Tag Archives: instrument swap

#103 – Babies

17 Aug

babies

Babies (1992 music video)
Babies (1994 music video)
Babies (1994 Spoken word video)
Babies (The Warehouse, ITV, 1993)
Babies (The Beat, ITV, 1993)
Babies (Top Of The Pops, 1994)
Babies (BBC Late Show, 1994)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 1994)
Babies (Live film, Reading 1994)
Babies (Naked City, 1994)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 1995)
Babies (Live film, Brixton Academy 1995)
Babies (Live film, Lorely, Germany, 1996)
Babies (TFI Friday, 1997)
Babies (Live film, Reading 2002)
Babies (Live film, Eden Project 2002)
Babies (Sky Arts Songbook, 2009)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 2011)
Babies (Live film, Mexico 2012)
Babies at Pulpwiki

“Although sleep pressed upon my closing eyelids, and the moon, on her horses, blushed in the middle of the sky, nevertheless I could not leave off watching your play; there was too much fire in your two voices.”
Propertius, 50BC-15BC

Childhood is not only the childhood we really had but also the impressions we formed of it in our adolescence and maturity. That is why childhood seems so long. Probably every period of life is multiplied by our reflections upon the next.
Cesare Pavese

Yes it happened years ago on some damp, acrylic afternoon. I know you got your own back years later (that’s another story) but it wasn’t such a big deal anyway – in those days you packed people rather than divorced them. I liked it that way and still do, but then again I’m imma.
Original sleeve notes

Let’s get one thing out in the open first – yes, it does feel odd to be talking about ‘Babies’ at such an early stage in this project. Common People is the headline hit now, but Babies was the song that put Pulp on Top Of The Pops and the cover of the NME and Select – the ultimate goal of indie bands in the days before Britpop. First performed live in July that year, almost a year before the release of Separations, it was first held back, then released, then re-released as the lead track on the Sisters EP. That’s where I come in, I suppose, listening to the Top 40 with Bruno Brookes, thinking “I haven’t heard anything like this before. It’s sort of good, but sort of strange, and I’m not sure if his voice is annoying or interesting…” Then for the next decade or so it was my favourite song of all time, by any artist. It may well still be.

So, it’s proving difficult to write about this one. It has so many memories tied up with it, most of them irrelevant to anyone besides myself, and after disentangling, what’s going to be left?

Let’s start at the beginning, then, the genesis of the thing. In order to spark new ideas, Pulp would try playing each-others instruments from time to time. By the 1990s this was only done at band practice, and they no longer tried it out on record or on stage. By now the main rehearsal space was in Nick Banks’s family pottery warehouse in Catcliffe, a room packed with china figurines and delinquent teenagers outside, both of which would seep, through osmosis, into Pulp’s early 90s material.

“The others had gone to make a cup of tea, so I was just playing Jarv’s guitar. He came back and said ‘What’s that?’ Dunno! No idea what these chords are. he said, ‘Oh, show us,’ and I showed him, and we were just like jamming around these two chords. Ten minutes later, there you are, that’s the song”
Nick Banks in ‘Truth & Beauty

“[Nick] got his hands on the guitar [and played an A] on the wrong three strings…. …That’s what made it so bizarre. It’s when you get the note just before what the note should be…. If you think of something that’s just one note off, it should be like the devil’s note, but somehow it’s really beautiful.”
Jarvis on ‘Songbook’

At this point, and for the next couple of months, Babies was called ‘Nicky’s Song’, and according to Russell it featured “Jarvis singing to Nick rather like Elvis sings to the hound dog on The Ed Sullivan Show. He used to run around the rehearsal room and grope Nick’s breasts during it.” You can still feel a hint of that on the chorus, “I wanna take you home…” Jarvis thought it was corny, a rehearsal room novelty, but further jamming gave the thing a story and a climax, and in July of that year it was even recorded live for ITV’s Stage One. Though it failed to make the TV edit, it was released on the ‘Party Clowns’ live CD in 2012 and makes for an odd listen. The song is 90% there, but that missing 10% vitally includes some of those little touches that make it work. It’s oddly shambling, a little discordant, and the chorus fails to take off the way it should. All the same, it stands out, and the audience seems to love it on first listen. Later gigs in 1991 have it missing, but since the start of 1992 it’s been a fixture in almost every set, essentially unchanged.

