Tag Archives: separations

End of Part Three (nearly there…)

27 Jul

Class-of-91-NME-1

The 1980s were over, and good riddance to them. Pulp had an album in the can, press attention and a growing live following – you could say that their decade had finally come. The first couple of years weren’t going to be an easy ride, though, and would have to be spent escaping the labyrinthine financial and legal trouble they’d inadvertently got themselves into. It’s a wonder the band survived it all.

‘Separations’ meanwhile, would end up being released nearly three years after they started recording it, held up in the Fire vaults by the Rough Trade liquidation, the aforementioned legal issues, and the usual delays they’d had with Freaks. By the end of 1992, the band had moved on again, to the point where once more the songs were no longer in their live set – even more so than for Freaks – and as an added kicker it was released on the same day as “O.U.”

Separations isn’t the perfect Pulp album, but it’s superb nonetheless, an improvised, stitched together, experimental pop labour of love. It inspires a great deal of affection among fans, and you can see why. As usual, though, I’m going to suggest an alternate track listing, more suited to my taste, though I’m certain others will disagree with my inclusions and exclusions. My main change has been to rejig side A, give the record a better narrative flow, and separate the Slavic from the disco to the greatest effect.

Here’s the tracklisting.

1. Love is Blind
2. Don’t You Want Me Anymore (LP Version)
3. Rattlesnake (FON demo)
4. Separations
5. Death Goes To The Disco
——————–
6. Countdown
7. My Legendary Girlfriend
8. Death II
9. This House Is Condemned

So, not that different from the original then. I toyed with changing ‘Countdown’ to the 7″ mix and changing ‘My Legendary Girlfriend to the Caff single version, but in the end I decided they worked best just as they are.

As usual this is your time to share your track listing, or just your thoughts about this album. The comments box is down there, go on then….

#100 – Countdown

20 Jul

Countdown (Separations, 1992)
Countdown (Extended Mix, 1992)
Countdown (Music Video (7″ Mix), 1992)
Countdown (Live film, Leadmill, 16/03/1991)
Countdown (Live film, Town & Country Club, 20/07/1991)
Countdown (Live film, Leadmill, 1/09/1991)
Countdown (Live film, Brixton Academy, 01/09/2011)
Countdown (Live film, L’Olympia, 13/11/2012)
Countdown at Pulpwiki

“Countdown” was about waiting for your life to take off, and then realising maybe the countdown’s never going to stop, you’ll never reach zero – and in the meantime, the rocket’s getting rusty and if it got to zero, it wouldn’t take off anyway. – Jarvis in Record Collector #184, December 1994

“How much of human life is lost in waiting?” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“We never live; we are always in the expectation of living.” – Voltaire

Jarvis Cocker was 17 in 1981; the year of Pulp’s first Peel session – the year Dolly and Jamie went off to university, leaving him to fulfil his destiny of becoming a pop star all on his own. From that day every step seemed to have led him further and further away from his goal – sometimes due to deliberate acts of defiant individuality, but often also through sheer naivety too. Eighties Pulp were wilfully aimless, producing art for arts sake – not actually a bad thing if you’re just making art. If you want to be a pop star though, especially in the era of Stock, Aiken & Waterman, it’s not going to get you anywhere at all.

Call it self-delusion, perhaps, but Jarvis wasn’t exactly quick to realise this – instead he waited expectantly for the big day as if at a bus stop, trying to get the bus to round the corner through sheer force of will. In films and songs this kind of faith pays off, but the universe is fundamentally uninterested in such trivia. We live, then we die, and if we want anything else then we have to go out and find it. The eighties are all over now, and after rejecting them it’s time to scourge the soul and start afresh.

‘Countdown’, then, is all about Jarvis talking himself out of his disappointing dreams, and into making everything happen by himself – whether that be with difficult relationships, or – more likely – with his (lack of) fans. There’s a sense that the greater the desperation, the greater the push for redemption. There’s no celebration here – in a sense it’s an act of self-flagellation – but there’s an ultimate faith that if you face up to your demons honestly enough you can destroy them utterly. It’s a much more deserving release than the empty calls for self-belief found in the works of the likes of L’Oreal and Oasis, particularly because it’s so personal. We’ve got the panic attacks (“I thought it was my heart”) the self-doubt (“will I ever leave this room?”) and greatest of all the irony that this great “fuck off” to Sheffield is part of the first chapter of his writings about the town rather than the last.

