Tag Archives: babies single

#113 – Sheffield: Sex City

2 Nov

Park_Hill_facade

Sheffield: Sex City (B-side to ‘Babies’, 1992)
Sheffield: Sex City (instrumental)
Sheffield: Sex City (live film, The Warehouse, ITV, 1993)
Sheffield Sex City (live film, Brixton O2 Academy 01/09/2011)
Sheffield: Sex City (Teatro La Cúpula, Santiago, Chile, 2012)
Sheffield: Sex City at Pulpwiki

“At the age of twenty-two, newly graduated and without a clear plan in life, I moved to Sheffield. It wasn’t a city I knew well, and there was no particular reason to move there other than that I knew someone with a room to spare. I was also a big fan of the band Pulp, and their song Sheffield: Sex City had led me to believe that the city held a promise of sorts.” Jon McGregor – ‘On Pulp, Sheffield, and learning a trade’

Sheffield is like another woman, a soft umbrella under which all his stories play out. Sheffield is all encompassing, taunting cheekily, inviting us out or telling us to stay in. I wanted to be there when I heard this song, so I moved there! – Kate Jackson of The Long Blondes in The Guardian

“When I was 16, I and my girlfriend were completely obsessed by this song, and we walked around willing ourselves to see the teeming, simmering, carnal city described, peering into the L-shaped windows of the tower blocks, past the twitching curtains of the semis, imagining the couplings and perversions inside.”Owen Hatherley, ‘Uncommon’

“The morning after My Legendary Girlfriend. Trying to get things done but ending up on a tour round the fleshpots of Sheffield in a T-reg Chevette. Wybourn, Brincliffe, Intake – All these places really exist and maybe these adventures still happen there – I wouldn’t know; I don’t live there anymore.”Original sleeve notes

It sounds like a terrible idea. A misfit northerner gasping and groaning his way through an eroticised description of his hometown over an electro-funk backing? The keyboard player reading a section from a book of erotic fantasies in a flat Sheffield accent? Experimental sound & stereo production? An eight-and-a-half-minute-long b-side with no chorus? What could lead professional musicians to embark on such a folly?

In reality, though, we all know Sheffield: Sex city is nothing short of monumental. Since you’re reading this I expect it means as much to you as it does to those quoted above – I know it does for me – and if it weren’t for the after-the-watershed content and the running time I think we all know it would be as well-known as ‘Babies’ or ‘Do you Remember The First Time?’. Somehow, though, it’s even more than that. It’s a song that deserves to have a time and a place associated with it, or even better a film – A night in Sheffield, as directed by Antonioni or Żuławski – and even then it would be simply too big. It inspires not only dreams, but art, literature, life decisions. In only one way is it disappointing; after dreaming so big, all that’s left is the comedown.*

For a dream, though, S:SC can seem awfully brutal at times. At its darkest the song seems like a partial re-write of Blue Glow, in which the very buildings seemed like enemies or traps, mazes to become lost in. Sheffield is out to get him – primarily by erecting barriers – walls – between people who could otherwise join together to break this artificial alienation. There are also echoes of This House Is Condemned – the narrator is “sentenced to three years in the housing benefit waiting room.” This Sheffield is looming and oppressive, the home of the darkness of the 1980s, the place he had to escape.

These moments are little more than shards of memory, though. If the song has an overarching narrative it’s constructed in a dream logic. Perspectives continually shift, little threads of half-remembered detail keep weaving through. “The fares went up at 7” refers to the famous pricing policy of Sheffield busses, but in context it makes as much sense as someone babbling in their sleep. These fragments of narrative add to the feel of a sweeping overview – are these the same characters or just vignettes of a city with a thousand stories?

In some ways you could be forgiven for feeling the city is being mocked; even the title itself is a parody of the “Steel City” slogan. The listing of districts sounds like an imitation of advertisements for new estates in the 50s and 60s, when places like Park Hill and Kelvin were a physical representation of the future – “streets in the sky”. By the 1990s, of course, these developments were poorly maintained and regarded by many (not all of course, park Hill his now listed and renovated) as a sad indictment of the city’s decline. It would be tempting to think, then, that the Proustian sensory experiences of S:SC are some kind of joke, but if they are then the joke is played so straight that there’s no choice but to take it seriously.

