Tag Archives: dark sixties ballad

#74 – They Suffocate At Night

2 Feb

Video for tsan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#63 – There’s No Emotion

17 Nov

There’s No Emotion (Freaks, 1987)
There’s No Emotion (Live film, 10th July 1985 – Gotham City Club, Fascinations Nitespot, Chesterfield)
There’s No Emotion at Pulpwiki

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The word ‘mannered’ has acquired quite a pejorative status in arts criticism; worse than “self-conscious”, not as bad as “pretentious.” Freaks is, by anyone’s reckoning, a spectacularly mannered album, but surprisingly this isn’t always to its detriment. The former members of The Wicker Players were still in some ways a theatrical act, and being stylised and affected was in a sense their raison d’être. Fighting against it just seemed to lead to still-born lounge act sincerity – so why not go with the flow instead?

To see what I mean, just compare Life Must Be So Wonderful with There’s No Emotion. Jarvis’s strained croon, having proved itself unsuitable for soul-baring honesty, sounds altogether more fitting for the drama described here. After all, where better to sound false than a song about losing all feeling? Taking the lyrics on face value they seem to be tragic, but with this sort of treatment “no emotion” sounds more like a liberating concept.

It wouldn’t be entirely fair to say that Jarvis is on top form here though. The croon is absurdly limiting at times, and there are moments when it sounds like his voice is about to crack. He simply hasn’t got the chops to pull it off. Fortunately Candida’s utterly lovely harmonies on the chorus pull the vocal back from the brink, and by the “holding hands” section Jarvis has ridden the scales up to break into his natural range, though he does have a few unfortunate dips afterwards.

The rest of the group also sound like they are giving things their best shot. There’s some nice understated country guitar (of all things) leading us off, and though things do seem to sag and plod a little towards the middle, there follows a quite lovely little instrumental break and the climax leaves everything on the best possible note, all things considered.

In a wonderful little muttered aside Jarvis declares that “this is where the story starts” and launches into one of the best passages on the album. “Holding hands that hold you forever” – how better to sum up this wretched relationship, the safety of being a prisoner? Forget the melodramatic declaration of dead hearts – this is honesty. He needs to get out, but he doesn’t know the way and he’s scared. Great stuff.

#62 – Life Must Be So Wonderful

10 Nov

Life Must Be So Wonderful (Freaks, 1987)
Life Must Be So Wonderful at Pulpwiki

“I was in the middle of the first proper relationship I’d had. I’d gone into this terrible depression of finding out what relationships were really like, but not knowing how to deal with it – you go out with somebody for six months and spend another eighteen trying to split up. All in all, I was not a happy person.” – Jarvis Cocker, Record Collector, December 1994

There’s an odd contradiction at the heart of ‘Freaks’ era Pulp. On one hand there are soul-crushing brutally honest songs about a disastrous relationship, and on the other hand total radio silence (outside of the lyrics) as to even the most basic details of what that relationship was. Who was Jarvis’s girlfriend? What went wrong? For better or worse, this information is not in the public domain, and we have to respect their privacy. With songs like this, though, you do have to wonder what is left to be revealed. Everything’s going wrong, they’re both stuck and destroying each-other, but unable to end it.

This is Jarvis’s torch ballad – an agonized cry of pain from a relationship gone horribly wrong – or at least that’s what it should be, but the flesh is weak where the spirit is willing. There are moments where it almost works – the section starting with “now all our dreams melt in the sun” in particular sounds passionate and sincere, but there are as many moments where everything falls flat. The danger with this kind of exposure is looking ridiculous, but this isn’t the problem in this case. While you can’t doubt the truth in the words, the performance is undeniably poor.

The main culprit here is Jarvis’s voice. The lounge singer croon he adopted in the 80s was useful when grimly intoning the likes of ‘Blue Glow’, but extending it to the range needed for this kind of performance seems to be way beyond his capabilities. Even bearing this in mind, you’ve got to think “wasn’t there time to get a better take?” – but that’s all we have. Fortunately the croon was dropped for a higher range by the end of the decade – a range that let Jarvis perform vocal acrobatics with ease.

The rest of the band aren’t helping things either. Candida contributes a slightly out of tune organ and irritating little stabs of tinny keyboard when the song should be rising to a climax. A half-hearted guitar strums away, but adds very little – at one point breaking out into the most non-solo solo of all time. The only member on form is Magnus, whose complex jazz drum patterns strike exactly the right note.

