Tag Archives: experimental

#111 – Your Sister’s Clothes

12 Oct

The Sisters EP

Glass (Mark Goodier Session, 1992)
Your Sister’s Clothes (The Sisters EP, 1994)
Your Sister’s Clothes at Pulpwiki

“Your Sister’s Clothes” features the sisters from “Babies” four years on. Now the younger sibling finally gets her revenge for earlier years. – original sleeve notes

If the story of Babies was impossible to fully unravel, then what hope is there for Your Sister’s Clothes, the supposed sequel, where contradiction and opacity are spun out into a series of overheard conversations? Some would say ‘not much’, I suppose. I’ll try to get to analysis at some point, but once again it’s sort of a side issue. The headline here is that Pulp have finished trying to recapture that spark and have instead bottled up something far rarer – a little bit of magic that works entirely on its own terms, sounding at once emblematic of its era and notably unlike anything else the group recorded.

The genesis of the song came once again from experiments on the equipment the group suddenly found themselves owning or having access to – in this case a keyboard effect which (according to now almost-member Mark Webber) sounded like composer Philip Glass. And it really does, too, at least like that repetitive interlaced piano work which seems the most memorable part of his music for non-experts like me (listen to this for a minute or two if you aren’t sure what I mean). In the finished version, released two years later on the near-flawless Sisters EP this line works almost subliminally, but once you’ve spotted it, it’s remarkably difficult to un-hear. It’s integral to the structure, but enough other layers are woven into it that you could easily miss it.

The other important feature of the early version of ‘Glass’ recorded for the Mark Goodier session is Russell’s violin. Experimental music being right up his street, he joins the minimalist party with a violin performance so aggressive it’s bordering on the psychotic – it sounds, in fact, like he’s picking a fight with the rest of the song. Instead of joining in with the repetition he’s constantly pulling it apart, imitating it, shoving it sideways. It’s not exactly what you’d call virtuoso, but it works, completely, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine how it would work without it – but of course it does.

Two years later, the song re-named ‘Your Sister’s Clothes’, Ed Buller again managed to remove all traces of Russell’s improvisation from the song. Or perhaps he didn’t – Nick Banks seems to suggest that it was all Russell’s doing, using a varispeed to warp his violin until it sounded almost like another line of synths. Buller was busy elsewhere, though, the chance to produce Pulp-meets-Modernism being exactly what he was born to do. Candida’s keyboards are piled up, layer after layer, all cascading and chiming in complex but deeply satisfying patterns. The first, most dominant keyboard line is the strangest of all, especially when removed from the rest, sounding like a night-time level of an early 90s Sega game. Then there’s the drums, thumping and rolling like Magnus had never left. Earlier versions had a lurch, a sudden shift in tempo when reaching the chorus. This is lost in the final mix, but it’s not a huge shame, such is the hypnotic, sickly fever-dream power of the thing.

This is the important stuff, then, not so much the lyrics, which are as difficult to nail down, meaningfully, as their prequel. What is this woman getting revenge for, her sister sleeping with Jarvis? When Jarvis is the narrator? If serious, this would seem egotistical, but the title and the topic being little more than a pretence or a theme, it doesn’t really matter. Pointing out these narratives is a neat bit of misdirection – “don’t read the lyrics while listening to the recording” – so we get a title, a brief cue and a list of impressions, vividly memorable lines, opportunities for vocal experimentation – the way he sings “todaaaaaaayyyyaaaayyyyheyhey!” is twisted in just the right, completely unexpected way. That’s more than enough, surely.

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#98 – This House is Condemned

6 Jul

THIC1

THIC3

This House Is Condemned (Separations, 1992)
Is This House? (B-side to My Legendary Girlfriend (1991))
This House Is Condemned (Remix) (B-side to My Legendary Girlfriend (1991))
This House Is Condemned at Pulpwiki

“We went to this rave and someone must have sold me this very bad E. I got home and I got a bit feverish. Two things happened to me. One was that the Milli Vanilli song ‘ Girl I’m Gonna Miss You’ was stuck in my head, like it was on a loop, so that was driving me mad. The other thing was, in the height of me fever, I suddenly thought I was Paul Nicholas. You know, like when you’re half way between awake and asleep, I just thought I was Paul Nicholas, but it only lasted about ten minutes. Then the week later, I had the name Mike Lipbarski coming into the front of me mind all the time. I’ve never met Mike Lipbarski, but I was shit scared ‘cos I thought, ‘Maybe he’s going to kill me!’ When things like that happen I think you have to lay off.” – Jarvis in the New Musical Express, 9 January 1993

