#135 – Femme Fatale

10 Aug

Edie

Femme Fatale (Pulp, Black Session, 16 May 1994)
Femme Fatale (Velvet Underground & Nico)
Femme Fatale (Big Star)
Femme Fatale (R.E.M.)
Femme Fatale (Duran Duran)
Femme Fatale at Pulpwiki

“Andy said I should write a song about Edie Sedgwick. I said ‘Like what?’ and he said ‘Oh, don’t you think she’s a femme fatale, Lou?’ So I wrote ‘Femme Fatale’ and we gave it to Nico.” – Lou Reed

A “femme fatale” is a stock character; a dangerous, beautiful woman who lures men to their doom, a well-worn archetype of melodrama and fantasy. Edie Sedgwick was a woman whose short life seems to have contained little more than pain and suffering, who inspired famous men, only to be constantly sidelined and disposed of. Calling Edie Sedgwick a “femme fatale” seems either wilfully cruel or hopelessly naïve. Since it’s Warhol we’re talking about, we have to charitably assume the latter. Lou Reed, for better or worse, (probably better), went with the flow, composing a song based on a childlike fantasy of adult relationships, then handed it to Nico, the one person who could sing it with utter seriousness.

The Velvet Underground might have been groundbreaking and original, but at the same time they were another underground band from the sixties, and underground bands from the sixties are allowed to get away with things that wouldn’t fly a decade earlier or later. The original Femme Fatale is great in its way, but only because it conjures up a spell with its strange sincerity. Cover versions since seem at best superfluous, and more often miss the point entirely. REM tackle it head-on, and just sound uncomfortable and silly. Duran Duran fit it better (they have much sillier lyrics of their own of course), but their version is garish and grating, and in no way good either. Big Star did a better job in making it sound utterly generic, but no points are easily won there either.

In their defence, Pulp never released their cover of Femme Fatale – it was a one-off thing for the Black Sessions, and was never revisited. Clearly it’s a popular song with the group as they are able to make a decent stab at replicating the original’s mechanical doll magic and that warm guitar sound. They don’t really get there, of course, but it’s a brave attempt. The only real slip-up is in the vocal. You can’t really blame Jarvis, a female voice is really needed here, and the backing vocals are missing completely, which only serves to highlight how essential they are. The melody is a bit too slight, too, and Jarvis seems only semi-committed to performing it, unsure whether to sing or speak.

So, what can we elicit from this? Mainly that there is a thread – albeit a small one – that connects Pulp and The Velvet Underground – a desire to write about people, about everyday life, a fondness for songs that tell a story, a desire to create pictures with sound and words. The recording itself is an interesting-enough curio, but it’s a dead end they didn’t need to explore any further.

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