Tag Archives: spoken word

#132 – His ‘n’ Hers

10 Jul

His and hers

His ‘n’ Hers (The Sisters EP, 1994)
His ‘n’ Hers (Live film, ‘Butt Naked’ 1994)
His ‘n’ Hers (Live film, ‘The Beat’ 1994)
His ‘n’ Hers (Live film,’ 1994)
His ‘n’ Hers (Live film, Pomona, California, 2011)
Compilation of live adlibs
His ‘n’ Hers at Pulpwiki

“This was the English passion, not for self-improvement or culture or wit, but for DIY, Do It Yourself, for bigger and better houses with more mod cons, the painstaking accumulation of comfort and, with it, status – the concrete display of earned cash.”
Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia

“In the homes of the middle-middles and below, the ‘lounge’ (as they call it) is likely to have a fitted carpet. The higher castes prefer bare floorboards, often part-covered with old Persian carpets or rugs. The middle-middle ‘lounge’ might have a cocktail cabinet, and their dining room a hostess trolley. The contents of lower-middle and some upper-working ‘front rooms’ will often be obscured by net curtains, but they are likely to be dominated by large television sets and, among the older generation, may boast embroidered or lacy covers on the arms of chairs and carefully displayed ‘collections’ of small objects (spoons, glass animals, Spanish dolls, figurines) from package holidays or mail-order catalogues”
Kate Fox, Watching the English – The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

“Do you have any idea what it’s like being English? Being so correct all the time, being so stifled by this dread of doing the wrong thing, of saying to someone “Are you married?” and hearing “My wife left me this morning,” or saying, uh, “Do you have children?” and being told they all burned to death on Wednesday. You see, Wanda, we’ll all terrified of embarrassment. That’s why we’re so… dead. Most of my friends are dead, you know, we have these piles of corpses to dinner.”
John Cleese in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’

“Are you genuinely frightened by James Dean posters, Jarvis?”
“They’re everywhere. In clip frames. That ‘Boulevard Of Broken Dreams’ thing. He’s there with his coat, hunched up, in Times Square. You grow up seeing sad kids trying to look like him. Every time you go to get a takeaway he’s there on the wall. It’s like Marilyn Monroe: they’re just around so much you get sick of the cliché. They represent a lack of imagination. Pathetic lip service to ‘I’m a rebel’. They’ve had all the life sucked out of them through over-use. The notion of “rebellion” seems increasingly dodgy… In music it’s stone-dead now. Institutionalised. Karaoke. Guns N’Roses.”

Interview in Melody Maker, 1994

Camille: Jarvis did this thing that I love. At first I thought it was weird, but now I like it. When we go out he checks to see what I’m wearing, like the colours or shapes. It’s not that he tries to match me but he can dress in the same family of colours. It’s this old school way of showing that you belong.
Jarvis: Yeah, but it’s not like we wear exactly the same thing. It’s not like it’s his n’ hers.
Camille: No, no, that’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s just like the same family of colours.
Jarvis: It’s about wearing something related.

Interview with Jarvis Cocker and Camille Bidault-Waddington at ONTD

Viewed from afar, English culture – particularly middle class English culture – is, to put it mildly, fucking weird. We are obsessed with rules – how to dress, how to eat, how to decorate your house, how to speak, how to interact with other people – and will use these indicators to instantly label strangers as belonging to a certain place and a certain class – or worse for not belonging to it, for importing ideas from outside, and therefore being either pretentious or morally suspect. It’s a deeply conservative, parochial instinct, but one which sometimes manifests itself, ironically, in the production of eccentrics. If you’re going to rebel against this suffocating duvet of a culture then you need to reject it entirely, take everything on your own terms – hence William Blake, Oscar Wilde, George Sitwell, Aleister Crowley, W. Heath Robinson, Stanley Unwin, Vivian Stanshall, Quentin Crisp, Alan Moore, Jarvis Cocker*…

That’s not a particularly happy list of people. British cultural norms are a heavy weight to cast off, and they leave their mark in a million petty, annoying ways. We are a small island, constantly in the grip of obsessions and fads. Entertainment, arts, food, people – these all seem to become famous at the whims of a selection of tastemakers, without the intervention of the public at all. Things arrived at in a more democratic manner – let’s call it pop culture / music** – are looked down on as being lower class, vulgar, simple, rubbish – and if you admit to liking them then you are, once again, either pretentious or somehow wrong in the head. Stepping out of what is accepted for your social group would cause embarrassment, and that would never do.

