Tag Archives: ballad

#137 – Underwear

18 Dec

corsetshow16

Underwear (Different Class, 1995)
Underwear (Peel Session, 1994)
Underwear (Black Sessions, 1995)
Underwear (Live film, Reading 1994)
Underwear (Live film, Glastonbury 1995)
Underwear (Live film, The White Room, 1995)
Underwear (Live film, Amsterdam, 1995)
Underwear (Live film, Eden Project 2002)
Underwear (Live film, Reading 2011)
Underwear at Pulpwiki

“It is a horrible feeling. It makes you feel something less than human, like you can get carried away with this need… Your body’s saying, ‘Go on, do it. Offload that! Just get it done’…. The only similar thing is having a kebab. Somehow, when you’re really pissed, you get into that perverse frame of mind where you think, ‘Right, I’m hammered. I’m a mess. How can I take it further?’ And the answer is: ‘I’ll have a kebab.’ Somehow it rounds the experience off and you get some kind of perverse satisfaction from the knowledge that you were low, and yet you thought of a way of taking it lower. And there is something you can learn from that – not necessarily something that you’ll want etched on your gravestone, but it’s good to acknowledge that sometimes you get those unwise impulses. Somehow, from taking it that far, you get something out of it.”

Interview in The Face, 1 June 1995

“It’s like situations where you’ll maybe get back to someone’s house and it seeems the coffee has been had and sex action could take place, and maybe you’ve even got down to the underpants but then you think maybe this isn’t a good idea because you’ve changed your mind or gone off the person or sobered up. it’s about being past the point of no return but not wanting to do anything. It’s a bit personal.”

Interview in NME, 23rd September 1995

“This is about going home with someone, which seems like a good thing to do when you decide to do it. But when you get to the actual nitty-gritty, when you are actually standing in your underwear you think I can’t good through with this, but how do you get out of that situation?”

Introducing Underwear at Aston Villa Leisure Centre in October 1994

“If fashion is your trade / then when you’re naked / I guess you must be unemployed”

We re-join Pulp on the 10th of July 1994, at the unappealingly-named ‘Dour Festival’ in Belgium for the inception of what would turn out to be their high-watermark imperial phase; the writing, recording, releasing and world-touring around ‘Different Class’. The group already had a following, of course, and would continue to pick up fans up until the present day, but for the general public these are the years where the group were visible on a national (and sometimes international) stage . The intended audience for this music isn’t a select group any more, it’s moreorless everyone, and the flavour of this is present in almost every note of the album. It’s the first sight of the Pulp known to the general public and spotlights Jarvis Cocker’s transition from a “freak” to a public figure to be wheeled out for quiz shows, award ceremonies and (thankfully occasional) adverts.

For a bunch of self-defined outsiders, this alone is an odd move, but even stranger is the fact that the band seemed to somehow see this coming, even as early as the summer of ’94. Their sound, while remaining firmly their own, is having some rough edges smoothed off, and songs are starting to aim for more general themes rather than the purely personal – not in a Carter USM “this is our one about the racism in the Army” way, but as having an experience ready to present to the public as a whole, and with the expectation that they would actually listen.

The theme of ‘Underwear’ is “sexual consent” – though it’s hardly the standard take on the topic. Art that addresses consent (understandably) tends to treat it with kid gloves, either addressing men with “you must get consent, no means no,” or women with “don’t do anything you’re uncomfortable with.” These are both excellent, reasonable lines to take when (as is usual) talk of ‘consent’ is used as a proxy for talk about rape and how it can be prevented. ‘Underwear’, on the other hand, is concerned only with consent without mention of threat or external coercion, and aims to understand instead of offering practical advice. It places you right there inside the making and unmaking of a decision.

In the early 90s popular culture seemed to be awash with a collection of second-hand self-actualization-course borrowings of Taoist sayings – “go with the flow” or as Oasis were soon to put it “roll with it.” The idea that your subconscious is better at running your life than your critical mind is quite a seductive one, with a fair amount of evidence on its side (so long as you don’t take “accept all change in society / politics as natural and don’t question anything” as a corollary.) Interaction with other people is always the confounding factor, however, and in a society where other people don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart, this sort of talk doesn’t work well as advice. For someone with a neurotic personality, deliberately dulled with alcohol, sudden sobriety can turn a trust in instinct into a crisis of self-belief. If you feel a reluctance, a moving away from people, is this a genuine response offered up by your subconscious, or is it a false signal created by the ebbing-away of self-confidence as the alcohol fades? If you’re thinking about whether to go with it then you’re already not going with it, but maybe you want to? Who can really say for sure?

