Tag Archives: indie pop

#129 – Do You Remember The First Time?

25 Apr


Do You Remember The First Time? (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (music video)
Promotional interview for DYRTFT, 1994
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Butt Naked, 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Jools Holland 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Reading 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Brixton Academy, 1995)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Tokyo, 1996)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Munich 1996)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Lorely 1998)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Hootenanny 2002)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Glastonbury 2011)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Reading 2011)
Do You Remember The First Time? (cover by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, 2014)
Do You Remember The First Time? at Pulpwiki

If you look at the depictions of teenagers on television today, they’re selfish, avaricious, out for themselves. They’re also confident, sexy and cool and they’re really at home with sex and drugs. If you look at the portrayal of children on TV in the 70s, in something like Children of the Stones or The Changes they’re terrified of the world, they’re uncomfortable, alienated and alone, and I think that’s much truer to what it’s really like to be a teenager than what you see in Skins.”Stewart Lee on Screenwipe

“All things have their place. First adolescent zip fumblings; first secret drug voyages; the first time you realise that after the first time, the whole process may never be as good again.”
– Single of the Week in the NME.

“It’s a lot like playing the violin / You cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin”Sparks, ‘Amateur Hour’

“Well do you? And why did you choose them? Was it the drink or the time of year or the position of the planets? Or was it just their hair?” – Original sleeve notes

Pulp are chiefly remembered in the wider world for a single momentarily ubiquitous hit. This, obviously, isn’t it, but it might well have a greater claim to be their theme tune all the same. When the group reformed for a reunion tour in 2011 it was Do You Remember The First Time – not Common People, Babies or Disco 2000 – that formed the theme of the teaser campaign, and which opened the set every night. This wasn’t so much a re-writing of history as an acknowledgement that the passage of time does odd things to a band’s catalogue, and that what seemed to be a song written in opposition to nostalgia could, if contextualized and given enough distance, become evocative enough to prove itself completely wrong, and therefore completely right, or vice-versa.

To open up to a wider audience with a song about nostalgia and disappointment may be an odd move, but reforming for a tour where you only play old material and using it as your introduction seems on paper nothing short of ridiculously bloody-minded. Pulp, of course, were never interested in doing things the usual way, and quite often they found that the silver lining of optimism and empathy is always clearer the more you focus on the cloud of shared disappointment. That’s universality for you, and that’s what DYRTFT is all about.

Ok, all a bit obvious now perhaps, but it certainly wasn’t in 1994, when Pulp were still relatively untested newcomers to the top 40. When a group make the leap from being a cult act to public property, it’s important to sell the concept to a much wider audience. This isn’t the same thing as “selling out” – in some ways it’s quite the reverse. Instead of selling off your fans to the highest bidder you’re opening up to everyone, going from exclusivity to inclusivity. You have to give people a glimpse of a gang they want to join, a story and a mythology to get them hooked. Every successful group have to make this leap at some point, that’s why Jarvis was always so dismissive of the early 90’s mantra of “we make music for ourselves and if anyone else likes it then its a bonus”.

It’s a hard ask, but no revolution was required – Pulp had been building up to this for a while, and there are no drastically new themes present. A dash of crap nostalgia, a helping of “I don’t like your new boyfriend’, DYRTFT is part of a clear lineage through Razzmatazz and Lipgloss, but something has clicked now and we suddenly have a much more mature take – a simpler picture in some ways, but one with a much wider perspective, near-universally relatable.

The cultural significance attached to the losing of virginity in the west is such that disappointment is inevitable. Generally speaking, nobody is expected to be good at something the first time they do it, but for some reason this particular task gets tied in to perceptions of maturity and self-esteem, and the embarrassment felt after the standard poor first-time performance is expressible only through irony and jokes. Talking honestly about this as a shared experience rather than a personal shortcoming seems to cut against English cultural norms, and surely puts paid to the odd concept of Pulp as dealers in kitsch or camp. The first time might be the worst time, sure, but it’s all uphill from there – the rest of life and love in all its joy or sadness is a great adventure to be had, or to remember for that matter.

