Tag Archives: improvised lyrics

#132 – His ‘n’ Hers

10 Jul

His and hers

His ‘n’ Hers (The Sisters EP, 1994)
His ‘n’ Hers (Live film, ‘Butt Naked’ 1994)
His ‘n’ Hers (Live film, ‘The Beat’ 1994)
His ‘n’ Hers (Live film,’ 1994)
His ‘n’ Hers (Live film, Pomona, California, 2011)
Compilation of live adlibs
His ‘n’ Hers at Pulpwiki

“This was the English passion, not for self-improvement or culture or wit, but for DIY, Do It Yourself, for bigger and better houses with more mod cons, the painstaking accumulation of comfort and, with it, status – the concrete display of earned cash.”
Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia

“In the homes of the middle-middles and below, the ‘lounge’ (as they call it) is likely to have a fitted carpet. The higher castes prefer bare floorboards, often part-covered with old Persian carpets or rugs. The middle-middle ‘lounge’ might have a cocktail cabinet, and their dining room a hostess trolley. The contents of lower-middle and some upper-working ‘front rooms’ will often be obscured by net curtains, but they are likely to be dominated by large television sets and, among the older generation, may boast embroidered or lacy covers on the arms of chairs and carefully displayed ‘collections’ of small objects (spoons, glass animals, Spanish dolls, figurines) from package holidays or mail-order catalogues”
Kate Fox, Watching the English – The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

“Do you have any idea what it’s like being English? Being so correct all the time, being so stifled by this dread of doing the wrong thing, of saying to someone “Are you married?” and hearing “My wife left me this morning,” or saying, uh, “Do you have children?” and being told they all burned to death on Wednesday. You see, Wanda, we’ll all terrified of embarrassment. That’s why we’re so… dead. Most of my friends are dead, you know, we have these piles of corpses to dinner.”
John Cleese in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’

“Are you genuinely frightened by James Dean posters, Jarvis?”
“They’re everywhere. In clip frames. That ‘Boulevard Of Broken Dreams’ thing. He’s there with his coat, hunched up, in Times Square. You grow up seeing sad kids trying to look like him. Every time you go to get a takeaway he’s there on the wall. It’s like Marilyn Monroe: they’re just around so much you get sick of the cliché. They represent a lack of imagination. Pathetic lip service to ‘I’m a rebel’. They’ve had all the life sucked out of them through over-use. The notion of “rebellion” seems increasingly dodgy… In music it’s stone-dead now. Institutionalised. Karaoke. Guns N’Roses.”

Interview in Melody Maker, 1994

Camille: Jarvis did this thing that I love. At first I thought it was weird, but now I like it. When we go out he checks to see what I’m wearing, like the colours or shapes. It’s not that he tries to match me but he can dress in the same family of colours. It’s this old school way of showing that you belong.
Jarvis: Yeah, but it’s not like we wear exactly the same thing. It’s not like it’s his n’ hers.
Camille: No, no, that’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s just like the same family of colours.
Jarvis: It’s about wearing something related.

Interview with Jarvis Cocker and Camille Bidault-Waddington at ONTD

Viewed from afar, English culture – particularly middle class English culture – is, to put it mildly, fucking weird. We are obsessed with rules – how to dress, how to eat, how to decorate your house, how to speak, how to interact with other people – and will use these indicators to instantly label strangers as belonging to a certain place and a certain class – or worse for not belonging to it, for importing ideas from outside, and therefore being either pretentious or morally suspect. It’s a deeply conservative, parochial instinct, but one which sometimes manifests itself, ironically, in the production of eccentrics. If you’re going to rebel against this suffocating duvet of a culture then you need to reject it entirely, take everything on your own terms – hence William Blake, Oscar Wilde, George Sitwell, Aleister Crowley, W. Heath Robinson, Stanley Unwin, Vivian Stanshall, Quentin Crisp, Alan Moore, Jarvis Cocker*…

