Tag Archives: science fiction

#98 – This House is Condemned

6 Jul

THIC1

THIC3

This House Is Condemned (Separations, 1992)
Is This House? (B-side to My Legendary Girlfriend (1991))
This House Is Condemned (Remix) (B-side to My Legendary Girlfriend (1991))
This House Is Condemned at Pulpwiki

“We went to this rave and someone must have sold me this very bad E. I got home and I got a bit feverish. Two things happened to me. One was that the Milli Vanilli song ‘ Girl I’m Gonna Miss You’ was stuck in my head, like it was on a loop, so that was driving me mad. The other thing was, in the height of me fever, I suddenly thought I was Paul Nicholas. You know, like when you’re half way between awake and asleep, I just thought I was Paul Nicholas, but it only lasted about ten minutes. Then the week later, I had the name Mike Lipbarski coming into the front of me mind all the time. I’ve never met Mike Lipbarski, but I was shit scared ‘cos I thought, ‘Maybe he’s going to kill me!’ When things like that happen I think you have to lay off.” – Jarvis in the New Musical Express, 9 January 1993

When I was young, perhaps just four or five, I saw an episode of a television programme which burrowed deeply into my psyche. Nearly thirty years and an afternoon of digging later, I’ve found what it was – a 1966 episode of The Avengers called “The House That Jack Built”. This is the scene, exactly as I remember it –

“…the door slams shut and [Emma Peel] hears Withers’ scream outside. When she opens it again, the hall is gone, replaced with a maze of twisty, turny passages, all alike, with a humming electronic box at their hub – and ghostly laughter fills the room. No matter which corridor she takes, she ends up back at the hub. Sensing a trick, she marks the hub with her lipstick, but at the end of the next corridor, the hub is the one she marked.”http://www.dissolute.com.au/avweb/emmabw/423.html

It seems that Russell Senior had also formed a deep impression of this episode. He would have been five years old too when it was first broadcast. Like all good nightmares, it reveals a truth that’s hidden in plain sight – that the way we divide space up into separate rooms often foxes the human brain. In a semi-detached house the other side of that thin wall seems like a different world, with objects and people only feet away from you, but utterly invisible and unfamiliar. Your vision is directed deliberately away by this cutting up of space. It’s the reason people walk into rooms and forget what they were doing there – the act of passing through a doorway finishes that section of memory and starts a new one. Space, time, place, condensed. As great as Pulp’s lyrics were in the 1990s, it’s a real shame that this is the final dose of exactly this kind of experimental fiction.

Uncoincidentally, this is also the last time we’ll be hearing Russell’s voice – he doesn’t even sing in Venini, let along britpop-era Pulp (even the thought of it seems faintly ludicrous.) His deadpan delivery is perfect for both subject matter and backing. The words, presumably, were also his own creation, and date back to an advertising flyer for The Day That Never Happened – the one pictured above. His final contribution to the track is the only live instrument present – the same wah-wah guitar he used for the single version of Countdown. So, Russell’s words, his vocal, his guitar; you’d be forgiven for thinking it was his track, but it’s not. If anything this is a showcase for two other people – producer Alan Smythe and Pulp’s newest member, Steve Mackey.

Jarvis always seems to need to work with a close collaborator – in the early days it was Dolly, then Simon Hinkler – and for the remainder of the 80s it had been Russell. Now Jarvis had moved to London, leaving the rest of the group in Sheffield, all with their own lives to live, and the position was vacant. Steve was the ideal candidate – from the scene, but not tied to it, and most importantly he knew where the raves were and what they were playing. Jarvis needed a way in to the burgeoning rave culture, and to house music, and Steve was able to provide this, and more. Though he’d been in the group a mere nine months when the album was recorded, his input into the production seems to have been greater than anyone else’s.

This House Is Condemned is, in Alan Smythe’s words, “totally automated” – a midi track with samples laid on top. In 1989 this was far from being unique, but it was still a first, for both group and producer – and the struggle to master a new set of technology lead to the track somehow sounding not quite right. Instead of this being a problem, though, it’s THIC’s greatest strength. If it had just been a house track with Russell’s vocals it would have been a whole lot less interesting than the odd genre-free beast that came out instead. Any “mistake” that worked was just kept in, including the telephone ringing at the point Russell starts to talk about the housing benefit waiting office – one of those fortuitous accidents that comes along only once in a long while.

Success as it had been, Pulp still wanted a real house track under their name, and this wasn’t going to be it. Fortunately DJs Parrot & Wilson, responsible for the groundbreaking ‘Testone’ around the same time, were around at FON Studio, and agreed to put together a couple of remixes. The first of these is called ‘Is This House?’ – a line of the song taken as a literal challenge to define genre-boundaries. As described in ‘The Beat is The law’ the remix didn’t go down particularly well.

