Tag Archives: intro

#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.

#113 – Sheffield: Sex City

2 Nov

Park_Hill_facade

Sheffield: Sex City (B-side to ‘Babies’, 1992)
Sheffield: Sex City (instrumental)
Sheffield: Sex City (live film, The Warehouse, ITV, 1993)
Sheffield Sex City (live film, Brixton O2 Academy 01/09/2011)
Sheffield: Sex City (Teatro La Cúpula, Santiago, Chile, 2012)
Sheffield: Sex City at Pulpwiki

“At the age of twenty-two, newly graduated and without a clear plan in life, I moved to Sheffield. It wasn’t a city I knew well, and there was no particular reason to move there other than that I knew someone with a room to spare. I was also a big fan of the band Pulp, and their song Sheffield: Sex City had led me to believe that the city held a promise of sorts.” Jon McGregor – ‘On Pulp, Sheffield, and learning a trade’

Sheffield is like another woman, a soft umbrella under which all his stories play out. Sheffield is all encompassing, taunting cheekily, inviting us out or telling us to stay in. I wanted to be there when I heard this song, so I moved there! – Kate Jackson of The Long Blondes in The Guardian

“When I was 16, I and my girlfriend were completely obsessed by this song, and we walked around willing ourselves to see the teeming, simmering, carnal city described, peering into the L-shaped windows of the tower blocks, past the twitching curtains of the semis, imagining the couplings and perversions inside.”Owen Hatherley, ‘Uncommon’

“The morning after My Legendary Girlfriend. Trying to get things done but ending up on a tour round the fleshpots of Sheffield in a T-reg Chevette. Wybourn, Brincliffe, Intake – All these places really exist and maybe these adventures still happen there – I wouldn’t know; I don’t live there anymore.”Original sleeve notes

It sounds like a terrible idea. A misfit northerner gasping and groaning his way through an eroticised description of his hometown over an electro-funk backing? The keyboard player reading a section from a book of erotic fantasies in a flat Sheffield accent? Experimental sound & stereo production? An eight-and-a-half-minute-long b-side with no chorus? What could lead professional musicians to embark on such a folly?

In reality, though, we all know Sheffield: Sex city is nothing short of monumental. Since you’re reading this I expect it means as much to you as it does to those quoted above – I know it does for me – and if it weren’t for the after-the-watershed content and the running time I think we all know it would be as well-known as ‘Babies’ or ‘Do you Remember The First Time?’. Somehow, though, it’s even more than that. It’s a song that deserves to have a time and a place associated with it, or even better a film – A night in Sheffield, as directed by Antonioni or Żuławski – and even then it would be simply too big. It inspires not only dreams, but art, literature, life decisions. In only one way is it disappointing; after dreaming so big, all that’s left is the comedown.*

For a dream, though, S:SC can seem awfully brutal at times. At its darkest the song seems like a partial re-write of Blue Glow, in which the very buildings seemed like enemies or traps, mazes to become lost in. Sheffield is out to get him – primarily by erecting barriers – walls – between people who could otherwise join together to break this artificial alienation. There are also echoes of This House Is Condemned – the narrator is “sentenced to three years in the housing benefit waiting room.” This Sheffield is looming and oppressive, the home of the darkness of the 1980s, the place he had to escape.

These moments are little more than shards of memory, though. If the song has an overarching narrative it’s constructed in a dream logic. Perspectives continually shift, little threads of half-remembered detail keep weaving through. “The fares went up at 7” refers to the famous pricing policy of Sheffield busses, but in context it makes as much sense as someone babbling in their sleep. These fragments of narrative add to the feel of a sweeping overview – are these the same characters or just vignettes of a city with a thousand stories?