Jarvis could never have written S:SC while he remained in in his hometown. The dream-picture of the city is from the nostalgic viewpoint of an expat or an exile. Most of the group still remained in Sheffield, and it must have been odd for them to have this sudden shift in perspective. A place you live in is the background hum in your head – you tune it out, and only notice it when it’s gone. Some things can only be viewed clearly, then, from outside – the exotic, the familiar, the eternally unknowable. Sheffield is a woman, a lost love, and S:SC is a dirty love letter to her. At times this is even physically represented – in one enduring image he actually “makes love to a crack in the pavement” – but on the whole the femininity of the city is present in its very spaces. The sexualised city is at once a physical place and one that lives in people. The derelict factories, the dead, sterile new estates are in fact living and sentient, teeming with people, all with their own stories, but all part of one greater entity. At times you can feel the weight of this, the oppression of Blue Glow or Being Followed Home, but when this entity is a friend the physical spaces become a vast playground for the lovers, and their actions are amplified so much that passion and orgasm are converted into destruction, collapsing buildings, the whole street dying of lung cancer. How could it not?

As an improvised piece of spoken word on top of an instrumental track, Jarvis’s performance here exceeds any reasonable expectations, sounding at times tormented, flirty, pathetic, lost and ecstatic. Ed Buller’s production helps, of course, most importantly in bringing the mic so close that it sounds (especially at the start) that he’s whispering in your ear.

This is hardly a one-man show, however – the track was a jam at first, and the fact that the Babies single also included an instrumental mix demonstrates that the words were essentially an afterthought. In a way you could say that the track is Candida’s finest moment – as well as taking a lead with her Ray Manzarek plays Stereolab keyboards, she joins in with a reading from a book of women’s erotic fantasies compiled by Nancy Friday.

SSC

So convincingly deadpan is the reading that you naturally imagine she’s recounting her own experience of living in a concrete tower-block looking out onto a thousand identical windows, wondering what was going on behind the curtains. Never the most outgoing of people, Candida seems to have been too embarrassed to perform this live, and it was therefore cut out (in the 90s) or replicated with a recording (on the reunion tour). Later on she joins Jarvis on a call-and-response section around the stereo space – I don’t have a lot to say about this, but it’s wonderful nonetheless.

Steve Mackey – that other exile from the North – plays an important role here too, his steady bassline brought down to a throbbing sub-woofer heartbeat by Warp’s in-house producer Zebedee. The production throughout is refreshingly minimal – Buller adding as few layers as possible in order to produce a meandering live feel to replicate the meandering dream-like narrative. Nick is somewhere out there, continuing discreetly, while Russell’s violin is only audible at certain moments, and is used essentially as a condiment, sparingly.

As a representation of what Pulp were, what they could do, what they could say, Sheffield: Sex City works as well as anything else they’ve done – perhaps even more-so, as you couldn’t imagine anyone else producing anything like this.

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” – Closing narration to Naked City

*As a corollary of that, I have a question; how can the creators of this have not gone on to create astounding books or films? The only obvious thing to blame is the comfort zone people find themselves in when the struggle to make yourself heard is finished and won. Still, as much fun as Jarvis’s solo LPs and the Pulp reformations have been, I think we’re all a little disappointed that there hasn’t been more substantial work since 2002.

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#110 – Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia)

5 Oct

styloroc picture

Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia) (B-side to ‘Babies’, 1992)
Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia) (Live, October ’92 ULU)
Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia) at Pulpwiki

“Happening in a cul-de-sac near you.” – Original sleeve notes.
“I tried to sing along with it, but it sounded like Whitesnake.” – Jarvis Cocker

Styloroc = another session jam worked up into nearly a song and built up in the studio for the Island demo.

(Nites of Suburbia)
= The overdubs three months later where Jarvis added a spoken word section, taken from the band’s blurb on an obscure cassette from 1987. The title is taken from the song they’d contributed to the tape – the theme inspiring the piece. Otherwise the two songs are unrelated.

Styloroc article

#103 – Babies

17 Aug

babies

Babies (1992 music video)
Babies (1994 music video)
Babies (1994 Spoken word video)
Babies (The Warehouse, ITV, 1993)
Babies (The Beat, ITV, 1993)
Babies (Top Of The Pops, 1994)
Babies (BBC Late Show, 1994)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 1994)
Babies (Live film, Reading 1994)
Babies (Naked City, 1994)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 1995)
Babies (Live film, Brixton Academy 1995)
Babies (Live film, Lorely, Germany, 1996)
Babies (TFI Friday, 1997)
Babies (Live film, Reading 2002)
Babies (Live film, Eden Project 2002)
Babies (Sky Arts Songbook, 2009)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 2011)
Babies (Live film, Mexico 2012)
Babies at Pulpwiki

“Although sleep pressed upon my closing eyelids, and the moon, on her horses, blushed in the middle of the sky, nevertheless I could not leave off watching your play; there was too much fire in your two voices.”
Propertius, 50BC-15BC

