Tag Archives: coming of age

#130 – David’s Last Summer

23 Jun

'Summer' by Wavingmyarmsintheair

David’s Last Summer (‘His ‘n’ Hers’, 1994)
David’s last Summer at Pulpwiki

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925).

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time”
John Lubbock

“Pulp once played a festival in Liverpool that was held in Sefton park. I remember seeing a Victorian glasshouse that had been left to its own devices after public service cuts. The plants were completely overgrown and the building seemed likely to explode at any moment due to the volume of vegetation inside.”

Jarvis Cocker – Mother, Lover, Brother

“We looked at each other irresolutely and then by common consent pushed through the rushes to the river bank. The river had been hidden until now. At once the landscape changed. The river dominated it— the two rivers, I might say, for they seemed like different streams. Above the sluice, by which we stood, the river came out of the shadow of the belt of trees. Green, bronze, and golden it flowed through weeds and rushes; the gravel glinted, I could see the fishes darting in the shallows. Below the sluice it broadened out into a pool that was as blue as the sky. Not a weed marred the surface; only one thing broke it: the intruder’s bobbing head.”
LP Hartley – The Go-Between

“When you get the first hot day of the year, I always get these pictures in my head. You think of all the things that happen in summer, swimming in lakes and building a tree-house and you get quite excited. But then you know that you’re not going to do all those things, you’re probably just going to end up working like you normally do. But it would be good just to have one summer that was like that one time and so I wanted to capture that feeling of those summers that seem to go on forever and you can do lots of things.”

Jarvis Cocker, French newspaper interview, 1994

“In summer, the song sings itself.”
William Carlos Williams

The idea of writing a song to evoke the endless summers of Sheffield in the late 70s had been in the air for quite a while. The first attempt, one of two songs named “My First Wife“, has already been covered, but undoubtedly there are many other attempts that fizzled out in the rehearsal room between 1987 and 1994. The version that emerges in the His ‘n’ Hers sessions has only a few snatches of lyrics and a theme in common, but the process of change itself has left its mark. It has an odd mish-mash structure, apparently being created out of a grab-bag of different snatches of music that didn’t fit anywhere else and were commandeered by this back-burner project. Along the way it also gained some fairly odd musical flourishes (including a sneaky lift) and a sympathetic producer who seems to have been determined to let his final touches be as near perfect as possible.

A snatch of lyrics and a theme may not sound like a lot, but David’s Last Summer is built around its narrative – as a short story rather than a song. That doesn’t mean that it’s an atmospheric bed for a poem – when it kicks in, after the lull of ‘Someone Like The Moon’, it actually sounds like the album is getting a second wind. DLS is the first pastoral Pulp song, and half-remembered it will always seem to be thoughtfully dramatic, so the sudden jump into this high-tempo mid-80s light jazz/funk always seems slightly jarring, and for a moment I’m tempted to think of it as a misfire. It’s not, though, it’s just a break from the expected shimmering, laidback feel of long hot summer films, a more realistic representation of the giddy feeling at the start of English summer holidays, and makes perfect sense as the start of our story.

We made our way slowly down the path that led to the stream, swaying slightly, drunk on the sun, I suppose. It was a real summer’s day. The air humming with heat, whilst the trees beckoned us into their cool green shade. And when we reached the stream, I put a bottle of cider into the water to chill, both of us knowing that we’d drink it long before it had chance.

Jarvis got the name of the song from a book in his school library called “Pennington’s Last Summer” which he saw but never read. Except he didn’t – K.M. Peyton’s classic young adult novel was called “Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer” though it was also published as “Pennington’s Last Term.”

Pennington's Last Summer

Misrememberings like this always seem to be the wellspring of good art, and this is a great song title, vague and evocative. Who is this “David”? The lyrics constantly shift perspective – “we” “you” (female) “you (male) and her” “Peter” – but there’s never a David mentioned. Is this the kid called David from ‘Babies’? And why is it his last summer? Is this a character whose death makes the memory of this summer indelible, or is it a “last” summer before he leaves? The value of this summer is defined by how fleeting it is, and the possibility of death at the end sharpens this pressure.

