‘Master of the Universe’ – an explanation:
He was God and she was His congregation.
But when she lost her faith, He lost His power.
Now the thigh-length boot’s on the other foot.
(You might think it’s funny, but someone’s always got to be boss.)
– original sleevenotes
In late 1985, in the middle of the group’s first nationwide tour, Jarvis fell out of a window. It wasn’t a particularly high window, just two floors up, but it was enough to break his wrist, ankle and pelvis, leaving him confined to a wheelchair for much of 1986. Embarrassingly enough, he hadn’t been rescuing a cat or talking down a potential suicide, but doing a drunken Spiderman impression to impress a girl at a party – out one window and in another. Halfway through he realised he wasn’t going to make it to the other ledge and just had to let go.
Stuck in a hospital bed for a month, the tour cancelled, doctors warning him he may not walk properly again… things weren’t exactly looking up. As he lay in his childhood bedroom convalescing, while his Mother sat downstairs watching ‘Lovejoy’, he noticed a bottle of novelty “Masters of the Universe” shampoo he’d bought, and laughed at the irony of using it in his state. What kind of immense power would you need to have to be “master” of the entire universe? How utterly deluded would you have to be to give yourself such a title?
Master of the Universe is a parable, then. The sort of parable which usually stars Anthony Ainley as The Master, i.e. not a particularly subtle one, one which doesn’t bear any kind of serious analysis, but I’ll see what I can wring out anyway. Our protagonist, the “master of the universe”, is in conversation with a female underling who he is taking great pleasure in mistreating. His power comes from faith – without the compliance of the masses under him he is nothing. When his underling fails to take him seriously their positions are inverted, and he becomes her whipping boy / slave dog. He relishes both positions, lending the song a sadomasochistic air – but rather than ringing true in any way this seems to be the same use of sexual perversion we saw in ‘Maureen’ – ‘difficult’ shock-topics resorted to as a replacement for real passion or feeling. It might even have been intended to be funny, but I doubt it.
Understandably, Master of the Universe has garnered more attention for its musical style than its theme. On the surface a grimy goth-rock thrash it in many ways prefigures the ‘Slavic disco’ sound the next line-up would embrace. If you listen to ‘Rattlesnake’ next to MOTU you can clearly hear the shared DNA. MOTU is something of an inbred cousin, though, and you can hear unhelpful hints of other failed experiments, like the whirlitzer organ from ‘Fairground’. The song does at least have some energy to it, so it’s not a pain to listen to, but neither is it a joy. The band’s performance doesn’t really help matters. Jarvis dominates the song with his ludicrously mannered vocal, a nasal growling devil-voice with flat-out annoying pronunciation of common words and bizarre unnecessary trills. Magnus doesn’t help things with his slightly off drums either – though a great drummer, he never seemed to get to grips with this disco rhythm. The rest of the band aren’t helping things either – though the song wasn’t new, nobody seems sure at all of how it’s supposed to sound.
Master of the Universe was an odd choice as a second single from ‘Freaks’ – the only things to be said in its favour being that it was fairly upbeat and that it hinted at the band’s new direction. All the same, it was an unpalatable bit of sci-fi goth-rock nonsense, and backed with the dull ‘Manon’ and the excruciating ‘Silence’ it perhaps counts as Pulp’s worst ever single. Fire insisted that the band re-record two lines to change the words ‘masturbates’ to ‘vegetates’ and ‘comes’ to ‘keeps’, but the idea that this would lead to any radio play was wildly optimistic. The single got two minor, obtuse mentions in the music press and quickly sank without trace. The band, who had split up and reformed by the time it was released, weren’t even sent a copy. Intentionally or not, the single serves as a “so long, fuck off” note to the era, as the band noted on the back of the sleeve;
“This record marks the end of Pulp #3. Pulp #4 will follow shortly.”