In some ways you could be forgiven for feeling the city is being mocked; even the title itself is a parody of the “Steel City” slogan. The listing of districts sounds like an imitation of advertisements for new estates in the 50s and 60s, when places like Park Hill and Kelvin were a physical representation of the future – “streets in the sky”. By the 1990s, of course, these developments were poorly maintained and regarded by many (not all of course, park Hill his now listed and renovated) as a sad indictment of the city’s decline. It would be tempting to think, then, that the Proustian sensory experiences of S:SC are some kind of joke, but if they are then the joke is played so straight that there’s no choice but to take it seriously.

Jarvis could never have written S:SC while he remained in in his hometown. The dream-picture of the city is from the nostalgic viewpoint of an expat or an exile. Most of the group still remained in Sheffield, and it must have been odd for them to have this sudden shift in perspective. A place you live in is the background hum in your head – you tune it out, and only notice it when it’s gone. Some things can only be viewed clearly, then, from outside – the exotic, the familiar, the eternally unknowable. Sheffield is a woman, a lost love, and S:SC is a dirty love letter to her. At times this is even physically represented – in one enduring image he actually “makes love to a crack in the pavement” – but on the whole the femininity of the city is present in its very spaces. The sexualised city is at once a physical place and one that lives in people. The derelict factories, the dead, sterile new estates are in fact living and sentient, teeming with people, all with their own stories, but all part of one greater entity. At times you can feel the weight of this, the oppression of Blue Glow or Being Followed Home, but when this entity is a friend the physical spaces become a vast playground for the lovers, and their actions are amplified so much that passion and orgasm are converted into destruction, collapsing buildings, the whole street dying of lung cancer. How could it not?

As an improvised piece of spoken word on top of an instrumental track, Jarvis’s performance here exceeds any reasonable expectations, sounding at times tormented, flirty, pathetic, lost and ecstatic. Ed Buller’s production helps, of course, most importantly in bringing the mic so close that it sounds (especially at the start) that he’s whispering in your ear.

This is hardly a one-man show, however – the track was a jam at first, and the fact that the Babies single also included an instrumental mix demonstrates that the words were essentially an afterthought. In a way you could say that the track is Candida’s finest moment – as well as taking a lead with her Ray Manzarek plays Stereolab keyboards, she joins in with a reading from a book of women’s erotic fantasies compiled by Nancy Friday.

SSC

So convincingly deadpan is the reading that you naturally imagine she’s recounting her own experience of living in a concrete tower-block looking out onto a thousand identical windows, wondering what was going on behind the curtains. Never the most outgoing of people, Candida seems to have been too embarrassed to perform this live, and it was therefore cut out (in the 90s) or replicated with a recording (on the reunion tour). Later on she joins Jarvis on a call-and-response section around the stereo space – I don’t have a lot to say about this, but it’s wonderful nonetheless.

Steve Mackey – that other exile from the North – plays an important role here too, his steady bassline brought down to a throbbing sub-woofer heartbeat by Warp’s in-house producer Zebedee. The production throughout is refreshingly minimal – Buller adding as few layers as possible in order to produce a meandering live feel to replicate the meandering dream-like narrative. Nick is somewhere out there, continuing discreetly, while Russell’s violin is only audible at certain moments, and is used essentially as a condiment, sparingly.

As a representation of what Pulp were, what they could do, what they could say, Sheffield: Sex City works as well as anything else they’ve done – perhaps even more-so, as you couldn’t imagine anyone else producing anything like this.

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” – Closing narration to Naked City

*As a corollary of that, I have a question; how can the creators of this have not gone on to create astounding books or films? The only obvious thing to blame is the comfort zone people find themselves in when the struggle to make yourself heard is finished and won. Still, as much fun as Jarvis’s solo LPs and the Pulp reformations have been, I think we’re all a little disappointed that there hasn’t been more substantial work since 2002.

