#101 – Live On

3 Aug

Pulp in 1992

Live On (OU Session – FON Studio, Sheffield, 28-30 January 1992)
Live on (Mark Goodier session, 1992)
Live On (Live, 19 October 1992 – Festival Les Inrockuptibles, La Cigale, Paris)
Live On (France Inter – Black Session, 17 November 1992)
Live on (Live film 12 Aug 1991, Town & Country Club)
Live on at Pulpwiki

As Pulp waited for Separations to be released, through those three years of legal and financial troubles, they must have nevertheless had a feeling that an upward tick in their creative and professional lives was underway. My Legendary Girlfriend had been their first critical success, and Countdown had consolidated their gains. That was it, though, two singles out and a sense of momentum to be maintained. It was time to come up with something bigger and slicker, something to show to record companies, something to get them into the charts and onto Top Of The Pops. Such a hit would come, in time, almost by accident, but that’s something to talk about in a couple of weeks. ‘Live On’, meanwhile, was not the breakthrough single, but at the time it must have seemed like it would be.

A blatant attempt to write another ‘Countdown’, Live On could have been Pulp’s first straight-up pop song since Everybody’s Problem if they’d only managed to record it properly. There’s wah-wah guitar, stabs and swirls of organ, a growling build-up with an anthemic release, a bizarre lyric (“three blind mice go ow!” – a reference to the song’s three-bar keyboard motif?), a sort-of-not-quite-guitar-solo and a thrash-and-release at the end. All very promising stuff, but based around a build-up and release of tension which starts to fall apart if you examine it too closely.

Live On was an instant live favourite, but seemed to wilt under studio lights. The bright, unforgiving clarity of studio production and the lack of an audience conspired to strip away all the energy and leave us with a leaden, insubstantial retread of last year’s themes – tasty but unsatisfying, like cheap chocolate. Over a couple of years it was attempted again and again, until it was finally dropped. With no definitive version out there to review, let’s instead have a look at four different performances from 1991 and 1992.

OU Session – FON Studio, Sheffield, 28-30 January 1992

Listening to this barely-circulated demo, the reasons that the song was never a single are suddenly very clear. The song limps into action with a weedy synth stab and a half-hearted “mama” from Jarvis. The rhythm section try to funk things up, and momentarily succeed, but as soon as the build-up of tension finishes the chorus comes in like a deflated balloon, and the mojo is lost forever – for a song that’s all about performance and being there in the moment, this is fatal, and the last couple of minutes turn into a joyless trudge.

BBC Radio 1 – Mark Goodier Show, 30 May 1992

This is probably the best-known version of Live On due to its inclusion on the deluxe edition of His N Hers, where Jarvis noted that they “never seemed to be able to get it right in the studio [but this version] is about the closest we ever got” – which is pretty much spot on. This version has a distinctive 60s sci-fi phasing effect on Candida’s keyboards, everyone comes in at the right time, and Jarvis’s vocal just about striked the right balance between restrained and emotional. It’s not perfect – there’s still a disconnect between the idea of the song and its execution, particularly towards the end – but it was still the best choice for the CD.

Festival Les Inrockuptibles, Paris – La Cigale, 19th October 1991

The performance at La Cigale, muffled and distorted as it is, stands out as one of the best live bootlegs in circulation, and Live On is one of the highlights. There’s a palpable tension in the highly-wound build-up, and when we drop into the chorus it’s with a euphoric release. This would be the template for much to come over the next few years. The break is genuinely funky, and the last couple of minutes the band whip themselves up into a frenzy without missing a beat. As we finish the crowd erupt into a massive cheer. Not saying it’s perfect, but close enough.

France Inter – Black Session, 17 November 1992

Again, the main difference is with Candida’s keyboard – this time she decided on a swirling Ray Manzarek sound, which works as well as anything else. Generally it’s a solid enough performance – better than the OU session, but the energy seems to have left with the audience at La Cigale. This sounds like a professional enough performance of a song that’s been trotted out for years. The song is still there, but the moment has passed, and there are bigger fish to fry. It just wasn’t to be.

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