For all this, though, it’s also a pop song – or at least the closest thing to one we’ve encountered since Everybody’s Problem. Through the next five or six years the stated main goal of Pulp as a group is to make music for a mass-audience – Jarvis seemed to continually express annoyance with the “We make music for ourselves, if other people like it then that’s a bonus” attitudes of the shoegaze era. What this didn’t mean was losing their individuality – it meant stressing it in fact, making themselves into the coolest gang in town, then inviting everyone to join.

That they managed to cobble together this sound is odd, and impressive too. Though it’s Pulp’s first genuine disco hit, nothing is synthesised. The drums are live, as are all Candida’s disco flourishes, and rather than programming in Midi, everything was stuck together with great care. The final result is a that the song seems to be powered by clockwork – each spin of a cog triggering others, gears turning, locking and producing a cascade of extra movements of great wonder and beauty from around 4 minutes in. You can imagine the video it should’ve had – something like ‘Hugo’ perhaps. But better.

Instead the video (a half-arsed collage of space visuals interspersed with the band playing – easily the most “this’ll do” of all their vids) features the single mix produced in 1991. This version is less clockwork, more full-on indie dance, the vocals re-recorded and sounding around 35% more energetic, the squelches and synth beds right in the foreground, and lashings of Russell’s wah-wah guitar topping the whole thing off. There was even an obligatory 12″ version with three and a half minutes of unnecessary instrumental build-up at the start, which is included on the remastered ‘Separations’ in place of the superior 7″ cut. You could say it’s superior all-round, but I sort of miss that clockwork cascade.

This is then – by a long chalk – the most polished and professional Pulp had ever sounded, so it’s odd to note that this product was released on Fire Records. The group (and Russell in particular) had gone into debt to record Separations, expecting a record company to realise their genius, pick up the bill and release the LP to international acclaim. Whether this was a case of still waiting for their chance or taking risks is a moot point – in either case the ‘industry’ wasn’t ready for them, and there was no other choice but to come crawling back to Fire. Thing seemed to be better this time, though – the release of My Legendary Girlfriend was something of a secret success, and Countdown was a natural choice of second single before the album came out.

Everything was looking up for the group – that was until Rough Trade Distribution went into liquidation, and nearly took Fire down with it. Once more the countdown had stalled. Aside from an endless series of reissues and cash-in compilations this is the end of the Pulp on Fire story, but things would have to get worse before they could get better.

#99 – My Legendary Girlfriend

13 Jul

MLG Single

My Legendary Girlfriend (Separations, 1992)
My Legendary Girlfriend (BBC Soundcheck – Caff Single, 1992)
My Legendary Girlfriend (Music Video)
My Legendary Girlfriend (Live Video, The New Sessions)
My Legendary Girlfriend at Pulpwiki
My Legendary Girlfriend (Hit The North Soundcheck) at Pulpwiki

“That was about my girlfriend that I’d had in Sheffield. See, I never liked to mix business with pleasure. I’ve always kept my private life separate from music. So I’ve always gone out with girls who aren’t interested in music, and so people always asked me about my legendary girlfriend, because they’d never seen me with her.” – Jarvis in Record Collector #184, December 1994

Some groups break through suddenly, others take their time. Pulp took the journey as a series of uneven steps – and with My Legendary Girlfriend, we’ve reached one of the larger ones. In another world, this would have been their first big hit, and in a sense it was, but approaching it now it stands out as both half-forgotten (it has been rarely played live since around 1993) and – yes – legendary.

By 1989, Jarvis had been attempting to be a pop star for more than a decade, and failing by any measurable standards. The lyrics, the look and the music itself had all been rather hit and miss, and even when they been utterly wonderful, it had always been as the makers of outsider art of one form or another, always offering a challenge to any accidental listener. There had been experiments at making pop songs, sure, but they had been variously guilty of assuming popular music equalled dumbed down mulch and throwing ‘dark’ elements into the mix to counteract the pop fizz.

