Tag Archives: funk

#110 – Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia)

5 Oct

styloroc picture

Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia) (B-side to ‘Babies’, 1992)
Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia) (Live, October ’92 ULU)
Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia) at Pulpwiki

“Happening in a cul-de-sac near you.” – Original sleeve notes.
“I tried to sing along with it, but it sounded like Whitesnake.” – Jarvis Cocker

Styloroc = another session jam worked up into nearly a song and built up in the studio for the Island demo.

(Nites of Suburbia)
= The overdubs three months later where Jarvis added a spoken word section, taken from the band’s blurb on an obscure cassette from 1987. The title is taken from the song they’d contributed to the tape – the theme inspiring the piece. Otherwise the two songs are unrelated.

Styloroc article

#102 – Space

10 Aug

Space (B-side to ‘O.U.’, 1992)
Space (BBC Hit The North Soundcheck, 1991)
Space (French Version) – Live at La Cigale, Paris, October 1991
Space at Pulpwiki

In a mute embrace, they drifted up till they were swimming amongst the misty wraiths of moisture that you can see feathering around the wings of an aeroplane… …Arthur and Fenchurch could feel them, wispy cold and thin, wreathing round their bodies, very cold, very thin… …They were in the cloud for a long time, because it was stacked very high, and when finally they emerged wetly above it, Fenchurch slowly spinning like a starfish lapped by a rising tidepool, they found that above the clouds is where the night get seriously moonlit. The light is darkly brilliant. There are different mountains up there, but they are mountains, with their own white arctic snows.

from Douglas Adams’s “So Long And Thanks For All The Fish”

“I remember when I was young watching the first man on the moon. The people at NASA were saying that by 1984 we’d all be living on different planets, and we believed them completely. There didn’t seem to be any reason why we wouldn’t…. …I suppose I finally realised that it was all a fantasy when I was 22. I didn’t have any money and there wasn’t much coming in from the band so I was selling off my belongings. I distinctively remember tromping around Sheffield with a yellow portable washing machine, trying to sell it to get the money for some food. It was pissing down and I thought to myself, Jarvis, you were supposed to be living in space by now. It was pretty obvious by then that it wasn’t going to happen. You have to stop living your life for the future.”

Jarvis in “Volume Two”, November 1991

My favourite Pulp album isn’t an album at all; it’s just a ‘compilation’ – up there with ‘Freshly Squeezed… the Early Years’ and ‘Pulp It Up’ in the catalogue of forgotten cash-ins. ‘Intro’ certainly doesn’t deserve this fate, but as tragedies go, it’s fairly minor, and if its songs remain unknown to the general public, it’s a price worth paying for the fact that it represents a heroic rescue project for a group mired in legal problems.

1991 was a year of mixed fortunes for Pulp. On the plus side, Jarvis and Steve had finished their degrees, the band was again a full-time project, sounding better than ever, and the music press was finally beginning to take notice. But at the same time, Rough Trade and Fire were still out of action, the now two-year-old Separations was still a year away from getting a release, and Pulp were signed up to record another 4 LPs for an inoperative organisation which they had a poor relationship with at the best of times. The group’s new manager, Suzanne Catty, was attempting to help them escape this contract and set up a deal with Island Records, but the impasse with Fire seemed to be growing in complexity by the day, with multiple claims and counter-claims about the legality of the deal. Waiting it out is never fun, especially when you’re on a creative roll, but recording an album on borrowed money and then being unable to release it, well, that way lies madness.

Fortunately a solution was at hand. The group’s old friends at FON and Warp were enjoying a surge of critical and commercial success, and Jarvis and Steve had played their part, producing music videos for Sweet Exorcist and Nightmares on Wax. The group would record a session at FON (paid for as a demo by Island) which could then be released on a Warp sub-label, christened ‘Gift Records’. The session took place in January 1992 and the single – O.U. backed with Space – was released in May. If the problems had been sorted at this stage then all would’ve been fine – the new LP recorded later that year and released just in time to cash-in on the buzz – but as it turned out the morass would continue for the best part of two years, and the Gift singles turned from a one-off to a trilogy. His ‘n’ Hers – the album that was finally put out on Island in 1994 – contains only one track from the Gift singles, and that originally as a CD-only bonus track.

The thing is, Intro seems to work better as an album than His ‘n’ Hers does. It’s not just the selection of songs, it’s the way they interplay with each-other, the way they are laid out for you. ‘Space’ – still vivid and atmospheric nearly twenty years after it was written – is the perfect opener.

It had been the perfect opener for their live sets for a good few years too – a natural progression from the drones and atmospherics of ‘Hydroelectric Dam’ and ‘Heart Trouble’. Taken as a single song, it’s then perhaps the oldest thing on Intro, but early versions were surely quite different from the finished product we know. The words at the start were always improvised, and the few versions we have vary hugely, though the basic concept is always there. There’s something dissatisfying about hearing these other versions, though – perhaps the lyrics are meandering and odd, maybe Candida’s synth is too intrusive – and comparison to the ‘official’ version never flatter. The best-known of these alternative versions is from the ‘Hit The North’ soundcheck, as it was later included for some reason on the His’n’Hers deluxe edition. It’s not bad exactly, the boogie at the end is joyfully furious, but the first half is a bit too Spinal Tap. So let’s just stick to what I’ll take as the definitive version – the b-side to ‘O.U.’, later included on Intro.

