Tag Archives: failing relationship

#77 – The Never-Ending Story

23 Feb

slvfreaksremaster8

The Never-Ending Story (Freaks, 1987)
The Never-Ending Story at Pulpwiki

Sprouts are a very divisive vegetable. Some find the taste to be utterly repellant, Most people tolerate them, but don’t really enjoy them all the same. A few love to eat them, and can’t wait until Christmas rolls around so they can finish off a bowl of the things.

And so it is with ‘The Never-Ending Story’. Even the song’s worst critics (and there are plenty of those) will admit it’s bold and original. Even the song’s fans (few though they are) will concede that it’s sort of horrible. As one of those annoying people who would always rather music be unpleasant than boring, I’d say this – there’s something here. Something that doesn’t exactly charm the ear, yes, but something worth trying all the same.

The newest song recorded for Freaks, TNES represents a bold lunge forward into a musical abyss. On one level it’s another attempt at playing Slavic music, though by the time of recording it’s been twisted beyond all recognition. Russell’s shrill, piercing violin provides the stuttering jig at the heart of the piece, backed up by heavy, thumping beats from Magnus’s kettledrum. Candida’s hypnotic, malevolent organ drone works against the grain of the song, warping the rhythm into a scream. Jarvis’s low-pitched vocal follows the drone most of the time before looping around into yodels (“oh-hyaay-oo-oh” anyone) like a diagram of wind resistance. The verses are quick, the chorus excruciatingly slow, like a wounded animal being dragged along the street. It all shouldn’t work, and it doesn’t, but it sort of does.

What could all this be in aid of? Surprisingly enough it’s a last-gasp attempt at capturing the state of Jarvis’s terrible relationship – the last we’ll be seeing here, and consequently a bit of a grab-bag of left-over metaphors. The relationship is a dance where they endlessly drift apart and meet again, it’s a Hammer horror movie with a mad scientist constantly bringing a useless, suffering corpse back to life, it’s a compulsively-picked, bleeding scab. Everything but the kitchen sink, then, but stretching and mixing metaphors seems to suit the jumbled frustration of the song. everything has become a confusing mess and a bizarre parody of nothing, but it still somehow continues. Again, brilliant, terrible and brilliant.

To me TNES sounds interesting enough to be a single, but in reality it might’ve been an even less popular choice than Master of the Universe. After the recording session it quickly slipped out of the band’s set, a shame, as its energy and passion seemed to go down well in a live setting. Ultimately a messy dead-end, it seems to have finally ended up been “borrowed” by The Wonder Stuff for their 1992 top-10 hit Welcome to the Cheap Seats.

#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.

#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.

#70 – 97 Lovers

5 Jan

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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.

#63 – There’s No Emotion

17 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#62 – Life Must Be So Wonderful

10 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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.