sex City

Side B (His ‘n’ Hers)
Do You Remember The First Time
Acrylic Afternoons
Lipgloss
His ‘n’ Hers
She’s a Lady
Street Lites
David’s Last Summer

After producing this, I have

* Further awe that one group can produce so much astounding material in just a few years.
* A new-found respect for the original running order, as mine doesn’t flow nearly as well.
* A certainty that nobody will be happy, as I’ve definitely cut out some of your favourites.
* A vague feeling that I should have kept it at two albums, the way it really should be.
* An itch to start with Different Class, where this sort of thing will be much simpler.

I’m sure nobody else will be happy with this tracklisting, so let me know what you think in the comments section below, even if it’s just to say that the very act of messing with it is sacrilege.

#135 – Femme Fatale

10 Aug

Edie

Femme Fatale (Pulp, Black Session, 16 May 1994)
Femme Fatale (Velvet Underground & Nico)
Femme Fatale (Big Star)
Femme Fatale (R.E.M.)
Femme Fatale (Duran Duran)
Femme Fatale at Pulpwiki

“Andy said I should write a song about Edie Sedgwick. I said ‘Like what?’ and he said ‘Oh, don’t you think she’s a femme fatale, Lou?’ So I wrote ‘Femme Fatale’ and we gave it to Nico.” – Lou Reed

A “femme fatale” is a stock character; a dangerous, beautiful woman who lures men to their doom, a well-worn archetype of melodrama and fantasy. Edie Sedgwick was a woman whose short life seems to have contained little more than pain and suffering, who inspired famous men, only to be constantly sidelined and disposed of. Calling Edie Sedgwick a “femme fatale” seems either wilfully cruel or hopelessly naïve. Since it’s Warhol we’re talking about, we have to charitably assume the latter. Lou Reed, for better or worse, (probably better), went with the flow, composing a song based on a childlike fantasy of adult relationships, then handed it to Nico, the one person who could sing it with utter seriousness.

The Velvet Underground might have been groundbreaking and original, but at the same time they were another underground band from the sixties, and underground bands from the sixties are allowed to get away with things that wouldn’t fly a decade earlier or later. The original Femme Fatale is great in its way, but only because it conjures up a spell with its strange sincerity. Cover versions since seem at best superfluous, and more often miss the point entirely. REM tackle it head-on, and just sound uncomfortable and silly. Duran Duran fit it better (they have much sillier lyrics of their own of course), but their version is garish and grating, and in no way good either. Big Star did a better job in making it sound utterly generic, but no points are easily won there either.

In their defence, Pulp never released their cover of Femme Fatale – it was a one-off thing for the Black Sessions, and was never revisited. Clearly it’s a popular song with the group as they are able to make a decent stab at replicating the original’s mechanical doll magic and that warm guitar sound. They don’t really get there, of course, but it’s a brave attempt. The only real slip-up is in the vocal. You can’t really blame Jarvis, a female voice is really needed here, and the backing vocals are missing completely, which only serves to highlight how essential they are. The melody is a bit too slight, too, and Jarvis seems only semi-committed to performing it, unsure whether to sing or speak.

So, what can we elicit from this? Mainly that there is a thread – albeit a small one – that connects Pulp and The Velvet Underground – a desire to write about people, about everyday life, a fondness for songs that tell a story, a desire to create pictures with sound and words. The recording itself is an interesting-enough curio, but it’s a dead end they didn’t need to explore any further.

#134 – Street Lites

3 Aug

CNV00070

Street Lites (b-side to ‘Do You Remember The First Time’, 1994)
Street Lites at Pulpwiki

Ten years ago, when I took this photo, I was a lodger in a small town outside Prague. Every evening I would take the subway to my “local” bar in a central suburb, and return at around 4am via two night trams and one night bus, which deposited me on a motorway sliproad a mile away from home. That’s how every day ended – walking for half an hour along a deathly quiet three-lane highway with nothing to see except road and grass verge.

