Tag Archives: literary references

#127 – Deep Fried In Kelvin

24 Feb


Deep Fried In Kelvin (B-side to Lipgloss, 1993)
Deep Fried In Kelvin at Pulpwiki

“Many of Kelvin problems weren’t the flats, which inside were lovely, or the surroundings, which at the back were nicer still, or the facilities, which were aplenty… no, it was more a feeling of not being in charge, of not being King of your own castle. This had more to do with lack of available paid work, and the stigma attached to living on the estate, which was caused by the press demonising the place and by Kelvin being the first port of call for people with problems or a criminal history.
New doors or not, most of the people behind them were the most down to earth, trustworthy and friendly people you would ever be likely to meet. I’ve lived on five other estates since I left, and I have never found the same strong sense of community that Kelvin flats had.”
– Peter Jones, Streets In The Sky, Life in Sheffield’s High Rise

“…claustrophobic walk-ups or corridors were rejected in favour of 12ft wide ‘streets in the sky’. These ‘streets’ were almost all connected with the ground, on steeply sloping land. Street corners were included where the winding building twisted around, with the spaces around the blocks filled with shops, schools and playgrounds…. …Park Hill is a battered remnant of a very different country, one which briefly turned housing for ordinary people into futuristic monuments rather than shamefaced little hutches. The ideologies of Regeneration and Heritage, when applied to the very different ethical aesthetic of the old New Brutalism, can only destroy the thing they claim to love.” – Owen Hatherley, ‘Penthouse and Pavement’

“Sheffield’s full of half-assed visions of cities of the future that turn into a pile of rubbish,” Russell Senior reflects, standing on the biggest traffic roundabout in Europe. “We grew up reading the local paper and seeing ‘Sheffield, city of the future,’ with a map of how it’s going to be and pictures of everyone walking around in spacesuits, smiling. But we’re the only ones who took it seriously…”Russell Senior in the NME, June 1992

When I was young I felt sorry for people who lived in flats. My friends, family, the people on TV, they all lived in houses, proper ones with gardens at the back and front. The irony was that I lived in a flat myself, though the fact that it was part of a Victorian mansion rather than a 1960s concrete structure somehow meant that it didn’t count, at least in my mind. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I saw the real thing – in Southampton they were a looming presence, and my pizza-delivering housemates began avoid them whenever possible after having air-rifles fired as they rode past. This just confirmed my existing prejudice, that they were ugly and anti-human, vast battery cages for the unfortunate portion of humanity that were unable to live elsewhere.

Now I live in a gigantic complex in China with another 20,000 or so people and the difference is total. Everyone here seems to love flats – houses (especially brick ones) are for poor people, lack decent sanitation or heating, are infested with insects that can’t make it to higher levels. Even if you have a “villa” security becomes an issue – you can bar your windows but you’re still down there with the rabble, and there’s no security guard to stop them getting in.

I mention all of this not because I like to go on about myself (though that’s also undoubtedly the case) but to pull focus on the British view, that a man’s home is his castle, that our houses are the basic outlet for our self-worth and creative expression, a “truth” whose foundations may be shakier than we might like to think. For all we might believe concrete blocks to destroy culture and society by treating people as cogs in a huge machine, rows of identical Barrett houses are no more individual inside or outside, and the hidden hand of class conformity may make them actually more regimented than council tower blocks. To quote Peter Jones in the book linked above, “to you it was home: ugly from the outside, but beautiful, warm, cosy and safe on the inside.”

As with many political issues, then, this one may be inescapably entangled with emotions rather than expressible in logical terms. It comes down to what sort of life we want for ourselves and others, and what harder thing is there to discuss dispassionately? Deep Fried In Kelvin is saturated in emotional responses. Jarvis evidently feels that there is something fundamentally wrong with this place, and spends the song going through different ways to express this feeling. The environment is ugly and unfriendly, the people who live there are desperate, or have undergone some kind of environment-related moral degradation. No matter what good intentions the misguided might have towards them, they’re the ones mugging you at knifepoint late at night. If it wasn’t all expressed in such poetic, literary terms it could come straight from the pages of the Daily Mail.