When I was young, perhaps just four or five, I saw an episode of a television programme which burrowed deeply into my psyche. Nearly thirty years and an afternoon of digging later, I’ve found what it was – a 1966 episode of The Avengers called “The House That Jack Built”. This is the scene, exactly as I remember it –

“…the door slams shut and [Emma Peel] hears Withers’ scream outside. When she opens it again, the hall is gone, replaced with a maze of twisty, turny passages, all alike, with a humming electronic box at their hub – and ghostly laughter fills the room. No matter which corridor she takes, she ends up back at the hub. Sensing a trick, she marks the hub with her lipstick, but at the end of the next corridor, the hub is the one she marked.”http://www.dissolute.com.au/avweb/emmabw/423.html

It seems that Russell Senior had also formed a deep impression of this episode. He would have been five years old too when it was first broadcast. Like all good nightmares, it reveals a truth that’s hidden in plain sight – that the way we divide space up into separate rooms often foxes the human brain. In a semi-detached house the other side of that thin wall seems like a different world, with objects and people only feet away from you, but utterly invisible and unfamiliar. Your vision is directed deliberately away by this cutting up of space. It’s the reason people walk into rooms and forget what they were doing there – the act of passing through a doorway finishes that section of memory and starts a new one. Space, time, place, condensed. As great as Pulp’s lyrics were in the 1990s, it’s a real shame that this is the final dose of exactly this kind of experimental fiction.

Uncoincidentally, this is also the last time we’ll be hearing Russell’s voice – he doesn’t even sing in Venini, let along britpop-era Pulp (even the thought of it seems faintly ludicrous.) His deadpan delivery is perfect for both subject matter and backing. The words, presumably, were also his own creation, and date back to an advertising flyer for The Day That Never Happened – the one pictured above. His final contribution to the track is the only live instrument present – the same wah-wah guitar he used for the single version of Countdown. So, Russell’s words, his vocal, his guitar; you’d be forgiven for thinking it was his track, but it’s not. If anything this is a showcase for two other people – producer Alan Smythe and Pulp’s newest member, Steve Mackey.

Jarvis always seems to need to work with a close collaborator – in the early days it was Dolly, then Simon Hinkler – and for the remainder of the 80s it had been Russell. Now Jarvis had moved to London, leaving the rest of the group in Sheffield, all with their own lives to live, and the position was vacant. Steve was the ideal candidate – from the scene, but not tied to it, and most importantly he knew where the raves were and what they were playing. Jarvis needed a way in to the burgeoning rave culture, and to house music, and Steve was able to provide this, and more. Though he’d been in the group a mere nine months when the album was recorded, his input into the production seems to have been greater than anyone else’s.

This House Is Condemned is, in Alan Smythe’s words, “totally automated” – a midi track with samples laid on top. In 1989 this was far from being unique, but it was still a first, for both group and producer – and the struggle to master a new set of technology lead to the track somehow sounding not quite right. Instead of this being a problem, though, it’s THIC’s greatest strength. If it had just been a house track with Russell’s vocals it would have been a whole lot less interesting than the odd genre-free beast that came out instead. Any “mistake” that worked was just kept in, including the telephone ringing at the point Russell starts to talk about the housing benefit waiting office – one of those fortuitous accidents that comes along only once in a long while.

Success as it had been, Pulp still wanted a real house track under their name, and this wasn’t going to be it. Fortunately DJs Parrot & Wilson, responsible for the groundbreaking ‘Testone’ around the same time, were around at FON Studio, and agreed to put together a couple of remixes. The first of these is called ‘Is This House?’ – a line of the song taken as a literal challenge to define genre-boundaries. As described in ‘The Beat is The law’ the remix didn’t go down particularly well.

Jarvis – “We wanted it to be a proper full-on rave track, so we gave it to them. They did it and played it to us, and we said “yeah, it’s alright, it’s a bit jerky, isn’t it? we just wanted it to go oomph-oomph-oomph-ommph but when it came back it was more like omp….ompump-omp….omompompompoomph-oomph. You couldn’t dance to it.”
Russell – “What we’d had in mind was really ‘can you make it so people can dance to it?’ – that was our naive assumption of what they might do.”
Parrot – “I’m afraid we went off on one on it really.”

