#104 – She’s A Lady

24 Aug

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She’s A Lady (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
She’s A Lady (Live at La Cigale, Paris, 1991)
“Cheesy Lady” (Live audio, Portsmouth, March 1993)
She’s A Lady (Live Video – No stilettos, 1993)
She’s A Lady (Live Video – Butt Naked, 1994)
She’s A Lady (Live Video – Glastonbury 1994)
She’s A Lady (Live Video – Santiago, Chile, 2012)
She’s A Lady at Pulpwiki

Sometimes this project is a joy, but this last couple of weeks it’s been more of a struggle. This time it’s not because the track is too big or too personal, but due to the daunting prospect of having to write about Jarvis Cocker’s burgeoning libido. It wasn’t the thing that brought me to the group in the first place, and it wasn’t what kept me around, but as a listener it’s something I have to deal with one way or another. Later on Jarvis would become more self-conscious about this, deconstruct it, start making fun of himself – and everyone could join in with that. At this point, though, we’re at 100% sincerity, and the only option is to enjoy the music and leave this part to those who appreciate it – and it goes without saying that there are many who do, and their view is, if anything, more valid than mine. But does engaging with a song like this mean I have to relate to the “I” or the “you”*? or is there another way in?

All of this is a problem until I actually listen to She’s A Lady again and the intro knocks these now minor quibbles out of my head. That threatening electronic pulse, curious random synthesised piano notes, muttered semi-audible comments from a fever dream, ominous clanging sounds, fuzzy guitar riffs coming in stronger, and yet stronger, then a sudden drop into ice-cold electro. It’s a masterpiece of Ed Buller’s painstaking production techniques – so clean that it sounds almost inhuman, so cold that it sounds like the work of no group at all – but all to drive a tale of red-blooded lust.

That’s hardly the only contradiction on show here either – the whole song is fuzzy in the extreme, a tangle of different ideas and influences without any fixed root. For a start this apparently slick studio product is in fact the oldest thing on His ‘n’ Hers apart from Babies, though early live versions bear little resemblance to the finished product. Well, the guts of the thing are there, but the lyrics and instrumentation are in flux. Aside from the chorus, Jarvis’s role in the earliest versions consists of improvising different stream-of-consciousness descriptions of encounters with a woman. One memorable version from a soundcheck in Portsmouth (included on bootlegs as ‘Cheesy Lady’) has the eponymous female working at the cheese counter at Safeway (“45 pence off Double Gloucester. Emmental is very cheap at this time of the year”).

The body of the song solidified by 1992, but there are still plenty of features that never made it to the record – a thumping drumbeat, an ominous bass-line and – most importantly – a fairly intense workout on the violin from Russell throughout. This last part is the greatest loss as it seems to be an integral part of the song, starting off as a nervous fluttering on the first couple of verses, underlining them in a minor key, then as a series of pizzicato arpeggios from the bridge, working against the tune but lifting it from mundanity into something dark and mysterious.

Maybe this is why Ed Buller cut it out. Here was another tale of stifling sexual tension – he knew what to do with that – but Russell was undercutting it with an air of gypsy balladry, and to be honest I’m not sure how it would even be possible to slot those two things together in the studio. Buller decided that it wasn’t working, and that Russell should go home for a week to practice it, then everyone just moved on. This was something of a cowardly move, if admittedly a shrewd one, and for all the pleasure we can take in enjoying this piece of straight-up electro-pop, the way it soured Russell’s memory of the album (and possibly contributed to his departure a few years later) might well leave us at a net loss.

Let’s not let this taint the song itself though. Whether it’s a dark, brooding boogie or shimmering disco, it’s still a magic mix of the inspired and the pilfered, as many of Pulp’s greatest moments are. The stolen part is hiding in plain sight – a wholesale lift from I Will Survive, the tune and the structure being ‘variations on the theme of…’ and little threads of melody constantly threatening to turn into “Go on now, go, walk out the door…”

Where Gloria Gaynor was asserting her independence and self-reliance, Jarvis is doing quite the opposite. He should stay away from his old flame but (once again) he’s found himself inevitably dragged back to her by an uncontrollable sexual itch. Without her the world has become imbued with desperate sexuality, even “the moon has gone down on the sun.” While Gloria “grew strong”, Jarvis merely “carried on” – going out drinking every night to try to forget, having a rebound relationship with a woman who apparently sells pictures of herself to German businessmen*. This might all be a pose, though – he’s lost in desire as we start, but as we get towards the end his passion seems to have dulled, either that or he’s succeeded in winning her back and want to play it cool – “I guess I kind of missed you…” – maybe it was all just a drunken ploy. Either way, my advice would be to move on.

In its later incarnation as a disco anthem, these lyrics take centre stage, and Jarvis sells them with previously untapped vocal reserves. The screams, gasps, groans and skat vocalisations go a long way towards selling the concept – imbuing this potentially melodramatic piece with real pain and desire – but live versions occasionally took this a little too far to maintain suspension of disbelief. On the “Cheesy Lady” version (admittedly a pre-gig piss-around) there’s a scat breakdown which sounds like Michael Jackson impersonating Jimmy Saville, and that’s not something I want to hear. sorry if I’ve spoiled it for anyone else.

She’s A Lady was a totemic song for Pulp’s early 90s. Though never really single material, it was a common set opener, a showpiece for the group’s different talents and ideas, a statement of intent in its own way. Tellingly, it remained fundamentally in its original non-disco form even after His ‘n’ Hers was released, and was lost from the post-Russell set. That’s ok, though, it just seems to belong to that time.

*This is also the first time Jarvis has been so direct as to address a song to the second person.
**This line is a bit too much of a novelty for my taste, but it doesn’t seem too out-of-place.

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