#106 – Razzmatazz

7 Sep

Razzmatazz

Razzmatazz (Single, 1992)
Razzmatazz (Acoustic version, b-side to Common People, 1995)
Razzmatazz (Music video, 1992)
Razzmatazz (Live video, The Warehouse, ITV, 1993)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Glastonbury 1994)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Reading 1994)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Glastonbury 1995)
Razzmatazz (live video, Glastonbury Park stage, 2011)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Barcelona, 2011)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Albert Hall, 2012)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Pomona, California, 2012)
Razzmatazz (Live video, Argentina, 2012)
Razzmatazz at Pulpwiki

“We never wanted to be pompous. There must be ways to sound grand without being pompous. Otherwise, it’s a bit like Squeeze or something; everyday stories of everyday folk, in a nice pub-rockish manner, which is very worthy and dull. You have to make it a bit grandiose.”
Steve Mackey in Melody Maker, 27 November 1993

“…the bits that “Hello” leaves out” – Sleeve Notes

To start, a confession. Razzmatazz used to be my least favourite track on Intro. I even skipped it on occasion, and the feeling lingers slightly that it rates significantly lower than Babies or O.U. in the pecking order of Gift singles. It was the third to be picked, seemingly because it vaguely fitted the template of the previous two singles, but being a downer rather than an upper it just didn’t seem to have the same effect. This week I’ve been attempting to get to grips with something that other reviewers instinctively grasped after a single listen, but which I’ve been missing for the best part of twenty years. Please bear with me.

The first two Gift singles had been aural representations of intense rushes of feeling, imbued with ever-rising excitement, demonstrating previously unseen scope and ambition. Razzmatazz continues this, in a way, but instead of excitement or joy the emotion represented is that particular kind of sinking feeling you get at 10.30 on a Saturday night when everyone else has gone out. In a sense it’s another grim kitchen sink melodrama along the lines on 97 Lovers and Little Girl (With Blue Eyes), but the twist this time is that instead of this being personal or observed, it’s all laid out in the form of an accusation. This is a song for an ex, one he evidently had a bad break-up with, but instead of presenting himself as the victim he’s at once the perpetrator and a perversely ambivalent onlooker. This is what makes the lyric so novel – he’s using empathy as a weapon. I didn’t even know that such a thing was possible.

It’s a line that’s hard to straddle. Being vicious and spiteful, but being so on-the-money that you’ll be forgiven for anything you say. Is there a threatening undercurrent here, a suggestion that the woman’s power lies entirely in throw-away surface details, that underneath she’s just an empty husk? Does saying these things make them true? Is this song, for all its power, ultimately an act of misogyny? In his defence I would posit that the voice in the song may not be that of Jarvis himself. It seems to be more like an internal monologue – the nagging voice of self-doubt after a bout of self-confidence is scuppered by a series of let-downs and mistakes. The part of it involving ‘the narrator’ himself are fairly minimal, his replacement – a Rowan Atkinson lookalike – has also disappeared, and she seems to be missing his company too, as much as you can miss anything you didn’t want until it was lost. The empathy has to come from somewhere, and according to Jarvis it’s because we’re down in the gutter with her.

“It’s the most bitter song we’ve ever done, but however harsh I am about the people in ‘Razzmatazz’, I’m not writing from above their level. I’ve got a lot of experience of being as sad as them, if not more so.” – Jarvis in Melody Maker, 1993.

In the interests of not being a man making judgement calls on feminist issues, I’ve asked FMW’s official feminism correspondent Tricia Zion for comment. Here’s what she had to say.

“I agree that the voice of the song is not entirely Jarvis himself. I think that it’s more an extreme bitterness at the ending of the relationship. The fact that this extreme bitterness is focused on a woman doesn’t make it inherently misogynistic though because there aren’t really any gendered insults but more a slew of general insults about her current state of affairs and insults directed at her family. (The only insult I might consider gendered is ‘you started getting fatter three weeks after I left you…eating boxes of milktray” because these are things women tend to be more upset by (weight gain) or more prone to do (emotion eating) but that’s really a stretch to call it misogyny really). In fact I think with this song Jarvis does an excellent job of avoiding what could easily be a misogynistic diatribe about a relationship gone sour due to the woman’s faults etc and instead makes it a generalized song of bitterness which, as you pointed out, excellently employs empathy somehow as a weapon. I guess actually the line which could be considered most misogynistic would be the implication that her sister frequently “misses her time” i.e. her sister is “slutty” which most feminists will agree is a stupid insinuation to use as an insult but it’s such a brief line that I wouldn’t count it as a credit toward the song somehow being anti-woman.”