At the start of the ‘The Full Monty’ a clip from the 1971 promotional film “Sheffield: City On The Move” is shown, and the full version can be seen on youtube here. As with many industrial cities in the UK, Sheffield’s city centre was gutted by bombs during the blitz and the opportunity was taken to rip out low-quality slum housing and replace it with huge concrete structures. The first of these was Park Hill, previously mentioned in Sheffield: Sex City, a great brutalist wave of concrete and brick connected by wide decks / bridges which connected the blocks together and which were supposed to be “streets in the sky.” and which was soon followed by similar developments – Hyde Park and Kelvin. In the film only the first two are mentioned, and only to boast of their size. Even in 1971 the buildings were clearly losing their lustre, as might be expected for any kind of council housing, and the film-makers clearly didn’t share the same vision for the future as the architects of these places. I hope anyone can agree that Kelvin was better than slum housing, but beyond that there seems to be little consensus on whether it was a good idea or not, whether it made communities or broke them and whether it gave people hope for the future or destroyed it.

For the man in the newspaper clipping placed in the middle of our series of vignettes, his need for a garden is such that he’s willing to destroy his flat, and the one beneath, for it. Is he a sad product of a failed system driven to his wits’ end, or does his need for a garden equate to a human need for a connection to nature, a connection not provided on concrete streets in the sky? The repetition of the last line would seem to answer this question. If a few find that concept naïve or troubling, others may be more concerned with the portrayal here of a criminal underclass, clearly beyond all redemption. The usual route for a piece of writing like this (I can’t think of a similar song) is to find a root cause, but there’s no easy way out here, just one great downward spiral of a sick environment, rotten conditions and people you want to avoid. This text is the product of an occasional visitor, one who’s been attacked by these kids and clearly feels no love for them, but who still can’t bring himself to look away – he’s not disgusted as such, but has the bitterness only the truly disillusioned (and therefore former true believers) can feel. It’s an apocalyptic vision of a song, and the seriously intoned monologue can’t entirely obscure the hellfire preacher tone – the song actually begins as a parody of a religious text, and culminates in a darkly humourous parody of Luke 18:16. It’s ridiculous, and that’s the point. Deep Fried in Kelvin is ultimately a work of satire, not a documentary.

I’ve left some fairly vital points behind in all this. Firstly, that the song is just short of ten minutes long, the longest thing the band ever put out, but justifies its length by never being dull for a moment. Second, there’s the music, an easy factor to forget in that it comprises nothing more than a barely changing band jam on a couple of chords. As band jams go, though, it’s not bad; Neu-meets-Bark-Psychosis, sonically interesting enough to imbue the words with extra drama, but low key enough to stay out of the way.

This isn’t quite the beginning of Pulp’s treatises on English class politics – it’s too much of a dark fantasy for that – but all the same, it’s a first step away from sensation and a first step towards issues. Next time we’ll see the group dive into this world, head-first.

#51 – The Will To Power

25 Aug

The Will To Power
The Will To Power at Pulpwiki

Russell Senior looked a bit like Hitler. Sure, he didn’t have the moustache, but the hair, the seriousness and the thousand yard stare were enough. Always the most politically active member of the group (and a flying picket during the miners’ strike of 1984) his views were at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Nazis, though a popular idea holds that politics can be described more as a circle than a straight line. Certainly his taste in philosophy and fetishisation of revolution had more in common with the extreme right than they did with the “SDP mood” of the era.

The lyrics of TWTP are deliberately provocative to an extent which is hard to justify. A popular story, reported as fact in Martin Aston’s book, says that the song had to be dropped from the band’s set after it attracted a skinhead following, but this is most likely to be either a joke or a massive exaggeration on Russell’s part – especially as it sounds suspiciously like a near-identical story about Cabaret Voltaire and their early track “Do The Mussolini (Headkick)”.