Embarrassment is a central tenet of the English mind, and a taste for moderation follows as an ingrained reflex. To be showy is to make a scene, and to purchase the same tasteful soft-furnishings as your friends and neighbours is a sure-fire method of avoiding burdening others with having to react to your tastes or emotions. Unconsciously we create boundaries between classes, regions and “foreign” – and this acts as a shortcut to know who’s in your circles and who isn’t. Pulp, meanwhile, are attempting to create their own circle, one constructed in opposition to these boundaries and prejudices. Beyond this song we have the very concept of “Pulp people” – the lists of Pulp things on concert flyers – the messages on the back of sleeves – all very inclusive, but all about rejecting the mediocrity of compromised everyday life.

But why reject compromise and comfort? Just “to be different”? Perhaps the enemy here is familiarity itself – for many this is the only source of comfort in an unpredictable world, but for others it has the effect of numbing the mind to all sensations. We (the narrator) are in the latter group, of course, let’s call it Modern Life is Suffocating. The woman in His ‘n’ Hers is a refuge from this feeling, but she also seems to be a member of the first group rather than the second. We are reminded from time to time that she’s an actual person, but she’s nevertheless viewed through the prism of his obsession. All he can see are the clichés, the litany of household tat, and even sex (the escape hatch in My Legendary Girlfriend and Sheffield: Sex City) has been reduced to a mechanical series of IKEA instructions – “pull the units down’, “shove it in sideways”. There’s a tangible disgust in his self-awareness of this, a horror in his own feelings, a shame, as desire to hide. This might seem strange (because he doesn’t seem to be doing anything terribly wrong) until you consider the obvious conclusion; that we’re talking about a dangerous, out-of-control fetish. While the narrator is repelled and alienated by these signifiers, he’s also secretly attracted to them. Each time, at the end of the chorus, he submits to her, but not enough to allow himself to be subsumed by these norms. Couplehood itself is a trap for him, he will lose himself in the creation of ‘us’ – a final surrender to everything he opposes, but he simply can’t help it. It’s a whirlpool of intense conflicting feelings, and he’s drowning.

This is the real difference from Frightened; the conjuring of all of this has been done on an extreme, but emotionally convincing level. It isn’t that Jarvis genuinely really feels this way (at least we hope), more that he’s been able to extrapolate his feelings to their unnatural conclusion. And with this sense of direction, his voice suddenly works too. We start with him sounding harsh and metallic, cold with an edge of desperation, and then witness him continually straining, losing his façade and breaking. This tension continues until the spoken word section*** salvaged from Frightened appears. Now it’s a confession to his girlfriend, who has asked him, harmlessly enough, what he’s frightened of. The resultant list of middle-class tat concludes with him admitting to a terror of “evenings in the Brincliffe Oaks, searching for a conversation” – i.e. numbness, absence of thought. “Are you stupid?” she says, and he surrenders once again. For a moment it seems that she can make it all better, drown the fear in earthy sexual joy and laughter, but then we cut back to “Are we going to do it again…?” and there is no redemption.

Of course, all this would’ve counted for nothing if His ‘n’ Hers wasn’t such an accomplished piece of music. Built more like a piece of ambient dance music than a traditional rock or pop song, it consists of various elements being added and then dropped as it progresses, with the illusion of normality being maintained only by Steve’s chugging backgrounded bassline and the mandatory gear-shift in and out of the chorus.

The first element to be introduced, and probably the most memorable, is Candida’s brilliantly ridiculous popcorn-style keyboard sequence, but the moment the song comes alive for me is with the looped drumroll dropped into the song at 40 seconds in. Then there’s the sickly waves of synth drone built up by Candida and Ed Buller. After the first chorus the drum loop changes to a Magnus-style tribal battering, then the creepy wandering guitar line starts to emerge, growing in prominence until the whole song has shifted its mood to an Italian horror soundtrack. Finally, as we get to “I want to…” everything comes back in together; a wave of intensity, which then breaks and falls back to the maddening background pressure.

It’s an astounding piece of music – all the more so for *not* jumping out at you. This sort of thematic and musical complexity, bordering on the avant-garde, is in its own way a high water-mark. Pulp would rarely again be this intense, this obsessed or this wilful in their pushing at the boundaries of what a pop song could be. Yet more astonishing is the fact that it was left off the LP, despite being the title track – I genuinely cannot fathom how or why this happened, but I can’t say it isn’t missed.

