Tag Archives: melodrama

#126 – Have You Seen Her Lately?

15 Feb

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Have You Seen Her Lately? (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film, Glastonbury 1994)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film, Paris 2012)
Have You Seen Her Lately? at Pulpwiki

“First you let him in your bed
Now he’s moved inside your head
And he directs all the dreams you are dreaming”

If Seconds was an ultimately optimistic portrayal of the messy compromises life throws your way, then Have You Seen Her Lately? is perhaps its evil twin. Instead of empathy we have sympathetic despair and a hopeless wailing and gnashing of teeth towards a lost cause. Instead of acceptance of the drama life throws at us we have the inevitability of death, and the death of dreams, of hope.

Once again Jarvis’s ex is in the arms of another man, but this time he’s taking it much worse. From his perspective (and as the title reminds us, he has corroboration) the new boyfriend is a bad move all round. He’s insecure (“Do you think he’ll fall apart?”), immature (“It’s time to teach him how to walk”), a burden (“a piece of luggage that you should throw away”) and somehow hugely dangerous (“He’s already made such a mess of your life”). Her relationship with him is akin to the joining of a suicide cult – she’s already been brainwashed and this is her last chance to get out before it’s too late.

If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit extreme then that’s fair enough. This song is decidedly not coming from a rational or logical place – it’s a desperate last-grasp for redemption, and Jarvis sounds more like a lonesome ghost returning to whisper dire warnings in his old lover’s ear than a human giving advice. That’s the way they play it too; singer, band and producer conspire to turn this plea into one of the oddest, but most consistent pop songs around.

From that first out of tune organ sound onward, everything about ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’ sounds sickly. In Emile Zola’s novel La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret a young priest drives himself into a life-threatening fever through excessive worship of the Virgin Mary, and this illness has the same sort of feel. It’s utterly religious and oddly asexual – the end-point of the group’s romantic tendency when all goals and desires are rendered useless. It’s another Ed Buller symphony, but this time it’s all a little too overwhelming. The verses are normal enough, I suppose, but the chorus is essentially one long, resigned wail, and toward the close of the track the song takes you back to the haunted music room of ‘Blue Girls’ – a wistful, deeply sad anti-nostalgia, something we might call ‘hauntology’ if it were made today.

I’m impressed by ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’ – it’s hard not to be by such a powerful piece of music – but I’m still not sure if I actually enjoy it. With earlier ballads what was required was a suspension of disbelief, but here it’s more like a willingness to go with the core idea, and I don’t know if I can do that. Ultimately I don’t trust the narrative of this relationship – the singer is too involved to present a clear picture, and there’s a lingering suspicion that he has his own selfish, desperate romantic instincts underlying his argument. Is the girl too weak, too pathetic to realise her situation, if it’s really so bad? If so, why does he want to win her back so badly? Does she not have her own free will, to join with or even follow whoever she chooses? There’s something that doesn’t quite sit right, and I just can’t shake it. This may all be deliberate, it may be that I’m missing something, but all the same it stops me diving in and going with the flow, and that’s a shame.

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#71 – Dogs Are Everywhere

12 Jan

Dogs Are Everywhere (Single, 1986)
Dogs Are Everywhere (Acoustic) (b-side, 1995)
Dogs Are Everywhere (Live in Bucharest, 2012)
Dogs Are Everywhere at Pulpwiki

“Recent evidence shows that man is a direct descendant of the Dog, rather than the ape, as had been believed. Some are closer to their roots than others.” – original sleevenotes

Pulp had always seemed to be a gang of sorts. First a cheeky collection of schoolboys with wacky names, then an association of budding musos, then a performance art troupe, united by their difference from their peers. Merely ‘not being normal’ is not a lot to have in common, though, and by 1985 the strains were beginning to show. On one side there were Jarvis and Russell, both taking the business of being in a band very seriously indeed, making elaborate schedules and forcing the other members to do lists of chores at rehearsals. On the other side there were Magnus and Manners, the Keith Moon figures of the group – interested in music, sure, but not into being organised and well-behaved. They once infuriated Russell by playing a Sham 69 cover as an encore. Candida, meanwhile, was stuck in the middle, being neither a control freak nor a hooligan.

