Tag Archives: death

#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.

#126 – Have You Seen Her Lately?

15 Feb


Have You Seen Her Lately? (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film, Glastonbury 1994)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film, Paris 2012)
Have You Seen Her Lately? at Pulpwiki

“First you let him in your bed
Now he’s moved inside your head
And he directs all the dreams you are dreaming”

If Seconds was an ultimately optimistic portrayal of the messy compromises life throws your way, then Have You Seen Her Lately? is perhaps its evil twin. Instead of empathy we have sympathetic despair and a hopeless wailing and gnashing of teeth towards a lost cause. Instead of acceptance of the drama life throws at us we have the inevitability of death, and the death of dreams, of hope.

Once again Jarvis’s ex is in the arms of another man, but this time he’s taking it much worse. From his perspective (and as the title reminds us, he has corroboration) the new boyfriend is a bad move all round. He’s insecure (“Do you think he’ll fall apart?”), immature (“It’s time to teach him how to walk”), a burden (“a piece of luggage that you should throw away”) and somehow hugely dangerous (“He’s already made such a mess of your life”). Her relationship with him is akin to the joining of a suicide cult – she’s already been brainwashed and this is her last chance to get out before it’s too late.

If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit extreme then that’s fair enough. This song is decidedly not coming from a rational or logical place – it’s a desperate last-grasp for redemption, and Jarvis sounds more like a lonesome ghost returning to whisper dire warnings in his old lover’s ear than a human giving advice. That’s the way they play it too; singer, band and producer conspire to turn this plea into one of the oddest, but most consistent pop songs around.

From that first out of tune organ sound onward, everything about ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’ sounds sickly. In Emile Zola’s novel La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret a young priest drives himself into a life-threatening fever through excessive worship of the Virgin Mary, and this illness has the same sort of feel. It’s utterly religious and oddly asexual – the end-point of the group’s romantic tendency when all goals and desires are rendered useless. It’s another Ed Buller symphony, but this time it’s all a little too overwhelming. The verses are normal enough, I suppose, but the chorus is essentially one long, resigned wail, and toward the close of the track the song takes you back to the haunted music room of ‘Blue Girls’ – a wistful, deeply sad anti-nostalgia, something we might call ‘hauntology’ if it were made today.

I’m impressed by ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’ – it’s hard not to be by such a powerful piece of music – but I’m still not sure if I actually enjoy it. With earlier ballads what was required was a suspension of disbelief, but here it’s more like a willingness to go with the core idea, and I don’t know if I can do that. Ultimately I don’t trust the narrative of this relationship – the singer is too involved to present a clear picture, and there’s a lingering suspicion that he has his own selfish, desperate romantic instincts underlying his argument. Is the girl too weak, too pathetic to realise her situation, if it’s really so bad? If so, why does he want to win her back so badly? Does she not have her own free will, to join with or even follow whoever she chooses? There’s something that doesn’t quite sit right, and I just can’t shake it. This may all be deliberate, it may be that I’m missing something, but all the same it stops me diving in and going with the flow, and that’s a shame.

#97 – She’s Dead

29 Jun

She’s Dead (Separations, 1992)
She’s Dead at Pulpwiki

“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” – Amanda in Private Lives (1930), Noël Coward

A step back here, or a step forward, or both at the same time, or maybe neither. We’re back into the death ballads again, but of a different sort, grand and epic like ‘Happy Endings’, but celebrating cheap sounds more than even ‘Separations’.

Before I continue, though, it’s time for a confession. I don’t really get She’s Dead. I’ll agree that it’s perfectly lovely, in parts at least, but it generally leaves me cold, and at five minutes long it even bores me at times. I have been known to skip it. Usually when a track induces simultaneous revulsion and attraction I’ll be able to come down on one side or another sooner or later, but with She’s Dead this odd feeling lingers.

This seems to puts me in a minority. Of all the entries in the Pulp catalogue, this seems to be one of the prime choices to wax lyrical about, and as I’m not able to do this myself, why not let others lead the way? I find reading these descriptions more evocative than listening to the song itself.