This is illustrative of a general lack of sincere description of the song and its purpose. Every quote available does more to obscure the meaning than clarify it – Russell’s description of TWTP as “a real commie anthem dedicated to Arthur Scargill and Nelson Mandela and the IRA” is particularly disingenuous – you’d be hard pressed to find any communist who’d feel the song was for them. This muddled message perhaps betrays a confusion at the core of the lyric. One vital fact missing from statements about the song (but which becomes self-evident when reading the lyric) is that it’s a character piece with a well-drawn protagonist. A confused, bitter small-town Nietzsche fan’s fear of powerlessness leads him to a pathetic desire for fascistic strength of mind and the gratification that comes with the release of physical violence. The more impotent he feels, the more angry he becomes with the world, until at the end he’s blubbing about ‘truth and beauty’. It could be funny if it wasn’t played so straight – and this is where explanations start to break down. Russell’s vocal sounds so utterly sincere that it’s hard not to take him at his word – and this tallies with one particular, seemingly meaninglessly provocative description of the song.

“I’d been reading about Germany at that time and the class conflict. I liked that atmosphere but obviously not from the point of view of being a Nazi. A lot of Left Wing statements are too wishy-washy, too nice. I like the sharpness of the Moseleyite addresses. They were on the wrong side but they were better organised.”

The secret to the success of The Will To Power is all in the performance and the production. A post-punk beat poem, it’s driven along by mournful guitar licks. Russell becomes more hysterical, fanatical as the track progresses – at one point his voice suddenly sounds so furious he could be an angry dalek – and the music follows suit soon after, breaking into a violent marching thrash. Vocal whips up backing, backing eggs on vocal, both becoming increasingly desperate, and finally breaking into exhausted, resigned but still angry defeat. It’s a tough trick to pull off, and live and demo versions are let down by a lack of focus. On the finished version from the “Little Girl” EP, however, the production is spot-on, with what’s almost certainly Russell’s best vocal of all time, guitars that sound sad and angry in the right places, and a runaway energy powerful enough to be genuinely frightening.

Nobody would consider ‘The Will To Power’ as a good introduction to Pulp, but perhaps they should. For all its confusion it’s a fascinating, complex piece of work, a hymn to sincerity and a bleak warning of its power at the same time.

#45 – Coy Mistress

14 Jul

Coy Mistress
Coy Mistress at Pulpwiki

In January 1984 five men entered Vibrasound Studios in Sheffield. Were they a band, or an experimental theatre company? Judging by their recent performance history, it would perhaps be safe to assume the latter. ‘Pulp’ had petered out over the summer, and nothing they’d done since then could be described as a “gig.” Of the four songs recorded that day, two remain unreleased and uncirculated, one is a rough but effective demo of ‘I Want You‘ and the final track, well, it’s ‘Coy Mistress’

Falling firmly on the ‘performance art’ side of the identity crisis divide, ‘Coy Mistress’ features one minute and twenty-six seconds of Russell loudly, menacingly proclaiming a half-remembered bastardisation of Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’. The 46 lines of the original are reduced to 11, though the essence of the piece seems undamaged – in fact, the lecherousness of the original is enhanced by the replacement of “but thirty thousand to the rest” with the sly, mischievous intonation of “and a considerably longer amount for all the rest.” Elsewhere time’s winged chariot is imbued with a “long skanky finger” which goes “smack, smack, smack.” Not a reverential reading then, but one suited for the theatre.

Behind Russell, Jarvis plays ominously on a church organ, while Magnus tinkles around on a xylophone. At two points in the track Magnus also throws in thunderous cymbal-rolls, presumably to disconcert any listeners who are somehow relaxing or not paying attention.

