Tag Archives: acoustic

#135 – Femme Fatale

10 Aug


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.

# 87 & 88 – A Tale Of Two Bass Players

27 Apr

Havenhand and Genn

Steven Havenhand performing ‘And The Sun…’ and ‘Don’t You Want Me Anymore?’ (video)
And the Sun… at Pulpwiki
200% and Bloody Thirsty at Pulpwiki
The Day That Never Happened at Pulpwiki

We’ve had a few of these entries before, back at the other end of this decade, detailing missing songs which are un-recorded or at least not circulating. Happily, these dry up as the group starts recording more, and gigs are more frequently circulated. This is, then, the last of these summaries we’ll have to do until we get to the late 90s (and with a little luck the remaining ‘We Love Life’ demos will have been released by then) – and a bit of a measly one at that, containing a song that never made it, and another which might not really count. Interestingly enough, though, each tells us a little about two members – both bassists – who pass fleetingly through our story at this point.

The first of these is Steven Havenhand, who I’ve mentioned (briefly) before. Former singer with the legendary Lay Of The Land (who later became Warp Records, invented IDM, etc) and, perhaps as importantly, Russell’s sister’s boyfriend and later father to his nephew. Naturally, he was also a fan of the group – they’d been gigging regularly in Sheffield for six years by this point, and had a dedicated following among the otherwise slim pickings of the mid-80s scene.

1987 doesn’t seem to have been a particularly good time for Stephen to join. His previous group had fired him for “being disruptive” and he appears to have been in a pretty dark place generally. A talented musician in his own right, he nevertheless had a hard time fitting in with the group, largely due to his bass technique. It wasn’t that he as bad as such – just that he was too quiet, especially when the group were getting into their Slavic thrash and electro, and the low-key balladry of ‘She’s Dead’ was still a year away. Though he played on the FON demos of “Don’t You Want Me Anymore” “Rattlesnake” and “Death Comes To Town,” some studio trickery (and perhaps even re-recording) was needed for his parts. By the start of 1988 the probation period was over and it was clear things weren’t working out. Over a coffee at the Union bar, Jarvis told him he had to go.

In the last few years Steven has surfaced again as a singer-songwriter in Cornwall, working with The Friday Night Band. One of the most open and approachable of former members, he’s even helped out by uploading what he can remember of a song which didn’t make it out of rehearsals. A simple progression from A to A-minor, it features the lyrics “And the sun that continues to shine…” and sounds like a slower ballad – beyond this, there seems to be very little to say about it.

At times when Pulp is on hold, Jarvis tends to go off and work on other projects and collaborations. This time he spent a day in the studio with John Avery of Hula, writing and demoing a song called “200% and Bloody Thirsty” for a theatre performance of the same name. The song, described as “acoustic and raw” was not used in the final production, but it did receive one live performance at the most infamous Pulp concert of the 1980s, “The Day That Never Happened”

With the FON sessions showing no sign of being released, the membership still being in flux, and Jarvis weeks away from moving to London to start his degree course, Pulp were about to go into a couple of years of hibernation. What better way to mark this than by holding the most extravagant live event they’d ever attempted? Pulp concerts had always been as much about the visual as the auditory, and by this point the group were caught in a loop of trying to top their previous appearance every time, so much so that they may have been spending more time on set decorations than on practicing the actual music. Looking back now, it seems obvious that this level of ambition without funds or professional help to carry it out was bound to backfire at some point, but it must have been easy to get carried away at the time. Mark Webber later described the ensuing fiasco in an edition of Pulp fan club magazine ‘Disco-Very’:

The Day That Never Happened… featured the usual films, slides and tin-foil, along with a few trees (sprayed white), dry ice (home-made and very poor – it barely spilled over the saucer it was in), smells (Russell had made some charcoal incense, but of course the Leadmill is a big place so it didn’t carry too well), video projection (but the projector broke and we made do with a television on stage), and the most sensitive moment was to be a snow fall during a slow ballad … that ended up a total farce with people running around the stage carrying big hair-dryer things.

