Tag Archives: disco

#105 – O.U. (Gone, Gone)

31 Aug


O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Radio Edit, Single, 1992)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Full version, 1992 – fan-made music video)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Live film, Reading 1994)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Live film, Pomona, California, 2012)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) at pulpwiki

…so we finally made it into orbit (good init?). But like the man said “Space is O.K. but I’d rather get my kicks down below.” One re-entry later and now it’s a choice between an extra hour in bed or stopping the love of your life from getting the next train out of town. Took too long deciding what shirt to wear and blew it. But hold on, who’s this walking out of the sun? It can’t be – but it is. Talk about leaving it till the last minute. O.U. jammy get…
Original sleeve notes

Pulp’s new record label was called Gift Records for a reason. Warp / FON owed them for videos and broken promises, Sheffield owed them for years of service… and the best kind of gift you can get someone is something they can’t get for themselves. Pulp were on their uppers, sure, but their legal problems were worse than ever, and Island weren’t going to sign a group who were still (perhaps) signed up for multiple albums on another, hostile label. They were going to pay for a recording session, however, and they were also going to let Warp put it out as a single, but the road there would continue to be rocky.

The session took place at, of course, FON, and Simon Hinkler came along to sort out the production, helped by his friend Mike Timm. In contrast to 1980s sessions, they had (some) time and space, but these advantages were immediately negated by disagreements – not only between the members of the group, but also with Hinkler and Timm. The song was new, they hadn’t rehearsed it well enough, and everyone seems to have had different ideas about exactly how the it was supposed to sound – so much so that a whole day was spent trying to get the drum sound right. Even after it was finished and remixed, the core idea of O.U. is still hard to put your finger on. Fortunately this works as a strength – it plays out as a found sound, something the group are channelling, but don’t really seem to understand themselves.

Fittingly O.U. was born the year before, not as a song, really, more a series of parts that seemed to slot together; The simple stylophone slide that formed the kernel of the piece, Candida’s two-note organ bed, the ascending chord sequence from 97 Lovers, which reminded the group of the theme tune from late-night Open University TV programs, another series of dream-like images from the moments of going to sleep and waking up, the dynamic thrust that worked so well in ‘Babies’, and of course Russell’s frantic violin solo, seemingly flown in from the climax of another gypsy folk ballad, placed haphazardly over the utterly unrelated electro-pop beneath and somehow slotting in perfectly. As a performance, it was a hard trick to pull off, and while he managed it well enough live he wasn’t able to get it right in the studio, and after a number of attempts the part was sampled and flown in.

With so many compromises and seemingly incompatible ideas present, the O.U. session might sound like something of a botch job, and so it seems to have been. While not actually bad, it wasn’t the statement to the world that it needed to be, and a remix was needed.

Ed Buller, a formerly jobbing keyboard player who was suddenly getting a lot of high-profile work, had recently finished working on Spiritualized’s ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ – an album described by Simon Reynolds as “quiver[ing] with Apollonian attributes – airiness, fleetness, radiance, serenity… all about the exhilaration of cutting loose, of goalless propulsion…” – as apt a description as any of what O.U. (and Space and Babies) ended up as. O.U. didn’t need any great re-working or extra recording, but Buller still managed to tweak it enough that anyone can hear the group shift into the light, shimmering mode that would prove to be his (and their) trademark over the next three years.

O.U. is a jumble of many parts, but never a mess. For once, the story is fairly clear – a couple near the end of their relationship *or back together on an ill-judged rebound) bicker and fight, then go to bed angry* The next morning he wakes up to find her gone, a note on the pillow saying that she’s off to the train station, and by the way, fuck you. There’s time to throw on some clothes and sprint there, but he has just a minute to decide whether it’s better to leave it, turn over and go back to sleep instead. We’re stuck in that moment, imagining the run-lola-run pursuit, but also the doubt, the fear of being left alone, some stirrings of feeling – that moment of seemingly infinite possibility.