“The band’s not at the point yet where they can afford a real string section, but the synthesized backing just makes the song more poignant, symbolic of something that’s nearly obtainable, but just out of reach.” – Mike at Music From A Bachelor’s Den

“Low-budget magnificence, the best of the Separations ballads, swoonsome and beautiful and horrible all at once. It cries out for a full orchestra to play out the unspeakably lovely coda, but perhaps that would ruin it; it’s prettier with the crying left on.” – Stéphane Devereux at Bar Italia

“Here, a chorus of cheap synthesisers… …creates a charity shop requiem, rendering all but unbearable this tale of death in a northern town, with the overtones of kitsch not toyed with, as so many lesser lights would, but embraced – here, Jarvis is heaven’s own mobile disco crooner.” – Owen Hatherley, Uncommon.

I love cheap-sounding music, but weepy ballads have always been difficult to take seriously. Difficult isn’t impossible, though, and descriptions like the above can make me imagine a song I like much more than the real thing – one that doesn’t challenge my suspension of disbelief quite so much. There are a couple of things that throw my attention off-track.

The first is the similarity to Bobby Goldsboro’s ‘Honey’. If the name seems unfamiliar, then go ahead and listen to it. Consistently voted one of the worst songs of all-time due to its unreasonable level of straight-faced schmaltz, I sort of like it. The strangeness of the lyrics (cited as the reason for its supposed terribleness) just adds to the charm. When Tony Blackburn split with his wife in the 1970s he had an on-air breakdown, playing the song over and over again. It’s cheesy as hell, but it’s sincere with it, and I like that it can affect someone that much. That’s not all it has in common with She’s Dead. In fact, the song is so similar that it’s a wonder lawyers haven’t been involved at any point. Just listen to the moment when he sings “And honey, I miss you” and compare to “You know that she’s leaving…”

The other connection that comes to mind is a perhaps less obvious one. In 1989 my family bought a VCR and taped pretty much every Children’s film over that Christmas, and I and my sister watched those films again and again until we left home. One of my favourites was Time Masters, an English-language dub of René Laloux’s ‘Les Maîtres du temps’. It’s an odd cartoon, to say the least, a series of ponderous semi-connected sci-fi events wrapped up by the king of all deus ex machina, but disturbing and beautiful throughout. The soundtrack is comprised of banks of similarly unironic cheap synths, producing an effect much like She’s Dead does. That moment after ‘she’s leaving’ where the keyboards swell to a climax, yes, it’s beautiful, but again it reminds me too much of the closing of the film. It’s a pleasant memory, and I’m happy to be reminded of it, but I end up spending the rest of the song just waiting for this one moment, and the rest just pales in comparison.

Pulp had not given up on sad ballads, of course, each album seems to have at least one. You could even venture a guess that it was the one form that persisted through every phase of the band. In the 90s, though, we’ll see them move a little off centre-stage, and I’m afraid to say I don’t really mind.

#96 – Death II

22 Jun

Death II (Separations, 1992)
Death II (Live Video, The Leadmill, Sheffield, 16th March 1991)
Death II at Pulpwiki

“Night clubs just seemed like the most hellish situation on the world, but it was attractive, because it was so alienating, and that’s what a death club is; it’s just like a night club, it’s like; ‘how can I be in a situation like this where you’re pounded by music and only a consumer?’ I mean you’re a consumer at a gig, but you’re making a choice to go and see it, to interact with it in a way, but going to a club at the time seemed to me like being trapped in an elevator in the fucking circus.”
John McKeown of The Yummy Fur talking about The Career Saver.

If we reduce ‘Separations’ to its constituent parts, as has been done for a series of cash-in compilations, what do we get? Just Countdown and My Legendary Girlfriend, of course (though Love Is Blind might occasionally get a look in). Usually when there are two hits on an album full of the soon-forgotten, they’ll be top-loaded, perhaps with one on each side, and it seems a little bloody minded to keep the listener waiting until side B for them before putting them next to each-other. It does, work, of course, but there’s a casualty, and it’s called ‘Death II’.

of course, it’s the song’s fault as much as anything – for all its qualities (and there are many) it simply doesn’t have the hook – anyone can hum “my legendary girlfriend, she is crying again” or “I was seventeen when I heard the countdown start…”, but ask them to repeat something from ‘Death II’ and nothing comes to mind except possibly that ‘distorted and sharply gated Portasound arpeggio’ at the start. This, and the fact that it’s lumbered with a working title (Death I being ‘Death Comes To Town’ and Death III being ‘Countdown’) seem to indicate that the song was unfinished at the point of recording.

