Tag Archives: nightmare

#79 – Tunnel

9 Mar

“The above piece of writing appeared on the rear sleeve to “They Suffocate At Night” when it was first released in late 1986. At the time I paid no attention to the date I had chosen for my entrance into the tunnel – the 10th of July 1985 – I presumed I had simply picked it out of thin air. It wasn’t until I was looking through some old papers that I realised the date’s significance – amongst the papers was a copy of our first contract with Fire Records. It was dated – you guessed it – the 10th of July 1985. Had my unconscious mind been trying to tell me something I wonder? Hmmmmm.”
Jarvis’s rejected sleeve notes from the “Masters of the Universe” compilation, 1994.

Tunnel (B-Side to ‘They Suffocate At Nght’, 1987)
Tunnel at Pulpwiki

…there was nothing else to do, I was bored…

As strange as it may seem, ‘Tunnel’ started out as something of a pop song. Admittedly, this was only within the context of a famously shambolic late 1984 Pulp gig, set among the morbid and the painful, but it’s still very odd to hear. The bass riff is much more playful and melodic, and Magnus seems to be playing a brushy post-punk-jazz fill throughout. The song is much faster, half the length of the recorded version, and instead of echoed announcements Jarvis has dusted off his punk yelp. Most vitally there is no breakdown, no wall of noise and violence, but the song itself is still there, somehow, though lacking the reference to the 10th of July 1985, of course.

…don’t ask stupid questions…

Then the band, for whatever reason, left the song to fester for two and a half years, digging it out at the tail-end of the “Freaks” recording sessions. In a week full of misfires, fudges and rush jobs, it’s the only track that really blossomed in the studio environment. After it had been laid down, Russell commented that “the muse was with us” – and not without reason. The success of the recording was, however, at the expense of the future of the track, the finished eight minutes being very much a studio product, and not reproducible in a live setting.

…a thousand bodies stink and sweat, and somebody’s trying to roll a cigarette…

Once again form reflects subject. The track (never has the word been more apt) feels like a progression through a tunnel, though (spoiler) we never get to emerge from the other end. We enter along Manners’ locomotive bass line, pounding drums emerge, battering you from left and right, their rhythm jarringly out of step until suddenly everything slots together. Soon words emerge, like megaphone pronouncements from a crumbling communications room, the announcer asleep, or undergoing some kind of schizophrenic breakdown. Then, crashing walls of distorted guitar. We move through several sections, the insanity building each time the rhythm shifts. Finally we descend into fiery chaos, backward sounds wailing like trapped animals with seemingly random flashes of noise and melody including misplaced surf rhythms coming in like radio interference. What we have here is more than a bad trip – it’s the unreliable narration of a fall into hell.

…at 3 o’clock that the morning I awoke in an unfamiliar room…

Of course, there are plenty of people out there who don’t like “Tunnel” – Pulp fans, music reviewers, people in general…. Reviewers on Bar Italia (presumably some of the keenest fans of all) described it as “pointless, rambling, horrible, crappy drivel” and “over-indulgence of the worst kind.” When I first heard it on the ‘Masters of the Universe’ compilation in 1995 I remember universal disapproval from friends and family. It’s clear then, that my love of the song puts me in a tiny minority, and sometimes I even doubt myself. Is it just nostalgia for the piece that introduced me to the world of discordant, experimental music? On balance, I honestly still feel not. It’s a powerful, original piece of work, and comparisons to Joy Division or other post-punks does nothing to dilute this. Why? Because it’s not a pastiche – it’s real.

…Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!…

How did Jarvis write the lyrics to ‘Tunnel’? The greatest influence seems to be film noir and the twilight zone, but there’s also a section that reads like cut-up poetry – an effective simalcrum of a schizoid mind. The protagonist is clearly disconnected from clear thought and speech – he keeps going off at odd tangents and being distracted by disconnected thoughts. The passion excuses the opacity, which in turn excuses the strangeness. This is also the first sighting of “sunlight through net curtains” – a premonition, perhaps.

