Tag Archives: returning to a failed relationship

#119 – You’re a Nightmare

14 Dec

Last Year at Marienbad

You’re a Nightmare (7/2/93 Peel session)
You’re a Nightmare at Pulpwiki

‘You’re a Nightmare’ is a step back into the Freaks era.

If the early nineties were about sex and suburbia and the mid-80s were about “power, claustrophobia, suffocation and holding hands” then it’s quite clear where ‘You’re a Nightmare’ belongs. A low-key ballad dealing with personal experience expressed as if it were hammer horror, a simple, brooding bassline, lounge-style guitar, the semi-acoustic stripped-down sound of Dogs Are Everywhere (particularly the version on the French DYRTFT? single) – well, that’s enough to start with, surely? The thing that really nails it, though, is Jarvis’s performance. While a little more accomplished than before, his vocal is essentially a last encore for the croon he’d left behind on his move to London.

The odd, very personal-sounding middle eight also bears out this theory – fittingly it seems like a half-remembered dream: “In a hotel bedroom birthdays / Sleep in factory hallways / I remember always.” – without wanting to read too much into it, does this refer to the same doomed relationship of the Freaks era ballads? The Outrage tour and the Wicker factory building where Jarvis lived? Perhaps it’s better not to pry.

‘You’re a Nightmare’ is a step forward into the mid 90s.

Perhaps you need to face up to your ghosts in order to move on. The lyrics of You’re a Nightmare may have that horror feel of the 80s, but the open-eyed vindictiveness recalls the character assassination of ‘I Spy’. The subversion of the ‘with you in dreams’ trope, the simple rhyming scheme, it all seems designed to be accessible to a wider audience – which is, of course, where we’ll soon be moving. At a stretch, there’s something fundamentally poppy about the song too – it achieves its goals in a much more straightforward fashion, the chorus is moreorless singable, and Candida’s keyboards are cut down to more easily digestible illustrative warbles.

The one place ‘You’re a Nightmare’ doesn’t sound at home is in the jams and production-driven atmospherics of the early 90s.

Pulp had an odd relationship with John Peel. Schoolboy Pulp were invited in for the session that kickstarted their career and kept Jarvis out of university for most of the 80s, then Peel managed to forget about them for the next eleven years. When Jarvis and Steve were invited to his house to play tracks from the then-new Different Class in 1995, John expressed his surprise and regret about this, saying that he would’ve invited them on if anyone had reminded him. To be fair I can’t think of anyone with a greater workload, but it’s still a shame that we don’t have a session from the Freaks or Separations eras with a professional BBC producer in charge. Maybe You’re a Nightmare is the best possible demonstration of what this would sound like – that is, very good, but still not up to the standard of ’93 and ’94 – a tough standard to judge it by, but contextually the only one possible.

There wouldn’t be a re-record. The session version was put out on the b-side of Lipgloss at the end of the year and therefore uniquely appears on both the expanded edition of the His ‘n’ Hers LP and The Peel Sessions. Not re-recording is odd – they were spending plenty of time in recording studios at the time and the session version has an unfinished feel about it, particularly in Jarvis’s vocal – he sounds vaguely ashamed as he sings, and it’s hard to tell whether this is related to the emotional entanglement or the difficulty in rhyming ‘on a bus’/’ridiculous’ and ‘first’/’worse’. Perhaps they thought this version captured something special, perhaps it was a throwaway of a song they didn’t care for,* maybe it was too personal in some way. Whatever the reason, it seems designed for cult listening, personal meaning to be either extracted or applied – and that’s a good enough fate for a session track.

*This seems unlikely – every release at this time seems to be meticulously worked out.

