Tag Archives: sheffield

#127 – Deep Fried In Kelvin

24 Feb

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Deep Fried In Kelvin (B-side to Lipgloss, 1993)
Deep Fried In Kelvin at Pulpwiki

“Many of Kelvin problems weren’t the flats, which inside were lovely, or the surroundings, which at the back were nicer still, or the facilities, which were aplenty… no, it was more a feeling of not being in charge, of not being King of your own castle. This had more to do with lack of available paid work, and the stigma attached to living on the estate, which was caused by the press demonising the place and by Kelvin being the first port of call for people with problems or a criminal history.
New doors or not, most of the people behind them were the most down to earth, trustworthy and friendly people you would ever be likely to meet. I’ve lived on five other estates since I left, and I have never found the same strong sense of community that Kelvin flats had.”
– Peter Jones, Streets In The Sky, Life in Sheffield’s High Rise

“…claustrophobic walk-ups or corridors were rejected in favour of 12ft wide ‘streets in the sky’. These ‘streets’ were almost all connected with the ground, on steeply sloping land. Street corners were included where the winding building twisted around, with the spaces around the blocks filled with shops, schools and playgrounds…. …Park Hill is a battered remnant of a very different country, one which briefly turned housing for ordinary people into futuristic monuments rather than shamefaced little hutches. The ideologies of Regeneration and Heritage, when applied to the very different ethical aesthetic of the old New Brutalism, can only destroy the thing they claim to love.” – Owen Hatherley, ‘Penthouse and Pavement’

“Sheffield’s full of half-assed visions of cities of the future that turn into a pile of rubbish,” Russell Senior reflects, standing on the biggest traffic roundabout in Europe. “We grew up reading the local paper and seeing ‘Sheffield, city of the future,’ with a map of how it’s going to be and pictures of everyone walking around in spacesuits, smiling. But we’re the only ones who took it seriously…”Russell Senior in the NME, June 1992

When I was young I felt sorry for people who lived in flats. My friends, family, the people on TV, they all lived in houses, proper ones with gardens at the back and front. The irony was that I lived in a flat myself, though the fact that it was part of a Victorian mansion rather than a 1960s concrete structure somehow meant that it didn’t count, at least in my mind. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I saw the real thing – in Southampton they were a looming presence, and my pizza-delivering housemates began avoid them whenever possible after having air-rifles fired as they rode past. This just confirmed my existing prejudice, that they were ugly and anti-human, vast battery cages for the unfortunate portion of humanity that were unable to live elsewhere.

Now I live in a gigantic complex in China with another 20,000 or so people and the difference is total. Everyone here seems to love flats – houses (especially brick ones) are for poor people, lack decent sanitation or heating, are infested with insects that can’t make it to higher levels. Even if you have a “villa” security becomes an issue – you can bar your windows but you’re still down there with the rabble, and there’s no security guard to stop them getting in.

I mention all of this not because I like to go on about myself (though that’s also undoubtedly the case) but to pull focus on the British view, that a man’s home is his castle, that our houses are the basic outlet for our self-worth and creative expression, a “truth” whose foundations may be shakier than we might like to think. For all we might believe concrete blocks to destroy culture and society by treating people as cogs in a huge machine, rows of identical Barrett houses are no more individual inside or outside, and the hidden hand of class conformity may make them actually more regimented than council tower blocks. To quote Peter Jones in the book linked above, “to you it was home: ugly from the outside, but beautiful, warm, cosy and safe on the inside.”

As with many political issues, then, this one may be inescapably entangled with emotions rather than expressible in logical terms. It comes down to what sort of life we want for ourselves and others, and what harder thing is there to discuss dispassionately? Deep Fried In Kelvin is saturated in emotional responses. Jarvis evidently feels that there is something fundamentally wrong with this place, and spends the song going through different ways to express this feeling. The environment is ugly and unfriendly, the people who live there are desperate, or have undergone some kind of environment-related moral degradation. No matter what good intentions the misguided might have towards them, they’re the ones mugging you at knifepoint late at night. If it wasn’t all expressed in such poetic, literary terms it could come straight from the pages of the Daily Mail.

At the start of the ‘The Full Monty’ a clip from the 1971 promotional film “Sheffield: City On The Move” is shown, and the full version can be seen on youtube here. As with many industrial cities in the UK, Sheffield’s city centre was gutted by bombs during the blitz and the opportunity was taken to rip out low-quality slum housing and replace it with huge concrete structures. The first of these was Park Hill, previously mentioned in Sheffield: Sex City, a great brutalist wave of concrete and brick connected by wide decks / bridges which connected the blocks together and which were supposed to be “streets in the sky.” and which was soon followed by similar developments – Hyde Park and Kelvin. In the film only the first two are mentioned, and only to boast of their size. Even in 1971 the buildings were clearly losing their lustre, as might be expected for any kind of council housing, and the film-makers clearly didn’t share the same vision for the future as the architects of these places. I hope anyone can agree that Kelvin was better than slum housing, but beyond that there seems to be little consensus on whether it was a good idea or not, whether it made communities or broke them and whether it gave people hope for the future or destroyed it.

