Tag Archives: inside susan

#118 – The Babysitter

7 Dec

Nick Banks

The Babysitter (B-side to ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ 1994)

The Babysitter at Pulpwiki

A year after the ‘Inside Susan’ trilogy Pulp put out a final chapter in the saga on the b-side of ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ Chronologically, then, this entry is appearing a little too early, but it seemed like a good idea to put the Susan songs together.

It’s a few years after the party, and Susan has hired a babysitter – one that looks remarkably similar to a younger version of herself. This has sparked some sort of reaction in her architect husband, who the song is largely addressed to. Instead of rekindling his interest in his wife, he has become increasingly obsessed with this younger model. In the second verse it’s revealed that he acted on his impulses, only for Susan to return home and find the two of them at it, in her daughter’s bed, no less. And then she leaves him, and that’s that. It’s an decent enough vignette, but placed in the company of ‘Babies’ and the rest of ‘Inside Susan’ it does seem rather slight.

Set against this fragment of a story we might expect another gently illustrative backing, but instead we have perhaps the most frenetic piece of music the group have ever produced. In essence it’s a descendent of the instrumental thrashes used to open sets in the mid 80s, and as then it’s an opportunity to show off the sound they’ve developed. It’s a new sound now, of course, built around an interplay between keyboards and rhythm section. Here they sound tight and controlled, yet manic and bursting with energy. Candida drives them ever faster forward, while Nick powers along, riffing, spinning and constantly erupting into all kinds of fills and odd patterns. Together they sound, bizarrely, like late 90s experimental electronic act Add N to (X) – perhaps this track was even an influence.

Then it shifts to the slow section, a continuation of 57 Lyndhurst Grove, all low key electronics, the rest of the group keeping a steady pace, and the vocals come in – once again, sung softly rather than spoken. The segue between the two is actually quite well-executed, especially Candida’s keyboard line, which morphs nicely into something fairly low-key and quizzical. And yet I can’t help feeling that however well its done, the two parts aren’t supposed to be together. Sometimes when something works well it’s easy to lose the bigger picture of whether it’s needed, and I suspect that’s what happened here. Then there’s another fast section, another slow one, and we fade out on an unsatisfying minor key.

The Babysitter has a very odd structure for a fairly run-of-the-mill lyric and it’s hard not to wonder why. Perhaps the rush of the instrumental section represents the internal passion and nervous panic of the husband, with the slow part showing his calm, middle-class English exterior. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it – this is a simple enough song, one which I enjoy a great deal, but it’s pretty much undeniably a minor work.

#117 – 59 Lyndhurst Grove

30 Nov

59 Lyndhurst Grove

59 Lyndhurst Grove (b-side to Razzmatazz, 1993)
59 Lyndhurst Grove (12th August 1993 – No Stilettos (TV))
59 Lyndhurst Grove at Pulpwiki

“I played these songs to Susan the other day – she just laughed and said I was being spiteful because she wouldn’t sleep with me when we first met. She also said to tell you that she’s perfectly happy where she is at the moment, thank you very much.” – original sleeve notes

If there’s one thing I miss about living in the UK it’s the house parties. It wasn’t that I went to many, mind, but there were some at least. Out here I’ve never even seen my friends’ flats, let alone drunk punch in them. The best part, perhaps, was the transformation of the place – a dull suburban semi would be remembered as a tiny club full of friends and acquaintances, a secret building hiding in plain sight. It made me wonder what else was going on behind all those other doors, which is very Pulp, isn’t it?

Sometime in the early 90s Jarvis was invited to a house party in Peckham, South London . Turning up at the invitation of the lady of the house he was surprised to find that instead of the expected fun times the house was full of childen and the other occupants were engaged in “right-on” political discussions. At a guess, Jarvis was not sober enough for any of this, and ended up being thrown out an architect, presumably the man of the house. As much as I’m inclined to take his side in this, I can’t help but picture the scene being something like Bernard’s performance at the house party in Black Books, although presumably he didn’t use their laundry basket as a toilet.