#105 – O.U. (Gone, Gone)

31 Aug

OU1-small

O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Radio Edit, Single, 1992)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Full version, 1992 – fan-made music video)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Live film, Reading 1994)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) (Live film, Pomona, California, 2012)
O.U. (Gone, Gone) at pulpwiki

…so we finally made it into orbit (good init?). But like the man said “Space is O.K. but I’d rather get my kicks down below.” One re-entry later and now it’s a choice between an extra hour in bed or stopping the love of your life from getting the next train out of town. Took too long deciding what shirt to wear and blew it. But hold on, who’s this walking out of the sun? It can’t be – but it is. Talk about leaving it till the last minute. O.U. jammy get…
Original sleeve notes

Pulp’s new record label was called Gift Records for a reason. Warp / FON owed them for videos and broken promises, Sheffield owed them for years of service… and the best kind of gift you can get someone is something they can’t get for themselves. Pulp were on their uppers, sure, but their legal problems were worse than ever, and Island weren’t going to sign a group who were still (perhaps) signed up for multiple albums on another, hostile label. They were going to pay for a recording session, however, and they were also going to let Warp put it out as a single, but the road there would continue to be rocky.

The session took place at, of course, FON, and Simon Hinkler came along to sort out the production, helped by his friend Mike Timm. In contrast to 1980s sessions, they had (some) time and space, but these advantages were immediately negated by disagreements – not only between the members of the group, but also with Hinkler and Timm. The song was new, they hadn’t rehearsed it well enough, and everyone seems to have had different ideas about exactly how the it was supposed to sound – so much so that a whole day was spent trying to get the drum sound right. Even after it was finished and remixed, the core idea of O.U. is still hard to put your finger on. Fortunately this works as a strength – it plays out as a found sound, something the group are channelling, but don’t really seem to understand themselves.

Fittingly O.U. was born the year before, not as a song, really, more a series of parts that seemed to slot together; The simple stylophone slide that formed the kernel of the piece, Candida’s two-note organ bed, the ascending chord sequence from 97 Lovers, which reminded the group of the theme tune from late-night Open University TV programs, another series of dream-like images from the moments of going to sleep and waking up, the dynamic thrust that worked so well in ‘Babies’, and of course Russell’s frantic violin solo, seemingly flown in from the climax of another gypsy folk ballad, placed haphazardly over the utterly unrelated electro-pop beneath and somehow slotting in perfectly. As a performance, it was a hard trick to pull off, and while he managed it well enough live he wasn’t able to get it right in the studio, and after a number of attempts the part was sampled and flown in.

With so many compromises and seemingly incompatible ideas present, the O.U. session might sound like something of a botch job, and so it seems to have been. While not actually bad, it wasn’t the statement to the world that it needed to be, and a remix was needed.

Ed Buller, a formerly jobbing keyboard player who was suddenly getting a lot of high-profile work, had recently finished working on Spiritualized’s ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ – an album described by Simon Reynolds as “quiver[ing] with Apollonian attributes – airiness, fleetness, radiance, serenity… all about the exhilaration of cutting loose, of goalless propulsion…” – as apt a description as any of what O.U. (and Space and Babies) ended up as. O.U. didn’t need any great re-working or extra recording, but Buller still managed to tweak it enough that anyone can hear the group shift into the light, shimmering mode that would prove to be his (and their) trademark over the next three years.

O.U. is a jumble of many parts, but never a mess. For once, the story is fairly clear – a couple near the end of their relationship *or back together on an ill-judged rebound) bicker and fight, then go to bed angry* The next morning he wakes up to find her gone, a note on the pillow saying that she’s off to the train station, and by the way, fuck you. There’s time to throw on some clothes and sprint there, but he has just a minute to decide whether it’s better to leave it, turn over and go back to sleep instead. We’re stuck in that moment, imagining the run-lola-run pursuit, but also the doubt, the fear of being left alone, some stirrings of feeling – that moment of seemingly infinite possibility.

The best thing about O.U. is how the disparate musical elements are drawn together to evoke the desperate dash and the adrenalin rush of the moment of decision. That rhythm – always changing, always the same – pulled along by Steve’s almost inaudibly low cardio-vascular bassline, taking turns to swell anxiously, then settle down again into that persistent jog. Over this Candida’s atmospherics and the sampled violin swirl and rush. On stage these dynamics required two stylophones, and group friend and fanclub organiser Mark Webber was drafted in to fill out the sound. We will, of course, be hearing a good deal more about him later, but O.U. also marks the start of his transition to becoming a full-fledged member.

