Tag Archives: ping pong jerry

#58 – Back in LA

13 Oct

Back in LA (Ping Pong Jerry demo, November 1984)
Back in LA (Live at Fox Theater, Pomona, April 2012 – video)
Back in LA at Pulpwiki

Why do British post-punks have such a fixation with Los Angeles? Perhaps it’s because it’s such an alien world; blistering sun instead of drizzle, full of grinning, tanned humanoids whose manner seems implausible and whose actions seem inexplicably choreographed. Perhaps it’s because they (like me) have only ever seen it on TV. And the greatest post-punk track about the city? Well, that’s probably The Fall’s ‘L.A.’ It’s definitely not Pulp’s ‘Back in LA’.

If ‘Back in LA’ sounds like a half-formed sibling of ‘Maureen’ then that’s because that’s what it is. Both songs date back to Russell’s days in The Nightmares, both were commandeered by Pulp MK 3 with new lyrics added by Jarvis, and both were recorded for the “Ping Pong Jerry” demo of November 1984. While Maureen is a bit of a rough-hewn diamond, though, Back in LA is more like a lump of malformed shale, lacking much in the way of lyrical insight, a hook, a tune, or, well, anything really. There is some potential here – it could be refashioned as an all-out psychobilly thrash, and when Jarvis screams the chorus you can imagine that cranking everything up a little would turn it into something. The verses, however, are unsaveable – a dreary two-note punk thrash with Jarvis half-heartedly mumbling meaningless lyrics, sounding like he’s been up for a week and is reading from an autocue.

‘Back in LA’ languished in the vaults for eight years before being dug out as a curio to put on the B-side of Pulp’s limited edition release of ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’ on the Caff label in 1992. Twenty years after that the group finally played Los Angeles, and the song was included as a surprise choice for the second encore, apparently at the suggestion of Candida.

As unlovable as it is, Back in LA is a funny enough novelty, two minutes of something odd we won’t be hearing again. Just don’t expect it to crop up on anyone’s list of favourites.

#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.

#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.

#49 – Anorexic Beauty

11 Aug

Anorexic Beauty (Freaks, 1987)
Anorexic Beauty (Live, 1985, Fascinations Nitespot, Chesterfield – Video)
Anorexic Beauty (Ping Pong Jerry Demo, Nov 1984)
Anorexic Beauty at Pulpwiki

Eight unusual things about Anorexic Beauty by Pulp

1. It wasn’t originally a Pulp song. Written by David Kurley of early-Pulp contemporaries New Model Soldier, it was sold to Russell for £1 after a gig. The song dates back to an earlier David Kurley band, Blimp, who featured a young Magnus Doyle on drums. New Model Soldier were an interesting enough group in their own right – a few of their recordings can be heard here. The song was extensively re-worked by Pulp, but the lyrics survive intact.

2. Kurley’s lyrics could easily be from a post-modern treatise on desire and repulsion. I mean that in a good way – for a pop song it demonstrates an unusal level of forethought. Of course, on the other hand, we lack any insight into the author’s real feelings, but frankly, who cares? Situationist posturing about commodification, objectivisation and alienation is such a rarity in pop music. If it was presented in a po-faced manner (or used impenetrable language like “situationist posturing about commodification, objectivisation and alienation”) this might be a problem, but fortunately it’s witty, blunt and accessible enough to work.

3. Russell is singing – not a unique occurence, but he’s actually singing here rather than just making a speech with ominous backing music. In earlier versions of the song Jarvis would sing in tandem with Russell, but on the LP version his vocal has been mixed far down enough that you wouldn’t notice it unless you were really paying attention.

4. Jarvis is playing the drums, not with a great deal of precision, but considering he wasn’t a drummer the effect isn’t as bad as it might’ve been. The song doesn’t require him to do anything beyond a simple two-handed smash every second, so it probably didn’t require lessons.

5. Magnus is playing the guitar – again, not with a huge amount of finesse, but this isn’t exactly a delicate musicianly piece, and anyone who’s been in as many bands as he had would surely have picked up a few chords. Later on in the Pulp story another drummer trying out a guitar bit would create something rather special.