My Legendary Girlfriend is an astonishing record because it sweeps all of this away and reveals artists who are able to use popular forms to give their material greater depth rather than compromise it – to take what must have seemed to be odd fringe elements of their styles and tastes and tie them together to make something fresh and appealing. There are new things here, of course, but also much that has been covered before. Here are the night-time wanderings of Blue Glow and Being Followed Home, the breathy monologue of Goodnight, the separated lovers of Separations – but all tied together into a compelling, vivid story.

The catalyst for this is something the world of 1980s indie music had forgotten about – the groove. To the already unlikely-looking list of influences already mentioned we have to add Barry White – an artist much maligned in the last couple of decades (i.e. ‘The Walrus of Love’, Vic & Bob, etc) and remembered mainly for commercial love ballads rather than his smooth Love Unlimited Orchestra funk. My Legendary Girlfriend draws from the song of his you’re most likely to have heard – though if you’ve been listening to Heart FM they’ve been depriving you of the vital section. Before you continue reading, please have a listen here to the intro (the first 50 seconds or so) – the bass, the rhythm, the muttered vocals, the ‘we got it together’, sound at all familiar? Unlikely as it may seem now, this group of apparent misfits on the fringes of society had been listening to “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything,” tried jamming a version of it with Jarvis improvising lyrics on top and suddenly everything just clicked. For a while, the song was simply called ‘Barry White Beat’.

It wasn’t like funk was unheard of in Sheffield – this is the town and the recording studio that gave us Chakk after all – but earlier examples had generally been of the angular, moody sort – the kind you couldn’t dance to without doing a line of whizz and glaring around the dancefloor. My Legendary Girlfriend isn’t moody, though, it doesn’t strike poses. Disguised as it is by the MIDI-sequencing that took over much of Separations, that very human, gut-driven funk is still the driving force. To hear this clearly, listen to the live version released as a limited edition single by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne the same year – nothing is sequenced here, just a group of musicians getting into a groove together, and the song is all the better for it.

This isn’t to do down the studio version of the song, though – they were able to retain this feel despite the track being partially sequenced (on new machines they were just learning to use, let’s not forget) – and just to top it off added all manner of synths, effects, odd noises and effects, all adding to the track in different ways. Even Russell’s wah-wah guitar sounds utterly integral, though his influence in the group was waning by this point. Overall the production, like the song itself, is wildly ambitious – but for once they’ve hit their target, shot the moon.

The best part of all must be Jarvis’s vocal – ironic as there are very little in the way of fixed lyrics here. As we get into the era of recording-first, performance-second, Jarvis would get into the habit of procrastinating over putting down lyrics until he ended up writing them on the day he recorded them, but here the improvisation is all out in the open. Every live performance starts basically the same, then veers off in a different (and usually very odd) direction – the version on Separations has “oh, Pitsmoor Woman!” and “no cheese tonight” – the BBC soundcheck version “girl over there with the hot pants on” and our first sighting of “that bloke who tries to sell you felt tip pens”. But despite this, there’s more of a story here than in almost any of their previous work.

We start in his girlfriend’s bedroom – they’ve “finally made it”, she’s asleep, but something’s nagging at him. He goes to the window, returns to wake her, and they go wandering around the city together – either in reality or in a dream – this is intentionally unclear. After that it’s all feeling and free-association, the verses wracked with desperate yearning (“let me in, let me come in”), the chorus a descent into relief – but sad, lonely relief, the girl now deserted, abandoned. Which part is “real”, then? Maybe neither, maybe everything after “I wonder what it means” is a fantasy, it probably doesn’t matter.

Jarvis spent a lot of the 80s walking around Sheffield in the dark, and when he was gone it seemed to still be the landscape of his dreams. So many of Pulp’s best songs are about “the city at night.” This is a step up from ‘Blue Glow’ though – the city isn’t just frightening but is also alive with hidden sexual intrigue – a magical realm where deserted factories and cooling towers represent a fantasy playground, one whose endless hidden mysteries they are free to explore. Owen Hatherly calls this the “sexualised city” – a place where sensuality opens a gap for fantasy to bleed into reality.

