“In Sheffield it sometimes seemed the life of my contemporaries was like a marathon who’d give up first. People got picked off one by one, and were failing by the wayside. There got to be less and less people who were still trying to do something, and who kept ‘refusing’ to settle for second best. Then later you think: ah, but I might end up with fifth best…. Also, on ‘Seconds’ there’s the idea of the ‘second-hand’ people, who’ve been through the mill a bit. It sounds a very silly analogy, but it’s like reconditioned tyres, remoulds. You have to get remoulded before you go back out on the road. I don’t think that’s a negative or sad thing at all. I think it’s quite interesting, third or fourth time around.”
Don’t you ever feel like saying: don’t rattle that tin at me, I’ve already given…?
“I suppose you get a little more tentative and guarded about things. But unless you’re prepared to run the risk of getting hurt you’re never going to get much out of a relationship. You have to take a deep breath and dive in. At least you know you don’t die. It’d be a boring life without, wouldn’t it?”
– Interview in Melody Maker, 1994
This blog is called ‘Freaks, Mis-Shapes, Weeds’ as shorthand for the journey a group of people took from being defined by others as undesirable outsiders, taking this as a badge of honor and finally acknowledging that their outsidership was a creation useful primarily to the insiders, to define who they were or weren’t. From this progression we’re perhaps missing a step. Though in some ways it’s a minor example (it doesn’t stick strictly to the topic, and was relegated to the status of b-side) ‘Seconds’ is still in a sense the best-realized of these attempts at self-definition, the one where the personal meets the general, the one where the group attempt to tally these ideas and feelings with words – or amore accurately a single word, densely packed with meanings.
Second rate (adj): of lesser or minor quality, importance, or the like.
One of the sources I relied on heavily in the early days of this blog was Martin Lilleker’s “Beats Working for a Living: Sheffield Popular Music 1973-1984”. It’s a massive A4-sized tome seemingly detailing everyone who so much as picked up a synth in the city boundaries, at least in the late 70s. By ’82 things are beginning to fizzle out, and by ’84 it’s done. Lilleker, a local music journalist at the time, has indicated that he doesn’t consider the mid-to-late 80s or 90s interesting enough to write about,* which is fair enough from a personal perspective, but, well, how about those people who weren’t Phil Oakey – what could they do now? It might seem trivial, but this is what the life of the majority of musicians is like – without a career or family to take you out of town or change your circle of friends you’re stuck on a downwards spiral, but does the alternative equate to giving in? It’s not easy, and the five current members of the band had to count themselves lucky that they’d been able to make it. Most hadn’t.
Secondhand (adj): (of goods) not new; previously owned and used by another
It’s probably not much in the way of a confession to say that I only really bought clothes in charity shops in the mid-90s, solely because it was the Pulp thing to do. This may have been less problematic if I weren’t severely colour-blind or didn’t have ginger hair and painfully pale skin. Stubbornly sticking to “my idea of what’s good” without anyone to trust for feedback was the killer blow. I probably looked ridiculous at times, but did it matter? Honestly, I’m not sure. We live in a culture where other people judge you on how you look and it would take a stronger person than most to be genuinely oblivious – it just depends on whether you want to stand out or not. Nowadays charity shops have fashion experts doing valuations, so the time for this sort of thing has passed anyway.
Seconds (n): items of clothing that have failed quality control and are sold at a discount.
The intersection of individuality and being flawed is one of the central themes of ‘Seconds’ – perfection is treated with disdain, equated to lack of personality. “Looking a state”, being flawed physically or emotionally; this might invite disgust from others, but in a world where all but a tiny group are doomed to fail in their sky-high ambitions, flaws are all we have to *be* and failure is proof that you at least tried. A more minor theme is how well-hidden this truth is, and how little it can help you through the drudgery of everyday life. It doesn’t make things better or easier, but that’s the world we have to live in – and we have to make the best of that.
Second best (adj): next after the first in rank or quality, inferior to the best
A happier version of the same theme is found on Dodgy’s ‘Good Enough’ from a few years later – this time it’s presented with the gloss that being satisfied with what you have is the be-all-and-end-all, which is true, in a sense, but I’m glad Pulp always had that tension between romantic ideas and depressing kitchen-sink truths – squaring the two so neatly is bound to be unsatisfying.
Second (n): the SI unit of time; one-sixtieth of a minute.
If we lived forever this tension might be more resolvable, but in this world it takes decades to work out who you are and what you want, and by that time you’re too old to change things, probably tied down to family and career, stuck in a society that focuses almost exclusively on the tastes of the young. Wouldn’t it be great if at the age of 40 we could all wake up one day to find ourselves back at the start of our adolescence to find it had all been a prophetic dream? But it’s pointless to waste your time thinking about this – your life is inescapably ticking away and you have to make the best of it from where you stand. ‘Seconds’ conveys the stretching out of time in the chorus, and the keyboard pattern throughout sounds like a clock ticking at double-speed. It’s a nervous song, but a focused one.
Seconds (n): a second portion of the same thing, usually of food.
It’s churlish to make ‘Seconds’ sound so serious, though – caring so much about using your time well is just a demonstration of your lust for life – for more life. The characters here might be in a bad place, but they are still in the game. As cynical as the lyric is, there’s an underlying message that you shouldn’t give up, no matter how bleak things seem. That might be a cliché or a truism elsewhere, but here it’s been earned.
Second place (n): a position among the leading competitors, the second at the finish line.
‘Seconds’ is a b-side, taken from the His ‘n’ Hers sessions and left off the LP. I was going to add the word ‘bizarrely’ there, but when you see what else was left off and left on, it certainly fits a pattern. It’s an emotional song because its internal logic has worked so well that the group have been swept along with it. It’s seamless throughout, from the way it switches from nervous panic to existential acceptance from verse to chorus, to the very sound of the instruments. There are no star performances, no intrusive production – it’s an idea, thought through and carried out. The one slightly odd thing is the underwater echo effect on Jarvis’s vocal, but this is forgivable. To say it’s one of the group’s best songs is a little too much perhaps, but it’s up there.
*The mid-80s – Pulp’s ‘Freaks’ era – was a bit of a quiet patch for the Sheffield scene, but with the advent of FON and Warp I’d say there’s plenty he could reasonably write about.