Childhood is not only the childhood we really had but also the impressions we formed of it in our adolescence and maturity. That is why childhood seems so long. Probably every period of life is multiplied by our reflections upon the next.
Cesare Pavese

Yes it happened years ago on some damp, acrylic afternoon. I know you got your own back years later (that’s another story) but it wasn’t such a big deal anyway – in those days you packed people rather than divorced them. I liked it that way and still do, but then again I’m imma.
Original sleeve notes

Let’s get one thing out in the open first – yes, it does feel odd to be talking about ‘Babies’ at such an early stage in this project. Common People is the headline hit now, but Babies was the song that put Pulp on Top Of The Pops and the cover of the NME and Select – the ultimate goal of indie bands in the days before Britpop. First performed live in July that year, almost a year before the release of Separations, it was first held back, then released, then re-released as the lead track on the Sisters EP. That’s where I come in, I suppose, listening to the Top 40 with Bruno Brookes, thinking “I haven’t heard anything like this before. It’s sort of good, but sort of strange, and I’m not sure if his voice is annoying or interesting…” Then for the next decade or so it was my favourite song of all time, by any artist. It may well still be.

So, it’s proving difficult to write about this one. It has so many memories tied up with it, most of them irrelevant to anyone besides myself, and after disentangling, what’s going to be left?

Let’s start at the beginning, then, the genesis of the thing. In order to spark new ideas, Pulp would try playing each-others instruments from time to time. By the 1990s this was only done at band practice, and they no longer tried it out on record or on stage. By now the main rehearsal space was in Nick Banks’s family pottery warehouse in Catcliffe, a room packed with china figurines and delinquent teenagers outside, both of which would seep, through osmosis, into Pulp’s early 90s material.

“The others had gone to make a cup of tea, so I was just playing Jarv’s guitar. He came back and said ‘What’s that?’ Dunno! No idea what these chords are. he said, ‘Oh, show us,’ and I showed him, and we were just like jamming around these two chords. Ten minutes later, there you are, that’s the song”
Nick Banks in ‘Truth & Beauty

“[Nick] got his hands on the guitar [and played an A] on the wrong three strings…. …That’s what made it so bizarre. It’s when you get the note just before what the note should be…. If you think of something that’s just one note off, it should be like the devil’s note, but somehow it’s really beautiful.”
Jarvis on ‘Songbook’

At this point, and for the next couple of months, Babies was called ‘Nicky’s Song’, and according to Russell it featured “Jarvis singing to Nick rather like Elvis sings to the hound dog on The Ed Sullivan Show. He used to run around the rehearsal room and grope Nick’s breasts during it.” You can still feel a hint of that on the chorus, “I wanna take you home…” Jarvis thought it was corny, a rehearsal room novelty, but further jamming gave the thing a story and a climax, and in July of that year it was even recorded live for ITV’s Stage One. Though it failed to make the TV edit, it was released on the ‘Party Clowns’ live CD in 2012 and makes for an odd listen. The song is 90% there, but that missing 10% vitally includes some of those little touches that make it work. It’s oddly shambling, a little discordant, and the chorus fails to take off the way it should. All the same, it stands out, and the audience seems to love it on first listen. Later gigs in 1991 have it missing, but since the start of 1992 it’s been a fixture in almost every set, essentially unchanged.

Babies, then, is a story in a song, albeit a confusing one. There are multiple narrators, opaque ‘you’ and ‘him’ and sudden shifts into reported speech. Even after reading the lyrics while listening (I know…) it’s far from clear what exactly transpired, or even how many people were involved. The description on wikipedia shows quite how impossible it is to untangle.

The song’s protagonist spends platonic afternoons in a female friend’s room listening to her older sister and the boys she takes to her room and, presumably, has sex with, but this is not enough for him and he hides in the elder sister’s wardrobe and watches her with David, who works in a local garage. Unable to tell the younger sister, who appears to be the real object of his affections, for fear she will tell her mother the song’s narrator listens outside as she proposes sex to a boy named Neve. Finally he comes “home” to the disappointment that the elder sister has moved out, presumably in an act of nostalgia he re-enters the wardrobe but falls asleep and is found by the elder sister and the two have sex, only to be caught by the younger sister, culminating in the boy making the pathetic, but seemingly genuine, excuse: “I only went with her cos she looks like you.”

Are we clear now? I hope I’m not the only one who tried to work out why there were two named boys and no named girls, why he came “home” to somewhere that wasn’t his house, why he felt having sex was the necessary reaction to being found in a girl’s wardrobe, and ultimately who it was wanted to take whom home. Looking back on it, though, the mystery and ambiguity was part of the appeal. In the words of Alex Thomson on Freakytrigger “the genius of “Babies” is that the harder you try to make sense of the story the less sense the song seems to make: and the more you think about the song the less the story matters.”

