Tag Archives: suburbia

#121 – Acrylic Afternoons

28 Dec

drawn curtains

Acrylic Afternoons (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Acrylic Afternoons (John Peel Session, 5/3/1993)
Acrylic Afternoons (live film, 1994)
Acrylic Afternoons (live film, Brixton Academy 21/12/1995)
Acrylic Afternoons (live film, Paris Olympia 13/11/2012)
Acrylic Afternoons (live reading, Rough Trade 5/12/2011)
Acrylic Afternoons at Pulpwiki

“When people have sex in songs, it’s done in a glossy way, or in a Prince way – ‘I can shag 24 women in a single night’ – but never in a realistic way, like ‘I came after 30 seconds’, so I just wanted to write about it in a matter-of-fact manner. Maybe English people like the thought of it being forbidden, a little naughty, but it’s no good being reserved about it. You can’t have sex reservedly – you know, a bit detached – and that goes against the English character.”

– Jarvis Cocker in Melody Maker, 1993

“Well cut Windsmoor flapping lightly,
Jacqmar scarf of mauve and green
Hiding hair which, Friday nightly,
Delicately drowns in Drene;
Fair Elaine the bobby-soxer,
Fresh-complexioned with Innoxa,
Gains the garden – father’s hobby –
Hangs her Windsmoor in the lobby,
Settles down to sandwich supper and the television screen.”

– John Betjeman ‘Middlesex’

“We’re now in a semi-detached house in a cul-de-sac somewhere on the outskirts of Sheffield….” It’s telling, is it not, that Jarvis feels the need to set the scene with extra observations like these when introducing live renditions of ‘Acrylic Afternoons’. It’s a song about a dream, in a dream, and dreams have a setting; a time, a place, a moment, a mise-en-scène.

On His ‘n’ Hers no such narration is needed to begin the story – instead we have a set of ghostly, ethereal sounds, and the echoed voices of children playing outside. These effects don’t set the mood so much as the idea that we’re in a dream. Creating this 20 seconds of sound turned out to be a more complicated task than expected, and ended up costing the group a fair amount of studio time.

“Originally, this consisted of a piece known as “The Tunes Of Evil”, a random, unsettling noise conjured up out of this old analogue synth. As soon as we’d committed it to tape, strange things started happening in the studio. The mixing desk blew up, the multi-track for “Joyriders” disintegrated and we had to piece it back together by clever jiggerypokery. Ed Buller developed strange pains in his back and generally, the vibe went bad. So we had to destroy this music, but the engineer erased the wrong track. Obviously, “The Tunes Of Evil” didn’t want to die. The piece you hear at the beginning of “Acrylic Afternoons” is different and, as far as I know, safe.”*

Even without this mythology, the intro is creepy enough on its own – but then the dark, rumbling SFX are interrupted by a few jabs of the keyboard motif, and off we go into a steady-but-undancable, feverish rhythm. Like the best of Pulp’s work it doesn’t have any real sonic parallels – a simple enough musical concept which is still hard to pin down. Steve’s bassline is the real driving force – an urgent, dangerous thing, redolent of dark desires. Russell’s violin circles around, sometimes repeating Candida’s keyboard, sometimes breaking free and buzzing about like an angry wasp trapped in the sitting room. This is particularly notable as Ed Buller for once managed to incorporate it into his vision for the song, demonstrating that their two approaches weren’t fundamentally incompatible – though he kept him low in the mix. Altogether, the whole sounds like a series of musical moments linked by the overarching narrative of a pursuit, perhaps like the one in ‘Being Followed Home’ – but now instead of being the prey, we are joyously part of the chase.

It’s a dream, then, and that’s how we started; with “a small child in dungarees who caught his hands in the doors of the Paris metro.”** Then our narrator wakes up, or perhaps he doesn’t – everything after this point seems equally dreamlike. We’re transported to another world – the clearest picture yet of the suburban section of the sexualized city, a place Jarvis expresses equal parts lust and repulsion towards – this ambivalence being perhaps the most important theme of ‘His ‘n’ Hers’. Here the suburbs (South London or Sheffield, it doesn’t really matter) are stuck in a temporal bubble; a world where it is and always has been 4.30 on an eternally sunny July afternoon. The imagery here is vivid, startlingly so – “Net curtains blowing slightly in the breeze / Lemonade light filtering through the trees / It’s so soft and it’s warm / Just another cup of tea please.” Put simply, it’s as evocative as any poem I know, condensing atmosphere, passions, culture and synthetic-fabric-based fetishes into tight stanzas that flow together organically.