The best thing about O.U. is how the disparate musical elements are drawn together to evoke the desperate dash and the adrenalin rush of the moment of decision. That rhythm – always changing, always the same – pulled along by Steve’s almost inaudibly low cardio-vascular bassline, taking turns to swell anxiously, then settle down again into that persistent jog. Over this Candida’s atmospherics and the sampled violin swirl and rush. On stage these dynamics required two stylophones, and group friend and fanclub organiser Mark Webber was drafted in to fill out the sound. We will, of course, be hearing a good deal more about him later, but O.U. also marks the start of his transition to becoming a full-fledged member.

In the pre-Babies world, the single of O.U. was an exciting calling card for New Pulp, especially with the similarly exhilarating ‘Space’ on the flipside. It tied for ‘single of the week’ in Melody Maker with another Ed Buller production, Suede’s The Drowners, and received more positive coverage in the NME and even Smash Hits. An odd-sounding limited-edition single on an offshoot of a local indie label, it was inevitable that it wouldn’t be a hit, but the buzz was growing so much that you can forgive the group for sounding like they’ve got their chests puffed out, powering on towards the finish line.

* Something you should never do, of course. This scene features one of the first great 90s Pulp vignettes of crap relationships – “the night was ending / he needed her undressed / He said he loved her / She tried to look impressed ”

#104 – She’s A Lady

24 Aug


She’s A Lady (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
She’s A Lady (Live at La Cigale, Paris, 1991)
“Cheesy Lady” (Live audio, Portsmouth, March 1993)
She’s A Lady (Live Video – No stilettos, 1993)
She’s A Lady (Live Video – Butt Naked, 1994)
She’s A Lady (Live Video – Glastonbury 1994)
She’s A Lady (Live Video – Santiago, Chile, 2012)
She’s A Lady at Pulpwiki

Sometimes this project is a joy, but this last couple of weeks it’s been more of a struggle. This time it’s not because the track is too big or too personal, but due to the daunting prospect of having to write about Jarvis Cocker’s burgeoning libido. It wasn’t the thing that brought me to the group in the first place, and it wasn’t what kept me around, but as a listener it’s something I have to deal with one way or another. Later on Jarvis would become more self-conscious about this, deconstruct it, start making fun of himself – and everyone could join in with that. At this point, though, we’re at 100% sincerity, and the only option is to enjoy the music and leave this part to those who appreciate it – and it goes without saying that there are many who do, and their view is, if anything, more valid than mine. But does engaging with a song like this mean I have to relate to the “I” or the “you”*? or is there another way in?

All of this is a problem until I actually listen to She’s A Lady again and the intro knocks these now minor quibbles out of my head. That threatening electronic pulse, curious random synthesised piano notes, muttered semi-audible comments from a fever dream, ominous clanging sounds, fuzzy guitar riffs coming in stronger, and yet stronger, then a sudden drop into ice-cold electro. It’s a masterpiece of Ed Buller’s painstaking production techniques – so clean that it sounds almost inhuman, so cold that it sounds like the work of no group at all – but all to drive a tale of red-blooded lust.

That’s hardly the only contradiction on show here either – the whole song is fuzzy in the extreme, a tangle of different ideas and influences without any fixed root. For a start this apparently slick studio product is in fact the oldest thing on His ‘n’ Hers apart from Babies, though early live versions bear little resemblance to the finished product. Well, the guts of the thing are there, but the lyrics and instrumentation are in flux. Aside from the chorus, Jarvis’s role in the earliest versions consists of improvising different stream-of-consciousness descriptions of encounters with a woman. One memorable version from a soundcheck in Portsmouth (included on bootlegs as ‘Cheesy Lady’) has the eponymous female working at the cheese counter at Safeway (“45 pence off Double Gloucester. Emmental is very cheap at this time of the year”).