If the year is a cycle of death and rebirth, then in summer we pass the peak and look down into the shadowy valley beyond.

This is where you want to be / There’s nothing else but you and her / And how you spend your time

The Last Summer is a perfected archetype, specific but general. It’s in Sheffield, in the 70s, but it could be anywhere and at any time. We’re caught between the innocence and carelessness of childhood and the nostalgia and awareness of consequences that come with adulthood. There’s a tension between the blissfully tranquillity of lying in the sun and daydreaming and the self-consciousness born from that freedom to think. We’re slipping into a slower pace, but under that soothing pastorality there’s an intense consciousness that makes the memories stronger, more vivid, more important.

We went driving

There are moments like this that are intensely filmic. Is it possible at this point not to picture the non-existent music video, the group heading down country roads in a convertible? We are in a moment, in a time, in a place. To be able to suspend disbelief like this is the measure of success for a piece like this. Was there really a summer like this? How much of it was spent bored or distracted? It doesn’t matter, of course.

The room smells faintly of sun tan lotion in the evening sunlight, and when you take off your clothes, you’re still wearing a small pale skin bikini. The sound of children playing in the park comes from faraway, and time slows down to the speed of the specks of dust floating in the light from the window.

Memory may be eternal and timeless, but real time is limited. In David’s Last Summer each moment is caught, frozen, before we suddenly skip forward to the next. The effect is that of flicking though a stack of polaroids. On summer holidays I used to focus intently on a single moment, think about how it would seem later as a memory, then, as it passed, think about how it was gone now and unchangeable. I don’t know if this is something other people did.

Time is limited, everything will die. To feel time passing is to lose it.

So we went out to the park at midnight one last time. Past the abandoned glasshouse stuffed full of dying palms. Past the bandstand and down to the boating lake. And we swam in the moonlight for what seemed like hours, until we couldn’t swim anymore.

Sefton Park Glasshouse - here pictured in a better-managed state

The abandoned glasshouse is in Liverpool, the bandstand may be the one mentioned in the DYRTFT film. Memories are cut and pasted as much as music is – each section is different, but all somehow fit. Here we notice a snatch of melody which seems to be lifted from “Lisa (All Alone)” by Santo & Johnny. We’ve started at a casual fast pace, slowed down into contemplation, and now we’re speeding up again into an anxious close, but at no point has our journey seemed forced or unnatural.

As we walked home, we could hear the leaves curling and turning brown on the trees, and the birds deciding where to go for the winter. And the whole sound, the whole sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town.

Pulp’s first attempt at a spoken song, Goodnight, took listeners gently down to road to sleep before shouting “boo” just as they were drifting off. It was a mean trick, but there was a good idea somewhere behind it. DLS doesn’t descend into horror, just a curdling, the love of the moment morphing into the impossible desire to hold on to it. First there’s the picked guitar, like September birdsong, the distant thunderclap of rumbling bass, then in comes Candida’s slightly out of tune Farfisa, like the distorted 8mm film of a beach holiday. Finally the pace starts to pick up, with Russell’s icy, discordant stabs of violin, as chilling as the first autumn winds, a storm rolling in, the sky darkening, the desperate feeling that the summer is over and there will never be another one like it, a final moment of crisis between the experience and the bittersweet memory.

And as we came out of the water we both sensed a certain movement in the air, and we both shivered slightly, and we ran to collect our clothes. And as we walked home, we could hear the leaves curling and turning brown on the trees, and the birds deciding where to go for the winter. And the whole sound, the whole sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town.

…and up and up we go, taking off like a kite carried off into the storm. There is no more satisfying ending to a Pulp album, no better example of a story in a song. A hodge-podge of different sections, cobbled together over half a decade, it still works as high narrative drama, and (dare I say) art. Pulp would be soon be much bigger, and perhaps even better, but they’d never again simultaneously be this odd and this brilliant.