Underneath all of this, there is a great song straining to get out, perhaps the greatest of the 80s ballads, but it takes a patient ear to hear it under the poor performance and muddy production. It sounds like a failed first take, an opportunity for the clarity of studio equipment to allow the group to see the song’s flaws and rethink it. Time and money were short, however, and this is all we’ve got. Does anyone want to have a try at making a decent quality remake?

#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.

#48 – Don’t You Know

4 Aug

Don’t You Know (Sudan Gerri Demo)
Don’t You Know (Freaks)
Don’t You Know at Pulpwiki

Another entry in the list of dark sixties ballads here – but this one is less warped, almost cheerful, and sounding positively like a pop song when contrasted with the other nightmares on the second side of Freaks.

You can look at Don’t You Know either as a potential classic narrowly averted, or as a mediocre demo, polished up into something fairly good at the last moment. That second view seems to be the one held by the band at the time. An early demo isn’t particularly promising, and the song had been out of the band’s set for two years by the time Freaks was recorded.

This version (from the Sudan Gerri tape) is the rougher by far, with a strummy 80s garage rock feel. Lacking some of the more subtle touches added later, it instead features Magnus thrashing about on his drums at double the speed of the rest of the band, like Animal from The Muppets.

The finished version on Freaks, on the other hand, is all sweetness and light. While the different members of the band sound like they’ve got entirely different ideas about what sort of song this is, the production ties them together almost seamlessly. It’s a bit of a surprise for the production to save a song on an album largely spoiled by poor production, but it’s not a typical Freaks song we’re dealing with here. The main improvement in this version is Candida. Her chiming oriental piano transforms the first half of the chorus utterly, and her three note piano riff pretty much defines the song. In the bridge she even gets to perform a short solo which sounds almost like a snatch of Chinese classical music.

The only real let-down in the song is Jarvis. Lyrically the song is, as Owen Hatherly puts it, a “mediation on dependency and futility”, but it’s a fairly half-hearted one, lacking the insight of ‘I Want You’. The only conclusion reached in the end is that love is hard and it can break you, a true enough statement but one which doesn’t require a master lyricist. His main problem, though, is in the vocal take, which is frankly less than satisfactory. The first line of the chorus is slightly out of step with the rest of the tune, and is so flat that Jarvis ends up speaking it rather than attempting to sing. Then in the second half of the chorus he decides to put himself through all manner of vocal gymnastics, but rather than expressing passion (as was presumably intended) they just sound strained and unnatural.

#47 – Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)

28 Jul

Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)
Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) live on ‘The White Room’, 1995
Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) at Pulpwiki

“It was after seeing a picture of my mum, getting out of her wedding car, and realising she was only twenty when she got pregnant and had to get married. She was at art college, but gave it up to have me.”
Jarvis Cocker, Record Collector, 1994

“My mother’s eyes are actually hazel.”
Jarvis Cocker, Mother, Brother, Lover, 2011

Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) is not a song about Jarvis’s mother. It’s just about someone very much like her. It’s not an uncommon story after all; young, artistic girl with hopes and dreams finds herself pregnant at a young age, forced into a loveless marriage, crushed by the rules of society and the law of unintended consequences before she’s even had a chance to find out how the world works. This is no melodrama, it has no need to be when (as Thoreau put it) “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It’s hardly a kitchen sink drama either – there’s no anger or kicking back here, the girl is simply crushed, literally in the last verse.

Little Girl was famously “banned” from being played on the radio by Radio Hallam’s Richard Tandy, and it’s easy to see why. Even on a hundredth listen there’s still something fundamentally shocking about it – and not just the dark croon of “…and one between your legs” either. This focus upon one girl’s ruined life seems voyeuristic, particularly in the way each line features first a statement and then an (often withering) comment. Owen Hatherley puts it like this:

“You wonder, not for the first time, whether the song’s protagonist is an observer of the woman’s plight or a participant; while the song is deeply sympathetic, there’s not much doubt that the man in it is fully implicated.”
Owen Hatherley, ‘Uncommon’, 2011.

Another possibility is that the second voice is the girl talking to herself. The call-response structure of the lyrics could be an internal monologue – the little girl afflicted by self-doubt, judging herself at every turn. Either way, the lyric is wracked with guilt. The father blames her (“look what you’ve done”), the world has no sympathy… who can she blame for this situation? At this point it’s interesting to note that the real little girl gave up her artistic ambitions because she was pregnant with the song’s author. Forget about the paintings, you’ve got to raise Jarvis? It’s enough to give a man a complex.