Babies, then, is a story in a song, albeit a confusing one. There are multiple narrators, opaque ‘you’ and ‘him’ and sudden shifts into reported speech. Even after reading the lyrics while listening (I know…) it’s far from clear what exactly transpired, or even how many people were involved. The description on wikipedia shows quite how impossible it is to untangle.

The song’s protagonist spends platonic afternoons in a female friend’s room listening to her older sister and the boys she takes to her room and, presumably, has sex with, but this is not enough for him and he hides in the elder sister’s wardrobe and watches her with David, who works in a local garage. Unable to tell the younger sister, who appears to be the real object of his affections, for fear she will tell her mother the song’s narrator listens outside as she proposes sex to a boy named Neve. Finally he comes “home” to the disappointment that the elder sister has moved out, presumably in an act of nostalgia he re-enters the wardrobe but falls asleep and is found by the elder sister and the two have sex, only to be caught by the younger sister, culminating in the boy making the pathetic, but seemingly genuine, excuse: “I only went with her cos she looks like you.”

Are we clear now? I hope I’m not the only one who tried to work out why there were two named boys and no named girls, why he came “home” to somewhere that wasn’t his house, why he felt having sex was the necessary reaction to being found in a girl’s wardrobe, and ultimately who it was wanted to take whom home. Looking back on it, though, the mystery and ambiguity was part of the appeal. In the words of Alex Thomson on Freakytrigger “the genius of “Babies” is that the harder you try to make sense of the story the less sense the song seems to make: and the more you think about the song the less the story matters.”

Take away the attempt at forming a narrative and you’re left with something else – a breathy, jumbled series of confused confessions, a strange mix of childish and mature viewpoints – the first joy of discovery of sex, but based on an unformed notion of what the adult world will be, or a look back at how juvenile agonies set the model for future relationships. There’s something so intimate about the way it’s related, but also a perverse joy in the revealing of salacious gossip – a recklessly throwaway, utterly immature description of events that still somehow escapes self-parody.

Perhaps even this is irrelevant. Babies works because it captures a feeling of joy – the words set the tone, but it’s the whole group that lead you there. Nick’s opening sets it in motion, and the rest of the track is made up of variations on that theme. There’s an odd magic to these chords – joyful, sure, yet with a certain nervousness – and Candida reinforces this with the transcendental synth lines previously heard on Space, only here they’re coupled with a guitar lick to sound more sun-drenched than mystical. From then on it’s a question of piling on the hooks – those poppy SFX bleeps, that beefy, almost jokey guitar line. Each band member takes centre stage for a moment, then passes the baton to the next. It’s like a selection pack of hooks, and it would’ve been understandable if they’d used them for three or four songs, or one ten-minute long one.

At this point it’s frankly all I can do to stop myself listing each second of the song as it progresses. It wouldn’t be difficult. In live versions this piling-on turns into a series of pulls back and sudden lurches. In the recorded version(s) things are a little calmer and smoother, but the delay just allows more buildup to the inevitable climax – that moment where words fail and it’s all just “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” and the song dissolves into great swooping pirouettes of joy.

Putting this level of care and craft into a song indicates that they knew what a hit they had on their hands, and the track’s subsequent lifespan bears this out. First a demo version, produced by Simon Hinkler, was mooted for a limited release on Caff, then it was held back to be the group’s second release on Gift, and recorded with new producer Ed Buller in Island’s Fallout Shelter studio.

A music video was made – the one that features first on the running list of both video compilations. Though it evidently was made for as near to nothing as possible, it’s as charming as the song itself, especially due to the inclusion of Bob Stanley’s friends Celina and Sophie as the two sisters.* The video is as bristling with ideas as the song itself, with costume-change jump-cuts, vignettes of seventies household tat, a fantastically scary performance from Russell, and an introductory frame stating that “A music video is an advert for a song.” For many this video’s inclusion on ITV’s The Chart Show was their first exposure to the group.