The subject of ‘Underwear’ is stuck in this moment, and what’s worse she has to communicate it to someone she’s barely spoken to, someone she doesn’t even really know, someone she should be way beyond words with already. There’s a fun night behind them with drinking and dancing, she was lost in the moment, but now she suddenly isn’t – she’s semi-naked in a stranger’s bedroom, and he’s coming up the stairs. Communicating all of this with someone she’s barely spoken to in the cold, quiet light of their bedroom, when she’s supposed to be lost in the moment, can only amplify the strain. After all, this is one of the main reasons that people use alcohol – it stops you from thinking when you don’t want to think. But sooner or later everyone has to think. And nakedness has it’s own power too – all the dressing up at the start of the night has fallen away to be replaced with bare biological differences, perhaps even the revealing of hidden truths. It was the artifice which played the lead role, and now it’s left her alone with a stranger.

Clothes give us freedom to express ourselves, and at the same time they allow other people to make their own judgement of us. Clothes can emphasise or minimise gender, sexuality or eccentricity. Clothes can be used to attract, repel, shock, make statements about who you are. Paradoxically, then, shedding your clothes hides your individuality – it emphasises how similarly built you are to the other members of your gender and species, reducing us to “you’re a girl and he’s a boy” whether we want this or not.

‘Underwear’ is a Polaroid snapshot of this single moment, recounted as if it were a long-forgotten playground rhyme suddenly revealed to the narrator in a vision. Sentences are cut up into little interlocking chunks which slot together until halted by “just you…” There’s a nervous dread to the delivery, coupled with that negative euphoria we encountered in Razzmatazz and Lipgloss. At the end of each verse we return to the hook line – “I want to see you…”which runs counter to the rest of the lyric, detaching from this new narrative to return to the seediness of much of His ‘n’ Hers. It’s a strange, possibly jarring aside – why are we suddenly a voyeur here? Is he once again using empathy as a weapon, and if so, why? But it does at least serve as a reminder of what has changed since His ‘n’ Hers.

Behind Jarvis, the rest of the band have also made a fundamental shift. Underwear sounds for the world like an epic rock ballad, complete with power rock chords, a descending piano line motif and a string section (well, Russell) echoing the main melody. Aside from the influence of new producer Chris Thomas (we’ll talk more about him later) this can partly be attributed to the greater role being assumed by Mark Webber. While Mark would probably position himself more in the world of the experimental than traditional rock, the presence of two (or even three) guitarists in the group meant a move away from electronic music was natural. With two guitars in the mix the most obvious way to place them is rhythm and lead – and where you have lead, you have a guitar line providing the melody, not a keyboard. While we aren’t entirely finished with songs being written on a portasound or constructed from rehearsal room jams, these are quickly becoming a thing of the past, for better and for worse.

Listening to the version from their 1994 Peel session reveals many of the joins that make it work. The ambition is all still there, but the bite is all missing – the lack of all those little flourishes reveals the song as, yes, still very pretty underneath, but undressed like this it feels uncomfortably normal to listen to – the work of a good indie band on a very good day rather than a polished pop masterwork. Returning to the original reveals a multitude of expert touches – the repeated echoes of “just remember”, the way the reverb melds into the chorus – so many things going on at, but all fine-tuned and expensive-sounding. There’s even the addition of an instrumental verse to show off the production – really not a very Pulp thing to do prior to this.

I feel like I should be suspicious of Underwear – it’s essentially a re-tread of past glories, pumped up on steroids, but ultimately it just works, a fact that took even the band by surprise. Initially issued as the b-side to Common People, it proved a live favourite, and was soon given a prominent place on Different Class, later even being retconned as a double-A-side and included on the ‘Hits’ compilation in 2002, in the place of the then-purged ‘Mis-Shapes’. While it will never be one of my personal favourites, I have to respect the fact that it’s a song which seems to mean a great deal to many people, and for good reason. This, finally, is the Pulp the world knows.

