Tag Archives: city at night

#134 – Street Lites

3 Aug

CNV00070

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.

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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

#99 – My Legendary Girlfriend

13 Jul

MLG Single

My Legendary Girlfriend (Separations, 1992)
My Legendary Girlfriend (BBC Soundcheck – Caff Single, 1992)
My Legendary Girlfriend (Music Video)
My Legendary Girlfriend (Live Video, The New Sessions)
My Legendary Girlfriend at Pulpwiki
My Legendary Girlfriend (Hit The North Soundcheck) at Pulpwiki

“That was about my girlfriend that I’d had in Sheffield. See, I never liked to mix business with pleasure. I’ve always kept my private life separate from music. So I’ve always gone out with girls who aren’t interested in music, and so people always asked me about my legendary girlfriend, because they’d never seen me with her.” – Jarvis in Record Collector #184, December 1994

Some groups break through suddenly, others take their time. Pulp took the journey as a series of uneven steps – and with My Legendary Girlfriend, we’ve reached one of the larger ones. In another world, this would have been their first big hit, and in a sense it was, but approaching it now it stands out as both half-forgotten (it has been rarely played live since around 1993) and – yes – legendary.

By 1989, Jarvis had been attempting to be a pop star for more than a decade, and failing by any measurable standards. The lyrics, the look and the music itself had all been rather hit and miss, and even when they been utterly wonderful, it had always been as the makers of outsider art of one form or another, always offering a challenge to any accidental listener. There had been experiments at making pop songs, sure, but they had been variously guilty of assuming popular music equalled dumbed down mulch and throwing ‘dark’ elements into the mix to counteract the pop fizz.

My Legendary Girlfriend is an astonishing record because it sweeps all of this away and reveals artists who are able to use popular forms to give their material greater depth rather than compromise it – to take what must have seemed to be odd fringe elements of their styles and tastes and tie them together to make something fresh and appealing. There are new things here, of course, but also much that has been covered before. Here are the night-time wanderings of Blue Glow and Being Followed Home, the breathy monologue of Goodnight, the separated lovers of Separations – but all tied together into a compelling, vivid story.

The catalyst for this is something the world of 1980s indie music had forgotten about – the groove. To the already unlikely-looking list of influences already mentioned we have to add Barry White – an artist much maligned in the last couple of decades (i.e. ‘The Walrus of Love’, Vic & Bob, etc) and remembered mainly for commercial love ballads rather than his smooth Love Unlimited Orchestra funk. My Legendary Girlfriend draws from the song of his you’re most likely to have heard – though if you’ve been listening to Heart FM they’ve been depriving you of the vital section. Before you continue reading, please have a listen here to the intro (the first 50 seconds or so) – the bass, the rhythm, the muttered vocals, the ‘we got it together’, sound at all familiar? Unlikely as it may seem now, this group of apparent misfits on the fringes of society had been listening to “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything,” tried jamming a version of it with Jarvis improvising lyrics on top and suddenly everything just clicked. For a while, the song was simply called ‘Barry White Beat’.

It wasn’t like funk was unheard of in Sheffield – this is the town and the recording studio that gave us Chakk after all – but earlier examples had generally been of the angular, moody sort – the kind you couldn’t dance to without doing a line of whizz and glaring around the dancefloor. My Legendary Girlfriend isn’t moody, though, it doesn’t strike poses. Disguised as it is by the MIDI-sequencing that took over much of Separations, that very human, gut-driven funk is still the driving force. To hear this clearly, listen to the live version released as a limited edition single by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne the same year – nothing is sequenced here, just a group of musicians getting into a groove together, and the song is all the better for it.

This isn’t to do down the studio version of the song, though – they were able to retain this feel despite the track being partially sequenced (on new machines they were just learning to use, let’s not forget) – and just to top it off added all manner of synths, effects, odd noises and effects, all adding to the track in different ways. Even Russell’s wah-wah guitar sounds utterly integral, though his influence in the group was waning by this point. Overall the production, like the song itself, is wildly ambitious – but for once they’ve hit their target, shot the moon.

