#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.

Do You Remember The First Time? (short film)

14 Jun

vlcsnap-2014-04-28-22h05m23s152

Do You Remember The First Time (short film)
Do You Remember The First Time (short film) at Pulpwiki

“We tried to make an accessible film,” begins bassist Steve. “The tone of it’s light, watchable, funny. We’ve discouraged the tabloids – there are enough quotes to bury everyone on it, taken out of context, so we’ve been quite careful there. “As it stands,” adds Jarvis, “anyone could watch it, even people who might find our music distasteful. I’m not obsessed with sex, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that so often it gets written about in an idealised way or a ‘Carry On’ nudge-nudge way. Then again, I don’t think it would be so great if it was more open, like I imagine Norway to be, where they discuss it over the breakfast table.”Melody Maker, 19 March 1994

For the first time in our story, Pulp have a little money to spend, and instead of blowing it on predictable rockstar excesses or wisely squirreling it away, they are going to use it on the making of a short film. Not a particularly pricy one, mind you, but a professional production all the same, and an enjoyable piece of work too, especially for what’s essentially just a series of famous people talking about how they lost their virginity.

An interview area was set up at Brittania Row Studio, where the recording sessions for His ‘n’ Hers were taking place, and Jarvis and long-term film collaborator Martin Wallace set up interviews with whoever they could get. A day was spent filming rude street signs, all found in the London A-Z, and a patch of grass in front of Clapham tube station. This square of lawn was supposed to be in Sheffield, but with a tight schedule there wasn’t time to go up there and film it. Fortunately this works in the film’s favour, adding an extra punchline, and it’s a pleasant surprise to find that it was an accident.

The film was completed in February 1994, and premiered at a screening at the ICA shortly afterwards. There’s not much of a place for this sort of thing on television or in the real world, but it was handy at least to have the film ready to extend the video compilation ‘Sorted For Films & Vids’ to feature length. To claim it’s an amazing piece of work would be to engage in hyperbole, but it’s cobbled together in a clever enough way to make a simple story interesting even on a hundredth viewing, and it’s a good introduction to a cast of characters, some of whom play a part in our story. Let’s have a look at them.

Maurice Blake

Not the star of Life Is Hot in Cracktown or a jewelry thief, Maurice Blake seems to have left no trace anywhere, and I have to assume that he’s a friend rather than a celebrity. He appears to be an old naval man – either due to his appearance (he looks basically like Uncle Albert) or his experience being with a prostitute, aged 22, presumably a common thing for sailors. He isn’t impressed with his story (“we only took off the lower halves of her clothes” “it was ok”) – but not enough to describe it in a particularly squalid manner – and it’s easy to share his lack of enthusiasm.

Viv

A year away from his death, Pulp encounter the legendary Vivian Stanshall in the defeated, resigned phase of his long decline, and while it’s a wonder that they managed to get him into the studio, he isn’t exactly in the mood for witty banter. Viv remains slumped morosely on a sofa, only occasionally slurring out the odd word for the entire interview. A shame, especially as he has a very odd story to tell. He was ten years old (ten!), wearing shorts, and of course he didn’t know what was happening at all. Whether this is a sad story, a funny one, or both, remains unclear. I just feel sad for the man, he’s too far gone to engage with anything.

jo2

An official friend of the group, Jo Brand had just about broken through into the mainstream of comedy in 1994 (the filming took place between the pilot episode of ‘…Through The Cakehole‘ and the start of its first series), and her story is told with her usual winning blend of disdain and relish. Essentially it’s a vignette from a Pulp song – a drunken encounter at a party, aged 15, led to a disappointing further encounter in the bathroom, with Jo’s head dangerously close to the pink toilet mat, and concluded with his mum coming in, catching them at it and threatening to tell her mum. Coming-of-age house parties, squalid sex in an inconvenient location, local social embarrassment; these are just what the film needs.

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We’re (perhaps not so) swiftly approaching the Britpop explosion now, and here joining Pulp in the vanguard is Justine Frischmann from Elastica, another group who were just breaking into the top 20 for the first time, though in their case with only 18 months’ history behind them rather than 16 years. Her story isn’t particularly special – a pool hall, an older guy and a grubby flat – but it does offer a tantalising glimpse into the early life of a britpop A-lister, and that’s more than enough for me.