In the pre-Babies world, the single of O.U. was an exciting calling card for New Pulp, especially with the similarly exhilarating ‘Space’ on the flipside. It tied for ‘single of the week’ in Melody Maker with another Ed Buller production, Suede’s The Drowners, and received more positive coverage in the NME and even Smash Hits. An odd-sounding limited-edition single on an offshoot of a local indie label, it was inevitable that it wouldn’t be a hit, but the buzz was growing so much that you can forgive the group for sounding like they’ve got their chests puffed out, powering on towards the finish line.

* Something you should never do, of course. This scene features one of the first great 90s Pulp vignettes of crap relationships – “the night was ending / he needed her undressed / He said he loved her / She tried to look impressed ”

#101 – Live On

3 Aug

Pulp in 1992

Live On (OU Session – FON Studio, Sheffield, 28-30 January 1992)
Live on (Mark Goodier session, 1992)
Live On (Live, 19 October 1992 – Festival Les Inrockuptibles, La Cigale, Paris)
Live On (France Inter – Black Session, 17 November 1992)
Live on (Live film 12 Aug 1991, Town & Country Club)
Live on at Pulpwiki

As Pulp waited for Separations to be released, through those three years of legal and financial troubles, they must have nevertheless had a feeling that an upward tick in their creative and professional lives was underway. My Legendary Girlfriend had been their first critical success, and Countdown had consolidated their gains. That was it, though, two singles out and a sense of momentum to be maintained. It was time to come up with something bigger and slicker, something to show to record companies, something to get them into the charts and onto Top Of The Pops. Such a hit would come, in time, almost by accident, but that’s something to talk about in a couple of weeks. ‘Live On’, meanwhile, was not the breakthrough single, but at the time it must have seemed like it would be.

A blatant attempt to write another ‘Countdown’, Live On could have been Pulp’s first straight-up pop song since Everybody’s Problem if they’d only managed to record it properly. There’s wah-wah guitar, stabs and swirls of organ, a growling build-up with an anthemic release, a bizarre lyric (“three blind mice go ow!” – a reference to the song’s three-bar keyboard motif?), a sort-of-not-quite-guitar-solo and a thrash-and-release at the end. All very promising stuff, but based around a build-up and release of tension which starts to fall apart if you examine it too closely.

Live On was an instant live favourite, but seemed to wilt under studio lights. The bright, unforgiving clarity of studio production and the lack of an audience conspired to strip away all the energy and leave us with a leaden, insubstantial retread of last year’s themes – tasty but unsatisfying, like cheap chocolate. Over a couple of years it was attempted again and again, until it was finally dropped. With no definitive version out there to review, let’s instead have a look at four different performances from 1991 and 1992.

OU Session – FON Studio, Sheffield, 28-30 January 1992

Listening to this barely-circulated demo, the reasons that the song was never a single are suddenly very clear. The song limps into action with a weedy synth stab and a half-hearted “mama” from Jarvis. The rhythm section try to funk things up, and momentarily succeed, but as soon as the build-up of tension finishes the chorus comes in like a deflated balloon, and the mojo is lost forever – for a song that’s all about performance and being there in the moment, this is fatal, and the last couple of minutes turn into a joyless trudge.

BBC Radio 1 – Mark Goodier Show, 30 May 1992

This is probably the best-known version of Live On due to its inclusion on the deluxe edition of His N Hers, where Jarvis noted that they “never seemed to be able to get it right in the studio [but this version] is about the closest we ever got” – which is pretty much spot on. This version has a distinctive 60s sci-fi phasing effect on Candida’s keyboards, everyone comes in at the right time, and Jarvis’s vocal just about striked the right balance between restrained and emotional. It’s not perfect – there’s still a disconnect between the idea of the song and its execution, particularly towards the end – but it was still the best choice for the CD.

Festival Les Inrockuptibles, Paris – La Cigale, 19th October 1991

The performance at La Cigale, muffled and distorted as it is, stands out as one of the best live bootlegs in circulation, and Live On is one of the highlights. There’s a palpable tension in the highly-wound build-up, and when we drop into the chorus it’s with a euphoric release. This would be the template for much to come over the next few years. The break is genuinely funky, and the last couple of minutes the band whip themselves up into a frenzy without missing a beat. As we finish the crowd erupt into a massive cheer. Not saying it’s perfect, but close enough.

