#137 – Underwear

18 Dec

corsetshow16

Underwear (Different Class, 1995)
Underwear (Peel Session, 1994)
Underwear (Black Sessions, 1995)
Underwear (Live film, Reading 1994)
Underwear (Live film, Glastonbury 1995)
Underwear (Live film, The White Room, 1995)
Underwear (Live film, Amsterdam, 1995)
Underwear (Live film, Eden Project 2002)
Underwear (Live film, Reading 2011)
Underwear at Pulpwiki

“It is a horrible feeling. It makes you feel something less than human, like you can get carried away with this need… Your body’s saying, ‘Go on, do it. Offload that! Just get it done’…. The only similar thing is having a kebab. Somehow, when you’re really pissed, you get into that perverse frame of mind where you think, ‘Right, I’m hammered. I’m a mess. How can I take it further?’ And the answer is: ‘I’ll have a kebab.’ Somehow it rounds the experience off and you get some kind of perverse satisfaction from the knowledge that you were low, and yet you thought of a way of taking it lower. And there is something you can learn from that – not necessarily something that you’ll want etched on your gravestone, but it’s good to acknowledge that sometimes you get those unwise impulses. Somehow, from taking it that far, you get something out of it.”

Interview in The Face, 1 June 1995

“It’s like situations where you’ll maybe get back to someone’s house and it seeems the coffee has been had and sex action could take place, and maybe you’ve even got down to the underpants but then you think maybe this isn’t a good idea because you’ve changed your mind or gone off the person or sobered up. it’s about being past the point of no return but not wanting to do anything. It’s a bit personal.”

Interview in NME, 23rd September 1995

“This is about going home with someone, which seems like a good thing to do when you decide to do it. But when you get to the actual nitty-gritty, when you are actually standing in your underwear you think I can’t good through with this, but how do you get out of that situation?”

Introducing Underwear at Aston Villa Leisure Centre in October 1994

“If fashion is your trade / then when you’re naked / I guess you must be unemployed”

We re-join Pulp on the 10th of July 1994, at the unappealingly-named ‘Dour Festival’ in Belgium for the inception of what would turn out to be their high-watermark imperial phase; the writing, recording, releasing and world-touring around ‘Different Class’. The group already had a following, of course, and would continue to pick up fans up until the present day, but for the general public these are the years where the group were visible on a national (and sometimes international) stage . The intended audience for this music isn’t a select group any more, it’s moreorless everyone, and the flavour of this is present in almost every note of the album. It’s the first sight of the Pulp known to the general public and spotlights Jarvis Cocker’s transition from a “freak” to a public figure to be wheeled out for quiz shows, award ceremonies and (thankfully occasional) adverts.

For a bunch of self-defined outsiders, this alone is an odd move, but even stranger is the fact that the band seemed to somehow see this coming, even as early as the summer of ’94. Their sound, while remaining firmly their own, is having some rough edges smoothed off, and songs are starting to aim for more general themes rather than the purely personal – not in a Carter USM “this is our one about the racism in the Army” way, but as having an experience ready to present to the public as a whole, and with the expectation that they would actually listen.

The theme of ‘Underwear’ is “sexual consent” – though it’s hardly the standard take on the topic. Art that addresses consent (understandably) tends to treat it with kid gloves, either addressing men with “you must get consent, no means no,” or women with “don’t do anything you’re uncomfortable with.” These are both excellent, reasonable lines to take when (as is usual) talk of ‘consent’ is used as a proxy for talk about rape and how it can be prevented. ‘Underwear’, on the other hand, is concerned only with consent without mention of threat or external coercion, and aims to understand instead of offering practical advice. It places you right there inside the making and unmaking of a decision.

