Tag Archives: compilation tracks

#122 – Le Roi des Fourmis

4 Jan

Michel Polnareff

Le Roi Des Fourmis (from A Tribute To Polnareff, 1999)
Le Roi Des Fourmis (performance by Michel Polnareff on French TV)
Le Roi Des Fourmis on Pulpwiki

We had a poor cover version for Christmas, so now here’s a decent one for New Year.

Think of sixties French pop and quite a few names might come to mind – Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy, Johnny Hallyday, Jacques Dutronc, France Gall – but probably not Michel Polnareff, the ‘bad boy’ of the scene, despite a huge amount of competition in this regard. He won a talent competition, turned down the major label contract, wrote a hit single – “La Poupée qui fait non” – that was covered by Jimi Hendrix and The Birds, was banned from the radio, suffered depression and eyesight problems and was finally ostracized and left bankrupt after distributing a “pornographic” promotional poster for a tour. After spending the next couple of decades in the USA he made a comeback in the early 90s, and that’s where we join the story.

Pulp people may be more familiar with the version the group performed for French radio in 1994, but the ‘proper’ recording dates from a year earlier. Along with the likes of Saint Etienne and Nick Cave, they had been asked to add a contribution to an album of Polnareff covers. Information about the session is fairly limited, but it seems remarkable for a few reasons.

1. The session was in Axis Studios in Sheffield, not in London. Ok, not a big deal, but it was their first time recording out of the capital since ‘O.U.’.

2. Instead of Ed Buller – whose fingerprints can be found over almost everything from this era – the session was produced by Stephen Street, the Britpop producer, later responsible for Parklife and The Great Escape, and this is clear even from the start. Instead of layered keyboard sounds we have a crisp pop-rock sound remarkably familiar to anyone accustomed to Chris Thomas’s work on Different Class. Does this suggest that the progression between albums was just down to a change in producer? Well, no. But it was at least an indication that the group were versatile enough to be taken in very different directions. A version of Lipgloss recorded in the same session remains unreleased, so the jury is still out on whether Street could have worked as a producer on His ‘n’ Hers.

3. On guitar we have one Mark Webber, still two years away from officially joining the group. Mark had been around for quite a while now, running the fan club and sometimes playing on stage, and it’s fitting that we hear his debut performance coincide with the first incidence of the Britpop sound he would soon be part of.

The song itself is structured much more like mainstream pop than anything else they were doing at the time, so it may be a mistake to pin it down to either Street or Webber. The group approach it with gusto, hammering out the stomping rhythm, and building everything to a crescendo in much the same way they would with ‘Like A Friend’ a few years later. Guitars and synths are light for the most part, sparkling and burbling rather than trying to lay down atmosphere. For his part Jarvis seems to have improved his French since ‘Manon’ – though having a native speaker writing the lyrics is always an advantage. Initially they did try to translate it, but it sounded a bit too silly – Le Roi De Fourmis means ‘King of the Ants’ and the song’s wordplay would be lost in translation, leaving only a series of bizarre non-sequitors. There is a brief English spoken-word section though, and he manages to fit in a bit of ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma.

The recording was fine – a good performance, a little slight (as covers tend to be) but a bold step forward anyway. The release, however, didn’t go as planned. As with anything Polnareff-related, it was beset by legal issues (which may also explain it’s non-inclusion on the His ‘n’n Hers deluxe edition), and wasn’t released until 1999, and then only in France. Sometimes there’s no harm in something being a little difficult to find, though, and in this case the unearthed treasure is far from disappointing.

#14 – What Do You Say?