Because THIS is the vital element that makes it all work. Up to this point Pulp had assiduously avoided talking about sex in all but the most perverse and uncomfortable fashions – “My blood upon the tarmac / I tore the dress from your back” “They make love beneath Roger” – all that. Perhaps it was the move away*, or the freedom of release from his first long-term relationship, or maybe just Barry White, but suddenly sex is a source of wonder and excitement rather than worry. This isn’t a lyrical device either – it extends into every aspect of the performance. The pretence of the croon is long forgotten, and instead he’s using his vocal to let something out. After a decade of control it’s almost shocking to hear the pants and groans he puts into the performance. The sheer cheek of pretending he’s a sex symbol, the audacity to somehow pull it off.

Staple of the indie disco as it may or may not have been,** My Legendary Girlfriend has lost none of its vitality through the years. This is Pulp at the top of their game, the start of the band we love, their first undeniable classic, their “This is us, and we’re just getting started.”

(A note on the video – it’s not a classic but a decent recording of a good performance, and that’s enough. Apparently it was a nightmare to make, but on the plus side Jarvis’s comments offer us a rare glimpse into the world of Pulp in 1991 – “There were quite a few false starts on this one. First we tried filming something in the room of the East End pub where the great train robbery was planned (don’t ask why). Unfortunately we didn’t light it enough and so ended up with mostly black film. I then shot some stuff of my girlfriend of the time but then split up with her and became too depressed to use it… hmmm. We were now in a difficult position as I had spent just about all of Fire’s massive £200 budget and had nothing to show for it. Unchained Melody was at number one at the time and I liked the way it used one performance of the song filmed from various angles as the video. So we decided to try and do something similar in the photo studio at St Martin’s. We blew the rest of the budget on a star-cloth background and I ended up having to make Nick a drum kit out of cardboard because we couldn’t afford to bring the real one down. Luckily, it worked.”)

*Unlikely as Jarvis has said he went through a sexual drought during his time in London
**It was already becoming a rarity when I started going in the late 90s. We’d hear that drumbeat, dash onto the dancefloor, then every time it would turn out to be ‘I Am The Resurrection’ instead.

#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.

#97 – She’s Dead

29 Jun

She’s Dead (Separations, 1992)
She’s Dead at Pulpwiki

“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” – Amanda in Private Lives (1930), Noël Coward

A step back here, or a step forward, or both at the same time, or maybe neither. We’re back into the death ballads again, but of a different sort, grand and epic like ‘Happy Endings’, but celebrating cheap sounds more than even ‘Separations’.

Before I continue, though, it’s time for a confession. I don’t really get She’s Dead. I’ll agree that it’s perfectly lovely, in parts at least, but it generally leaves me cold, and at five minutes long it even bores me at times. I have been known to skip it. Usually when a track induces simultaneous revulsion and attraction I’ll be able to come down on one side or another sooner or later, but with She’s Dead this odd feeling lingers.

This seems to puts me in a minority. Of all the entries in the Pulp catalogue, this seems to be one of the prime choices to wax lyrical about, and as I’m not able to do this myself, why not let others lead the way? I find reading these descriptions more evocative than listening to the song itself.

“The band’s not at the point yet where they can afford a real string section, but the synthesized backing just makes the song more poignant, symbolic of something that’s nearly obtainable, but just out of reach.” – Mike at Music From A Bachelor’s Den

“Low-budget magnificence, the best of the Separations ballads, swoonsome and beautiful and horrible all at once. It cries out for a full orchestra to play out the unspeakably lovely coda, but perhaps that would ruin it; it’s prettier with the crying left on.” – Stéphane Devereux at Bar Italia

“Here, a chorus of cheap synthesisers… …creates a charity shop requiem, rendering all but unbearable this tale of death in a northern town, with the overtones of kitsch not toyed with, as so many lesser lights would, but embraced – here, Jarvis is heaven’s own mobile disco crooner.” – Owen Hatherley, Uncommon.

I love cheap-sounding music, but weepy ballads have always been difficult to take seriously. Difficult isn’t impossible, though, and descriptions like the above can make me imagine a song I like much more than the real thing – one that doesn’t challenge my suspension of disbelief quite so much. There are a couple of things that throw my attention off-track.