Jarvis – “We wanted it to be a proper full-on rave track, so we gave it to them. They did it and played it to us, and we said “yeah, it’s alright, it’s a bit jerky, isn’t it? we just wanted it to go oomph-oomph-oomph-ommph but when it came back it was more like omp….ompump-omp….omompompompoomph-oomph. You couldn’t dance to it.”
Russell – “What we’d had in mind was really ‘can you make it so people can dance to it?’ – that was our naive assumption of what they might do.”
Parrot – “I’m afraid we went off on one on it really.”

The passage of time has made the remix no easier to digest. You can see what they were aiming at, but the stuttering beats just sound like a failed experiment that simply should’ve been sent back to the drawing board, a tedious waste of eight minutes. There is one other remix, originally called ‘This House Is Condemned (remix)’ but confusingly labeled as ‘Is This House?’ on the 2012 deluxe edition* – but this is merely mediocre instead of annoying, aside from the underwater effect on Russell’s voice, another grating failed experiment left in for reasons unknown. The two remixes were included on the My Legendary Girlfrind single, where they failed to attract any attention whatsoever, and probably for the best too.

*The real ‘Is This House’ is left off entirely, indicating that the group haven’t changed their minds in the intervening decades.

#78 – Master of the Universe

2 Mar

Master of the Universe (Freaks, 1987)
Master of the Universe (Sanitised Version) (Single, 1987)
Master of the Universe at Pulpwiki

‘Master of the Universe’ – an explanation:
He was God and she was His congregation.
But when she lost her faith, He lost His power.
Now the thigh-length boot’s on the other foot.
(You might think it’s funny, but someone’s always got to be boss.)

– original sleevenotes

In late 1985, in the middle of the group’s first nationwide tour, Jarvis fell out of a window. It wasn’t a particularly high window, just two floors up, but it was enough to break his wrist, ankle and pelvis, leaving him confined to a wheelchair for much of 1986. Embarrassingly enough, he hadn’t been rescuing a cat or talking down a potential suicide, but doing a drunken Spiderman impression to impress a girl at a party – out one window and in another. Halfway through he realised he wasn’t going to make it to the other ledge and just had to let go.

Stuck in a hospital bed for a month, the tour cancelled, doctors warning him he may not walk properly again… things weren’t exactly looking up. As he lay in his childhood bedroom convalescing, while his Mother sat downstairs watching ‘Lovejoy’, he noticed a bottle of novelty “Masters of the Universe” shampoo he’d bought, and laughed at the irony of using it in his state. What kind of immense power would you need to have to be “master” of the entire universe? How utterly deluded would you have to be to give yourself such a title?

Master of the Universe is a parable, then. The sort of parable which usually stars Anthony Ainley as The Master, i.e. not a particularly subtle one, one which doesn’t bear any kind of serious analysis, but I’ll see what I can wring out anyway. Our protagonist, the “master of the universe”, is in conversation with a female underling who he is taking great pleasure in mistreating. His power comes from faith – without the compliance of the masses under him he is nothing. When his underling fails to take him seriously their positions are inverted, and he becomes her whipping boy / slave dog. He relishes both positions, lending the song a sadomasochistic air – but rather than ringing true in any way this seems to be the same use of sexual perversion we saw in ‘Maureen’ – ‘difficult’ shock-topics resorted to as a replacement for real passion or feeling. It might even have been intended to be funny, but I doubt it.

Understandably, Master of the Universe has garnered more attention for its musical style than its theme. On the surface a grimy goth-rock thrash it in many ways prefigures the ‘Slavic disco’ sound the next line-up would embrace. If you listen to ‘Rattlesnake’ next to MOTU you can clearly hear the shared DNA. MOTU is something of an inbred cousin, though, and you can hear unhelpful hints of other failed experiments, like the whirlitzer organ from ‘Fairground’. The song does at least have some energy to it, so it’s not a pain to listen to, but neither is it a joy. The band’s performance doesn’t really help matters. Jarvis dominates the song with his ludicrously mannered vocal, a nasal growling devil-voice with flat-out annoying pronunciation of common words and bizarre unnecessary trills. Magnus doesn’t help things with his slightly off drums either – though a great drummer, he never seemed to get to grips with this disco rhythm. The rest of the band aren’t helping things either – though the song wasn’t new, nobody seems sure at all of how it’s supposed to sound.

Master of the Universe was an odd choice as a second single from ‘Freaks’ – the only things to be said in its favour being that it was fairly upbeat and that it hinted at the band’s new direction. All the same, it was an unpalatable bit of sci-fi goth-rock nonsense, and backed with the dull ‘Manon’ and the excruciating ‘Silence’ it perhaps counts as Pulp’s worst ever single. Fire insisted that the band re-record two lines to change the words ‘masturbates’ to ‘vegetates’ and ‘comes’ to ‘keeps’, but the idea that this would lead to any radio play was wildly optimistic. The single got two minor, obtuse mentions in the music press and quickly sank without trace. The band, who had split up and reformed by the time it was released, weren’t even sent a copy. Intentionally or not, the single serves as a “so long, fuck off” note to the era, as the band noted on the back of the sleeve;

“This record marks the end of Pulp #3. Pulp #4 will follow shortly.”