Two years later, when Pulp were officially signed to Island, and had a single in the top 40 to their name, Babies was taken out of the vaults for a re-release. Generally speaking, I hate it when groups do this – it shows a lack of faith in your new material to re-release old songs – but it would’ve been a great shame to leave the track as an obscurity. The song was re-mixed (very slightly – it’s hard to pinpoint any actual changes, but it sounds a little more polished, especially in the first minute or so) and included on an EP with His ‘n’ Hers session tracks. The Sisters EP is fantastic, in my view superior to its parent album, and got the group into the top 20 and on Top of The Pops. Another video was made, not quite as charming as the original version, but a wonderfully shiny collection of Pulp tropes anyhow, and all fitting so well into the airbrushed, objectified image of the His ‘n’ Hers era that it might as well have been directed by The Designers Republic. There’s a spoken word version too, with comedy sound effects; a little unnecessary, but it’s brilliant that it exists, and that they went to the trouble to record it.

It was a hit, of course, and was shoehorned onto His ‘n’ Hers – a touch of 1992 in the middle of 1994,** and unfortunately served to highlight some of the minor weaknesses of the other tracks. Not that they were bad, just not quite as good. Until Common People came along it was the Pulp song, and it’s been the highlight of a thousand indie discos and house parties, an intimate anthem. I’ve tried to get down what it means to me, but two thousand words later there still seems to be so much left to say. I guess it’s just hard to step back, the song is that firmly embedded in my subconscious.

Babies is a composition of great craft, care and inspiration, which seems to survive an endless number of listens, not only intact, but getting better each time. It’s been a long, winding path, but Pulp have followed it all the way out into daylight – mainstream pop from the group that brought us Aborigine and Manon, and all the better for being entirely on their terms. It’s an utter triumph, four minutes of utter joy, and I’m not sure it can ever be bettered.

*I’m mentioning them as Celina also sang with Golden, who released a cover of Wishful Thinking, and featured on the cover of Foxbase Alpha, therefore = notable.
*It wasn’t on the original vinyl version of the LP, which has led to an impression amongst some that it’s a CD bonus track and not included in the “proper” tracklisting. Really, though, let’s not be silly here, it’s on His ‘n’ Hers.

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#57 – The Mark of the Devil

6 Oct

The Mark of the Devil (From Dogs Are Everywhere EP)
The Mark of the Devil (Chesterfield 1985 – “The Lost Tape”)
The Mark of the Devil (Performance on “Sheffield Bands 84/85” video, 1985)
The Mark of the Devil at Pulpwiki

“A disease that can strike at any age. How it is caught is a mystery but when one day you look in the mirror and see that mark upon your face… It’s a sickener.” – original sleeve notes

In a rare bit of synchronicity I woke up this morning to find the left side of my face dotted with ugly red spots, presumably a reaction to some recently eaten food combined with the effects of another stultifying Beijing summer. Now that I have a steady job and a wife and baby to support, such things have been relegated to a minor league of worries, but life hasn’t always been like this. A decade and a half ago it would’ve floored me.

In the mid 1980s Pulp were essentially unemployed. Aside from the occasional performance and very occasional recording session their main occupation was killing time waiting to sign on. Contrary to popular opinion this does not equate to a life of carefree luxury. Jarvis was living in a disused factory just off the Wicker where former band member Tim Alcard was employed as a caretaker, a place that sounds fairly bohemian, but which must’ve been in reality rather cold and squalid. Waking up in what amounted to an unfurnished squat, walking to the mirror and seeing an unemployed outsider with little in the way of prospects, whose creative output failed to generate any sort of critical or commercial attention… It can’t have been much fun. Low self-confidence makes a person brittle, and that first glance at your reflection can put paid to your whole day.

‘Mark of the Devil’ takes this feeling and presents it as Gothic horror. It’s a perfect fit – both are serious takes on potentially ridiculous subjects. Accompanying the melodrama we have a suitably frenzied, relentless piece of music. We’ve had ‘Slavic’ before with Srpski Jeb, but here it’s threaded together into what you might (at a stretch) call a groove. The secret is the interplay between the effectively looped drums, bass and violin – the star of the piece being Magnus’s repeated drum fill. Apparently this was created by Jarvis during one of the group’s regular instrument-swapping sessions. Almost as vital is Manners’ polished, curious bass riff, though it suffers from being too low in the final mix. Another casualty is Russell’s violin, sounding much more measured and polite than in live versions.

