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End of Part Two (an Audience Participation Special)

23 Mar

“It was recorded for £600 – in one week. The producer disowned it: he didn’t want his name on it! This was the low point, emotionally, of my life. It’s such a depressing album. There’s some decent songs but they’re badly done.” – Jarvis in Record Collector, December 1994

‘Freaks’, the long-awaited culmination of nearly five years of the band’s work, was quietly released on the 11th of May, 1987. The songs on it, bar the singles, had already been dropped from the group’s set, the sound-defining rhythm section had been replaced, and what little publicity it received was muted, especially when it came to interviews with Jarvis and Russell, who had already shifted their attention to newer, more exciting projects. Since then its reputation has, if anything, worsened. Reviews of reissues range from ‘terrible’ to ‘flawed but interesting’ and Jarvis has consistently expressed embarrassment at the “depressing” feel and the amateurish production.

The problem is that these sweeping dismissals mean we miss some fundamental things about the album. Yes, it’s depressing in parts, but why shouldn’t it be? Leonard Cohen and The Cure seem to have made a career out of producing depressing albums and don’t tend to castigate themselves for it. The production is poor in places, yes, but it’s more rushed than ruined, and some pretty special performances have survived intact. The real problem is the mix of songs. With such a varied selection available to them, it’s a mystery why they chose all the slowest ballads and all the wackiest novelties rather than any of the upbeat or experimental tracks we’ve seen on the singles. It’s not that the songs are bad, but piling them all together like this gives the listener a growing sense of catatonic madness – and not (always) in a good way.

Here’s my suggestion for a better track listing. I’ve had to lose some of my favourite songs, and have included a couple I’m not particularly keen on, simply because these seem to fit together better than other combinations.

Side A

1. Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)
2. Blue Glow
3. The Mark of the Devil
4. I Want You
5. Being Followed Home

Side B
6. Aborigine
7. There’s No Emotion
8. Life Must Be So Wonderful
9. They Suffocate At Night
10. Tunnel

I’ve made a youtube playlist of this new order, which you can find here.
What would your idea track listing for ‘Freaks’ be? Please let me know in the comments below

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#80 – 82 – Odds and Ends

16 Mar

bocking-85-03

The ‘Freaks’ era is a lot better documented than the ealy 80s, and the vast majority of songs have turned up in one form or another, largely due to the availability of the Sudan Gerri and Ping Pong Jerry demos from 1984. Toward the end of Pulp MK3 there are a few that slipped between the cracks, though – none of them seeming to be of great value, but worth mentioning nonetheless.
It goes without saying that I have never heard any of these songs.

#80 – I’ve Got a Dream for You

Recorded only on one of Jarvis’s drawer-full of practice tapes, and never played live, this song is only known of due to it being a favourite of Pete Mansell, who listed it as his 10th favourite Pulp song in a ‘Pulp People’ newsletter. Written during rehearsals in the garage in 1985, it started slowly, went fast for a bit, slowed down again, and then finished. As highly as Manners rates it, it’s unlikely ever to be heard unless Jarvis decides to start releasing practice tapes to the general public. This is not going to happen.

#81 – A Day In The Life Of…

Unreleased and unavailable, this also failed to make it out of rehearsals, and its title is only known from a mention in a 1995 Pulp People newsletter.

#82 – Tomorrow

This one is more likely to turn up, as it was played live at least once, in the less than auspicious surroundings of the Chesterfield Conservative Club, where it was listed as ‘new’ on the setlist. It featured Magnus on his kettledrum, Russell on his violin and “Jarvis screaming.” Quoted in ‘Truth & Beauty’, Russell said that “it didn’t stay in the set for very long because we realised very quickly that it was fucking awful” – so it doesn’t seem that we’re missing much here.