The best part of all must be Jarvis’s vocal – ironic as there are very little in the way of fixed lyrics here. As we get into the era of recording-first, performance-second, Jarvis would get into the habit of procrastinating over putting down lyrics until he ended up writing them on the day he recorded them, but here the improvisation is all out in the open. Every live performance starts basically the same, then veers off in a different (and usually very odd) direction – the version on Separations has “oh, Pitsmoor Woman!” and “no cheese tonight” – the BBC soundcheck version “girl over there with the hot pants on” and our first sighting of “that bloke who tries to sell you felt tip pens”. But despite this, there’s more of a story here than in almost any of their previous work.

We start in his girlfriend’s bedroom – they’ve “finally made it”, she’s asleep, but something’s nagging at him. He goes to the window, returns to wake her, and they go wandering around the city together – either in reality or in a dream – this is intentionally unclear. After that it’s all feeling and free-association, the verses wracked with desperate yearning (“let me in, let me come in”), the chorus a descent into relief – but sad, lonely relief, the girl now deserted, abandoned. Which part is “real”, then? Maybe neither, maybe everything after “I wonder what it means” is a fantasy, it probably doesn’t matter.

Jarvis spent a lot of the 80s walking around Sheffield in the dark, and when he was gone it seemed to still be the landscape of his dreams. So many of Pulp’s best songs are about “the city at night.” This is a step up from ‘Blue Glow’ though – the city isn’t just frightening but is also alive with hidden sexual intrigue – a magical realm where deserted factories and cooling towers represent a fantasy playground, one whose endless hidden mysteries they are free to explore. Owen Hatherly calls this the “sexualised city” – a place where sensuality opens a gap for fantasy to bleed into reality.

Because THIS is the vital element that makes it all work. Up to this point Pulp had assiduously avoided talking about sex in all but the most perverse and uncomfortable fashions – “My blood upon the tarmac / I tore the dress from your back” “They make love beneath Roger” – all that. Perhaps it was the move away*, or the freedom of release from his first long-term relationship, or maybe just Barry White, but suddenly sex is a source of wonder and excitement rather than worry. This isn’t a lyrical device either – it extends into every aspect of the performance. The pretence of the croon is long forgotten, and instead he’s using his vocal to let something out. After a decade of control it’s almost shocking to hear the pants and groans he puts into the performance. The sheer cheek of pretending he’s a sex symbol, the audacity to somehow pull it off.

Staple of the indie disco as it may or may not have been,** My Legendary Girlfriend has lost none of its vitality through the years. This is Pulp at the top of their game, the start of the band we love, their first undeniable classic, their “This is us, and we’re just getting started.”

(A note on the video – it’s not a classic but a decent recording of a good performance, and that’s enough. Apparently it was a nightmare to make, but on the plus side Jarvis’s comments offer us a rare glimpse into the world of Pulp in 1991 – “There were quite a few false starts on this one. First we tried filming something in the room of the East End pub where the great train robbery was planned (don’t ask why). Unfortunately we didn’t light it enough and so ended up with mostly black film. I then shot some stuff of my girlfriend of the time but then split up with her and became too depressed to use it… hmmm. We were now in a difficult position as I had spent just about all of Fire’s massive £200 budget and had nothing to show for it. Unchained Melody was at number one at the time and I liked the way it used one performance of the song filmed from various angles as the video. So we decided to try and do something similar in the photo studio at St Martin’s. We blew the rest of the budget on a star-cloth background and I ended up having to make Nick a drum kit out of cardboard because we couldn’t afford to bring the real one down. Luckily, it worked.”)

*Unlikely as Jarvis has said he went through a sexual drought during his time in London
**It was already becoming a rarity when I started going in the late 90s. We’d hear that drumbeat, dash onto the dancefloor, then every time it would turn out to be ‘I Am The Resurrection’ instead.

#73 – Goodnight

26 Jan

suburban_street_in_blue_by_havehart-d4248wr

Goodnight (Dogs Are Everywhere EP, 1986)
Goodnight at Pulpwiki

Being an artist is often analogous to being an attention-seeker, and that’s probably why brashness and energy are essential for anyone seeking a career in music. There are very few musicians who would like their work to be described as “soporific” – making your audience switch off and drift away is exactly what they’re trying hard not to do. There is ambient music, of course, but that’s off in a world by itself. For gigging bands, playing in noisy bars in front of drunk people, the temptation must always be to get faster and louder.

“Goodnight” was never played live, of course. How could it be? A concept piece that sounded like falling asleep would be unlikely to go down well with even the more sober late night punters. Instead it’s something of a studio creation, reliant on subtle production tricks and atmospherics, created as a low-key closer to the ‘Dogs Are Everywhere’ EP.