It wouldn’t really be fair to say that the production is a let-down – the song still sounds good, but doesn’t quite capture the propulsive energy the song had. The steady quickening of the rhythm as we prepare for the lurch back into the chorus should be the pinnacle of the track, but instead it’s merely another fairly good section of a solidly produced whole.

Still, Mark of the Devil is both something new – Slavic post-punk disco – and something wonderful, the stand-out track of the ‘Dogs Are Everywhere’ EP. That the band wanted to make it the lead track is no surprise, but inevitably Fire wanted something more immediate and radio-friendly.

#49 – Anorexic Beauty

11 Aug

Anorexic Beauty (Freaks, 1987)
Anorexic Beauty (Live, 1985, Fascinations Nitespot, Chesterfield – Video)
Anorexic Beauty (Ping Pong Jerry Demo, Nov 1984)
Anorexic Beauty at Pulpwiki

Eight unusual things about Anorexic Beauty by Pulp

1. It wasn’t originally a Pulp song. Written by David Kurley of early-Pulp contemporaries New Model Soldier, it was sold to Russell for £1 after a gig. The song dates back to an earlier David Kurley band, Blimp, who featured a young Magnus Doyle on drums. New Model Soldier were an interesting enough group in their own right – a few of their recordings can be heard here. The song was extensively re-worked by Pulp, but the lyrics survive intact.

2. Kurley’s lyrics could easily be from a post-modern treatise on desire and repulsion. I mean that in a good way – for a pop song it demonstrates an unusal level of forethought. Of course, on the other hand, we lack any insight into the author’s real feelings, but frankly, who cares? Situationist posturing about commodification, objectivisation and alienation is such a rarity in pop music. If it was presented in a po-faced manner (or used impenetrable language like “situationist posturing about commodification, objectivisation and alienation”) this might be a problem, but fortunately it’s witty, blunt and accessible enough to work.

3. Russell is singing – not a unique occurence, but he’s actually singing here rather than just making a speech with ominous backing music. In earlier versions of the song Jarvis would sing in tandem with Russell, but on the LP version his vocal has been mixed far down enough that you wouldn’t notice it unless you were really paying attention.

4. Jarvis is playing the drums, not with a great deal of precision, but considering he wasn’t a drummer the effect isn’t as bad as it might’ve been. The song doesn’t require him to do anything beyond a simple two-handed smash every second, so it probably didn’t require lessons.

5. Magnus is playing the guitar – again, not with a huge amount of finesse, but this isn’t exactly a delicate musicianly piece, and anyone who’s been in as many bands as he had would surely have picked up a few chords. Later on in the Pulp story another drummer trying out a guitar bit would create something rather special.

6. It’s not really about Lena Zavaroni. A child star of the 70s, she had her own TV variety show between 1979 and 1981. Her condition wouldn’t become public until the mid-80s, when the song was already five years old. Presumably it was dedicated to her on the sleeve of ‘Freaks’ because she was in the news at the time. In hindsight this seems rather cruel – Lena wasn’t a model, and she died in 1999 while in hospital waiting for experimental brain surgery, her last years spent on a council estate, living on state benefits.

7. Most unlikely fact of all, perhaps; this postmodern sex & death thrash somehow functions as a bit of light relief on ‘Freaks’. Reviewing the LP for Sounds magazine “Mr Spencer” remarked that “this presumably is Pulp’s idea of a ‘fun’ song.” – and while that may not strictly be the case, it’s certainly a lot more enjoyable to listen to than “Life Must Be So Wonderful” or “The Never-Ending Story.”

8. In the quarter-century since the song was recorded, it seems to have become popular with the online ‘pro-ana’ crowd. See this video, this website or this one or this one. On each (particularly the video) there is a debate raging over whether the song is a celebration of anorexia or a condemnation of it. In truth the lyrics don’t engage with this debate in either direction – David Kurley’s interest being more in performance art and philosophy than actually writing about an ‘issue’ – but it’s fascinating to find out how complex and multidimensional the disease is in the minds of sufferers, and how many of them are willing to use dark humour to discuss it.