#79 – Tunnel

9 Mar

“The above piece of writing appeared on the rear sleeve to “They Suffocate At Night” when it was first released in late 1986. At the time I paid no attention to the date I had chosen for my entrance into the tunnel – the 10th of July 1985 – I presumed I had simply picked it out of thin air. It wasn’t until I was looking through some old papers that I realised the date’s significance – amongst the papers was a copy of our first contract with Fire Records. It was dated – you guessed it – the 10th of July 1985. Had my unconscious mind been trying to tell me something I wonder? Hmmmmm.”
Jarvis’s rejected sleeve notes from the “Masters of the Universe” compilation, 1994.

Tunnel (B-Side to ‘They Suffocate At Nght’, 1987)
Tunnel at Pulpwiki

…there was nothing else to do, I was bored…

As strange as it may seem, ‘Tunnel’ started out as something of a pop song. Admittedly, this was only within the context of a famously shambolic late 1984 Pulp gig, set among the morbid and the painful, but it’s still very odd to hear. The bass riff is much more playful and melodic, and Magnus seems to be playing a brushy post-punk-jazz fill throughout. The song is much faster, half the length of the recorded version, and instead of echoed announcements Jarvis has dusted off his punk yelp. Most vitally there is no breakdown, no wall of noise and violence, but the song itself is still there, somehow, though lacking the reference to the 10th of July 1985, of course.

…don’t ask stupid questions…

Then the band, for whatever reason, left the song to fester for two and a half years, digging it out at the tail-end of the “Freaks” recording sessions. In a week full of misfires, fudges and rush jobs, it’s the only track that really blossomed in the studio environment. After it had been laid down, Russell commented that “the muse was with us” – and not without reason. The success of the recording was, however, at the expense of the future of the track, the finished eight minutes being very much a studio product, and not reproducible in a live setting.

…a thousand bodies stink and sweat, and somebody’s trying to roll a cigarette…

Once again form reflects subject. The track (never has the word been more apt) feels like a progression through a tunnel, though (spoiler) we never get to emerge from the other end. We enter along Manners’ locomotive bass line, pounding drums emerge, battering you from left and right, their rhythm jarringly out of step until suddenly everything slots together. Soon words emerge, like megaphone pronouncements from a crumbling communications room, the announcer asleep, or undergoing some kind of schizophrenic breakdown. Then, crashing walls of distorted guitar. We move through several sections, the insanity building each time the rhythm shifts. Finally we descend into fiery chaos, backward sounds wailing like trapped animals with seemingly random flashes of noise and melody including misplaced surf rhythms coming in like radio interference. What we have here is more than a bad trip – it’s the unreliable narration of a fall into hell.

…at 3 o’clock that the morning I awoke in an unfamiliar room…

Of course, there are plenty of people out there who don’t like “Tunnel” – Pulp fans, music reviewers, people in general…. Reviewers on Bar Italia (presumably some of the keenest fans of all) described it as “pointless, rambling, horrible, crappy drivel” and “over-indulgence of the worst kind.” When I first heard it on the ‘Masters of the Universe’ compilation in 1995 I remember universal disapproval from friends and family. It’s clear then, that my love of the song puts me in a tiny minority, and sometimes I even doubt myself. Is it just nostalgia for the piece that introduced me to the world of discordant, experimental music? On balance, I honestly still feel not. It’s a powerful, original piece of work, and comparisons to Joy Division or other post-punks does nothing to dilute this. Why? Because it’s not a pastiche – it’s real.

…Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!…

How did Jarvis write the lyrics to ‘Tunnel’? The greatest influence seems to be film noir and the twilight zone, but there’s also a section that reads like cut-up poetry – an effective simalcrum of a schizoid mind. The protagonist is clearly disconnected from clear thought and speech – he keeps going off at odd tangents and being distracted by disconnected thoughts. The passion excuses the opacity, which in turn excuses the strangeness. This is also the first sighting of “sunlight through net curtains” – a premonition, perhaps.

…and to be clean again. But I know I’ll never ever be clean again…

‘Tunnel’ could easily have been the final track in the Pulp discography. The band had split up, and Jarvis would, within a year, be heading down to study at St Martin’s, hundreds of miles away from the rest of the group. Fire’s decision to put out a single release of “Master of the Universe” a few months later was barely noticed – its b-sides having been salvaged from old demos, the single contained nothing in the way of new material. ‘Tunnel’ would have been a fitting end to the band – a summation of “the worst years of our lives” – as well as a great buck “fuck you” to the people responsible – Fire Records, the venues, the record-buying public, the members of the band themselves…
It would be four long years until the group put out another record, but that’s a whole other story.