The passage of time has made the remix no easier to digest. You can see what they were aiming at, but the stuttering beats just sound like a failed experiment that simply should’ve been sent back to the drawing board, a tedious waste of eight minutes. There is one other remix, originally called ‘This House Is Condemned (remix)’ but confusingly labeled as ‘Is This House?’ on the 2012 deluxe edition* – but this is merely mediocre instead of annoying, aside from the underwater effect on Russell’s voice, another grating failed experiment left in for reasons unknown. The two remixes were included on the My Legendary Girlfrind single, where they failed to attract any attention whatsoever, and probably for the best too.

*The real ‘Is This House’ is left off entirely, indicating that the group haven’t changed their minds in the intervening decades.

#79 – Tunnel

9 Mar

“The above piece of writing appeared on the rear sleeve to “They Suffocate At Night” when it was first released in late 1986. At the time I paid no attention to the date I had chosen for my entrance into the tunnel – the 10th of July 1985 – I presumed I had simply picked it out of thin air. It wasn’t until I was looking through some old papers that I realised the date’s significance – amongst the papers was a copy of our first contract with Fire Records. It was dated – you guessed it – the 10th of July 1985. Had my unconscious mind been trying to tell me something I wonder? Hmmmmm.”
Jarvis’s rejected sleeve notes from the “Masters of the Universe” compilation, 1994.

Tunnel (B-Side to ‘They Suffocate At Nght’, 1987)
Tunnel at Pulpwiki

…there was nothing else to do, I was bored…

As strange as it may seem, ‘Tunnel’ started out as something of a pop song. Admittedly, this was only within the context of a famously shambolic late 1984 Pulp gig, set among the morbid and the painful, but it’s still very odd to hear. The bass riff is much more playful and melodic, and Magnus seems to be playing a brushy post-punk-jazz fill throughout. The song is much faster, half the length of the recorded version, and instead of echoed announcements Jarvis has dusted off his punk yelp. Most vitally there is no breakdown, no wall of noise and violence, but the song itself is still there, somehow, though lacking the reference to the 10th of July 1985, of course.

…don’t ask stupid questions…

Then the band, for whatever reason, left the song to fester for two and a half years, digging it out at the tail-end of the “Freaks” recording sessions. In a week full of misfires, fudges and rush jobs, it’s the only track that really blossomed in the studio environment. After it had been laid down, Russell commented that “the muse was with us” – and not without reason. The success of the recording was, however, at the expense of the future of the track, the finished eight minutes being very much a studio product, and not reproducible in a live setting.

…a thousand bodies stink and sweat, and somebody’s trying to roll a cigarette…

Once again form reflects subject. The track (never has the word been more apt) feels like a progression through a tunnel, though (spoiler) we never get to emerge from the other end. We enter along Manners’ locomotive bass line, pounding drums emerge, battering you from left and right, their rhythm jarringly out of step until suddenly everything slots together. Soon words emerge, like megaphone pronouncements from a crumbling communications room, the announcer asleep, or undergoing some kind of schizophrenic breakdown. Then, crashing walls of distorted guitar. We move through several sections, the insanity building each time the rhythm shifts. Finally we descend into fiery chaos, backward sounds wailing like trapped animals with seemingly random flashes of noise and melody including misplaced surf rhythms coming in like radio interference. What we have here is more than a bad trip – it’s the unreliable narration of a fall into hell.

…at 3 o’clock that the morning I awoke in an unfamiliar room…

Of course, there are plenty of people out there who don’t like “Tunnel” – Pulp fans, music reviewers, people in general…. Reviewers on Bar Italia (presumably some of the keenest fans of all) described it as “pointless, rambling, horrible, crappy drivel” and “over-indulgence of the worst kind.” When I first heard it on the ‘Masters of the Universe’ compilation in 1995 I remember universal disapproval from friends and family. It’s clear then, that my love of the song puts me in a tiny minority, and sometimes I even doubt myself. Is it just nostalgia for the piece that introduced me to the world of discordant, experimental music? On balance, I honestly still feel not. It’s a powerful, original piece of work, and comparisons to Joy Division or other post-punks does nothing to dilute this. Why? Because it’s not a pastiche – it’s real.

…Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!…

How did Jarvis write the lyrics to ‘Tunnel’? The greatest influence seems to be film noir and the twilight zone, but there’s also a section that reads like cut-up poetry – an effective simalcrum of a schizoid mind. The protagonist is clearly disconnected from clear thought and speech – he keeps going off at odd tangents and being distracted by disconnected thoughts. The passion excuses the opacity, which in turn excuses the strangeness. This is also the first sighting of “sunlight through net curtains” – a premonition, perhaps.