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Terry Hall of The Specials and Fun Boy Three was flirting with the proto-britpop scene in 1994, releasing records with Damon Albarn and Ian Broudie, and cemented his involvement a year later by performing with Salad on The Help Album. His involvement here shouldn’t, then, come as much of a surprise, but it still does – Terry seems to be from another era, another 70s, and his lighthearted youthful fumblings are expressed in a very confident, matter-of-fact manner. It’s clear that he wasn’t a freak or a mis-shape, and that he has no regrets. This is nice for balance, but it’s a good job nobody else was so unflustered, or the whole premise would’ve been bound for the bin. Terry does have the best line of the film, however – “She was really into the Bay City Rollers, and it put me off a bit…. but not enough.”

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At first glance, fashion designer Pam Hogg seems to be even less of a Pulp person than Terry, but she was apparently involved in acid house and post-punk bands, so maybe I’m wrong about that. On this evidence it’s hard to tell – she’s the most guarded of the contributors, and features the least – her screen time can’t be more than forty seconds. From this we can glean that she was 17, that it was disappointing, and not much else.

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My favourite contributor, and perhaps yours too, is Robert Hulse, though as another non-celebrity he was also tricky to track down. He does seem to have two pages on IMDB, but that’s more of a hinderance than a help. What we can say for sure is that Robert turned up in 2002 in a fairly shoddy Martin Wallace short film called Five Ways John Wayne Didn’t Die, which also features Jarvis doing a half-hearted Darren Spooner, and since then he seems to have become director of London’s Brunel Museum, and can be seen here showing people through the Thames Tunnel.

Robert’s experience was intense and revelatory, and he is still close enough to capture it perfectly. He was 26, had been having “problems”, but finally made it on a wooden palette in a London Squat. “It was the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. It was Blakean. The most extraordinary sense of Euphoria…. If I had a football rattle and a scarf I’d have run outside and told everybody.” Hearing someone talk candidly and openly about a great joy in their life is a rare treat, and more than any other interviewee, he makes the film work.

(Robert is commonly confused with Donald Parsnips, a character created by London-based artist Adam Dant, who was listed as an interviewee, but doesn’t actually appear in the film. Jarvis later wrote an introduction to his book, so they clearly know each-other, but that clears up precisely nothing about why he was cut. Any information on this point is very welcome.)

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A number of years ago I has the misfortune to be teaching surly teenagers, and Vic Reeves‘ performance here is a good reminder of the reasons I swore never to do it again. Obviously embarrassed to be there and unable to step out of character, Vic misjudges completely and comes out with a string of nonsensical jokes about losing his virginity to the back of a car and wearing sacking instead of clothes. At the end there’s a brief moment of sincerity, where he expresses regret at a missed opportunity, but it soon passes. Fortunately his next appearance with Jarvis would be on Shooting Stars, where his surreal comedy has more of a place.

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In 1993 Bob Mortimer had been upgraded from Vic Reeves’ assistant to his double-act partner for The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, and a good thing too as he seems to know how to approach the questions a little better than Vic. Unfortunately he still doesn’t have a lot to say and feels uncomfortable saying even that. The episode was “grubby”, she wore tights and blue platform boots, he said “come on girl, let’s really get down to it” – and he says he can’t remember how old he was, but looks like he just doesn’t want to say. If time constraints hadn’t been so pressing perhaps Vic & Bob could’ve been properly primed before their interviews, and wouldn’t then look so out of place.

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Andrea Oliver
might not be exactly a familiar face to most, but she’s been there or thereabouts in British pop culture for more than three decades. Here she is performing with Rip Rig + Panic on The Young Ones, here she is presenting ‘Baadasss TV’ with Ice T, and here she is presenting a cookery programme with her friend Neneh Cherry. And her daughter is Miquita Oliver, so there’s that too. She has a normal enough story, but tells it well – one day, aged 16 or 17, she decides to lose her virginity, choosing a guy who was always after her, and taking him to the back of a car. It’s predictably disappointing, yes, but in her case she remembers enjoying feeling the power of her sexuality – it was “thrilling” – a different perspective among all the embarrassment.