The creepiness of the track can also be traced to the new creative partnership of Jarvis and Russell. The two distinct voices in the song, whether viewed as ‘victim/abuser’ or ‘observer/interior monologue’ reflect the different approaches of its co-authors.

If I hadn’t been there, Little Girl would have been so soppy as to be unlistenable. My typical tactic was to tell Jarvis “stop being so bloody soft.”
Russell Senior in Truth & Beauty

Russell’s influence extends way beyond the lyrical content of the song. The note of menace in the verses chiefly comes from his queasy, slightly out of tune violin – from this point one of the lead instruments in the band’s new sound.

So far so good, but we’re still missing something here. Pulp’s first act in 1984 was to recruit Magnus Doyle’s flatmate to play bass, and now they added his sister Candida on keyboards. It was her first proper band, and she was playing their songs on their Farfisa, so you’d expect her impact to be minimal. Here, though, it’s anything but. Her breathy backing vocals on the verses and organ on the chorus are both perfectly pitched – oddly as the Farfisa had broken and she had to play a Crumar string synth.

The final person to thank is Simon Hinkler, returning as a producer. Demos and early live versions of Little Girl lack backing vocals and feature instead a clumsy crashing drum-beat on “hole in your heart.” Hinkler wisely ignored Jarvis’s demands for more reverb on the track, so while it’s still atmospheric it doesn’t sound as muddy as anything on “Freaks.”

A tour-de-force, then, and a wise choice of a first single from Fire. The song would, uniquely, remain an occasional part of their set well into the nineties, even while Jarvis was expressing nothing but disdain for the bulk of their eighties work.

#44 – I Want You

7 Jul

I Want You (‘Bad Maureen’ demo, 1984)
I Want You (‘Freaks’, 1987)
I Want You (Live, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 18th Dec 1994)
I Want You at Pulpwiki

A year on from ‘It’ Jarvis’s perspective on love has shifted considerably. Let’s take a look.

Before: “Am I loving the girl or the feeling I feel? Is it just the idea that I like or is it for real?”
After: “Now we’ve come to the end of it all, see it squirming, almost dead. No, you can’t leave, you can’t leave it to die here in pain, you’ve got to stamp upon its head.”

There’s plenty of horror and melodrama in Pulp’s early oeuvre, but this is the first time it’s not just an act or a game. Clearly 1983 saw Jarvis entering into a real relationship – and aren’t first relationships always that way? You’re expecting sweetness and light and everything turns out to be more complex and messy than you could ever imagine. This is a display of emotional masochism – love is a terrible, destructive thing, but he’s unable to resist it. Keeping her means ‘throwing himself away’, though later we find it’s not a surrender but mutually assured destruction First she must “fit in the space that I provide you” then soon we find he’ll “kill you in the end.” It’s dark stuff, verging on histrionic at times, but ultimately the vocal performance sells it. Recent live performances have really brought this home – Jarvis no longer sounds like he believes in this kind of love (quite naturally for a man in his late 40s) and replacing belief with vocal theatrics makes the whole thing sound forced and false.

Aside from first relationships, I Want You represents a couple of other firsts too – it’s the first of a series of dark sixties ballads that would characterise the next few years, and it’s the first we hear of Jarvis’s deep croon, a vocal style matched to these occasions. Unlike later examples, though, it has a subtle progression – as the vocals are often at a double rhythm to the beat you can barely notice the tempo and volume slowly building through the track. More lip-service is also paid to the source material here, with a Spector-esque ‘bom-bom-bom-bom’ backing vocal and a brief (though memorable) garage breakdown at the end.

The first recording of ‘I Want You’ was for the new Pulp’s first demo, recorded at Vibrasound studios in January 1984, before the band had even played in public. It’s a rough production, but one that suits the song more – everything sounds meaty and primitive, and the vocals have so much reverb they’re almost distorted – it brings to mind dusty footage of an obscure European music TV programme. The version of the song that appears on Freaks, while being more technically accomplished, sounds a bit weedy in comparison. The greatest loss is Magnus’s drums, which have been reduced from an ominous clatter to a weedy tin chirrup.

Though ‘I Want You’ has never really got the recording it deserved, it’s still obvious that something new and special is happening here, and that’s why it’s been resurrected so often as an oldie to play in encores, from 1994 to 1998 and even at a festival in Hungary in 2010.