6. It’s not really about Lena Zavaroni. A child star of the 70s, she had her own TV variety show between 1979 and 1981. Her condition wouldn’t become public until the mid-80s, when the song was already five years old. Presumably it was dedicated to her on the sleeve of ‘Freaks’ because she was in the news at the time. In hindsight this seems rather cruel – Lena wasn’t a model, and she died in 1999 while in hospital waiting for experimental brain surgery, her last years spent on a council estate, living on state benefits.

7. Most unlikely fact of all, perhaps; this postmodern sex & death thrash somehow functions as a bit of light relief on ‘Freaks’. Reviewing the LP for Sounds magazine “Mr Spencer” remarked that “this presumably is Pulp’s idea of a ‘fun’ song.” – and while that may not strictly be the case, it’s certainly a lot more enjoyable to listen to than “Life Must Be So Wonderful” or “The Never-Ending Story.”

8. In the quarter-century since the song was recorded, it seems to have become popular with the online ‘pro-ana’ crowd. See this video, this website or this one or this one. On each (particularly the video) there is a debate raging over whether the song is a celebration of anorexia or a condemnation of it. In truth the lyrics don’t engage with this debate in either direction – David Kurley’s interest being more in performance art and philosophy than actually writing about an ‘issue’ – but it’s fascinating to find out how complex and multidimensional the disease is in the minds of sufferers, and how many of them are willing to use dark humour to discuss it.

#46 – Maureen

21 Jul

Maureen (Sudan Gerri Demo)
Maureen at Pulpwiki

A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinaesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status — all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really: a liberation of human and machine libido (if there is such a thing).
J.G. Ballard – Interview in Penthouse, September 1970

What a mess of contradictions we have here. Maureen is famously Pulp’s lost classic, but I somehow have five different versions of it in front of me. Listen to the chorus and it’s a straightforward love song, listen to the verses and it’s a perverse, well- developed fantasy about being knocked down by your lover’s car. It was, for a time, the band’s signature song, but it predates the line-up and never got a proper release. Most confusingly, there’s no “proper” version.*

This is a song with quite a bit of history, so let’s start at the beginning. Originating in Russell’s previous groups The Nightmares and Rachael Tension and the Disruptives, it was reworked by Jarvis, who added the bizarre lyrics about “someone who gets a sexual thrill out of being run over by the woman he’s in love with.” After featuring in The Fruits of Passion, it was recorded in each of the band’s three 1984 recording sessions, clearly intended as a first single. A music video was made with the help of “someone from Sheffield Art College,” but proved to be a botch job – a last-minute re-edit to make the tempo of the song match the style of the film apparently failed to save it. One of the few screenings this video ever got was as a presentation to Fire Records. The label signed them soon after, but were unconvinced by the band’s pleas to release ‘Maureen’ as a single, and put out Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) instead. While remaining an occasional part of the band’s set, the song’s time had been and gone, and a professional recording was never attempted.

Ignore all the nonsense, though, and check out what a song it is – like a breath of fresh unchained air after the professionalism and self-control of ‘It’. We start with Magnus’s irresistible lolloping drum-beat, then there’s a massive release of pent-up energy as the rest of the group dive into a garage-rock / psychobilly thrash. If it sounds like anything it’s one of The Cramps’ fast ones, only with a growling bass line undercutting the treble. Magnus and Manners are the stars here, driving the song forward with palpable energy and aggression. Without their sudden shifts in tempo the drama in the track would quickly dissipate.

The strangest thing about ‘Maureen’ should be the lyrics, and while they are both odd and fairly well-written, they fail to shock, or worse they try to shock, but fail. It’s unclear whether Jarvis had read J.G. Ballard’s ‘Crash’, but it’s clear that this he’s not a genuine sufferer of symphorophilia. Instead of genuinely perverse images we have faux-poetic allusions about “your red car is a hearse / and your red dress my shroud”. Hearses aren’t red, neither, generally, are shrouds. The only time we reach beyond sixth-form poetry is the third verse, with tyres shredding skin and a recurring motif of a red dress, a red car, and of course blood. But the words are not important here, nervous energy is all we need.

* For the sake of sanity I’m basing this on my favourite version – from the “Sudan Gerri” demo of November ’84 – and there’s a good case to be made for other takes, especially the notorious “Bad Maureen” which gave its name to the band’s first session.