France Inter – Black Session, 17 November 1992

Again, the main difference is with Candida’s keyboard – this time she decided on a swirling Ray Manzarek sound, which works as well as anything else. Generally it’s a solid enough performance – better than the OU session, but the energy seems to have left with the audience at La Cigale. This sounds like a professional enough performance of a song that’s been trotted out for years. The song is still there, but the moment has passed, and there are bigger fish to fry. It just wasn’t to be.

#93 – Going Back to Find Her

1 Jun

bocking-87limit-05

Going Back To Find Her (Live, 3rd March 1987 – The Limit, Sheffield)
Going Back To Find Her (Cover by LeoVK)
Going Back To Find Her at Pulpwiki

“In Jarvis’s book, love is a never-ending David Lynch film – songs like ‘Going Back To Find Her’ are as black as pitch. Pulp want to be as horribly compelling as a circus freak show” – Bob Stanley in the NME

We don’t have that many songs to talk about in this era – just eighteen, compared to the forty or so from the ‘Freaks’ era’, so entry into the Pulp cannon seems to be easier than it was before. In theory, this could mean that substandard material could easily have crept onto ‘Separations’, and it’s testament to the judgment of the group that it didn’t, that we have – finally! – a great album from start to finish. It was a close-run thing, though – from the ten tracks considered, nine made it, the other one being ‘Going Back To Find Her’. In an interview for ‘Truth and Beauty’ Nick Banks explained its non-inclusion.

“From what I remember it was similar to ‘Down By The River’, a sort of down-tempo, acousic-y sort of song, and you don’t want too many of them, do you? You want a bit of variety, so it was like ‘This one or that one? This one.’

On initial impressions two things come to mind – firstly that the choice between DBTR and GBTFH was so much down to the wire seems very odd indeed, DBTR being much more worked-out and finished. This is a judgment based on an unfair comparison, however – DBTR never sounded particularly impressive in a live setting, and it took Alan Smythe’s production to bring out the subtle magic of the piece. With GBTFH, early live versions are all we have.

Secondly, it seems self-evident that GBTFH and DBTR are very different sounding songs, and that ‘downtempo’ and ‘acousic-y’ are not obvious adjectives to describe the rather jaunty number from 1987 live sets. With an odd 1-2-1-2 rhythm, it occupies an otherwise-unexplored mid-ground between a Cossack march and a camp glam stomper, and is dominated by Russell’s sarcastic guitar licks and Candida’s chiming keyboard sound. The interplay between the guitar, keyboards and bass is actually quite pleasant, but for something so built around a rhythm, you can’t help but wish the bass line could be beefed up to push the whole thing along. With Steve Mackey on board for the LP sessions, this was very much possible, so once again we might not be hearing the track’s full potential here.

Where the two songs are similar is their theme. Once again we’re using grim metaphors to discuss the perils of returning to a failed relationship for one more try – we even have a line about “her house was by the river.” This time, though, he’s really just going through the motions of this compulsion. Every line describes the relationship in the most unpleasant way possible – “someone who will prop me up / and someone who I’m master of” – and when he sings “I don’t really want to find her” you can more than believe it’s true. If this issue so ‘over’, the question of ‘why bother singing about it’ tends to arise, so it’s understandable that they wouldn’t want two songs about it on the same LP – it would start to look like Jarvis doth protest too much. Choosing between the two, the backing track makes all the difference – GBTFH being a little too jolly for the somber theme.

Is Going Back To Find Her good enough to go on Separations? Truthfully, it’s hard to say. The fact that it wasn’t included on the remastered version of Separations in 2012 indicates that it was probably never demoed to completion, and for that reason it will probably continue to be consigned to the ‘nice idea, not quite finished’ file for the foreseeable future.

#92 – My First Wife (2)

25 May

OozingThrough1

My First Wife (Live 15 July 1987, Barracuda Club, Nottingham)
My First Wife (2) at Pulpwiki

Poor old Pulp, brimming with ideas, yet having to recycle song titles. And poor ‘My First Wife’ – not only existing as one great lost song, but as two, and the second one even better than the first. This time, though, instead of continuing down that flowery, pastoral path, we’re chugging down a more industrial route – albeit one which would immediately turn out to be a dead end.

