How can we measure the value an artist places on a song? For a band like Pulp, songs were often written, performed, recorded, and slipped out of the set list and into obscurity in the space of a year. Where others tend to recycle or re-release, they always preferred to do something new. There are exceptions, of course – ‘Babies’ had two single releases, and was on two different albums, if you consider ‘Intro’ to be an album.*
Then there’s ‘Wishful Thinking’ – recorded for their first demo, re-recorded for the Peel session, re-recorded for ‘It’, chosen to be covered in the early 90s by Golden… What is it about this song which kept Jarvis coming back to it?
Listening to the version made for the Peel session, it certainly stands out. In amongst this selection pack of post-punk influences, there appears this emotional new-wave ballad, a little like The Cure, a little like the Postcard Records bands, but generally feeling new, raw, and unlike anything else they were doing at the time.
The construction of the song is quite simple – short verses intercut with a simple mantra of “I’ve got this love inside of me.” Each time it relates to the verses in a different way – at first glowing satisfaction, then doubt and longing, and finally quiet despair. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but Jarvis just about succeeds in doing it here simply by putting as much genuine feeling into it as he can, and his vocals are more successful than they would be again for most of the 80s. It’s a simple evocation of first love, and even if it seems naive it has an honesty and an integrity which can’t be denied.
Underneath the vocals the rest of the band also put in some of their best work. Jamie Pinchbeck contributes a trademark deep, echoey bass line, Wayne Furness adds a solemn, economic beat, and Dolly adds swirling, understated organ. Dale Griffin’s production, probably at the insistence of the band, is almost absurdly echoey, but it suits the track.
Fifteen months later the song was recorded again, by a very different lineup, for Pulp’s first album ‘It’. This version is the better known one, but it’s nowhere near as successful. The gentle acoustic production strains so hard to be sensitive that the vocals threaten to tip over into mawkishness. Everything is too polite – the drums and maracas sound like they are hesitating to come in, and the entire band sound like they are trying their hardest not to offend anyone. Jarvis’s vocals are also much worse – he seems to have either forgotten their meaning, or (more likely) finds them embarrassing. Later he would comment that the song embarrassed him – “because it’s a very direct love song – I remember who it’s about, and it just gets me.” His crooner phase in full bloom, he sounds like Morrissey doing an impression of Frank Sinatra – exactly the approach the song doesn’t need. Saskia’s flute solo is actually very pretty, but unfortunately it’s so tied up with the wimpy production that it pulls the song further down into midmorning chat-show territory.
One thing both versions have in common is the ending, or the lack of one. Nobody seems to know how to finish the song, and we trail off on an unsatisfying, unresolved note.
In 1994 Golden, a girl group mentored and produced by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne, released a version of “Wishful Thinking”, making it the first Pulp song to be professionally covered. It’s like a Saint Etienne version of Talulah Gosh, with the tweeness brought to the fore (in a pleasant enough way) and the lyrics altered to reflect the change in genre. it’s worth a listen, and possibly improves on the ‘It’ version.
*Which I do