Tag Archives: kitchen sink

#125 – Seconds

8 Feb

pulp 1994

Seconds (‘The Sisters EP’, 1994)
Seconds at Pulpwiki

“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.

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#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 ”

#72 – Aborigine

19 Jan

John Bindon in "Poor Cow", 1967 POOR-COW

Aborigine (Dogs Are Everywhere EP, 1986)
Aborigine at Pulpwiki

Modern life, as one of Pulp’s britpop contemporaries later noted, is rubbish – and the everyday drudgery and frustration of the common life is perhaps the most rubbish part of all, especially to those who have dreams or aspirations of any sort (i.e. everybody.) We started this era with Little Girl (With Blue Eyes), which for all its pop trappings was nevertheless an insightful, heartfelt slice of genuine empathy. In the following couple of years topics became more improbable and the treatment became more melodramatic – until with songs like 97 Lovers the band appeared to be verging on the histrionic.

Aborigine is, given these criteria, an unqualified return to form. What it absolutely is not, though, is a pop song. Any ambition the group had of bringing the kitchen sink into the charts now seems to have faded from view. Whether you view this as a retreat or not depends on your idea of what the band should be. It can’t be denied, however, that Aborigine is a wholly successful piece of music – dark and troubling, but lacking the depressing malaise that dogs much of Freaks.

Aborigine isn’t, of course, about Australian natives. The title (presumably a working title which was never changed) refers to the low drone introducing the piece – not a didgeridoo, but Russell slowly bowing a bass guitar. Actually everything about the track is a drone, down to Jarvis’s hypnotically dull vocals, which he intones like a man in a psychotic trance. The protagonist has indeed been driven to psychosis, first by the disappointments and tedium of adult life, and later by the wife and family he wrongly thought could comfort him. His mental state is a highly sensitised form of dulled stupidity – the insanity felt if you sit in a yellow-wallpapered room listening to your own tinnitus too long. Boredom has led to discomfort, and aggression is all he has left to grasp for. Though generalised and focused on one specific issue the lyrics paint a nevertheless vivid picture. “Stupid animal that can’t know why / Something’s wrong so someone has to die” – the words may stick in the same note, but the hypnotic trance has a rhythm – each line is measured into rhyming couplets – not exactly iambic pentameter, but finely crafted all the same. You can almost taste the bitterness of this cabin fever. The fact that these experiences were drawn from Jarvis’s imagination rather than his own failing relationship truly demonstrates his growth as a lyricist.

Elsewhere Simon Hinkler’s production is again key to the track’s success. He seems to have been the only person capable of restraining the band from their dramatic excesses. It’s been suggested that Aborigine is a rip-off of Joy Division, but while it does have a vague resemblance, it’s far too original to be called a facsimile. Behind the drone we have a steady build-up of energy and aggression, driven by a seemingly primitive motorik beat which turns out on closer analysis to be a completely un-danceable stuttering quintuple-metre. At two points (which we probably can’t call “the chorus” – but that’s where they go at least) the tension gives way to a brief but brilliant instrumental break. Jarvis forces out a short series of unconnected guitar phrases, Magnus bangs his sticks together, and somehow it’s utterly addictive, and all the better for waiting through the psychotically monotonous buildup.

At the end we have the inevitable climax, consisting of a steady increase in violence and power until Jarvis is almost screaming. Though this breaks the spell somewhat, it’s probably necessary to express the vast downwards slope of despair and destruction down which our protagonist is falling and it’s difficult to think of any other way the track could have finished. After the climax, Jarvis repeats the song’s mantra, only this time using his true voice. Odd as it may seem, this is the first time we have heard him speak without any kind of posture or affectation. Yes, it’s just a muttered coda to a b-side, but it still feels like the start of something.