Tag Archives: sincerity

#36 – My Lighthouse

28 Apr

My Lighthouse – Album Mix
My Lighthouse – Single Mix
My Lighthouse – Live, Royal Albert Hall, 2012
My Lighthouse on Pulpwiki

There are two stories about the inception of “My Lighthouse.” One has Simon Hinkler improvising riffs on his acoustic guitar while Jarvis mumbles improvised lyrics over the top. For some reason Jarvis sings “la la lighthouse” and Simon has to starts laughing – “What? Lighthouse?!?” Another version has Jarvis asking Simon for song ideas, getting the reply “Oh I don’t know, write it about a lighthouse.”

Jarvis had recently seen ‘Diva’, directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix, a film credited with starting the ‘Cinema Du Look’ movement of the 1980s and early 1990s. The film features a central character who lives in a lighthouse, a concept 18-year-old Jarvis Cocker found to be “the height of sophistication”. The Lighthouse in Diva is a solemn concrete thing, plonked on the overcast Normandy coast, and it’s hard to see why anyone would find it romantic. Jarvis’s lighthouse, on the other hand, is a twee, picturesque thing, unsuitable for preventing nautical disasters.

Yes, it’s a very silly idea for a song, and there’s no way that anyone involved in its production was unaware of the fact. To their credit, though, there isn’t so much as a hint of irony present in the finished recording. The lyric about “you and I in a high tower” passes without the slightest hint of either a leer or a guffaw – this is not the Pulp of “Sheffield: Sex City” or “Seductive Barry” – it’s a song written by an 18-year-old about a romantic fantasy, a charming enough conceit. If the band had continued entirely in this vein it would’ve quickly become tiresome – fortunately even this mini-album contains just one other romantic flight of fantasy, and as we’ll see the novelty has already worn off somewhat.

One thing we’re going to see a lot more through the 1980s is criticism of Pulp’s output being led, in retrospect, by Jarvis himself. The line that always gets through about ‘It’ is that the production was lifted from the first few Leonard Cohen albums. An eternal favourite of sixth-form common rooms, records like 1969’s ‘Songs From A Room’* feature sparely treated acoustic guitar, Leonard intoning his poetry in his trademark ominous burr, and very little else besides. Occasionally there’s a female backing singer for the choruses, occasionally little touches of strings, electric bass and drums, but these just tend to creep in, low in the mix.

In some ways the production of ‘It’ does match Leonard Cohen’s ‘sparse yet warm’ aesthetic. Certainly, the vocals and the acoustic guitar feature prominently, and the drums are barely audible, but there are some major differences. Cohen had used an electric bass, stings and a Jew’s harp – Pulp had none of these things. Jarvis’s voice is really nothing like Leonard’s – in fact he has a much greater range, and often flies off into odd little croony trills. Most importantly, the songs don’t generally merit the sombre treatment – particularly something as cheery and optimistic as ‘My Lighthouse’ – and the shackles of serious production are regularly thrown off.

Generally, when a band generally arrives in a studio to record their first album, they have a dozen or so well-rehearsed songs ready to be put down. Pulp, of course, had no such things – the lineup (if you can call it a lineup) had just played one gig, and most of the songs were still in development. My Lighthouse, typically, was partially developed in the studio – the “It might be strange…” section (can we call it a chorus?) had an entirely different melody previously, a more jangly Cherry Red sort of thing, much in the spirit of the time. What we are hearing on the recording is the first performance of a new melody, one that lifts the whole song both literally and metaphorically. The final touch was the backing vocal, an angelic ‘aaaaaaaaa’ from Saskia and Jill which is much more prominent on the remixed version released as a single the following year.

‘My Lighthouse’ is a little wonder of a song, a moment where it all came together. It’s the most innocent of confections, redolent of the joys of life, an unqualified success to kick off an album which never quite manages to hit those heights again.

*’Songs of Leonard Cohen’, by far his most famous record, features an unusual and atypical amount of strings and backing vocals, which Cohen reacted against with his next few albums.3

#30 – Boats and Trains

13 Apr

Boats and Trains (Youtube)
Boats and Trains on Pulpwiki

A free-form 97-second sketch of a song, Boats and Trains plays its role as a natural coda to side one of ‘It’ so well that it’s hard to believe it came from an entirely different session. With only a long EPs-worth of tracks ready for album, it was plucked out of the ‘Spice’ demo recorded earlier in the year to bring It up to LP-length.
There’s not an awful lot to it, but what is there works quite well. Simon Hinkler plays intricate Spanish seaside mandolin, Jarvis strums the same chords on an acoustic guitar and sings wistfully over the top. The only development in the song comes towards the end when David Hinkler adds a few gentle touches of his Yamaha organ to the mix and Jarvis gives up singing, mid-sentence, to croon “la la la” instead.
The lyrics are typical of the songs Jarvis wrote that summer – simple and sincere, a reaction against the pretentions of his late-70s work. He asks if you would “like to hear / about the things I fear?” but quickly moves on to “If I told you a secret / you’d be sure to leak it.” After the open-hearted yearnings of the previous three tracks on ‘It’ it’s a nice touch to turn against the listener, implying they are a gossip, and not to be trusted, refusing to sing anything but “la la la.” Side two then follows on much more oblique, less personal lines.
It’s a pretty enough interlude, but there’s no evidence that anyone had any ideas on how to develop it further. The fade-out is surprising on first listen, and it may have been longer at some point – Wayne Furniss is credited with playing bass on the track, but there’s none there at all. 97 seconds, though, in the end, is enough.