Representing all of this musically seems like a massive task, but naturally things don’t happen that way round. The inception of the thing was yet again the purchase of new instruments – in this case Jarvis buying a 1980 Korg Trident synthesiser for Candida, the sound of which laid the foundations of the song. Razzmatazz was only given a handful of live performances before it was taken on the first part of a tour of London studios. First it was recorded with Ed Buller at Maison Rouge, then taken to Matrix for a remix a few days later. That version was soon deemed to be “not beefy enough” and a couple of months later the group took it to a studio in Hoxton to have the drums re-recorded, this time using Phil Vinall instead of Buller, and finally they went back over to Matrix for Vinall to do a final remix.

All this work was definitely worth it – the single version exudes quality, every little touch, every sound being perfectly in place from the low, troubling bed of the Korg synth to the all-in-it-together whole-band swoop of the chorus. It’s a masterpiece of simplicity, every sound perfectly in place, and perhaps the only thing to say on the negative side is that this doesn’t entirely match the lyrical content. The heart-sinking is there, but not really the despair, which would, after all, have been incongruous in an indie-pop song. This is maybe why I found it hard to love; all those little things, they weren’t working for me.

My doubts do not stretch to the video, however. Recorded on-the-fly in two separate countries, it’s worth another lengthy quote by itself.

“We were due to be playing a couple of concerts in France & so I came up with the bright idea of “wouldn’t it be great if we could shoot the video in the Moulin Rouge in Paris?” Imagine my surprise when they agreed to the idea, the owner even offered to let us use his pet crocodiles! Imagine my even greater surprise when we arrived in Paris to find that they had changed their minds. Luckily for us, we were staying in one of Jacques Brel’s old haunts – the extremely seedy “Ideal Hotel” in Montmartre – and in a Cliff Richard-like flash of inspiration we decided “let’s do the video right here”. We smuggled all the camera equipment into the hotel & shot over the course of one day. Then in the evening we went out, just around the corner onto La Pigalle (Paris’ red light district) & amused the passers-by by shooting some lip-sync out on the streets. We arrived back in England still needing some more material & so gained access to the “Sunset Strip” strip club on Wardour Street at 7am one morning. We arrived there to find the caretaker asleep on the illuminated stage of the club! We had precisely 4 hours to film in before the paying punters would be knocking on the door expecting “An Erotic Xmas Revue – with the emphasis on the ‘X’!”. We just got done in time. The interior domestic shots were filmed in Jane Oliver’s flat in Camden. She was working for our press agents “Savage & Best” at the time. On the day we filmed she’d been out all night so it was easy to get the frayed, slightly numbed performance we were after.”

The finished video is a magnificent collage of stolen moments, mess and squalor – all risen above through sheer willpower – with home-made glamour and an eye for detail. The editing is nothing short of superb, better even than either of the videos for Babies. Released with ‘Inside Susan “A story in three songs”‘ on the b-side, it’s another step up for the group, their first charting single (#80, for one week), and generally a successful maintenance of forward momentum.