In the early 90s popular culture seemed to be awash with a collection of second-hand self-actualization-course borrowings of Taoist sayings – “go with the flow” or as Oasis were soon to put it “roll with it.” The idea that your subconscious is better at running your life than your critical mind is quite a seductive one, with a fair amount of evidence on its side (so long as you don’t take “accept all change in society / politics as natural and don’t question anything” as a corollary.) Interaction with other people is always the confounding factor, however, and in a society where other people don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart, this sort of talk doesn’t work well as advice. For someone with a neurotic personality, deliberately dulled with alcohol, sudden sobriety can turn a trust in instinct into a crisis of self-belief. If you feel a reluctance, a moving away from people, is this a genuine response offered up by your subconscious, or is it a false signal created by the ebbing-away of self-confidence as the alcohol fades? If you’re thinking about whether to go with it then you’re already not going with it, but maybe you want to? Who can really say for sure?

The subject of ‘Underwear’ is stuck in this moment, and what’s worse she has to communicate it to someone she’s barely spoken to, someone she doesn’t even really know, someone she should be way beyond words with already. There’s a fun night behind them with drinking and dancing, she was lost in the moment, but now she suddenly isn’t – she’s semi-naked in a stranger’s bedroom, and he’s coming up the stairs. Communicating all of this with someone she’s barely spoken to in the cold, quiet light of their bedroom, when she’s supposed to be lost in the moment, can only amplify the strain. After all, this is one of the main reasons that people use alcohol – it stops you from thinking when you don’t want to think. But sooner or later everyone has to think. And nakedness has it’s own power too – all the dressing up at the start of the night has fallen away to be replaced with bare biological differences, perhaps even the revealing of hidden truths. It was the artifice which played the lead role, and now it’s left her alone with a stranger.

Clothes give us freedom to express ourselves, and at the same time they allow other people to make their own judgement of us. Clothes can emphasise or minimise gender, sexuality or eccentricity. Clothes can be used to attract, repel, shock, make statements about who you are. Paradoxically, then, shedding your clothes hides your individuality – it emphasises how similarly built you are to the other members of your gender and species, reducing us to “you’re a girl and he’s a boy” whether we want this or not.

‘Underwear’ is a Polaroid snapshot of this single moment, recounted as if it were a long-forgotten playground rhyme suddenly revealed to the narrator in a vision. Sentences are cut up into little interlocking chunks which slot together until halted by “just you…” There’s a nervous dread to the delivery, coupled with that negative euphoria we encountered in Razzmatazz and Lipgloss. At the end of each verse we return to the hook line – “I want to see you…”which runs counter to the rest of the lyric, detaching from this new narrative to return to the seediness of much of His ‘n’ Hers. It’s a strange, possibly jarring aside – why are we suddenly a voyeur here? Is he once again using empathy as a weapon, and if so, why? But it does at least serve as a reminder of what has changed since His ‘n’ Hers.

Behind Jarvis, the rest of the band have also made a fundamental shift. Underwear sounds for the world like an epic rock ballad, complete with power rock chords, a descending piano line motif and a string section (well, Russell) echoing the main melody. Aside from the influence of new producer Chris Thomas (we’ll talk more about him later) this can partly be attributed to the greater role being assumed by Mark Webber. While Mark would probably position himself more in the world of the experimental than traditional rock, the presence of two (or even three) guitarists in the group meant a move away from electronic music was natural. With two guitars in the mix the most obvious way to place them is rhythm and lead – and where you have lead, you have a guitar line providing the melody, not a keyboard. While we aren’t entirely finished with songs being written on a portasound or constructed from rehearsal room jams, these are quickly becoming a thing of the past, for better and for worse.

Listening to the version from their 1994 Peel session reveals many of the joins that make it work. The ambition is all still there, but the bite is all missing – the lack of all those little flourishes reveals the song as, yes, still very pretty underneath, but undressed like this it feels uncomfortably normal to listen to – the work of a good indie band on a very good day rather than a polished pop masterwork. Returning to the original reveals a multitude of expert touches – the repeated echoes of “just remember”, the way the reverb melds into the chorus – so many things going on at, but all fine-tuned and expensive-sounding. There’s even the addition of an instrumental verse to show off the production – really not a very Pulp thing to do prior to this.

