#128 – Joyriders

1 Mar

'Joyrider' by Ross McDonnell

Joyriders (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Joyriders (acoustic) (b-side, Common People, 1995)
Joyriders (Sky Arts ‘Songbook’, 2009)
Joyriders (live film)
Joyriders (live film, Glastonbury 1995)
Joyriders (live film, Reading 2011)
Joyriders at Pulpwiki

“I was trying to push the car off the road so I could make my way to the garage on foot when a new Ford Mondeo pulled up and the (very young) driver asked me what was up. His (also very young) friends got out of the back of the car and helped me push the [1974 Hillman Imp] off the road. They then offered to give me a lift to the garage, which I accepted. Once inside the car I realised that it very probably did not belong to them… …The driver and his friends seemed very excited and offered me chocolate limes. We drove (at speed) to the garage and then they drove me back to my vehicle with the necessary jerrycan of fuel. This is how I repaid their kindness.”
– Jarvis Cocker in Mother, Brother, Lover

One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at His ‘n’ Hers is that delicately crafted songs are drowned in the heavy cream of Ed Buller’s production. So it’s an odd sensation, playing it after a year or two away, to hear that familiar unfiltered Britpop guitar riff, and an immediate launch into the most standard indie track of Pulp’s career so far. No layered synths, no ghostly undercurrent, just chunky guitars, a straightforward melody and the uncluttered production sheen associated with “classic rock.”

For many professional reviewers this is decidedly *a good thing* – for example, here’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine at Allmusic:

“Joyriders kicks the album into gear with its crashing guitars. It establishes Pulp not just as a pop band that will rock; it establishes an air of menace that hangs over this album like a talisman”

If this quote makes you feel slightly nauseous then I don’t blame you. Pulp had many mission statements in the early 90s and none of them expresses an interest in “rocking” in any form. And yet, he’s right – Joyriders does indeed work as a conventional rock song, and it does set the tone for the album – it just happens that this tone isn’t really what many of us came here for.

Before this all starts getting negative again, we should remember that this is still a decent indie pop song – it sounds bright throughout, has a memorable tune and a story to it, glitters and shimmers in all the right places and has a nice short-story style dramatic arc to it. This all sounds fine on first listen, in the background or at a festival, all perfectly reasonable uses for music, and all immune from criticism. Sometimes staring at something until it falls apart is more of a sickness than a skill, and there’s no point spoiling anyone’s fun.

And yet, here we are, and here is Joyriders, the sound of something working quite well until you check under the bonnet and find it’s been running on fumes the whole time. What’s wrong then? Well, let’s start with the story. Instead of the lift to the garage described above the Joyriders here are two-dimensional underclass villains; brainless, malevolent thugs, unacquainted with women, who want to get the rest of us hooked on a bit of the old ultraviolence. As Jarvis admits himself, it’s not really fair payback for doing him a favour, but beyond this aren’t the real chocolate-lime-eating surprisingly helpful delinquents much more interesting? As we saw with Watching Nicky, Jarvis seems to reduce real people to clichés while creating hosts of believable fictional characters elsewhere.

And then at the end “we’re taking a girl to the reservoir / oh oh the papers say it’s a tragedy / buy don’t you want to come and see?” Aged 14 this seemed impossibly dangerous, chilling in its implications. Now though, it seems a bit silly. People are voyeuristic often, yes, but meta-level awareness of this point from sadistic teenage gangs is fairly unlikely, and nobody in their right mind would even consider going with them. A pedantic point, perhaps, but it’s all it deserves. I remember playing the song in my dad’s car one time – he laughed at the line and said “no, I don’t, thanks” and you have to admit he had a point.

This wouldn’t be such an issue if the section were not repeated for most of the last two minutes of the track. It’s easy to see why they do this – the clever phrasing, the gravity of the situation, the issue is such that repeating it drills the numb horror of it all into you. Except when you don’t take it seriously, of course, then it has the exact opposite effect of underlining how trite it is. The final touch is the nail in the coffin, Jarvis aiming for sinister but only achieving Charles Hawtrey.

Also in the “do not want” list is the main melody, once again nice on a casual listen, but the way the guitar chords mirror whatever Jarvis sings is annoying, like a rock treatment of a nursery rhyme, and results in the song being completely undancable. This only has the effect of focussing attention on the story, and well, enough about that already.

Let’s finish on a couple of positives, though. Candida’s synths are once again a strong point, as buried as they are here. The hauntological layers she put in with Ed Buller sound as eerie and poignant as ever when they finally make an appearance, and she even produces the song’s only truly satisfactory moment when Jarvis stops at “it’s a tragedy….” and she carries over the melody of the rest of the line on her keyboard. There are also lots of nice little touches in the production, the half-second of feedback before the solo (yes, there’s a guitar solo) is nice too. The acoustic version found on the Common People single is not bad either – the guitar line being the whole song anyway, it helps to let it stand on its own, and Jarvis sounds weary, which just works better.

Joyriders is a survivor. If there had been a 4th single it would’ve been the obvious choice, and it was popular at festivals for years. Lots of people still like it, and they have every right to. I just don’t anymore.

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2 Responses to “#128 – Joyriders”

  1. D.S 03/03/2014 at 3:44 pm #

    This struck me as Pulp connecting once again with their glam pop roots, because there is a part of their universe that is forever in 1974 after all. The coda seems to be aiming for a Nick Cave type sound. I’ve always thought it was a rather wrong-footing track to open the album and was a little taken aback at how unequivocal the lyric was.
    Very much part of that strand of UK indie songwriting where bad boys and girls are being observed. Blur have often been criticized for the superiority of ‘Girls & Boys’ but I’d stick up for it because I think Damon Albarn hit an uncomfortable nerve with middle-class listeners. That song captures the mindset of the educated type watching ‘ibiza Uncovered’ or TV programmes of that type, caught between disgust at such debauched abandon and agonised pining to be as free and happy as those kids misbehaving on screen.
    Similarly the tinge of envy that Morrissey has always brought to songs about Ordinary Boys and Boy Racers has that level of confusion within it. An example of just how sour this sort of song can turn with too much disdain is ‘Miss Europa Disco Dancer’ by the Manic Street Preachers, just awful.

    • haonowshaokao 05/03/2014 at 2:39 am #

      Good comment, and brings up some issues I was skirting around, but perhaps didn’t have the guts to tackle head-on. Class is an underlying issue in Britpop at all times, and we’re going to have time to cover it much more later on. In this, and to a certain extent in Deep Fried too, it seems like we’re dealing in clichés / caricatures of an imagined underclass – I don’t like to see Pulp on the wrong side of that line, but we have to admit that that’s very much what this looks like. I’d like to chalk the up to not having thought it through properly, I suspect that’s the truth of it, but as you can see Jarvis was even keen to play it on Songbook.

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