#133 – Someone Like The Moon

19 Jul

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Someone Like The Moon (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Someone Like The Moon at Pulpwiki

“I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about being sold an illusion by songs and TV. When I got older and started to have relationships and stuff, and found that life doesn’t necessarily have a gripping plot, I felt like I’d been conned in some way, so it was always a thing from early on to write about what those things really were like, rather than the way they were presented in songs and stuff. You know, people do live life at just as extreme an emotional pitch in a place such as Sheffield, which has got a lot of faults, but people do fall in love and live and die in those places, and i couldn’t see that anyone was representing that, and I thought it’s just as dramatic as it happening in Beverly Hills or something” – Jarvis on “Do You Remember The First Time?” Radio 1 documentary

It’s just over twenty years since His ‘n’ Hers was released, a little less than that since I bought it, and it’s only this week that I’ve started to like ‘Someone Like The Moon’. For most of that time it was, at best, a mood-killer. Ambivalent as I was to Pink Glove, it at least provided an emotional climax to side B, but when it faded and that impossibly, childishly minimal ascending scale appeared, it felt like a lull, a loss of momentum where the big closer was required. And what was it about, anyway? A bored girl sitting at home? What was that unremarkable mid-paced waltz doing calling itself a chorus before it fizzled out uselessly back into the equally unremarkable verse? His ‘n’ Hers was treading water where it should have been lifting off, and skipping forward to David’s Last Summer seemed to be nothing less than an act of mercy.

With the passage of time, and listened to in isolation, though, SLTM isn’t nearly as bad as all that. It’s a mood-setter rather than an anthem, a succession of tones designed to evoke a feeling – an odd, interesting feeling too. Harking back to the group’s 80s ballads, it switches their melodrama for a kind of spooky boredom, the feeling of being left alone to deal with an impossibly vast existential emptiness gnawing at the back of your mind. Its air of broken romantic balladry sounds like an imagined new romantic incarnation of Scott Walker.

It’s a character piece, but once more intended to give shape to fears which belong to Jarvis and which (hopefully) are universal too – again the disappointment of a romantic when they are inevitably faced with the real world, but this time with romanticism itself being a ploy, a veil for both naivety and cynicism. As a character, the girl is only vaguely sketched, but that’s also sort of the point – these romantic clichés have reduced her to one too. At the end we shift into the third person – as we will do again later in ‘Catcliffe Shakedown’ – making us both observer and observed. It’s a complex piece then, and it works, in its own way.

Being in a recording studio, making a record, involves close observation, and grand gestures which sound great on a car radio may be sidelined by small touches which nobody will notice. Maybe that’s why SLTM is on this LP – the beauty of the sound blinded the group to the flaws of the song underneath. The production of the track is a delicate, intricately layered thing, with subtle layers of synth sounds, reminiscent at times of the Twin Peaks theme, gentle touches of timpani and heavily distorted bass and cymbals faded and smudged to near-ambient levels. Jarvis is close-miked to exploit the resonances in his voice, and this works well too. Best of all, though, is the use of Russell’s violin, properly exploited by Ed Buller for the first time, giving the track a painful, distant sense of yearning.

SLTM is very successful in a sense then, but my initial doubts still remain. There is something fundamentally unresolved and unsatisfying about the track, and slotted penultimately into His ‘n’ Hers, it still sounds like a lull – and an unneccecary one considering the strength of the other tracks which could’ve taken its place. The group’s love affair with it seems to have been brief too – it was written, recorded and released within a few months, then immediately forgotten about. Reproducing it in a live environment may have been difficult, but similar translations between the studio and the stage have at least been attempted. Ultimately it earned a reputation as the duff track on a good album, but does it deserve it? I’m really not sure.

#126 – Have You Seen Her Lately?

15 Feb

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Have You Seen Her Lately? (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film, Glastonbury 1994)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film, Paris 2012)
Have You Seen Her Lately? at Pulpwiki

“First you let him in your bed
Now he’s moved inside your head
And he directs all the dreams you are dreaming”

If Seconds was an ultimately optimistic portrayal of the messy compromises life throws your way, then Have You Seen Her Lately? is perhaps its evil twin. Instead of empathy we have sympathetic despair and a hopeless wailing and gnashing of teeth towards a lost cause. Instead of acceptance of the drama life throws at us we have the inevitability of death, and the death of dreams, of hope.

Once again Jarvis’s ex is in the arms of another man, but this time he’s taking it much worse. From his perspective (and as the title reminds us, he has corroboration) the new boyfriend is a bad move all round. He’s insecure (“Do you think he’ll fall apart?”), immature (“It’s time to teach him how to walk”), a burden (“a piece of luggage that you should throw away”) and somehow hugely dangerous (“He’s already made such a mess of your life”). Her relationship with him is akin to the joining of a suicide cult – she’s already been brainwashed and this is her last chance to get out before it’s too late.

If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit extreme then that’s fair enough. This song is decidedly not coming from a rational or logical place – it’s a desperate last-grasp for redemption, and Jarvis sounds more like a lonesome ghost returning to whisper dire warnings in his old lover’s ear than a human giving advice. That’s the way they play it too; singer, band and producer conspire to turn this plea into one of the oddest, but most consistent pop songs around.