#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.

#14 – What Do You Say?

4 Feb

What Do You Say? (youtube)

What Do You Say on Pulpwiki

On the 7th of August 1981, after three intermittent years of existence, Pulp found themselves in a semi-detached council house in Handsworth, belonging to car mechanic Ken Patten. By all accounts it was fairly typical for a council house occupied by a couple in their mid 50s – tidy, polite and suburban, no shoes allowed on the carpet – apart from the fact that it doubled up as a recording studio, going by the name of “Studio Electrophonique.” Guitars were set up in the living room, the mixing deck was in the kitchen, and upstairs in the master bedroom was a room for live performance, equipped with a Simmons electric drum kit (a real drum kit would’ve been too noisy for Ken’s wife to bear.) This strange space was the closest thing Sheffield had to a professional recording studio, and therefore boasted early recordings of artists like The Future (who later became The Human league) and Vice Versa (who later became ABC.)
That day, Pulp recorded four tracks. Three would end up being re-recorded for the John Peel session later that year, and one of those three would make it to their debut album nearly two years later. “What Do You Say,” the remaining track, was released early in 1982 on the compilation “Your Secret’s Safe With Us” – Pulp’s first appearance on vinyl, and their earliest full recording in circulation.

1981 was an odd time for the music scene in Sheffield. In the late 70s post-punk boom acts like Cabaret Voltaire and 2.3 had taken the “anyone can do it” attitude and used it to create sounds more jarring and original than any “punk” band in London. Cleaned up, popularised, Sheffield bands would go on to create much of the sounds of the 80s. By ’81, former stars like the aforementioned Human League and ABC had travelled south, now on major labels, ready to break into the big time. The acts who remained sounded darker, nastier, harder. To me it sounds like a funny time to be joining a scene – like arriving at a party too late, when everyone is sleepy or belligerently drunk – and a fun band with upbeat songs about Shakespeare, Martians and crabs must have seemed out of step.
‘What do You Say?’ is a step towards the consensus. It doesn’t sound particularly like Artery or The Comsat Angels, but more like a much faster version of something off The Cure’s second LP ‘Seventeen Seconds’, one of the albums which started the goth movement. As we will see with the next few tracks, the band seemed to be playing with every different post-punk sound they could find, and this is perhaps the most straightforwardly post-punk of all.
It might not be particularly original, but it’s really not that bad. The melody itself is quite simple, but each note of Jarvis and Dolly’s guitar lines echos both backwards and forwards, overlapping and intertwining to produce a wall of jangling, stuttering pulses. Holding it together there’s Jamie Pinchbeck’s underlying jerking, pushy bass rhythm, allowed its own brief solo, and a basic 1-2-1-2-drum-fill rhythm from the band’s new drummer, 15-year old Wayne Furniss, who was finding it hard getting to grips with his first electric drum set. Everyone sounds like they’re just barely able to keep time with each-other, but somehow the whole thing holds together.
The lyrics, meanwhile, are pretty much textbook sci-fi horror stuff.

Woke up in the morning
Raised my head still yawning
Well I was in for a surprise
Stumbled to the mirror
Realised in horror
The face that stared back wasn’t mine

A little clunky, yes, with slightly forced rhymes and an extra syllable in “realised” needed to make the line scan, but novel enough a concept to make the song stand out. Unfortunately it doesn’t really go anywhere from there, the remainder of the song being spent exploring fruitlessly the different angles he can take on the problem – the protagonist’s “sudden facial change” (to rhyme with “strange”) is not noticed by anyone else, he is concerned that he’s now a ‘stranger’ (to rhyme with ‘danger’) and in the end we finish with

And so I rest my case
I don’t want another’s face

Fortunately the lyrics are not that important here, the sound is the main thing. This was, after all, one of the tracks that convinced John Peel to grant the group a session, but more on that later.

For those that are interested in the Sheffield post-punk scene, I would recommend Made In Sheffield, and Beats Working For A Living, a DVD and book which tell the story in detail. You can find them on the sidebar to the right of the page. If you don’t have time for those, I’ve made a mix to introduce the music of the time. Made In Sheffield describes it as “the birth of electronic pop” – which is (perhaps) right, but the story is a good deal more strange and interesting than that. You can listen here – http://lastnightadjkilledmydog.libsyn.com/meanwhile-in-sheffield-part-1-1977-1981 – just click the ‘pod’ button