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The 80s may have been a quiet patch, but by the start of 1994 John Peel (who surely needs no introduction here) and Pulp had resumed friendly terms. A second Peel Session was finished, of course, and Jarvis and Nick would join him at Peel Acres for the launch of Different Class in 1995, eventually standing in for him while he was away for three days in 1997 and playing his anniversary concert in 2001. John’s relaxed, then, amongst friends, so is in full wry, relaxed anecdote mode, and slightly apologetic that he doesn’t have a better story. He was 21 years old, in a small flat in a Liverpool suburb with a girl he had no particular feelings for, and had been dreading it. The encounter was ‘untidy’ and he just seems glad to have got it out of the way so he could move on with the rest of his life – which is fair enough.

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It’s odd to see famous, respected actors out of character for the first time – especially one who’s played as many strong women as Alison Steadman, who seems surprisingly shy in person – though it may just be a reaction to the subject matter. Having starred in Nuts In May, the Singing Detective, Abigail’s Party and P’tang, Yang, Kipperbang, I have to confess to being something of a fan of hers. Her story seems much more innocent and healthy than the characters in her films – she was with a long-term boyfriend, it was unplanned, but their mutual inexperience put them on an equal footing. It sounds very wholesome and fortunate, maybe more so than any of the other stories – except perhaps one.

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It was only in the process of writing this that I discovered Sandra Voe is both “Mother” from Breaking The Waves, and Candida and Magnus Doyle’s actual real life mum. So good on her for agreeing to come down to London to talk about losing her virginity for her daughter’s band. Having said that, there’s nothing in the least bit sordid about her story – in fact, quite the opposite. In a scene straight from a Pre-Raphaelite painting, she tells us about being in the middle of a bed of wild flowers, next to a burbling stream with a boy who was leaving her village, and describes the experience as “exhilarating,” a “vivid memory.” Life in the Shetlands sounds pretty idyllic, though I understand it does sometimes get a bit cold.

#129 – Do You Remember The First Time?

25 Apr

DYRTFT

Do You Remember The First Time? (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (music video)
Promotional interview for DYRTFT, 1994
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Butt Naked, 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Jools Holland 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Reading 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Brixton Academy, 1995)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Tokyo, 1996)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Munich 1996)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Lorely 1998)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Hootenanny 2002)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Glastonbury 2011)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Reading 2011)
Do You Remember The First Time? (cover by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, 2014)
Do You Remember The First Time? at Pulpwiki

If you look at the depictions of teenagers on television today, they’re selfish, avaricious, out for themselves. They’re also confident, sexy and cool and they’re really at home with sex and drugs. If you look at the portrayal of children on TV in the 70s, in something like Children of the Stones or The Changes they’re terrified of the world, they’re uncomfortable, alienated and alone, and I think that’s much truer to what it’s really like to be a teenager than what you see in Skins.”Stewart Lee on Screenwipe

“All things have their place. First adolescent zip fumblings; first secret drug voyages; the first time you realise that after the first time, the whole process may never be as good again.”
– Single of the Week in the NME.

“It’s a lot like playing the violin / You cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin”Sparks, ‘Amateur Hour’

“Well do you? And why did you choose them? Was it the drink or the time of year or the position of the planets? Or was it just their hair?” – Original sleeve notes

Pulp are chiefly remembered in the wider world for a single momentarily ubiquitous hit. This, obviously, isn’t it, but it might well have a greater claim to be their theme tune all the same. When the group reformed for a reunion tour in 2011 it was Do You Remember The First Time – not Common People, Babies or Disco 2000 – that formed the theme of the teaser campaign, and which opened the set every night. This wasn’t so much a re-writing of history as an acknowledgement that the passage of time does odd things to a band’s catalogue, and that what seemed to be a song written in opposition to nostalgia could, if contextualized and given enough distance, become evocative enough to prove itself completely wrong, and therefore completely right, or vice-versa.

To open up to a wider audience with a song about nostalgia and disappointment may be an odd move, but reforming for a tour where you only play old material and using it as your introduction seems on paper nothing short of ridiculously bloody-minded. Pulp, of course, were never interested in doing things the usual way, and quite often they found that the silver lining of optimism and empathy is always clearer the more you focus on the cloud of shared disappointment. That’s universality for you, and that’s what DYRTFT is all about.