From that first out of tune organ sound onward, everything about ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’ sounds sickly. In Emile Zola’s novel La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret a young priest drives himself into a life-threatening fever through excessive worship of the Virgin Mary, and this illness has the same sort of feel. It’s utterly religious and oddly asexual – the end-point of the group’s romantic tendency when all goals and desires are rendered useless. It’s another Ed Buller symphony, but this time it’s all a little too overwhelming. The verses are normal enough, I suppose, but the chorus is essentially one long, resigned wail, and toward the close of the track the song takes you back to the haunted music room of ‘Blue Girls’ – a wistful, deeply sad anti-nostalgia, something we might call ‘hauntology’ if it were made today.

I’m impressed by ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’ – it’s hard not to be by such a powerful piece of music – but I’m still not sure if I actually enjoy it. With earlier ballads what was required was a suspension of disbelief, but here it’s more like a willingness to go with the core idea, and I don’t know if I can do that. Ultimately I don’t trust the narrative of this relationship – the singer is too involved to present a clear picture, and there’s a lingering suspicion that he has his own selfish, desperate romantic instincts underlying his argument. Is the girl too weak, too pathetic to realise her situation, if it’s really so bad? If so, why does he want to win her back so badly? Does she not have her own free will, to join with or even follow whoever she chooses? There’s something that doesn’t quite sit right, and I just can’t shake it. This may all be deliberate, it may be that I’m missing something, but all the same it stops me diving in and going with the flow, and that’s a shame.

#119 – You’re a Nightmare

14 Dec

Last Year at Marienbad

You’re a Nightmare (7/2/93 Peel session)
You’re a Nightmare at Pulpwiki

‘You’re a Nightmare’ is a step back into the Freaks era.

If the early nineties were about sex and suburbia and the mid-80s were about “power, claustrophobia, suffocation and holding hands” then it’s quite clear where ‘You’re a Nightmare’ belongs. A low-key ballad dealing with personal experience expressed as if it were hammer horror, a simple, brooding bassline, lounge-style guitar, the semi-acoustic stripped-down sound of Dogs Are Everywhere (particularly the version on the French DYRTFT? single) – well, that’s enough to start with, surely? The thing that really nails it, though, is Jarvis’s performance. While a little more accomplished than before, his vocal is essentially a last encore for the croon he’d left behind on his move to London.

The odd, very personal-sounding middle eight also bears out this theory – fittingly it seems like a half-remembered dream: “In a hotel bedroom birthdays / Sleep in factory hallways / I remember always.” – without wanting to read too much into it, does this refer to the same doomed relationship of the Freaks era ballads? The Outrage tour and the Wicker factory building where Jarvis lived? Perhaps it’s better not to pry.

‘You’re a Nightmare’ is a step forward into the mid 90s.

Perhaps you need to face up to your ghosts in order to move on. The lyrics of You’re a Nightmare may have that horror feel of the 80s, but the open-eyed vindictiveness recalls the character assassination of ‘I Spy’. The subversion of the ‘with you in dreams’ trope, the simple rhyming scheme, it all seems designed to be accessible to a wider audience – which is, of course, where we’ll soon be moving. At a stretch, there’s something fundamentally poppy about the song too – it achieves its goals in a much more straightforward fashion, the chorus is moreorless singable, and Candida’s keyboards are cut down to more easily digestible illustrative warbles.

The one place ‘You’re a Nightmare’ doesn’t sound at home is in the jams and production-driven atmospherics of the early 90s.

Pulp had an odd relationship with John Peel. Schoolboy Pulp were invited in for the session that kickstarted their career and kept Jarvis out of university for most of the 80s, then Peel managed to forget about them for the next eleven years. When Jarvis and Steve were invited to his house to play tracks from the then-new Different Class in 1995, John expressed his surprise and regret about this, saying that he would’ve invited them on if anyone had reminded him. To be fair I can’t think of anyone with a greater workload, but it’s still a shame that we don’t have a session from the Freaks or Separations eras with a professional BBC producer in charge. Maybe You’re a Nightmare is the best possible demonstration of what this would sound like – that is, very good, but still not up to the standard of ’93 and ’94 – a tough standard to judge it by, but contextually the only one possible.

There wouldn’t be a re-record. The session version was put out on the b-side of Lipgloss at the end of the year and therefore uniquely appears on both the expanded edition of the His ‘n’ Hers LP and The Peel Sessions. Not re-recording is odd – they were spending plenty of time in recording studios at the time and the session version has an unfinished feel about it, particularly in Jarvis’s vocal – he sounds vaguely ashamed as he sings, and it’s hard to tell whether this is related to the emotional entanglement or the difficulty in rhyming ‘on a bus’/’ridiculous’ and ‘first’/’worse’. Perhaps they thought this version captured something special, perhaps it was a throwaway of a song they didn’t care for,* maybe it was too personal in some way. Whatever the reason, it seems designed for cult listening, personal meaning to be either extracted or applied – and that’s a good enough fate for a session track.