This isn’t to say the song is sub-par though – in fact, quite the opposite. This unfinishedness give the group – and especially producer Alan Smyth – scope to transform what could have been just another rehashing of old themes into a club hit – one with a soul and a (somewhat messy) narrative as well as a thumping futuristic disco beat. The lyrics are a bit of a curate’s egg, having a fantastic opening – “Now the lonely nights begin / And there is nowhere else to go / But watch my spirit melt away / Down at the D.I.S.C.O.”* – which quickly becomes lost in a sea of familiarly opaque longings for a lost love. It’s a story told from a bed, flitting memories and desires preventing the protagonist from sleeping. From time to time, it’s expressed as a physical yearning, prefiguring ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’ and ‘Sheffield: Sex City’, at times flipping to an equally physical revulsion – but the pieces don’t quite fit together yet. Still, it’s far from being a failure.

Where Death II really comes alive is with the music, and specifically the production. Aside from Jarvis’s vocal, the track is almost entirely synthesised, and the delineation of labour indicated on the album sleeve is possibly meaningless. Smyth is the uncredited band member here, playing snatches of keyboard, gating, sequencing, stitching it all together, and later live performances attempt to recreate the studio version rather than the other way round. The results are nothing short of great – even the usually cheap-sounding Portasound here appears to be startlingly professional, the banks of heavenly synths are laid with a careful hand, and the whole thing has a dangerous, growling, funky air to it. Electro-pop Pulp is here, and Jesus Christ, it’s about time.

As for what it has to do with death, well, yeah, your guess is as good as mine.

*This, if anything is what people seem to take from the song – a quick search reveals a score of people describing Death II as “Pulp’s ‘How Soon Is Now?'” – which isn’t really the whole story.

#95 – Death Goes to the Disco

15 Jun

Nuremberg chronicles - Dance of Death (CCLXIIIIV)

Death Goes To The Disco (from ‘Countdown’ single, 1991)
Death Goes To The Disco at Pulpwiki

“To tell the truth I didn’t like house. I did not like house. Jack-jack-jack your body, all that, I thought it sounded like [sigh] look, I’m a producer in a 24-track studio, I know how to operate all this, I’m pioneering sampling, I could probably produce [ponders] say, a Frankie Goes To Hollywood record and that wouldn’t have been a sweat. Technologically I’m up there at that time. House sounded like what my 12-year-old kid had been messing about with when he’s just strung two or three bits of equipment together. It felt like there was no skill in it, it was just vibe by itself, and I thought ‘woah, you can put skill in it as well, surely?’ And then I heard techno, as opposed to house – I remember being in this place and saying to DJ Parrot “what’s this? What’s this music??” I said “we’ve been here all night, listening to all this crap house, and as you know I hate house, but this record, who’s made this??” And he said “Derrick May.”Rob Gordon of FON & Warp.

It all started with Chakk, an “industrial funk” band that emerged at the tail-end of the Sheffield musical explosion of the late 70s and early 80s. They had an indie hit, “Out Of The Flesh”, and a Peel Session, and with a dearth of other sellable talent from the city, found themselves with a few major label talent scouts sniffing around them. A familiar story all-round then, but with an odd twist. Instead of moving down to London and spending their advance on drugs and girls, they insisted on staying in Sheffield, and had MCA build a recording studio for them. Only five years before, Sheffield had nothing more advanced than Ken Patten’s front room, and now it had a state-of-the-art recording space, in the hands of forward-thinking musicians.

Of course, the Chakk story didn’t work out with them becoming international stars. Their album was rejected by MCA for having ‘no hits’, and nobody was happy with the re-recorded version that eventually made it out shortly before the band split for good. FON studios (“Fuck Off Nazis”) lived on, though. Towards the end of their time there, Chakk had joined forces with Rob Gordon, a studio electronics expert who had taken a sideways step from the world of reggae soundsystems. With the band gone, he became the in-house producer. At first the results were something less than sonically revolutionary, the debut release being from early Richard Hawley group Treebound Story. Soon, however, the studio was producing pop records like the first Yazz album and (despite Gordon’s initial misgivings) sample-based music like Krush’s ‘House Arrest’, which got to number 3 in the charts in late 1987, paving the way for the house boom of the following year.

The other side of FON records was a small record shop set up by Chakk’s manager, Amrik Rai. While new things were going on up in the studio, the shop was still stuck in the industrial funk past until Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett were recruited to give it an overhaul. Though they were both from the city’s indie scene – having played in Lay of the Land with Steven Havenhand before he joined Pulp – they knew which way the wind was blowing, and before long the shelves were filled with Detroit and Chicago techno and Trax Records releases.

