#128 – Joyriders

1 Mar

'Joyrider' by Ross McDonnell

Joyriders (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Joyriders (acoustic) (b-side, Common People, 1995)
Joyriders (Sky Arts ‘Songbook’, 2009)
Joyriders (live film)
Joyriders (live film, Glastonbury 1995)
Joyriders (live film, Reading 2011)
Joyriders at Pulpwiki

“I was trying to push the car off the road so I could make my way to the garage on foot when a new Ford Mondeo pulled up and the (very young) driver asked me what was up. His (also very young) friends got out of the back of the car and helped me push the [1974 Hillman Imp] off the road. They then offered to give me a lift to the garage, which I accepted. Once inside the car I realised that it very probably did not belong to them… …The driver and his friends seemed very excited and offered me chocolate limes. We drove (at speed) to the garage and then they drove me back to my vehicle with the necessary jerrycan of fuel. This is how I repaid their kindness.”
– Jarvis Cocker in Mother, Brother, Lover

One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at His ‘n’ Hers is that delicately crafted songs are drowned in the heavy cream of Ed Buller’s production. So it’s an odd sensation, playing it after a year or two away, to hear that familiar unfiltered Britpop guitar riff, and an immediate launch into the most standard indie track of Pulp’s career so far. No layered synths, no ghostly undercurrent, just chunky guitars, a straightforward melody and the uncluttered production sheen associated with “classic rock.”

For many professional reviewers this is decidedly *a good thing* – for example, here’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine at Allmusic:

“Joyriders kicks the album into gear with its crashing guitars. It establishes Pulp not just as a pop band that will rock; it establishes an air of menace that hangs over this album like a talisman”

If this quote makes you feel slightly nauseous then I don’t blame you. Pulp had many mission statements in the early 90s and none of them expresses an interest in “rocking” in any form. And yet, he’s right – Joyriders does indeed work as a conventional rock song, and it does set the tone for the album – it just happens that this tone isn’t really what many of us came here for.

Before this all starts getting negative again, we should remember that this is still a decent indie pop song – it sounds bright throughout, has a memorable tune and a story to it, glitters and shimmers in all the right places and has a nice short-story style dramatic arc to it. This all sounds fine on first listen, in the background or at a festival, all perfectly reasonable uses for music, and all immune from criticism. Sometimes staring at something until it falls apart is more of a sickness than a skill, and there’s no point spoiling anyone’s fun.

And yet, here we are, and here is Joyriders, the sound of something working quite well until you check under the bonnet and find it’s been running on fumes the whole time. What’s wrong then? Well, let’s start with the story. Instead of the lift to the garage described above the Joyriders here are two-dimensional underclass villains; brainless, malevolent thugs, unacquainted with women, who want to get the rest of us hooked on a bit of the old ultraviolence. As Jarvis admits himself, it’s not really fair payback for doing him a favour, but beyond this aren’t the real chocolate-lime-eating surprisingly helpful delinquents much more interesting? As we saw with Watching Nicky, Jarvis seems to reduce real people to clichés while creating hosts of believable fictional characters elsewhere.

And then at the end “we’re taking a girl to the reservoir / oh oh the papers say it’s a tragedy / buy don’t you want to come and see?” Aged 14 this seemed impossibly dangerous, chilling in its implications. Now though, it seems a bit silly. People are voyeuristic often, yes, but meta-level awareness of this point from sadistic teenage gangs is fairly unlikely, and nobody in their right mind would even consider going with them. A pedantic point, perhaps, but it’s all it deserves. I remember playing the song in my dad’s car one time – he laughed at the line and said “no, I don’t, thanks” and you have to admit he had a point.

This wouldn’t be such an issue if the section were not repeated for most of the last two minutes of the track. It’s easy to see why they do this – the clever phrasing, the gravity of the situation, the issue is such that repeating it drills the numb horror of it all into you. Except when you don’t take it seriously, of course, then it has the exact opposite effect of underlining how trite it is. The final touch is the nail in the coffin, Jarvis aiming for sinister but only achieving Charles Hawtrey.

Also in the “do not want” list is the main melody, once again nice on a casual listen, but the way the guitar chords mirror whatever Jarvis sings is annoying, like a rock treatment of a nursery rhyme, and results in the song being completely undancable. This only has the effect of focussing attention on the story, and well, enough about that already.