I feel like I should be suspicious of Underwear – it’s essentially a re-tread of past glories, pumped up on steroids, but ultimately it just works, a fact that took even the band by surprise. Initially issued as the b-side to Common People, it proved a live favourite, and was soon given a prominent place on Different Class, later even being retconned as a double-A-side and included on the ‘Hits’ compilation in 2002, in the place of the then-purged ‘Mis-Shapes’. While it will never be one of my personal favourites, I have to respect the fact that it’s a song which seems to mean a great deal to many people, and for good reason. This, finally, is the Pulp the world knows.

#122 – [the lobster jam]

5 Dec lobster-face

lobster-face

Unknown song from soundcheck, 5th March 1993 – South Parade Pier, Portsmouth
5 March 1993 – South Parade Pier, Portsmouth at Pulpwiki

So, here I am again. Hello. As anyone reading this is very likely aware, I’ve left it a very long time between updates, and done my best to stoke up anticipation of the upcoming hits to be covered. The next three entries are from Different Class, two are big singles, and one is actually Common People itself. But, unfortunate as it may be, we have to cover something else first. In the year-and-a-bit since I last updated, I’ve realised that I missed a few things. Most are thankfully in the blog’s future, but this one isn’t, so, here we are. The lobster jam song from the soundcheck. Let’s get it out of the way and move on.

Pulp were always a jam band – that’s where ideas came from, that’s why everyone had equal credit for songwriting. What seperated them from, say, Phish was that they would just use these jams to generate ideas, work on them until they were actual songs, and only then start playing them before an audience. In the era we’re approaching most songs would have at least a demo recorded before they were played live at all, so the variation we’ve become accustomed to would be increasingly calculated rather than organic.

What did a Pulp jam sound like? The answer to this is locked up in Jarvis’s attic, and very unlikely to see the light of day, with one very minor exception – two minutes of a soundcheck from 5th May 1993. There’s not an awful lot to report – Steve and Jarvis amble lugubriously through a series of vaguely gothy minor-key chords while Nick keeps time, after a minute Jarvis starts to mutter incoherently about “….smell… …there was a…. …a large lobster…” before Russell finally joins in with a lead-guitar line which just doesn’t work at all, and the whole thing suddenly grinds to a halt. That’s it.

It’s barely worth listening to, let alone writing about, but it does show quite how much went on between the jam and the finished product. This two minutes sounds nothing like the Pulp we know and, well, thank god for that.

It’s been a while…

25 Oct

A year and a bit ago I put this project on hold for a while while my second baby was born, not anticipating that the following year would turn out to be one of the most difficult of my life. Things still aren’t exactly on track, but corners have been turned, and I’m almost ready to start posting here again. It might be a little more slowly, at first, but I’m confident that I’ll be up to full speed as we get into 2016.

First, though, I thought I’d put together a bit of scene setting – and this minor side project predictably turned into a bit of a monster, to which enough words have been added already. So I’ll just link it here, and you can check it out if you’re interested.

Britpop Nuggets Part One: Some People are Born to Dance

britpop nuggets 1

Britpop Nuggets Part Two or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Tolerate Northern Uproar

Britpop Nuggets 2

Britpop Nuggets Part Three: Long Live The UK Music Scene

Britpop Nuggets 3

Stomach in, chest out…

1 Sep

MI0001418876

Here we are on the brink of a new era and sadly we have to pause for a bit before we can carry on with our story. I’m about to become a father for the second time, and this one’s proving to be a little more difficult than the first. My wife is on strict bed rest, so in between taking care of her and my son and doing my regular job there’s not a lot of time for writing right now.

It’s only a brief-ish break, I promise, and it will give me more time to listen to Different Class – which is holding up even better than I’d expected.

Thanks for your patience.

End of Part Four

17 Aug

intro-hnh

Youtube playlist
Spotify playlist

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

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

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

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

After producing this, I have

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

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

#135 – Femme Fatale

10 Aug

Edie

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

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

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

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

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

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

#134 – Street Lites

3 Aug

CNV00070

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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