Do You Remember The First Time? (short film)

14 Jun

vlcsnap-2014-04-28-22h05m23s152

Do You Remember The First Time (short film)
Do You Remember The First Time (short film) at Pulpwiki

“We tried to make an accessible film,” begins bassist Steve. “The tone of it’s light, watchable, funny. We’ve discouraged the tabloids – there are enough quotes to bury everyone on it, taken out of context, so we’ve been quite careful there. “As it stands,” adds Jarvis, “anyone could watch it, even people who might find our music distasteful. I’m not obsessed with sex, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that so often it gets written about in an idealised way or a ‘Carry On’ nudge-nudge way. Then again, I don’t think it would be so great if it was more open, like I imagine Norway to be, where they discuss it over the breakfast table.”Melody Maker, 19 March 1994

For the first time in our story, Pulp have a little money to spend, and instead of blowing it on predictable rockstar excesses or wisely squirreling it away, they are going to use it on the making of a short film. Not a particularly pricy one, mind you, but a professional production all the same, and an enjoyable piece of work too, especially for what’s essentially just a series of famous people talking about how they lost their virginity.

An interview area was set up at Brittania Row Studio, where the recording sessions for His ‘n’ Hers were taking place, and Jarvis and long-term film collaborator Martin Wallace set up interviews with whoever they could get. A day was spent filming rude street signs, all found in the London A-Z, and a patch of grass in front of Clapham tube station. This square of lawn was supposed to be in Sheffield, but with a tight schedule there wasn’t time to go up there and film it. Fortunately this works in the film’s favour, adding an extra punchline, and it’s a pleasant surprise to find that it was an accident.

The film was completed in February 1994, and premiered at a screening at the ICA shortly afterwards. There’s not much of a place for this sort of thing on television or in the real world, but it was handy at least to have the film ready to extend the video compilation ‘Sorted For Films & Vids’ to feature length. To claim it’s an amazing piece of work would be to engage in hyperbole, but it’s cobbled together in a clever enough way to make a simple story interesting even on a hundredth viewing, and it’s a good introduction to a cast of characters, some of whom play a part in our story. Let’s have a look at them.

Maurice Blake

Not the star of Life Is Hot in Cracktown or a jewelry thief, Maurice Blake seems to have left no trace anywhere, and I have to assume that he’s a friend rather than a celebrity. He appears to be an old naval man – either due to his appearance (he looks basically like Uncle Albert) or his experience being with a prostitute, aged 22, presumably a common thing for sailors. He isn’t impressed with his story (“we only took off the lower halves of her clothes” “it was ok”) – but not enough to describe it in a particularly squalid manner – and it’s easy to share his lack of enthusiasm.

Viv

A year away from his death, Pulp encounter the legendary Vivian Stanshall in the defeated, resigned phase of his long decline, and while it’s a wonder that they managed to get him into the studio, he isn’t exactly in the mood for witty banter. Viv remains slumped morosely on a sofa, only occasionally slurring out the odd word for the entire interview. A shame, especially as he has a very odd story to tell. He was ten years old (ten!), wearing shorts, and of course he didn’t know what was happening at all. Whether this is a sad story, a funny one, or both, remains unclear. I just feel sad for the man, he’s too far gone to engage with anything.

jo2

An official friend of the group, Jo Brand had just about broken through into the mainstream of comedy in 1994 (the filming took place between the pilot episode of ‘…Through The Cakehole‘ and the start of its first series), and her story is told with her usual winning blend of disdain and relish. Essentially it’s a vignette from a Pulp song – a drunken encounter at a party, aged 15, led to a disappointing further encounter in the bathroom, with Jo’s head dangerously close to the pink toilet mat, and concluded with his mum coming in, catching them at it and threatening to tell her mum. Coming-of-age house parties, squalid sex in an inconvenient location, local social embarrassment; these are just what the film needs.

jus4

We’re (perhaps not so) swiftly approaching the Britpop explosion now, and here joining Pulp in the vanguard is Justine Frischmann from Elastica, another group who were just breaking into the top 20 for the first time, though in their case with only 18 months’ history behind them rather than 16 years. Her story isn’t particularly special – a pool hall, an older guy and a grubby flat – but it does offer a tantalising glimpse into the early life of a britpop A-lister, and that’s more than enough for me.