Descriptions of the deserted night-time streets of the city are fairly commonplace by this point. The innovation here is the introduction of the intimate spoken-word narrative. It’s a vital element in the band’s sound for the rest of their career, and for good reason. Limited as he was as a crooner, Jarvis has always had a sonorous, authoritative timbre to his voice when speaking, and the freedom gained from abandoning the structures and conventions of singing allowed him to present much more vividly realized material and play with the natural cadences of his voice rather than be constrained by it.

For the first half of ‘Goodnight’ he guides you gently back home to your house before lulling you to sleep. Instruments start to fade in – first organ and then a beautiful dulcimer backing. Both sound like they are guiding you to heaven. Meanwhile an odd counterpoint chorus pops in and out, like a dark thought niggling at your subconscious – something’s not quite right. The imagery becomes increasingly hazy until “there’s something you’ve forgotten” and we launch into the now-customary nightmare sequence, a panic that if we’re going to heaven then – of course! – that means leaving life behind. This nightmare is thankfully less jarring than usual, the backing continuing to increase in intensity, but not launching into a different tune. Jarvis is singing again, but his vocals have been treated to sound resonant and metallic, and are mixed low enough to avoid the silliness of ‘Master of The Universe’.

‘Goodnight’ is in its own quiet little way a bold leap forward. It would’ve been nice if Jarvis could have gone with the concept, trusted his speaking voice to carry the entire track (instead of launching into an ill-advised whispered version of his croon on the choruses) and not felt the need to add the usual gothic doom to the conclusion, but for a couple of minutes at least we really have something rather special.

#66 – Being Followed Home

8 Dec

Being Followed Home (Freaks, 1987)
Being Followed Home at Pulpwiki

Listening to Freaks-era Pulp can often be a frustrating experience. With a little patience you can tell what they were aiming for, but also that they were following a blind trail up a dark alley. Jarvis’s deep sixties croon, Russell’s out-of-tune violin, tortured borderline-pretentious lyrics about death and perversion… It all simply wasn’t going to work, and comparison with their 1990s work shows that a different approach was needed. But then Being Followed Home blows this idea out of the water. Suddenly everything works perfectly.

In part this can be attributed to a level of professionalism above and beyond anything else on the album. Every note is well-chosen, every line well-crafted, Jarvis’s flat baritone slightly raised and steadied, the violin subtlety used to recreate the sudden jolts of a rising heartbeat, the lyrics well-crafted. An unmatched amount of talent and work are evident throughout. Thematically we’re not exploring new ground. Paranoia, dream narratives, journeys through the city at night – these have been common themes throughout the band’s career* – but here they are tied together perfectly. The title is the catalyst – is there any fear more primal than being followed by a malevolent force at night-time?

England can be a surprisingly scary place, especially at 3am on a Sunday. The clubs have closed, the crazies are out, and all you can do is keep your head down, avoid eye-contact and keep walking – quickly, but not too quickly. Freaks tend to draw attention. Cities are places where you can blend in, but when all the regular people have gone home to bed your cover is blown. Other people are walking the same route; are they harmless, just making their own way home? Or are they following you?

It’s a familiar situation, but Pulp manage to take it to new places. This is not so much a song, more a treatment for a post-punk-opera. In fact it’s cinematic enough that it sits in the part of my memory usually reserved for short films, and possessed of a very odd ABCBCDBA sequence taken from the realms of 15-minute prog-rock epics of the early 70s.

We start with echoey footsteps taken from Jarvis’s BBC sound effects LP, a low-key but determined guitar line, he mutters under his breath that he’s being followed home, and then the second guitar line comes in with a sudden jolt in tempo – a quickening step to test whether he really is being followed. As he walks he’s distracted by vivid memories from his recent past, a failed affair – he’s clearly still in love, obsessed by a supposedly indelible memory of this woman – but something has gone terribly wrong and he’s left her forever.

Romantic dreams can swamp the brain, though, can make someone lose focus. After a couple of verses of this we’re shaken back to the chase. He knows who his pursuers are – “the one with the dog breath in the tattoo bar” – and now they’re chasing him over garden walls, down dark alleys. The music has jumped into an altogether different place too – the panic and paranoia reflected in a helter-skelter jumble of opposing rhythms and noises. Magnus’s percussion really comes alive here, with sudden fills and crashes surprising yet superbly well-timed. Then we build to a climax, “the corner’s turned… and it’s too late.”