The first is the similarity to Bobby Goldsboro’s ‘Honey’. If the name seems unfamiliar, then go ahead and listen to it. Consistently voted one of the worst songs of all-time due to its unreasonable level of straight-faced schmaltz, I sort of like it. The strangeness of the lyrics (cited as the reason for its supposed terribleness) just adds to the charm. When Tony Blackburn split with his wife in the 1970s he had an on-air breakdown, playing the song over and over again. It’s cheesy as hell, but it’s sincere with it, and I like that it can affect someone that much. That’s not all it has in common with She’s Dead. In fact, the song is so similar that it’s a wonder lawyers haven’t been involved at any point. Just listen to the moment when he sings “And honey, I miss you” and compare to “You know that she’s leaving…”

The other connection that comes to mind is a perhaps less obvious one. In 1989 my family bought a VCR and taped pretty much every Children’s film over that Christmas, and I and my sister watched those films again and again until we left home. One of my favourites was Time Masters, an English-language dub of René Laloux’s ‘Les Maîtres du temps’. It’s an odd cartoon, to say the least, a series of ponderous semi-connected sci-fi events wrapped up by the king of all deus ex machina, but disturbing and beautiful throughout. The soundtrack is comprised of banks of similarly unironic cheap synths, producing an effect much like She’s Dead does. That moment after ‘she’s leaving’ where the keyboards swell to a climax, yes, it’s beautiful, but again it reminds me too much of the closing of the film. It’s a pleasant memory, and I’m happy to be reminded of it, but I end up spending the rest of the song just waiting for this one moment, and the rest just pales in comparison.

Pulp had not given up on sad ballads, of course, each album seems to have at least one. You could even venture a guess that it was the one form that persisted through every phase of the band. In the 90s, though, we’ll see them move a little off centre-stage, and I’m afraid to say I don’t really mind.

#96 – Death II

22 Jun

Death II (Separations, 1992)
Death II (Live Video, The Leadmill, Sheffield, 16th March 1991)
Death II at Pulpwiki

“Night clubs just seemed like the most hellish situation on the world, but it was attractive, because it was so alienating, and that’s what a death club is; it’s just like a night club, it’s like; ‘how can I be in a situation like this where you’re pounded by music and only a consumer?’ I mean you’re a consumer at a gig, but you’re making a choice to go and see it, to interact with it in a way, but going to a club at the time seemed to me like being trapped in an elevator in the fucking circus.”
John McKeown of The Yummy Fur talking about The Career Saver.

If we reduce ‘Separations’ to its constituent parts, as has been done for a series of cash-in compilations, what do we get? Just Countdown and My Legendary Girlfriend, of course (though Love Is Blind might occasionally get a look in). Usually when there are two hits on an album full of the soon-forgotten, they’ll be top-loaded, perhaps with one on each side, and it seems a little bloody minded to keep the listener waiting until side B for them before putting them next to each-other. It does, work, of course, but there’s a casualty, and it’s called ‘Death II’.

of course, it’s the song’s fault as much as anything – for all its qualities (and there are many) it simply doesn’t have the hook – anyone can hum “my legendary girlfriend, she is crying again” or “I was seventeen when I heard the countdown start…”, but ask them to repeat something from ‘Death II’ and nothing comes to mind except possibly that ‘distorted and sharply gated Portasound arpeggio’ at the start. This, and the fact that it’s lumbered with a working title (Death I being ‘Death Comes To Town’ and Death III being ‘Countdown’) seem to indicate that the song was unfinished at the point of recording.

This isn’t to say the song is sub-par though – in fact, quite the opposite. This unfinishedness give the group – and especially producer Alan Smyth – scope to transform what could have been just another rehashing of old themes into a club hit – one with a soul and a (somewhat messy) narrative as well as a thumping futuristic disco beat. The lyrics are a bit of a curate’s egg, having a fantastic opening – “Now the lonely nights begin / And there is nowhere else to go / But watch my spirit melt away / Down at the D.I.S.C.O.”* – which quickly becomes lost in a sea of familiarly opaque longings for a lost love. It’s a story told from a bed, flitting memories and desires preventing the protagonist from sleeping. From time to time, it’s expressed as a physical yearning, prefiguring ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’ and ‘Sheffield: Sex City’, at times flipping to an equally physical revulsion – but the pieces don’t quite fit together yet. Still, it’s far from being a failure.