Let’s finish on a couple of positives, though. Candida’s synths are once again a strong point, as buried as they are here. The hauntological layers she put in with Ed Buller sound as eerie and poignant as ever when they finally make an appearance, and she even produces the song’s only truly satisfactory moment when Jarvis stops at “it’s a tragedy….” and she carries over the melody of the rest of the line on her keyboard. There are also lots of nice little touches in the production, the half-second of feedback before the solo (yes, there’s a guitar solo) is nice too. The acoustic version found on the Common People single is not bad either – the guitar line being the whole song anyway, it helps to let it stand on its own, and Jarvis sounds weary, which just works better.

Joyriders is a survivor. If there had been a 4th single it would’ve been the obvious choice, and it was popular at festivals for years. Lots of people still like it, and they have every right to. I just don’t anymore.

#127 – Deep Fried In Kelvin

24 Feb

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Deep Fried In Kelvin (B-side to Lipgloss, 1993)
Deep Fried In Kelvin at Pulpwiki

“Many of Kelvin problems weren’t the flats, which inside were lovely, or the surroundings, which at the back were nicer still, or the facilities, which were aplenty… no, it was more a feeling of not being in charge, of not being King of your own castle. This had more to do with lack of available paid work, and the stigma attached to living on the estate, which was caused by the press demonising the place and by Kelvin being the first port of call for people with problems or a criminal history.
New doors or not, most of the people behind them were the most down to earth, trustworthy and friendly people you would ever be likely to meet. I’ve lived on five other estates since I left, and I have never found the same strong sense of community that Kelvin flats had.”
– Peter Jones, Streets In The Sky, Life in Sheffield’s High Rise

“…claustrophobic walk-ups or corridors were rejected in favour of 12ft wide ‘streets in the sky’. These ‘streets’ were almost all connected with the ground, on steeply sloping land. Street corners were included where the winding building twisted around, with the spaces around the blocks filled with shops, schools and playgrounds…. …Park Hill is a battered remnant of a very different country, one which briefly turned housing for ordinary people into futuristic monuments rather than shamefaced little hutches. The ideologies of Regeneration and Heritage, when applied to the very different ethical aesthetic of the old New Brutalism, can only destroy the thing they claim to love.” – Owen Hatherley, ‘Penthouse and Pavement’

“Sheffield’s full of half-assed visions of cities of the future that turn into a pile of rubbish,” Russell Senior reflects, standing on the biggest traffic roundabout in Europe. “We grew up reading the local paper and seeing ‘Sheffield, city of the future,’ with a map of how it’s going to be and pictures of everyone walking around in spacesuits, smiling. But we’re the only ones who took it seriously…”Russell Senior in the NME, June 1992

When I was young I felt sorry for people who lived in flats. My friends, family, the people on TV, they all lived in houses, proper ones with gardens at the back and front. The irony was that I lived in a flat myself, though the fact that it was part of a Victorian mansion rather than a 1960s concrete structure somehow meant that it didn’t count, at least in my mind. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I saw the real thing – in Southampton they were a looming presence, and my pizza-delivering housemates began avoid them whenever possible after having air-rifles fired as they rode past. This just confirmed my existing prejudice, that they were ugly and anti-human, vast battery cages for the unfortunate portion of humanity that were unable to live elsewhere.

Now I live in a gigantic complex in China with another 20,000 or so people and the difference is total. Everyone here seems to love flats – houses (especially brick ones) are for poor people, lack decent sanitation or heating, are infested with insects that can’t make it to higher levels. Even if you have a “villa” security becomes an issue – you can bar your windows but you’re still down there with the rabble, and there’s no security guard to stop them getting in.

I mention all of this not because I like to go on about myself (though that’s also undoubtedly the case) but to pull focus on the British view, that a man’s home is his castle, that our houses are the basic outlet for our self-worth and creative expression, a “truth” whose foundations may be shakier than we might like to think. For all we might believe concrete blocks to destroy culture and society by treating people as cogs in a huge machine, rows of identical Barrett houses are no more individual inside or outside, and the hidden hand of class conformity may make them actually more regimented than council tower blocks. To quote Peter Jones in the book linked above, “to you it was home: ugly from the outside, but beautiful, warm, cosy and safe on the inside.”