When Rob Gordon recorded the pioneering “Track With No Name” with DJs Parrot & Winston (calling themselves Forgemasters to reflect the industrial city they came from), Mitchell and Beckett decided to join forces with him and start a record label in order to get it released. After coming up with the names Big Bass, Deep Groove and Twisted Records, they finally settled first on “Warped Records”, then on “Warp.” Their second release – Nightmares on Wax’s “Dextrous” – sold around 30,000 copies, third release ‘Testone’ moreorless defined the new Sheffield bleep sound, and by the end of the 80s they found themselves at the very apex of electronic music.

And against this backdrop, there was Pulp – another set of veterans from the Sheffield scene, similarly burned by a record company, beginning to take an interest in electronic music. It was only late 1987, though, Steve was yet to join, and Jarvis was yet to go to any raves – the major electronic factor in their sound still being that old Portasound. And that’s what makes ‘Death Goes To The Disco’ such a puzzle.

On the surface it’s just a ‘house’ remix of Death Goes To Town, produced at the tail-end of their second FON session. At first it doesn’t sound like a radical re-working – a bit of echo here, an 808 trill there – but on closer analysis something about the track has fundamentally shifted. The song has been hacked apart and reassembled behind a steady Jive Bunny / Stars on 45 backbeat, which miraculously glues the thing together perfectly. Still, things proceed normally enough until three and a half minutes in, when we drop into an unfiltered chunk of house. It’s not perfect by any means, but considering the time it was recorded (prior to Krush’s House Arrest for example) it’s pretty astonishing to the extent that the cut back to the song itself is a little disappointing.

Who put this section together? I can’t believe anyone in the group knew enough about house music so early on, but the remix is on the original tape and not part of the remix session for the single version of Countdown as I initially suspected. Perhaps there’s some alternate dimension where Pulp emerged from the gloom of the 80s metamorphosed into a dance act, as Underworld did. But, once again, the song was not released by FON. Lay of the Land had supported Pulp, and Rob and Steve were still fans, so Warp would prove to be much more pro-active – a few years later, as the group found themselves entangled in immense legal troubles, a sub-label would be created just for the release of their singles.

By that point Death Goes To The Disco had already found it’s way out – released as the B-side to Countdown, and thereafter featured on all manner of compilations, from the annoying chronologically-backwards ‘Countdown 1992-1983’ in ’96 to the wishful thinking of ‘Pulp Goes To The Disco’ in ’98 – an attempt to cobble the group’s most ‘Disco’ tracks (including remixes) together into a dance LP which is marginally successful until they run out of material after seven tracks and throw on Love is Blind / The Mark of the Devil / Master of the Universe to pad out the running time. Classy move, Fire, well done.

#94 – Death Comes to Town

8 Jun

All Is Vanity

Death Comes To Town – FON Demo, December 1987 (Mix 1)
Death Comes To Town – FON Demo, December 1987 (Mix 2)
Death Comes To Town at Pulpwiki

Welcome to “death month” at Freaks, Mis-Shapes, Weeds. Over the course of the next four entries we’ll be looking at one of the main themes of Separations; DEATH, whether real, emotional, spiritual, or – as here – personified as a seductive ladies man. These weren’t the only examples either – we’ve already covered ‘Down By The River’ – and Countdown was originally titled ‘Death III’. Given that the dictionary definition of ‘morbid’ is “having an unusual interest in death or unpleasant events” you might expect a corollary of this to be that Jarvis was miserable / melodramatic / a goth. But no – actually we’re going to see the topic treated with lightness, humour and sensitivity throughout – not as an obsession, but as a springboard to discuss all manner of topics until Jarvis truly found his writing feet a year or two later – a process which it actively helped with.

Like many others I spent years listening to Death Goes To The Disco without truly getting what it was about. Of course, it wasn’t on an official album, so I wasn’t able to disobey the instruction not to read the lyrics while listening to the recording. It sounded very much like the bravado of Master Of The Universe, mixed up with the sex of My Legendary Girlfriend, but somehow I failed to make the connection between the title and the lyrics. It took Owen Hatherley’s book to spell it out to me, and he did the job well enough that I can’t do any better than to quote him directly:

“Listened to casually… …the song seemed to be matter of vengeful copulation, taken to the point of ridiculousness, much as you’d hear in a Different Class song like ‘Pencil Skirt’. It takes place in a similar space, as our protagonist ‘stalks these yellow-lit cul-de-sacs at night’, but – as you realise on third or fourth listen – the protagonist is death himself, and when he’s ‘taking’ all these people, he’s not showing them a good time. ‘I want your body and I want your soul’, he cries, but this revenge fantasy is more Carrie than Room At The Top”

It’s a neat conceit, isn’t it? A joke that reveals rather than reinforces, one that doesn’t need to spell itself out – morbid, yes, but with a redeeming deadpan cabaret sense of humour.