*This seems unlikely – every release at this time seems to be meticulously worked out.

#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.

#108 – Happy Endings

21 Sep

hisnherssss

Happy Endings (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Happy Endings (Demo version, 1992)
Happy Endings (Live, Auto festival, 2002)
Happy Endings at Pulpwiki

“Is it possible, in the final analysis, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another? We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close can we come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?”
Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

With a couple of exceptions, Pulp always felt the need to include an epic ballad on their full-length releases; it’s one of the few threads you can draw most of the way through their career. With His ‘n’ Hers, though, something is off – there’s a cuckoo in the nest here, his name is Ed Buller, and Happy Endings might have been his masterpiece.

Right from the moment that wordless echo fades away and those woozy waves of synths start to swell there’s no doubt that he’s hit upon something unspeakably magical. Such a grand, magnificent, futuristic sweep, that casio orchestra at the gates of heaven again. But then our tragic symphony fades into those familiar stabs behind the vocal, and something is lost.

It’s not that Jarvis’s vocal is bad – it’s actually pretty good – but with this backing something about it sounds a little too stagey and affected. That’s acceptable enough for a moment, but the verse is too long, the atmosphere continually giving little surges, wanting to swell up again, but gradually losing momentum. Then for a moment the transition to the chorus brings back the prospect of a return, only to be flattened by Jarvis again as he gets into full flow.

This pattern continues throughout – verses and choruses that are just ok, production lurking around, peeping out whenever it can find a gap. In odd moments it’s allowed to seep through and take over – and these, universally, are stunning, the synth-flute solo being perhaps the best of them, sounding lush but cheap, especially with those rumbles of early 70s Kevin Ayers underwater guitar and Jarvis softly using his voice to highlight instead of dominate.

That’s the nub of it, isn’t it? I love the production but the song keeps getting in the way of it – and it’s not a bad song, it’s just the predictability of the chord changes, the familiarity of the ballad structure, it all keeps dragging us down to earth when we should be soaring up to the sky.

The version from the Island demo in 1992 is very different indeed, for all that it’s just the same song. It’s far from being a brilliant performance (the vocal, for example, is clearly a test run-through rather than a finished product) but a low-key production with modest ambitions just suits the flow of the song better. Nevertheless, I’d go with the His ‘n’ Hers version – magnificent semi-failure is generally better than competence.

Isn’t it fitting, too, that lyrics about the gulf between dreams and reality are pared with a production that overwhelms and makes redundant the song itself? Happy Endings is another post-breakup song, but instead of being vicious here we’re nostalgic and wistful. Maybe things could’ve worked out better, and maybe if we believe hard enough, they still can. Although, of course we need to ask; does the happy ending actually just mean getting back together? Is that just willful mutual self-delusion, or the sheer power of willpower (or dare we say love?) to make something work? Is this a song, ultimately, about grasping at straws? The lyric is aware of all of this, of course, and also of the old saying that a happy ending means the story isn’t finished yet – and once again I can’t help but wish that the pieces slotted together a little better.

Happy Endings, for whatever reason, was too difficult to recreate in a live setting, and so it was kept out of the setlist for almost an entire decade, until it was finally revived for the Auto festival in 2002. This version is definitely worth a listen – Buller’s atmospherics are recreated by taking Richard Hawley’s steel guitar and filtering it through effects pedals to sound mournful, desolate and heavenly – which, amazingly, works almost better than the thing it’s supposed to emulate. For one of the final songs performed before the group went on indefinite hiatus, it was almost too fitting in its bittersweetness.

#97 – She’s Dead

29 Jun

She’s Dead (Separations, 1992)
She’s Dead at Pulpwiki

“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” – Amanda in Private Lives (1930), Noël Coward

A step back here, or a step forward, or both at the same time, or maybe neither. We’re back into the death ballads again, but of a different sort, grand and epic like ‘Happy Endings’, but celebrating cheap sounds more than even ‘Separations’.

Before I continue, though, it’s time for a confession. I don’t really get She’s Dead. I’ll agree that it’s perfectly lovely, in parts at least, but it generally leaves me cold, and at five minutes long it even bores me at times. I have been known to skip it. Usually when a track induces simultaneous revulsion and attraction I’ll be able to come down on one side or another sooner or later, but with She’s Dead this odd feeling lingers.