terry4

Terry Hall of The Specials and Fun Boy Three was flirting with the proto-britpop scene in 1994, releasing records with Damon Albarn and Ian Broudie, and cemented his involvement a year later by performing with Salad on The Help Album. His involvement here shouldn’t, then, come as much of a surprise, but it still does – Terry seems to be from another era, another 70s, and his lighthearted youthful fumblings are expressed in a very confident, matter-of-fact manner. It’s clear that he wasn’t a freak or a mis-shape, and that he has no regrets. This is nice for balance, but it’s a good job nobody else was so unflustered, or the whole premise would’ve been bound for the bin. Terry does have the best line of the film, however – “She was really into the Bay City Rollers, and it put me off a bit…. but not enough.”

pam4

At first glance, fashion designer Pam Hogg seems to be even less of a Pulp person than Terry, but she was apparently involved in acid house and post-punk bands, so maybe I’m wrong about that. On this evidence it’s hard to tell – she’s the most guarded of the contributors, and features the least – her screen time can’t be more than forty seconds. From this we can glean that she was 17, that it was disappointing, and not much else.

rob5

My favourite contributor, and perhaps yours too, is Robert Hulse, though as another non-celebrity he was also tricky to track down. He does seem to have two pages on IMDB, but that’s more of a hinderance than a help. What we can say for sure is that Robert turned up in 2002 in a fairly shoddy Martin Wallace short film called Five Ways John Wayne Didn’t Die, which also features Jarvis doing a half-hearted Darren Spooner, and since then he seems to have become director of London’s Brunel Museum, and can be seen here showing people through the Thames Tunnel.

Robert’s experience was intense and revelatory, and he is still close enough to capture it perfectly. He was 26, had been having “problems”, but finally made it on a wooden palette in a London Squat. “It was the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. It was Blakean. The most extraordinary sense of Euphoria…. If I had a football rattle and a scarf I’d have run outside and told everybody.” Hearing someone talk candidly and openly about a great joy in their life is a rare treat, and more than any other interviewee, he makes the film work.

(Robert is commonly confused with Donald Parsnips, a character created by London-based artist Adam Dant, who was listed as an interviewee, but doesn’t actually appear in the film. Jarvis later wrote an introduction to his book, so they clearly know each-other, but that clears up precisely nothing about why he was cut. Any information on this point is very welcome.)

vic5

A number of years ago I has the misfortune to be teaching surly teenagers, and Vic Reeves‘ performance here is a good reminder of the reasons I swore never to do it again. Obviously embarrassed to be there and unable to step out of character, Vic misjudges completely and comes out with a string of nonsensical jokes about losing his virginity to the back of a car and wearing sacking instead of clothes. At the end there’s a brief moment of sincerity, where he expresses regret at a missed opportunity, but it soon passes. Fortunately his next appearance with Jarvis would be on Shooting Stars, where his surreal comedy has more of a place.

bob2

In 1993 Bob Mortimer had been upgraded from Vic Reeves’ assistant to his double-act partner for The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, and a good thing too as he seems to know how to approach the questions a little better than Vic. Unfortunately he still doesn’t have a lot to say and feels uncomfortable saying even that. The episode was “grubby”, she wore tights and blue platform boots, he said “come on girl, let’s really get down to it” – and he says he can’t remember how old he was, but looks like he just doesn’t want to say. If time constraints hadn’t been so pressing perhaps Vic & Bob could’ve been properly primed before their interviews, and wouldn’t then look so out of place.