If the music had been up to scratch then this fiasco might’ve been charming, but this turned out to be equally problematic, partly due to problems with their new bass player, Anthony Genn. The younger brother of Steve Genn (who performed with Jarvis in ‘Heroes Of The Beach’ back in 1982), he was an outgoing, extroverted character, only aged 15 or 16 at the time. Like Magnus before, he was very much into the local psychedelics scene, and before long was declaring that “acid is the only reality.” Racking up debts of £760 and beginning to panic, he was pleasantly surprised one day to find a cheque for the exact amount needed on his doormat. Later that day a group came around from a Christian group
called The Nine O’Clock Service which turned out to be something like a cult. By the time The Day That Never Happened happened, Anthony had been persuaded to leave the secular world of Pulp behind, and had already announced his intention to quit. If he hadn’t, though, he might have found himself fired anyway. In ‘Truth & Beauty’ Nick described what happened next.

“We were all setting up, and I went ‘Anthony, tune your bass’ and he went ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll get round to it.’ He was fannying around with something ridiculously unimportant. ‘Anthony, tune your bass.’ ‘Yeah, yeah.’….he was on stage and I could see him going ‘It’s out of tune!!’ Oh, for fuck’s sake… He had to have coloured stickers on the neck of the guitar to know where to go, it was that level of incompetence.”

Anthony spent the next few years in The Nine O’Clock Service before escaping its clutches and getting his life back on track. He was next spotted dancing naked on stage with Elastica during Glastonbury 1995, after which he actually joined the group on keyboards for a year or so. After helping Pulp with ‘additional programming’ on Different Class (whatever that means), he joined The Mescaleros, Joe Strummer’s backing band, and ended up co-writing and producing their first album. In the last decade he’s gone on to a fair amount of success with the band he formed with another ex-Mescalero, Martin Slattery,The Hours. Quite a life already, then, and he’s still only in his early 40s.

Two bass players down, then, and the great Pulp revival seemed to be stalled and rudderless. But appearances can be deceptive – one new bass player and the classic lineup and sound would be complete.

#43 – There Was…

16 Jun

There Was…

There Was… at Pulpwiki

A group of musicians labour to produce an album and two singles. Roles are unclear, personalities clash, the music recorded fails to live up to expectations. Before long a sidelined multi-instrumentalist is (allegedly!) fired for pulling faces at the singer behind his back while the band perform. Interest waning, the group get together to record one last single, a cack-handed attempt at a pop song which they all hate. That done, they get ready to record a b-side, a last gesture before they go their seperate ways.

Then somehow it all just slots together. ‘There Was…’ is generally agreed to be the sole unqualified success of this era – the sound of a group finally working together with a single purpose. Form and theme match perfectly to capture a feeling of transitory bliss.

It’s hard to know where to start with picking apart why the song works so well. There’s a whispy, shivering ghost of a melody, propelled by an insistent motorik rhythm, building and falling each verse. Simon and Peter hypnotically strum the same chord-sequence on guitar and bass, and instead of the sound being mixed under the carpet, it’s allowed to warmly, deeply resonate around the studio. Everything about the production is intimate – Jarvis sounds like he could be whispering in your ear at times. Though the best surviving recording is from a crackly 7″, you can still make out every phoneme. Behind, Saskia adds sublime vocal harmonies, doubling up everything Jarvis sings with ‘la la la’ a couple or octaves above. The only slight misstep is when Simon’s fairgound farfisa joins in – it’s perfectly pleasant, just not quite up to the standard of the rest of the track, and Jarvis later commented that it sounded “too much like 10cc.”

This was to be the final appearance on record for most of the band. Simon would return later as a producer, but for Saskia, David and Peter this was their swansong – a fitting one, but an end all the same.

#39 – In Many Ways

19 May

The Marine Girls, who Pulp weren’t.

In Many Ways
In Many Ways (Pulpwiki)

Throughout the seventies and early eighties there was a steady pattern with musical movements. Each would start as an underground scene, score a hit or some press coverage, then blow up into a massive cultural event before finally becoming part of the cultural landscape and fading slowly away in clear sight, with everyone’s interest turning to the next big thing. Then along came 1982, and the pattern was broken – for that year’s new movement was the nameless post-new-wave folky acoustic ‘Cherry Red’ sound, and for some reason the public showed little or no interest in The Marine Girls and The Monochrome Set.