If that sounds awful, then let me stress that it wasn’t – in fact it was my favourite part of the day. Something about the simplicity of the artificial geography and the lack of distractions allowed me to think clearly, while the fresh air sobered me up. Occasionally a lorry would approach, pass and retreat into the darkness – a moment of great drama in the stillness of the night. On the few occasions I was able to share this journey with someone, the time became magic, incandescent, unforgettable.

These are the moments Street Lites evokes for me – that unnatural stillness you can only find in a modern European city at night. Always a group with a feel for place and time, Pulp have already taken us on night-time adventures through terrifying northern cities populated by stalkers and thugs, sexualised urban landscapes, furtive, perverse suburbia and repulsive, blighted tower blocks. This is different, though – we’ve left The North behind, or any locality for that matter. These places are like that – lacking in character, you could call it, or a blank canvas for your own feelings. This could be the bedsit London of Different Class, or the alienated nowhere of This Is Hardcore, we just don’t know.

It’s odd how many threads are picked up here, while we enter sonically new territory. Is this just a shiny chrome mirror held up to Blue Glow, with all the grime and fear leeched out, cocaine-fuelled mania taking the place of paranoid hallucinations? The organ intro sounds like Silence, of all things, and structurally we’re in the same territory as Someone Like The Moon – a similarly-constructed song, but with a much more satisfying realisation. What makes this song different is the newly confident narrator, and an adult relationship on equal terms – Jarvis has stopped complaining about new boyfriends and started an affair with somebody else’s wife. It’s not all chocolate boxes and roses, of course – they know they are doing something wrong, something they can’t defend, but that knowledge somehow just makes it harder for them to control themselves.

There’s a desperate sexual itch here, then, but one that’s strung-out and cold too. The group seem to have recorded and mixed the track in the absence of Ed Buller, and the sound is consequently much more minimalist, with Russell’s violin given much more space to roam. The first verse consists only of a few tracks – organ, vocal and plucked refrain, but even when the full band join in at the chorus everything sound separated and clear. Nick’s drums – an odd little stuttering jazz fill, looped – continue through to the second verse, lending the track an odd underlying skiffle/trip-hop hybrid rhythm. Otherwise there’s little in the way of variation, more the building of a groove, with Steve’s bassline working as the pulsing heartbeat of the sleeping city. It’s a contradictory sound – produced from a haphazard collection of parts, while the entirety sounds uniformly cold and smooth, yet warm and sensual.

Jarvis’s vocals are a vital factor here, of course. In a sense the whole track sounds like a come-on to a woman, but underneath it’s a bit more complex. The vocal is several takes on top of each-other – some spoken, some sung, one just a series of grunts and groans, each taking turns to come to the foreground – but while these sound different, they have a unity of purpose. There is little in the way of confusion or mess here.

My favourite part of the track comes at three minutes in – one of those perspective-shaking breakdowns that seem to represent the group at their best, moments of clarity through distortion – “We’ve got to go on meeting like this…” Even without it, though, Street Lites would be a success, albeit a secret one. A near-six-minute semi-epic, it didn’t fit with the narrative of His ‘n’ Hers at all. It’s just one of those things that has to stand alone.

#133 – Someone Like The Moon

19 Jul

obuIDPn

Someone Like The Moon (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Someone Like The Moon at Pulpwiki

“I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about being sold an illusion by songs and TV. When I got older and started to have relationships and stuff, and found that life doesn’t necessarily have a gripping plot, I felt like I’d been conned in some way, so it was always a thing from early on to write about what those things really were like, rather than the way they were presented in songs and stuff. You know, people do live life at just as extreme an emotional pitch in a place such as Sheffield, which has got a lot of faults, but people do fall in love and live and die in those places, and i couldn’t see that anyone was representing that, and I thought it’s just as dramatic as it happening in Beverly Hills or something” – Jarvis on “Do You Remember The First Time?” Radio 1 documentary

