Tag Archives: post-punk

#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.

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#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.

#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.

#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.

#40 – Looking For Life

26 May

Looking For Life
Looking For Life on Pulpwiki

The summer of 1982 was warm and dry. The Falklands war was over, Wednesday had missed out on promotion to the First Division on the final day and ‘Fame’ and ‘Come On Eileen’ were at number one. Jarvis had finished school, deferred his university place, and wasn’t even working as a fishmonger any more. It’s sounds a little like ‘David’s Last Summer’ – going to parties while it’s light outside, the air humming with heat, all that. Dolly and Jamie had gone their different ways, but a new Pulp was coming together, and the possibilities of the future must have seemed endlessly exciting. This is all self-evident from the songs written at this time – Sink or Swim, Joking Aside, but most of all Looking For Life, which captures the sound as well as the feel of those days.

For the previous six months the band’s line-up had included an organ on one side of the stage and a keyboard on the other, a setup which naturally led to tunes led by a swirling whirlitzer of sound topped off with jangly early 80s indie guitar. As the autumn arrived, Jarvis and Simon began their cribbing from Leonard Cohen, and the band’s sound moved on. ‘Looking for Life’ is a hangover from that earlier time. For whatever reason it escaped the rewriting and rearranging, perhaps because it represents the best development of that sound – the organ driven by a propulsive krautrock rhythm – for the first time in Pulp’s existence, a real groove.

It’s not completely successful, of course. The band are almost, but not quite in time for the first minute or so. This is no surprise – the song has a rather everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production, and with so many musicians trying so hard to make something work, one mistake can scupper everything. It was the last song recorded in the session, but destined to be the b-side of their first single, so everyone was very keen to get their part in.
The one thing which had changed about the song was the title. Originally ‘Coming Alive’ it had later been titled ‘Looking for Love’, a name dismissed as “too poofy” by a member of the group. That was a good call – one more song about a young man’s search for love would surely have been too much to take. Instead, the vocals are handily used as a hook for the rhythm, and quite an effective one. Peter Boam also sings lead for a moment, though his lines (“Once I had, I had a vision / Brilliant white walls and lights in each corner they danced” starting from 3.13) were placed so low in the mix that it’s easy to miss them. This is down to Jarvis, who decided that they sounded like “bloody Gene Pitney.”

There’s nothing particularly special going on here, but everyone puts in enough effort to somehow make it work. All the same, they seem to be flagging after a few minutes, and the song finishes largely as a mess. Not a fitting ending for an album it was never meant to be on*, though it woud’ve worked very well if placed earlier on.

*most reissues of the ‘It’ have featured ‘Looking for Life’ as an unmentioned bonus track, taking the album’s running length over the thirty minute mark.

#18 – Refuse To Be Blind

3 Mar

Refuse To Be Blind (John Peel Session 1981)
Refuse To be Blind (Pulpwiki)

There are two ways you can take ‘Refuse To be Blind’ – seriously (in which case it’s a bit embarrassing), or as absurd, melodramatic cabaret piece (in which case it’s entirely successful.) The first view is the more common one, as expressed by Owen Hatherley and Jarvis himself, but today I’d like to make the case for the second.

My argument is simple enough – where else in the world can you find a post-punk gothic horror prog-rock epic like this? Yes, I must admit that it’s stitched together in a not-entirely-convincing way, but I can’t help but admire the ambition and sheer chutzpah of the thing.

The first ‘movement’ (yes, a post-punk song with ‘movements’) starts with a clanking, repetitive synth drumbeat, over which the we soon hear Jarvis’s (possibly Dolly’s) clanging Martin Hannett style guitar riffs, Jamie Pinchbeck’s *two* ominous bass lines, and a wibbling electronic sound which sounds like a theramin, but is actually Dolly’s Moog synthesiser’s pitch-bend wheel. Jarvis’s description of the song as a “blatant joy division rip-off” comes into play here – a fair judgement, perhaps, but one that doesn’t apply once the vocals appear. The choice of words, the way Jarvis sings, and in particular the relish he takes in over-pronouncing words like “fetid” and “relinquish”… it sounds like a Nigel Kneale TV play, or an episode of Doctor Who from Tom Baker’s first couple of seasons, or a parody of these things, but one played completely straight.

A third of the way into the song, we lurch with a drum-fill into the instrumental section, which is at an entirely unrelated tempo and rhythm to the rest of the track. For the first minute or so it goes along very nicely, with the theremin sound taking the place of the vocals, but then it breaks down into a couple of other brief sections which stretch the band’s ambition past breaking point. The burden is on Wayne Furniss’s shoulders, and unfortunately he seems unable to carry it off, so the transition sounds painfully clunky.

The third and final section starts as a slightly slower version of the first. The lyrics have moved on from general to personal horror.

It’s not that I am so unstable
It’s just that there’s something inside me
It’s fighting, tearing for a way out
So at last it can be free

Is this to be taken literally, or as a strained metaphor about self-expression? From Jarvis’s description of the song in 1995 it would seem the latter – “it just sounds like I’m trying too hard. It’s a bit like when you find a bit of poetry you wrote when you were 17 and you try to say everything about the world in three sentences. It always seems a bit too much.” It might not be fair to question a writer’s view of his own lyrics, but I find the end section to be much more playful than he gives it credit for. The teenage Jarvis seems to not only be aware of his own pretention, but confident enough to poke fun at it.

We’ve previously seen that this incarnation of Pulp were not particularly adept at finishing songs, and ‘Refuse To Be Blind’ offers the definitive example of this. It was a new song, the only one not previously demoed, and they appear not to have even finished it when they arrived in the studio. While they were searching for effects they could use, session engineer Peter Watts turned a dial which made Jarvis’s voice sound like a dalek. This excited the four of them enough that they demanded it be used as the ending of the track – and Dale Griffin, reluctantly, had to agree. As they mixed it, the van driver arrived back, drunk, shouting “I am a fucking dalek!”

The dalek voice sounds very silly indeed, and if you’re still attempting to take the song seriously this is the point where the song breaks down into utter ridiculousness. Take it as campy gothic horror, however, and it’s the ludicrous cherry that tops off the preposterous cake. All in all, it’s a joy to listen to.

Next week we again venture into the land of missing songs and line-up changes.