The body of the song solidified by 1992, but there are still plenty of features that never made it to the record – a thumping drumbeat, an ominous bass-line and – most importantly – a fairly intense workout on the violin from Russell throughout. This last part is the greatest loss as it seems to be an integral part of the song, starting off as a nervous fluttering on the first couple of verses, underlining them in a minor key, then as a series of pizzicato arpeggios from the bridge, working against the tune but lifting it from mundanity into something dark and mysterious.

Maybe this is why Ed Buller cut it out. Here was another tale of stifling sexual tension – he knew what to do with that – but Russell was undercutting it with an air of gypsy balladry, and to be honest I’m not sure how it would even be possible to slot those two things together in the studio. Buller decided that it wasn’t working, and that Russell should go home for a week to practice it, then everyone just moved on. This was something of a cowardly move, if admittedly a shrewd one, and for all the pleasure we can take in enjoying this piece of straight-up electro-pop, the way it soured Russell’s memory of the album (and possibly contributed to his departure a few years later) might well leave us at a net loss.

Let’s not let this taint the song itself though. Whether it’s a dark, brooding boogie or shimmering disco, it’s still a magic mix of the inspired and the pilfered, as many of Pulp’s greatest moments are. The stolen part is hiding in plain sight – a wholesale lift from I Will Survive, the tune and the structure being ‘variations on the theme of…’ and little threads of melody constantly threatening to turn into “Go on now, go, walk out the door…”

Where Gloria Gaynor was asserting her independence and self-reliance, Jarvis is doing quite the opposite. He should stay away from his old flame but (once again) he’s found himself inevitably dragged back to her by an uncontrollable sexual itch. Without her the world has become imbued with desperate sexuality, even “the moon has gone down on the sun.” While Gloria “grew strong”, Jarvis merely “carried on” – going out drinking every night to try to forget, having a rebound relationship with a woman who apparently sells pictures of herself to German businessmen*. This might all be a pose, though – he’s lost in desire as we start, but as we get towards the end his passion seems to have dulled, either that or he’s succeeded in winning her back and want to play it cool – “I guess I kind of missed you…” – maybe it was all just a drunken ploy. Either way, my advice would be to move on.

In its later incarnation as a disco anthem, these lyrics take centre stage, and Jarvis sells them with previously untapped vocal reserves. The screams, gasps, groans and skat vocalisations go a long way towards selling the concept – imbuing this potentially melodramatic piece with real pain and desire – but live versions occasionally took this a little too far to maintain suspension of disbelief. On the “Cheesy Lady” version (admittedly a pre-gig piss-around) there’s a scat breakdown which sounds like Michael Jackson impersonating Jimmy Saville, and that’s not something I want to hear. sorry if I’ve spoiled it for anyone else.

She’s A Lady was a totemic song for Pulp’s early 90s. Though never really single material, it was a common set opener, a showpiece for the group’s different talents and ideas, a statement of intent in its own way. Tellingly, it remained fundamentally in its original non-disco form even after His ‘n’ Hers was released, and was lost from the post-Russell set. That’s ok, though, it just seems to belong to that time.

*This is also the first time Jarvis has been so direct as to address a song to the second person.
**This line is a bit too much of a novelty for my taste, but it doesn’t seem too out-of-place.

#101 – Live On

3 Aug

Pulp in 1992

Live On (OU Session – FON Studio, Sheffield, 28-30 January 1992)
Live on (Mark Goodier session, 1992)
Live On (Live, 19 October 1992 – Festival Les Inrockuptibles, La Cigale, Paris)
Live On (France Inter – Black Session, 17 November 1992)
Live on (Live film 12 Aug 1991, Town & Country Club)
Live on at Pulpwiki

As Pulp waited for Separations to be released, through those three years of legal and financial troubles, they must have nevertheless had a feeling that an upward tick in their creative and professional lives was underway. My Legendary Girlfriend had been their first critical success, and Countdown had consolidated their gains. That was it, though, two singles out and a sense of momentum to be maintained. It was time to come up with something bigger and slicker, something to show to record companies, something to get them into the charts and onto Top Of The Pops. Such a hit would come, in time, almost by accident, but that’s something to talk about in a couple of weeks. ‘Live On’, meanwhile, was not the breakthrough single, but at the time it must have seemed like it would be.