That’s not a particularly happy list of people. British cultural norms are a heavy weight to cast off, and they leave their mark in a million petty, annoying ways. We are a small island, constantly in the grip of obsessions and fads. Entertainment, arts, food, people – these all seem to become famous at the whims of a selection of tastemakers, without the intervention of the public at all. Things arrived at in a more democratic manner – let’s call it pop culture / music** – are looked down on as being lower class, vulgar, simple, rubbish – and if you admit to liking them then you are, once again, either pretentious or somehow wrong in the head. Stepping out of what is accepted for your social group would cause embarrassment, and that would never do.

Embarrassment is a central tenet of the English mind, and a taste for moderation follows as an ingrained reflex. To be showy is to make a scene, and to purchase the same tasteful soft-furnishings as your friends and neighbours is a sure-fire method of avoiding burdening others with having to react to your tastes or emotions. Unconsciously we create boundaries between classes, regions and “foreign” – and this acts as a shortcut to know who’s in your circles and who isn’t. Pulp, meanwhile, are attempting to create their own circle, one constructed in opposition to these boundaries and prejudices. Beyond this song we have the very concept of “Pulp people” – the lists of Pulp things on concert flyers – the messages on the back of sleeves – all very inclusive, but all about rejecting the mediocrity of compromised everyday life.

But why reject compromise and comfort? Just “to be different”? Perhaps the enemy here is familiarity itself – for many this is the only source of comfort in an unpredictable world, but for others it has the effect of numbing the mind to all sensations. We (the narrator) are in the latter group, of course, let’s call it Modern Life is Suffocating. The woman in His ‘n’ Hers is a refuge from this feeling, but she also seems to be a member of the first group rather than the second. We are reminded from time to time that she’s an actual person, but she’s nevertheless viewed through the prism of his obsession. All he can see are the clichés, the litany of household tat, and even sex (the escape hatch in My Legendary Girlfriend and Sheffield: Sex City) has been reduced to a mechanical series of IKEA instructions – “pull the units down’, “shove it in sideways”. There’s a tangible disgust in his self-awareness of this, a horror in his own feelings, a shame, as desire to hide. This might seem strange (because he doesn’t seem to be doing anything terribly wrong) until you consider the obvious conclusion; that we’re talking about a dangerous, out-of-control fetish. While the narrator is repelled and alienated by these signifiers, he’s also secretly attracted to them. Each time, at the end of the chorus, he submits to her, but not enough to allow himself to be subsumed by these norms. Couplehood itself is a trap for him, he will lose himself in the creation of ‘us’ – a final surrender to everything he opposes, but he simply can’t help it. It’s a whirlpool of intense conflicting feelings, and he’s drowning.

This is the real difference from Frightened; the conjuring of all of this has been done on an extreme, but emotionally convincing level. It isn’t that Jarvis genuinely really feels this way (at least we hope), more that he’s been able to extrapolate his feelings to their unnatural conclusion. And with this sense of direction, his voice suddenly works too. We start with him sounding harsh and metallic, cold with an edge of desperation, and then witness him continually straining, losing his façade and breaking. This tension continues until the spoken word section*** salvaged from Frightened appears. Now it’s a confession to his girlfriend, who has asked him, harmlessly enough, what he’s frightened of. The resultant list of middle-class tat concludes with him admitting to a terror of “evenings in the Brincliffe Oaks, searching for a conversation” – i.e. numbness, absence of thought. “Are you stupid?” she says, and he surrenders once again. For a moment it seems that she can make it all better, drown the fear in earthy sexual joy and laughter, but then we cut back to “Are we going to do it again…?” and there is no redemption.

Of course, all this would’ve counted for nothing if His ‘n’ Hers wasn’t such an accomplished piece of music. Built more like a piece of ambient dance music than a traditional rock or pop song, it consists of various elements being added and then dropped as it progresses, with the illusion of normality being maintained only by Steve’s chugging backgrounded bassline and the mandatory gear-shift in and out of the chorus.