Burned by his experience, Jarvis quickly wrote ’59 Lyndhurst Grove’, the concluding part of the ‘Inside Susan’ trilogy, and easily one of the most bitter and sarcastic things the group have ever put out. On first listen it’s just a sweet low-key ballad, the sort of thing not heard since the days of ‘It’ a decade earlier, gentle lyrics about a suburban lifestyle with the obligatory shot of sexual intrigue at the end. Candida’s synths burble away gently, Steve’s bass softly thrums. The vocal is gentle, understanding, lacking in any malicious undertone.

Listen a bit closer, however, and the deadpan humour starts to become clear. Susan – if this is still really Susan – is living a life full of the comforts of modern living, but each and every one of them is hollow and insubstantial. Her husband can support her with all these things, the house, stripped floorboards, his ex-wife’s painting still on the wall, but clearly none of it is really making her happy. There’s even a callback to the more carefree party mentioned in ‘Inside Susan’ – the stairs this time not being a place for kicking overeager German boys, but for cleaning up after guests.

This is all just Jarvis’s idea, of course, and he doesn’t even really pretend it’s much else. “Money can’t buy me love” is one of the oldest lyrical gambits in the book, but in the difficult real world money can buy a comfortable, easy life, and perhaps that’s a higher priority than love. Either way, it’s just his opinion, and it’s all a lead up to the come-on at the end, and the last-minute betrayal “Hearing old women rolling trolleys down the road /
Back to Lyndhurst Grove” – the repulsion at suburban life matched equally with an attraction to its strangeness and familiarity. If there’s something to take away from the song then for me it’s that feeling – the storyline itself being done better elsewhere.

They named the song after the house in question, which seems a little rude. After the single was released Jarvis sent a copy to the address, which seems even ruder, but apparently received no reply from the woman. Later a Japanese fan found the house, and the woman, and asked her if she was Susan. Her reply is, unfortunately, unavailable. They seem to have moved out soon after (I hope this was unrelated) and now there are new occupants, who while initially confused by the occasional visitor taking a photo, now apparently enjoy owning a very minor piece of musical history.

#116 – Inside Susan

23 Nov

Sheffield Bus

Inside Susan (b-side to Razzmatazz, 1993)
Sean’s Show, Channel 4, 17/11/1993 (Pulp mime ‘Inside Susan’ in the background)
Inside Susan at Pulpwiki

“I think I now understand why it is that the young are so very nostalgic. They have so little by way of personal history that they polish it up and make it shine like a treasured heirloom. For those of us who have months, years and even entire decades mouldering in the attics of our memories, nostalgia seems a curiously boastful kind of hoarding. So you had a love affair, or moved abroad, you got ill, or had a parent die – well, so did I, so did I – and more than once.”Will Self

Putting that quote there seems more than a little unfair, but its purpose is more to draw a contrast than a criticism. The 1970s was almost ripe for plucking by the nostalgia industry in 1993, and for the remainder of the decade it went from a novelty to an all-encompassing ironic media cliché, with Noddy Holder starring in The Grimleys on TV, Peter Kay asking arenas full of people if they remember things and TV presenters who were toddlers at the time reminiscing about space hoppers and angel delight on “I love the 70s”. When I started university in 1998 I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the popular kids (yes, such a thing existed) spent their Saturday evenings wearing afro wigs and brightly coloured flares at the local shit disco 70s Night. They were all born in 1980-1981, so already their nostalgia was borrowed, filtered through parody, a hemmed-in cul-de-sac of shit irony, all signifiers that signified nothing but themselves, and closed the senses not just to the past, but also to the present and future. We didn’t get on.

I’d hate to think that Pulp played a role in this, and for the most part they didn’t, but their references to the decade, especially in music videos, were easy to shift into kitsch when filtered through even a single lens – see for example the performance by Gareth Dickinson as Jarvis on ‘Stars In Your Eyes’, where he was surrounded by pigtailed girls with clackers and a dog on wheels. Once again we can see that once art is out there in the world, it is impossible for the artist to control what is done with it, either by the public or the massed forces of light entertainment.