Because yes, this is for better or worse, the final outing for Slavic Pulp. It’s uncertain why the band suddenly decided to cut off one half of their sound, but it seems likely that it has quite a bit to do with Russell’s waning involvement in the song-writing process. With a baby on the way and an antique glass business to run, there was less and less time for the organisation of a group who might have been finished anyway. Jarvis, meanwhile, was heading down to London with Steve Mackey, and the Slavic thing doesn’t seem to have been relevant to their world of raves and squats.

For a last shot, though, it’s a good one – up there with some of the best of this era. On the surface just another rejection of a lost love affair, it’s actually a pretty powerful rejection of letting your freedom and vitality be taken by formless, nostalgic love – a contradiction to the first ‘My First Wife’ in a sense. With every other song about moving on or moving out, 1987 seems to have been a year of shredding ties with everything that had made the previous five years – a moment which had to happen, perhaps.

The start, to be perfectly honest, isn’t that special – Nick provides another rolling polka beat, Russell picks away with his fairly accomplished gypsy guitar, all nice but done enough before. Things do slowly start to build, but not quite quickly enough, and the song threatens to wither and halt at all times. Jarvis’s intimate, cynical vocal does help matters, though – he seems to almost spit out the words with disgust, and a couple of semi-power chords keep things going well enough. It isn’t until the midpoint of the song that things really take off, with the continual upping of the pace thrusting the song into a series of faster and faster sections, and a full-on Slavic disco onslaught finally ensuing, like Rattlesnake but much more primal and aggressive. It’s almost as if they’re willing it on to be brilliant and almost getting there by just pushing it hard enough.

The song didn’t really last that long – by the time the group were on hiatus it had already been lost from the set, and nothing like it would appear again. Fortunately for fans, it did emerge at the end of the year on a tape compilation put together by the young Mark Webber, alongside The Inspiral Carpets, Television Personalities, Jazz Butcher and Spaceman 3. In a parallel dimension, it’s the b-side to ‘Rattlesnake’ – wouldn’t that have made a great single?

#86 – Rattlesnake

20 Apr

Sourced from http://www.cossack.us/old_photos.htm

Rattlesnake (FON demo, 1987)
Rattlesnake at Pulpwiki

“You can dance to our music, but it’s easier if you’re a Cossack.” – Russell in “Cut”, circa August 1987

How much of the value of a piece of music can be put down to scarcity? ‘Rattlesnake’ was once the holy grail for Pulp fans – a legendary professional recording of a raved-about* live favourite, slated for release, shelved indefinitely, and now lost to the mists of time, while rumours of DAT copies circulated for hundreds of pounds. Then, suddenly, it was leaked, and not long after used on the closing credits of Sheffield scene documentary The Beat Is The Law. We’ve all seen these cases before – the gem is unearthed, and turns out to be just another lump of coal – only this time, somehow, the song lived up to the hype.

Even after a thousand listens, it’s an odd thing, though – such an archetypal ’87 Pulp song that it doesn’t seem to even be real. All the usual influences are there – Slavic folk music, of course, but also Scott Walker – Mark Sturdy has pointed out the similarity of the introduction to the start of “The Seventh Seal” from Scott 4. Lyrically, we’re also retreading familiar old ground – a melodramatic treatment of a return to a regrettable relationship. This time, though, we’ve taken a massive leap forward. Everything sounds bigger, better, more professional. It might be entirely to do with the strain of writing this blog (poor me, etc), but there’s something almost shocking about hearing this modern Jarvis clearly expressing himself, talking about return to a bad relationship as usual, but now with an underlying current of sexual tension, whilst at the same time behind him there’s no smooth Chris Thomas stadium-indie product or even electro-pop, but instead Russell goading the group to a frantic Slavic stomp-rock climax. What if the group had been given this level of expertise and studio time for the recording of ‘Freaks’?