“I was inspired by one night after playing Chesterfield. Magnus Doyle and Peter Boam were always pissing about and getting stoned. Myself and Russell were puritanical and thought that was terrible. They’d have these mates hanging round, which got on my nerves. That night, they nicked bottles from behind the bar, and we got into loads of trouble. That’s what the song is about – people who display a doggish attitude.” – Jarvis talking about Dogs Are Everywhere in Record Collector

It says something fairly terrible about inter-band relationships when the singer is writing bitter, contemptuous songs about the rhythm section, but perhaps the fact that they played along with the idea says something a little better.

Aged 16, I found Dogs are Everywhere to be a little plodding, but quite wryly insightful, disapproving as I did of both dogs and the majority of my peer group. After being chased home from school by the local farmer’s Doberman on a few occasions, I was frankly terrified of dogs at this point, and extended my fear to a general disapproval of the species. If a human were unquestioningly loyal to one person and threatened anyone else who came near them we’d call this behavior ‘obsequious’ and ‘aggressive’, not ‘loyal’ and ‘faithful’. It didn’t seem fair at all. At school the people with the worst behaviour seemed to be rewarded with attention and approval from the other kids. The connection was a little tenuous but the song seemed to sum up the boorish sexuality and love of willful destruction fairly well. The bit about them whining around your feet seemed a bit odd and misplaced, but you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth, haven’t you?

Eighteen years later my understanding of Jarvis’s viewpoint seems to have dissipated entirely. Jumping behind a bar to steal some beers seems less a threat to the order of the civilized world and more like just the usual kind of hijinks young men have always got up to. Behaving pleasantly is a perfectly good way to carry on, of course, but it’s better to tolerate than set yourself up as a haughty paragon of virtue. There’s an inescapable arrogance here which seeps through to the very core; look at all these people with their civilized, uncouth behaviour – sometimes I fear that I’ll start acting like them! Wouldn’t that be awful?! Frankly, it’s hard to conjure up much sympathy, and the attempt at self-deprecation does nothing to address the terrible self-importance.

The worst part of the deal has to be Jarvis’s lounge-singer croon, deployed to devastating effect in all the wrong ways. Never before or since has he sounded so pompous and strained as he does here. The most egregious moment is the winking cabaret of the “sometimes I have to wonder”, but it’s far from being the only moment that sours the perfectly nice instrumentation behind him. This pained confessional tone might have been acceptable if he were singing about something halfway meaningful, but paired with these ridiculous lyrics it’s almost – but painfully not – funny.

I hope I’m not sounding too critical here – this isn’t, by any reasonable standards, a terrible record. The production is perfectly lovely (especially those intimate little slide-scratch sounds), and the tune itself isn’t that bad – but it’s a bit of a slight, plinkety-plonk stab at a pop song which goes on way too long, so nothing particularly valuable was sullied. I’m not sure what Dogs Are “ev-ree-whurr” is even supposed to be – A novelty song? A gothic confessional ballad? An embarrassing rant? – but the result is just a mess and, yes, an embarrassment.

#63 – There’s No Emotion

17 Nov

There’s No Emotion (Freaks, 1987)
There’s No Emotion (Live film, 10th July 1985 – Gotham City Club, Fascinations Nitespot, Chesterfield)
There’s No Emotion at Pulpwiki

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The word ‘mannered’ has acquired quite a pejorative status in arts criticism; worse than “self-conscious”, not as bad as “pretentious.” Freaks is, by anyone’s reckoning, a spectacularly mannered album, but surprisingly this isn’t always to its detriment. The former members of The Wicker Players were still in some ways a theatrical act, and being stylised and affected was in a sense their raison d’être. Fighting against it just seemed to lead to still-born lounge act sincerity – so why not go with the flow instead?