This is, then, the most inclusive vision of the group so far, and musically it’s a larger, more generous version of what we’ve already been through – a brighter, higher resolution version of the picture. We’ve heard Pulp flirt with sounding like other 90s indie groups and it’s never tonally felt quite right because limbs had to be cut off to fit into those different shapes, and limbs are the most interesting parts, after all. For Do You Remember The First Time, Pulp are instead given a space to spread out – a big, confident sound with big confident guitars, though Pulp lack the kind of guitar hero generally responsible for such things. The model for this regimented expansiveness seems to be Suede in their glam rock anthem mode – an easy enough connection for Ed Buller, I suppose. It’s his track, in a sense, and credit is due for making it work. That swooping synth atmosphere underlying everything seemed to be the group’s sound bed for the His ‘n’ Hers tour and a radio documentary. Consequently it sounds to me like The Pulp Noise, so whatever his mis-steps elsewhere Buller can definitively be said to have made his mark on the band’s sound – though all this would be swept away by 1995, of course.

Slotting into the background more are Nick and Steve – this sort of song doesn’t need anything fancy from the rhythm section besides maintaining a steady rhythm and allowing the song to progress through the series of pulls back and releases, and they play their part well without standing out. Jarvis, on the other hand, is ridiculously on-form, by turns spitting out and whispering lines – no showboating or melodrama, just perfectly judged, and perhaps his first real star vocal performance. Something has changed, just a little, but enough to indicate that the imperial phase is almost upon us.

By 1994, the birth pangs of Britpop were well underway, as can be evidenced by a quick glance at the video for DYRTFT. It features a host of characters dressed in vaguely 70s, Pulp-ish clothes all hanging around having clumsy sexual encounters in alleyways and dingy flats while Jarvis stands nearby serenading them. Pay close attention and you might notice two future members of Menswe@r (at this point involved in a Select-constructed Camden Mod revival scene) hanging out in these scenes – apparently Chris Gentry actually lost his virginity on the video shoot. The rushing euphoria of the track is expressed by the movement of a camera on a semi-circular overhead track, constantly changing scenes by sweeping through the ground or the walls. It’s a neat idea, and it has to be said a brilliant piece of work, but the concept is taken so far as to make the viewer slightly sea-sick. Fortunately the song was also used as the basis for a short film, which we’ll be talking about in more detail next time.

The next Pulp single we’ll get to is Common People. It might seem still to be miles off, but it really isn’t. From this point onwards Pulp are a mainstream pop band, part of the now, public property, and all for the best. DYRTFT marks the start of all of this, and even if it lacks for innovation, it’s surely one of the best things they ever recorded.

Note from author: Sorry about the gap in these entries, several things have come up all at once, and I’ve found myself very busy. Entries should now continue as before – it would be a shame to stop now after all.

#128 – Joyriders

1 Mar

'Joyrider' by Ross McDonnell

Joyriders (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Joyriders (acoustic) (b-side, Common People, 1995)
Joyriders (Sky Arts ‘Songbook’, 2009)
Joyriders (live film)
Joyriders (live film, Glastonbury 1995)
Joyriders (live film, Reading 2011)
Joyriders at Pulpwiki

“I was trying to push the car off the road so I could make my way to the garage on foot when a new Ford Mondeo pulled up and the (very young) driver asked me what was up. His (also very young) friends got out of the back of the car and helped me push the [1974 Hillman Imp] off the road. They then offered to give me a lift to the garage, which I accepted. Once inside the car I realised that it very probably did not belong to them… …The driver and his friends seemed very excited and offered me chocolate limes. We drove (at speed) to the garage and then they drove me back to my vehicle with the necessary jerrycan of fuel. This is how I repaid their kindness.”
– Jarvis Cocker in Mother, Brother, Lover

One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at His ‘n’ Hers is that delicately crafted songs are drowned in the heavy cream of Ed Buller’s production. So it’s an odd sensation, playing it after a year or two away, to hear that familiar unfiltered Britpop guitar riff, and an immediate launch into the most standard indie track of Pulp’s career so far. No layered synths, no ghostly undercurrent, just chunky guitars, a straightforward melody and the uncluttered production sheen associated with “classic rock.”

For many professional reviewers this is decidedly *a good thing* – for example, here’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine at Allmusic:

“Joyriders kicks the album into gear with its crashing guitars. It establishes Pulp not just as a pop band that will rock; it establishes an air of menace that hangs over this album like a talisman”

If this quote makes you feel slightly nauseous then I don’t blame you. Pulp had many mission statements in the early 90s and none of them expresses an interest in “rocking” in any form. And yet, he’s right – Joyriders does indeed work as a conventional rock song, and it does set the tone for the album – it just happens that this tone isn’t really what many of us came here for.

