Tag Archives: b-sides

#134 – Street Lites

3 Aug


Street Lites (b-side to ‘Do You Remember The First Time’, 1994)
Street Lites at Pulpwiki

Ten years ago, when I took this photo, I was a lodger in a small town outside Prague. Every evening I would take the subway to my “local” bar in a central suburb, and return at around 4am via two night trams and one night bus, which deposited me on a motorway sliproad a mile away from home. That’s how every day ended – walking for half an hour along a deathly quiet three-lane highway with nothing to see except road and grass verge.

If that sounds awful, then let me stress that it wasn’t – in fact it was my favourite part of the day. Something about the simplicity of the artificial geography and the lack of distractions allowed me to think clearly, while the fresh air sobered me up. Occasionally a lorry would approach, pass and retreat into the darkness – a moment of great drama in the stillness of the night. On the few occasions I was able to share this journey with someone, the time became magic, incandescent, unforgettable.

These are the moments Street Lites evokes for me – that unnatural stillness you can only find in a modern European city at night. Always a group with a feel for place and time, Pulp have already taken us on night-time adventures through terrifying northern cities populated by stalkers and thugs, sexualised urban landscapes, furtive, perverse suburbia and repulsive, blighted tower blocks. This is different, though – we’ve left The North behind, or any locality for that matter. These places are like that – lacking in character, you could call it, or a blank canvas for your own feelings. This could be the bedsit London of Different Class, or the alienated nowhere of This Is Hardcore, we just don’t know.

It’s odd how many threads are picked up here, while we enter sonically new territory. Is this just a shiny chrome mirror held up to Blue Glow, with all the grime and fear leeched out, cocaine-fuelled mania taking the place of paranoid hallucinations? The organ intro sounds like Silence, of all things, and structurally we’re in the same territory as Someone Like The Moon – a similarly-constructed song, but with a much more satisfying realisation. What makes this song different is the newly confident narrator, and an adult relationship on equal terms – Jarvis has stopped complaining about new boyfriends and started an affair with somebody else’s wife. It’s not all chocolate boxes and roses, of course – they know they are doing something wrong, something they can’t defend, but that knowledge somehow just makes it harder for them to control themselves.

There’s a desperate sexual itch here, then, but one that’s strung-out and cold too. The group seem to have recorded and mixed the track in the absence of Ed Buller, and the sound is consequently much more minimalist, with Russell’s violin given much more space to roam. The first verse consists only of a few tracks – organ, vocal and plucked refrain, but even when the full band join in at the chorus everything sound separated and clear. Nick’s drums – an odd little stuttering jazz fill, looped – continue through to the second verse, lending the track an odd underlying skiffle/trip-hop hybrid rhythm. Otherwise there’s little in the way of variation, more the building of a groove, with Steve’s bassline working as the pulsing heartbeat of the sleeping city. It’s a contradictory sound – produced from a haphazard collection of parts, while the entirety sounds uniformly cold and smooth, yet warm and sensual.

Jarvis’s vocals are a vital factor here, of course. In a sense the whole track sounds like a come-on to a woman, but underneath it’s a bit more complex. The vocal is several takes on top of each-other – some spoken, some sung, one just a series of grunts and groans, each taking turns to come to the foreground – but while these sound different, they have a unity of purpose. There is little in the way of confusion or mess here.

My favourite part of the track comes at three minutes in – one of those perspective-shaking breakdowns that seem to represent the group at their best, moments of clarity through distortion – “We’ve got to go on meeting like this…” Even without it, though, Street Lites would be a success, albeit a secret one. A near-six-minute semi-epic, it didn’t fit with the narrative of His ‘n’ Hers at all. It’s just one of those things that has to stand alone.