We start with that electronic hum – a sci-fi version of the keyboard drone from the start of Fairground, almost. Instead of melodramatic threat, though, we’re drifting into a soundscape with a monologue. It’s a guided dream again, or an astral projection. An easy journey to other planets. Life on Earth is humdrum tedium – “selling washing machines in the rain” – tasks and routines that tie you down. And now we’re weightless, floating free. That “we” is telling. Rather than being directed at the audience the monologue is presented to a partner who’s troubled by the heaviness of life. “You said you wanted some space…” Eastern religion has never been a theme for Pulp, but this letting go of earthly things sounds like Buddhist mysticism – or a sexual version thereof. We’re still in the acid house hangover of the early 90s, and taking off into space to touch the stars was very much de-rigeur.

Every rave has its comedown though – that moment a kernel of disbelief swells into a new reality;

“All the stars are bright, but they don’t give out any heat. The planets are lumps of rock, floating in a vacuum.”

And then, of course, “I think it’s time to go home” – the mystical morphs into the physical, time to stop stargazing and direct your gazes downward. This is where the talking ends, as it must. A muttered “get down” and we launch into Pulp’s funkiest moment yet. Jarvis steps back from the action and lets the rhythm section take over. Steve, Nick and Candida seemed to gel in this era like never before or since. Who knows if it was the Barry White, the acid house or the years stuck in a practice room without a gig or a session in sight, but they just seem to have instinctively been able to produce this dirty blaxploitation spy movie groove from thin air. Candida is the vital piece in this setup – she led the first half, and her keyboards push this section forward too, as it builds to a climax like the sex its meant to replicate, and suddenly dissipates with a sigh.

That release of energy sets us up for all that’s to come in the next eight tracks – all has been reset, and it’s time to start again. There’s no manifesto here – this descent to earth is if anything the rejection of the very idea of manifestos, but history has still been wiped clean, and here we are again with tabula rasa. Life starts in ’92.

“This album comprises the three singles released by Pulp on Sheffield’s Gift Records during 1992/3.
It is intended as an introduction to the group for those who may have missed these songs first time around. Welcome.”
– Sleeve notes to ‘Intro’.

#99 – My Legendary Girlfriend

13 Jul

MLG Single

My Legendary Girlfriend (Separations, 1992)
My Legendary Girlfriend (BBC Soundcheck – Caff Single, 1992)
My Legendary Girlfriend (Music Video)
My Legendary Girlfriend (Live Video, The New Sessions)
My Legendary Girlfriend at Pulpwiki
My Legendary Girlfriend (Hit The North Soundcheck) at Pulpwiki

“That was about my girlfriend that I’d had in Sheffield. See, I never liked to mix business with pleasure. I’ve always kept my private life separate from music. So I’ve always gone out with girls who aren’t interested in music, and so people always asked me about my legendary girlfriend, because they’d never seen me with her.” – Jarvis in Record Collector #184, December 1994

Some groups break through suddenly, others take their time. Pulp took the journey as a series of uneven steps – and with My Legendary Girlfriend, we’ve reached one of the larger ones. In another world, this would have been their first big hit, and in a sense it was, but approaching it now it stands out as both half-forgotten (it has been rarely played live since around 1993) and – yes – legendary.

By 1989, Jarvis had been attempting to be a pop star for more than a decade, and failing by any measurable standards. The lyrics, the look and the music itself had all been rather hit and miss, and even when they been utterly wonderful, it had always been as the makers of outsider art of one form or another, always offering a challenge to any accidental listener. There had been experiments at making pop songs, sure, but they had been variously guilty of assuming popular music equalled dumbed down mulch and throwing ‘dark’ elements into the mix to counteract the pop fizz.

My Legendary Girlfriend is an astonishing record because it sweeps all of this away and reveals artists who are able to use popular forms to give their material greater depth rather than compromise it – to take what must have seemed to be odd fringe elements of their styles and tastes and tie them together to make something fresh and appealing. There are new things here, of course, but also much that has been covered before. Here are the night-time wanderings of Blue Glow and Being Followed Home, the breathy monologue of Goodnight, the separated lovers of Separations – but all tied together into a compelling, vivid story.

The catalyst for this is something the world of 1980s indie music had forgotten about – the groove. To the already unlikely-looking list of influences already mentioned we have to add Barry White – an artist much maligned in the last couple of decades (i.e. ‘The Walrus of Love’, Vic & Bob, etc) and remembered mainly for commercial love ballads rather than his smooth Love Unlimited Orchestra funk. My Legendary Girlfriend draws from the song of his you’re most likely to have heard – though if you’ve been listening to Heart FM they’ve been depriving you of the vital section. Before you continue reading, please have a listen here to the intro (the first 50 seconds or so) – the bass, the rhythm, the muttered vocals, the ‘we got it together’, sound at all familiar? Unlikely as it may seem now, this group of apparent misfits on the fringes of society had been listening to “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything,” tried jamming a version of it with Jarvis improvising lyrics on top and suddenly everything just clicked. For a while, the song was simply called ‘Barry White Beat’.