Take away the attempt at forming a narrative and you’re left with something else – a breathy, jumbled series of confused confessions, a strange mix of childish and mature viewpoints – the first joy of discovery of sex, but based on an unformed notion of what the adult world will be, or a look back at how juvenile agonies set the model for future relationships. There’s something so intimate about the way it’s related, but also a perverse joy in the revealing of salacious gossip – a recklessly throwaway, utterly immature description of events that still somehow escapes self-parody.

Perhaps even this is irrelevant. Babies works because it captures a feeling of joy – the words set the tone, but it’s the whole group that lead you there. Nick’s opening sets it in motion, and the rest of the track is made up of variations on that theme. There’s an odd magic to these chords – joyful, sure, yet with a certain nervousness – and Candida reinforces this with the transcendental synth lines previously heard on Space, only here they’re coupled with a guitar lick to sound more sun-drenched than mystical. From then on it’s a question of piling on the hooks – those poppy SFX bleeps, that beefy, almost jokey guitar line. Each band member takes centre stage for a moment, then passes the baton to the next. It’s like a selection pack of hooks, and it would’ve been understandable if they’d used them for three or four songs, or one ten-minute long one.

At this point it’s frankly all I can do to stop myself listing each second of the song as it progresses. It wouldn’t be difficult. In live versions this piling-on turns into a series of pulls back and sudden lurches. In the recorded version(s) things are a little calmer and smoother, but the delay just allows more buildup to the inevitable climax – that moment where words fail and it’s all just “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” and the song dissolves into great swooping pirouettes of joy.

Putting this level of care and craft into a song indicates that they knew what a hit they had on their hands, and the track’s subsequent lifespan bears this out. First a demo version, produced by Simon Hinkler, was mooted for a limited release on Caff, then it was held back to be the group’s second release on Gift, and recorded with new producer Ed Buller in Island’s Fallout Shelter studio.

A music video was made – the one that features first on the running list of both video compilations. Though it evidently was made for as near to nothing as possible, it’s as charming as the song itself, especially due to the inclusion of Bob Stanley’s friends Celina and Sophie as the two sisters.* The video is as bristling with ideas as the song itself, with costume-change jump-cuts, vignettes of seventies household tat, a fantastically scary performance from Russell, and an introductory frame stating that “A music video is an advert for a song.” For many this video’s inclusion on ITV’s The Chart Show was their first exposure to the group.

Two years later, when Pulp were officially signed to Island, and had a single in the top 40 to their name, Babies was taken out of the vaults for a re-release. Generally speaking, I hate it when groups do this – it shows a lack of faith in your new material to re-release old songs – but it would’ve been a great shame to leave the track as an obscurity. The song was re-mixed (very slightly – it’s hard to pinpoint any actual changes, but it sounds a little more polished, especially in the first minute or so) and included on an EP with His ‘n’ Hers session tracks. The Sisters EP is fantastic, in my view superior to its parent album, and got the group into the top 20 and on Top of The Pops. Another video was made, not quite as charming as the original version, but a wonderfully shiny collection of Pulp tropes anyhow, and all fitting so well into the airbrushed, objectified image of the His ‘n’ Hers era that it might as well have been directed by The Designers Republic. There’s a spoken word version too, with comedy sound effects; a little unnecessary, but it’s brilliant that it exists, and that they went to the trouble to record it.

It was a hit, of course, and was shoehorned onto His ‘n’ Hers – a touch of 1992 in the middle of 1994,** and unfortunately served to highlight some of the minor weaknesses of the other tracks. Not that they were bad, just not quite as good. Until Common People came along it was the Pulp song, and it’s been the highlight of a thousand indie discos and house parties, an intimate anthem. I’ve tried to get down what it means to me, but two thousand words later there still seems to be so much left to say. I guess it’s just hard to step back, the song is that firmly embedded in my subconscious.

Babies is a composition of great craft, care and inspiration, which seems to survive an endless number of listens, not only intact, but getting better each time. It’s been a long, winding path, but Pulp have followed it all the way out into daylight – mainstream pop from the group that brought us Aborigine and Manon, and all the better for being entirely on their terms. It’s an utter triumph, four minutes of utter joy, and I’m not sure it can ever be bettered.

*I’m mentioning them as Celina also sang with Golden, who released a cover of Wishful Thinking, and featured on the cover of Foxbase Alpha, therefore = notable.
*It wasn’t on the original vinyl version of the LP, which has led to an impression amongst some that it’s a CD bonus track and not included in the “proper” tracklisting. Really, though, let’s not be silly here, it’s on His ‘n’ Hers.