…and to be clean again. But I know I’ll never ever be clean again…

‘Tunnel’ could easily have been the final track in the Pulp discography. The band had split up, and Jarvis would, within a year, be heading down to study at St Martin’s, hundreds of miles away from the rest of the group. Fire’s decision to put out a single release of “Master of the Universe” a few months later was barely noticed – its b-sides having been salvaged from old demos, the single contained nothing in the way of new material. ‘Tunnel’ would have been a fitting end to the band – a summation of “the worst years of our lives” – as well as a great buck “fuck you” to the people responsible – Fire Records, the venues, the record-buying public, the members of the band themselves…
It would be four long years until the group put out another record, but that’s a whole other story.

#73 – Goodnight

26 Jan

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

Being an artist is often analogous to being an attention-seeker, and that’s probably why brashness and energy are essential for anyone seeking a career in music. There are very few musicians who would like their work to be described as “soporific” – making your audience switch off and drift away is exactly what they’re trying hard not to do. There is ambient music, of course, but that’s off in a world by itself. For gigging bands, playing in noisy bars in front of drunk people, the temptation must always be to get faster and louder.

“Goodnight” was never played live, of course. How could it be? A concept piece that sounded like falling asleep would be unlikely to go down well with even the more sober late night punters. Instead it’s something of a studio creation, reliant on subtle production tricks and atmospherics, created as a low-key closer to the ‘Dogs Are Everywhere’ EP.

Descriptions of the deserted night-time streets of the city are fairly commonplace by this point. The innovation here is the introduction of the intimate spoken-word narrative. It’s a vital element in the band’s sound for the rest of their career, and for good reason. Limited as he was as a crooner, Jarvis has always had a sonorous, authoritative timbre to his voice when speaking, and the freedom gained from abandoning the structures and conventions of singing allowed him to present much more vividly realized material and play with the natural cadences of his voice rather than be constrained by it.

For the first half of ‘Goodnight’ he guides you gently back home to your house before lulling you to sleep. Instruments start to fade in – first organ and then a beautiful dulcimer backing. Both sound like they are guiding you to heaven. Meanwhile an odd counterpoint chorus pops in and out, like a dark thought niggling at your subconscious – something’s not quite right. The imagery becomes increasingly hazy until “there’s something you’ve forgotten” and we launch into the now-customary nightmare sequence, a panic that if we’re going to heaven then – of course! – that means leaving life behind. This nightmare is thankfully less jarring than usual, the backing continuing to increase in intensity, but not launching into a different tune. Jarvis is singing again, but his vocals have been treated to sound resonant and metallic, and are mixed low enough to avoid the silliness of ‘Master of The Universe’.

‘Goodnight’ is in its own quiet little way a bold leap forward. It would’ve been nice if Jarvis could have gone with the concept, trusted his speaking voice to carry the entire track (instead of launching into an ill-advised whispered version of his croon on the choruses) and not felt the need to add the usual gothic doom to the conclusion, but for a couple of minutes at least we really have something rather special.

#66 – Being Followed Home

8 Dec

Being Followed Home (Freaks, 1987)
Being Followed Home at Pulpwiki

Listening to Freaks-era Pulp can often be a frustrating experience. With a little patience you can tell what they were aiming for, but also that they were following a blind trail up a dark alley. Jarvis’s deep sixties croon, Russell’s out-of-tune violin, tortured borderline-pretentious lyrics about death and perversion… It all simply wasn’t going to work, and comparison with their 1990s work shows that a different approach was needed. But then Being Followed Home blows this idea out of the water. Suddenly everything works perfectly.

In part this can be attributed to a level of professionalism above and beyond anything else on the album. Every note is well-chosen, every line well-crafted, Jarvis’s flat baritone slightly raised and steadied, the violin subtlety used to recreate the sudden jolts of a rising heartbeat, the lyrics well-crafted. An unmatched amount of talent and work are evident throughout. Thematically we’re not exploring new ground. Paranoia, dream narratives, journeys through the city at night – these have been common themes throughout the band’s career* – but here they are tied together perfectly. The title is the catalyst – is there any fear more primal than being followed by a malevolent force at night-time?

England can be a surprisingly scary place, especially at 3am on a Sunday. The clubs have closed, the crazies are out, and all you can do is keep your head down, avoid eye-contact and keep walking – quickly, but not too quickly. Freaks tend to draw attention. Cities are places where you can blend in, but when all the regular people have gone home to bed your cover is blown. Other people are walking the same route; are they harmless, just making their own way home? Or are they following you?