It wasn’t like funk was unheard of in Sheffield – this is the town and the recording studio that gave us Chakk after all – but earlier examples had generally been of the angular, moody sort – the kind you couldn’t dance to without doing a line of whizz and glaring around the dancefloor. My Legendary Girlfriend isn’t moody, though, it doesn’t strike poses. Disguised as it is by the MIDI-sequencing that took over much of Separations, that very human, gut-driven funk is still the driving force. To hear this clearly, listen to the live version released as a limited edition single by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne the same year – nothing is sequenced here, just a group of musicians getting into a groove together, and the song is all the better for it.

This isn’t to do down the studio version of the song, though – they were able to retain this feel despite the track being partially sequenced (on new machines they were just learning to use, let’s not forget) – and just to top it off added all manner of synths, effects, odd noises and effects, all adding to the track in different ways. Even Russell’s wah-wah guitar sounds utterly integral, though his influence in the group was waning by this point. Overall the production, like the song itself, is wildly ambitious – but for once they’ve hit their target, shot the moon.

The best part of all must be Jarvis’s vocal – ironic as there are very little in the way of fixed lyrics here. As we get into the era of recording-first, performance-second, Jarvis would get into the habit of procrastinating over putting down lyrics until he ended up writing them on the day he recorded them, but here the improvisation is all out in the open. Every live performance starts basically the same, then veers off in a different (and usually very odd) direction – the version on Separations has “oh, Pitsmoor Woman!” and “no cheese tonight” – the BBC soundcheck version “girl over there with the hot pants on” and our first sighting of “that bloke who tries to sell you felt tip pens”. But despite this, there’s more of a story here than in almost any of their previous work.

We start in his girlfriend’s bedroom – they’ve “finally made it”, she’s asleep, but something’s nagging at him. He goes to the window, returns to wake her, and they go wandering around the city together – either in reality or in a dream – this is intentionally unclear. After that it’s all feeling and free-association, the verses wracked with desperate yearning (“let me in, let me come in”), the chorus a descent into relief – but sad, lonely relief, the girl now deserted, abandoned. Which part is “real”, then? Maybe neither, maybe everything after “I wonder what it means” is a fantasy, it probably doesn’t matter.

Jarvis spent a lot of the 80s walking around Sheffield in the dark, and when he was gone it seemed to still be the landscape of his dreams. So many of Pulp’s best songs are about “the city at night.” This is a step up from ‘Blue Glow’ though – the city isn’t just frightening but is also alive with hidden sexual intrigue – a magical realm where deserted factories and cooling towers represent a fantasy playground, one whose endless hidden mysteries they are free to explore. Owen Hatherly calls this the “sexualised city” – a place where sensuality opens a gap for fantasy to bleed into reality.

Because THIS is the vital element that makes it all work. Up to this point Pulp had assiduously avoided talking about sex in all but the most perverse and uncomfortable fashions – “My blood upon the tarmac / I tore the dress from your back” “They make love beneath Roger” – all that. Perhaps it was the move away*, or the freedom of release from his first long-term relationship, or maybe just Barry White, but suddenly sex is a source of wonder and excitement rather than worry. This isn’t a lyrical device either – it extends into every aspect of the performance. The pretence of the croon is long forgotten, and instead he’s using his vocal to let something out. After a decade of control it’s almost shocking to hear the pants and groans he puts into the performance. The sheer cheek of pretending he’s a sex symbol, the audacity to somehow pull it off.

Staple of the indie disco as it may or may not have been,** My Legendary Girlfriend has lost none of its vitality through the years. This is Pulp at the top of their game, the start of the band we love, their first undeniable classic, their “This is us, and we’re just getting started.”

(A note on the video – it’s not a classic but a decent recording of a good performance, and that’s enough. Apparently it was a nightmare to make, but on the plus side Jarvis’s comments offer us a rare glimpse into the world of Pulp in 1991 – “There were quite a few false starts on this one. First we tried filming something in the room of the East End pub where the great train robbery was planned (don’t ask why). Unfortunately we didn’t light it enough and so ended up with mostly black film. I then shot some stuff of my girlfriend of the time but then split up with her and became too depressed to use it… hmmm. We were now in a difficult position as I had spent just about all of Fire’s massive £200 budget and had nothing to show for it. Unchained Melody was at number one at the time and I liked the way it used one performance of the song filmed from various angles as the video. So we decided to try and do something similar in the photo studio at St Martin’s. We blew the rest of the budget on a star-cloth background and I ended up having to make Nick a drum kit out of cardboard because we couldn’t afford to bring the real one down. Luckily, it worked.”)

*Unlikely as Jarvis has said he went through a sexual drought during his time in London
**It was already becoming a rarity when I started going in the late 90s. We’d hear that drumbeat, dash onto the dancefloor, then every time it would turn out to be ‘I Am The Resurrection’ instead.