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Andrea Oliver
might not be exactly a familiar face to most, but she’s been there or thereabouts in British pop culture for more than three decades. Here she is performing with Rip Rig + Panic on The Young Ones, here she is presenting ‘Baadasss TV’ with Ice T, and here she is presenting a cookery programme with her friend Neneh Cherry. And her daughter is Miquita Oliver, so there’s that too. She has a normal enough story, but tells it well – one day, aged 16 or 17, she decides to lose her virginity, choosing a guy who was always after her, and taking him to the back of a car. It’s predictably disappointing, yes, but in her case she remembers enjoying feeling the power of her sexuality – it was “thrilling” – a different perspective among all the embarrassment.

jp3

The 80s may have been a quiet patch, but by the start of 1994 John Peel (who surely needs no introduction here) and Pulp had resumed friendly terms. A second Peel Session was finished, of course, and Jarvis and Nick would join him at Peel Acres for the launch of Different Class in 1995, eventually standing in for him while he was away for three days in 1997 and playing his anniversary concert in 2001. John’s relaxed, then, amongst friends, so is in full wry, relaxed anecdote mode, and slightly apologetic that he doesn’t have a better story. He was 21 years old, in a small flat in a Liverpool suburb with a girl he had no particular feelings for, and had been dreading it. The encounter was ‘untidy’ and he just seems glad to have got it out of the way so he could move on with the rest of his life – which is fair enough.

ali2

It’s odd to see famous, respected actors out of character for the first time – especially one who’s played as many strong women as Alison Steadman, who seems surprisingly shy in person – though it may just be a reaction to the subject matter. Having starred in Nuts In May, the Singing Detective, Abigail’s Party and P’tang, Yang, Kipperbang, I have to confess to being something of a fan of hers. Her story seems much more innocent and healthy than the characters in her films – she was with a long-term boyfriend, it was unplanned, but their mutual inexperience put them on an equal footing. It sounds very wholesome and fortunate, maybe more so than any of the other stories – except perhaps one.

san2

It was only in the process of writing this that I discovered Sandra Voe is both “Mother” from Breaking The Waves, and Candida and Magnus Doyle’s actual real life mum. So good on her for agreeing to come down to London to talk about losing her virginity for her daughter’s band. Having said that, there’s nothing in the least bit sordid about her story – in fact, quite the opposite. In a scene straight from a Pre-Raphaelite painting, she tells us about being in the middle of a bed of wild flowers, next to a burbling stream with a boy who was leaving her village, and describes the experience as “exhilarating,” a “vivid memory.” Life in the Shetlands sounds pretty idyllic, though I understand it does sometimes get a bit cold.

#116 – Inside Susan

23 Nov

Sheffield Bus

Inside Susan (b-side to Razzmatazz, 1993)
Sean’s Show, Channel 4, 17/11/1993 (Pulp mime ‘Inside Susan’ in the background)
Inside Susan at Pulpwiki

“I think I now understand why it is that the young are so very nostalgic. They have so little by way of personal history that they polish it up and make it shine like a treasured heirloom. For those of us who have months, years and even entire decades mouldering in the attics of our memories, nostalgia seems a curiously boastful kind of hoarding. So you had a love affair, or moved abroad, you got ill, or had a parent die – well, so did I, so did I – and more than once.”Will Self

Putting that quote there seems more than a little unfair, but its purpose is more to draw a contrast than a criticism. The 1970s was almost ripe for plucking by the nostalgia industry in 1993, and for the remainder of the decade it went from a novelty to an all-encompassing ironic media cliché, with Noddy Holder starring in The Grimleys on TV, Peter Kay asking arenas full of people if they remember things and TV presenters who were toddlers at the time reminiscing about space hoppers and angel delight on “I love the 70s”. When I started university in 1998 I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the popular kids (yes, such a thing existed) spent their Saturday evenings wearing afro wigs and brightly coloured flares at the local shit disco 70s Night. They were all born in 1980-1981, so already their nostalgia was borrowed, filtered through parody, a hemmed-in cul-de-sac of shit irony, all signifiers that signified nothing but themselves, and closed the senses not just to the past, but also to the present and future. We didn’t get on.

I’d hate to think that Pulp played a role in this, and for the most part they didn’t, but their references to the decade, especially in music videos, were easy to shift into kitsch when filtered through even a single lens – see for example the performance by Gareth Dickinson as Jarvis on ‘Stars In Your Eyes’, where he was surrounded by pigtailed girls with clackers and a dog on wheels. Once again we can see that once art is out there in the world, it is impossible for the artist to control what is done with it, either by the public or the massed forces of light entertainment.

