Tag Archives: freaks

End of Part Two (an Audience Participation Special)

23 Mar

“It was recorded for £600 – in one week. The producer disowned it: he didn’t want his name on it! This was the low point, emotionally, of my life. It’s such a depressing album. There’s some decent songs but they’re badly done.” – Jarvis in Record Collector, December 1994

‘Freaks’, the long-awaited culmination of nearly five years of the band’s work, was quietly released on the 11th of May, 1987. The songs on it, bar the singles, had already been dropped from the group’s set, the sound-defining rhythm section had been replaced, and what little publicity it received was muted, especially when it came to interviews with Jarvis and Russell, who had already shifted their attention to newer, more exciting projects. Since then its reputation has, if anything, worsened. Reviews of reissues range from ‘terrible’ to ‘flawed but interesting’ and Jarvis has consistently expressed embarrassment at the “depressing” feel and the amateurish production.

The problem is that these sweeping dismissals mean we miss some fundamental things about the album. Yes, it’s depressing in parts, but why shouldn’t it be? Leonard Cohen and The Cure seem to have made a career out of producing depressing albums and don’t tend to castigate themselves for it. The production is poor in places, yes, but it’s more rushed than ruined, and some pretty special performances have survived intact. The real problem is the mix of songs. With such a varied selection available to them, it’s a mystery why they chose all the slowest ballads and all the wackiest novelties rather than any of the upbeat or experimental tracks we’ve seen on the singles. It’s not that the songs are bad, but piling them all together like this gives the listener a growing sense of catatonic madness – and not (always) in a good way.

Here’s my suggestion for a better track listing. I’ve had to lose some of my favourite songs, and have included a couple I’m not particularly keen on, simply because these seem to fit together better than other combinations.

Side A

1. Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)
2. Blue Glow
3. The Mark of the Devil
4. I Want You
5. Being Followed Home

Side B
6. Aborigine
7. There’s No Emotion
8. Life Must Be So Wonderful
9. They Suffocate At Night
10. Tunnel

I’ve made a youtube playlist of this new order, which you can find here.
What would your idea track listing for ‘Freaks’ be? Please let me know in the comments below

Advertisements

#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.”

#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.

#66 – Being Followed Home

8 Dec

Being Followed Home (Freaks, 1987)
Being Followed Home at Pulpwiki

Listening to Freaks-era Pulp can often be a frustrating experience. With a little patience you can tell what they were aiming for, but also that they were following a blind trail up a dark alley. Jarvis’s deep sixties croon, Russell’s out-of-tune violin, tortured borderline-pretentious lyrics about death and perversion… It all simply wasn’t going to work, and comparison with their 1990s work shows that a different approach was needed. But then Being Followed Home blows this idea out of the water. Suddenly everything works perfectly.

In part this can be attributed to a level of professionalism above and beyond anything else on the album. Every note is well-chosen, every line well-crafted, Jarvis’s flat baritone slightly raised and steadied, the violin subtlety used to recreate the sudden jolts of a rising heartbeat, the lyrics well-crafted. An unmatched amount of talent and work are evident throughout. Thematically we’re not exploring new ground. Paranoia, dream narratives, journeys through the city at night – these have been common themes throughout the band’s career* – but here they are tied together perfectly. The title is the catalyst – is there any fear more primal than being followed by a malevolent force at night-time?

England can be a surprisingly scary place, especially at 3am on a Sunday. The clubs have closed, the crazies are out, and all you can do is keep your head down, avoid eye-contact and keep walking – quickly, but not too quickly. Freaks tend to draw attention. Cities are places where you can blend in, but when all the regular people have gone home to bed your cover is blown. Other people are walking the same route; are they harmless, just making their own way home? Or are they following you?

It’s a familiar situation, but Pulp manage to take it to new places. This is not so much a song, more a treatment for a post-punk-opera. In fact it’s cinematic enough that it sits in the part of my memory usually reserved for short films, and possessed of a very odd ABCBCDBA sequence taken from the realms of 15-minute prog-rock epics of the early 70s.

We start with echoey footsteps taken from Jarvis’s BBC sound effects LP, a low-key but determined guitar line, he mutters under his breath that he’s being followed home, and then the second guitar line comes in with a sudden jolt in tempo – a quickening step to test whether he really is being followed. As he walks he’s distracted by vivid memories from his recent past, a failed affair – he’s clearly still in love, obsessed by a supposedly indelible memory of this woman – but something has gone terribly wrong and he’s left her forever.