#125 – Seconds

8 Feb

pulp 1994

Seconds (‘The Sisters EP’, 1994)
Seconds at Pulpwiki

“In Sheffield it sometimes seemed the life of my contemporaries was like a marathon who’d give up first. People got picked off one by one, and were failing by the wayside. There got to be less and less people who were still trying to do something, and who kept ‘refusing’ to settle for second best. Then later you think: ah, but I might end up with fifth best…. Also, on ‘Seconds’ there’s the idea of the ‘second-hand’ people, who’ve been through the mill a bit. It sounds a very silly analogy, but it’s like reconditioned tyres, remoulds. You have to get remoulded before you go back out on the road. I don’t think that’s a negative or sad thing at all. I think it’s quite interesting, third or fourth time around.”

Don’t you ever feel like saying: don’t rattle that tin at me, I’ve already given…?

“I suppose you get a little more tentative and guarded about things. But unless you’re prepared to run the risk of getting hurt you’re never going to get much out of a relationship. You have to take a deep breath and dive in. At least you know you don’t die. It’d be a boring life without, wouldn’t it?”

– Interview in Melody Maker, 1994

This blog is called ‘Freaks, Mis-Shapes, Weeds’ as shorthand for the journey a group of people took from being defined by others as undesirable outsiders, taking this as a badge of honor and finally acknowledging that their outsidership was a creation useful primarily to the insiders, to define who they were or weren’t. From this progression we’re perhaps missing a step. Though in some ways it’s a minor example (it doesn’t stick strictly to the topic, and was relegated to the status of b-side) ‘Seconds’ is still in a sense the best-realized of these attempts at self-definition, the one where the personal meets the general, the one where the group attempt to tally these ideas and feelings with words – or amore accurately a single word, densely packed with meanings.

Second rate (adj): of lesser or minor quality, importance, or the like.

One of the sources I relied on heavily in the early days of this blog was Martin Lilleker’s “Beats Working for a Living: Sheffield Popular Music 1973-1984”. It’s a massive A4-sized tome seemingly detailing everyone who so much as picked up a synth in the city boundaries, at least in the late 70s. By ’82 things are beginning to fizzle out, and by ’84 it’s done. Lilleker, a local music journalist at the time, has indicated that he doesn’t consider the mid-to-late 80s or 90s interesting enough to write about,* which is fair enough from a personal perspective, but, well, how about those people who weren’t Phil Oakey – what could they do now? It might seem trivial, but this is what the life of the majority of musicians is like – without a career or family to take you out of town or change your circle of friends you’re stuck on a downwards spiral, but does the alternative equate to giving in? It’s not easy, and the five current members of the band had to count themselves lucky that they’d been able to make it. Most hadn’t.

Secondhand (adj): (of goods) not new; previously owned and used by another

It’s probably not much in the way of a confession to say that I only really bought clothes in charity shops in the mid-90s, solely because it was the Pulp thing to do. This may have been less problematic if I weren’t severely colour-blind or didn’t have ginger hair and painfully pale skin. Stubbornly sticking to “my idea of what’s good” without anyone to trust for feedback was the killer blow. I probably looked ridiculous at times, but did it matter? Honestly, I’m not sure. We live in a culture where other people judge you on how you look and it would take a stronger person than most to be genuinely oblivious – it just depends on whether you want to stand out or not. Nowadays charity shops have fashion experts doing valuations, so the time for this sort of thing has passed anyway.

Seconds (n): items of clothing that have failed quality control and are sold at a discount.

The intersection of individuality and being flawed is one of the central themes of ‘Seconds’ – perfection is treated with disdain, equated to lack of personality. “Looking a state”, being flawed physically or emotionally; this might invite disgust from others, but in a world where all but a tiny group are doomed to fail in their sky-high ambitions, flaws are all we have to *be* and failure is proof that you at least tried. A more minor theme is how well-hidden this truth is, and how little it can help you through the drudgery of everyday life. It doesn’t make things better or easier, but that’s the world we have to live in – and we have to make the best of that.