It’s a “sexy” song, too, of course, but nothing really explicit happens until we get to the “pink quilted eiderdown…” and even then the almost ‘Carry On’ level of smut it contains is neutralised by the utter lack of a wink or a nod. Jarvis sounds completely sincere in his rapture, and at times is so carried away that he sounds like a breathy nuisance phone-caller. Elsewhere he loses control entirely and embarks on a series of vocal gymnastics – raw, animalistic squeals & squeaks which, again, could be hilarious if they weren’t played so absolutely straight. This could be his best ever vocal performance.

We’ve dealt with quite a few constructed characters on this blog, and there will be plenty more, but with this dream, this fantasy, the woman is subsumed by the place and the moment. She is merely a type, and at the end she is a plural, another single mother in an identical house, having an identical affair. Jarvis isn’t important either; he’s just another visiting lover. The dream isn’t about people then, it’s about the feeling of the moment, the place. Acrylic Afternoons is a hymn to that afternoon in suburbia, a thematic manifesto for the album, and it will always remain in that bubble, delirious, enraptured in the moment.

*This sounds quite like a famous (but possibly partially apocryphal) anecdote about Brian Wilson starting to lose his mind during the recording of ‘Smile’ –

“Yeah,” said Brian on the way home, an acetate trial copy or “dub” of the tape in his hands, the red plastic fire helmet still on his head. “Yeah, I’m going to call this ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Fire’ and I think it might just scare a whole lot of people.”
As it turns out, however, Brian Wilson’s magic fire music is not going to scare anybody—because nobody other than the few people who heard it in the studio will ever get to listen to it. A few days after the record was finished, a building across the street from the studio burned down and, according to Brian, there was also an unusually large number of fires in Los Angeles. Afraid that his music might in fact turn out to be magic fire music, Wilson destroyed the master.
“I don’t have to do a big scary fire like that,” he later said. “I can do a candle and it’s still fire. That would have been a really bad vibration to let out on the world, that Chicago fire. The next one is going to be a candle.”
— Jules Siegel, ‘Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!’

**A reference to this sign, with a rabbit rather than a child:

#117 – 59 Lyndhurst Grove

30 Nov

59 Lyndhurst Grove

59 Lyndhurst Grove (b-side to Razzmatazz, 1993)
59 Lyndhurst Grove (12th August 1993 – No Stilettos (TV))
59 Lyndhurst Grove at Pulpwiki

“I played these songs to Susan the other day – she just laughed and said I was being spiteful because she wouldn’t sleep with me when we first met. She also said to tell you that she’s perfectly happy where she is at the moment, thank you very much.” – original sleeve notes

If there’s one thing I miss about living in the UK it’s the house parties. It wasn’t that I went to many, mind, but there were some at least. Out here I’ve never even seen my friends’ flats, let alone drunk punch in them. The best part, perhaps, was the transformation of the place – a dull suburban semi would be remembered as a tiny club full of friends and acquaintances, a secret building hiding in plain sight. It made me wonder what else was going on behind all those other doors, which is very Pulp, isn’t it?

Sometime in the early 90s Jarvis was invited to a house party in Peckham, South London . Turning up at the invitation of the lady of the house he was surprised to find that instead of the expected fun times the house was full of childen and the other occupants were engaged in “right-on” political discussions. At a guess, Jarvis was not sober enough for any of this, and ended up being thrown out an architect, presumably the man of the house. As much as I’m inclined to take his side in this, I can’t help but picture the scene being something like Bernard’s performance at the house party in Black Books, although presumably he didn’t use their laundry basket as a toilet.

Burned by his experience, Jarvis quickly wrote ’59 Lyndhurst Grove’, the concluding part of the ‘Inside Susan’ trilogy, and easily one of the most bitter and sarcastic things the group have ever put out. On first listen it’s just a sweet low-key ballad, the sort of thing not heard since the days of ‘It’ a decade earlier, gentle lyrics about a suburban lifestyle with the obligatory shot of sexual intrigue at the end. Candida’s synths burble away gently, Steve’s bass softly thrums. The vocal is gentle, understanding, lacking in any malicious undertone.

Listen a bit closer, however, and the deadpan humour starts to become clear. Susan – if this is still really Susan – is living a life full of the comforts of modern living, but each and every one of them is hollow and insubstantial. Her husband can support her with all these things, the house, stripped floorboards, his ex-wife’s painting still on the wall, but clearly none of it is really making her happy. There’s even a callback to the more carefree party mentioned in ‘Inside Susan’ – the stairs this time not being a place for kicking overeager German boys, but for cleaning up after guests.

This is all just Jarvis’s idea, of course, and he doesn’t even really pretend it’s much else. “Money can’t buy me love” is one of the oldest lyrical gambits in the book, but in the difficult real world money can buy a comfortable, easy life, and perhaps that’s a higher priority than love. Either way, it’s just his opinion, and it’s all a lead up to the come-on at the end, and the last-minute betrayal “Hearing old women rolling trolleys down the road /
Back to Lyndhurst Grove” – the repulsion at suburban life matched equally with an attraction to its strangeness and familiarity. If there’s something to take away from the song then for me it’s that feeling – the storyline itself being done better elsewhere.