Inside Susan, then, is not nostalgic at all – there are no cultural references stopping it being set in the 60s or the 00s for that matter – but it captures a certain time in Jarvis’s life – those couple of years between O levels and A levels where life largely existed as a series of intervals between house parties. Much of it is unfiltered truth. There really was a girl called Caroline Lee who would pretend to be married to Jarvis, German exchange students really did jump out of the bedroom window, and the story about the ‘man who spends all day forcing felt-tip pens into people’s hands and then trying to make them pay for them’ is his own. The character of Susan herself is something of an amalgam of Jarvis’s own memories, and girls he knew at the time. While her thoughts are specific to a time and place, they are also typical of a certain type of teenager; one who finds daydreams and fantasies more interesting than everyday life, one who demonstrates little or no enthusiasm about their everyday existence, treating life decisions as trivia, or a game they can’t be bothered to play. Jarvis was one once, and so was I.

“I’d go to parties and try to cop off with girls and stuff… …I think the reason I started writing about it was that I thought I might be in danger of forgetting what it was like. Also, I liked the resilience of youth; people are always packing each other when they’re young – you’d be going out with someone and one day they’d say, ‘I’m packing yuh, yuh’re a right slag”, and nobody would think anything of it… …I liked the fact that everybody was so insensitive to each other, and quite abusive a lot of the time. It’s a sign of immaturity, I’m sure.”Jarvis in Q, May 1994.

Susan is essentially part of this world, as much as she feels excluded from it. There’s a sense that it’s all unacceptably juvenile, that she should get away from it all, but to where? Her vision of adulthood is still unformed, and consists of being able to get into pubs and “make lots of money from charging fat old men five pounds a time to look up my skirt.” It’s an odd kind of immature cynicism, built on a foundation of frustration and loneliness. There’s never a sign of anyone else understanding her, or of her wanting to be close to anyone else for that matter. Other people being described generally as annoyances or objects of disgust. We begin with her catching a bus to school at the late hour of 10.30am and end with her getting off and walking home. That combination of desire to escape and inability to make reasonable plans could surely only be written by somebody who’s been there themself – and to that end, at the close of the story, we shift perspective to the view of a retrospective onlooker:

I suppose you think she’s just a silly girl with stupid ideas, but I remember her in those days. They talk about people with a fire within and all that stuff. Well, she had that alright – it’s just that nobody dared to jump into her fire and risk being consumed. Instead they put her in a corner and let her heat up the room, warming their hands and backsides in front of her, and then slagging her off around town.

It’s a very personal, slightly bitter reflection, projected onto another, expanded to encompass near-universality. At that age malicious gossip stands in for genuine intimacy, walls between people are too low. To genuinely affect another person is too easy – so subtle, measured relationships are impossible. All but the most callous get hurt. For many then, it’s a low point in life, albeit one that may well be fondly remembered later, when emotions are more settled and when people long to feel like they once did. That’s when nostalgia kicks in, and that’s why Inside Susan is refreshing in its lack of rose-tinted lenses.

We haven’t got to the music yet, so a few notes about that. It’s essentially a backing track, which is exactly what’s required*. On a casual listen it sounds like one of the band’s jams, but I suspect that it’s something more constructed than that. Beyond Candida’s keyboard motif it sounds like a programmed track – loops of recorded sound slotted together in the studio. There are a couple of clues that make me suspect this is the case – firstly the complete lack of a live version of the song, and secondly the way Russell’s guitar sounds like a series of freeform riffs cut up and placed at their most effective locations, often multi-tracked on top of itself, as is Jarvis’s voice. The only thing that sounds live is Nick’s drums. Anyway, it’s only a theory, but I’d like to see what other people think.

However it was constructed, it’s fairly wonderful – restrained but accomplished, together but never showy about it. There’s no chorus there, just a series of peaks and troughs – a low-key bed for the story, exactly what’s needed after the effervescence of ‘Stacks’. Jarvis plays his part by putting in a restrained performance too, only adding occasional drama on lines like “…queuing up to take me out for dinner!” It sounds effortless – a thoughtful, well-written story given time to breathe, and it’s hard to fault it in any regard.

*If this were still the 80s there would doubtlessly be some kind of effort to fit the music to the story – and the song would suffer for it.