It’s just over twenty years since His ‘n’ Hers was released, a little less than that since I bought it, and it’s only this week that I’ve started to like ‘Someone Like The Moon’. For most of that time it was, at best, a mood-killer. Ambivalent as I was to Pink Glove, it at least provided an emotional climax to side B, but when it faded and that impossibly, childishly minimal ascending scale appeared, it felt like a lull, a loss of momentum where the big closer was required. And what was it about, anyway? A bored girl sitting at home? What was that unremarkable mid-paced waltz doing calling itself a chorus before it fizzled out uselessly back into the equally unremarkable verse? His ‘n’ Hers was treading water where it should have been lifting off, and skipping forward to David’s Last Summer seemed to be nothing less than an act of mercy.

With the passage of time, and listened to in isolation, though, SLTM isn’t nearly as bad as all that. It’s a mood-setter rather than an anthem, a succession of tones designed to evoke a feeling – an odd, interesting feeling too. Harking back to the group’s 80s ballads, it switches their melodrama for a kind of spooky boredom, the feeling of being left alone to deal with an impossibly vast existential emptiness gnawing at the back of your mind. Its air of broken romantic balladry sounds like an imagined new romantic incarnation of Scott Walker.

It’s a character piece, but once more intended to give shape to fears which belong to Jarvis and which (hopefully) are universal too – again the disappointment of a romantic when they are inevitably faced with the real world, but this time with romanticism itself being a ploy, a veil for both naivety and cynicism. As a character, the girl is only vaguely sketched, but that’s also sort of the point – these romantic clichés have reduced her to one too. At the end we shift into the third person – as we will do again later in ‘Catcliffe Shakedown’ – making us both observer and observed. It’s a complex piece then, and it works, in its own way.

Being in a recording studio, making a record, involves close observation, and grand gestures which sound great on a car radio may be sidelined by small touches which nobody will notice. Maybe that’s why SLTM is on this LP – the beauty of the sound blinded the group to the flaws of the song underneath. The production of the track is a delicate, intricately layered thing, with subtle layers of synth sounds, reminiscent at times of the Twin Peaks theme, gentle touches of timpani and heavily distorted bass and cymbals faded and smudged to near-ambient levels. Jarvis is close-miked to exploit the resonances in his voice, and this works well too. Best of all, though, is the use of Russell’s violin, properly exploited by Ed Buller for the first time, giving the track a painful, distant sense of yearning.

SLTM is very successful in a sense then, but my initial doubts still remain. There is something fundamentally unresolved and unsatisfying about the track, and slotted penultimately into His ‘n’ Hers, it still sounds like a lull – and an unneccecary one considering the strength of the other tracks which could’ve taken its place. The group’s love affair with it seems to have been brief too – it was written, recorded and released within a few months, then immediately forgotten about. Reproducing it in a live environment may have been difficult, but similar translations between the studio and the stage have at least been attempted. Ultimately it earned a reputation as the duff track on a good album, but does it deserve it? I’m really not sure.

#132 – His ‘n’ Hers

10 Jul

His and hers

His ‘n’ Hers (The Sisters EP, 1994)
His ‘n’ Hers (Live film, ‘Butt Naked’ 1994)
His ‘n’ Hers (Live film, ‘The Beat’ 1994)
His ‘n’ Hers (Live film,’ 1994)
His ‘n’ Hers (Live film, Pomona, California, 2011)
Compilation of live adlibs
His ‘n’ Hers at Pulpwiki

“This was the English passion, not for self-improvement or culture or wit, but for DIY, Do It Yourself, for bigger and better houses with more mod cons, the painstaking accumulation of comfort and, with it, status – the concrete display of earned cash.”
Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia

“In the homes of the middle-middles and below, the ‘lounge’ (as they call it) is likely to have a fitted carpet. The higher castes prefer bare floorboards, often part-covered with old Persian carpets or rugs. The middle-middle ‘lounge’ might have a cocktail cabinet, and their dining room a hostess trolley. The contents of lower-middle and some upper-working ‘front rooms’ will often be obscured by net curtains, but they are likely to be dominated by large television sets and, among the older generation, may boast embroidered or lacy covers on the arms of chairs and carefully displayed ‘collections’ of small objects (spoons, glass animals, Spanish dolls, figurines) from package holidays or mail-order catalogues”
Kate Fox, Watching the English – The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

“Do you have any idea what it’s like being English? Being so correct all the time, being so stifled by this dread of doing the wrong thing, of saying to someone “Are you married?” and hearing “My wife left me this morning,” or saying, uh, “Do you have children?” and being told they all burned to death on Wednesday. You see, Wanda, we’ll all terrified of embarrassment. That’s why we’re so… dead. Most of my friends are dead, you know, we have these piles of corpses to dinner.”
John Cleese in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’

“Are you genuinely frightened by James Dean posters, Jarvis?”
“They’re everywhere. In clip frames. That ‘Boulevard Of Broken Dreams’ thing. He’s there with his coat, hunched up, in Times Square. You grow up seeing sad kids trying to look like him. Every time you go to get a takeaway he’s there on the wall. It’s like Marilyn Monroe: they’re just around so much you get sick of the cliché. They represent a lack of imagination. Pathetic lip service to ‘I’m a rebel’. They’ve had all the life sucked out of them through over-use. The notion of “rebellion” seems increasingly dodgy… In music it’s stone-dead now. Institutionalised. Karaoke. Guns N’Roses.”

Interview in Melody Maker, 1994

Camille: Jarvis did this thing that I love. At first I thought it was weird, but now I like it. When we go out he checks to see what I’m wearing, like the colours or shapes. It’s not that he tries to match me but he can dress in the same family of colours. It’s this old school way of showing that you belong.
Jarvis: Yeah, but it’s not like we wear exactly the same thing. It’s not like it’s his n’ hers.
Camille: No, no, that’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s just like the same family of colours.
Jarvis: It’s about wearing something related.

Interview with Jarvis Cocker and Camille Bidault-Waddington at ONTD

Viewed from afar, English culture – particularly middle class English culture – is, to put it mildly, fucking weird. We are obsessed with rules – how to dress, how to eat, how to decorate your house, how to speak, how to interact with other people – and will use these indicators to instantly label strangers as belonging to a certain place and a certain class – or worse for not belonging to it, for importing ideas from outside, and therefore being either pretentious or morally suspect. It’s a deeply conservative, parochial instinct, but one which sometimes manifests itself, ironically, in the production of eccentrics. If you’re going to rebel against this suffocating duvet of a culture then you need to reject it entirely, take everything on your own terms – hence William Blake, Oscar Wilde, George Sitwell, Aleister Crowley, W. Heath Robinson, Stanley Unwin, Vivian Stanshall, Quentin Crisp, Alan Moore, Jarvis Cocker*…

That’s not a particularly happy list of people. British cultural norms are a heavy weight to cast off, and they leave their mark in a million petty, annoying ways. We are a small island, constantly in the grip of obsessions and fads. Entertainment, arts, food, people – these all seem to become famous at the whims of a selection of tastemakers, without the intervention of the public at all. Things arrived at in a more democratic manner – let’s call it pop culture / music** – are looked down on as being lower class, vulgar, simple, rubbish – and if you admit to liking them then you are, once again, either pretentious or somehow wrong in the head. Stepping out of what is accepted for your social group would cause embarrassment, and that would never do.

Embarrassment is a central tenet of the English mind, and a taste for moderation follows as an ingrained reflex. To be showy is to make a scene, and to purchase the same tasteful soft-furnishings as your friends and neighbours is a sure-fire method of avoiding burdening others with having to react to your tastes or emotions. Unconsciously we create boundaries between classes, regions and “foreign” – and this acts as a shortcut to know who’s in your circles and who isn’t. Pulp, meanwhile, are attempting to create their own circle, one constructed in opposition to these boundaries and prejudices. Beyond this song we have the very concept of “Pulp people” – the lists of Pulp things on concert flyers – the messages on the back of sleeves – all very inclusive, but all about rejecting the mediocrity of compromised everyday life.