As with many political issues, then, this one may be inescapably entangled with emotions rather than expressible in logical terms. It comes down to what sort of life we want for ourselves and others, and what harder thing is there to discuss dispassionately? Deep Fried In Kelvin is saturated in emotional responses. Jarvis evidently feels that there is something fundamentally wrong with this place, and spends the song going through different ways to express this feeling. The environment is ugly and unfriendly, the people who live there are desperate, or have undergone some kind of environment-related moral degradation. No matter what good intentions the misguided might have towards them, they’re the ones mugging you at knifepoint late at night. If it wasn’t all expressed in such poetic, literary terms it could come straight from the pages of the Daily Mail.

At the start of the ‘The Full Monty’ a clip from the 1971 promotional film “Sheffield: City On The Move” is shown, and the full version can be seen on youtube here. As with many industrial cities in the UK, Sheffield’s city centre was gutted by bombs during the blitz and the opportunity was taken to rip out low-quality slum housing and replace it with huge concrete structures. The first of these was Park Hill, previously mentioned in Sheffield: Sex City, a great brutalist wave of concrete and brick connected by wide decks / bridges which connected the blocks together and which were supposed to be “streets in the sky.” and which was soon followed by similar developments – Hyde Park and Kelvin. In the film only the first two are mentioned, and only to boast of their size. Even in 1971 the buildings were clearly losing their lustre, as might be expected for any kind of council housing, and the film-makers clearly didn’t share the same vision for the future as the architects of these places. I hope anyone can agree that Kelvin was better than slum housing, but beyond that there seems to be little consensus on whether it was a good idea or not, whether it made communities or broke them and whether it gave people hope for the future or destroyed it.

For the man in the newspaper clipping placed in the middle of our series of vignettes, his need for a garden is such that he’s willing to destroy his flat, and the one beneath, for it. Is he a sad product of a failed system driven to his wits’ end, or does his need for a garden equate to a human need for a connection to nature, a connection not provided on concrete streets in the sky? The repetition of the last line would seem to answer this question. If a few find that concept naïve or troubling, others may be more concerned with the portrayal here of a criminal underclass, clearly beyond all redemption. The usual route for a piece of writing like this (I can’t think of a similar song) is to find a root cause, but there’s no easy way out here, just one great downward spiral of a sick environment, rotten conditions and people you want to avoid. This text is the product of an occasional visitor, one who’s been attacked by these kids and clearly feels no love for them, but who still can’t bring himself to look away – he’s not disgusted as such, but has the bitterness only the truly disillusioned (and therefore former true believers) can feel. It’s an apocalyptic vision of a song, and the seriously intoned monologue can’t entirely obscure the hellfire preacher tone – the song actually begins as a parody of a religious text, and culminates in a darkly humourous parody of Luke 18:16. It’s ridiculous, and that’s the point. Deep Fried in Kelvin is ultimately a work of satire, not a documentary.

I’ve left some fairly vital points behind in all this. Firstly, that the song is just short of ten minutes long, the longest thing the band ever put out, but justifies its length by never being dull for a moment. Second, there’s the music, an easy factor to forget in that it comprises nothing more than a barely changing band jam on a couple of chords. As band jams go, though, it’s not bad; Neu-meets-Bark-Psychosis, sonically interesting enough to imbue the words with extra drama, but low key enough to stay out of the way.

This isn’t quite the beginning of Pulp’s treatises on English class politics – it’s too much of a dark fantasy for that – but all the same, it’s a first step away from sensation and a first step towards issues. Next time we’ll see the group dive into this world, head-first.

#126 – Have You Seen Her Lately?

15 Feb

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Have You Seen Her Lately? (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film, Glastonbury 1994)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film, Paris 2012)
Have You Seen Her Lately? at Pulpwiki

“First you let him in your bed
Now he’s moved inside your head
And he directs all the dreams you are dreaming”

If Seconds was an ultimately optimistic portrayal of the messy compromises life throws your way, then Have You Seen Her Lately? is perhaps its evil twin. Instead of empathy we have sympathetic despair and a hopeless wailing and gnashing of teeth towards a lost cause. Instead of acceptance of the drama life throws at us we have the inevitability of death, and the death of dreams, of hope.