Second best (adj): next after the first in rank or quality, inferior to the best

A happier version of the same theme is found on Dodgy’s ‘Good Enough’ from a few years later – this time it’s presented with the gloss that being satisfied with what you have is the be-all-and-end-all, which is true, in a sense, but I’m glad Pulp always had that tension between romantic ideas and depressing kitchen-sink truths – squaring the two so neatly is bound to be unsatisfying.

Second (n): the SI unit of time; one-sixtieth of a minute.

If we lived forever this tension might be more resolvable, but in this world it takes decades to work out who you are and what you want, and by that time you’re too old to change things, probably tied down to family and career, stuck in a society that focuses almost exclusively on the tastes of the young. Wouldn’t it be great if at the age of 40 we could all wake up one day to find ourselves back at the start of our adolescence to find it had all been a prophetic dream? But it’s pointless to waste your time thinking about this – your life is inescapably ticking away and you have to make the best of it from where you stand. ‘Seconds’ conveys the stretching out of time in the chorus, and the keyboard pattern throughout sounds like a clock ticking at double-speed. It’s a nervous song, but a focused one.

Seconds (n): a second portion of the same thing, usually of food.

It’s churlish to make ‘Seconds’ sound so serious, though – caring so much about using your time well is just a demonstration of your lust for life – for more life. The characters here might be in a bad place, but they are still in the game. As cynical as the lyric is, there’s an underlying message that you shouldn’t give up, no matter how bleak things seem. That might be a cliché or a truism elsewhere, but here it’s been earned.

Second place (n): a position among the leading competitors, the second at the finish line.

‘Seconds’ is a b-side, taken from the His ‘n’ Hers sessions and left off the LP. I was going to add the word ‘bizarrely’ there, but when you see what else was left off and left on, it certainly fits a pattern. It’s an emotional song because its internal logic has worked so well that the group have been swept along with it. It’s seamless throughout, from the way it switches from nervous panic to existential acceptance from verse to chorus, to the very sound of the instruments. There are no star performances, no intrusive production – it’s an idea, thought through and carried out. The one slightly odd thing is the underwater echo effect on Jarvis’s vocal, but this is forgivable. To say it’s one of the group’s best songs is a little too much perhaps, but it’s up there.

*The mid-80s – Pulp’s ‘Freaks’ era – was a bit of a quiet patch for the Sheffield scene, but with the advent of FON and Warp I’d say there’s plenty he could reasonably write about.

#118 – The Babysitter

7 Dec

Nick Banks

The Babysitter (B-side to ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ 1994)

The Babysitter at Pulpwiki

A year after the ‘Inside Susan’ trilogy Pulp put out a final chapter in the saga on the b-side of ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ Chronologically, then, this entry is appearing a little too early, but it seemed like a good idea to put the Susan songs together.

It’s a few years after the party, and Susan has hired a babysitter – one that looks remarkably similar to a younger version of herself. This has sparked some sort of reaction in her architect husband, who the song is largely addressed to. Instead of rekindling his interest in his wife, he has become increasingly obsessed with this younger model. In the second verse it’s revealed that he acted on his impulses, only for Susan to return home and find the two of them at it, in her daughter’s bed, no less. And then she leaves him, and that’s that. It’s an decent enough vignette, but placed in the company of ‘Babies’ and the rest of ‘Inside Susan’ it does seem rather slight.

Set against this fragment of a story we might expect another gently illustrative backing, but instead we have perhaps the most frenetic piece of music the group have ever produced. In essence it’s a descendent of the instrumental thrashes used to open sets in the mid 80s, and as then it’s an opportunity to show off the sound they’ve developed. It’s a new sound now, of course, built around an interplay between keyboards and rhythm section. Here they sound tight and controlled, yet manic and bursting with energy. Candida drives them ever faster forward, while Nick powers along, riffing, spinning and constantly erupting into all kinds of fills and odd patterns. Together they sound, bizarrely, like late 90s experimental electronic act Add N to (X) – perhaps this track was even an influence.