This is Pulp in 1994, and there’s nobody else doing anything like it.

*You may note that these are all men – historically there has been much more pressure on women to abide by social norms – nevertheless we could make an equally impressive female list, but they would be eccentrics of a different type.

**Not a separate category entirely – in fact there’s a great deal of overlap – but the difference can easily be seen in the different reactions of the middle class. Food culture is the perfect example of this, as can be seen as the different attitudes towards high class burger restaurants and McDonald’s. It may taste the same, or be equally unhealthy, but one is acceptable and one is not.

*** This spoken section was used in live performances for ad-hoc improvisations, starting with a bad-tempered rant against Depeche Mode and progressing into audience vox-pops. It was always a highlight – inclusive, inventive and making you feel like you’ve just seen something special and unique. His ‘n’ Hers was a mainstay of their sets for most of 1994, before being edged out by the appearance of the less claustrophobic material that would become the foundation of Different Class, which was a shame.

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#130 – David’s Last Summer

23 Jun

'Summer' by Wavingmyarmsintheair

David’s Last Summer (‘His ‘n’ Hers’, 1994)
David’s last Summer at Pulpwiki

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925).

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time”
John Lubbock

“Pulp once played a festival in Liverpool that was held in Sefton park. I remember seeing a Victorian glasshouse that had been left to its own devices after public service cuts. The plants were completely overgrown and the building seemed likely to explode at any moment due to the volume of vegetation inside.”

Jarvis Cocker – Mother, Lover, Brother

“We looked at each other irresolutely and then by common consent pushed through the rushes to the river bank. The river had been hidden until now. At once the landscape changed. The river dominated it— the two rivers, I might say, for they seemed like different streams. Above the sluice, by which we stood, the river came out of the shadow of the belt of trees. Green, bronze, and golden it flowed through weeds and rushes; the gravel glinted, I could see the fishes darting in the shallows. Below the sluice it broadened out into a pool that was as blue as the sky. Not a weed marred the surface; only one thing broke it: the intruder’s bobbing head.”
LP Hartley – The Go-Between

“When you get the first hot day of the year, I always get these pictures in my head. You think of all the things that happen in summer, swimming in lakes and building a tree-house and you get quite excited. But then you know that you’re not going to do all those things, you’re probably just going to end up working like you normally do. But it would be good just to have one summer that was like that one time and so I wanted to capture that feeling of those summers that seem to go on forever and you can do lots of things.”

Jarvis Cocker, French newspaper interview, 1994

“In summer, the song sings itself.”
William Carlos Williams

The idea of writing a song to evoke the endless summers of Sheffield in the late 70s had been in the air for quite a while. The first attempt, one of two songs named “My First Wife“, has already been covered, but undoubtedly there are many other attempts that fizzled out in the rehearsal room between 1987 and 1994. The version that emerges in the His ‘n’ Hers sessions has only a few snatches of lyrics and a theme in common, but the process of change itself has left its mark. It has an odd mish-mash structure, apparently being created out of a grab-bag of different snatches of music that didn’t fit anywhere else and were commandeered by this back-burner project. Along the way it also gained some fairly odd musical flourishes (including a sneaky lift) and a sympathetic producer who seems to have been determined to let his final touches be as near perfect as possible.

A snatch of lyrics and a theme may not sound like a lot, but David’s Last Summer is built around its narrative – as a short story rather than a song. That doesn’t mean that it’s an atmospheric bed for a poem – when it kicks in, after the lull of ‘Someone Like The Moon’, it actually sounds like the album is getting a second wind. DLS is the first pastoral Pulp song, and half-remembered it will always seem to be thoughtfully dramatic, so the sudden jump into this high-tempo mid-80s light jazz/funk always seems slightly jarring, and for a moment I’m tempted to think of it as a misfire. It’s not, though, it’s just a break from the expected shimmering, laidback feel of long hot summer films, a more realistic representation of the giddy feeling at the start of English summer holidays, and makes perfect sense as the start of our story.

We made our way slowly down the path that led to the stream, swaying slightly, drunk on the sun, I suppose. It was a real summer’s day. The air humming with heat, whilst the trees beckoned us into their cool green shade. And when we reached the stream, I put a bottle of cider into the water to chill, both of us knowing that we’d drink it long before it had chance.

Jarvis got the name of the song from a book in his school library called “Pennington’s Last Summer” which he saw but never read. Except he didn’t – K.M. Peyton’s classic young adult novel was called “Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer” though it was also published as “Pennington’s Last Term.”