But why reject compromise and comfort? Just “to be different”? Perhaps the enemy here is familiarity itself – for many this is the only source of comfort in an unpredictable world, but for others it has the effect of numbing the mind to all sensations. We (the narrator) are in the latter group, of course, let’s call it Modern Life is Suffocating. The woman in His ‘n’ Hers is a refuge from this feeling, but she also seems to be a member of the first group rather than the second. We are reminded from time to time that she’s an actual person, but she’s nevertheless viewed through the prism of his obsession. All he can see are the clichés, the litany of household tat, and even sex (the escape hatch in My Legendary Girlfriend and Sheffield: Sex City) has been reduced to a mechanical series of IKEA instructions – “pull the units down’, “shove it in sideways”. There’s a tangible disgust in his self-awareness of this, a horror in his own feelings, a shame, as desire to hide. This might seem strange (because he doesn’t seem to be doing anything terribly wrong) until you consider the obvious conclusion; that we’re talking about a dangerous, out-of-control fetish. While the narrator is repelled and alienated by these signifiers, he’s also secretly attracted to them. Each time, at the end of the chorus, he submits to her, but not enough to allow himself to be subsumed by these norms. Couplehood itself is a trap for him, he will lose himself in the creation of ‘us’ – a final surrender to everything he opposes, but he simply can’t help it. It’s a whirlpool of intense conflicting feelings, and he’s drowning.

This is the real difference from Frightened; the conjuring of all of this has been done on an extreme, but emotionally convincing level. It isn’t that Jarvis genuinely really feels this way (at least we hope), more that he’s been able to extrapolate his feelings to their unnatural conclusion. And with this sense of direction, his voice suddenly works too. We start with him sounding harsh and metallic, cold with an edge of desperation, and then witness him continually straining, losing his façade and breaking. This tension continues until the spoken word section*** salvaged from Frightened appears. Now it’s a confession to his girlfriend, who has asked him, harmlessly enough, what he’s frightened of. The resultant list of middle-class tat concludes with him admitting to a terror of “evenings in the Brincliffe Oaks, searching for a conversation” – i.e. numbness, absence of thought. “Are you stupid?” she says, and he surrenders once again. For a moment it seems that she can make it all better, drown the fear in earthy sexual joy and laughter, but then we cut back to “Are we going to do it again…?” and there is no redemption.

Of course, all this would’ve counted for nothing if His ‘n’ Hers wasn’t such an accomplished piece of music. Built more like a piece of ambient dance music than a traditional rock or pop song, it consists of various elements being added and then dropped as it progresses, with the illusion of normality being maintained only by Steve’s chugging backgrounded bassline and the mandatory gear-shift in and out of the chorus.

The first element to be introduced, and probably the most memorable, is Candida’s brilliantly ridiculous popcorn-style keyboard sequence, but the moment the song comes alive for me is with the looped drumroll dropped into the song at 40 seconds in. Then there’s the sickly waves of synth drone built up by Candida and Ed Buller. After the first chorus the drum loop changes to a Magnus-style tribal battering, then the creepy wandering guitar line starts to emerge, growing in prominence until the whole song has shifted its mood to an Italian horror soundtrack. Finally, as we get to “I want to…” everything comes back in together; a wave of intensity, which then breaks and falls back to the maddening background pressure.

It’s an astounding piece of music – all the more so for *not* jumping out at you. This sort of thematic and musical complexity, bordering on the avant-garde, is in its own way a high water-mark. Pulp would rarely again be this intense, this obsessed or this wilful in their pushing at the boundaries of what a pop song could be. Yet more astonishing is the fact that it was left off the LP, despite being the title track – I genuinely cannot fathom how or why this happened, but I can’t say it isn’t missed.