#78 – Master of the Universe

2 Mar

Master of the Universe (Freaks, 1987)
Master of the Universe (Sanitised Version) (Single, 1987)
Master of the Universe at Pulpwiki

‘Master of the Universe’ – an explanation:
He was God and she was His congregation.
But when she lost her faith, He lost His power.
Now the thigh-length boot’s on the other foot.
(You might think it’s funny, but someone’s always got to be boss.)

– original sleevenotes

In late 1985, in the middle of the group’s first nationwide tour, Jarvis fell out of a window. It wasn’t a particularly high window, just two floors up, but it was enough to break his wrist, ankle and pelvis, leaving him confined to a wheelchair for much of 1986. Embarrassingly enough, he hadn’t been rescuing a cat or talking down a potential suicide, but doing a drunken Spiderman impression to impress a girl at a party – out one window and in another. Halfway through he realised he wasn’t going to make it to the other ledge and just had to let go.

Stuck in a hospital bed for a month, the tour cancelled, doctors warning him he may not walk properly again… things weren’t exactly looking up. As he lay in his childhood bedroom convalescing, while his Mother sat downstairs watching ‘Lovejoy’, he noticed a bottle of novelty “Masters of the Universe” shampoo he’d bought, and laughed at the irony of using it in his state. What kind of immense power would you need to have to be “master” of the entire universe? How utterly deluded would you have to be to give yourself such a title?

Master of the Universe is a parable, then. The sort of parable which usually stars Anthony Ainley as The Master, i.e. not a particularly subtle one, one which doesn’t bear any kind of serious analysis, but I’ll see what I can wring out anyway. Our protagonist, the “master of the universe”, is in conversation with a female underling who he is taking great pleasure in mistreating. His power comes from faith – without the compliance of the masses under him he is nothing. When his underling fails to take him seriously their positions are inverted, and he becomes her whipping boy / slave dog. He relishes both positions, lending the song a sadomasochistic air – but rather than ringing true in any way this seems to be the same use of sexual perversion we saw in ‘Maureen’ – ‘difficult’ shock-topics resorted to as a replacement for real passion or feeling. It might even have been intended to be funny, but I doubt it.

Understandably, Master of the Universe has garnered more attention for its musical style than its theme. On the surface a grimy goth-rock thrash it in many ways prefigures the ‘Slavic disco’ sound the next line-up would embrace. If you listen to ‘Rattlesnake’ next to MOTU you can clearly hear the shared DNA. MOTU is something of an inbred cousin, though, and you can hear unhelpful hints of other failed experiments, like the whirlitzer organ from ‘Fairground’. The song does at least have some energy to it, so it’s not a pain to listen to, but neither is it a joy. The band’s performance doesn’t really help matters. Jarvis dominates the song with his ludicrously mannered vocal, a nasal growling devil-voice with flat-out annoying pronunciation of common words and bizarre unnecessary trills. Magnus doesn’t help things with his slightly off drums either – though a great drummer, he never seemed to get to grips with this disco rhythm. The rest of the band aren’t helping things either – though the song wasn’t new, nobody seems sure at all of how it’s supposed to sound.

Master of the Universe was an odd choice as a second single from ‘Freaks’ – the only things to be said in its favour being that it was fairly upbeat and that it hinted at the band’s new direction. All the same, it was an unpalatable bit of sci-fi goth-rock nonsense, and backed with the dull ‘Manon’ and the excruciating ‘Silence’ it perhaps counts as Pulp’s worst ever single. Fire insisted that the band re-record two lines to change the words ‘masturbates’ to ‘vegetates’ and ‘comes’ to ‘keeps’, but the idea that this would lead to any radio play was wildly optimistic. The single got two minor, obtuse mentions in the music press and quickly sank without trace. The band, who had split up and reformed by the time it was released, weren’t even sent a copy. Intentionally or not, the single serves as a “so long, fuck off” note to the era, as the band noted on the back of the sleeve;

“This record marks the end of Pulp #3. Pulp #4 will follow shortly.”