Before this all starts getting negative again, we should remember that this is still a decent indie pop song – it sounds bright throughout, has a memorable tune and a story to it, glitters and shimmers in all the right places and has a nice short-story style dramatic arc to it. This all sounds fine on first listen, in the background or at a festival, all perfectly reasonable uses for music, and all immune from criticism. Sometimes staring at something until it falls apart is more of a sickness than a skill, and there’s no point spoiling anyone’s fun.

And yet, here we are, and here is Joyriders, the sound of something working quite well until you check under the bonnet and find it’s been running on fumes the whole time. What’s wrong then? Well, let’s start with the story. Instead of the lift to the garage described above the Joyriders here are two-dimensional underclass villains; brainless, malevolent thugs, unacquainted with women, who want to get the rest of us hooked on a bit of the old ultraviolence. As Jarvis admits himself, it’s not really fair payback for doing him a favour, but beyond this aren’t the real chocolate-lime-eating surprisingly helpful delinquents much more interesting? As we saw with Watching Nicky, Jarvis seems to reduce real people to clichés while creating hosts of believable fictional characters elsewhere.

And then at the end “we’re taking a girl to the reservoir / oh oh the papers say it’s a tragedy / buy don’t you want to come and see?” Aged 14 this seemed impossibly dangerous, chilling in its implications. Now though, it seems a bit silly. People are voyeuristic often, yes, but meta-level awareness of this point from sadistic teenage gangs is fairly unlikely, and nobody in their right mind would even consider going with them. A pedantic point, perhaps, but it’s all it deserves. I remember playing the song in my dad’s car one time – he laughed at the line and said “no, I don’t, thanks” and you have to admit he had a point.

This wouldn’t be such an issue if the section were not repeated for most of the last two minutes of the track. It’s easy to see why they do this – the clever phrasing, the gravity of the situation, the issue is such that repeating it drills the numb horror of it all into you. Except when you don’t take it seriously, of course, then it has the exact opposite effect of underlining how trite it is. The final touch is the nail in the coffin, Jarvis aiming for sinister but only achieving Charles Hawtrey.

Also in the “do not want” list is the main melody, once again nice on a casual listen, but the way the guitar chords mirror whatever Jarvis sings is annoying, like a rock treatment of a nursery rhyme, and results in the song being completely undancable. This only has the effect of focussing attention on the story, and well, enough about that already.

Let’s finish on a couple of positives, though. Candida’s synths are once again a strong point, as buried as they are here. The hauntological layers she put in with Ed Buller sound as eerie and poignant as ever when they finally make an appearance, and she even produces the song’s only truly satisfactory moment when Jarvis stops at “it’s a tragedy….” and she carries over the melody of the rest of the line on her keyboard. There are also lots of nice little touches in the production, the half-second of feedback before the solo (yes, there’s a guitar solo) is nice too. The acoustic version found on the Common People single is not bad either – the guitar line being the whole song anyway, it helps to let it stand on its own, and Jarvis sounds weary, which just works better.

Joyriders is a survivor. If there had been a 4th single it would’ve been the obvious choice, and it was popular at festivals for years. Lots of people still like it, and they have every right to. I just don’t anymore.

#123 – You’re Not Blind

11 Jan


You’re Not Blind (Demo, 1993)
You’re Not Blind at Pulpwiki

“I don’t like to imprint my sound on what a band does. I always think of it as their recording, not mine. That’s the most important thing…. I like to get everyone playing together – even though we might be interested in concentrating on getting a good drum sound or whatever – in order to capture the nuances of a performance.”Stephen Street

Their differences with Fire were settled, contracts were drawn up, advances were paid, and all that was left was for Pulp to produce their first properly-funded album. With the financial weight of Island Records behind them and the pressure of expectations, the temptation to become pernickety perfectionists was a very real danger, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Pulp felt the need to go shopping around for a producer. Britpop was now looming in the near-distance and Stephen Street was the man to watch – with his work on Parklife and The Great Escape he would come to define the sound of the mid 90s. That was still a couple of years away, though, and for now he was still just a former Smiths engineer who was working with a few minor-league indie groups, albeit one with a certain amount of buzz.

“He came up to the rehearsal room which was above my mother’s pottery shop in Catcliffe, so we were all crowded into this tiny space. One of the cleanest men you’ll ever see – he could go down into a coal mine in a white suit and come out looking sparkling. Really nice bloke. It was good ‘cos he came to the rehearsal and he listened.” – Nick Banks in ‘Truth & Beauty’

Three tracks were recorded at their session at Axis Studio in Sheffield – Le Roi Des Fourrnis (a cover version, so hardly a fair representation), a demo version of Lipgloss (which remains unreleased) and You’re Not Blind; the only version of the song ever recorded, and one which was immediately shelved and forgotten about until the expanded version of the album was released in 2006. It’s a unique opportunity, then, to see what a different handling of Pulp could sound like.