This is Pulp in 1994, and there’s nobody else doing anything like it.

*You may note that these are all men – historically there has been much more pressure on women to abide by social norms – nevertheless we could make an equally impressive female list, but they would be eccentrics of a different type.

**Not a separate category entirely – in fact there’s a great deal of overlap – but the difference can easily be seen in the different reactions of the middle class. Food culture is the perfect example of this, as can be seen as the different attitudes towards high class burger restaurants and McDonald’s. It may taste the same, or be equally unhealthy, but one is acceptable and one is not.

*** This spoken section was used in live performances for ad-hoc improvisations, starting with a bad-tempered rant against Depeche Mode and progressing into audience vox-pops. It was always a highlight – inclusive, inventive and making you feel like you’ve just seen something special and unique. His ‘n’ Hers was a mainstay of their sets for most of 1994, before being edged out by the appearance of the less claustrophobic material that would become the foundation of Different Class, which was a shame.

#131 – Frightened

30 Jun

figurines

Frightened (Demo, 1993)
Frightened at Pulpwiki

“A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”

― Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

David’s Last Summer wasn’t the only part of His ‘n’ Hers with a long gestation period. We’re approaching the last few songs from the album and the supposed central theme – the title in fact – has yet to appear. Well, here it is, only it’s not quite right, yet.

Were it not for the existence of song #132, I may well be ready to marvel at Frightened as a lost classic. Without context and comparison lots of things sound great, I suppose. Oh, the idea is there, sure enough, and it works fairly well as a song, and plenty of other groups would have been happy with that. That’s what Frightened sounds like, in fact, a parallel dimension Pulp who respected their own ideas a bit too much to know when it was time to bin them, a Pulp who were happy to settle with “That’ll do.”

It’s a sound enough idea – “one man’s fear of domestic interiors set to music” – but it’s an ambivalent kind of fear, one which attracts as much as it repels, a sick addiction to something that’s bad for you, like the woman in You’re A Nightmare. As there, the problem is the human element, how to turn this concept into a living thing with real people and real feelings. Here the revulsion with chintzey middle-class life is paired with the fear of loss of self-control to love and desire, and while it’s almost there it ultimately doesn’t fit – on the one hand we have this romantic struggling with unexpected feelings and on the other we have Habitat-phobia, with no attempt made to connect the dots or flesh out the characters, and it just seems too forced and melodramatic. Lines like “The figurines have taken over the house / And it’s a hell of a mess / And the pictures won’t hang straight anymore” just sound nervous and prissy – why should we care about this bric-a-brac exactly? Of course, there is something there, it was just that a little more digging was needed.

The intention of the lyric is opaque, then, and stuck with how to present it, Jarvis goes for a sneery punk vocal style, a Yorkshire Mark E Smith, but without his wit or his air of danger this just comes off as a bit juvenile. These kitsch items in and of themselves are not earth-shatteringly terrible, and simple derision isn’t going to sell the concept. The backing too is unsure where to tread, though at times it’s actually very good, starting from the Philip-Glass style opening, through the ghostly organ and Steve’s sarcastic bully of a bassline, past the let-down of a chorus, and finally into a pretty magnificent rhubarb & custard guitar solo which speeds up into an excellent Cardiacs-style breakdown / disintegration.

There’s plenty of good stuff to be found in ‘Frightened’, but ultimately it was still necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The song overall is finished, but the chorus simply doesn’t work, the concept as a whole still seems badly stitched together, and while some parts really do work, all they do is highlight the parts that don’t. So, back to the drawing board then. The demo was shelved, eventually being dusted off for the 2006 deluxe edition bonus CD, to assume its rightful place as a mildly-interesting enjoyable-enough curiosity which had to make way for…

#130 – David’s Last Summer

23 Jun

'Summer' by Wavingmyarmsintheair

David’s Last Summer (‘His ‘n’ Hers’, 1994)
David’s last Summer at Pulpwiki

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925).

