Tag Archives: horror

#119 – You’re a Nightmare

14 Dec

Last Year at Marienbad

You’re a Nightmare (7/2/93 Peel session)
You’re a Nightmare at Pulpwiki

‘You’re a Nightmare’ is a step back into the Freaks era.

If the early nineties were about sex and suburbia and the mid-80s were about “power, claustrophobia, suffocation and holding hands” then it’s quite clear where ‘You’re a Nightmare’ belongs. A low-key ballad dealing with personal experience expressed as if it were hammer horror, a simple, brooding bassline, lounge-style guitar, the semi-acoustic stripped-down sound of Dogs Are Everywhere (particularly the version on the French DYRTFT? single) – well, that’s enough to start with, surely? The thing that really nails it, though, is Jarvis’s performance. While a little more accomplished than before, his vocal is essentially a last encore for the croon he’d left behind on his move to London.

The odd, very personal-sounding middle eight also bears out this theory – fittingly it seems like a half-remembered dream: “In a hotel bedroom birthdays / Sleep in factory hallways / I remember always.” – without wanting to read too much into it, does this refer to the same doomed relationship of the Freaks era ballads? The Outrage tour and the Wicker factory building where Jarvis lived? Perhaps it’s better not to pry.

‘You’re a Nightmare’ is a step forward into the mid 90s.

Perhaps you need to face up to your ghosts in order to move on. The lyrics of You’re a Nightmare may have that horror feel of the 80s, but the open-eyed vindictiveness recalls the character assassination of ‘I Spy’. The subversion of the ‘with you in dreams’ trope, the simple rhyming scheme, it all seems designed to be accessible to a wider audience – which is, of course, where we’ll soon be moving. At a stretch, there’s something fundamentally poppy about the song too – it achieves its goals in a much more straightforward fashion, the chorus is moreorless singable, and Candida’s keyboards are cut down to more easily digestible illustrative warbles.

The one place ‘You’re a Nightmare’ doesn’t sound at home is in the jams and production-driven atmospherics of the early 90s.

Pulp had an odd relationship with John Peel. Schoolboy Pulp were invited in for the session that kickstarted their career and kept Jarvis out of university for most of the 80s, then Peel managed to forget about them for the next eleven years. When Jarvis and Steve were invited to his house to play tracks from the then-new Different Class in 1995, John expressed his surprise and regret about this, saying that he would’ve invited them on if anyone had reminded him. To be fair I can’t think of anyone with a greater workload, but it’s still a shame that we don’t have a session from the Freaks or Separations eras with a professional BBC producer in charge. Maybe You’re a Nightmare is the best possible demonstration of what this would sound like – that is, very good, but still not up to the standard of ’93 and ’94 – a tough standard to judge it by, but contextually the only one possible.

There wouldn’t be a re-record. The session version was put out on the b-side of Lipgloss at the end of the year and therefore uniquely appears on both the expanded edition of the His ‘n’ Hers LP and The Peel Sessions. Not re-recording is odd – they were spending plenty of time in recording studios at the time and the session version has an unfinished feel about it, particularly in Jarvis’s vocal – he sounds vaguely ashamed as he sings, and it’s hard to tell whether this is related to the emotional entanglement or the difficulty in rhyming ‘on a bus’/’ridiculous’ and ‘first’/’worse’. Perhaps they thought this version captured something special, perhaps it was a throwaway of a song they didn’t care for,* maybe it was too personal in some way. Whatever the reason, it seems designed for cult listening, personal meaning to be either extracted or applied – and that’s a good enough fate for a session track.

*This seems unlikely – every release at this time seems to be meticulously worked out.

#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.

#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.

#73 – Goodnight

26 Jan

suburban_street_in_blue_by_havehart-d4248wr

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

Being an artist is often analogous to being an attention-seeker, and that’s probably why brashness and energy are essential for anyone seeking a career in music. There are very few musicians who would like their work to be described as “soporific” – making your audience switch off and drift away is exactly what they’re trying hard not to do. There is ambient music, of course, but that’s off in a world by itself. For gigging bands, playing in noisy bars in front of drunk people, the temptation must always be to get faster and louder.