Where Death II really comes alive is with the music, and specifically the production. Aside from Jarvis’s vocal, the track is almost entirely synthesised, and the delineation of labour indicated on the album sleeve is possibly meaningless. Smyth is the uncredited band member here, playing snatches of keyboard, gating, sequencing, stitching it all together, and later live performances attempt to recreate the studio version rather than the other way round. The results are nothing short of great – even the usually cheap-sounding Portasound here appears to be startlingly professional, the banks of heavenly synths are laid with a careful hand, and the whole thing has a dangerous, growling, funky air to it. Electro-pop Pulp is here, and Jesus Christ, it’s about time.

As for what it has to do with death, well, yeah, your guess is as good as mine.

*This, if anything is what people seem to take from the song – a quick search reveals a score of people describing Death II as “Pulp’s ‘How Soon Is Now?'” – which isn’t really the whole story.

#90 – Love Is Blind

11 May

leadmill88-12

Love is Blind (Separations, 1992)
Love is Blind (Live film – Town & Country Club London, 20th July 1991)
Love is Blind at Pulpwiki

KING HENRY V
Yet they do wink and yield, as love is blind and enforces.
BURGUNDY
They are then excused, my lord, when they see not what they do.

What’s the difference between “love is blind” and “beer goggles”? I suppose it’s just that with the second one you have the chance to blame the alcohol. How about the difference between “suddenly I realised that I love love” and “love falls in love with itself again, like it never should”? You could put it like this: a first romance blossoms, but then wilts as summer turns to autumn. After winter there’ll be many more springs – but the magic and innocence of the first one is lost forever. Let’s quit this silly cliché – there’s no use being nostalgic, that first time was really the worst time – now we’re stronger, we know the rules, we know it’s just a (magnificent) game. A decade in Sheffield, and we’ve broken through the lethargy and self-pity to find that, yes, dreams are all fair and good, but there’s only so much time for wallowing; life is short, time to go out and grab it.

“Love is Blind” is about growing up, finding yourself in a brave new world of self-knowledge, and as such it works perfectly as the first track on “Separations” – a fact that the band were well aware of even as they recorded it. While generally a good album act, Pulp tend to open with a slightly misfiring statement of intent, then spend the first half getting to the meat of things. This is the sole example where we’re plunged straight into the action – which here means a stomping, slavic cabaret number.

That wobbly bombom-pah-bombom-pah, later (accidentally?) recycled by Blur for ‘Sunday Sunday’, a woozy synth line, agonised wailing in the background from Jarvis, then the decisive “Oh.” From this point we’re taken on a tour of startling, but seemingly disconnected images. Was this song cobbled together from pieces of three or four different unfinished ones? If so, then it’s not exactly to its detriment. If our theme is restless creativity, then isn’t this the ultimate example? Jarvis’s vocal flips between the personal and the general, the angry and the laid-back, and musically, the track lives up to this principle too – it’s a massively populist cabaret stomp from start to finish. A few years later the group would (sort of) film a music video at the Moulin Rouge, and it seems a shame they didn’t get inside to film a performance of ‘Love is Blind’, can-can dancers and all. Then there’s Candida’s cheeky call-and-response keyboard phrase which alternates from left to right throughout. All fairly camp and excessive, but never leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

The song’s best moment is undoubtedly the spoken word section, an apocalyptic vision of taking a last chance for love while the world crumbles. Then, the next day, it’s all still there, “the spilt milk and the dog turds / in that grey ashtray morning light” – the worst has passed, nothing’s perfect but we’re all ok. That odd poetic urban realism would soon be one of the band’s greatest strengths, and this is perhaps its first outing. Just as this section is a success, the next is a bit of a letdown, an angry-sounding metaphor about someone being a “butcher” which seems redolent of all the melodramatic excesses of the era we’re leaving behind. Any grab-bag assortment will have something you’d rather leave behind, though, and we’re soon back to the gist.