#115 – Stacks

16 Nov

Jackie Magazine 002

Stacks (b-side to Razzmatazz, 1993)
Stacks (Hit The North, 1993)
Stacks at Pulpwiki

A recent article in ‘Entertainment Weekly’ put forward the idea that Common People would be a good basic for a film adaptation.

She’s rich (and beautiful). He’s poor (and beautiful). And he worships the privileged ground she walks on. Obviously they must end up together.You’d think that all love stories were really about class.
Because what’s more appealing than a tale of a scrappy, devilishly handsome fellow from the wrong side of the tracks who lusts after the privileged, sheltered beauty raised with silver spoons and gold forks and strands of pearls and eventually wins her pretty little heart?
Maybe what we need is a devilishly handsome fellow from the wrong side of the tracks who realizes that the privileged, sheltered beauty raised with silver spoons and gold forks and strands of pearls was full of sh-t? That’s why we should adapt Pulp’s “Common People.”

Obviously this is a terrible idea. Can you imagine the thing? Richard Curtis would have to write and direct it, then there would be some goofy tousled-haired actor doing his best to sound northern, and after a few difficulties we’d find ourselves at a tacked-on romantic ending, lessons learned by all, messages – political, social, personal – diluted to homeopathic levels. In other words, it’s the sort of thing UK film doesn’t need more of. Let’s not spread the idea any further, ok?

Having said that, though, we can’t deny that Pulp did tend to lean towards longer-form narratives. From Being Followed Home to Sheffield: Sex City we’ve seen a variety of stories play themselves out across a vividly defined urban landscape. Recently we’ve even seen a story (of a sort) with a sequel (of a sort) – and now the group were ready to embark on a conceptual suite of songs (of a sort) – three sequential polaroid snaps of a girl’s life on the b-side of Razzmatazz, and a follow-up on the ‘Do You Remember the First Time?’ single – not quite a concept album, but as close as we’re going to get.

Stacks is, then, the introduction to this story, and that’s very much what it sounds like – i.e. barely a song at all, but in the best possible way – a great rush of teenage excitement about the possibilities of life, all squelchy synths and pop chords, it starts out with a chorus, then piles on another and another, only pausing briefly for breath in-between. There are no verses – verses would be boring. There are even hand-claps throughout – it’s easily as Pop as anything from Different Class, though in a sense, you could say it’s as experimental as anything else on Intro. Well, that might be stretching the point a little – basically it’s an idea, a sketch, as developed as it needed to be.

There’s something a little worrying about Stacks though, and I suspect it may be the reason the song quickly disappeared from setlists. The subject – who we will be following into her thirties – is at this point a young girl, perhaps no older than 13 or 14. We can tell this from the details listed – chewing gum, navy dress, sky blue trainer bra. Much of the lyric concerns her indiscretions with different boys, addresses her directly, asks for details.

‘Stacks’ is set in the 70s, and it was recorded over twenty years ago. Those were different days, of course, and entertainers of all sorts were not subjected to the kind of scrutiny that we expect in the age of the internet and Operation Yewtree.* It would be unwise to release anything like this in the post-Saville era, it’s true, but thankfully Stacks steers clear of the line of inappropriateness. The protagonist is not an adult onlooker, but either a boy of the same age or – more likely – the girl’s internal monologue. In the next episode we’ll join her in her own thoughts, and find them to be very much concerned with the same things – observing herself from the outside, imagining what others are saying about her, working as a well-realised proxy for teenage Jarvis, in other words. It’s that empathy for the character that stops the song being creepy – ultimately we aren’t looking at her, we are her – and we’re going to follow her through a couple of decades.

*Only yesterday folk musician Roy Harper was arrested for offenses related to a 13-year-old girl, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s related to his song ‘Forbidden Fruit’ (lyrics / cover version) – clearly about a relationship with a very young girl – or his 2006 explanation of the song’s content, now deleted, all too much concerned with ideas of poetry, beauty and context, all sounding too much like an excuse made too early or too late, lacking denials, regrets or apologies. Of course, I hope it all turns out not to be true, but he’s not making a great case for himself there.