“Goodnight” was never played live, of course. How could it be? A concept piece that sounded like falling asleep would be unlikely to go down well with even the more sober late night punters. Instead it’s something of a studio creation, reliant on subtle production tricks and atmospherics, created as a low-key closer to the ‘Dogs Are Everywhere’ EP.

Descriptions of the deserted night-time streets of the city are fairly commonplace by this point. The innovation here is the introduction of the intimate spoken-word narrative. It’s a vital element in the band’s sound for the rest of their career, and for good reason. Limited as he was as a crooner, Jarvis has always had a sonorous, authoritative timbre to his voice when speaking, and the freedom gained from abandoning the structures and conventions of singing allowed him to present much more vividly realized material and play with the natural cadences of his voice rather than be constrained by it.

For the first half of ‘Goodnight’ he guides you gently back home to your house before lulling you to sleep. Instruments start to fade in – first organ and then a beautiful dulcimer backing. Both sound like they are guiding you to heaven. Meanwhile an odd counterpoint chorus pops in and out, like a dark thought niggling at your subconscious – something’s not quite right. The imagery becomes increasingly hazy until “there’s something you’ve forgotten” and we launch into the now-customary nightmare sequence, a panic that if we’re going to heaven then – of course! – that means leaving life behind. This nightmare is thankfully less jarring than usual, the backing continuing to increase in intensity, but not launching into a different tune. Jarvis is singing again, but his vocals have been treated to sound resonant and metallic, and are mixed low enough to avoid the silliness of ‘Master of The Universe’.

‘Goodnight’ is in its own quiet little way a bold leap forward. It would’ve been nice if Jarvis could have gone with the concept, trusted his speaking voice to carry the entire track (instead of launching into an ill-advised whispered version of his croon on the choruses) and not felt the need to add the usual gothic doom to the conclusion, but for a couple of minutes at least we really have something rather special.

#67 – Manon

15 Dec

Manon (B-Side to ‘Master of the Universe’, March 1987 – recorded June 1985)
Manon (Video, October 1985)
Manon at Pulpwiki

We’ve seen plenty of odd decisions from Pulp in the 1980s, both creatively and commercially, but nothing comes close to the time and effort spent on the utter folly that is ‘Manon’. It was the subject of the group’s earliest available music video, chosen as a representative track on the ‘Imminent 4’ compilation on the fledgling Food Records, and finally dragged out of the archives as a b-side to the line-up’s final single, Master of the Universe. Accompanied there by the unremittingly awful ‘Silence’ it sounds, well, acceptable. But is ‘acceptable’ enough?

The concept is clear; another horrific tale of a relationship gone sour – only this time the woman is dead and the man can’t bring himself to properly dispose of her body, a bit like a melancholy version of Weekend At Bernie’s, then, only without any (intentional) comedy. The protagonist is called Manon, a name Jarvis had borrowed from a Serge Gainsbourg song of the same name, erroneously believing it to be male. His poor grasp of the language is further exposed in the final verse, where he outlines in mortifying schoolboy French that “Sa femme est morte – oui, c’est vrai.” – later he would comment that he “spoil[ed] it by speaking in French towards the end, which is embarrassing” – but his vocal performance throughout is also very much short of being something special, the melody requiring him to make sudden gulping leaps, which his artificially low baritone is unable to manage.

“Manon’ is not without its strengths. The tune itself, though dirge-like, has a certain mournful atmosphere, and without the vocals could conceivably be worked into something quite beautiful. Russell’s violin, sometime Achilles heel of the group, here fits the theme perfectly. You can imagine him as the poor deluded widower playing a requiem on his broken old fiddle. There’s no use talking about missed potential and hidden qualities, though. Manon simply isn’t enjoyable to listen to, and were it gone from the Pulp discography it’s unlikely that anyone would miss it.

#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.