A blatant attempt to write another ‘Countdown’, Live On could have been Pulp’s first straight-up pop song since Everybody’s Problem if they’d only managed to record it properly. There’s wah-wah guitar, stabs and swirls of organ, a growling build-up with an anthemic release, a bizarre lyric (“three blind mice go ow!” – a reference to the song’s three-bar keyboard motif?), a sort-of-not-quite-guitar-solo and a thrash-and-release at the end. All very promising stuff, but based around a build-up and release of tension which starts to fall apart if you examine it too closely.

Live On was an instant live favourite, but seemed to wilt under studio lights. The bright, unforgiving clarity of studio production and the lack of an audience conspired to strip away all the energy and leave us with a leaden, insubstantial retread of last year’s themes – tasty but unsatisfying, like cheap chocolate. Over a couple of years it was attempted again and again, until it was finally dropped. With no definitive version out there to review, let’s instead have a look at four different performances from 1991 and 1992.

OU Session – FON Studio, Sheffield, 28-30 January 1992

Listening to this barely-circulated demo, the reasons that the song was never a single are suddenly very clear. The song limps into action with a weedy synth stab and a half-hearted “mama” from Jarvis. The rhythm section try to funk things up, and momentarily succeed, but as soon as the build-up of tension finishes the chorus comes in like a deflated balloon, and the mojo is lost forever – for a song that’s all about performance and being there in the moment, this is fatal, and the last couple of minutes turn into a joyless trudge.

BBC Radio 1 – Mark Goodier Show, 30 May 1992

This is probably the best-known version of Live On due to its inclusion on the deluxe edition of His N Hers, where Jarvis noted that they “never seemed to be able to get it right in the studio [but this version] is about the closest we ever got” – which is pretty much spot on. This version has a distinctive 60s sci-fi phasing effect on Candida’s keyboards, everyone comes in at the right time, and Jarvis’s vocal just about striked the right balance between restrained and emotional. It’s not perfect – there’s still a disconnect between the idea of the song and its execution, particularly towards the end – but it was still the best choice for the CD.

Festival Les Inrockuptibles, Paris – La Cigale, 19th October 1991

The performance at La Cigale, muffled and distorted as it is, stands out as one of the best live bootlegs in circulation, and Live On is one of the highlights. There’s a palpable tension in the highly-wound build-up, and when we drop into the chorus it’s with a euphoric release. This would be the template for much to come over the next few years. The break is genuinely funky, and the last couple of minutes the band whip themselves up into a frenzy without missing a beat. As we finish the crowd erupt into a massive cheer. Not saying it’s perfect, but close enough.

France Inter – Black Session, 17 November 1992

Again, the main difference is with Candida’s keyboard – this time she decided on a swirling Ray Manzarek sound, which works as well as anything else. Generally it’s a solid enough performance – better than the OU session, but the energy seems to have left with the audience at La Cigale. This sounds like a professional enough performance of a song that’s been trotted out for years. The song is still there, but the moment has passed, and there are bigger fish to fry. It just wasn’t to be.

