Tag Archives: decay

#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.

#70 – 97 Lovers

5 Jan

bocking-86limit-01

97 Lovers (b-side to Dogs Are Everywhere, 1986)
97 Lovers (live video – 10th July 1985 – Gotham City Club, Fascinations Nitespot, Chesterfield )
97 Lovers at Pulpwiki

“Why 97? It could just have easily been 970 or 9,700. Just take a short walk around town and you soon lose count of the deformities. By the way, what’s that growing on your back?”
– Original sleeve notes

Don’t those notes just sum up nicely everything that’s right and wrong about Pulp at this point? An explanation that fails to explain anything, but instead broadens and muddies the story beyond all comprehensibility. Or, put another way, an explanation which refuses to be tied down to a prosaic recounting of events, instead building a vivid mythology around the song. Which explanation you go for depends on your willingness to suspend your disbelief – and the same can be said for ’97 Lovers’ as a whole.

The song itself is a fairly simple pair of vignettes, united by an overarching theme of… what? Unhappy love lives? The universality of romantic frustration? An obvious comparison would be Eleanor Rigby – except these lonely people have their own personal insecurities feeding their troubled relationships. That is even a stretch, though – the couple in the first scene (besides being fairly strange) seem to have nothing so terribly wrong with them. It would be odd if they did, as the woman involved was Jarvis’s aunt.

“That was the first time I got some good lyrics out. One bit was about my auntie – in her bedroom, she had a picture of Roger Moore above the bed, with this short toweling dressing gown. I always thought ‘God, it’s weird when they’re in bed having it off under that picture. My uncle must know she’s probably thinking of Roger while he’s doing it to her.'” – Jarvis in Record Collector, 1994

The second section features a woman putting on a brave face after a break-up, only for her attempts to come to nothing when her ex returns, “picks her heart up off the table / and he watches it smash on the floor.” Compared the the first verse it’s fairly generic, and again you have to wonder what the message is. Love is a painful business? Of course it can be, but here it sounds like that’s the only sort. Pulp sound a bit one-note at this point, and a special effort is needed to ‘sell’ the misery, or else they might easily veer into self-parody.

Fortunately the band put in a performance which achieves exactly this. Jarvis darkly intones the lyrics like a man who has just seen something unspeakably terrible, and can barely bring himself to tell you about it. Magnus’s timpani ominously builds up, and Candida plays a simple, enduring four-note farfisa melody throughout. The highlight, though, is Russell’s mournful waltz-time-violin, providing the real sadness at the heart of the piece. ’97 Lovers’ isn’t a complete success – it has to catch the right person, in the right mood – but it does what it does well.

#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.

#57 – The Mark of the Devil

6 Oct

The Mark of the Devil (From Dogs Are Everywhere EP)
The Mark of the Devil (Chesterfield 1985 – “The Lost Tape”)
The Mark of the Devil (Performance on “Sheffield Bands 84/85” video, 1985)
The Mark of the Devil at Pulpwiki

“A disease that can strike at any age. How it is caught is a mystery but when one day you look in the mirror and see that mark upon your face… It’s a sickener.” – original sleeve notes

In a rare bit of synchronicity I woke up this morning to find the left side of my face dotted with ugly red spots, presumably a reaction to some recently eaten food combined with the effects of another stultifying Beijing summer. Now that I have a steady job and a wife and baby to support, such things have been relegated to a minor league of worries, but life hasn’t always been like this. A decade and a half ago it would’ve floored me.

In the mid 1980s Pulp were essentially unemployed. Aside from the occasional performance and very occasional recording session their main occupation was killing time waiting to sign on. Contrary to popular opinion this does not equate to a life of carefree luxury. Jarvis was living in a disused factory just off the Wicker where former band member Tim Alcard was employed as a caretaker, a place that sounds fairly bohemian, but which must’ve been in reality rather cold and squalid. Waking up in what amounted to an unfurnished squat, walking to the mirror and seeing an unemployed outsider with little in the way of prospects, whose creative output failed to generate any sort of critical or commercial attention… It can’t have been much fun. Low self-confidence makes a person brittle, and that first glance at your reflection can put paid to your whole day.

‘Mark of the Devil’ takes this feeling and presents it as Gothic horror. It’s a perfect fit – both are serious takes on potentially ridiculous subjects. Accompanying the melodrama we have a suitably frenzied, relentless piece of music. We’ve had ‘Slavic’ before with Srpski Jeb, but here it’s threaded together into what you might (at a stretch) call a groove. The secret is the interplay between the effectively looped drums, bass and violin – the star of the piece being Magnus’s repeated drum fill. Apparently this was created by Jarvis during one of the group’s regular instrument-swapping sessions. Almost as vital is Manners’ polished, curious bass riff, though it suffers from being too low in the final mix. Another casualty is Russell’s violin, sounding much more measured and polite than in live versions.

It wouldn’t really be fair to say that the production is a let-down – the song still sounds good, but doesn’t quite capture the propulsive energy the song had. The steady quickening of the rhythm as we prepare for the lurch back into the chorus should be the pinnacle of the track, but instead it’s merely another fairly good section of a solidly produced whole.

Still, Mark of the Devil is both something new – Slavic post-punk disco – and something wonderful, the stand-out track of the ‘Dogs Are Everywhere’ EP. That the band wanted to make it the lead track is no surprise, but inevitably Fire wanted something more immediate and radio-friendly.