No use crying over spilt milk, though, is there? What we have here might be the only decently-produced remnant of this phase, but at least they chose the right track. The absolute apex of Russell’s Eastern-European campaign, ‘Rattlesnakes’ sounds for the world like the Klezmer band at the gates of hell, raising the massed demons to a climax and sending them out into the world to undertake a campaign of shock and awe. To my mind at least, that’s what proper Slavic folk should do, and (strange as it is to say) on this evidence they seem to have a real knowledge of the form. The effect may be down to the presence of a string quartet, hired for the day – or rather a string trio, as one member failed to play to the standard required and had to be embarrassingly let go halfway through the session.

“And the hardest part…. the hardest part is when you stop!”

It’s hard to begrudge them the trick ending – every band is allowed to do this one time, and it’s hard to think of a more suitable time to try it. Then they come back even faster and harder, and we’re cruising.

Suffice to say, it’s a massive shame that FON never got around to releasing this single, and perhaps the disappointment felt by the group explains the dropping of the song from the set and its non-inclusion on the remastered ‘Separations’ in 2012. For us, the something-more-than-casual listeners, though, it’s just good that it’s out there, a little reminder that digging down sometimes gets you a nugget of gold.

*In Melody Maker and Sounds, no less.

#83 – Down By The River

30 Mar

Woman's body in river - from episode 1 of The Singing Detective

Down by The River (Separations, 1992)
Down by The River at Pulpwiki

“This is about… you may reject something, and then perhaps about six months later you might think “I wish I hadn’t done that,” and then you go back to the place where you threw it away, and it’s not there any more. Sickener.” – Jarvis, on stage at the Leadmill, 1986.

For the third time in under a decade, it was back to square one for Pulp – or at least time for a good slide down the ladder to the second or third row. Russell was still there, but Candida had left the group, in solidarity with her boyfriend and her brother. In her place there was a mysterious character called “Captain Sleep,” who failed to leave much of an impression on anyone – largely due to his habit of lying unconscious in a corner during conversations. Candida would, of course, be back, and soon too, but Magnus and Manners had been replaced by Nick Banks and Stephen Havenhand respectively. We will get to both of them shortly.

The actual music the group played was, at first, undergoing something more like evolution than revolution. There’s no great shift in direction like the one between, say, My Lighthouse and Maureen – more a series of stepping stones which can lead us steadily, in less than twenty songs, from the depths of obscurity to the birth of the pop group we know.

The first of these steps must be ‘Down By The River’ – a song the group were already performing before they’d even made ‘Freaks’, and which remained largely the same until it was recorded for ‘Separations’ three years later. Unusually for a first step, though, its innovations are partly hidden by its shortcomings. In the three year gap between albums Jarvis’s songwriting skills showed a great deal of progress, but this only serves to highlight the weakness of including an old song based on a macabre metaphor for the death of his relationship – a relationship by then long finished. It might have seemed like a fertile source of content at the time, but by this point the well was running dry, and he’s in danger of sounding like a stuck record. By 1989 everyone involved had moved on, but the song survived without a re-write, perhaps because the theme of death and nature-based imagery (and in particular rivers) were becoming increasingly important to the group. If you were feeling generous you could even point to the song as a forerunner of ‘Wickerman’.

As must be expected by now, this content is provided in the form of another waltz-time ballad. To start with, the song is fairly atmospheric, while not being particularly fun listening. There’s a slightly plodding intro with Candida’s standard fairground Farfisa and Jarvis’s improved low-key vocals, but then it slowly begins to build in drama. The little touches really make it – a strange Japanese robot vocoder voice apparently singing “now I know…” (the dead woman’s ghost?), and at it’s best moments, light touches of dramatic film-score rumbling strings. The danger, of course, is that it will veer off into melodrama, but thankfully Alan Smythe’s production keeps it low-key where it needs to be. By the end section, where we hear that “the river will stop for no-one”, it’s even built into something quite beautiful.

In spite of all this, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Down By The River is one of the weaker tracks on ‘Separations’. It’s a problem with context on the whole. If it had been part of the grab-bag of styles and ideas found on Freaks it might’ve stood up quite well. Placed at the end of side A, after three other slow ones, the temptation will always be there to skip straight to the future, in the shape of ‘Countdown’. If you’re expecting the best of both worlds it will also be a letdown. On its own terms though, it’s not that bad at all.