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time”
John Lubbock

“Pulp once played a festival in Liverpool that was held in Sefton park. I remember seeing a Victorian glasshouse that had been left to its own devices after public service cuts. The plants were completely overgrown and the building seemed likely to explode at any moment due to the volume of vegetation inside.”

Jarvis Cocker – Mother, Lover, Brother

“We looked at each other irresolutely and then by common consent pushed through the rushes to the river bank. The river had been hidden until now. At once the landscape changed. The river dominated it— the two rivers, I might say, for they seemed like different streams. Above the sluice, by which we stood, the river came out of the shadow of the belt of trees. Green, bronze, and golden it flowed through weeds and rushes; the gravel glinted, I could see the fishes darting in the shallows. Below the sluice it broadened out into a pool that was as blue as the sky. Not a weed marred the surface; only one thing broke it: the intruder’s bobbing head.”
LP Hartley – The Go-Between

“When you get the first hot day of the year, I always get these pictures in my head. You think of all the things that happen in summer, swimming in lakes and building a tree-house and you get quite excited. But then you know that you’re not going to do all those things, you’re probably just going to end up working like you normally do. But it would be good just to have one summer that was like that one time and so I wanted to capture that feeling of those summers that seem to go on forever and you can do lots of things.”

Jarvis Cocker, French newspaper interview, 1994

“In summer, the song sings itself.”
William Carlos Williams

The idea of writing a song to evoke the endless summers of Sheffield in the late 70s had been in the air for quite a while. The first attempt, one of two songs named “My First Wife“, has already been covered, but undoubtedly there are many other attempts that fizzled out in the rehearsal room between 1987 and 1994. The version that emerges in the His ‘n’ Hers sessions has only a few snatches of lyrics and a theme in common, but the process of change itself has left its mark. It has an odd mish-mash structure, apparently being created out of a grab-bag of different snatches of music that didn’t fit anywhere else and were commandeered by this back-burner project. Along the way it also gained some fairly odd musical flourishes (including a sneaky lift) and a sympathetic producer who seems to have been determined to let his final touches be as near perfect as possible.

A snatch of lyrics and a theme may not sound like a lot, but David’s Last Summer is built around its narrative – as a short story rather than a song. That doesn’t mean that it’s an atmospheric bed for a poem – when it kicks in, after the lull of ‘Someone Like The Moon’, it actually sounds like the album is getting a second wind. DLS is the first pastoral Pulp song, and half-remembered it will always seem to be thoughtfully dramatic, so the sudden jump into this high-tempo mid-80s light jazz/funk always seems slightly jarring, and for a moment I’m tempted to think of it as a misfire. It’s not, though, it’s just a break from the expected shimmering, laidback feel of long hot summer films, a more realistic representation of the giddy feeling at the start of English summer holidays, and makes perfect sense as the start of our story.

We made our way slowly down the path that led to the stream, swaying slightly, drunk on the sun, I suppose. It was a real summer’s day. The air humming with heat, whilst the trees beckoned us into their cool green shade. And when we reached the stream, I put a bottle of cider into the water to chill, both of us knowing that we’d drink it long before it had chance.

Jarvis got the name of the song from a book in his school library called “Pennington’s Last Summer” which he saw but never read. Except he didn’t – K.M. Peyton’s classic young adult novel was called “Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer” though it was also published as “Pennington’s Last Term.”

Pennington's Last Summer

Misrememberings like this always seem to be the wellspring of good art, and this is a great song title, vague and evocative. Who is this “David”? The lyrics constantly shift perspective – “we” “you” (female) “you (male) and her” “Peter” – but there’s never a David mentioned. Is this the kid called David from ‘Babies’? And why is it his last summer? Is this a character whose death makes the memory of this summer indelible, or is it a “last” summer before he leaves? The value of this summer is defined by how fleeting it is, and the possibility of death at the end sharpens this pressure.