Once again Jarvis’s ex is in the arms of another man, but this time he’s taking it much worse. From his perspective (and as the title reminds us, he has corroboration) the new boyfriend is a bad move all round. He’s insecure (“Do you think he’ll fall apart?”), immature (“It’s time to teach him how to walk”), a burden (“a piece of luggage that you should throw away”) and somehow hugely dangerous (“He’s already made such a mess of your life”). Her relationship with him is akin to the joining of a suicide cult – she’s already been brainwashed and this is her last chance to get out before it’s too late.

If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit extreme then that’s fair enough. This song is decidedly not coming from a rational or logical place – it’s a desperate last-grasp for redemption, and Jarvis sounds more like a lonesome ghost returning to whisper dire warnings in his old lover’s ear than a human giving advice. That’s the way they play it too; singer, band and producer conspire to turn this plea into one of the oddest, but most consistent pop songs around.

From that first out of tune organ sound onward, everything about ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’ sounds sickly. In Emile Zola’s novel La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret a young priest drives himself into a life-threatening fever through excessive worship of the Virgin Mary, and this illness has the same sort of feel. It’s utterly religious and oddly asexual – the end-point of the group’s romantic tendency when all goals and desires are rendered useless. It’s another Ed Buller symphony, but this time it’s all a little too overwhelming. The verses are normal enough, I suppose, but the chorus is essentially one long, resigned wail, and toward the close of the track the song takes you back to the haunted music room of ‘Blue Girls’ – a wistful, deeply sad anti-nostalgia, something we might call ‘hauntology’ if it were made today.

I’m impressed by ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’ – it’s hard not to be by such a powerful piece of music – but I’m still not sure if I actually enjoy it. With earlier ballads what was required was a suspension of disbelief, but here it’s more like a willingness to go with the core idea, and I don’t know if I can do that. Ultimately I don’t trust the narrative of this relationship – the singer is too involved to present a clear picture, and there’s a lingering suspicion that he has his own selfish, desperate romantic instincts underlying his argument. Is the girl too weak, too pathetic to realise her situation, if it’s really so bad? If so, why does he want to win her back so badly? Does she not have her own free will, to join with or even follow whoever she chooses? There’s something that doesn’t quite sit right, and I just can’t shake it. This may all be deliberate, it may be that I’m missing something, but all the same it stops me diving in and going with the flow, and that’s a shame.

#125 – Seconds

8 Feb

pulp 1994

Seconds (‘The Sisters EP’, 1994)
Seconds at Pulpwiki

“In Sheffield it sometimes seemed the life of my contemporaries was like a marathon who’d give up first. People got picked off one by one, and were failing by the wayside. There got to be less and less people who were still trying to do something, and who kept ‘refusing’ to settle for second best. Then later you think: ah, but I might end up with fifth best…. Also, on ‘Seconds’ there’s the idea of the ‘second-hand’ people, who’ve been through the mill a bit. It sounds a very silly analogy, but it’s like reconditioned tyres, remoulds. You have to get remoulded before you go back out on the road. I don’t think that’s a negative or sad thing at all. I think it’s quite interesting, third or fourth time around.”

Don’t you ever feel like saying: don’t rattle that tin at me, I’ve already given…?

“I suppose you get a little more tentative and guarded about things. But unless you’re prepared to run the risk of getting hurt you’re never going to get much out of a relationship. You have to take a deep breath and dive in. At least you know you don’t die. It’d be a boring life without, wouldn’t it?”

- Interview in Melody Maker, 1994

This blog is called ‘Freaks, Mis-Shapes, Weeds’ as shorthand for the journey a group of people took from being defined by others as undesirable outsiders, taking this as a badge of honor and finally acknowledging that their outsidership was a creation useful primarily to the insiders, to define who they were or weren’t. From this progression we’re perhaps missing a step. Though in some ways it’s a minor example (it doesn’t stick strictly to the topic, and was relegated to the status of b-side) ‘Seconds’ is still in a sense the best-realized of these attempts at self-definition, the one where the personal meets the general, the one where the group attempt to tally these ideas and feelings with words – or amore accurately a single word, densely packed with meanings.

Second rate (adj): of lesser or minor quality, importance, or the like.