#100 – Countdown

20 Jul

Countdown (Separations, 1992)
Countdown (Extended Mix, 1992)
Countdown (Music Video (7″ Mix), 1992)
Countdown (Live film, Leadmill, 16/03/1991)
Countdown (Live film, Town & Country Club, 20/07/1991)
Countdown (Live film, Leadmill, 1/09/1991)
Countdown (Live film, Brixton Academy, 01/09/2011)
Countdown (Live film, L’Olympia, 13/11/2012)
Countdown at Pulpwiki

“Countdown” was about waiting for your life to take off, and then realising maybe the countdown’s never going to stop, you’ll never reach zero – and in the meantime, the rocket’s getting rusty and if it got to zero, it wouldn’t take off anyway. – Jarvis in Record Collector #184, December 1994

“How much of human life is lost in waiting?” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“We never live; we are always in the expectation of living.” – Voltaire

Jarvis Cocker was 17 in 1981; the year of Pulp’s first Peel session – the year Dolly and Jamie went off to university, leaving him to fulfil his destiny of becoming a pop star all on his own. From that day every step seemed to have led him further and further away from his goal – sometimes due to deliberate acts of defiant individuality, but often also through sheer naivety too. Eighties Pulp were wilfully aimless, producing art for arts sake – not actually a bad thing if you’re just making art. If you want to be a pop star though, especially in the era of Stock, Aiken & Waterman, it’s not going to get you anywhere at all.

Call it self-delusion, perhaps, but Jarvis wasn’t exactly quick to realise this – instead he waited expectantly for the big day as if at a bus stop, trying to get the bus to round the corner through sheer force of will. In films and songs this kind of faith pays off, but the universe is fundamentally uninterested in such trivia. We live, then we die, and if we want anything else then we have to go out and find it. The eighties are all over now, and after rejecting them it’s time to scourge the soul and start afresh.

‘Countdown’, then, is all about Jarvis talking himself out of his disappointing dreams, and into making everything happen by himself – whether that be with difficult relationships, or – more likely – with his (lack of) fans. There’s a sense that the greater the desperation, the greater the push for redemption. There’s no celebration here – in a sense it’s an act of self-flagellation – but there’s an ultimate faith that if you face up to your demons honestly enough you can destroy them utterly. It’s a much more deserving release than the empty calls for self-belief found in the works of the likes of L’Oreal and Oasis, particularly because it’s so personal. We’ve got the panic attacks (“I thought it was my heart”) the self-doubt (“will I ever leave this room?”) and greatest of all the irony that this great “fuck off” to Sheffield is part of the first chapter of his writings about the town rather than the last.

For all this, though, it’s also a pop song – or at least the closest thing to one we’ve encountered since Everybody’s Problem. Through the next five or six years the stated main goal of Pulp as a group is to make music for a mass-audience – Jarvis seemed to continually express annoyance with the “We make music for ourselves, if other people like it then that’s a bonus” attitudes of the shoegaze era. What this didn’t mean was losing their individuality – it meant stressing it in fact, making themselves into the coolest gang in town, then inviting everyone to join.

That they managed to cobble together this sound is odd, and impressive too. Though it’s Pulp’s first genuine disco hit, nothing is synthesised. The drums are live, as are all Candida’s disco flourishes, and rather than programming in Midi, everything was stuck together with great care. The final result is a that the song seems to be powered by clockwork – each spin of a cog triggering others, gears turning, locking and producing a cascade of extra movements of great wonder and beauty from around 4 minutes in. You can imagine the video it should’ve had – something like ‘Hugo’ perhaps. But better.

Instead the video (a half-arsed collage of space visuals interspersed with the band playing – easily the most “this’ll do” of all their vids) features the single mix produced in 1991. This version is less clockwork, more full-on indie dance, the vocals re-recorded and sounding around 35% more energetic, the squelches and synth beds right in the foreground, and lashings of Russell’s wah-wah guitar topping the whole thing off. There was even an obligatory 12″ version with three and a half minutes of unnecessary instrumental build-up at the start, which is included on the remastered ‘Separations’ in place of the superior 7″ cut. You could say it’s superior all-round, but I sort of miss that clockwork cascade.