#77 – The Never-Ending Story

23 Feb

slvfreaksremaster8

The Never-Ending Story (Freaks, 1987)
The Never-Ending Story at Pulpwiki

Sprouts are a very divisive vegetable. Some find the taste to be utterly repellant, Most people tolerate them, but don’t really enjoy them all the same. A few love to eat them, and can’t wait until Christmas rolls around so they can finish off a bowl of the things.

And so it is with ‘The Never-Ending Story’. Even the song’s worst critics (and there are plenty of those) will admit it’s bold and original. Even the song’s fans (few though they are) will concede that it’s sort of horrible. As one of those annoying people who would always rather music be unpleasant than boring, I’d say this – there’s something here. Something that doesn’t exactly charm the ear, yes, but something worth trying all the same.

The newest song recorded for Freaks, TNES represents a bold lunge forward into a musical abyss. On one level it’s another attempt at playing Slavic music, though by the time of recording it’s been twisted beyond all recognition. Russell’s shrill, piercing violin provides the stuttering jig at the heart of the piece, backed up by heavy, thumping beats from Magnus’s kettledrum. Candida’s hypnotic, malevolent organ drone works against the grain of the song, warping the rhythm into a scream. Jarvis’s low-pitched vocal follows the drone most of the time before looping around into yodels (“oh-hyaay-oo-oh” anyone) like a diagram of wind resistance. The verses are quick, the chorus excruciatingly slow, like a wounded animal being dragged along the street. It all shouldn’t work, and it doesn’t, but it sort of does.

What could all this be in aid of? Surprisingly enough it’s a last-gasp attempt at capturing the state of Jarvis’s terrible relationship – the last we’ll be seeing here, and consequently a bit of a grab-bag of left-over metaphors. The relationship is a dance where they endlessly drift apart and meet again, it’s a Hammer horror movie with a mad scientist constantly bringing a useless, suffering corpse back to life, it’s a compulsively-picked, bleeding scab. Everything but the kitchen sink, then, but stretching and mixing metaphors seems to suit the jumbled frustration of the song. everything has become a confusing mess and a bizarre parody of nothing, but it still somehow continues. Again, brilliant, terrible and brilliant.

To me TNES sounds interesting enough to be a single, but in reality it might’ve been an even less popular choice than Master of the Universe. After the recording session it quickly slipped out of the band’s set, a shame, as its energy and passion seemed to go down well in a live setting. Ultimately a messy dead-end, it seems to have finally ended up been “borrowed” by The Wonder Stuff for their 1992 top-10 hit Welcome to the Cheap Seats.

#76 – Heavy Metal

16 Feb

Heavy Metal (live at the Maze Bar, Sheffield University, 29th April 1986)
Heavy Metal at Pulpwiki

Comparing Pulp’s 1980s to their 1990s is a bit of a grim, one-sided affair. The songs are worse in almost every way, the recording is muddy and half-hearted, the lyrics are often ponderous and melodramatic and a general air of frustration hangs over the whole project. There is one upside, though – in the 80s the band would often work out new ideas in front of an audience, rather than in a recording studio, and it’s easier to see how the whole process works.

One recording, recently unearthed, gives a particular insight into the state of the band around the time they recorded ‘Freaks’. In front of a home crowd at Sheffield Uni, Pulp play a heavy, aggressive set. The supporting act were Lay Of The Land, featuring future Pulp bassist Steven Havenhand (plus the founders of Warp Records), and in the audience were Treebound Story, including a young Richard Hawley. Faced with a less-hostile-than-average crowd, they go down very well indeed, even though half the set is comprised of obscurities like ‘Heavy Metal’.