One of the sources I relied on heavily in the early days of this blog was Martin Lilleker’s “Beats Working for a Living: Sheffield Popular Music 1973-1984″. It’s a massive A4-sized tome seemingly detailing everyone who so much as picked up a synth in the city boundaries, at least in the late 70s. By ’82 things are beginning to fizzle out, and by ’84 it’s done. Lilleker, a local music journalist at the time, has indicated that he doesn’t consider the mid-to-late 80s or 90s interesting enough to write about,* which is fair enough from a personal perspective, but, well, how about those people who weren’t Phil Oakey – what could they do now? It might seem trivial, but this is what the life of the majority of musicians is like – without a career or family to take you out of town or change your circle of friends you’re stuck on a downwards spiral, but does the alternative equate to giving in? It’s not easy, and the five current members of the band had to count themselves lucky that they’d been able to make it. Most hadn’t.

Secondhand (adj): (of goods) not new; previously owned and used by another

It’s probably not much in the way of a confession to say that I only really bought clothes in charity shops in the mid-90s, solely because it was the Pulp thing to do. This may have been less problematic if I weren’t severely colour-blind or didn’t have ginger hair and painfully pale skin. Stubbornly sticking to “my idea of what’s good” without anyone to trust for feedback was the killer blow. I probably looked ridiculous at times, but did it matter? Honestly, I’m not sure. We live in a culture where other people judge you on how you look and it would take a stronger person than most to be genuinely oblivious – it just depends on whether you want to stand out or not. Nowadays charity shops have fashion experts doing valuations, so the time for this sort of thing has passed anyway.

Seconds (n): items of clothing that have failed quality control and are sold at a discount.

The intersection of individuality and being flawed is one of the central themes of ‘Seconds’ – perfection is treated with disdain, equated to lack of personality. “Looking a state”, being flawed physically or emotionally; this might invite disgust from others, but in a world where all but a tiny group are doomed to fail in their sky-high ambitions, flaws are all we have to *be* and failure is proof that you at least tried. A more minor theme is how well-hidden this truth is, and how little it can help you through the drudgery of everyday life. It doesn’t make things better or easier, but that’s the world we have to live in – and we have to make the best of that.

Second best (adj): next after the first in rank or quality, inferior to the best

A happier version of the same theme is found on Dodgy’s ‘Good Enough’ from a few years later – this time it’s presented with the gloss that being satisfied with what you have is the be-all-and-end-all, which is true, in a sense, but I’m glad Pulp always had that tension between romantic ideas and depressing kitchen-sink truths – squaring the two so neatly is bound to be unsatisfying.

Second (n): the SI unit of time; one-sixtieth of a minute.

If we lived forever this tension might be more resolvable, but in this world it takes decades to work out who you are and what you want, and by that time you’re too old to change things, probably tied down to family and career, stuck in a society that focuses almost exclusively on the tastes of the young. Wouldn’t it be great if at the age of 40 we could all wake up one day to find ourselves back at the start of our adolescence to find it had all been a prophetic dream? But it’s pointless to waste your time thinking about this – your life is inescapably ticking away and you have to make the best of it from where you stand. ‘Seconds’ conveys the stretching out of time in the chorus, and the keyboard pattern throughout sounds like a clock ticking at double-speed. It’s a nervous song, but a focused one.

Seconds (n): a second portion of the same thing, usually of food.

It’s churlish to make ‘Seconds’ sound so serious, though – caring so much about using your time well is just a demonstration of your lust for life – for more life. The characters here might be in a bad place, but they are still in the game. As cynical as the lyric is, there’s an underlying message that you shouldn’t give up, no matter how bleak things seem. That might be a cliché or a truism elsewhere, but here it’s been earned.

Second place (n): a position among the leading competitors, the second at the finish line.

‘Seconds’ is a b-side, taken from the His ‘n’ Hers sessions and left off the LP. I was going to add the word ‘bizarrely’ there, but when you see what else was left off and left on, it certainly fits a pattern. It’s an emotional song because its internal logic has worked so well that the group have been swept along with it. It’s seamless throughout, from the way it switches from nervous panic to existential acceptance from verse to chorus, to the very sound of the instruments. There are no star performances, no intrusive production – it’s an idea, thought through and carried out. The one slightly odd thing is the underwater echo effect on Jarvis’s vocal, but this is forgivable. To say it’s one of the group’s best songs is a little too much perhaps, but it’s up there.

*The mid-80s – Pulp’s ‘Freaks’ era – was a bit of a quiet patch for the Sheffield scene, but with the advent of FON and Warp I’d say there’s plenty he could reasonably write about.

