Tag Archives: cover versions

#135 – Femme Fatale

10 Aug


Femme Fatale (Pulp, Black Session, 16 May 1994)
Femme Fatale (Velvet Underground & Nico)
Femme Fatale (Big Star)
Femme Fatale (R.E.M.)
Femme Fatale (Duran Duran)
Femme Fatale at Pulpwiki

“Andy said I should write a song about Edie Sedgwick. I said ‘Like what?’ and he said ‘Oh, don’t you think she’s a femme fatale, Lou?’ So I wrote ‘Femme Fatale’ and we gave it to Nico.” – Lou Reed

A “femme fatale” is a stock character; a dangerous, beautiful woman who lures men to their doom, a well-worn archetype of melodrama and fantasy. Edie Sedgwick was a woman whose short life seems to have contained little more than pain and suffering, who inspired famous men, only to be constantly sidelined and disposed of. Calling Edie Sedgwick a “femme fatale” seems either wilfully cruel or hopelessly naïve. Since it’s Warhol we’re talking about, we have to charitably assume the latter. Lou Reed, for better or worse, (probably better), went with the flow, composing a song based on a childlike fantasy of adult relationships, then handed it to Nico, the one person who could sing it with utter seriousness.

The Velvet Underground might have been groundbreaking and original, but at the same time they were another underground band from the sixties, and underground bands from the sixties are allowed to get away with things that wouldn’t fly a decade earlier or later. The original Femme Fatale is great in its way, but only because it conjures up a spell with its strange sincerity. Cover versions since seem at best superfluous, and more often miss the point entirely. REM tackle it head-on, and just sound uncomfortable and silly. Duran Duran fit it better (they have much sillier lyrics of their own of course), but their version is garish and grating, and in no way good either. Big Star did a better job in making it sound utterly generic, but no points are easily won there either.

In their defence, Pulp never released their cover of Femme Fatale – it was a one-off thing for the Black Sessions, and was never revisited. Clearly it’s a popular song with the group as they are able to make a decent stab at replicating the original’s mechanical doll magic and that warm guitar sound. They don’t really get there, of course, but it’s a brave attempt. The only real slip-up is in the vocal. You can’t really blame Jarvis, a female voice is really needed here, and the backing vocals are missing completely, which only serves to highlight how essential they are. The melody is a bit too slight, too, and Jarvis seems only semi-committed to performing it, unsure whether to sing or speak.

So, what can we elicit from this? Mainly that there is a thread – albeit a small one – that connects Pulp and The Velvet Underground – a desire to write about people, about everyday life, a fondness for songs that tell a story, a desire to create pictures with sound and words. The recording itself is an interesting-enough curio, but it’s a dead end they didn’t need to explore any further.

#112 – The Night

19 Oct

Frankie Valli

Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons – The Night
Pulp – The Night
Lene Lovich – The Night
Klaxons – The Night
The Night at Pulpwiki

“This song invents Pulp right?”
– commenter Nabisco on Ich Lüge Bullets.

Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons; the great survivors of pop music, the only American group to have hits before, during and after the Beatles, and yet they don’t get the respect that others do. Perhaps it was the timing of their arrival – too late for the rockers, too early for the hippies, perhaps the falsetto vocals are a little too easy to mock, perhaps surviving as a long-running musical isn’t really cool, or perhaps it’s a lack of engagement with the politics, the drugs, the counter-culture, the general experimentation of the 60s. As the vocal group hall of fame website puts it, they were “too cornball and clean-cut.”

Keeping them in this “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” cliché misses out an important chapter in the group’s history, though – the late 60s, when artists as mainstream as Kenny Rogers played with psychedelia. The Four Seasons tried variations on the subcultural theme, releasing Dylan covers under a pseudonym, writing an attempt at a socially conscious concept LP, and finally signing for Motown – a move that proved commercial suicide for one reason or another. A few years later, when the group had moved back to more mainstream sounds and had entered a new wave of success, northern soul DJs discovered US promos of Motown-era promo-only single ‘The Night’ and it proved enough of a club hit for Motown to decided to put out a proper single in 1974, turning a rejected single from a failed album into a UK top ten hit.

It’s easy to see why it was a hit, and a little less easy to see why Motown kept it on the shelves for so long. Instead of the falsettos there’s a darkly intoned, ice-cold vocal singing superbly crafted, metered lyrics about a smooth man-about-town with a hidden dark side, and the massed forces of Motown’s finest session musicians backing them. The bassline in particular sounds like it’s a good twenty years ahead of its time.

The group having moved on, the case for ‘The Night’ had to be made by DJs, compilers, curators – and other artists, who often fill all of these roles. Above you can hear three alternate versions of the song; by Lena Lovich, who draws out the threatening lyrics, by Klaxons, who pump up the bassline, and by Pulp, who exploit the themes and movements of the song, turning it into something they could almost have written themselves.

It was only a one-off cover version for The Black Sessions, a French radio programme, but considering this it’s pretty well-accomplished. It sounds like a synthesis of the synth-drenched His ‘n’ Hers era and the more mainstream rock sounds of This Is Hardcore. Candida is well on form, and Steve does a decent job on the bassline too. The rest of the band, including Jarvis, are just ok, but bearing in mind it’s a single-shot effort, it’s remarkably successful.