#103 – Babies

17 Aug

babies

Babies (1992 music video)
Babies (1994 music video)
Babies (1994 Spoken word video)
Babies (The Warehouse, ITV, 1993)
Babies (The Beat, ITV, 1993)
Babies (Top Of The Pops, 1994)
Babies (BBC Late Show, 1994)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 1994)
Babies (Live film, Reading 1994)
Babies (Naked City, 1994)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 1995)
Babies (Live film, Brixton Academy 1995)
Babies (Live film, Lorely, Germany, 1996)
Babies (TFI Friday, 1997)
Babies (Live film, Reading 2002)
Babies (Live film, Eden Project 2002)
Babies (Sky Arts Songbook, 2009)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 2011)
Babies (Live film, Mexico 2012)
Babies at Pulpwiki

“Although sleep pressed upon my closing eyelids, and the moon, on her horses, blushed in the middle of the sky, nevertheless I could not leave off watching your play; there was too much fire in your two voices.”
Propertius, 50BC-15BC

Childhood is not only the childhood we really had but also the impressions we formed of it in our adolescence and maturity. That is why childhood seems so long. Probably every period of life is multiplied by our reflections upon the next.
Cesare Pavese

Yes it happened years ago on some damp, acrylic afternoon. I know you got your own back years later (that’s another story) but it wasn’t such a big deal anyway – in those days you packed people rather than divorced them. I liked it that way and still do, but then again I’m imma.
Original sleeve notes

Let’s get one thing out in the open first – yes, it does feel odd to be talking about ‘Babies’ at such an early stage in this project. Common People is the headline hit now, but Babies was the song that put Pulp on Top Of The Pops and the cover of the NME and Select – the ultimate goal of indie bands in the days before Britpop. First performed live in July that year, almost a year before the release of Separations, it was first held back, then released, then re-released as the lead track on the Sisters EP. That’s where I come in, I suppose, listening to the Top 40 with Bruno Brookes, thinking “I haven’t heard anything like this before. It’s sort of good, but sort of strange, and I’m not sure if his voice is annoying or interesting…” Then for the next decade or so it was my favourite song of all time, by any artist. It may well still be.

So, it’s proving difficult to write about this one. It has so many memories tied up with it, most of them irrelevant to anyone besides myself, and after disentangling, what’s going to be left?

Let’s start at the beginning, then, the genesis of the thing. In order to spark new ideas, Pulp would try playing each-others instruments from time to time. By the 1990s this was only done at band practice, and they no longer tried it out on record or on stage. By now the main rehearsal space was in Nick Banks’s family pottery warehouse in Catcliffe, a room packed with china figurines and delinquent teenagers outside, both of which would seep, through osmosis, into Pulp’s early 90s material.

“The others had gone to make a cup of tea, so I was just playing Jarv’s guitar. He came back and said ‘What’s that?’ Dunno! No idea what these chords are. he said, ‘Oh, show us,’ and I showed him, and we were just like jamming around these two chords. Ten minutes later, there you are, that’s the song”
Nick Banks in ‘Truth & Beauty

“[Nick] got his hands on the guitar [and played an A] on the wrong three strings…. …That’s what made it so bizarre. It’s when you get the note just before what the note should be…. If you think of something that’s just one note off, it should be like the devil’s note, but somehow it’s really beautiful.”
Jarvis on ‘Songbook’

At this point, and for the next couple of months, Babies was called ‘Nicky’s Song’, and according to Russell it featured “Jarvis singing to Nick rather like Elvis sings to the hound dog on The Ed Sullivan Show. He used to run around the rehearsal room and grope Nick’s breasts during it.” You can still feel a hint of that on the chorus, “I wanna take you home…” Jarvis thought it was corny, a rehearsal room novelty, but further jamming gave the thing a story and a climax, and in July of that year it was even recorded live for ITV’s Stage One. Though it failed to make the TV edit, it was released on the ‘Party Clowns’ live CD in 2012 and makes for an odd listen. The song is 90% there, but that missing 10% vitally includes some of those little touches that make it work. It’s oddly shambling, a little discordant, and the chorus fails to take off the way it should. All the same, it stands out, and the audience seems to love it on first listen. Later gigs in 1991 have it missing, but since the start of 1992 it’s been a fixture in almost every set, essentially unchanged.

Babies, then, is a story in a song, albeit a confusing one. There are multiple narrators, opaque ‘you’ and ‘him’ and sudden shifts into reported speech. Even after reading the lyrics while listening (I know…) it’s far from clear what exactly transpired, or even how many people were involved. The description on wikipedia shows quite how impossible it is to untangle.

The song’s protagonist spends platonic afternoons in a female friend’s room listening to her older sister and the boys she takes to her room and, presumably, has sex with, but this is not enough for him and he hides in the elder sister’s wardrobe and watches her with David, who works in a local garage. Unable to tell the younger sister, who appears to be the real object of his affections, for fear she will tell her mother the song’s narrator listens outside as she proposes sex to a boy named Neve. Finally he comes “home” to the disappointment that the elder sister has moved out, presumably in an act of nostalgia he re-enters the wardrobe but falls asleep and is found by the elder sister and the two have sex, only to be caught by the younger sister, culminating in the boy making the pathetic, but seemingly genuine, excuse: “I only went with her cos she looks like you.”