This is the only known version of this song in existence, and prior to the bootleg emerging it was unknown even to the band’s biographers. Though still not by any means a finished work, it has been developed far beyond the improvised jams used to fill in whenever someone needed to argue with the sound tech guy.

While ‘Heavy Metal’ isn’t really like anything else in Pulp’s catalogue, it’s not particularly original either. A semi-glam-stomper, semi-white-light-white-heat-homage, it winds up as a mid-tempo boogie rock along the lines of Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner‘, Denim’s ‘Middle of the Road‘ and Blur’s ‘MOR‘ – but without the chorus. Fundamentally it’s a band jam with a few added bits and pieces, including a full set of (barely audible) lyrics from Jarvis which seem to be little more than simple romantic overtures. It isn’t bad, but it’s certainly not anything special. A properly recorded version would most likely have been the kind of EP-filler the band generally went out of their way not to produce. They could be bad, or dull, certainly, but never in such a predictable way – and that’s quite possibly why the song failed to make any further appearances.

#75 – Didn’t Feel A Thing

9 Feb

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Didn’t Feel A Thing (Live at The Maze Bar, 29/04/1986)
Didn’t Feel A Thing (Live at The Library Theatre, 2/07/1986)
Didn’t Feel A Thing (Instrumental version by Salmon92)
Didn’t Feel A Thing at Pulpwiki

“The male is completely egocentric, trapped inside himself, incapable of empathizing or identifying with others, or love, friendship, affection or tenderness. He is a completely isolated unit, incapable of rapport with anyone. His responses are entirely visceral, not cerebral; his intelligence is a mere tool in the services of his drives and needs; he is incapable of mental passion, mental interaction; he can’t relate to anything other than his own physical sensations. He is a half-dead, unresponsive lump, incapable of giving or receiving pleasure or happiness; consequently, he is at best an utter bore, an inoffensive blob, since only those capable of absorption in others can be charming.” – Valerie Solanas, SCUM manifesto

We’ve gone to the dogs again, but this time instead of sniffing haughtily at them, Jarvis is gleefully joining in with the macho bullshit. It’s all done in the cause of making fun of others, naturally, but this time a sense of humour is (thankfully) evident too. Jarvis tells us the impressive things he’s done, from falling from high buildings (and ending up in a wheelchair) to kissing “fifteen mouths in one evening” – and not feeling anything in either case. The joke is that being utterly dispassionate doesn’t demonstrate bravery, and that boasting about it indicates that, on the contrary, he feels more than he’s comfortable with. At one point we even enter into a metaphorical “sheathing” of his heart which just needs quoting:

“Don’t worry I’ve taken precautions
Yeah, I’ve stopped it before it could start
Well, they’re rubber and ribbed for protection
And they fit like a glove round my heart”

It’s a bit of a silly joke, but well enough constructed, and it’s unlikely that anyone paid much attention to it anyway.

‘Didn’t Feel A Thing’ was a new song, premiered at a few gigs in 1986, and was unlucky enough to fall into the cracks between the recording of ‘Freaks’ and the writing of ‘Separations’. A shame in this case, as it shows signs of being worked out into something special. Listening to the three circulated recordings, you can clearly hear the band working on it each time. The first recording, from the Maze Bar at Sheffield University is wonderfully frenetic. Magnus raps on what sounds like a wooden crate, Manners joins in with a nasty, rumbling bassline, and Russell adds what Mark Sturdy adeptly called “violin that suggests the flight of a particularly deranged bumblebee”. It’s a bad quality recording, but the performance has a great energy to it. The second recording is from the Adelphi club in Hull later that year. It’s much more polished, and the lyrics have been properly worked out – but the clarity just serves to highlight how out of tune Russell is, and it goes on a couple of minutes too long. The final recording is from the Library Theatre in Sheffield. Again, it’s not the best audio quality, but the performance is better, with frantic drumming and adept theatrics from Jarvis.

And then the band split, and the song was thrown onto the “last year” heap with all the others, which was a bit of a shame. Russell later said that “it was a shame that one never got fleshed out. It was one of my favourites from that time – sort of Eastern European punk.”