#105 – O.U. (Gone, Gone)

31 Aug

OU1-small

O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Radio Edit, Single, 1992)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Full version, 1992 – fan-made music video)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Live film, Reading 1994)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Live film, Pomona, California, 2012)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) at pulpwiki

…so we finally made it into orbit (good init?). But like the man said “Space is O.K. but I’d rather get my kicks down below.” One re-entry later and now it’s a choice between an extra hour in bed or stopping the love of your life from getting the next train out of town. Took too long deciding what shirt to wear and blew it. But hold on, who’s this walking out of the sun? It can’t be – but it is. Talk about leaving it till the last minute. O.U. jammy get…
Original sleeve notes

Pulp’s new record label was called Gift Records for a reason. Warp / FON owed them for videos and broken promises, Sheffield owed them for years of service… and the best kind of gift you can get someone is something they can’t get for themselves. Pulp were on their uppers, sure, but their legal problems were worse than ever, and Island weren’t going to sign a group who were still (perhaps) signed up for multiple albums on another, hostile label. They were going to pay for a recording session, however, and they were also going to let Warp put it out as a single, but the road there would continue to be rocky.

The session took place at, of course, FON, and Simon Hinkler came along to sort out the production, helped by his friend Mike Timm. In contrast to 1980s sessions, they had (some) time and space, but these advantages were immediately negated by disagreements – not only between the members of the group, but also with Hinkler and Timm. The song was new, they hadn’t rehearsed it well enough, and everyone seems to have had different ideas about exactly how the it was supposed to sound – so much so that a whole day was spent trying to get the drum sound right. Even after it was finished and remixed, the core idea of O.U. is still hard to put your finger on. Fortunately this works as a strength – it plays out as a found sound, something the group are channelling, but don’t really seem to understand themselves.

Fittingly O.U. was born the year before, not as a song, really, more a series of parts that seemed to slot together; The simple stylophone slide that formed the kernel of the piece, Candida’s two-note organ bed, the ascending chord sequence from 97 Lovers, which reminded the group of the theme tune from late-night Open University TV programs, another series of dream-like images from the moments of going to sleep and waking up, the dynamic thrust that worked so well in ‘Babies’, and of course Russell’s frantic violin solo, seemingly flown in from the climax of another gypsy folk ballad, placed haphazardly over the utterly unrelated electro-pop beneath and somehow slotting in perfectly. As a performance, it was a hard trick to pull off, and while he managed it well enough live he wasn’t able to get it right in the studio, and after a number of attempts the part was sampled and flown in.

With so many compromises and seemingly incompatible ideas present, the O.U. session might sound like something of a botch job, and so it seems to have been. While not actually bad, it wasn’t the statement to the world that it needed to be, and a remix was needed.

Ed Buller, a formerly jobbing keyboard player who was suddenly getting a lot of high-profile work, had recently finished working on Spiritualized’s ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ – an album described by Simon Reynolds as “quiver[ing] with Apollonian attributes – airiness, fleetness, radiance, serenity… all about the exhilaration of cutting loose, of goalless propulsion…” – as apt a description as any of what O.U. (and Space and Babies) ended up as. O.U. didn’t need any great re-working or extra recording, but Buller still managed to tweak it enough that anyone can hear the group shift into the light, shimmering mode that would prove to be his (and their) trademark over the next three years.

O.U. is a jumble of many parts, but never a mess. For once, the story is fairly clear – a couple near the end of their relationship *or back together on an ill-judged rebound) bicker and fight, then go to bed angry* The next morning he wakes up to find her gone, a note on the pillow saying that she’s off to the train station, and by the way, fuck you. There’s time to throw on some clothes and sprint there, but he has just a minute to decide whether it’s better to leave it, turn over and go back to sleep instead. We’re stuck in that moment, imagining the run-lola-run pursuit, but also the doubt, the fear of being left alone, some stirrings of feeling – that moment of seemingly infinite possibility.

The best thing about O.U. is how the disparate musical elements are drawn together to evoke the desperate dash and the adrenalin rush of the moment of decision. That rhythm – always changing, always the same – pulled along by Steve’s almost inaudibly low cardio-vascular bassline, taking turns to swell anxiously, then settle down again into that persistent jog. Over this Candida’s atmospherics and the sampled violin swirl and rush. On stage these dynamics required two stylophones, and group friend and fanclub organiser Mark Webber was drafted in to fill out the sound. We will, of course, be hearing a good deal more about him later, but O.U. also marks the start of his transition to becoming a full-fledged member.

