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