“It was after seeing a picture of my mum, getting out of her wedding car, and realising she was only twenty when she got pregnant and had to get married. She was at art college, but gave it up to have me.”
Jarvis Cocker, Record Collector, 1994
“My mother’s eyes are actually hazel.”
Jarvis Cocker, Mother, Brother, Lover, 2011
Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) is not a song about Jarvis’s mother. It’s just about someone very much like her. It’s not an uncommon story after all; young, artistic girl with hopes and dreams finds herself pregnant at a young age, forced into a loveless marriage, crushed by the rules of society and the law of unintended consequences before she’s even had a chance to find out how the world works. This is no melodrama, it has no need to be when (as Thoreau put it) “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It’s hardly a kitchen sink drama either – there’s no anger or kicking back here, the girl is simply crushed, literally in the last verse.
Little Girl was famously “banned” from being played on the radio by Radio Hallam’s Richard Tandy, and it’s easy to see why. Even on a hundredth listen there’s still something fundamentally shocking about it – and not just the dark croon of “…and one between your legs” either. This focus upon one girl’s ruined life seems voyeuristic, particularly in the way each line features first a statement and then an (often withering) comment. Owen Hatherley puts it like this:
“You wonder, not for the first time, whether the song’s protagonist is an observer of the woman’s plight or a participant; while the song is deeply sympathetic, there’s not much doubt that the man in it is fully implicated.”
Owen Hatherley, ‘Uncommon’, 2011.
Another possibility is that the second voice is the girl talking to herself. The call-response structure of the lyrics could be an internal monologue – the little girl afflicted by self-doubt, judging herself at every turn. Either way, the lyric is wracked with guilt. The father blames her (“look what you’ve done”), the world has no sympathy… who can she blame for this situation? At this point it’s interesting to note that the real little girl gave up her artistic ambitions because she was pregnant with the song’s author. Forget about the paintings, you’ve got to raise Jarvis? It’s enough to give a man a complex.
The creepiness of the track can also be traced to the new creative partnership of Jarvis and Russell. The two distinct voices in the song, whether viewed as ‘victim/abuser’ or ‘observer/interior monologue’ reflect the different approaches of its co-authors.
If I hadn’t been there, Little Girl would have been so soppy as to be unlistenable. My typical tactic was to tell Jarvis “stop being so bloody soft.”
Russell Senior in Truth & Beauty
Russell’s influence extends way beyond the lyrical content of the song. The note of menace in the verses chiefly comes from his queasy, slightly out of tune violin – from this point one of the lead instruments in the band’s new sound.
So far so good, but we’re still missing something here. Pulp’s first act in 1984 was to recruit Magnus Doyle’s flatmate to play bass, and now they added his sister Candida on keyboards. It was her first proper band, and she was playing their songs on their Farfisa, so you’d expect her impact to be minimal. Here, though, it’s anything but. Her breathy backing vocals on the verses and organ on the chorus are both perfectly pitched – oddly as the Farfisa had broken and she had to play a Crumar string synth.
The final person to thank is Simon Hinkler, returning as a producer. Demos and early live versions of Little Girl lack backing vocals and feature instead a clumsy crashing drum-beat on “hole in your heart.” Hinkler wisely ignored Jarvis’s demands for more reverb on the track, so while it’s still atmospheric it doesn’t sound as muddy as anything on “Freaks.”
A tour-de-force, then, and a wise choice of a first single from Fire. The song would, uniquely, remain an occasional part of their set well into the nineties, even while Jarvis was expressing nothing but disdain for the bulk of their eighties work.