If it were a full-length track, or if it were anything other than a one-off, there’s every chance that ‘Coy Mistress’ would become tedious. As a stand-alone piece, however, it entertains and amuses without overstaying its welcome. Pulp never gave it a proper release, putting it out only on two obscure tape compilations, each time marking the beginning or end of a side, and each time accompanied by another, more sensible sample of the band’s work.

#1 Shakespeare Rock / #2 Life is a Circle

7 Jan

Shakespeare Rock (Songbook, Sky Arts, 2009)
Shakespeare Rock / Life is a Circle (School Assembly, The City School, Sheffield, 2011)
Shakespeare Rock (Faber & Faber interview, 2011)
On Pulpwiki Shakespeare Rock / Life is a Circle

In November 1978, in an O-level economics class in The City School,Sheffield, two distracted pupils, Jarvis Cocker (then aged 15) and Peter Dalton (aged 14) decided to form a band. Naming themselves “Arabicus” after the coffee beans in the Financial Times commodities index, they made plans for a rehearsal at Jarvis’s grandmother’s house on a Friday night. Jarvis was assigned guitar duties, Peter (“Dolly”) was on organ, and Peter’s younger brother Ian attempted rudimentary drumming on a coal scuttle. As beginnings go, it was far from auspicious, but everyone has to start somewhere.

After practicing ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ as all amateur musicians seemed obliged to do, they started work on their first proper song. Shakespeare Rock is quite obviously the product of an O-level student, a simple three-chord twelve bar blues strum (Jarvis had been reading Bert Weedon’s famous ‘Play in a Day’ book) accompanied by one-joke lyrics whose sole purpose seems to be to cram as many Shakespeare quotes in as possible.

Got a baby, only one thing’s wrong
She quotes Shakespeare all day long
Said ‘baby why’re you ignoring me?’
She said ‘to be or not to be’

Among creative people, being embarrassed about the work of your 15-year-old self must be near enough a universal trait. Something about the mix of painful sincerity and unconcealed pretension can make the revisiting of an old diary or poem excruciating. The worst fear is that our juvenilia will revel unpleasant truths – that under layers of artifice and irony constructed over the years there still lies that naïve teenager, so sure he has something to say, blissfully unaware of his ignorance.

It’s not really surprising, then, that most writers and musicians tend to hide their pre-professional work, and until recently Jarvis has been typical in this regard (indeed, in the mid 90s he seemed to be embarrassed by anything recorded before 1988), but with the release of Mother, Brother, Lover and the Pulp reunion he seems suddenly to have an interest in excavating his own past.

The first 21st century sighting of Shakespeare Rock was on a 2009 edition of ‘Songbook’, a programme on Sky Arts where songwriters are interviewed about their song-writing methods. Since then he’s performed it at his old school, and read the lyrics out at promotional appearances for his book. Each time he’s expressed embarrassment about the song, but it doesn’t seem to be of the genuine stomach-churning kind.

The truth is, Shakespeare Rock isn’t actually that bad – it’s just a throwaway novelty song, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. To describe it as “charming” would be going a little too far, and it’s very unlikely to make anyone laugh, but within the very narrow goals he set it, it seems to be a success. What’s more, the tune itself isn’t bad – particularly the alternation of the final note of each line. On ‘Songbook’ Will Hodgkinson describes it as “Chuck Berry goes to a comprehensive,” which isn’t far off the mark. As far as high-school novelty pastiches go, it’s really not that bad, and thirteen years later the chord structure would be recycled to make something truly special.

It’s much less easy to be kind about ‘Life is a Circle’ – a song so obscure that it seems to have been completely unknown until its performance at The City School in 2011. It’s a particularly egregious example of what Jarvis has described as “trying to sum up the whole world in a song” – a ‘thoughtful’ ballad with lyrics so ludicrously pretentious and full of half-baked metaphors that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t conceived as a joke.

Life is a circle you’re caught on,
Life is a road that’s much too long.
It winds, goes ahead,
It only stops when you’re dead.

Now that’s embarrassing.