A mid-tempo pop song (in Jarvis’s words “another attempt to rewrite Babies”), You’re Not Blind features a very promising verse with an exquisite guitar motif* which sounds excitingly like it’s going somewhere but then fizzles out into a semi-written sketch of a chorus. The lyrics also seem to lack sufficient fleshing-out; we’ve got the usual infidelity and girlfriend-stealing with a dash of the venom later heard in I Spy, only without any convincing narrative reasons behind them – leading to the impression of a “supremely nasty sentiment” described by Jarvis in the sleeve notes. He’s about to steal or has already stolen your girlfriend, and he wants to rub it in, but without detail it all seems purposelessly cruel.

The production is probably the only real thing of note here. In contrast to Buller’s vast magical nebula of sound, it’s possible to pick out every instrument, even on a casual listen. Candida’s keyboard is strikingly different, sounding for once like an instrument rather than an all-enveloping atmosphere. If that sounds good to you, then I’m sorry to say it’s a bit too normal for my taste, and Jarvis seems to have agreed.

“I thought he was good, I would have given him as my choice to go on and do the His ‘n’ Hers stuff… But I don’t think Jarvis liked his producing ‘cos he thought he was too nice, everything was too nice, all too clean, you could kind of hear everything.”
– Nick Banks in ‘Truth & Beauty

A failure, then? Well, not really. It’s hardly fair to judge something that was apparently only semi-worked out at the time, the verse is fine, and with a decent chorus you can just about picture it becoming something pretty special. After all, there’s nothing really wrong with it – it’s just that with so many superb songs in the air, there were bound to be a few casualties.

*Nobody seems to be sure of the identity of the guitarist here, but something about it sounds like it could possibly have been a very early bit of Mark Webber.

#109 – Watching Nicky

28 Sep


Watching Nicky (Island Demo, 1992)
Watching Nicky at Pulpwiki

In 2006, when Pulp released expanded versions of His ‘n’ Hers, Different Class and This Is Hardcore, I had just moved to China and was watching from afar, lacking any funds in my UK bank account, annoyed that I’d have to wait unil 2007 (at the earliest) to hear any of the new tracks. Eventually I managed to download a single track, and took it around to a generally Pulp-positive friend’s house to listen to. It was about 2am after we’d been out drinking, the song was Watching Nicky and the universal impression was “this isn’t very good.”

What we were hearing was another abandoned track from the 1992 Island demo tape, but this time it’s easy to hear why the song’s lifespan was cut short. Watching Nicky was, according to Jarvis, another attempt to try to recapture the magic of Babies (which, lest we forget, was originally called “Nicky’s Song”) – but even without this admission the purpose is clear. In a sense it’s a rewriting of Razzmatazz too, as the song also features an ex-girlfriend who is down on her luck, but while the contrast between the downbeat lyrics and upbeat worked there, if you squinted a little, here the divide is nothing short of jarring. It’s a mid-tempo indie song with a sad lyric about a girl, and that is basically it.

What went wrong, then? The lyrics are a start. Apparently a genuine ex-girlfriend from just a couple of years before, Nicky still seems more like an achetype than a real person, a retread of the Little Girl (with Blue Eyes) but with the edges all sanded off. Not melodrama or kitchen sink, just depressing stuff that happens to people – believable, but lacking in insight. One verse talks about hiding under a bridge* while kids throw stones, which is a nice enough anecdote, but it’s just dumped there and hastilly tied into the narrative with a line about how she should’ve run away. The music itself follows suit – it’s not bad as such, listened to casually it sounds ok, but on closer inspection there’s nothing much of anything there. There’s a certain clunky artlessness about the way the sections of the song transition into each-other which sounds like a thousand first demos from local indie bands – again, not actively offensive, just lacking in anything to distinguish it – predictable in a way that Pulp never had been before. True, there is a certain interest in the weird, distorted (deliberately?) out of tune guitar on the verses, but again I wouldn’t go as far as calling it “good.”

Who knows, maybe with a bit of reworking and nurturing Watching Nicky could’ve blossomed into something worth releasing, but my gut instinct says there’s not enough there.

* Actually the aqueduct later to feature in the infinitely superior “Wickerman” nine years later.