In the pre-Babies world, the single of O.U. was an exciting calling card for New Pulp, especially with the similarly exhilarating ‘Space’ on the flipside. It tied for ‘single of the week’ in Melody Maker with another Ed Buller production, Suede’s The Drowners, and received more positive coverage in the NME and even Smash Hits. An odd-sounding limited-edition single on an offshoot of a local indie label, it was inevitable that it wouldn’t be a hit, but the buzz was growing so much that you can forgive the group for sounding like they’ve got their chests puffed out, powering on towards the finish line.

* Something you should never do, of course. This scene features one of the first great 90s Pulp vignettes of crap relationships – “the night was ending / he needed her undressed / He said he loved her / She tried to look impressed ”

#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.

#102 – Space

10 Aug

Space (B-side to ‘O.U.’, 1992)
Space (BBC Hit The North Soundcheck, 1991)
Space (French Version) – Live at La Cigale, Paris, October 1991
Space at Pulpwiki

In a mute embrace, they drifted up till they were swimming amongst the misty wraiths of moisture that you can see feathering around the wings of an aeroplane… …Arthur and Fenchurch could feel them, wispy cold and thin, wreathing round their bodies, very cold, very thin… …They were in the cloud for a long time, because it was stacked very high, and when finally they emerged wetly above it, Fenchurch slowly spinning like a starfish lapped by a rising tidepool, they found that above the clouds is where the night get seriously moonlit. The light is darkly brilliant. There are different mountains up there, but they are mountains, with their own white arctic snows.

from Douglas Adams’s “So Long And Thanks For All The Fish”

“I remember when I was young watching the first man on the moon. The people at NASA were saying that by 1984 we’d all be living on different planets, and we believed them completely. There didn’t seem to be any reason why we wouldn’t…. …I suppose I finally realised that it was all a fantasy when I was 22. I didn’t have any money and there wasn’t much coming in from the band so I was selling off my belongings. I distinctively remember tromping around Sheffield with a yellow portable washing machine, trying to sell it to get the money for some food. It was pissing down and I thought to myself, Jarvis, you were supposed to be living in space by now. It was pretty obvious by then that it wasn’t going to happen. You have to stop living your life for the future.”

Jarvis in “Volume Two”, November 1991

My favourite Pulp album isn’t an album at all; it’s just a ‘compilation’ – up there with ‘Freshly Squeezed… the Early Years’ and ‘Pulp It Up’ in the catalogue of forgotten cash-ins. ‘Intro’ certainly doesn’t deserve this fate, but as tragedies go, it’s fairly minor, and if its songs remain unknown to the general public, it’s a price worth paying for the fact that it represents a heroic rescue project for a group mired in legal problems.

1991 was a year of mixed fortunes for Pulp. On the plus side, Jarvis and Steve had finished their degrees, the band was again a full-time project, sounding better than ever, and the music press was finally beginning to take notice. But at the same time, Rough Trade and Fire were still out of action, the now two-year-old Separations was still a year away from getting a release, and Pulp were signed up to record another 4 LPs for an inoperative organisation which they had a poor relationship with at the best of times. The group’s new manager, Suzanne Catty, was attempting to help them escape this contract and set up a deal with Island Records, but the impasse with Fire seemed to be growing in complexity by the day, with multiple claims and counter-claims about the legality of the deal. Waiting it out is never fun, especially when you’re on a creative roll, but recording an album on borrowed money and then being unable to release it, well, that way lies madness.