It’s a familiar situation, but Pulp manage to take it to new places. This is not so much a song, more a treatment for a post-punk-opera. In fact it’s cinematic enough that it sits in the part of my memory usually reserved for short films, and possessed of a very odd ABCBCDBA sequence taken from the realms of 15-minute prog-rock epics of the early 70s.

We start with echoey footsteps taken from Jarvis’s BBC sound effects LP, a low-key but determined guitar line, he mutters under his breath that he’s being followed home, and then the second guitar line comes in with a sudden jolt in tempo – a quickening step to test whether he really is being followed. As he walks he’s distracted by vivid memories from his recent past, a failed affair – he’s clearly still in love, obsessed by a supposedly indelible memory of this woman – but something has gone terribly wrong and he’s left her forever.

Romantic dreams can swamp the brain, though, can make someone lose focus. After a couple of verses of this we’re shaken back to the chase. He knows who his pursuers are – “the one with the dog breath in the tattoo bar” – and now they’re chasing him over garden walls, down dark alleys. The music has jumped into an altogether different place too – the panic and paranoia reflected in a helter-skelter jumble of opposing rhythms and noises. Magnus’s percussion really comes alive here, with sudden fills and crashes surprising yet superbly well-timed. Then we build to a climax, “the corner’s turned… and it’s too late.”

This would usually be the part to jolt awake from the nightmare, but instead he “awoke on a beach sometime later to a grey and sunless sky.” (this has to be one of my favourite Pulp lyrics of all-time) – he’s beaten and bruised, but now his memories of the beating and the romantic disappointment are all mingled and confused. The world has conspired to batter him from both sides. We return to the early verses, but now as a series of grizzly flashbacks – the other kind of indelible. But time can heal everything – his wounds begin to heal, and his memories begin to fade. The handprints in the sand that “would last forever” have been swept away by the sea – he’s forgotten the fear, but also the passion.

There’s a sense that all of this is a metaphor, but a literal interpretation seems equally valid. No matter what personal triumphs or tragedies are fresh in your mind, the world can be a cruel and random place. As the track finishes we return to the start. A recurring dream? A repeat? Or a memory that won’t go away? He’s being followed home.

*Though ‘paranoia’ would soon be replaced by ‘sex’

#64 – Fairground

24 Nov

Fairground (Freaks, 1987)
Fairground at Pulpwiki

“The other reason we called it ‘Freaks’ was because we always get called freaks, the escape party from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, stuff like that. When we play live, everybody dwells on the fact that I’m thin with specs, Russell looks like Count Dracula, Candida although she’s 23 looks 14, while Pete looks like a football hooligan. We were always getting called freaks so we thought let’s call the LP ‘Freaks’ just to… put two fingers up.” – Jarvis Cocker, Sounds, 27th June 1987

Are you normal or are you weird? It’s a question we’ve all had to answer at one time, usually in high school. And then you have to decide whether you’re one or the other. Sometimes it’s easier just to go with the flow – being a freak is, in a way, a liberating experience. You can do whatever you like and people will pay attention to you. Take this to its logical extreme and eventually you’re a sideshow attraction. Come and see the freak, kids! This could’ve been you if you’d been unlucky / lucky / clever / stupid / different. Of course, if you’re just trying to be yourself (that being the normal state of things) then this can all be a bit too much to take.

‘Fairground’, the opening track on Freaks, presents the group as a particularly unpleasant carnival sideshow act. It’s not exactly an easy listen. Every note, from the woozy fairground organ to the distorted screaming and the way it keeps shifting into unexpected keys seems to be designed to make this listener confused and uncomfortable. Russell’s intention was always to weed out the more casual or conservative listeners, and he must have been successful here. Despite the poor quality of the recording, this cacophony is intentional, and had been planned for years.

That isn’t to say that the recording session was a success. ‘Freaks’ is the very definition of a poorly produced album. The limited time and resources availiable meant that moreorless everything was a rough first take, and no song suffered more than Fairground. The night after the recording Jarvis lay in bed groaning with embarrasment at the memory of his studio-improvised ‘carny’ announcements in the instrumental section and swore he would remove them the next day.* Arriving back at the recording studio they found that the masters had already been wiped. The unsatisfactory rough mix was to be the only version recorded.