‘In Many Ways’ sounds very much like an offcut from ‘Pillows and Prayers‘, but unfortunately Pulp are no Felt here. A listless, almost comatose ballad, with only the most minimal of choruses, it’s probably the most forgettable thing on the album. Drifting in and out without any drama or resolution, it’s hard to get worked up in either direction about it.

To be fair here, it’s not all bad. The (wilfully opaque) lyrics are about the fleeting nature of love, perhaps relating to a particular relationship. Jarvis seems torn between considering it a short-term fling or something more substantial, finally zeroing in on a sense of dissatisfaction, and acceptance that there’s nothing wrong with short-term fun as long as you don’t take it too seriously, or make the mistake of imagining it’s something more significant. I can’t help but wonder what the girl thought about it. A fairly cynical viewpoint, then, and a more mature one than we’ve seen on the rest of the album, but unfortunately not imbued with any great insight.

Accompanying the melancholy crooning of these thoughts, we have another stripped down, Leonard Cohen style production. The shimmering mediterranean guitar is pitched just right, and the backing vocals are nothing short of lovely. The bongos, to be perfectly honest, just sound limp and dated, but even that doesn’t really sink the song – it’s the lack of progression that really does for it in the end. If you’re going to repeat the same parts over and over again then they’d better be special, and nothing here really is.

‘In Many Ways’ is engaging in parts, but ultimately nothing to write home about. It’s too inoffensive to hate, too inconsequential to love, and it’s no surprise that it ended up hidden away at the end of the album.

#37 – Blue Girls

5 May

Blue Girls
Blue Girls (Alternate Mix)
Blue Girls (Live, 1999 – Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh)
Blue Girls on Pulpwiki

Side two, track one: a sepia-tinted dream. In a deserted old church hall, a group of amateur musicians stand around an old piano playing an old standard, while children play outside. An effortless display of musicianship played for the benefit of nobody in particular. How strange that this effect could have resulted from such a tortuous writing process.

The germination of ‘Blue Girls’ was in the summer of 1982. Jarvis seems to have spent much of his time sitting in his mother’s living room with Simon Hinkler, building ideas into full songs. At this point it was apparently a loud, fast, blues rock song, as astounding as this may seem, and the one public performance it got was along these lines. After the 24th October concert at the Crucible Theatre, Peter Boam appears to have been struck with the incongruity of having lyrics and chords which speak of nothing but melancholy being performed as if it were ‘Milk & Alcohol’, and that night retired early to work out how he could make it work.

At the ‘It’ sessions, a month later, Pulp recorded a take of the ‘fast’ version. For whatever reason the flaws seem to have been recognised by everyone this time, and the tape was wiped before the session was over. As they were wrapping up, Peter took a moment to play them all his piano version. That first runthrough, mistakes and all, is the basis for the song we know, though that was never Peter’s intention at the time.

Through the remainder of the sessions the group kept coming back to ‘Blue Girls’. A new vocal was added, then minute touches of bass guitar, recorder, organ and backing vocals from Saskia, Jill and Simon, all so low in the mix that it’s still hard to pick them all out on this year’s remaster. Finally Barry Thompson (father of Greg from Heroes of the Beach) arrived to add improvised flourishes of flute and clarinet.

This mix, available on the remastered version of ‘It’ still wasn’t quite satisfactory, and when the band were given an extra day’s studio time in January 1983 it was one of the two tracks they decided to remix. The piano track was treated with extra reverb, covering mistakes and bumping up the wistfulness. Jarvis’s vocal was also re-recorded. The variation in pitch required had proved too much of a strain, but with the aid of vari-speed the problems were ironed out.

Hearing the original mix after years of listening to the final version is an odd experience. Though in a sense the difference is negligible, the spell is broken enough to ruin the effect. The clarity from the lack of reverb lets you pay too much attention to Peter’s piano work, which, while very accomplished, is still a first take with a fair few bum notes and off-timings. Jarvis sounds less comfortable, worried instead of thoughtful. Fortunately the band saw sense and kept the best version.

‘Blue Girls’ is undoubtedly one of the best things on ‘It’. Original, melancholy, mysterious, it creates a mood like nothing else on the album.