This seems to puts me in a minority. Of all the entries in the Pulp catalogue, this seems to be one of the prime choices to wax lyrical about, and as I’m not able to do this myself, why not let others lead the way? I find reading these descriptions more evocative than listening to the song itself.

“The band’s not at the point yet where they can afford a real string section, but the synthesized backing just makes the song more poignant, symbolic of something that’s nearly obtainable, but just out of reach.” – Mike at Music From A Bachelor’s Den

“Low-budget magnificence, the best of the Separations ballads, swoonsome and beautiful and horrible all at once. It cries out for a full orchestra to play out the unspeakably lovely coda, but perhaps that would ruin it; it’s prettier with the crying left on.” – Stéphane Devereux at Bar Italia

“Here, a chorus of cheap synthesisers… …creates a charity shop requiem, rendering all but unbearable this tale of death in a northern town, with the overtones of kitsch not toyed with, as so many lesser lights would, but embraced – here, Jarvis is heaven’s own mobile disco crooner.” – Owen Hatherley, Uncommon.

I love cheap-sounding music, but weepy ballads have always been difficult to take seriously. Difficult isn’t impossible, though, and descriptions like the above can make me imagine a song I like much more than the real thing – one that doesn’t challenge my suspension of disbelief quite so much. There are a couple of things that throw my attention off-track.

The first is the similarity to Bobby Goldsboro’s ‘Honey’. If the name seems unfamiliar, then go ahead and listen to it. Consistently voted one of the worst songs of all-time due to its unreasonable level of straight-faced schmaltz, I sort of like it. The strangeness of the lyrics (cited as the reason for its supposed terribleness) just adds to the charm. When Tony Blackburn split with his wife in the 1970s he had an on-air breakdown, playing the song over and over again. It’s cheesy as hell, but it’s sincere with it, and I like that it can affect someone that much. That’s not all it has in common with She’s Dead. In fact, the song is so similar that it’s a wonder lawyers haven’t been involved at any point. Just listen to the moment when he sings “And honey, I miss you” and compare to “You know that she’s leaving…”

The other connection that comes to mind is a perhaps less obvious one. In 1989 my family bought a VCR and taped pretty much every Children’s film over that Christmas, and I and my sister watched those films again and again until we left home. One of my favourites was Time Masters, an English-language dub of René Laloux’s ‘Les Maîtres du temps’. It’s an odd cartoon, to say the least, a series of ponderous semi-connected sci-fi events wrapped up by the king of all deus ex machina, but disturbing and beautiful throughout. The soundtrack is comprised of banks of similarly unironic cheap synths, producing an effect much like She’s Dead does. That moment after ‘she’s leaving’ where the keyboards swell to a climax, yes, it’s beautiful, but again it reminds me too much of the closing of the film. It’s a pleasant memory, and I’m happy to be reminded of it, but I end up spending the rest of the song just waiting for this one moment, and the rest just pales in comparison.

Pulp had not given up on sad ballads, of course, each album seems to have at least one. You could even venture a guess that it was the one form that persisted through every phase of the band. In the 90s, though, we’ll see them move a little off centre-stage, and I’m afraid to say I don’t really mind.

#83 – Down By The River

30 Mar

Woman's body in river - from episode 1 of The Singing Detective

Down by The River (Separations, 1992)
Down by The River at Pulpwiki

“This is about… you may reject something, and then perhaps about six months later you might think “I wish I hadn’t done that,” and then you go back to the place where you threw it away, and it’s not there any more. Sickener.” – Jarvis, on stage at the Leadmill, 1986.

For the third time in under a decade, it was back to square one for Pulp – or at least time for a good slide down the ladder to the second or third row. Russell was still there, but Candida had left the group, in solidarity with her boyfriend and her brother. In her place there was a mysterious character called “Captain Sleep,” who failed to leave much of an impression on anyone – largely due to his habit of lying unconscious in a corner during conversations. Candida would, of course, be back, and soon too, but Magnus and Manners had been replaced by Nick Banks and Stephen Havenhand respectively. We will get to both of them shortly.

The actual music the group played was, at first, undergoing something more like evolution than revolution. There’s no great shift in direction like the one between, say, My Lighthouse and Maureen – more a series of stepping stones which can lead us steadily, in less than twenty songs, from the depths of obscurity to the birth of the pop group we know.