The first element to be introduced, and probably the most memorable, is Candida’s brilliantly ridiculous popcorn-style keyboard sequence, but the moment the song comes alive for me is with the looped drumroll dropped into the song at 40 seconds in. Then there’s the sickly waves of synth drone built up by Candida and Ed Buller. After the first chorus the drum loop changes to a Magnus-style tribal battering, then the creepy wandering guitar line starts to emerge, growing in prominence until the whole song has shifted its mood to an Italian horror soundtrack. Finally, as we get to “I want to…” everything comes back in together; a wave of intensity, which then breaks and falls back to the maddening background pressure.

It’s an astounding piece of music – all the more so for *not* jumping out at you. This sort of thematic and musical complexity, bordering on the avant-garde, is in its own way a high water-mark. Pulp would rarely again be this intense, this obsessed or this wilful in their pushing at the boundaries of what a pop song could be. Yet more astonishing is the fact that it was left off the LP, despite being the title track – I genuinely cannot fathom how or why this happened, but I can’t say it isn’t missed.

This is Pulp in 1994, and there’s nobody else doing anything like it.

*You may note that these are all men – historically there has been much more pressure on women to abide by social norms – nevertheless we could make an equally impressive female list, but they would be eccentrics of a different type.

**Not a separate category entirely – in fact there’s a great deal of overlap – but the difference can easily be seen in the different reactions of the middle class. Food culture is the perfect example of this, as can be seen as the different attitudes towards high class burger restaurants and McDonald’s. It may taste the same, or be equally unhealthy, but one is acceptable and one is not.

*** This spoken section was used in live performances for ad-hoc improvisations, starting with a bad-tempered rant against Depeche Mode and progressing into audience vox-pops. It was always a highlight – inclusive, inventive and making you feel like you’ve just seen something special and unique. His ‘n’ Hers was a mainstay of their sets for most of 1994, before being edged out by the appearance of the less claustrophobic material that would become the foundation of Different Class, which was a shame.

#104 – She’s A Lady

24 Aug

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She’s A Lady (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
She’s A Lady (Live at La Cigale, Paris, 1991)
“Cheesy Lady” (Live audio, Portsmouth, March 1993)
She’s A Lady (Live Video – No stilettos, 1993)
She’s A Lady (Live Video – Butt Naked, 1994)
She’s A Lady (Live Video – Glastonbury 1994)
She’s A Lady (Live Video – Santiago, Chile, 2012)
She’s A Lady at Pulpwiki

Sometimes this project is a joy, but this last couple of weeks it’s been more of a struggle. This time it’s not because the track is too big or too personal, but due to the daunting prospect of having to write about Jarvis Cocker’s burgeoning libido. It wasn’t the thing that brought me to the group in the first place, and it wasn’t what kept me around, but as a listener it’s something I have to deal with one way or another. Later on Jarvis would become more self-conscious about this, deconstruct it, start making fun of himself – and everyone could join in with that. At this point, though, we’re at 100% sincerity, and the only option is to enjoy the music and leave this part to those who appreciate it – and it goes without saying that there are many who do, and their view is, if anything, more valid than mine. But does engaging with a song like this mean I have to relate to the “I” or the “you”*? or is there another way in?

All of this is a problem until I actually listen to She’s A Lady again and the intro knocks these now minor quibbles out of my head. That threatening electronic pulse, curious random synthesised piano notes, muttered semi-audible comments from a fever dream, ominous clanging sounds, fuzzy guitar riffs coming in stronger, and yet stronger, then a sudden drop into ice-cold electro. It’s a masterpiece of Ed Buller’s painstaking production techniques – so clean that it sounds almost inhuman, so cold that it sounds like the work of no group at all – but all to drive a tale of red-blooded lust.

