Shakespeare Rock (Songbook, Sky Arts, 2009)
Shakespeare Rock / Life is a Circle (School Assembly, The City School, Sheffield, 2011)
Shakespeare Rock (Faber & Faber interview, 2011)
On Pulpwiki – Shakespeare Rock / Life is a Circle
In November 1978, in an O-level economics class in The City School,Sheffield, two distracted pupils, Jarvis Cocker (then aged 15) and Peter Dalton (aged 14) decided to form a band. Naming themselves “Arabicus” after the coffee beans in the Financial Times commodities index, they made plans for a rehearsal at Jarvis’s grandmother’s house on a Friday night. Jarvis was assigned guitar duties, Peter (“Dolly”) was on organ, and Peter’s younger brother Ian attempted rudimentary drumming on a coal scuttle. As beginnings go, it was far from auspicious, but everyone has to start somewhere.
After practicing ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ as all amateur musicians seemed obliged to do, they started work on their first proper song. Shakespeare Rock is quite obviously the product of an O-level student, a simple three-chord twelve bar blues strum (Jarvis had been reading Bert Weedon’s famous ‘Play in a Day’ book) accompanied by one-joke lyrics whose sole purpose seems to be to cram as many Shakespeare quotes in as possible.
Got a baby, only one thing’s wrong
She quotes Shakespeare all day long
Said ‘baby why’re you ignoring me?’
She said ‘to be or not to be’
Among creative people, being embarrassed about the work of your 15-year-old self must be near enough a universal trait. Something about the mix of painful sincerity and unconcealed pretension can make the revisiting of an old diary or poem excruciating. The worst fear is that our juvenilia will revel unpleasant truths – that under layers of artifice and irony constructed over the years there still lies that naïve teenager, so sure he has something to say, blissfully unaware of his ignorance.
It’s not really surprising, then, that most writers and musicians tend to hide their pre-professional work, and until recently Jarvis has been typical in this regard (indeed, in the mid 90s he seemed to be embarrassed by anything recorded before 1988), but with the release of Mother, Brother, Lover and the Pulp reunion he seems suddenly to have an interest in excavating his own past.
The first 21st century sighting of Shakespeare Rock was on a 2009 edition of ‘Songbook’, a programme on Sky Arts where songwriters are interviewed about their song-writing methods. Since then he’s performed it at his old school, and read the lyrics out at promotional appearances for his book. Each time he’s expressed embarrassment about the song, but it doesn’t seem to be of the genuine stomach-churning kind.
The truth is, Shakespeare Rock isn’t actually that bad – it’s just a throwaway novelty song, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. To describe it as “charming” would be going a little too far, and it’s very unlikely to make anyone laugh, but within the very narrow goals he set it, it seems to be a success. What’s more, the tune itself isn’t bad – particularly the alternation of the final note of each line. On ‘Songbook’ Will Hodgkinson describes it as “Chuck Berry goes to a comprehensive,” which isn’t far off the mark. As far as high-school novelty pastiches go, it’s really not that bad, and thirteen years later the chord structure would be recycled to make something truly special.
It’s much less easy to be kind about ‘Life is a Circle’ – a song so obscure that it seems to have been completely unknown until its performance at The City School in 2011. It’s a particularly egregious example of what Jarvis has described as “trying to sum up the whole world in a song” – a ‘thoughtful’ ballad with lyrics so ludicrously pretentious and full of half-baked metaphors that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t conceived as a joke.
Life is a circle you’re caught on,
Life is a road that’s much too long.
It winds, goes ahead,
It only stops when you’re dead.
Now that’s embarrassing.