This is then – by a long chalk – the most polished and professional Pulp had ever sounded, so it’s odd to note that this product was released on Fire Records. The group (and Russell in particular) had gone into debt to record Separations, expecting a record company to realise their genius, pick up the bill and release the LP to international acclaim. Whether this was a case of still waiting for their chance or taking risks is a moot point – in either case the ‘industry’ wasn’t ready for them, and there was no other choice but to come crawling back to Fire. Thing seemed to be better this time, though – the release of My Legendary Girlfriend was something of a secret success, and Countdown was a natural choice of second single before the album came out.

Everything was looking up for the group – that was until Rough Trade Distribution went into liquidation, and nearly took Fire down with it. Once more the countdown had stalled. Aside from an endless series of reissues and cash-in compilations this is the end of the Pulp on Fire story, but things would have to get worse before they could get better.

#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.

#89 – Separations

4 May


Separations (Separations, 1992)
Separations – Live Film, Town & Country Club, London (20th July 1991)
Separations – Live Film, The Leadmill, 1st September 1991
Separations at Pulpwiki

Before my bed a pool of light –
Can it be hoar-frost on the ground?
Looking up, I find the moon bright;
Bowing, in homesickness I am drowned.
– Li Bai (701 – 762AD)

“The barbarians are inside the gate. They’re playing Muzak in Jenners.” – Letter in The Scotsman, 2007.

I received a CD of ‘Separations’ one Christmas in the mid-90s. My family were staying at a relative’s house and their stereo was hidden in a nook above a full-piano-sized 1970s electric organ, possibly a Hammond, with switches that produced backing beats like “waltz” and “rhumba”, another to adjust the tempo, and a series of long wooden foot pedals, the use of which escapes me. As I played the CD and we reached the climax of track 4 – the title track, no less – the swirling mass of strings suddenly disappeared to be replaced with the cheapest possible Casiotone beat, cheaper, in fact, than one I’d been playing on the organ before I even put the CD on.

Was this a joke? It seemed likely. Cheap-sounding keyboards and Muzak were a common butt of jokes in the early 90s, from Rimmer’s enthusiasm for “Reggie Wilson’s Lift Music Classics” on Red Dwarf to stand-up rants about supermarket background music. It was just one of those things which seemed to universally be regarded as ‘bad’, and it wasn’t until I listened to Denim’s ‘Novelty Rock’ a couple of years later that the pieces finally clicked. These sounds are ours – they might sound “naff”* but they are all around us nonetheless, we’ve grown up with them – and I bet a 1980s suburban Proust would maintain that they have the power to be as evocative as anything else. They are ours to use. Admittedly, this will only get you laughed at, but if you want to be a pop star “ridicule is nothing to be scared of.” Audiences are there to be challenged, after all.

That one moment dominates my memory of the song so much that it was hard to focus on anything else – which in fact might be a failing, as there’s plenty to admire here. Built from that bare chord progression, and originally called “Eastern Eurodisco”, by the time it was recorded ‘Separations’ had morphed into a sprawling beast of a song, with a cyclical operatic structure in place of the usual verse-chorus-verse and a complex storyline with roots in romantic baladeering and gothic fiction – all presented in less than five minutes.

The first two minutes are dominated by Russell’s Slavic violin – here built up in stature to something like a towering Stravinsky requiem, performed at the funeral of a beloved Transylvanian monarch. The rest of the strings (unbelievable these are just samples) soon join him, and as they are building to a climax Jarvis begins his melodramatic telling of a story of separated, lonely lovers. She’s deserted, all alone.

Then we break down into that Casiotone rhythm, and after a few moments the rest of the group join in, and we continue with “him” – He’s in a new town, getting off a train (haven’t we heard that somewhere before?), filled with optimism and determined to forget the girl he’s left behind. Things quickly turn bad, though, life and nightlife are shallow and unsatisfying, “the drinks won’t do a thing for him / but revive some stupid memories” – and looking to the sky he sees the same moon “she” is looking at.