#124 – Lipgloss

18 Jan

LipglossSingle1
LipglossSingle2

Lipgloss (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Lipgloss (music video, 1993)
Lipgloss (live film, ‘The Word’ 1993)
Lipgloss (live film, ‘Butt Naked’ 1994)
Lipgloss (live film, 1994)
Lipgloss (live film, Brixton Academy 2011)
Lipgloss at Pulpwiki

“She’s a haunted house / And her windows are broken / And the sad young man’s gone away / Her bathrobe’s torn / And tears smudge her lipstick / And the neighbors just whisper all day” – Scott Walker ‘Big Louise’

“We do not pray for immortality, but only not to see our acts and all things stripped suddenly of all their meaning; for then it is the utter emptiness of everything reveals itself.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“Women have been swindled for centuries into substituting adornment for love, fashion (as it were) for passion. All the cosmetics names seemed obscenely obvious to me in their promises of sexual bliss. They were all firming or uplifting or invigorating. They made you tingle. Or glow. Or feel young. They were prepared with hormones or placentas or royal jelly. All the juice and joy missing in the lives of these women were to be supplied by the contents of jars and bottles. No wonder they would spend twenty dollars for an ounce of face makeup or thirty for a half-ounce of hormone cream. What price bliss? What price sexual ecstasy?” – Erica Jong

“Men get laid, but women get screwed.” – Quentin Crisp

It’s to the credit of 1993 Pulp that a throwaway rehash of the previous year’s singles can turn out to be a near-masterpiece. Lipgloss is the result of a simple formula – “Razzmatazz x Babies = hits” – but it would be a mistake to describe it as cynical or contrived. Instead it’s just a case of “practice makes perfect.”

Why does Lipgloss work where Razzmatazz only sort-of worked then? Well, a lot of it is to do with tone. While Razzmatazz has a slight mis-match between the tragic story and the attempt to sound big, Lipgloss takes the sadness and uses it to push further. The result is a rush – an odd feeling of euphoric despair generated by facing up to your worst fears and letting yourself imagine they’re all true. Part of what makes the song work emotionally more is the complete lack of spite. That malicious empathy has gone entirely – now if anything we are the girl’s inner voice, captured at the moment she realises everything she’s known before no longer counts, and that life is out of her control, at the whims of the uncaring gods.

The title of the song came from the story of an anorexic girl who only ate lipgloss*, but this is something of a red herring as eating disorders are only referred to in a throwaway line. In general, ‘lipgloss’ here refers to an intangible magnetic quality which empowers and defines her – a close relative to ‘it’, ‘mojo’ or even ‘X-factor’. It was the main thread of her life, but she didn’t realise until it vanished. Has her lover suddenly shaken off the hold of some sort of falsely constructed feminine mystique and failed to connect with the real woman beneath? Had the relationship dulled the edges of her personality so much that a shift of perspective has revealed her to be little more than an echo? Not truthfully, not entirely, I’d like to say, but let’s remember that this is all just her worst fear. So stuck in the moment are we that all of this is little more than guesswork, but it’s all vivid enough that no back story is required.

In the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the bizarro-world version of Pulp produced by Stephen Street, and that’s where the story of Lipgloss started too. This demo version is locked (perhaps forever) in the Island vaults, a shame in a sense as it would be interesting to hear a real hit with a straightforward production style, especially as Lipgloss has a fairly standard structure and is built around a guitar-lick hook, so perhaps it would’ve been best-sided to a meat & potatoes treatment. Or perhaps not – the atmosphere generated by Candida and Ed Buller is one of the main factors driving the song in its surge forward.

Candida has a fairly minor role to play here, but an essential one. The central descending keyboard figure is hard to unhear once you’ve tuned into it* – a nursery-rhyme series of notes, it underlies everything without ever drawing attention to itself. Then there’s the other synth-line which sounds like metallic lapping water – a Stereolab song of a few years later has the same sound isolated for a few bars, but here it intermingles with the rhythm of the song as naturally as breathing in and out.

Throughout the song simply adds up to more than its component parts. The guitar sounds minimal, almost sampled, the chorus is a bit lacklustre, but there’s a continuous upward movement that holds it all together. Part of what finally sells it to me is the section starting at 2.10, where the tension of the buildup suddenly dissipates and we’re left with that heavenly, haunted synth-bed that embodies this era, and perhaps the band as a whole.