That’s hardly the only contradiction on show here either – the whole song is fuzzy in the extreme, a tangle of different ideas and influences without any fixed root. For a start this apparently slick studio product is in fact the oldest thing on His ‘n’ Hers apart from Babies, though early live versions bear little resemblance to the finished product. Well, the guts of the thing are there, but the lyrics and instrumentation are in flux. Aside from the chorus, Jarvis’s role in the earliest versions consists of improvising different stream-of-consciousness descriptions of encounters with a woman. One memorable version from a soundcheck in Portsmouth (included on bootlegs as ‘Cheesy Lady’) has the eponymous female working at the cheese counter at Safeway (“45 pence off Double Gloucester. Emmental is very cheap at this time of the year”).

The body of the song solidified by 1992, but there are still plenty of features that never made it to the record – a thumping drumbeat, an ominous bass-line and – most importantly – a fairly intense workout on the violin from Russell throughout. This last part is the greatest loss as it seems to be an integral part of the song, starting off as a nervous fluttering on the first couple of verses, underlining them in a minor key, then as a series of pizzicato arpeggios from the bridge, working against the tune but lifting it from mundanity into something dark and mysterious.

Maybe this is why Ed Buller cut it out. Here was another tale of stifling sexual tension – he knew what to do with that – but Russell was undercutting it with an air of gypsy balladry, and to be honest I’m not sure how it would even be possible to slot those two things together in the studio. Buller decided that it wasn’t working, and that Russell should go home for a week to practice it, then everyone just moved on. This was something of a cowardly move, if admittedly a shrewd one, and for all the pleasure we can take in enjoying this piece of straight-up electro-pop, the way it soured Russell’s memory of the album (and possibly contributed to his departure a few years later) might well leave us at a net loss.

Let’s not let this taint the song itself though. Whether it’s a dark, brooding boogie or shimmering disco, it’s still a magic mix of the inspired and the pilfered, as many of Pulp’s greatest moments are. The stolen part is hiding in plain sight – a wholesale lift from I Will Survive, the tune and the structure being ‘variations on the theme of…’ and little threads of melody constantly threatening to turn into “Go on now, go, walk out the door…”

Where Gloria Gaynor was asserting her independence and self-reliance, Jarvis is doing quite the opposite. He should stay away from his old flame but (once again) he’s found himself inevitably dragged back to her by an uncontrollable sexual itch. Without her the world has become imbued with desperate sexuality, even “the moon has gone down on the sun.” While Gloria “grew strong”, Jarvis merely “carried on” – going out drinking every night to try to forget, having a rebound relationship with a woman who apparently sells pictures of herself to German businessmen*. This might all be a pose, though – he’s lost in desire as we start, but as we get towards the end his passion seems to have dulled, either that or he’s succeeded in winning her back and want to play it cool – “I guess I kind of missed you…” – maybe it was all just a drunken ploy. Either way, my advice would be to move on.

In its later incarnation as a disco anthem, these lyrics take centre stage, and Jarvis sells them with previously untapped vocal reserves. The screams, gasps, groans and skat vocalisations go a long way towards selling the concept – imbuing this potentially melodramatic piece with real pain and desire – but live versions occasionally took this a little too far to maintain suspension of disbelief. On the “Cheesy Lady” version (admittedly a pre-gig piss-around) there’s a scat breakdown which sounds like Michael Jackson impersonating Jimmy Saville, and that’s not something I want to hear. sorry if I’ve spoiled it for anyone else.

She’s A Lady was a totemic song for Pulp’s early 90s. Though never really single material, it was a common set opener, a showpiece for the group’s different talents and ideas, a statement of intent in its own way. Tellingly, it remained fundamentally in its original non-disco form even after His ‘n’ Hers was released, and was lost from the post-Russell set. That’s ok, though, it just seems to belong to that time.

*This is also the first time Jarvis has been so direct as to address a song to the second person.
**This line is a bit too much of a novelty for my taste, but it doesn’t seem too out-of-place.

#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.