The first of these steps must be ‘Down By The River’ – a song the group were already performing before they’d even made ‘Freaks’, and which remained largely the same until it was recorded for ‘Separations’ three years later. Unusually for a first step, though, its innovations are partly hidden by its shortcomings. In the three year gap between albums Jarvis’s songwriting skills showed a great deal of progress, but this only serves to highlight the weakness of including an old song based on a macabre metaphor for the death of his relationship – a relationship by then long finished. It might have seemed like a fertile source of content at the time, but by this point the well was running dry, and he’s in danger of sounding like a stuck record. By 1989 everyone involved had moved on, but the song survived without a re-write, perhaps because the theme of death and nature-based imagery (and in particular rivers) were becoming increasingly important to the group. If you were feeling generous you could even point to the song as a forerunner of ‘Wickerman’.

As must be expected by now, this content is provided in the form of another waltz-time ballad. To start with, the song is fairly atmospheric, while not being particularly fun listening. There’s a slightly plodding intro with Candida’s standard fairground Farfisa and Jarvis’s improved low-key vocals, but then it slowly begins to build in drama. The little touches really make it – a strange Japanese robot vocoder voice apparently singing “now I know…” (the dead woman’s ghost?), and at it’s best moments, light touches of dramatic film-score rumbling strings. The danger, of course, is that it will veer off into melodrama, but thankfully Alan Smythe’s production keeps it low-key where it needs to be. By the end section, where we hear that “the river will stop for no-one”, it’s even built into something quite beautiful.

In spite of all this, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Down By The River is one of the weaker tracks on ‘Separations’. It’s a problem with context on the whole. If it had been part of the grab-bag of styles and ideas found on Freaks it might’ve stood up quite well. Placed at the end of side A, after three other slow ones, the temptation will always be there to skip straight to the future, in the shape of ‘Countdown’. If you’re expecting the best of both worlds it will also be a letdown. On its own terms though, it’s not that bad at all.

#74 – They Suffocate At Night

2 Feb

Video for tsan

They Suffocate At Night (album edit, Freaks, 1987)
They Suffocate At Night (music video – 7″ mix, 1987)
They Suffocate At Night at Pulpwiki

Two years had passed since the band had got together, two years of frustration with Fire records, two years of failing to make a success of things, or even get along well with each-other. Two years of living in the Wicker factory building. Two years stuck in the same failing relationship. The creative spell was over, the rot had set in.

“They Suffocate At Night” is emblematic of all of this, and more besides. The last great dark sixties ballad and one of the few tracks from ‘Freaks’ still in the band’s sets when it was released, it represents a place and a time in their lives like nothing else does. Still, it’s a difficult song to love – not because it’s as dark or uncompromising as much of their other work around this time, but because it strains too hard to be a classic, and fails to hit the target either in concept or execution. If you can look beyond this failing, though, there is a surprising amount to appreciate.

Let’s start with the production. The whole song sounds reassuringly warm, but discordant – like a record that’s melted in the sun, slightly. Aside from Jarvis’s vocals, everyone is on form. If the goal of production is to capture the moment when everyone can play instinctively together, but before the players have begun to tire of it, then we’re getting it right on the cusp here. The chorus is like the magnificent take-off of an injured bird on a doomed flight. One moment is perfect – the little descending chord sequence in the bridge – and otherwise an atmosphere of despair and wonder is successfully conjured up.

Unfortunately Jarvis’s vocal proves to be both catalyst and Achilles’ heel. For the first couple of verses we have the details of another failed relationship, but this time the characters have gone. Not because they’ve been poorly thought out, more because the pretence of presenting them as fictional characters has worn away. This is Jarvis and his girlfriend, still “in love” (or, more accurately, still attached to the idea that they love each-other) but not really – the affair seems to belong to a time that has passed, the moment has gone but they are both too scared to let go. In the third verse the veil is lifted completely as he moves from third person to first. It’s a break-up note, or a going-to-break-up note at least, and it could be a shockingly heartfelt one too, if he could just refrain from breaking out the proto-Scott-Walker-croon one last time. Hiding your feelings behind a wall of irony, or behind a pose, does not make for great art.

A magnificent but frustrating failure is an odd choice for a singe, but no odder than the one before or after. This one, however, was agreed upon by both band and record company alike, albeit edited into a bizarre mini-mix which unceremoniously lops off the first verse and fades straight into the second – and more understandably cuts Russell’s interminable violin noodlings off the end.