Inside Susan, then, is not nostalgic at all – there are no cultural references stopping it being set in the 60s or the 00s for that matter – but it captures a certain time in Jarvis’s life – those couple of years between O levels and A levels where life largely existed as a series of intervals between house parties. Much of it is unfiltered truth. There really was a girl called Caroline Lee who would pretend to be married to Jarvis, German exchange students really did jump out of the bedroom window, and the story about the ‘man who spends all day forcing felt-tip pens into people’s hands and then trying to make them pay for them’ is his own. The character of Susan herself is something of an amalgam of Jarvis’s own memories, and girls he knew at the time. While her thoughts are specific to a time and place, they are also typical of a certain type of teenager; one who finds daydreams and fantasies more interesting than everyday life, one who demonstrates little or no enthusiasm about their everyday existence, treating life decisions as trivia, or a game they can’t be bothered to play. Jarvis was one once, and so was I.

“I’d go to parties and try to cop off with girls and stuff… …I think the reason I started writing about it was that I thought I might be in danger of forgetting what it was like. Also, I liked the resilience of youth; people are always packing each other when they’re young – you’d be going out with someone and one day they’d say, ‘I’m packing yuh, yuh’re a right slag”, and nobody would think anything of it… …I liked the fact that everybody was so insensitive to each other, and quite abusive a lot of the time. It’s a sign of immaturity, I’m sure.”Jarvis in Q, May 1994.

Susan is essentially part of this world, as much as she feels excluded from it. There’s a sense that it’s all unacceptably juvenile, that she should get away from it all, but to where? Her vision of adulthood is still unformed, and consists of being able to get into pubs and “make lots of money from charging fat old men five pounds a time to look up my skirt.” It’s an odd kind of immature cynicism, built on a foundation of frustration and loneliness. There’s never a sign of anyone else understanding her, or of her wanting to be close to anyone else for that matter. Other people being described generally as annoyances or objects of disgust. We begin with her catching a bus to school at the late hour of 10.30am and end with her getting off and walking home. That combination of desire to escape and inability to make reasonable plans could surely only be written by somebody who’s been there themself – and to that end, at the close of the story, we shift perspective to the view of a retrospective onlooker:

I suppose you think she’s just a silly girl with stupid ideas, but I remember her in those days. They talk about people with a fire within and all that stuff. Well, she had that alright – it’s just that nobody dared to jump into her fire and risk being consumed. Instead they put her in a corner and let her heat up the room, warming their hands and backsides in front of her, and then slagging her off around town.

It’s a very personal, slightly bitter reflection, projected onto another, expanded to encompass near-universality. At that age malicious gossip stands in for genuine intimacy, walls between people are too low. To genuinely affect another person is too easy – so subtle, measured relationships are impossible. All but the most callous get hurt. For many then, it’s a low point in life, albeit one that may well be fondly remembered later, when emotions are more settled and when people long to feel like they once did. That’s when nostalgia kicks in, and that’s why Inside Susan is refreshing in its lack of rose-tinted lenses.

We haven’t got to the music yet, so a few notes about that. It’s essentially a backing track, which is exactly what’s required*. On a casual listen it sounds like one of the band’s jams, but I suspect that it’s something more constructed than that. Beyond Candida’s keyboard motif it sounds like a programmed track – loops of recorded sound slotted together in the studio. There are a couple of clues that make me suspect this is the case – firstly the complete lack of a live version of the song, and secondly the way Russell’s guitar sounds like a series of freeform riffs cut up and placed at their most effective locations, often multi-tracked on top of itself, as is Jarvis’s voice. The only thing that sounds live is Nick’s drums. Anyway, it’s only a theory, but I’d like to see what other people think.