Of course, backing all this up, we have something even more special – Pulp for the first time fully in their disco phase. There had been talk before, of course, portasound rhythms and disco beats abound on the songs of this era, but up until this point the group’s jamming process had served to make things either more conventional or weirder by the time they were ready for public consumption. With Death Comes To Town there’s a sense that you could really dance to its syncopated disco rhythm. When Jarvis and Russell half-jokingly wondered whether they “might get thrown off the label when they hear our new stuff” this was presumably what they were talking about. Disco was still not cool in indie circles, but thankfully quite different attitudes were present at FON, where (as we’ll see very soon) some of the dance music of the present was in gestation.

The previous session had yielded two tracks, but this time they focussed on getting one just right. Three different mixes have emerged. The first sounds like it’s not quite cooked enough, the portasound allowed to dominate, mingled in with unusually timid violin from Russell, low-down guitar from Jarvis when Russell was unable to master the part. Still, the body of the thing is there, and it only sounds unfinished when compared with the other mixes. The version labelled ‘mix 2’ in the leaked demo has since then become semi-official with releases on the ‘Beats Working For A Living’ CD in 2005, and more recently as a bonus track on the remastered version of Separations. This mix not only adds all manner of production tricks – the vocals sounding brighter and more separated, layers of keyboard effects – but adds more sophisticated electronic beats subtly over the top, leading to a synth string crescendo on the final section, and a complex wall of sound production by the end. It’s still the same song, still has that slightly (deliberately) cheap air, but it’s suddenly a polished pop product.

The third mix has a different title, and we’ll be coming to that a little later.

Unfortunately things at FON went much the same way as they had with the abortive ‘Don’t You Want Me Anymore?’ single of the year before. By the time they had the money to actually put the single out, the band and the label had both moved on – though Warp subsidiary Gift Records will have a major role to play a little later on. Once again, it’s a shame the single was never released, that the group didn’t have this shot at impressing the world while their ideas were still fresh. Years later, with the FON demos leaked, and with the release of the remastered ‘Separations’, Death Goes To Town has gone from being a lost song to a fairly well-known one, so for once it seems like justice has been served.

#85 – Heart Trouble

13 Apr

Heart Trouble (Live at The Limit, Sheffield, 3/3/1987)
Heart Trouble at Pulpwiki

“This song’s about dying.” – on-stage introduction

On the 3rd of March 1987, in a nightclub in the basement of a disused Jeans factory / warehouse, a new group took to the stage for what Russell Senior had recently called a “multi-media cosmic tangerine experience” on local radio. The stage was bedecked with the usual rolls of kitchen foil, which must have done something at least to dispel the gloom of the place.

“At the end of its time it had enjoyed a sorry reputation for violence, drugs and sleaze. But the place was certainly legendary. The atmosphere inside was always dark and dingy, due to the insides being painted black, the roof was very low and there was always the smell of marijuana, which hit you as you went down the stairs. The carpet was very sticky, and Mark’s friends used to say that the only reason you didn’t bang your head on the roof was because you were stuck to the carpet. In fact the floor was in such a state, with spilled beer, that it seemed to be covered in tar. And the next morning you would find this horrible tar down the bottom of your trouser legs. All drinks glasses were plastic, due to the amount of glassing that had occurred in the past ( allegedly )” – from thewookie.co.uk

This group were a fair bit different from the one that had bowed out at The Leadmill the previous November*. The rhythm section were gone – off to India, or a regular job – and while Candida had returned to take the place recently vacated by the unreliable Captain Sleep, Magnus and Manners were gone for good, barring a bit of ‘additional programming’ and a famous stage invasion in the 1990s. The new bass player was Steven Havenhand, former singer for Lay Of The Land, a minor band on the local indie scene whose other members would go on to found Warp Records a few years later.