Are we clear now? I hope I’m not the only one who tried to work out why there were two named boys and no named girls, why he came “home” to somewhere that wasn’t his house, why he felt having sex was the necessary reaction to being found in a girl’s wardrobe, and ultimately who it was wanted to take whom home. Looking back on it, though, the mystery and ambiguity was part of the appeal. In the words of Alex Thomson on Freakytrigger “the genius of “Babies” is that the harder you try to make sense of the story the less sense the song seems to make: and the more you think about the song the less the story matters.”

Take away the attempt at forming a narrative and you’re left with something else – a breathy, jumbled series of confused confessions, a strange mix of childish and mature viewpoints – the first joy of discovery of sex, but based on an unformed notion of what the adult world will be, or a look back at how juvenile agonies set the model for future relationships. There’s something so intimate about the way it’s related, but also a perverse joy in the revealing of salacious gossip – a recklessly throwaway, utterly immature description of events that still somehow escapes self-parody.

Perhaps even this is irrelevant. Babies works because it captures a feeling of joy – the words set the tone, but it’s the whole group that lead you there. Nick’s opening sets it in motion, and the rest of the track is made up of variations on that theme. There’s an odd magic to these chords – joyful, sure, yet with a certain nervousness – and Candida reinforces this with the transcendental synth lines previously heard on Space, only here they’re coupled with a guitar lick to sound more sun-drenched than mystical. From then on it’s a question of piling on the hooks – those poppy SFX bleeps, that beefy, almost jokey guitar line. Each band member takes centre stage for a moment, then passes the baton to the next. It’s like a selection pack of hooks, and it would’ve been understandable if they’d used them for three or four songs, or one ten-minute long one.

At this point it’s frankly all I can do to stop myself listing each second of the song as it progresses. It wouldn’t be difficult. In live versions this piling-on turns into a series of pulls back and sudden lurches. In the recorded version(s) things are a little calmer and smoother, but the delay just allows more buildup to the inevitable climax – that moment where words fail and it’s all just “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” and the song dissolves into great swooping pirouettes of joy.

Putting this level of care and craft into a song indicates that they knew what a hit they had on their hands, and the track’s subsequent lifespan bears this out. First a demo version, produced by Simon Hinkler, was mooted for a limited release on Caff, then it was held back to be the group’s second release on Gift, and recorded with new producer Ed Buller in Island’s Fallout Shelter studio.

A music video was made – the one that features first on the running list of both video compilations. Though it evidently was made for as near to nothing as possible, it’s as charming as the song itself, especially due to the inclusion of Bob Stanley’s friends Celina and Sophie as the two sisters.* The video is as bristling with ideas as the song itself, with costume-change jump-cuts, vignettes of seventies household tat, a fantastically scary performance from Russell, and an introductory frame stating that “A music video is an advert for a song.” For many this video’s inclusion on ITV’s The Chart Show was their first exposure to the group.

Two years later, when Pulp were officially signed to Island, and had a single in the top 40 to their name, Babies was taken out of the vaults for a re-release. Generally speaking, I hate it when groups do this – it shows a lack of faith in your new material to re-release old songs – but it would’ve been a great shame to leave the track as an obscurity. The song was re-mixed (very slightly – it’s hard to pinpoint any actual changes, but it sounds a little more polished, especially in the first minute or so) and included on an EP with His ‘n’ Hers session tracks. The Sisters EP is fantastic, in my view superior to its parent album, and got the group into the top 20 and on Top of The Pops. Another video was made, not quite as charming as the original version, but a wonderfully shiny collection of Pulp tropes anyhow, and all fitting so well into the airbrushed, objectified image of the His ‘n’ Hers era that it might as well have been directed by The Designers Republic. There’s a spoken word version too, with comedy sound effects; a little unnecessary, but it’s brilliant that it exists, and that they went to the trouble to record it.

It was a hit, of course, and was shoehorned onto His ‘n’ Hers – a touch of 1992 in the middle of 1994,** and unfortunately served to highlight some of the minor weaknesses of the other tracks. Not that they were bad, just not quite as good. Until Common People came along it was the Pulp song, and it’s been the highlight of a thousand indie discos and house parties, an intimate anthem. I’ve tried to get down what it means to me, but two thousand words later there still seems to be so much left to say. I guess it’s just hard to step back, the song is that firmly embedded in my subconscious.

Babies is a composition of great craft, care and inspiration, which seems to survive an endless number of listens, not only intact, but getting better each time. It’s been a long, winding path, but Pulp have followed it all the way out into daylight – mainstream pop from the group that brought us Aborigine and Manon, and all the better for being entirely on their terms. It’s an utter triumph, four minutes of utter joy, and I’m not sure it can ever be bettered.

*I’m mentioning them as Celina also sang with Golden, who released a cover of Wishful Thinking, and featured on the cover of Foxbase Alpha, therefore = notable.
*It wasn’t on the original vinyl version of the LP, which has led to an impression amongst some that it’s a CD bonus track and not included in the “proper” tracklisting. Really, though, let’s not be silly here, it’s on His ‘n’ Hers.

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3 Responses to “#103 – Babies”

  1. Tafkawac 02/10/2013 at 10:45 pm #

    It’s funny, after all these years I discover the song is about 2 sisters, I always imagined the song be about a boy with an older sister, hence the “My God!” exclamation!

  2. dominicvine 22/02/2017 at 5:39 pm #

    confusing characterizations is right
    as a young gay boy
    being introduced to Pulp through His’n’Hers
    i thought this was about having sex with her because she looked like a brother
    . . . being able to read anything into pop music
    many of his songs were about hidden gay rooms for me. . . turns out not to be
    but a terstament to his greatness anyway
    their greatness. . .

    and this is an excellent project!
    i encourage you to finish it and publish it as a book!

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