Pennington's Last Summer

Misrememberings like this always seem to be the wellspring of good art, and this is a great song title, vague and evocative. Who is this “David”? The lyrics constantly shift perspective – “we” “you” (female) “you (male) and her” “Peter” – but there’s never a David mentioned. Is this the kid called David from ‘Babies’? And why is it his last summer? Is this a character whose death makes the memory of this summer indelible, or is it a “last” summer before he leaves? The value of this summer is defined by how fleeting it is, and the possibility of death at the end sharpens this pressure.

If the year is a cycle of death and rebirth, then in summer we pass the peak and look down into the shadowy valley beyond.

This is where you want to be / There’s nothing else but you and her / And how you spend your time

The Last Summer is a perfected archetype, specific but general. It’s in Sheffield, in the 70s, but it could be anywhere and at any time. We’re caught between the innocence and carelessness of childhood and the nostalgia and awareness of consequences that come with adulthood. There’s a tension between the blissfully tranquillity of lying in the sun and daydreaming and the self-consciousness born from that freedom to think. We’re slipping into a slower pace, but under that soothing pastorality there’s an intense consciousness that makes the memories stronger, more vivid, more important.

We went driving

There are moments like this that are intensely filmic. Is it possible at this point not to picture the non-existent music video, the group heading down country roads in a convertible? We are in a moment, in a time, in a place. To be able to suspend disbelief like this is the measure of success for a piece like this. Was there really a summer like this? How much of it was spent bored or distracted? It doesn’t matter, of course.

The room smells faintly of sun tan lotion in the evening sunlight, and when you take off your clothes, you’re still wearing a small pale skin bikini. The sound of children playing in the park comes from faraway, and time slows down to the speed of the specks of dust floating in the light from the window.

Memory may be eternal and timeless, but real time is limited. In David’s Last Summer each moment is caught, frozen, before we suddenly skip forward to the next. The effect is that of flicking though a stack of polaroids. On summer holidays I used to focus intently on a single moment, think about how it would seem later as a memory, then, as it passed, think about how it was gone now and unchangeable. I don’t know if this is something other people did.

Time is limited, everything will die. To feel time passing is to lose it.

So we went out to the park at midnight one last time. Past the abandoned glasshouse stuffed full of dying palms. Past the bandstand and down to the boating lake. And we swam in the moonlight for what seemed like hours, until we couldn’t swim anymore.

Sefton Park Glasshouse - here pictured in a better-managed state

The abandoned glasshouse is in Liverpool, the bandstand may be the one mentioned in the DYRTFT film. Memories are cut and pasted as much as music is – each section is different, but all somehow fit. Here we notice a snatch of melody which seems to be lifted from “Lisa (All Alone)” by Santo & Johnny. We’ve started at a casual fast pace, slowed down into contemplation, and now we’re speeding up again into an anxious close, but at no point has our journey seemed forced or unnatural.

As we walked home, we could hear the leaves curling and turning brown on the trees, and the birds deciding where to go for the winter. And the whole sound, the whole sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town.

Pulp’s first attempt at a spoken song, Goodnight, took listeners gently down to road to sleep before shouting “boo” just as they were drifting off. It was a mean trick, but there was a good idea somewhere behind it. DLS doesn’t descend into horror, just a curdling, the love of the moment morphing into the impossible desire to hold on to it. First there’s the picked guitar, like September birdsong, the distant thunderclap of rumbling bass, then in comes Candida’s slightly out of tune Farfisa, like the distorted 8mm film of a beach holiday. Finally the pace starts to pick up, with Russell’s icy, discordant stabs of violin, as chilling as the first autumn winds, a storm rolling in, the sky darkening, the desperate feeling that the summer is over and there will never be another one like it, a final moment of crisis between the experience and the bittersweet memory.

And as we came out of the water we both sensed a certain movement in the air, and we both shivered slightly, and we ran to collect our clothes. And as we walked home, we could hear the leaves curling and turning brown on the trees, and the birds deciding where to go for the winter. And the whole sound, the whole sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town.

…and up and up we go, taking off like a kite carried off into the storm. There is no more satisfying ending to a Pulp album, no better example of a story in a song. A hodge-podge of different sections, cobbled together over half a decade, it still works as high narrative drama, and (dare I say) art. Pulp would be soon be much bigger, and perhaps even better, but they’d never again simultaneously be this odd and this brilliant.

#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.

#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.