An obvious first single, Love is Blind now sits firmly in the shadow of Separations’ two big breakthrough tracks. Too ‘big’ a track to be an interlude between hits, it suffered from being perhaps too ahead of its time, and was dropped from the band’s set to make way for the likes of ‘Babies’ before the album was released – a shame, perhaps, but not really – this will forever be the opening of the first modern Pulp album, and that should be enough.

#89 – Separations

4 May

seppy

Separations (Separations, 1992)
Separations – Live Film, Town & Country Club, London (20th July 1991)
Separations – Live Film, The Leadmill, 1st September 1991
Separations at Pulpwiki

Before my bed a pool of light –
Can it be hoar-frost on the ground?
Looking up, I find the moon bright;
Bowing, in homesickness I am drowned.
– Li Bai (701 – 762AD)

“The barbarians are inside the gate. They’re playing Muzak in Jenners.” – Letter in The Scotsman, 2007.

I received a CD of ‘Separations’ one Christmas in the mid-90s. My family were staying at a relative’s house and their stereo was hidden in a nook above a full-piano-sized 1970s electric organ, possibly a Hammond, with switches that produced backing beats like “waltz” and “rhumba”, another to adjust the tempo, and a series of long wooden foot pedals, the use of which escapes me. As I played the CD and we reached the climax of track 4 – the title track, no less – the swirling mass of strings suddenly disappeared to be replaced with the cheapest possible Casiotone beat, cheaper, in fact, than one I’d been playing on the organ before I even put the CD on.

Was this a joke? It seemed likely. Cheap-sounding keyboards and Muzak were a common butt of jokes in the early 90s, from Rimmer’s enthusiasm for “Reggie Wilson’s Lift Music Classics” on Red Dwarf to stand-up rants about supermarket background music. It was just one of those things which seemed to universally be regarded as ‘bad’, and it wasn’t until I listened to Denim’s ‘Novelty Rock’ a couple of years later that the pieces finally clicked. These sounds are ours – they might sound “naff”* but they are all around us nonetheless, we’ve grown up with them – and I bet a 1980s suburban Proust would maintain that they have the power to be as evocative as anything else. They are ours to use. Admittedly, this will only get you laughed at, but if you want to be a pop star “ridicule is nothing to be scared of.” Audiences are there to be challenged, after all.

That one moment dominates my memory of the song so much that it was hard to focus on anything else – which in fact might be a failing, as there’s plenty to admire here. Built from that bare chord progression, and originally called “Eastern Eurodisco”, by the time it was recorded ‘Separations’ had morphed into a sprawling beast of a song, with a cyclical operatic structure in place of the usual verse-chorus-verse and a complex storyline with roots in romantic baladeering and gothic fiction – all presented in less than five minutes.

The first two minutes are dominated by Russell’s Slavic violin – here built up in stature to something like a towering Stravinsky requiem, performed at the funeral of a beloved Transylvanian monarch. The rest of the strings (unbelievable these are just samples) soon join him, and as they are building to a climax Jarvis begins his melodramatic telling of a story of separated, lonely lovers. She’s deserted, all alone.

Then we break down into that Casiotone rhythm, and after a few moments the rest of the group join in, and we continue with “him” – He’s in a new town, getting off a train (haven’t we heard that somewhere before?), filled with optimism and determined to forget the girl he’s left behind. Things quickly turn bad, though, life and nightlife are shallow and unsatisfying, “the drinks won’t do a thing for him / but revive some stupid memories” – and looking to the sky he sees the same moon “she” is looking at.

It’s no wonder that this (often forgotten) song ended up being the title of the album – it seems emblematic of all the changes that the band were going through at the time. Slavic baladeering morphs into suburban lust, gothic romance into electro-pop, cathartic melodrama into that 1990s sense of nostalgic un-belonging. Each side sounds captivating – the first perhaps even more so, thanks to what must be Russell’s greatest single performance. As a centrepiece to the album, as a bridge between the two halves, it does the job perfectly, and while it’s too damn odd to be anyone’s favourite, it’s nevertheless a genuinely passionate, atmospheric piece of work.

*Isn’t it funny how, in 2013, the word ‘naff’ now sounds, well, naff.

