#94 – Death Comes to Town

8 Jun

All Is Vanity

Death Comes To Town – FON Demo, December 1987 (Mix 1)
Death Comes To Town – FON Demo, December 1987 (Mix 2)
Death Comes To Town at Pulpwiki

Welcome to “death month” at Freaks, Mis-Shapes, Weeds. Over the course of the next four entries we’ll be looking at one of the main themes of Separations; DEATH, whether real, emotional, spiritual, or – as here – personified as a seductive ladies man. These weren’t the only examples either – we’ve already covered ‘Down By The River’ – and Countdown was originally titled ‘Death III’. Given that the dictionary definition of ‘morbid’ is “having an unusual interest in death or unpleasant events” you might expect a corollary of this to be that Jarvis was miserable / melodramatic / a goth. But no – actually we’re going to see the topic treated with lightness, humour and sensitivity throughout – not as an obsession, but as a springboard to discuss all manner of topics until Jarvis truly found his writing feet a year or two later – a process which it actively helped with.

Like many others I spent years listening to Death Goes To The Disco without truly getting what it was about. Of course, it wasn’t on an official album, so I wasn’t able to disobey the instruction not to read the lyrics while listening to the recording. It sounded very much like the bravado of Master Of The Universe, mixed up with the sex of My Legendary Girlfriend, but somehow I failed to make the connection between the title and the lyrics. It took Owen Hatherley’s book to spell it out to me, and he did the job well enough that I can’t do any better than to quote him directly:

“Listened to casually… …the song seemed to be matter of vengeful copulation, taken to the point of ridiculousness, much as you’d hear in a Different Class song like ‘Pencil Skirt’. It takes place in a similar space, as our protagonist ‘stalks these yellow-lit cul-de-sacs at night’, but – as you realise on third or fourth listen – the protagonist is death himself, and when he’s ‘taking’ all these people, he’s not showing them a good time. ‘I want your body and I want your soul’, he cries, but this revenge fantasy is more Carrie than Room At The Top”

It’s a neat conceit, isn’t it? A joke that reveals rather than reinforces, one that doesn’t need to spell itself out – morbid, yes, but with a redeeming deadpan cabaret sense of humour.

Of course, backing all this up, we have something even more special – Pulp for the first time fully in their disco phase. There had been talk before, of course, portasound rhythms and disco beats abound on the songs of this era, but up until this point the group’s jamming process had served to make things either more conventional or weirder by the time they were ready for public consumption. With Death Comes To Town there’s a sense that you could really dance to its syncopated disco rhythm. When Jarvis and Russell half-jokingly wondered whether they “might get thrown off the label when they hear our new stuff” this was presumably what they were talking about. Disco was still not cool in indie circles, but thankfully quite different attitudes were present at FON, where (as we’ll see very soon) some of the dance music of the present was in gestation.

The previous session had yielded two tracks, but this time they focussed on getting one just right. Three different mixes have emerged. The first sounds like it’s not quite cooked enough, the portasound allowed to dominate, mingled in with unusually timid violin from Russell, low-down guitar from Jarvis when Russell was unable to master the part. Still, the body of the thing is there, and it only sounds unfinished when compared with the other mixes. The version labelled ‘mix 2’ in the leaked demo has since then become semi-official with releases on the ‘Beats Working For A Living’ CD in 2005, and more recently as a bonus track on the remastered version of Separations. This mix not only adds all manner of production tricks – the vocals sounding brighter and more separated, layers of keyboard effects – but adds more sophisticated electronic beats subtly over the top, leading to a synth string crescendo on the final section, and a complex wall of sound production by the end. It’s still the same song, still has that slightly (deliberately) cheap air, but it’s suddenly a polished pop product.

The third mix has a different title, and we’ll be coming to that a little later.

Unfortunately things at FON went much the same way as they had with the abortive ‘Don’t You Want Me Anymore?’ single of the year before. By the time they had the money to actually put the single out, the band and the label had both moved on – though Warp subsidiary Gift Records will have a major role to play a little later on. Once again, it’s a shame the single was never released, that the group didn’t have this shot at impressing the world while their ideas were still fresh. Years later, with the FON demos leaked, and with the release of the remastered ‘Separations’, Death Goes To Town has gone from being a lost song to a fairly well-known one, so for once it seems like justice has been served.

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