It’s no wonder that this (often forgotten) song ended up being the title of the album – it seems emblematic of all the changes that the band were going through at the time. Slavic baladeering morphs into suburban lust, gothic romance into electro-pop, cathartic melodrama into that 1990s sense of nostalgic un-belonging. Each side sounds captivating – the first perhaps even more so, thanks to what must be Russell’s greatest single performance. As a centrepiece to the album, as a bridge between the two halves, it does the job perfectly, and while it’s too damn odd to be anyone’s favourite, it’s nevertheless a genuinely passionate, atmospheric piece of work.

*Isn’t it funny how, in 2013, the word ‘naff’ now sounds, well, naff.

#78 – Master of the Universe

2 Mar

Master of the Universe (Freaks, 1987)
Master of the Universe (Sanitised Version) (Single, 1987)
Master of the Universe at Pulpwiki

‘Master of the Universe’ – an explanation:
He was God and she was His congregation.
But when she lost her faith, He lost His power.
Now the thigh-length boot’s on the other foot.
(You might think it’s funny, but someone’s always got to be boss.)

– original sleevenotes

In late 1985, in the middle of the group’s first nationwide tour, Jarvis fell out of a window. It wasn’t a particularly high window, just two floors up, but it was enough to break his wrist, ankle and pelvis, leaving him confined to a wheelchair for much of 1986. Embarrassingly enough, he hadn’t been rescuing a cat or talking down a potential suicide, but doing a drunken Spiderman impression to impress a girl at a party – out one window and in another. Halfway through he realised he wasn’t going to make it to the other ledge and just had to let go.

Stuck in a hospital bed for a month, the tour cancelled, doctors warning him he may not walk properly again… things weren’t exactly looking up. As he lay in his childhood bedroom convalescing, while his Mother sat downstairs watching ‘Lovejoy’, he noticed a bottle of novelty “Masters of the Universe” shampoo he’d bought, and laughed at the irony of using it in his state. What kind of immense power would you need to have to be “master” of the entire universe? How utterly deluded would you have to be to give yourself such a title?

Master of the Universe is a parable, then. The sort of parable which usually stars Anthony Ainley as The Master, i.e. not a particularly subtle one, one which doesn’t bear any kind of serious analysis, but I’ll see what I can wring out anyway. Our protagonist, the “master of the universe”, is in conversation with a female underling who he is taking great pleasure in mistreating. His power comes from faith – without the compliance of the masses under him he is nothing. When his underling fails to take him seriously their positions are inverted, and he becomes her whipping boy / slave dog. He relishes both positions, lending the song a sadomasochistic air – but rather than ringing true in any way this seems to be the same use of sexual perversion we saw in ‘Maureen’ – ‘difficult’ shock-topics resorted to as a replacement for real passion or feeling. It might even have been intended to be funny, but I doubt it.

Understandably, Master of the Universe has garnered more attention for its musical style than its theme. On the surface a grimy goth-rock thrash it in many ways prefigures the ‘Slavic disco’ sound the next line-up would embrace. If you listen to ‘Rattlesnake’ next to MOTU you can clearly hear the shared DNA. MOTU is something of an inbred cousin, though, and you can hear unhelpful hints of other failed experiments, like the whirlitzer organ from ‘Fairground’. The song does at least have some energy to it, so it’s not a pain to listen to, but neither is it a joy. The band’s performance doesn’t really help matters. Jarvis dominates the song with his ludicrously mannered vocal, a nasal growling devil-voice with flat-out annoying pronunciation of common words and bizarre unnecessary trills. Magnus doesn’t help things with his slightly off drums either – though a great drummer, he never seemed to get to grips with this disco rhythm. The rest of the band aren’t helping things either – though the song wasn’t new, nobody seems sure at all of how it’s supposed to sound.