For the man in the newspaper clipping placed in the middle of our series of vignettes, his need for a garden is such that he’s willing to destroy his flat, and the one beneath, for it. Is he a sad product of a failed system driven to his wits’ end, or does his need for a garden equate to a human need for a connection to nature, a connection not provided on concrete streets in the sky? The repetition of the last line would seem to answer this question. If a few find that concept naïve or troubling, others may be more concerned with the portrayal here of a criminal underclass, clearly beyond all redemption. The usual route for a piece of writing like this (I can’t think of a similar song) is to find a root cause, but there’s no easy way out here, just one great downward spiral of a sick environment, rotten conditions and people you want to avoid. This text is the product of an occasional visitor, one who’s been attacked by these kids and clearly feels no love for them, but who still can’t bring himself to look away – he’s not disgusted as such, but has the bitterness only the truly disillusioned (and therefore former true believers) can feel. It’s an apocalyptic vision of a song, and the seriously intoned monologue can’t entirely obscure the hellfire preacher tone – the song actually begins as a parody of a religious text, and culminates in a darkly humourous parody of Luke 18:16. It’s ridiculous, and that’s the point. Deep Fried in Kelvin is ultimately a work of satire, not a documentary.

I’ve left some fairly vital points behind in all this. Firstly, that the song is just short of ten minutes long, the longest thing the band ever put out, but justifies its length by never being dull for a moment. Second, there’s the music, an easy factor to forget in that it comprises nothing more than a barely changing band jam on a couple of chords. As band jams go, though, it’s not bad; Neu-meets-Bark-Psychosis, sonically interesting enough to imbue the words with extra drama, but low key enough to stay out of the way.

This isn’t quite the beginning of Pulp’s treatises on English class politics – it’s too much of a dark fantasy for that – but all the same, it’s a first step away from sensation and a first step towards issues. Next time we’ll see the group dive into this world, head-first.

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#113 – Sheffield: Sex City

2 Nov

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Sheffield: Sex City (B-side to ‘Babies’, 1992)
Sheffield: Sex City (instrumental)
Sheffield: Sex City (live film, The Warehouse, ITV, 1993)
Sheffield Sex City (live film, Brixton O2 Academy 01/09/2011)
Sheffield: Sex City (Teatro La Cúpula, Santiago, Chile, 2012)
Sheffield: Sex City at Pulpwiki

“At the age of twenty-two, newly graduated and without a clear plan in life, I moved to Sheffield. It wasn’t a city I knew well, and there was no particular reason to move there other than that I knew someone with a room to spare. I was also a big fan of the band Pulp, and their song Sheffield: Sex City had led me to believe that the city held a promise of sorts.” Jon McGregor – ‘On Pulp, Sheffield, and learning a trade’

Sheffield is like another woman, a soft umbrella under which all his stories play out. Sheffield is all encompassing, taunting cheekily, inviting us out or telling us to stay in. I wanted to be there when I heard this song, so I moved there! – Kate Jackson of The Long Blondes in The Guardian

“When I was 16, I and my girlfriend were completely obsessed by this song, and we walked around willing ourselves to see the teeming, simmering, carnal city described, peering into the L-shaped windows of the tower blocks, past the twitching curtains of the semis, imagining the couplings and perversions inside.”Owen Hatherley, ‘Uncommon’

“The morning after My Legendary Girlfriend. Trying to get things done but ending up on a tour round the fleshpots of Sheffield in a T-reg Chevette. Wybourn, Brincliffe, Intake – All these places really exist and maybe these adventures still happen there – I wouldn’t know; I don’t live there anymore.”Original sleeve notes

It sounds like a terrible idea. A misfit northerner gasping and groaning his way through an eroticised description of his hometown over an electro-funk backing? The keyboard player reading a section from a book of erotic fantasies in a flat Sheffield accent? Experimental sound & stereo production? An eight-and-a-half-minute-long b-side with no chorus? What could lead professional musicians to embark on such a folly?

In reality, though, we all know Sheffield: Sex city is nothing short of monumental. Since you’re reading this I expect it means as much to you as it does to those quoted above – I know it does for me – and if it weren’t for the after-the-watershed content and the running time I think we all know it would be as well-known as ‘Babies’ or ‘Do you Remember The First Time?’. Somehow, though, it’s even more than that. It’s a song that deserves to have a time and a place associated with it, or even better a film – A night in Sheffield, as directed by Antonioni or Żuławski – and even then it would be simply too big. It inspires not only dreams, but art, literature, life decisions. In only one way is it disappointing; after dreaming so big, all that’s left is the comedown.*

For a dream, though, S:SC can seem awfully brutal at times. At its darkest the song seems like a partial re-write of Blue Glow, in which the very buildings seemed like enemies or traps, mazes to become lost in. Sheffield is out to get him – primarily by erecting barriers – walls – between people who could otherwise join together to break this artificial alienation. There are also echoes of This House Is Condemned – the narrator is “sentenced to three years in the housing benefit waiting room.” This Sheffield is looming and oppressive, the home of the darkness of the 1980s, the place he had to escape.

