What Do You Say? (youtube)
On the 7th of August 1981, after three intermittent years of existence, Pulp found themselves in a semi-detached council house in Handsworth, belonging to car mechanic Ken Patten. By all accounts it was fairly typical for a council house occupied by a couple in their mid 50s – tidy, polite and suburban, no shoes allowed on the carpet – apart from the fact that it doubled up as a recording studio, going by the name of “Studio Electrophonique.” Guitars were set up in the living room, the mixing deck was in the kitchen, and upstairs in the master bedroom was a room for live performance, equipped with a Simmons electric drum kit (a real drum kit would’ve been too noisy for Ken’s wife to bear.) This strange space was the closest thing Sheffield had to a professional recording studio, and therefore boasted early recordings of artists like The Future (who later became The Human league) and Vice Versa (who later became ABC.)
That day, Pulp recorded four tracks. Three would end up being re-recorded for the John Peel session later that year, and one of those three would make it to their debut album nearly two years later. “What Do You Say,” the remaining track, was released early in 1982 on the compilation “Your Secret’s Safe With Us” – Pulp’s first appearance on vinyl, and their earliest full recording in circulation.
1981 was an odd time for the music scene in Sheffield. In the late 70s post-punk boom acts like Cabaret Voltaire and 2.3 had taken the “anyone can do it” attitude and used it to create sounds more jarring and original than any “punk” band in London. Cleaned up, popularised, Sheffield bands would go on to create much of the sounds of the 80s. By ’81, former stars like the aforementioned Human League and ABC had travelled south, now on major labels, ready to break into the big time. The acts who remained sounded darker, nastier, harder. To me it sounds like a funny time to be joining a scene – like arriving at a party too late, when everyone is sleepy or belligerently drunk – and a fun band with upbeat songs about Shakespeare, Martians and crabs must have seemed out of step.
‘What do You Say?’ is a step towards the consensus. It doesn’t sound particularly like Artery or The Comsat Angels, but more like a much faster version of something off The Cure’s second LP ‘Seventeen Seconds’, one of the albums which started the goth movement. As we will see with the next few tracks, the band seemed to be playing with every different post-punk sound they could find, and this is perhaps the most straightforwardly post-punk of all.
It might not be particularly original, but it’s really not that bad. The melody itself is quite simple, but each note of Jarvis and Dolly’s guitar lines echos both backwards and forwards, overlapping and intertwining to produce a wall of jangling, stuttering pulses. Holding it together there’s Jamie Pinchbeck’s underlying jerking, pushy bass rhythm, allowed its own brief solo, and a basic 1-2-1-2-drum-fill rhythm from the band’s new drummer, 15-year old Wayne Furniss, who was finding it hard getting to grips with his first electric drum set. Everyone sounds like they’re just barely able to keep time with each-other, but somehow the whole thing holds together.
The lyrics, meanwhile, are pretty much textbook sci-fi horror stuff.
Woke up in the morning
Raised my head still yawning
Well I was in for a surprise
Stumbled to the mirror
Realised in horror
The face that stared back wasn’t mine
A little clunky, yes, with slightly forced rhymes and an extra syllable in “realised” needed to make the line scan, but novel enough a concept to make the song stand out. Unfortunately it doesn’t really go anywhere from there, the remainder of the song being spent exploring fruitlessly the different angles he can take on the problem – the protagonist’s “sudden facial change” (to rhyme with “strange”) is not noticed by anyone else, he is concerned that he’s now a ‘stranger’ (to rhyme with ‘danger’) and in the end we finish with
And so I rest my case
I don’t want another’s face
Fortunately the lyrics are not that important here, the sound is the main thing. This was, after all, one of the tracks that convinced John Peel to grant the group a session, but more on that later.
For those that are interested in the Sheffield post-punk scene, I would recommend Made In Sheffield, and Beats Working For A Living, a DVD and book which tell the story in detail. You can find them on the sidebar to the right of the page. If you don’t have time for those, I’ve made a mix to introduce the music of the time. Made In Sheffield describes it as “the birth of electronic pop” – which is (perhaps) right, but the story is a good deal more strange and interesting than that. You can listen here – http://lastnightadjkilledmydog.libsyn.com/meanwhile-in-sheffield-part-1-1977-1981 – just click the ‘pod’ button