4 Feb

What Do You Say? (youtube)

What Do You Say on Pulpwiki

On the 7th of August 1981, after three intermittent years of existence, Pulp found themselves in a semi-detached council house in Handsworth, belonging to car mechanic Ken Patten. By all accounts it was fairly typical for a council house occupied by a couple in their mid 50s – tidy, polite and suburban, no shoes allowed on the carpet – apart from the fact that it doubled up as a recording studio, going by the name of “Studio Electrophonique.” Guitars were set up in the living room, the mixing deck was in the kitchen, and upstairs in the master bedroom was a room for live performance, equipped with a Simmons electric drum kit (a real drum kit would’ve been too noisy for Ken’s wife to bear.) This strange space was the closest thing Sheffield had to a professional recording studio, and therefore boasted early recordings of artists like The Future (who later became The Human league) and Vice Versa (who later became ABC.)
That day, Pulp recorded four tracks. Three would end up being re-recorded for the John Peel session later that year, and one of those three would make it to their debut album nearly two years later. “What Do You Say,” the remaining track, was released early in 1982 on the compilation “Your Secret’s Safe With Us” – Pulp’s first appearance on vinyl, and their earliest full recording in circulation.

1981 was an odd time for the music scene in Sheffield. In the late 70s post-punk boom acts like Cabaret Voltaire and 2.3 had taken the “anyone can do it” attitude and used it to create sounds more jarring and original than any “punk” band in London. Cleaned up, popularised, Sheffield bands would go on to create much of the sounds of the 80s. By ’81, former stars like the aforementioned Human League and ABC had travelled south, now on major labels, ready to break into the big time. The acts who remained sounded darker, nastier, harder. To me it sounds like a funny time to be joining a scene – like arriving at a party too late, when everyone is sleepy or belligerently drunk – and a fun band with upbeat songs about Shakespeare, Martians and crabs must have seemed out of step.
‘What do You Say?’ is a step towards the consensus. It doesn’t sound particularly like Artery or The Comsat Angels, but more like a much faster version of something off The Cure’s second LP ‘Seventeen Seconds’, one of the albums which started the goth movement. As we will see with the next few tracks, the band seemed to be playing with every different post-punk sound they could find, and this is perhaps the most straightforwardly post-punk of all.
It might not be particularly original, but it’s really not that bad. The melody itself is quite simple, but each note of Jarvis and Dolly’s guitar lines echos both backwards and forwards, overlapping and intertwining to produce a wall of jangling, stuttering pulses. Holding it together there’s Jamie Pinchbeck’s underlying jerking, pushy bass rhythm, allowed its own brief solo, and a basic 1-2-1-2-drum-fill rhythm from the band’s new drummer, 15-year old Wayne Furniss, who was finding it hard getting to grips with his first electric drum set. Everyone sounds like they’re just barely able to keep time with each-other, but somehow the whole thing holds together.
The lyrics, meanwhile, are pretty much textbook sci-fi horror stuff.

Woke up in the morning
Raised my head still yawning
Well I was in for a surprise
Stumbled to the mirror
Realised in horror
The face that stared back wasn’t mine

A little clunky, yes, with slightly forced rhymes and an extra syllable in “realised” needed to make the line scan, but novel enough a concept to make the song stand out. Unfortunately it doesn’t really go anywhere from there, the remainder of the song being spent exploring fruitlessly the different angles he can take on the problem – the protagonist’s “sudden facial change” (to rhyme with “strange”) is not noticed by anyone else, he is concerned that he’s now a ‘stranger’ (to rhyme with ‘danger’) and in the end we finish with

And so I rest my case
I don’t want another’s face

Fortunately the lyrics are not that important here, the sound is the main thing. This was, after all, one of the tracks that convinced John Peel to grant the group a session, but more on that later.

For those that are interested in the Sheffield post-punk scene, I would recommend Made In Sheffield, and Beats Working For A Living, a DVD and book which tell the story in detail. You can find them on the sidebar to the right of the page. If you don’t have time for those, I’ve made a mix to introduce the music of the time. Made In Sheffield describes it as “the birth of electronic pop” – which is (perhaps) right, but the story is a good deal more strange and interesting than that. You can listen here – http://lastnightadjkilledmydog.libsyn.com/meanwhile-in-sheffield-part-1-1977-1981 – just click the ‘pod’ button