However it was constructed, it’s fairly wonderful – restrained but accomplished, together but never showy about it. There’s no chorus there, just a series of peaks and troughs – a low-key bed for the story, exactly what’s needed after the effervescence of ‘Stacks’. Jarvis plays his part by putting in a restrained performance too, only adding occasional drama on lines like “…queuing up to take me out for dinner!” It sounds effortless – a thoughtful, well-written story given time to breathe, and it’s hard to fault it in any regard.

*If this were still the 80s there would doubtlessly be some kind of effort to fit the music to the story – and the song would suffer for it.

#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.

#41 – Joking Aside

2 Jun

Joking Aside
Joking Aside at Pulpwiki

“In my naive days, I thought that you were going to get a girlfriend and then it was all going to be all right. And then you find out that it’s not going to be all right.”

The ‘It’ recording sessions were finished, but the album wasn’t. Five tracks were done, with a total run time of 21 minutes – enough for a fairly long EP, but not enough for even a short mini-album. Tony Perrin, still somehow the band’s manager, had no choice but to go out and find the cash to complete the record. His solution was to play the completed tapes to Tony K of Red Rhino records, who liked the songs enough to stump up £500 for the band to go down to London and complete the sessions, so on the 15th of January 1983 the group went down to London’s Victoria Studios to record one more track. They arrived there without either Peter Boam or David Hinkler. The increasing side-lining of these two talented musicians was a poor sign for the stability of the line-up. Peter seems to have been resigned to leaving the group at this point, but David later expressed annoyance at recording sessions having taken place behind his back.

Aside from the remixing of “Blue Girls” and “My Lighthouse”, the sole product of the day’s work was ‘Joking Apart’ – a track which certainly fits the sound of ‘It’ and brings it up to mini-LP length. Aside from that, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm about it. An oom-pah-pah bier-keller waltz, it’s performed in an unironic folky style by the Artery rump of Simon Hinkler and Garry Wilson, with Jarvis’s school friend Jon Short guesting on country-fiddle-style cello. It’s not the usual instrument for this kind of music, and Short wasn’t happy with the single take, but Jarvis and Simon apparently thought it was good enough to keep.

Once again – fortunately for the last time – we hear all about one young man’s search for meaning in the daunting world of adult life, though to be fair these ideas are a little more mature this time. The lyrics are, in places, as good as anything on ‘It’ – “I’d like to turn you over / and see what’s on your other side” would fit well enough on any Pulp album from Freaks to This Is Hardcore. Jarvis makes a play of being disillusioned and world-weary – “Viewed from outside / these pursuits I might try / seem possessed of a certain allure / Now they’re no longer a source of mystery / my faith in them’s more unsure” – but being “unsure” isn’t quite the same as being tired of it all. And notice he “might try” these activities, meaning that he hasn’t tried them yet. This is, then, a prediction of cynicism, rather than real experience of it, but we won’t have to wait too long for the genuine article.

It’s a shame that these promising lyrics are matched to a tune and an arrangement which amount to little more than a nice idea taken way too far. The first couple of minutes are perfectly pleasant, but past that point the song frustratingly fails to go anywhere at all. The only motion towards taking it up a notch is when Saskia and Jill’s “luh luh luh luh” backing vocals come in, but these just sound out of tune and out of place. After the full four minutes and eighteeen seconds the idea that this is just filler becomes hard to shake. Placed towards the end of side A, just after the two “hits” of My Lighthouse and Wishful Thinking, it slows the record down into a lull it never fully escapes from.

#40 – Looking For Life

26 May

Looking For Life
Looking For Life on Pulpwiki

The summer of 1982 was warm and dry. The Falklands war was over, Wednesday had missed out on promotion to the First Division on the final day and ‘Fame’ and ‘Come On Eileen’ were at number one. Jarvis had finished school, deferred his university place, and wasn’t even working as a fishmonger any more. It’s sounds a little like ‘David’s Last Summer’ – going to parties while it’s light outside, the air humming with heat, all that. Dolly and Jamie had gone their different ways, but a new Pulp was coming together, and the possibilities of the future must have seemed endlessly exciting. This is all self-evident from the songs written at this time – Sink or Swim, Joking Aside, but most of all Looking For Life, which captures the sound as well as the feel of those days.

