Tag Archives: freaks

#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?

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#49 – Anorexic Beauty

11 Aug

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

Eight unusual things about Anorexic Beauty by Pulp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#48 – Don’t You Know

4 Aug

Don’t You Know (Sudan Gerri Demo)
Don’t You Know (Freaks)
Don’t You Know at Pulpwiki

Another entry in the list of dark sixties ballads here – but this one is less warped, almost cheerful, and sounding positively like a pop song when contrasted with the other nightmares on the second side of Freaks.

You can look at Don’t You Know either as a potential classic narrowly averted, or as a mediocre demo, polished up into something fairly good at the last moment. That second view seems to be the one held by the band at the time. An early demo isn’t particularly promising, and the song had been out of the band’s set for two years by the time Freaks was recorded.

This version (from the Sudan Gerri tape) is the rougher by far, with a strummy 80s garage rock feel. Lacking some of the more subtle touches added later, it instead features Magnus thrashing about on his drums at double the speed of the rest of the band, like Animal from The Muppets.

The finished version on Freaks, on the other hand, is all sweetness and light. While the different members of the band sound like they’ve got entirely different ideas about what sort of song this is, the production ties them together almost seamlessly. It’s a bit of a surprise for the production to save a song on an album largely spoiled by poor production, but it’s not a typical Freaks song we’re dealing with here. The main improvement in this version is Candida. Her chiming oriental piano transforms the first half of the chorus utterly, and her three note piano riff pretty much defines the song. In the bridge she even gets to perform a short solo which sounds almost like a snatch of Chinese classical music.

The only real let-down in the song is Jarvis. Lyrically the song is, as Owen Hatherly puts it, a “mediation on dependency and futility”, but it’s a fairly half-hearted one, lacking the insight of ‘I Want You’. The only conclusion reached in the end is that love is hard and it can break you, a true enough statement but one which doesn’t require a master lyricist. His main problem, though, is in the vocal take, which is frankly less than satisfactory. The first line of the chorus is slightly out of step with the rest of the tune, and is so flat that Jarvis ends up speaking it rather than attempting to sing. Then in the second half of the chorus he decides to put himself through all manner of vocal gymnastics, but rather than expressing passion (as was presumably intended) they just sound strained and unnatural.

#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.