This would usually be the part to jolt awake from the nightmare, but instead he “awoke on a beach sometime later to a grey and sunless sky.” (this has to be one of my favourite Pulp lyrics of all-time) – he’s beaten and bruised, but now his memories of the beating and the romantic disappointment are all mingled and confused. The world has conspired to batter him from both sides. We return to the early verses, but now as a series of grizzly flashbacks – the other kind of indelible. But time can heal everything – his wounds begin to heal, and his memories begin to fade. The handprints in the sand that “would last forever” have been swept away by the sea – he’s forgotten the fear, but also the passion.

There’s a sense that all of this is a metaphor, but a literal interpretation seems equally valid. No matter what personal triumphs or tragedies are fresh in your mind, the world can be a cruel and random place. As the track finishes we return to the start. A recurring dream? A repeat? Or a memory that won’t go away? He’s being followed home.

*Though ‘paranoia’ would soon be replaced by ‘sex’

#55 – Blue Glow

22 Sep

Blue Glow (Little Girl EP, 1985)
Blue Glow at Pulpwiki

“In Sheffield I lived in an old factory building which was right in the centre of town, so coming back from nightclubs at two or three in the morning I would just walk through a semi-derelict industrial landscape to get home. I got kind of used to that thing of walking through deserted places, feeling that you had the city to yourself at that time of the night, which was great because being somebody on social security or whatever at the time, in a band, leading a fairly precarious existence, you certainly didn’t feel that you owned the town when it was light and when it was getting on with its business, but when everyone else was asleep you could walk through and really feel like it belonged to you.” – Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless Nights, BBC Radio 4, 2012

The 1991 film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf has one of the most inspired opening scenes of all time. A homeless man, strung out on drink and pills, stumbles down a vast deserted highway, eventually lying down and passing out in the middle of the road. Cars career down the road, swerving when they see his prostrate form, until one fails to notice him and runs painfully over his ankle. A woman with a dirty eye-patch and a mop of bedraggled black hair runs over to him, and helps him onto a night bus full of other casualties of the city.

When most musicians sing about the night at one time or another, they stick to the club and the bedroom, but there’s a city out there – the same streets, the same buildings, but deserted save for the odd straggler, silent enough that an occasional noise can imbue everything with sudden drama. Jarvis knew this world intimately, and a Pulp geography of Sheffield would surely be placed at 4am, after the last clubber has gone home, but before the first milkman has started making his rounds.

‘Blue Glow’ is the famous balcony scene – only here Juliet is wrapped up inside, watching late night TV on her own, and Romeo is lurking in the bushes below her window. He’s not malicious, just scared… lost in the city, following her out of desperation – a longing for someone to join him. It’s not so much love as a frantic need – she could be anyone, or no-one – perhaps she doesn’t even exist. By the end he’s a lost cause, wandering dirty and shivering by the river with his clothes in tatters, still pleading with her to come and make everything better.

These are some of Jarvis’s strongest lyrics, but they wouldn’t stand up as well as they do without a fine showing from the rest of the band. Peter Mansell in particular puts in one of his best performances – his curious, seedy bass line sets the tone for the whole song, propelling it through various spasmodic pulsations from Russell’s violin and the gothic chiming of Candia’s dulcimer. The verses are perhaps the apex of Pulp’s ‘dark sixties ballad’ phase – understated but perfectly judged, tuneful with a creeping underlying menace.

The chorus is a whole different affair, though. On one hand it’s a solid hook for the track – a blurting of passion to relieve the tension of the verses – and certainly it’s memorable enough. On the other hand there’s a sense that perhaps they are trying too hard here. Matched with something else, it could be perfectly good, but contrasted with the perfection of the verses it can’t help but be a bit of a let-down.

Blue Glow wasn’t anyone’s favourite at the time, but since fans began to explore the group’s early work in the mid 90s it’s been rated as one of the highlights of this era. I even named my first fanzine after it. The inclusion of the track on the compilation “Untitled 3” means that thousands of mainstream indie fans have a copy of it, uniquely for anything else pre-Separations. I wonder what they make of Russell’s wall of screeching violin noise at the climax.