For the previous six months the band’s line-up had included an organ on one side of the stage and a keyboard on the other, a setup which naturally led to tunes led by a swirling whirlitzer of sound topped off with jangly early 80s indie guitar. As the autumn arrived, Jarvis and Simon began their cribbing from Leonard Cohen, and the band’s sound moved on. ‘Looking for Life’ is a hangover from that earlier time. For whatever reason it escaped the rewriting and rearranging, perhaps because it represents the best development of that sound – the organ driven by a propulsive krautrock rhythm – for the first time in Pulp’s existence, a real groove.

It’s not completely successful, of course. The band are almost, but not quite in time for the first minute or so. This is no surprise – the song has a rather everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production, and with so many musicians trying so hard to make something work, one mistake can scupper everything. It was the last song recorded in the session, but destined to be the b-side of their first single, so everyone was very keen to get their part in.
The one thing which had changed about the song was the title. Originally ‘Coming Alive’ it had later been titled ‘Looking for Love’, a name dismissed as “too poofy” by a member of the group. That was a good call – one more song about a young man’s search for love would surely have been too much to take. Instead, the vocals are handily used as a hook for the rhythm, and quite an effective one. Peter Boam also sings lead for a moment, though his lines (“Once I had, I had a vision / Brilliant white walls and lights in each corner they danced” starting from 3.13) were placed so low in the mix that it’s easy to miss them. This is down to Jarvis, who decided that they sounded like “bloody Gene Pitney.”

There’s nothing particularly special going on here, but everyone puts in enough effort to somehow make it work. All the same, they seem to be flagging after a few minutes, and the song finishes largely as a mess. Not a fitting ending for an album it was never meant to be on*, though it woud’ve worked very well if placed earlier on.

*most reissues of the ‘It’ have featured ‘Looking for Life’ as an unmentioned bonus track, taking the album’s running length over the thirty minute mark.

#29 – Sink or Swim

7 Apr

Sink or Swim
Sink or Swim on Pulpwiki

When is the best time to write about a song? Perhaps it’s with the clarity of a first listen, when everything is fresh to your ears. Perhaps it’s after a long process of becoming accustomed to its nuances and details. One thing is for sure – the best moment is probably not when you’ve just developed a strange obsession with it and are listening to it on repeat. Love is blind, as somebody or other said. And what less likely song is there to fall for than “Sink or Swim” – a not particularly remarkable song justifiably left off ‘It’? But here we are anyway.

The first recording of Sink or Swim, and the reason I’m writing about it now and not later, is that it was recorded earlier that year for the “Spice” demo, though it was then called “Taking The Plunge.”* It’s one of a series of songs on the theme of taking your first steps in the adult world, later to include ‘Looking For Life’ and ‘Joking Aside’. That only one of these songs made it onto the original pressing of the LP was probably not a co-incidence. With all three present it does tend to sound like a concept album – “one Sheffield boy’s struggle to enter the adult world” – and that’s probably not the impression anyone wanted to give. Consequently it was left unmixed until Fire records decided to remaster the album for its 2012 reissue.

On first impressions the song isn’t great. The major weakness is the half asleep cruise ship keyboard line, which unfortunately serves as the intro. Jarvis’s vocals sound at once whimsical and uncomfortable. he keeps slipping into a low croon, emphasising the seriousness of his message – which, unfortunately, isn’t much of a message at all.

I see it’s time for me to take the plunge
Instead of sitting back, Watching everyone
Decisions now affect my future days
But are they right or wrong? Who on earth can say?

Not pretentious, then, just sort of ponderous and uninspired. It’s pretty much all a litany of half-arsed mistakes until David Hinkler’s trombone appears, somehow tying the melody together into a thing of wonder. It’s something of an illusion – sometimes you hear it, sometimes you don’t – just a moment of harmony that sounds incredible. I’ll wade through the thing a hundred times to hear that moment. Maybe I’ll be bored with it next week, but for now it’s caught me.

*It’s rumoured that the version on the reissue is from the Spice demo rather than the unmixed re-recording.