To see what I mean, just compare Life Must Be So Wonderful with There’s No Emotion. Jarvis’s strained croon, having proved itself unsuitable for soul-baring honesty, sounds altogether more fitting for the drama described here. After all, where better to sound false than a song about losing all feeling? Taking the lyrics on face value they seem to be tragic, but with this sort of treatment “no emotion” sounds more like a liberating concept.

It wouldn’t be entirely fair to say that Jarvis is on top form here though. The croon is absurdly limiting at times, and there are moments when it sounds like his voice is about to crack. He simply hasn’t got the chops to pull it off. Fortunately Candida’s utterly lovely harmonies on the chorus pull the vocal back from the brink, and by the “holding hands” section Jarvis has ridden the scales up to break into his natural range, though he does have a few unfortunate dips afterwards.

The rest of the group also sound like they are giving things their best shot. There’s some nice understated country guitar (of all things) leading us off, and though things do seem to sag and plod a little towards the middle, there follows a quite lovely little instrumental break and the climax leaves everything on the best possible note, all things considered.

In a wonderful little muttered aside Jarvis declares that “this is where the story starts” and launches into one of the best passages on the album. “Holding hands that hold you forever” – how better to sum up this wretched relationship, the safety of being a prisoner? Forget the melodramatic declaration of dead hearts – this is honesty. He needs to get out, but he doesn’t know the way and he’s scared. Great stuff.

#57 – The Mark of the Devil

6 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#56 – Silence

29 Sep

Silence
Silence at pulpwiki

“I banned it from going on the Fire compilation, because it’s terrible – I couldn’t live with it being out.”

When writing something like this blog, there’s always a risk that you’ll annoy someone by criticizing one of their favourites. “Silence” is, of course, an exception to this rule. The closest I can find to a defense of it is that it has “a good concept” “hilarious lyrics” or is “likeable just for sheer comedy value.” But despite near-blanket condemnation from every quarter it’s still the only track from Sudan Gerri ever given an official release – an inclusion on the ‘Master Of The Universe’ single in 1987. This choice, when there were many other fairly decent recordings in the vault, is simply baffling, especially as the repeated listens necessary for writing this blog have done nothing to lessen its terrible impact. After three years who could countenance doing anything with this song besides burying it and making sure nobody found out?

Silence was apparently written at the first New Pulp rehearsal in 1983, after which Peter Boam and David Hinkler left the band. I’d challenge anyone to listen to the track and not admit that this seems like a wise decision. For the first thirty seconds or so it’s possible to persuade yourself that there may be some redeeming features here. A sinister organ motif, mysterious spoken lyrics – it could almost be a slightly worse version of “Take You Back”. But then the caterwauling begins and suddenly any shred of goodwill is forgotten.

There’s so much wrong with what follows over the next five minutes that it’s hard to know where to start. How about the tuneless organ drone which continues unabated throughout the entire piece? Or the abominable lyrics with forced rhymes about silence/reliance and guff about “the scars I’ve left on you” and “how much I loved your eyes”? These crimes are nothing next to Jarvis’s pained vocal theatrics, which are stretched way past the point of self-parody to undiscovered heights of embarrassment. The fact that it takes itself so seriously and has so little to justify this opinion is the poisoned cherry on the fetid cake. Or how about the sheer length of the thing? At five and a half minutes it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘outstaying your welcome’. Oh, and then, just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. “WE’LL STILL BE GOOD FRIENDS WON’T WE!?!” Oh Jarvis, what on Earth were you thinking?

If just one of these problems were present, the song would merely be bad. Put together, we have a perfect storm of shit. It’s hard to believe that it’s not a parody, but it really isn’t. How many people had to say ‘yes’ to get this released? It’s hard to even fathom why nobody taped over it while they had the chance. ‘Silence’ isn’t just the worse song in Pulp’s catalogue; it’s up there with some of the worst things I’ve ever heard. Let’s hope it remains buried permanently.

