#28 – Sickly Grin

31 Mar

Sickly Grin
Sickly Grin on Pulpwiki

In August 1982, a new Pulp arrived at Input studios in Sheffield to record another four-track demo. This wasn’t just a change in lineup – Dolly and Jamie, two crucial members of the group, had left to go to university. Wayne had given up drumming entirely, and would only contribute guitar and bass parts for two tracks. All that remained from the Rotherham demo was Jarvis and the Hinkler brothers. Over the summer Simon Hinkler, growing tired of splits and musical differences within Artery, had decided to spend his time mentoring Jarvis and helping him put his ideas into some kind of proper shape. Rather than just being the group’s producer, he was now sharing performance and songwriting duties. This, in other words, is the start of the ‘It’ era, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to the most un-‘It’-like “Sickly Grin.”

Sickly Grin is a pop song, and a successful one at that. The cobbled-together hit-and-miss sound of Pulp Mark 2 has been replaced with a band who are able to play together in a way that sounds both deliberate and comfortable. This is hardly surprising considering that Simon had managed to rope in Artery’s drummer, Garry Wilson. Wayne’s drumming had been haphazard to say the least – while he was able to embellish with rolls fairly well, he always struggled to keep time – and simply having the strength of a solid backbeat lifts the song up straight away. The bassline sounds like a Jamie Pinchbeck composition – all low notes and scales – but Simon Hinkler is clearly more competent and lends the track a certain cheekyness on his Fender jazz bass. To top it all off we have a woozy brass section (David on trombone and a guest appearance from Dolly on cornet) joining in for the middle eight. It all sounds very accomplished, though unmistakably just a demo – David in particular doesn’t seem 100% sure about his casiotone parts.

And for the words? Not sure if they matter that much. On the surface Jarvis is simply complaining that the relentless jollity of people he meets is a sham, and that (as Kenickie would later put it) “it’s ok to be sad.” Whether or not there exists a layer of self-awareness or parody under this message is unlear, but at least he’s found a specific thing to complain about rather than railing at the world in general. Writing wilfully miserable lyrics and building a jolly stomper of a song around them wasn’t an original idea – the Kinks had quite a few goes in the late sixties, and later on The Supernaturals tried to build an entire career out of the concept. The trick, it seems, is not to get carried away with playing up the contrast. A casual listener most likely would be too carried away with the jollity to notice how the song is fundamentally a three-minute long complaint that other people smile too much.

A sure-fire pop hit then. The fact that it would spend the following decade in a box somewhere is a really a terrible shame, and we have to thank Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne for digging the demo out for the b-side of a limited edition single in 1992 – though by that time the tape had warped a little, distorting the start of the song. It took me another decade to realise it wasn’t just my bootleg cassette that was broken.

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