An odd confluence of storylines here. Nights of Suburbia is the Kevin Bacon of Pulp songs, if Kevin Bacon were obscure and largely devoid of talent, that is. The inception of the song was during the period of flux prior to the Freaks era, as Jarvis expalined in Martin Lilleker’s book, Beats Working For a Living:
Somehow Pulp were always losing bass players, and we’d lost one and we auditioned an ex-member of the Fatales. He wasn’t right for us but he did a song of theirs called Night of Suburbia which I liked the title of because I thought it was ‘Knights’, as in shining armour, and it conjured up images of blokes in suits of armour trampling through Woodhouse or something. So we ripped it off. I then wrote a song called Knights of Suburbia which was basically a rip off of my memory of him singing it in my mother’s garage.
At the point of capture, this song remains in this suburban-medieval fantasyland. ‘Virgins’ ‘whores’ and ‘green pastures’ are mixed up with ‘crimplene’ ‘fish and chip suppers’ and ‘sweaty nylon sheets’. It’s a nice enough idea, but one that ultimately doesn’t offer anything much in practice. Reading the lyrics it’s hard to escape the fact that the author doesn’t really know what he’s trying to say.
The only extant copy of the song was recorded at the Dolebusters festival in 1985. Dolebusters was the brainchild for the “Sheffield Co-ordinating Centre Against Unemployment”, a local organisation which attempted to provide help to the unemployed masses of 1980s Sheffield. Unsurprisingly, the group’s connection to SCCAU was through Russell, though he did manage to drag Jarvis along to one of their meetings.
“It was one of the most dull afternoons I’ve ever spent. People were just arguing about what you should call the organisation. Some people wanted to call it “scau”, but then another one pointed out that it had two Cs in it, so it was “scu-cau”. So all the way through this meeting, whenever anybody said “scau” – “I think scau should be doing this…” – then this other one would pipe up in the background “sc-cau”. I refused to go to any more meetings after that.” – Jarvis Cocker on ‘The Beat is The Law’
The festival was recorded on video, but the resultant release was so obscure that even the most determined digging has failed to turn it up. After a further festival in 86, and another video, a tape compilation called “See You Later, Agitator!” was released. The tape also featured a group called Trolley Dog Shag, featuring a young Steve Mackey, who would later become Pulp’s first long-term bass player, moving to London with Jarvis and continuing to work closely with him even after the band’s demise.
Eight years after the festival the group would release a track called ‘Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia) as a b-side to ‘Babies’. This is fundamentally a different song, sharing only a could of lines and most of a title with “Nights of Suburbia’. Curiously, though, it includes (almost vertabim) the words from the group’s page in the “See You Later, Agitator!” booklet – but that’s another story for another day.
Does this complex backstory make for a great song, then? Well, no. It’s not a complete disaster, more an uninspired experiment, tied to a semi-functioning lyric and one of the group’s less successful chugging Slavic rhythms. Jarvis attempts to make up for the lack of inspiration by screaming the lyrics with as much passion as he can muster, but it’s inevitably a bit of a damp squib. The song seems to have disappeared from sets soon after, and had its most useful parts salvaged in the early 90s. The banalities and secret joys of suburban England would be one of the group’s most enduring themes, but in 1985 the idea needed further incubation.