Then it shifts to the slow section, a continuation of 57 Lyndhurst Grove, all low key electronics, the rest of the group keeping a steady pace, and the vocals come in – once again, sung softly rather than spoken. The segue between the two is actually quite well-executed, especially Candida’s keyboard line, which morphs nicely into something fairly low-key and quizzical. And yet I can’t help feeling that however well its done, the two parts aren’t supposed to be together. Sometimes when something works well it’s easy to lose the bigger picture of whether it’s needed, and I suspect that’s what happened here. Then there’s another fast section, another slow one, and we fade out on an unsatisfying minor key.

The Babysitter has a very odd structure for a fairly run-of-the-mill lyric and it’s hard not to wonder why. Perhaps the rush of the instrumental section represents the internal passion and nervous panic of the husband, with the slow part showing his calm, middle-class English exterior. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it – this is a simple enough song, one which I enjoy a great deal, but it’s pretty much undeniably a minor work.

#117 – 59 Lyndhurst Grove

30 Nov

59 Lyndhurst Grove

59 Lyndhurst Grove (b-side to Razzmatazz, 1993)
59 Lyndhurst Grove (12th August 1993 – No Stilettos (TV))
59 Lyndhurst Grove at Pulpwiki

“I played these songs to Susan the other day – she just laughed and said I was being spiteful because she wouldn’t sleep with me when we first met. She also said to tell you that she’s perfectly happy where she is at the moment, thank you very much.” – original sleeve notes

If there’s one thing I miss about living in the UK it’s the house parties. It wasn’t that I went to many, mind, but there were some at least. Out here I’ve never even seen my friends’ flats, let alone drunk punch in them. The best part, perhaps, was the transformation of the place – a dull suburban semi would be remembered as a tiny club full of friends and acquaintances, a secret building hiding in plain sight. It made me wonder what else was going on behind all those other doors, which is very Pulp, isn’t it?

Sometime in the early 90s Jarvis was invited to a house party in Peckham, South London . Turning up at the invitation of the lady of the house he was surprised to find that instead of the expected fun times the house was full of childen and the other occupants were engaged in “right-on” political discussions. At a guess, Jarvis was not sober enough for any of this, and ended up being thrown out an architect, presumably the man of the house. As much as I’m inclined to take his side in this, I can’t help but picture the scene being something like Bernard’s performance at the house party in Black Books, although presumably he didn’t use their laundry basket as a toilet.

Burned by his experience, Jarvis quickly wrote ’59 Lyndhurst Grove’, the concluding part of the ‘Inside Susan’ trilogy, and easily one of the most bitter and sarcastic things the group have ever put out. On first listen it’s just a sweet low-key ballad, the sort of thing not heard since the days of ‘It’ a decade earlier, gentle lyrics about a suburban lifestyle with the obligatory shot of sexual intrigue at the end. Candida’s synths burble away gently, Steve’s bass softly thrums. The vocal is gentle, understanding, lacking in any malicious undertone.

Listen a bit closer, however, and the deadpan humour starts to become clear. Susan – if this is still really Susan – is living a life full of the comforts of modern living, but each and every one of them is hollow and insubstantial. Her husband can support her with all these things, the house, stripped floorboards, his ex-wife’s painting still on the wall, but clearly none of it is really making her happy. There’s even a callback to the more carefree party mentioned in ‘Inside Susan’ – the stairs this time not being a place for kicking overeager German boys, but for cleaning up after guests.

This is all just Jarvis’s idea, of course, and he doesn’t even really pretend it’s much else. “Money can’t buy me love” is one of the oldest lyrical gambits in the book, but in the difficult real world money can buy a comfortable, easy life, and perhaps that’s a higher priority than love. Either way, it’s just his opinion, and it’s all a lead up to the come-on at the end, and the last-minute betrayal “Hearing old women rolling trolleys down the road /
Back to Lyndhurst Grove” – the repulsion at suburban life matched equally with an attraction to its strangeness and familiarity. If there’s something to take away from the song then for me it’s that feeling – the storyline itself being done better elsewhere.