…and to be clean again. But I know I’ll never ever be clean again…

‘Tunnel’ could easily have been the final track in the Pulp discography. The band had split up, and Jarvis would, within a year, be heading down to study at St Martin’s, hundreds of miles away from the rest of the group. Fire’s decision to put out a single release of “Master of the Universe” a few months later was barely noticed – its b-sides having been salvaged from old demos, the single contained nothing in the way of new material. ‘Tunnel’ would have been a fitting end to the band – a summation of “the worst years of our lives” – as well as a great buck “fuck you” to the people responsible – Fire Records, the venues, the record-buying public, the members of the band themselves…
It would be four long years until the group put out another record, but that’s a whole other story.

#72 – Aborigine

19 Jan

John Bindon in "Poor Cow", 1967 POOR-COW

Aborigine (Dogs Are Everywhere EP, 1986)
Aborigine at Pulpwiki

Modern life, as one of Pulp’s britpop contemporaries later noted, is rubbish – and the everyday drudgery and frustration of the common life is perhaps the most rubbish part of all, especially to those who have dreams or aspirations of any sort (i.e. everybody.) We started this era with Little Girl (With Blue Eyes), which for all its pop trappings was nevertheless an insightful, heartfelt slice of genuine empathy. In the following couple of years topics became more improbable and the treatment became more melodramatic – until with songs like 97 Lovers the band appeared to be verging on the histrionic.

Aborigine is, given these criteria, an unqualified return to form. What it absolutely is not, though, is a pop song. Any ambition the group had of bringing the kitchen sink into the charts now seems to have faded from view. Whether you view this as a retreat or not depends on your idea of what the band should be. It can’t be denied, however, that Aborigine is a wholly successful piece of music – dark and troubling, but lacking the depressing malaise that dogs much of Freaks.

Aborigine isn’t, of course, about Australian natives. The title (presumably a working title which was never changed) refers to the low drone introducing the piece – not a didgeridoo, but Russell slowly bowing a bass guitar. Actually everything about the track is a drone, down to Jarvis’s hypnotically dull vocals, which he intones like a man in a psychotic trance. The protagonist has indeed been driven to psychosis, first by the disappointments and tedium of adult life, and later by the wife and family he wrongly thought could comfort him. His mental state is a highly sensitised form of dulled stupidity – the insanity felt if you sit in a yellow-wallpapered room listening to your own tinnitus too long. Boredom has led to discomfort, and aggression is all he has left to grasp for. Though generalised and focused on one specific issue the lyrics paint a nevertheless vivid picture. “Stupid animal that can’t know why / Something’s wrong so someone has to die” – the words may stick in the same note, but the hypnotic trance has a rhythm – each line is measured into rhyming couplets – not exactly iambic pentameter, but finely crafted all the same. You can almost taste the bitterness of this cabin fever. The fact that these experiences were drawn from Jarvis’s imagination rather than his own failing relationship truly demonstrates his growth as a lyricist.

Elsewhere Simon Hinkler’s production is again key to the track’s success. He seems to have been the only person capable of restraining the band from their dramatic excesses. It’s been suggested that Aborigine is a rip-off of Joy Division, but while it does have a vague resemblance, it’s far too original to be called a facsimile. Behind the drone we have a steady build-up of energy and aggression, driven by a seemingly primitive motorik beat which turns out on closer analysis to be a completely un-danceable stuttering quintuple-metre. At two points (which we probably can’t call “the chorus” – but that’s where they go at least) the tension gives way to a brief but brilliant instrumental break. Jarvis forces out a short series of unconnected guitar phrases, Magnus bangs his sticks together, and somehow it’s utterly addictive, and all the better for waiting through the psychotically monotonous buildup.

At the end we have the inevitable climax, consisting of a steady increase in violence and power until Jarvis is almost screaming. Though this breaks the spell somewhat, it’s probably necessary to express the vast downwards slope of despair and destruction down which our protagonist is falling and it’s difficult to think of any other way the track could have finished. After the climax, Jarvis repeats the song’s mantra, only this time using his true voice. Odd as it may seem, this is the first time we have heard him speak without any kind of posture or affectation. Yes, it’s just a muttered coda to a b-side, but it still feels like the start of something.