Countdown (Separations, 1992)
Countdown (Extended Mix, 1992)
Countdown (Music Video (7″ Mix), 1992)
Countdown (Live film, Leadmill, 16/03/1991)
Countdown (Live film, Town & Country Club, 20/07/1991)
Countdown (Live film, Leadmill, 1/09/1991)
Countdown (Live film, Brixton Academy, 01/09/2011)
Countdown (Live film, L’Olympia, 13/11/2012)
Countdown at Pulpwiki
“Countdown” was about waiting for your life to take off, and then realising maybe the countdown’s never going to stop, you’ll never reach zero – and in the meantime, the rocket’s getting rusty and if it got to zero, it wouldn’t take off anyway. – Jarvis in Record Collector #184, December 1994
“How much of human life is lost in waiting?” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“We never live; we are always in the expectation of living.” – Voltaire
Jarvis Cocker was 17 in 1981; the year of Pulp’s first Peel session – the year Dolly and Jamie went off to university, leaving him to fulfil his destiny of becoming a pop star all on his own. From that day every step seemed to have led him further and further away from his goal – sometimes due to deliberate acts of defiant individuality, but often also through sheer naivety too. Eighties Pulp were wilfully aimless, producing art for arts sake – not actually a bad thing if you’re just making art. If you want to be a pop star though, especially in the era of Stock, Aiken & Waterman, it’s not going to get you anywhere at all.
Call it self-delusion, perhaps, but Jarvis wasn’t exactly quick to realise this – instead he waited expectantly for the big day as if at a bus stop, trying to get the bus to round the corner through sheer force of will. In films and songs this kind of faith pays off, but the universe is fundamentally uninterested in such trivia. We live, then we die, and if we want anything else then we have to go out and find it. The eighties are all over now, and after rejecting them it’s time to scourge the soul and start afresh.
‘Countdown’, then, is all about Jarvis talking himself out of his disappointing dreams, and into making everything happen by himself – whether that be with difficult relationships, or – more likely – with his (lack of) fans. There’s a sense that the greater the desperation, the greater the push for redemption. There’s no celebration here – in a sense it’s an act of self-flagellation – but there’s an ultimate faith that if you face up to your demons honestly enough you can destroy them utterly. It’s a much more deserving release than the empty calls for self-belief found in the works of the likes of L’Oreal and Oasis, particularly because it’s so personal. We’ve got the panic attacks (“I thought it was my heart”) the self-doubt (“will I ever leave this room?”) and greatest of all the irony that this great “fuck off” to Sheffield is part of the first chapter of his writings about the town rather than the last.
For all this, though, it’s also a pop song – or at least the closest thing to one we’ve encountered since Everybody’s Problem. Through the next five or six years the stated main goal of Pulp as a group is to make music for a mass-audience – Jarvis seemed to continually express annoyance with the “We make music for ourselves, if other people like it then that’s a bonus” attitudes of the shoegaze era. What this didn’t mean was losing their individuality – it meant stressing it in fact, making themselves into the coolest gang in town, then inviting everyone to join.
That they managed to cobble together this sound is odd, and impressive too. Though it’s Pulp’s first genuine disco hit, nothing is synthesised. The drums are live, as are all Candida’s disco flourishes, and rather than programming in Midi, everything was stuck together with great care. The final result is a that the song seems to be powered by clockwork – each spin of a cog triggering others, gears turning, locking and producing a cascade of extra movements of great wonder and beauty from around 4 minutes in. You can imagine the video it should’ve had – something like ‘Hugo’ perhaps. But better.
Instead the video (a half-arsed collage of space visuals interspersed with the band playing – easily the most “this’ll do” of all their vids) features the single mix produced in 1991. This version is less clockwork, more full-on indie dance, the vocals re-recorded and sounding around 35% more energetic, the squelches and synth beds right in the foreground, and lashings of Russell’s wah-wah guitar topping the whole thing off. There was even an obligatory 12″ version with three and a half minutes of unnecessary instrumental build-up at the start, which is included on the remastered ‘Separations’ in place of the superior 7″ cut. You could say it’s superior all-round, but I sort of miss that clockwork cascade.
This is then – by a long chalk – the most polished and professional Pulp had ever sounded, so it’s odd to note that this product was released on Fire Records. The group (and Russell in particular) had gone into debt to record Separations, expecting a record company to realise their genius, pick up the bill and release the LP to international acclaim. Whether this was a case of still waiting for their chance or taking risks is a moot point – in either case the ‘industry’ wasn’t ready for them, and there was no other choice but to come crawling back to Fire. Thing seemed to be better this time, though – the release of My Legendary Girlfriend was something of a secret success, and Countdown was a natural choice of second single before the album came out.
Everything was looking up for the group – that was until Rough Trade Distribution went into liquidation, and nearly took Fire down with it. Once more the countdown had stalled. Aside from an endless series of reissues and cash-in compilations this is the end of the Pulp on Fire story, but things would have to get worse before they could get better.