These moments are little more than shards of memory, though. If the song has an overarching narrative it’s constructed in a dream logic. Perspectives continually shift, little threads of half-remembered detail keep weaving through. “The fares went up at 7” refers to the famous pricing policy of Sheffield busses, but in context it makes as much sense as someone babbling in their sleep. These fragments of narrative add to the feel of a sweeping overview – are these the same characters or just vignettes of a city with a thousand stories?

In some ways you could be forgiven for feeling the city is being mocked; even the title itself is a parody of the “Steel City” slogan. The listing of districts sounds like an imitation of advertisements for new estates in the 50s and 60s, when places like Park Hill and Kelvin were a physical representation of the future – “streets in the sky”. By the 1990s, of course, these developments were poorly maintained and regarded by many (not all of course, park Hill his now listed and renovated) as a sad indictment of the city’s decline. It would be tempting to think, then, that the Proustian sensory experiences of S:SC are some kind of joke, but if they are then the joke is played so straight that there’s no choice but to take it seriously.

Jarvis could never have written S:SC while he remained in in his hometown. The dream-picture of the city is from the nostalgic viewpoint of an expat or an exile. Most of the group still remained in Sheffield, and it must have been odd for them to have this sudden shift in perspective. A place you live in is the background hum in your head – you tune it out, and only notice it when it’s gone. Some things can only be viewed clearly, then, from outside – the exotic, the familiar, the eternally unknowable. Sheffield is a woman, a lost love, and S:SC is a dirty love letter to her. At times this is even physically represented – in one enduring image he actually “makes love to a crack in the pavement” – but on the whole the femininity of the city is present in its very spaces. The sexualised city is at once a physical place and one that lives in people. The derelict factories, the dead, sterile new estates are in fact living and sentient, teeming with people, all with their own stories, but all part of one greater entity. At times you can feel the weight of this, the oppression of Blue Glow or Being Followed Home, but when this entity is a friend the physical spaces become a vast playground for the lovers, and their actions are amplified so much that passion and orgasm are converted into destruction, collapsing buildings, the whole street dying of lung cancer. How could it not?

As an improvised piece of spoken word on top of an instrumental track, Jarvis’s performance here exceeds any reasonable expectations, sounding at times tormented, flirty, pathetic, lost and ecstatic. Ed Buller’s production helps, of course, most importantly in bringing the mic so close that it sounds (especially at the start) that he’s whispering in your ear.

This is hardly a one-man show, however – the track was a jam at first, and the fact that the Babies single also included an instrumental mix demonstrates that the words were essentially an afterthought. In a way you could say that the track is Candida’s finest moment – as well as taking a lead with her Ray Manzarek plays Stereolab keyboards, she joins in with a reading from a book of women’s erotic fantasies compiled by Nancy Friday.

SSC

So convincingly deadpan is the reading that you naturally imagine she’s recounting her own experience of living in a concrete tower-block looking out onto a thousand identical windows, wondering what was going on behind the curtains. Never the most outgoing of people, Candida seems to have been too embarrassed to perform this live, and it was therefore cut out (in the 90s) or replicated with a recording (on the reunion tour). Later on she joins Jarvis on a call-and-response section around the stereo space – I don’t have a lot to say about this, but it’s wonderful nonetheless.

Steve Mackey – that other exile from the North – plays an important role here too, his steady bassline brought down to a throbbing sub-woofer heartbeat by Warp’s in-house producer Zebedee. The production throughout is refreshingly minimal – Buller adding as few layers as possible in order to produce a meandering live feel to replicate the meandering dream-like narrative. Nick is somewhere out there, continuing discreetly, while Russell’s violin is only audible at certain moments, and is used essentially as a condiment, sparingly.

As a representation of what Pulp were, what they could do, what they could say, Sheffield: Sex City works as well as anything else they’ve done – perhaps even more-so, as you couldn’t imagine anyone else producing anything like this.

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” – Closing narration to Naked City

*As a corollary of that, I have a question; how can the creators of this have not gone on to create astounding books or films? The only obvious thing to blame is the comfort zone people find themselves in when the struggle to make yourself heard is finished and won. Still, as much fun as Jarvis’s solo LPs and the Pulp reformations have been, I think we’re all a little disappointed that there hasn’t been more substantial work since 2002.

#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.