Lipgloss was the first single released on Island, and the first to have a professionally shot video after years of improvised scenes with unpaid extras. While on tour in Liverpool Jarvis had seen an “inflatable environment” called ‘Eggopolis‘ – a gigantic art project that was touring the UK. It was ideal for filming a music video, visually stunning in a unique way, but it took such a long time to find a studio to house the thing, inflate it and have it professionally lit that there was only time to film two run-throughs and ten minutes with Julie Jones in her boudoir holding up signs. Then Jarvis decided to edit the thing in Sakia’s unheated loft in November and consequently get the flu.

I can understand, then, why he’s not keen on it, but it still works, largely because of the visual brilliance of the Eggopolis itself. It’s good to see Julie Jones here too – she’s a largely unheralded figure in this story so far, but was the group’s unofficial stylist through these years, and has been mysteriously referred to as the “source of much inspiration” by Jarvis on a couple of occasions – once even saying that she was responsible for the story behind Acrylic Afternoons. Her role in the video is a little odd (she’s most certainly not the girl who’s “lost her lipgloss” and I’m not sure if she’s even supposed to be) but as a character she makes more of an impact than any other bit-part performer in a Pulp video. As well she should.

*There’s a soundcheck floating around where Candida practices her part again and again. I remember at first being unable to place it, then as soon as I had it suddenly altered the entire way I heard the song, probably to its detriment. So I won’t link it here.
**Did The Designers Republic not know the difference between lipgloss and lipstick or did they just think it looked better?

#123 – You’re Not Blind

11 Jan

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You’re Not Blind (Demo, 1993)
You’re Not Blind at Pulpwiki

“I don’t like to imprint my sound on what a band does. I always think of it as their recording, not mine. That’s the most important thing…. I like to get everyone playing together – even though we might be interested in concentrating on getting a good drum sound or whatever – in order to capture the nuances of a performance.”Stephen Street

Their differences with Fire were settled, contracts were drawn up, advances were paid, and all that was left was for Pulp to produce their first properly-funded album. With the financial weight of Island Records behind them and the pressure of expectations, the temptation to become pernickety perfectionists was a very real danger, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Pulp felt the need to go shopping around for a producer. Britpop was now looming in the near-distance and Stephen Street was the man to watch – with his work on Parklife and The Great Escape he would come to define the sound of the mid 90s. That was still a couple of years away, though, and for now he was still just a former Smiths engineer who was working with a few minor-league indie groups, albeit one with a certain amount of buzz.

“He came up to the rehearsal room which was above my mother’s pottery shop in Catcliffe, so we were all crowded into this tiny space. One of the cleanest men you’ll ever see – he could go down into a coal mine in a white suit and come out looking sparkling. Really nice bloke. It was good ‘cos he came to the rehearsal and he listened.” – Nick Banks in ‘Truth & Beauty’

Three tracks were recorded at their session at Axis Studio in Sheffield – Le Roi Des Fourrnis (a cover version, so hardly a fair representation), a demo version of Lipgloss (which remains unreleased) and You’re Not Blind; the only version of the song ever recorded, and one which was immediately shelved and forgotten about until the expanded version of the album was released in 2006. It’s a unique opportunity, then, to see what a different handling of Pulp could sound like.

A mid-tempo pop song (in Jarvis’s words “another attempt to rewrite Babies”), You’re Not Blind features a very promising verse with an exquisite guitar motif* which sounds excitingly like it’s going somewhere but then fizzles out into a semi-written sketch of a chorus. The lyrics also seem to lack sufficient fleshing-out; we’ve got the usual infidelity and girlfriend-stealing with a dash of the venom later heard in I Spy, only without any convincing narrative reasons behind them – leading to the impression of a “supremely nasty sentiment” described by Jarvis in the sleeve notes. He’s about to steal or has already stolen your girlfriend, and he wants to rub it in, but without detail it all seems purposelessly cruel.

The production is probably the only real thing of note here. In contrast to Buller’s vast magical nebula of sound, it’s possible to pick out every instrument, even on a casual listen. Candida’s keyboard is strikingly different, sounding for once like an instrument rather than an all-enveloping atmosphere. If that sounds good to you, then I’m sorry to say it’s a bit too normal for my taste, and Jarvis seems to have agreed.