#52 – Simultaneous

1 Sep

Simultaneous (Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) EP, 1985)
Simultaneous at Pulpwiki

1984 may have been one of Pulp’s most productive wilderness years, but it was also a high-watermark of social and commercial isolation for the group. Their audiences – a drunken rugby club and the patrons of a brothel for example – were at best unimpressed and sometimes openly hostile. Their recording sessions were in spare rooms used for karate and table tennis, and record companies showed no interest at all.

It was on the 10th of July 1985, nearly two years after the release of ‘Everybody’s Problem’ that Pulp signed a recording contract again – a deal with Fire Records, an indie label set up by Clive Solomon. It was hardly a huge leap forward, unless that huge leap is into a sodden mire, but at least it allowed the budget to embark on professional recording sessions again. The Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) And Other Pieces EP was the result of the first of these sessions. Simon Hinkler returned as a producer and did an outstanding job. Pulp had been rehearsing these songs for years, but each one has their performance captured at its peak – though daubed in layers of ghostly reverb each instument sounds distinct and individual, while retaining an intense spontaneous feel.

So, anyway, if all this backstory reads like a reluctance to discuss the song at hand then that’s because it is. ‘Simultaneous’ is easily the least remarkable thing on an excellent EP. It’s comprised of parts which remind you of other songs from this era – the fast section from ‘The Will To Power’, the violin drone of ‘Blue Glow’, second-person lyrics about a failing relationship like ‘There’s No Emotion’, a ‘waking-from-a-dream’ motif similar to that in ‘Being Followed Home’ – all of which draw unfavourable comparison. The one highlight is Jarvis’s dulcimer, which sounds splendidly medieval and discordant. The lyrics do contain a few minor gems – the opening “There’s a place for you / You’d better stay in it” and the stuff about “timetabled kisses” “well-rehearsed phrases” and “separate bedrooms” – but it’s all spoiled by dodgy rhymes like “forsaken / mistaken” and a general feeling that we’ve done this topic already.

It’s 85-Pulp-by-numbers in other words, and is easily outshone on the ‘Masters of the Universe’ compilation by pretty much everything else. It should be noted, though, that the band felt differently, for whatever reason, and ‘Simultaneous’ remained a baffling mainstay of live sets around this time.

#50 – Take You Back

18 Aug

Take You Back (Sudan Gerri Demo, May 1984)
Take You Back (Live at The Hallamshire Hotel, June 1984)
Take You Back at Pulpwiki

Close your eyes, think back into your past… An old sports hall… The karate equipment you once used. Four men and one woman playing those cheap instruments you knew so well… The noise that gives you a headache!!

Take You Back is ridiculous – but where other attempts at high horror (like the half-hearted piss-take of one above) fall short, it grabs what it’s reaching for. Rural nostalgia lurches (and what a lurch!) into repressed horror with complete conviction. This is Nightmare Pulp, on their first trip into the depths of Jarvis’s subconscious.

We start with an ominous organ drone. Jarvis leads us through a hypnotherapy regression, possibly to a past life – stones, a valley, a house. Low key guitar and drums build up gently but persistently in the background, like an animal about to pounce. It feels like one of those dreams where you wander through well-known places before suddenly encountering something terrible and being jolted awake.

Then the jolt comes – the lurch into horror. The tune is the same but the feeling is diametrically opposed – aggressive, snarling, with a thumping primal drumbeat and a jeering chorus of “laaa!-laaa! la-la-laaaa!” Jarvis suddenly sounds cruel and dismissive, his description suddenly one of ruins, a revelation that the whole act is a trick, then he joins in with the jeering as the track rears to a climax. This minute or so just works perfectly – the most aggressive (and therefore best) version coming from a live performance around the same time.

Take You Back succeeds completely, but it’s still just a couple of notches away from being terrible pretentious guff. If you substituted the horror story for a personal one, and ramped up the melodrama a few notches you’d get, well, something else, something we’d rather never existed!