Ok, all a bit obvious now perhaps, but it certainly wasn’t in 1994, when Pulp were still relatively untested newcomers to the top 40. When a group make the leap from being a cult act to public property, it’s important to sell the concept to a much wider audience. This isn’t the same thing as “selling out” – in some ways it’s quite the reverse. Instead of selling off your fans to the highest bidder you’re opening up to everyone, going from exclusivity to inclusivity. You have to give people a glimpse of a gang they want to join, a story and a mythology to get them hooked. Every successful group have to make this leap at some point, that’s why Jarvis was always so dismissive of the early 90’s mantra of “we make music for ourselves and if anyone else likes it then its a bonus”.

It’s a hard ask, but no revolution was required – Pulp had been building up to this for a while, and there are no drastically new themes present. A dash of crap nostalgia, a helping of “I don’t like your new boyfriend’, DYRTFT is part of a clear lineage through Razzmatazz and Lipgloss, but something has clicked now and we suddenly have a much more mature take – a simpler picture in some ways, but one with a much wider perspective, near-universally relatable.

The cultural significance attached to the losing of virginity in the west is such that disappointment is inevitable. Generally speaking, nobody is expected to be good at something the first time they do it, but for some reason this particular task gets tied in to perceptions of maturity and self-esteem, and the embarrassment felt after the standard poor first-time performance is expressible only through irony and jokes. Talking honestly about this as a shared experience rather than a personal shortcoming seems to cut against English cultural norms, and surely puts paid to the odd concept of Pulp as dealers in kitsch or camp. The first time might be the worst time, sure, but it’s all uphill from there – the rest of life and love in all its joy or sadness is a great adventure to be had, or to remember for that matter.

This is, then, the most inclusive vision of the group so far, and musically it’s a larger, more generous version of what we’ve already been through – a brighter, higher resolution version of the picture. We’ve heard Pulp flirt with sounding like other 90s indie groups and it’s never tonally felt quite right because limbs had to be cut off to fit into those different shapes, and limbs are the most interesting parts, after all. For Do You Remember The First Time, Pulp are instead given a space to spread out – a big, confident sound with big confident guitars, though Pulp lack the kind of guitar hero generally responsible for such things. The model for this regimented expansiveness seems to be Suede in their glam rock anthem mode – an easy enough connection for Ed Buller, I suppose. It’s his track, in a sense, and credit is due for making it work. That swooping synth atmosphere underlying everything seemed to be the group’s sound bed for the His ‘n’ Hers tour and a radio documentary. Consequently it sounds to me like The Pulp Noise, so whatever his mis-steps elsewhere Buller can definitively be said to have made his mark on the band’s sound – though all this would be swept away by 1995, of course.

Slotting into the background more are Nick and Steve – this sort of song doesn’t need anything fancy from the rhythm section besides maintaining a steady rhythm and allowing the song to progress through the series of pulls back and releases, and they play their part well without standing out. Jarvis, on the other hand, is ridiculously on-form, by turns spitting out and whispering lines – no showboating or melodrama, just perfectly judged, and perhaps his first real star vocal performance. Something has changed, just a little, but enough to indicate that the imperial phase is almost upon us.

By 1994, the birth pangs of Britpop were well underway, as can be evidenced by a quick glance at the video for DYRTFT. It features a host of characters dressed in vaguely 70s, Pulp-ish clothes all hanging around having clumsy sexual encounters in alleyways and dingy flats while Jarvis stands nearby serenading them. Pay close attention and you might notice two future members of Menswe@r (at this point involved in a Select-constructed Camden Mod revival scene) hanging out in these scenes – apparently Chris Gentry actually lost his virginity on the video shoot. The rushing euphoria of the track is expressed by the movement of a camera on a semi-circular overhead track, constantly changing scenes by sweeping through the ground or the walls. It’s a neat idea, and it has to be said a brilliant piece of work, but the concept is taken so far as to make the viewer slightly sea-sick. Fortunately the song was also used as the basis for a short film, which we’ll be talking about in more detail next time.

The next Pulp single we’ll get to is Common People. It might seem still to be miles off, but it really isn’t. From this point onwards Pulp are a mainstream pop band, part of the now, public property, and all for the best. DYRTFT marks the start of all of this, and even if it lacks for innovation, it’s surely one of the best things they ever recorded.

Note from author: Sorry about the gap in these entries, several things have come up all at once, and I’ve found myself very busy. Entries should now continue as before – it would be a shame to stop now after all.

#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.

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