So far, so bad then. But Fairground is actually very successful in acheiving what the group set out to do – whether that corresponds to anyone’s idea of ‘good music’ or not. Russell’s monologue alone is magnificently theatrical and creepy, a song-length summary of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. The narrator keeps switching between a demented ringmaster and a bewildered spectator, taking a tour around a selection of fairground oddities**, but the astonishing thing is that nothing actually happens – nothing worse than being subjected to ridicule at least. Yet there’s an overwhelming sense of “something wrong here.”

The evil circus trope is one we’re all familiar with, and its signifiers sound obvious enough to make it into a particularly specialised sub-genre. Waltz time, a fairground organ playing simple scales, slightly out of tune, evil laughter. So when I set out to make a mix of the best of this music I was surprised at how few musicians could carry it off without sounding corny and fake. Nox Arcana were particularly disappointing. The best of what I could find is gathered on this podcast. Listen to it at your own risk (of being mildly irritated).

* His vocals are actually fairly good. You’d have thought they’d have been embarrassed about a few other things though.
** Are the “three identical sisters” a reference to Artery’s ‘Into The Garden’? It certainly seems possible.

#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.

#55 – Blue Glow

22 Sep

Blue Glow (Little Girl EP, 1985)
Blue Glow at Pulpwiki

“In Sheffield I lived in an old factory building which was right in the centre of town, so coming back from nightclubs at two or three in the morning I would just walk through a semi-derelict industrial landscape to get home. I got kind of used to that thing of walking through deserted places, feeling that you had the city to yourself at that time of the night, which was great because being somebody on social security or whatever at the time, in a band, leading a fairly precarious existence, you certainly didn’t feel that you owned the town when it was light and when it was getting on with its business, but when everyone else was asleep you could walk through and really feel like it belonged to you.” – Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless Nights, BBC Radio 4, 2012

The 1991 film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf has one of the most inspired opening scenes of all time. A homeless man, strung out on drink and pills, stumbles down a vast deserted highway, eventually lying down and passing out in the middle of the road. Cars career down the road, swerving when they see his prostrate form, until one fails to notice him and runs painfully over his ankle. A woman with a dirty eye-patch and a mop of bedraggled black hair runs over to him, and helps him onto a night bus full of other casualties of the city.

When most musicians sing about the night at one time or another, they stick to the club and the bedroom, but there’s a city out there – the same streets, the same buildings, but deserted save for the odd straggler, silent enough that an occasional noise can imbue everything with sudden drama. Jarvis knew this world intimately, and a Pulp geography of Sheffield would surely be placed at 4am, after the last clubber has gone home, but before the first milkman has started making his rounds.

‘Blue Glow’ is the famous balcony scene – only here Juliet is wrapped up inside, watching late night TV on her own, and Romeo is lurking in the bushes below her window. He’s not malicious, just scared… lost in the city, following her out of desperation – a longing for someone to join him. It’s not so much love as a frantic need – she could be anyone, or no-one – perhaps she doesn’t even exist. By the end he’s a lost cause, wandering dirty and shivering by the river with his clothes in tatters, still pleading with her to come and make everything better.

These are some of Jarvis’s strongest lyrics, but they wouldn’t stand up as well as they do without a fine showing from the rest of the band. Peter Mansell in particular puts in one of his best performances – his curious, seedy bass line sets the tone for the whole song, propelling it through various spasmodic pulsations from Russell’s violin and the gothic chiming of Candia’s dulcimer. The verses are perhaps the apex of Pulp’s ‘dark sixties ballad’ phase – understated but perfectly judged, tuneful with a creeping underlying menace.

The chorus is a whole different affair, though. On one hand it’s a solid hook for the track – a blurting of passion to relieve the tension of the verses – and certainly it’s memorable enough. On the other hand there’s a sense that perhaps they are trying too hard here. Matched with something else, it could be perfectly good, but contrasted with the perfection of the verses it can’t help but be a bit of a let-down.

Blue Glow wasn’t anyone’s favourite at the time, but since fans began to explore the group’s early work in the mid 90s it’s been rated as one of the highlights of this era. I even named my first fanzine after it. The inclusion of the track on the compilation “Untitled 3” means that thousands of mainstream indie fans have a copy of it, uniquely for anything else pre-Separations. I wonder what they make of Russell’s wall of screeching violin noise at the climax.

#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!