The professional-ish music video – Pulp’s first – isn’t actually that bad. Directed by Michael Geoghegan, apparently lighting director on “Chariots of Fire”, it stars Jarvis’s sister Saskia and Steve Genn from Heroes of the Beach as “the couple”. They sulk and smoulder while the band play in the rafters above, surrounded by the usual array of coloured liquid in plastic bags. The video was shot in the abandoned factory complex Jarvis called home, and it seems he spent a fair amount of time setting the place up, converting a sunken inspection pit to a claustrophobic bedroom. Typically, Mags and manners didn’t take the shoot quite as seriously, arriving late and failing to follow Russell’s usual strict instructions to the letter. As the days work finished, at 4am, another argument broke out, not an unusual occurrence, but a final straw. The album having been finished, the ideas drying up, it was time to break up the band again.

#71 – Dogs Are Everywhere

12 Jan

Dogs Are Everywhere (Single, 1986)
Dogs Are Everywhere (Acoustic) (b-side, 1995)
Dogs Are Everywhere (Live in Bucharest, 2012)
Dogs Are Everywhere at Pulpwiki

“Recent evidence shows that man is a direct descendant of the Dog, rather than the ape, as had been believed. Some are closer to their roots than others.” – original sleevenotes

Pulp had always seemed to be a gang of sorts. First a cheeky collection of schoolboys with wacky names, then an association of budding musos, then a performance art troupe, united by their difference from their peers. Merely ‘not being normal’ is not a lot to have in common, though, and by 1985 the strains were beginning to show. On one side there were Jarvis and Russell, both taking the business of being in a band very seriously indeed, making elaborate schedules and forcing the other members to do lists of chores at rehearsals. On the other side there were Magnus and Manners, the Keith Moon figures of the group – interested in music, sure, but not into being organised and well-behaved. They once infuriated Russell by playing a Sham 69 cover as an encore. Candida, meanwhile, was stuck in the middle, being neither a control freak nor a hooligan.

“I was inspired by one night after playing Chesterfield. Magnus Doyle and Peter Boam were always pissing about and getting stoned. Myself and Russell were puritanical and thought that was terrible. They’d have these mates hanging round, which got on my nerves. That night, they nicked bottles from behind the bar, and we got into loads of trouble. That’s what the song is about – people who display a doggish attitude.” – Jarvis talking about Dogs Are Everywhere in Record Collector

It says something fairly terrible about inter-band relationships when the singer is writing bitter, contemptuous songs about the rhythm section, but perhaps the fact that they played along with the idea says something a little better.

Aged 16, I found Dogs are Everywhere to be a little plodding, but quite wryly insightful, disapproving as I did of both dogs and the majority of my peer group. After being chased home from school by the local farmer’s Doberman on a few occasions, I was frankly terrified of dogs at this point, and extended my fear to a general disapproval of the species. If a human were unquestioningly loyal to one person and threatened anyone else who came near them we’d call this behavior ‘obsequious’ and ‘aggressive’, not ‘loyal’ and ‘faithful’. It didn’t seem fair at all. At school the people with the worst behaviour seemed to be rewarded with attention and approval from the other kids. The connection was a little tenuous but the song seemed to sum up the boorish sexuality and love of willful destruction fairly well. The bit about them whining around your feet seemed a bit odd and misplaced, but you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth, haven’t you?

Eighteen years later my understanding of Jarvis’s viewpoint seems to have dissipated entirely. Jumping behind a bar to steal some beers seems less a threat to the order of the civilized world and more like just the usual kind of hijinks young men have always got up to. Behaving pleasantly is a perfectly good way to carry on, of course, but it’s better to tolerate than set yourself up as a haughty paragon of virtue. There’s an inescapable arrogance here which seeps through to the very core; look at all these people with their civilized, uncouth behaviour – sometimes I fear that I’ll start acting like them! Wouldn’t that be awful?! Frankly, it’s hard to conjure up much sympathy, and the attempt at self-deprecation does nothing to address the terrible self-importance.

The worst part of the deal has to be Jarvis’s lounge-singer croon, deployed to devastating effect in all the wrong ways. Never before or since has he sounded so pompous and strained as he does here. The most egregious moment is the winking cabaret of the “sometimes I have to wonder”, but it’s far from being the only moment that sours the perfectly nice instrumentation behind him. This pained confessional tone might have been acceptable if he were singing about something halfway meaningful, but paired with these ridiculous lyrics it’s almost – but painfully not – funny.

I hope I’m not sounding too critical here – this isn’t, by any reasonable standards, a terrible record. The production is perfectly lovely (especially those intimate little slide-scratch sounds), and the tune itself isn’t that bad – but it’s a bit of a slight, plinkety-plonk stab at a pop song which goes on way too long, so nothing particularly valuable was sullied. I’m not sure what Dogs Are “ev-ree-whurr” is even supposed to be – A novelty song? A gothic confessional ballad? An embarrassing rant? – but the result is just a mess and, yes, an embarrassment.