They named the song after the house in question, which seems a little rude. After the single was released Jarvis sent a copy to the address, which seems even ruder, but apparently received no reply from the woman. Later a Japanese fan found the house, and the woman, and asked her if she was Susan. Her reply is, unfortunately, unavailable. They seem to have moved out soon after (I hope this was unrelated) and now there are new occupants, who while initially confused by the occasional visitor taking a photo, now apparently enjoy owning a very minor piece of musical history.

#110 – Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia)

5 Oct

styloroc picture

Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia) (B-side to ‘Babies’, 1992)
Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia) (Live, October ’92 ULU)
Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia) at Pulpwiki

“Happening in a cul-de-sac near you.” – Original sleeve notes.
“I tried to sing along with it, but it sounded like Whitesnake.” – Jarvis Cocker

Styloroc = another session jam worked up into nearly a song and built up in the studio for the Island demo.

(Nites of Suburbia)
= The overdubs three months later where Jarvis added a spoken word section, taken from the band’s blurb on an obscure cassette from 1987. The title is taken from the song they’d contributed to the tape – the theme inspiring the piece. Otherwise the two songs are unrelated.

Styloroc article

#68 – Nights of Suburbia

22 Dec

Nights of Suburbia (live at the Dolebusters Festival, 1st September 1985)
Nights of Suburbia at Pulpwiki

An odd confluence of storylines here. Nights of Suburbia is the Kevin Bacon of Pulp songs, if Kevin Bacon were obscure and largely devoid of talent, that is. The inception of the song was during the period of flux prior to the Freaks era, as Jarvis expalined in Martin Lilleker’s book, Beats Working For a Living:

Somehow Pulp were always losing bass players, and we’d lost one and we auditioned an ex-member of the Fatales. He wasn’t right for us but he did a song of theirs called Night of Suburbia which I liked the title of because I thought it was ‘Knights’, as in shining armour, and it conjured up images of blokes in suits of armour trampling through Woodhouse or something. So we ripped it off. I then wrote a song called Knights of Suburbia which was basically a rip off of my memory of him singing it in my mother’s garage.

At the point of capture, this song remains in this suburban-medieval fantasyland. ‘Virgins’ ‘whores’ and ‘green pastures’ are mixed up with ‘crimplene’ ‘fish and chip suppers’ and ‘sweaty nylon sheets’. It’s a nice enough idea, but one that ultimately doesn’t offer anything much in practice. Reading the lyrics it’s hard to escape the fact that the author doesn’t really know what he’s trying to say.

The only extant copy of the song was recorded at the Dolebusters festival in 1985. Dolebusters was the brainchild for the “Sheffield Co-ordinating Centre Against Unemployment”, a local organisation which attempted to provide help to the unemployed masses of 1980s Sheffield. Unsurprisingly, the group’s connection to SCCAU was through Russell, though he did manage to drag Jarvis along to one of their meetings.

“It was one of the most dull afternoons I’ve ever spent. People were just arguing about what you should call the organisation. Some people wanted to call it “scau”, but then another one pointed out that it had two Cs in it, so it was “scu-cau”. So all the way through this meeting, whenever anybody said “scau” – “I think scau should be doing this…” – then this other one would pipe up in the background “sc-cau”. I refused to go to any more meetings after that.” – Jarvis Cocker on ‘The Beat is The Law’

The festival was recorded on video, but the resultant release was so obscure that even the most determined digging has failed to turn it up. After a further festival in 86, and another video, a tape compilation called “See You Later, Agitator!” was released. The tape also featured a group called Trolley Dog Shag, featuring a young Steve Mackey, who would later become Pulp’s first long-term bass player, moving to London with Jarvis and continuing to work closely with him even after the band’s demise.

Eight years after the festival the group would release a track called ‘Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia) as a b-side to ‘Babies’. This is fundamentally a different song, sharing only a could of lines and most of a title with “Nights of Suburbia’. Curiously, though, it includes (almost vertabim) the words from the group’s page in the “See You Later, Agitator!” booklet – but that’s another story for another day.

Does this complex backstory make for a great song, then? Well, no. It’s not a complete disaster, more an uninspired experiment, tied to a semi-functioning lyric and one of the group’s less successful chugging Slavic rhythms. Jarvis attempts to make up for the lack of inspiration by screaming the lyrics with as much passion as he can muster, but it’s inevitably a bit of a damp squib. The song seems to have disappeared from sets soon after, and had its most useful parts salvaged in the early 90s. The banalities and secret joys of suburban England would be one of the group’s most enduring themes, but in 1985 the idea needed further incubation.