#50 – Take You Back

18 Aug

Take You Back (Sudan Gerri Demo, May 1984)
Take You Back (Live at The Hallamshire Hotel, June 1984)
Take You Back at Pulpwiki

Close your eyes, think back into your past… An old sports hall… The karate equipment you once used. Four men and one woman playing those cheap instruments you knew so well… The noise that gives you a headache!!

Take You Back is ridiculous – but where other attempts at high horror (like the half-hearted piss-take of one above) fall short, it grabs what it’s reaching for. Rural nostalgia lurches (and what a lurch!) into repressed horror with complete conviction. This is Nightmare Pulp, on their first trip into the depths of Jarvis’s subconscious.

We start with an ominous organ drone. Jarvis leads us through a hypnotherapy regression, possibly to a past life – stones, a valley, a house. Low key guitar and drums build up gently but persistently in the background, like an animal about to pounce. It feels like one of those dreams where you wander through well-known places before suddenly encountering something terrible and being jolted awake.

Then the jolt comes – the lurch into horror. The tune is the same but the feeling is diametrically opposed – aggressive, snarling, with a thumping primal drumbeat and a jeering chorus of “laaa!-laaa! la-la-laaaa!” Jarvis suddenly sounds cruel and dismissive, his description suddenly one of ruins, a revelation that the whole act is a trick, then he joins in with the jeering as the track rears to a climax. This minute or so just works perfectly – the most aggressive (and therefore best) version coming from a live performance around the same time.

Take You Back succeeds completely, but it’s still just a couple of notches away from being terrible pretentious guff. If you substituted the horror story for a personal one, and ramped up the melodrama a few notches you’d get, well, something else, something we’d rather never existed!

#49 – Anorexic Beauty

11 Aug

Anorexic Beauty (Freaks, 1987)
Anorexic Beauty (Live, 1985, Fascinations Nitespot, Chesterfield – Video)
Anorexic Beauty (Ping Pong Jerry Demo, Nov 1984)
Anorexic Beauty at Pulpwiki

Eight unusual things about Anorexic Beauty by Pulp

1. It wasn’t originally a Pulp song. Written by David Kurley of early-Pulp contemporaries New Model Soldier, it was sold to Russell for £1 after a gig. The song dates back to an earlier David Kurley band, Blimp, who featured a young Magnus Doyle on drums. New Model Soldier were an interesting enough group in their own right – a few of their recordings can be heard here. The song was extensively re-worked by Pulp, but the lyrics survive intact.

2. Kurley’s lyrics could easily be from a post-modern treatise on desire and repulsion. I mean that in a good way – for a pop song it demonstrates an unusal level of forethought. Of course, on the other hand, we lack any insight into the author’s real feelings, but frankly, who cares? Situationist posturing about commodification, objectivisation and alienation is such a rarity in pop music. If it was presented in a po-faced manner (or used impenetrable language like “situationist posturing about commodification, objectivisation and alienation”) this might be a problem, but fortunately it’s witty, blunt and accessible enough to work.

3. Russell is singing – not a unique occurence, but he’s actually singing here rather than just making a speech with ominous backing music. In earlier versions of the song Jarvis would sing in tandem with Russell, but on the LP version his vocal has been mixed far down enough that you wouldn’t notice it unless you were really paying attention.

4. Jarvis is playing the drums, not with a great deal of precision, but considering he wasn’t a drummer the effect isn’t as bad as it might’ve been. The song doesn’t require him to do anything beyond a simple two-handed smash every second, so it probably didn’t require lessons.

5. Magnus is playing the guitar – again, not with a huge amount of finesse, but this isn’t exactly a delicate musicianly piece, and anyone who’s been in as many bands as he had would surely have picked up a few chords. Later on in the Pulp story another drummer trying out a guitar bit would create something rather special.

6. It’s not really about Lena Zavaroni. A child star of the 70s, she had her own TV variety show between 1979 and 1981. Her condition wouldn’t become public until the mid-80s, when the song was already five years old. Presumably it was dedicated to her on the sleeve of ‘Freaks’ because she was in the news at the time. In hindsight this seems rather cruel – Lena wasn’t a model, and she died in 1999 while in hospital waiting for experimental brain surgery, her last years spent on a council estate, living on state benefits.

7. Most unlikely fact of all, perhaps; this postmodern sex & death thrash somehow functions as a bit of light relief on ‘Freaks’. Reviewing the LP for Sounds magazine “Mr Spencer” remarked that “this presumably is Pulp’s idea of a ‘fun’ song.” – and while that may not strictly be the case, it’s certainly a lot more enjoyable to listen to than “Life Must Be So Wonderful” or “The Never-Ending Story.”

8. In the quarter-century since the song was recorded, it seems to have become popular with the online ‘pro-ana’ crowd. See this video, this website or this one or this one. On each (particularly the video) there is a debate raging over whether the song is a celebration of anorexia or a condemnation of it. In truth the lyrics don’t engage with this debate in either direction – David Kurley’s interest being more in performance art and philosophy than actually writing about an ‘issue’ – but it’s fascinating to find out how complex and multidimensional the disease is in the minds of sufferers, and how many of them are willing to use dark humour to discuss it.

#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.