Master of the Universe was an odd choice as a second single from ‘Freaks’ – the only things to be said in its favour being that it was fairly upbeat and that it hinted at the band’s new direction. All the same, it was an unpalatable bit of sci-fi goth-rock nonsense, and backed with the dull ‘Manon’ and the excruciating ‘Silence’ it perhaps counts as Pulp’s worst ever single. Fire insisted that the band re-record two lines to change the words ‘masturbates’ to ‘vegetates’ and ‘comes’ to ‘keeps’, but the idea that this would lead to any radio play was wildly optimistic. The single got two minor, obtuse mentions in the music press and quickly sank without trace. The band, who had split up and reformed by the time it was released, weren’t even sent a copy. Intentionally or not, the single serves as a “so long, fuck off” note to the era, as the band noted on the back of the sleeve;

“This record marks the end of Pulp #3. Pulp #4 will follow shortly.”

#9 to #12 – Pulp Mk 1

21 Jan

The seventies finished with Arabicus Pulp having made a few 8mm films, written a few songs, but crucially without them having played live. Perhaps it was because they were too nervous or too unprepared, but more likely it was down to Jarvis and Dolly lacking a halfway-competent rhythm section. Fungus had failed to master the “bass”* at all, and Dixie was still “drumming” on the coal-scuttle.
In 1980 all was to change – by the end of the year they would be regularly playing live around the city, playing with real (cheap) equipment, making a name for themselves (that name would now be, yes, ‘Pulp’) and going through bassists and drummers with reckless abandon. Fungus was inevitably the first to go, replaced by Philip Thompson (“Pip”), then Dixie was dropped after their first public performance and replaced by nicknameless Jimmy Sellars. By the end of the year Pip was out too, replaced by Jamie Pinchbeck, formerly of heavy rock band Satan.
There were no proper recording sessions embarked upon in 1980, no gig recordings are in circulation, and even set lists are in short supply, so unfortunately there are another four songs we’ve really no chance of hearing.

#9 She’s a Disease 

The most obscure of all known early Pulp tracks, nothing more than a name on a remembered set list. Any information would be welcome.

#10 Disco Baby

On the 5th July 1980 Pulp played their second ever concert. Their first had been in their school assembly hall, in front of friends and classmates. This one was to be in front of paying customers, in support of a moderately successful local band, The Naughtiest Girl Was a Monitor. Lacking more than a handful of complete songs, Pip’s imitation of a Jah Wobble bass line was hastily fleshed out into what became “Disco Baby” that afternoon. It joined a few cover versions on the set list that night, and then managed to stay on set lists into 1981, outstaying its creator and most of the other contemporary tracks.

#11. You’re Too Cruel

A song played at an early concert at the Royal Hotel, Sheffield. Jimmy Sellars sang harmony vocals with Jarvis – he’d broken his hand and was unable to play. NMX fanzine reviewed the performance:

“There’s very little I can tell you about Pulp, because I asked them to send me some information about them and they never did (if you’re reading this, why not? Don’t you want to be famous?). I saw them at the Royal, which despite the (lack of) atmosphere is by a long way the best place for discovering new talent in Sheffield, and their music seems to be a mixed bag of all things modern, as if they listen to the John Peel show every night in an endless quest for influences. They look so young you think they ought to be too busy studying for their ‘O’ le­vels to be messing about with these damned pop groups, but I understand one of them works in the fish market. Anyway, they don’t appear to have seen enough of life to be obsessed with doom and despair, instead covering more superficial subjects such as ‘Message From The Martians’ and ‘Disco Baby’. Despite comparatively elementary musical ability and a slight togetherness problem they’re a fun band and definitely one to watch for in the future.”

#12. (What’s Wrong With) My Girl?

New bassist Jamie Pinchbeck brought along a couple of songs when he joined the group. One, ‘Devil Doll’ never caught on, but this one served well as his legacy in the group, being played as late as 1982, outstaying its creator much as ‘Disco Baby’ had. If Pulp had recorded an album with the original lineup then the writing credits would have had to be fairly complicated.

Next week we’ll finally be getting to single reviews of single songs. See you there.

*actually the bottom four strings of an acoustic guitar