They named the song after the house in question, which seems a little rude. After the single was released Jarvis sent a copy to the address, which seems even ruder, but apparently received no reply from the woman. Later a Japanese fan found the house, and the woman, and asked her if she was Susan. Her reply is, unfortunately, unavailable. They seem to have moved out soon after (I hope this was unrelated) and now there are new occupants, who while initially confused by the occasional visitor taking a photo, now apparently enjoy owning a very minor piece of musical history.

#111 – Your Sister’s Clothes

12 Oct

The Sisters EP

Glass (Mark Goodier Session, 1992)
Your Sister’s Clothes (The Sisters EP, 1994)
Your Sister’s Clothes at Pulpwiki

“Your Sister’s Clothes” features the sisters from “Babies” four years on. Now the younger sibling finally gets her revenge for earlier years. – original sleeve notes

If the story of Babies was impossible to fully unravel, then what hope is there for Your Sister’s Clothes, the supposed sequel, where contradiction and opacity are spun out into a series of overheard conversations? Some would say ‘not much’, I suppose. I’ll try to get to analysis at some point, but once again it’s sort of a side issue. The headline here is that Pulp have finished trying to recapture that spark and have instead bottled up something far rarer – a little bit of magic that works entirely on its own terms, sounding at once emblematic of its era and notably unlike anything else the group recorded.

The genesis of the song came once again from experiments on the equipment the group suddenly found themselves owning or having access to – in this case a keyboard effect which (according to now almost-member Mark Webber) sounded like composer Philip Glass. And it really does, too, at least like that repetitive interlaced piano work which seems the most memorable part of his music for non-experts like me (listen to this for a minute or two if you aren’t sure what I mean). In the finished version, released two years later on the near-flawless Sisters EP this line works almost subliminally, but once you’ve spotted it, it’s remarkably difficult to un-hear. It’s integral to the structure, but enough other layers are woven into it that you could easily miss it.

The other important feature of the early version of ‘Glass’ recorded for the Mark Goodier session is Russell’s violin. Experimental music being right up his street, he joins the minimalist party with a violin performance so aggressive it’s bordering on the psychotic – it sounds, in fact, like he’s picking a fight with the rest of the song. Instead of joining in with the repetition he’s constantly pulling it apart, imitating it, shoving it sideways. It’s not exactly what you’d call virtuoso, but it works, completely, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine how it would work without it – but of course it does.

Two years later, the song re-named ‘Your Sister’s Clothes’, Ed Buller again managed to remove all traces of Russell’s improvisation from the song. Or perhaps he didn’t – Nick Banks seems to suggest that it was all Russell’s doing, using a varispeed to warp his violin until it sounded almost like another line of synths. Buller was busy elsewhere, though, the chance to produce Pulp-meets-Modernism being exactly what he was born to do. Candida’s keyboards are piled up, layer after layer, all cascading and chiming in complex but deeply satisfying patterns. The first, most dominant keyboard line is the strangest of all, especially when removed from the rest, sounding like a night-time level of an early 90s Sega game. Then there’s the drums, thumping and rolling like Magnus had never left. Earlier versions had a lurch, a sudden shift in tempo when reaching the chorus. This is lost in the final mix, but it’s not a huge shame, such is the hypnotic, sickly fever-dream power of the thing.

This is the important stuff, then, not so much the lyrics, which are as difficult to nail down, meaningfully, as their prequel. What is this woman getting revenge for, her sister sleeping with Jarvis? When Jarvis is the narrator? If serious, this would seem egotistical, but the title and the topic being little more than a pretence or a theme, it doesn’t really matter. Pointing out these narratives is a neat bit of misdirection – “don’t read the lyrics while listening to the recording” – so we get a title, a brief cue and a list of impressions, vividly memorable lines, opportunities for vocal experimentation – the way he sings “todaaaaaaayyyyaaaayyyyheyhey!” is twisted in just the right, completely unexpected way. That’s more than enough, surely.

#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.