Fortunately a solution was at hand. The group’s old friends at FON and Warp were enjoying a surge of critical and commercial success, and Jarvis and Steve had played their part, producing music videos for Sweet Exorcist and Nightmares on Wax. The group would record a session at FON (paid for as a demo by Island) which could then be released on a Warp sub-label, christened ‘Gift Records’. The session took place in January 1992 and the single – O.U. backed with Space – was released in May. If the problems had been sorted at this stage then all would’ve been fine – the new LP recorded later that year and released just in time to cash-in on the buzz – but as it turned out the morass would continue for the best part of two years, and the Gift singles turned from a one-off to a trilogy. His ‘n’ Hers – the album that was finally put out on Island in 1994 – contains only one track from the Gift singles, and that originally as a CD-only bonus track.

The thing is, Intro seems to work better as an album than His ‘n’ Hers does. It’s not just the selection of songs, it’s the way they interplay with each-other, the way they are laid out for you. ‘Space’ – still vivid and atmospheric nearly twenty years after it was written – is the perfect opener.

It had been the perfect opener for their live sets for a good few years too – a natural progression from the drones and atmospherics of ‘Hydroelectric Dam’ and ‘Heart Trouble’. Taken as a single song, it’s then perhaps the oldest thing on Intro, but early versions were surely quite different from the finished product we know. The words at the start were always improvised, and the few versions we have vary hugely, though the basic concept is always there. There’s something dissatisfying about hearing these other versions, though – perhaps the lyrics are meandering and odd, maybe Candida’s synth is too intrusive – and comparison to the ‘official’ version never flatter. The best-known of these alternative versions is from the ‘Hit The North’ soundcheck, as it was later included for some reason on the His’n’Hers deluxe edition. It’s not bad exactly, the boogie at the end is joyfully furious, but the first half is a bit too Spinal Tap. So let’s just stick to what I’ll take as the definitive version – the b-side to ‘O.U.’, later included on Intro.

We start with that electronic hum – a sci-fi version of the keyboard drone from the start of Fairground, almost. Instead of melodramatic threat, though, we’re drifting into a soundscape with a monologue. It’s a guided dream again, or an astral projection. An easy journey to other planets. Life on Earth is humdrum tedium – “selling washing machines in the rain” – tasks and routines that tie you down. And now we’re weightless, floating free. That “we” is telling. Rather than being directed at the audience the monologue is presented to a partner who’s troubled by the heaviness of life. “You said you wanted some space…” Eastern religion has never been a theme for Pulp, but this letting go of earthly things sounds like Buddhist mysticism – or a sexual version thereof. We’re still in the acid house hangover of the early 90s, and taking off into space to touch the stars was very much de-rigeur.

Every rave has its comedown though – that moment a kernel of disbelief swells into a new reality;

“All the stars are bright, but they don’t give out any heat. The planets are lumps of rock, floating in a vacuum.”

And then, of course, “I think it’s time to go home” – the mystical morphs into the physical, time to stop stargazing and direct your gazes downward. This is where the talking ends, as it must. A muttered “get down” and we launch into Pulp’s funkiest moment yet. Jarvis steps back from the action and lets the rhythm section take over. Steve, Nick and Candida seemed to gel in this era like never before or since. Who knows if it was the Barry White, the acid house or the years stuck in a practice room without a gig or a session in sight, but they just seem to have instinctively been able to produce this dirty blaxploitation spy movie groove from thin air. Candida is the vital piece in this setup – she led the first half, and her keyboards push this section forward too, as it builds to a climax like the sex its meant to replicate, and suddenly dissipates with a sigh.

That release of energy sets us up for all that’s to come in the next eight tracks – all has been reset, and it’s time to start again. There’s no manifesto here – this descent to earth is if anything the rejection of the very idea of manifestos, but history has still been wiped clean, and here we are again with tabula rasa. Life starts in ’92.

“This album comprises the three singles released by Pulp on Sheffield’s Gift Records during 1992/3.
It is intended as an introduction to the group for those who may have missed these songs first time around. Welcome.”
– Sleeve notes to ‘Intro’.