#29 – Sink or Swim

7 Apr

Sink or Swim
Sink or Swim on Pulpwiki

When is the best time to write about a song? Perhaps it’s with the clarity of a first listen, when everything is fresh to your ears. Perhaps it’s after a long process of becoming accustomed to its nuances and details. One thing is for sure – the best moment is probably not when you’ve just developed a strange obsession with it and are listening to it on repeat. Love is blind, as somebody or other said. And what less likely song is there to fall for than “Sink or Swim” – a not particularly remarkable song justifiably left off ‘It’? But here we are anyway.

The first recording of Sink or Swim, and the reason I’m writing about it now and not later, is that it was recorded earlier that year for the “Spice” demo, though it was then called “Taking The Plunge.”* It’s one of a series of songs on the theme of taking your first steps in the adult world, later to include ‘Looking For Life’ and ‘Joking Aside’. That only one of these songs made it onto the original pressing of the LP was probably not a co-incidence. With all three present it does tend to sound like a concept album – “one Sheffield boy’s struggle to enter the adult world” – and that’s probably not the impression anyone wanted to give. Consequently it was left unmixed until Fire records decided to remaster the album for its 2012 reissue.

On first impressions the song isn’t great. The major weakness is the half asleep cruise ship keyboard line, which unfortunately serves as the intro. Jarvis’s vocals sound at once whimsical and uncomfortable. he keeps slipping into a low croon, emphasising the seriousness of his message – which, unfortunately, isn’t much of a message at all.

I see it’s time for me to take the plunge
Instead of sitting back, Watching everyone
Decisions now affect my future days
But are they right or wrong? Who on earth can say?

Not pretentious, then, just sort of ponderous and uninspired. It’s pretty much all a litany of half-arsed mistakes until David Hinkler’s trombone appears, somehow tying the melody together into a thing of wonder. It’s something of an illusion – sometimes you hear it, sometimes you don’t – just a moment of harmony that sounds incredible. I’ll wade through the thing a hundred times to hear that moment. Maybe I’ll be bored with it next week, but for now it’s caught me.

*It’s rumoured that the version on the reissue is from the Spice demo rather than the unmixed re-recording.

#17 – Wishful Thinking

25 Feb

Wishful Thinking (John Peel Session 1982)
Wishful Thinking (‘It’)
Wishful Thinking (Cover version by Golden)

How can we measure the value an artist places on a song? For a band like Pulp, songs were often written, performed, recorded, and slipped out of the set list and into obscurity in the space of a year. Where others tend to recycle or re-release, they always preferred to do something new. There are exceptions, of course – ‘Babies’ had two single releases, and was on two different albums, if you consider ‘Intro’ to be an album.*
Then there’s ‘Wishful Thinking’ – recorded for their first demo, re-recorded for the Peel session, re-recorded for ‘It’, chosen to be covered in the early 90s by Golden… What is it about this song which kept Jarvis coming back to it?
Listening to the version made for the Peel session, it certainly stands out. In amongst this selection pack of post-punk influences, there appears this emotional new-wave ballad, a little like The Cure, a little like the Postcard Records bands, but generally feeling new, raw, and unlike anything else they were doing at the time.
The construction of the song is quite simple – short verses intercut with a simple mantra of “I’ve got this love inside of me.” Each time it relates to the verses in a different way – at first glowing satisfaction, then doubt and longing, and finally quiet despair. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but Jarvis just about succeeds in doing it here simply by putting as much genuine feeling into it as he can, and his vocals are more successful than they would be again for most of the 80s. It’s a simple evocation of first love, and even if it seems naive it has an honesty and an integrity which can’t be denied.
Underneath the vocals the rest of the band also put in some of their best work. Jamie Pinchbeck contributes a trademark deep, echoey bass line, Wayne Furness adds a solemn, economic beat, and Dolly adds swirling, understated organ. Dale Griffin’s production, probably at the insistence of the band, is almost absurdly echoey, but it suits the track.
Fifteen months later the song was recorded again, by a very different lineup, for Pulp’s first album ‘It’. This version is the better known one, but it’s nowhere near as successful. The gentle acoustic production strains so hard to be sensitive that the vocals threaten to tip over into mawkishness. Everything is too polite – the drums and maracas sound like they are hesitating to come in, and the entire band sound like they are trying their hardest not to offend anyone. Jarvis’s vocals are also much worse – he seems to have either forgotten their meaning, or (more likely) finds them embarrassing. Later he would comment that the song embarrassed him – “because it’s a very direct love song – I remember who it’s about, and it just gets me.” His crooner phase in full bloom, he sounds like Morrissey doing an impression of Frank Sinatra – exactly the approach the song doesn’t need. Saskia’s flute solo is actually very pretty, but unfortunately it’s so tied up with the wimpy production that it pulls the song further down into midmorning chat-show territory.
One thing both versions have in common is the ending, or the lack of one. Nobody seems to know how to finish the song, and we trail off on an unsatisfying, unresolved note.

In 1994 Golden, a girl group mentored and produced by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne, released a version of “Wishful Thinking”, making it the first Pulp song to be professionally covered. It’s like a Saint Etienne version of Talulah Gosh, with the tweeness brought to the fore (in a pleasant enough way) and the lyrics altered to reflect the change in genre. it’s worth a listen, and possibly improves on the ‘It’ version.

*Which I do