“I thought he was good, I would have given him as my choice to go on and do the His ‘n’ Hers stuff… But I don’t think Jarvis liked his producing ‘cos he thought he was too nice, everything was too nice, all too clean, you could kind of hear everything.”
– Nick Banks in ‘Truth & Beauty

A failure, then? Well, not really. It’s hardly fair to judge something that was apparently only semi-worked out at the time, the verse is fine, and with a decent chorus you can just about picture it becoming something pretty special. After all, there’s nothing really wrong with it – it’s just that with so many superb songs in the air, there were bound to be a few casualties.

*Nobody seems to be sure of the identity of the guitarist here, but something about it sounds like it could possibly have been a very early bit of Mark Webber.

#122 – Le Roi des Fourmis

4 Jan

Michel Polnareff

Le Roi Des Fourmis (from A Tribute To Polnareff, 1999)
Le Roi Des Fourmis (performance by Michel Polnareff on French TV)
Le Roi Des Fourmis on Pulpwiki

We had a poor cover version for Christmas, so now here’s a decent one for New Year.

Think of sixties French pop and quite a few names might come to mind – Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy, Johnny Hallyday, Jacques Dutronc, France Gall – but probably not Michel Polnareff, the ‘bad boy’ of the scene, despite a huge amount of competition in this regard. He won a talent competition, turned down the major label contract, wrote a hit single – “La Poupée qui fait non” – that was covered by Jimi Hendrix and The Birds, was banned from the radio, suffered depression and eyesight problems and was finally ostracized and left bankrupt after distributing a “pornographic” promotional poster for a tour. After spending the next couple of decades in the USA he made a comeback in the early 90s, and that’s where we join the story.

Pulp people may be more familiar with the version the group performed for French radio in 1994, but the ‘proper’ recording dates from a year earlier. Along with the likes of Saint Etienne and Nick Cave, they had been asked to add a contribution to an album of Polnareff covers. Information about the session is fairly limited, but it seems remarkable for a few reasons.

1. The session was in Axis Studios in Sheffield, not in London. Ok, not a big deal, but it was their first time recording out of the capital since ‘O.U.’.

2. Instead of Ed Buller – whose fingerprints can be found over almost everything from this era – the session was produced by Stephen Street, the Britpop producer, later responsible for Parklife and The Great Escape, and this is clear even from the start. Instead of layered keyboard sounds we have a crisp pop-rock sound remarkably familiar to anyone accustomed to Chris Thomas’s work on Different Class. Does this suggest that the progression between albums was just down to a change in producer? Well, no. But it was at least an indication that the group were versatile enough to be taken in very different directions. A version of Lipgloss recorded in the same session remains unreleased, so the jury is still out on whether Street could have worked as a producer on His ‘n’ Hers.

3. On guitar we have one Mark Webber, still two years away from officially joining the group. Mark had been around for quite a while now, running the fan club and sometimes playing on stage, and it’s fitting that we hear his debut performance coincide with the first incidence of the Britpop sound he would soon be part of.

The song itself is structured much more like mainstream pop than anything else they were doing at the time, so it may be a mistake to pin it down to either Street or Webber. The group approach it with gusto, hammering out the stomping rhythm, and building everything to a crescendo in much the same way they would with ‘Like A Friend’ a few years later. Guitars and synths are light for the most part, sparkling and burbling rather than trying to lay down atmosphere. For his part Jarvis seems to have improved his French since ‘Manon’ – though having a native speaker writing the lyrics is always an advantage. Initially they did try to translate it, but it sounded a bit too silly – Le Roi De Fourmis means ‘King of the Ants’ and the song’s wordplay would be lost in translation, leaving only a series of bizarre non-sequitors. There is a brief English spoken-word section though, and he manages to fit in a bit of ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma.

The recording was fine – a good performance, a little slight (as covers tend to be) but a bold step forward anyway. The release, however, didn’t go as planned. As with anything Polnareff-related, it was beset by legal issues (which may also explain it’s non-inclusion on the His ‘n’n Hers deluxe edition), and wasn’t released until 1999, and then only in France. Sometimes there’s no harm in something being a little difficult to find, though, and in this case the unearthed treasure is far from disappointing.

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