If the year is a cycle of death and rebirth, then in summer we pass the peak and look down into the shadowy valley beyond.

This is where you want to be / There’s nothing else but you and her / And how you spend your time

The Last Summer is a perfected archetype, specific but general. It’s in Sheffield, in the 70s, but it could be anywhere and at any time. We’re caught between the innocence and carelessness of childhood and the nostalgia and awareness of consequences that come with adulthood. There’s a tension between the blissfully tranquillity of lying in the sun and daydreaming and the self-consciousness born from that freedom to think. We’re slipping into a slower pace, but under that soothing pastorality there’s an intense consciousness that makes the memories stronger, more vivid, more important.

We went driving

There are moments like this that are intensely filmic. Is it possible at this point not to picture the non-existent music video, the group heading down country roads in a convertible? We are in a moment, in a time, in a place. To be able to suspend disbelief like this is the measure of success for a piece like this. Was there really a summer like this? How much of it was spent bored or distracted? It doesn’t matter, of course.

The room smells faintly of sun tan lotion in the evening sunlight, and when you take off your clothes, you’re still wearing a small pale skin bikini. The sound of children playing in the park comes from faraway, and time slows down to the speed of the specks of dust floating in the light from the window.

Memory may be eternal and timeless, but real time is limited. In David’s Last Summer each moment is caught, frozen, before we suddenly skip forward to the next. The effect is that of flicking though a stack of polaroids. On summer holidays I used to focus intently on a single moment, think about how it would seem later as a memory, then, as it passed, think about how it was gone now and unchangeable. I don’t know if this is something other people did.

Time is limited, everything will die. To feel time passing is to lose it.

So we went out to the park at midnight one last time. Past the abandoned glasshouse stuffed full of dying palms. Past the bandstand and down to the boating lake. And we swam in the moonlight for what seemed like hours, until we couldn’t swim anymore.

Sefton Park Glasshouse - here pictured in a better-managed state

The abandoned glasshouse is in Liverpool, the bandstand may be the one mentioned in the DYRTFT film. Memories are cut and pasted as much as music is – each section is different, but all somehow fit. Here we notice a snatch of melody which seems to be lifted from “Lisa (All Alone)” by Santo & Johnny. We’ve started at a casual fast pace, slowed down into contemplation, and now we’re speeding up again into an anxious close, but at no point has our journey seemed forced or unnatural.

As we walked home, we could hear the leaves curling and turning brown on the trees, and the birds deciding where to go for the winter. And the whole sound, the whole sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town.

Pulp’s first attempt at a spoken song, Goodnight, took listeners gently down to road to sleep before shouting “boo” just as they were drifting off. It was a mean trick, but there was a good idea somewhere behind it. DLS doesn’t descend into horror, just a curdling, the love of the moment morphing into the impossible desire to hold on to it. First there’s the picked guitar, like September birdsong, the distant thunderclap of rumbling bass, then in comes Candida’s slightly out of tune Farfisa, like the distorted 8mm film of a beach holiday. Finally the pace starts to pick up, with Russell’s icy, discordant stabs of violin, as chilling as the first autumn winds, a storm rolling in, the sky darkening, the desperate feeling that the summer is over and there will never be another one like it, a final moment of crisis between the experience and the bittersweet memory.

And as we came out of the water we both sensed a certain movement in the air, and we both shivered slightly, and we ran to collect our clothes. And as we walked home, we could hear the leaves curling and turning brown on the trees, and the birds deciding where to go for the winter. And the whole sound, the whole sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town.

…and up and up we go, taking off like a kite carried off into the storm. There is no more satisfying ending to a Pulp album, no better example of a story in a song. A hodge-podge of different sections, cobbled together over half a decade, it still works as high narrative drama, and (dare I say) art. Pulp would be soon be much bigger, and perhaps even better, but they’d never again simultaneously be this odd and this brilliant.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 293 other followers