#84 – Don’t You Want Me Anymore

6 Apr

bocking-87-02

Don’t You Want Me Anymore (Separations, 1992)
Don’t You Want me Anymore at Pulpwiki

“It would have been easier to stay in Sheffield – I knew lots of people and felt I had the measure of the place, and then you come to London. In Sheffield, everyone congregates in the centre of town at weekends, which of course they don’t do in London, so I’d do sad things like ending up walking around Piccadilly Circus on a Saturday night, wondering where everybody was, but of course it’s all tourists.” – Jarvis in ‘Pulp’ by Martin Aston, 1996.

Sheffield is bigger than I thought it was. With more than half a million people it’s the third most populous urban district in the UK, bigger than Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol or Bradford. In England, though, anything that isn’t London is “the sticks” – and some spend much of their lives dreaming of escape.

“Don’t You Want Me Anymore” is a projection, or a premonition – perhaps a nightmare. Jarvis was still living in Sheffield, for the moment at least, but his time was drawing to a close. He’d moved out of the factory building off The Wicker, and moved in with Russell, who was learning that his bandmate spent his days buying useless nicknaks from jumble sales, cooking inedible food and not doing the washing up. More importantly, he was taking a foundation course at Sheffield Poly, and would have been in the process of applying to universities as the song was written. Soon he would be down in London, his ties to his hometown forever stretched, his view of the place no longer prosaic but instead a free flight of fantasy.

For now, that view hasn’t coalesced, but we have at least moved on from faulty relationships to less-well trodden, more fertile ground. Like Master Of The Universe a year before, Don’t You Want Me Anymore deals with what we might call the ‘bedsit ego’ – the arbitrary inflation or deflation of your self-esteem when you live in a world where it isn’t pegged to anything solid. Instead of relying on sci-fi cliché, though, we’re presented with a more real-world example. The narrator has left his home-town in disgust – both with the city and his now ex-girlfriend, who, in a delicious nod to Chris De Burgh, is described with “I’ve never seen you look so ugly as the way you did that night.” He’s been away, made his name elsewhere, and now is coming back home an imagined prodigal son, returning in triumph to revel in his power over and pity for the girl and ungraciously receive the adoration of all the other people who’ve missed him so much.

Inevitably, the return is a bit of a let-down. The girl has moved on, is no longer interested, only wants to “wave and say goodbye” – and the rest of the town have come to see him, yes, but instead of the ticker-tape parade he’d expected they only want to laugh and jeer at him. He’s not a returning hero, just a failure who was too weak to stick it out in the first place.

It’s a delicious little parable, all the more so for being perfectly plausible, and the fact that there’s a faint whiff of melodrama about the whole proceedings seems fine, this time. Behind Jarvis’s theatrical vocals the rest of the group spin out a jerky Gypsy tango, with haughty violin and march-time drumming from Nick, in what Mark Sturdy describes as “spaghetti western high drama” – and while this sound would end up being yet another of the musical cul-de-sacs followed by the group in the late 80s, it was at least one of the more scenic ones.

That there was something fairly special going on here must’ve been clear to the group, as Don’t You Want Me Anymore was chosen as the lead track to be recorded for the group’s first single on the nascent FON records, the studio and record label that would serve as the precursor to Warp Records in the 1990s. This version, whose release was repeatedly put off, and finally shelved permanently, is fairly similar to the version released on Separations years later, with a few minor, but important changes. The FON version relies more on Jarvis’s Portasound keyboard, features much less in the way of gasps and noises from Jarvis, and struggles to escape the twin issues of Steven Havenhand’s weak bassline and Nick’s difficulty in playing naturally along with the keyboard. The live treatment given by Alan Smythe during the Separations sessions fits the song much better, with layers of keyboard lines used to add flavour and colour to the song rather than keep fixed in tandem with it.

Here, then, is the sound of a confident band who seem to know moreorless what they are doing. Yes, we’ve still got a jumble of seemingly random influences jostling for position, but suddenly they seem to be able to slot them all together into something that makes sense. The fact that this would end up sounding very much like The Past when placed among the likes of “My Legendary Girlfriend” just goes to show what giant leaps the group were about to make.

#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.