Romantic dreams can swamp the brain, though, can make someone lose focus. After a couple of verses of this we’re shaken back to the chase. He knows who his pursuers are – “the one with the dog breath in the tattoo bar” – and now they’re chasing him over garden walls, down dark alleys. The music has jumped into an altogether different place too – the panic and paranoia reflected in a helter-skelter jumble of opposing rhythms and noises. Magnus’s percussion really comes alive here, with sudden fills and crashes surprising yet superbly well-timed. Then we build to a climax, “the corner’s turned… and it’s too late.”

This would usually be the part to jolt awake from the nightmare, but instead he “awoke on a beach sometime later to a grey and sunless sky.” (this has to be one of my favourite Pulp lyrics of all-time) – he’s beaten and bruised, but now his memories of the beating and the romantic disappointment are all mingled and confused. The world has conspired to batter him from both sides. We return to the early verses, but now as a series of grizzly flashbacks – the other kind of indelible. But time can heal everything – his wounds begin to heal, and his memories begin to fade. The handprints in the sand that “would last forever” have been swept away by the sea – he’s forgotten the fear, but also the passion.

There’s a sense that all of this is a metaphor, but a literal interpretation seems equally valid. No matter what personal triumphs or tragedies are fresh in your mind, the world can be a cruel and random place. As the track finishes we return to the start. A recurring dream? A repeat? Or a memory that won’t go away? He’s being followed home.

*Though ‘paranoia’ would soon be replaced by ‘sex’

#64 – Fairground

24 Nov

Fairground (Freaks, 1987)
Fairground at Pulpwiki

“The other reason we called it ‘Freaks’ was because we always get called freaks, the escape party from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, stuff like that. When we play live, everybody dwells on the fact that I’m thin with specs, Russell looks like Count Dracula, Candida although she’s 23 looks 14, while Pete looks like a football hooligan. We were always getting called freaks so we thought let’s call the LP ‘Freaks’ just to… put two fingers up.” – Jarvis Cocker, Sounds, 27th June 1987

Are you normal or are you weird? It’s a question we’ve all had to answer at one time, usually in high school. And then you have to decide whether you’re one or the other. Sometimes it’s easier just to go with the flow – being a freak is, in a way, a liberating experience. You can do whatever you like and people will pay attention to you. Take this to its logical extreme and eventually you’re a sideshow attraction. Come and see the freak, kids! This could’ve been you if you’d been unlucky / lucky / clever / stupid / different. Of course, if you’re just trying to be yourself (that being the normal state of things) then this can all be a bit too much to take.

‘Fairground’, the opening track on Freaks, presents the group as a particularly unpleasant carnival sideshow act. It’s not exactly an easy listen. Every note, from the woozy fairground organ to the distorted screaming and the way it keeps shifting into unexpected keys seems to be designed to make this listener confused and uncomfortable. Russell’s intention was always to weed out the more casual or conservative listeners, and he must have been successful here. Despite the poor quality of the recording, this cacophony is intentional, and had been planned for years.

That isn’t to say that the recording session was a success. ‘Freaks’ is the very definition of a poorly produced album. The limited time and resources availiable meant that moreorless everything was a rough first take, and no song suffered more than Fairground. The night after the recording Jarvis lay in bed groaning with embarrasment at the memory of his studio-improvised ‘carny’ announcements in the instrumental section and swore he would remove them the next day.* Arriving back at the recording studio they found that the masters had already been wiped. The unsatisfactory rough mix was to be the only version recorded.

So far, so bad then. But Fairground is actually very successful in acheiving what the group set out to do – whether that corresponds to anyone’s idea of ‘good music’ or not. Russell’s monologue alone is magnificently theatrical and creepy, a song-length summary of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. The narrator keeps switching between a demented ringmaster and a bewildered spectator, taking a tour around a selection of fairground oddities**, but the astonishing thing is that nothing actually happens – nothing worse than being subjected to ridicule at least. Yet there’s an overwhelming sense of “something wrong here.”

The evil circus trope is one we’re all familiar with, and its signifiers sound obvious enough to make it into a particularly specialised sub-genre. Waltz time, a fairground organ playing simple scales, slightly out of tune, evil laughter. So when I set out to make a mix of the best of this music I was surprised at how few musicians could carry it off without sounding corny and fake. Nox Arcana were particularly disappointing. The best of what I could find is gathered on this podcast. Listen to it at your own risk (of being mildly irritated).

* His vocals are actually fairly good. You’d have thought they’d have been embarrassed about a few other things though.
** Are the “three identical sisters” a reference to Artery’s ‘Into The Garden’? It certainly seems possible.

#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.