Tag Archives: senior moments

#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.

#53 – Srpski Jeb

8 Sep

Srpski Jeb (Sudan Gerri Demo, 1984)
Srpski Jeb at Pulpwiki

“There are several reputedly ‘national’ positions or approaches. Serbian intercourse (srpski jeb) is mock rape – you throw her down, seize one ankle in each hand and raise them over her head, then enter her with your full weight (do this on something soft – the traditional bare earth is beyond a game).” Alex Comfort, “The Joy Of Sex”, 1972.

In his late teens Russell Senior took a trip around Europe, returning with a smattering of obscene Russian slang and a taste for Eastern European folk music. The outlet for these would eventually be Srpski Jeb, a song so ridiculous that it feels a bit silly to be writing about it at all, but here we are.

Over a pounding Slavic rhythm – a semi-competent pastiche using entirely inappropriate instruments – Russell repeatedly chants a single four-line verse about a “village maiden” and her masochistic sexual fantasies. The rhythm gets faster and faster, suddenly stops for five seconds, then starts again from the beginning. The effect is convincing enough – in its own way – but I thought I’d seek out a couple of genuine Slavs, to see what they make of it.

I don’t regard the song as offensive at all, although it pretty much depends on what audience it is addressed to. I mean the song is not ridiculing anyone – the “soviets” are a very vague category (it probably means communist Russians) and I think the girl in the lyrics just expresses preference for Serbian men. We have quite a few songs in Czech that are much more offensive. I don’t think that me being a Slavic speaking person changes anything on that judgment. I think that the pulp went to Yugoslavia in 1984 and met some Yugoslavian punkers who taught them this song that was all the rage there at the time! – Jan

I laughed out loud. – Marketa

To be fair to ‘Sprksi Jeb’ it’s silly enough that any dubious content can’t be taken seriously at all. As a piece on its own it’s a silly bit of escapist fun – brief, funny and enjoyable, but within the story of Pulp it’s the first sign of a movement. As the group found they enjoyed playing pseudo-Slavic folk music it would become a major part of their sound towards the end of the decade, and you’d never guess it started with something as ludicrous as this.

#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.

#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.

#45 – Coy Mistress

14 Jul

Coy Mistress
Coy Mistress at Pulpwiki

In January 1984 five men entered Vibrasound Studios in Sheffield. Were they a band, or an experimental theatre company? Judging by their recent performance history, it would perhaps be safe to assume the latter. ‘Pulp’ had petered out over the summer, and nothing they’d done since then could be described as a “gig.” Of the four songs recorded that day, two remain unreleased and uncirculated, one is a rough but effective demo of ‘I Want You‘ and the final track, well, it’s ‘Coy Mistress’

Falling firmly on the ‘performance art’ side of the identity crisis divide, ‘Coy Mistress’ features one minute and twenty-six seconds of Russell loudly, menacingly proclaiming a half-remembered bastardisation of Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’. The 46 lines of the original are reduced to 11, though the essence of the piece seems undamaged – in fact, the lecherousness of the original is enhanced by the replacement of “but thirty thousand to the rest” with the sly, mischievous intonation of “and a considerably longer amount for all the rest.” Elsewhere time’s winged chariot is imbued with a “long skanky finger” which goes “smack, smack, smack.” Not a reverential reading then, but one suited for the theatre.

Behind Russell, Jarvis plays ominously on a church organ, while Magnus tinkles around on a xylophone. At two points in the track Magnus also throws in thunderous cymbal-rolls, presumably to disconcert any listeners who are somehow relaxing or not paying attention.

If it were a full-length track, or if it were anything other than a one-off, there’s every chance that ‘Coy Mistress’ would become tedious. As a stand-alone piece, however, it entertains and amuses without overstaying its welcome. Pulp never gave it a proper release, putting it out only on two obscure tape compilations, each time marking the beginning or end of a side, and each time accompanied by another, more sensible sample of the band’s work.