And on drums, Nick Banks – former member of Phono Industria, promoter for The Hallamshire Hotel, nephew of England goalkeeper Nick Banks, future proprietor of Banks Pottery and (of course) a member of Pulp for the rest of their natural lifespan. He had applied for the job after seeing an advert in The Leadmill, and instead of auditioning ended up going on a trek round the city to try to get rid of a pit bull terrier which had followed Jarvis home. The creature was dispatched over a fence, and since the ice had been broken and they got on well enough, he was accepted into the group before they’d even heard him play.

The gamble paid off. Magnus had been a great drummer, but his eccentric style would not have suited the new direction the group were about to take. Nick’s steady professionalism was what they really needed – though you wouldn’t guess it from the likes of ‘Heart Trouble’.

As a set opener for a comeback gig the song is nothing short of bizarre, not to say willfully aggravating. We start with a thumping drumbeat, which is supposed to replicate a palpitating, over-stimulated heart – a concept lifted wholesale from Madness’s ‘Cardiac Arrest’ – and a wheezing, stuttering thread of violin, simulating strained breathing. This is all acceptable, at first, as are the muffled lyrics about not fearing death, but forty seconds in, the violin line turns into what can only be described as a very unpleasant, almost ear-splitting noise, which continues for the remainder of the song. If that wasn’t enough, Jarvis’s vocals transition into some fairly challenging caterwauling – the sort they probably should’ve learned to avoid after the recording of ‘Silence’.

What must the audience have thought? Fortunately at two and a half minutes long there wasn’t enough time for the audience to decide to walk out of a concert they’d paid £1.50 to see (£1 for anyone with a UB40) – and as the song came to its unearned climax, without a pause the group launched into ‘Death Comes To Town’ – which must have come as a relief to all present. ‘Heart Trouble’ was dropped from the set soon after, and replaced by much more audience-friendly set-openers like ‘Love Is Blind’ and ‘Space’. The days of truly audience-challenging, avant-garde Pulp were over for good, and probably all for the best.

* In the meantime there had been an odd performance art piece about the devil coming to Sheffield, which had taken place at the Leadmill in January or February, but this seems to have been one of Jarvis’s side projects and not an official Pulp concert by any means.

#83 – Down By The River

30 Mar

Woman's body in river - from episode 1 of The Singing Detective

Down by The River (Separations, 1992)
Down by The River at Pulpwiki

“This is about… you may reject something, and then perhaps about six months later you might think “I wish I hadn’t done that,” and then you go back to the place where you threw it away, and it’s not there any more. Sickener.” – Jarvis, on stage at the Leadmill, 1986.

For the third time in under a decade, it was back to square one for Pulp – or at least time for a good slide down the ladder to the second or third row. Russell was still there, but Candida had left the group, in solidarity with her boyfriend and her brother. In her place there was a mysterious character called “Captain Sleep,” who failed to leave much of an impression on anyone – largely due to his habit of lying unconscious in a corner during conversations. Candida would, of course, be back, and soon too, but Magnus and Manners had been replaced by Nick Banks and Stephen Havenhand respectively. We will get to both of them shortly.

The actual music the group played was, at first, undergoing something more like evolution than revolution. There’s no great shift in direction like the one between, say, My Lighthouse and Maureen – more a series of stepping stones which can lead us steadily, in less than twenty songs, from the depths of obscurity to the birth of the pop group we know.

The first of these steps must be ‘Down By The River’ – a song the group were already performing before they’d even made ‘Freaks’, and which remained largely the same until it was recorded for ‘Separations’ three years later. Unusually for a first step, though, its innovations are partly hidden by its shortcomings. In the three year gap between albums Jarvis’s songwriting skills showed a great deal of progress, but this only serves to highlight the weakness of including an old song based on a macabre metaphor for the death of his relationship – a relationship by then long finished. It might have seemed like a fertile source of content at the time, but by this point the well was running dry, and he’s in danger of sounding like a stuck record. By 1989 everyone involved had moved on, but the song survived without a re-write, perhaps because the theme of death and nature-based imagery (and in particular rivers) were becoming increasingly important to the group. If you were feeling generous you could even point to the song as a forerunner of ‘Wickerman’.

As must be expected by now, this content is provided in the form of another waltz-time ballad. To start with, the song is fairly atmospheric, while not being particularly fun listening. There’s a slightly plodding intro with Candida’s standard fairground Farfisa and Jarvis’s improved low-key vocals, but then it slowly begins to build in drama. The little touches really make it – a strange Japanese robot vocoder voice apparently singing “now I know…” (the dead woman’s ghost?), and at it’s best moments, light touches of dramatic film-score rumbling strings. The danger, of course, is that it will veer off into melodrama, but thankfully Alan Smythe’s production keeps it low-key where it needs to be. By the end section, where we hear that “the river will stop for no-one”, it’s even built into something quite beautiful.

In spite of all this, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Down By The River is one of the weaker tracks on ‘Separations’. It’s a problem with context on the whole. If it had been part of the grab-bag of styles and ideas found on Freaks it might’ve stood up quite well. Placed at the end of side A, after three other slow ones, the temptation will always be there to skip straight to the future, in the shape of ‘Countdown’. If you’re expecting the best of both worlds it will also be a letdown. On its own terms though, it’s not that bad at all.

#67 – Manon

15 Dec

Manon (B-Side to ‘Master of the Universe’, March 1987 – recorded June 1985)
Manon (Video, October 1985)
Manon at Pulpwiki

We’ve seen plenty of odd decisions from Pulp in the 1980s, both creatively and commercially, but nothing comes close to the time and effort spent on the utter folly that is ‘Manon’. It was the subject of the group’s earliest available music video, chosen as a representative track on the ‘Imminent 4’ compilation on the fledgling Food Records, and finally dragged out of the archives as a b-side to the line-up’s final single, Master of the Universe. Accompanied there by the unremittingly awful ‘Silence’ it sounds, well, acceptable. But is ‘acceptable’ enough?

The concept is clear; another horrific tale of a relationship gone sour – only this time the woman is dead and the man can’t bring himself to properly dispose of her body, a bit like a melancholy version of Weekend At Bernie’s, then, only without any (intentional) comedy. The protagonist is called Manon, a name Jarvis had borrowed from a Serge Gainsbourg song of the same name, erroneously believing it to be male. His poor grasp of the language is further exposed in the final verse, where he outlines in mortifying schoolboy French that “Sa femme est morte – oui, c’est vrai.” – later he would comment that he “spoil[ed] it by speaking in French towards the end, which is embarrassing” – but his vocal performance throughout is also very much short of being something special, the melody requiring him to make sudden gulping leaps, which his artificially low baritone is unable to manage.

“Manon’ is not without its strengths. The tune itself, though dirge-like, has a certain mournful atmosphere, and without the vocals could conceivably be worked into something quite beautiful. Russell’s violin, sometime Achilles heel of the group, here fits the theme perfectly. You can imagine him as the poor deluded widower playing a requiem on his broken old fiddle. There’s no use talking about missed potential and hidden qualities, though. Manon simply isn’t enjoyable to listen to, and were it gone from the Pulp discography it’s unlikely that anyone would miss it.

#60 – Snow

27 Oct

Snow (Live at The Leadmill, Sheffield, Dec 1984)
Snow at Pulpwiki

Dark magic from a forgotten world here. Only one recording of ‘Snow’ survives – a deteriorated multi-generation tape copy of a live performance from December 1984 – but of the ‘lost’ 84/85 songs, it is easily the most fondly remembered, drawing near-universal praise from those who’ve managed to hear it. Does it stand up to this reputation then? Well, yes, but just about.

A windswept, plaintive but strangely aggressive song, ‘Snow’ sounds distinctly chilly in every way. Dominating the piece is Candida’s hauntological keyboard line – a ghostly relic of some 60s British sci-fi soundtrack. Jarvis mutters half-written lyrics in a rhythmic fashion, like Subterranean Homesick Blues or It’s The End Of The Words As We Know It – but without the confidence or enthusiasm of either of those, instead altering between flustered in the verses and dominating in the chorus. After a few cycles we enter a Supertramp-style prog rock space-race middle eight, followed by a shouted version of the chorus.

It should be hard to tell what a song is about with half the lyrics missing, but we’re in the land of emotional metaphors here, so it’s familiar territory. It’s all cold weather standing in for cold behaviour, and revelling in both – a choice to be out in the cold for the perverse frisson of the experience. Quite original on the whole, but very much along the lines of Maureen or Blue Glow. The lyrics also, very oddly, riff on Cilla Black’s ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ – intentionally, I hope.

‘Snow’ sounds magical in performance, yes, and it’s tempting to imagine that it would’ve been even better in a recording studio, but this kind of Pulp song tends to melt under the studio lights. Perhaps it’s better remaining a secret.