Tag Archives: summing up the world in a song

#18 – Refuse To Be Blind

3 Mar

Refuse To Be Blind (John Peel Session 1981)
Refuse To be Blind (Pulpwiki)

There are two ways you can take ‘Refuse To be Blind’ – seriously (in which case it’s a bit embarrassing), or as absurd, melodramatic cabaret piece (in which case it’s entirely successful.) The first view is the more common one, as expressed by Owen Hatherley and Jarvis himself, but today I’d like to make the case for the second.

My argument is simple enough – where else in the world can you find a post-punk gothic horror prog-rock epic like this? Yes, I must admit that it’s stitched together in a not-entirely-convincing way, but I can’t help but admire the ambition and sheer chutzpah of the thing.

The first ‘movement’ (yes, a post-punk song with ‘movements’) starts with a clanking, repetitive synth drumbeat, over which the we soon hear Jarvis’s (possibly Dolly’s) clanging Martin Hannett style guitar riffs, Jamie Pinchbeck’s *two* ominous bass lines, and a wibbling electronic sound which sounds like a theramin, but is actually Dolly’s Moog synthesiser’s pitch-bend wheel. Jarvis’s description of the song as a “blatant joy division rip-off” comes into play here – a fair judgement, perhaps, but one that doesn’t apply once the vocals appear. The choice of words, the way Jarvis sings, and in particular the relish he takes in over-pronouncing words like “fetid” and “relinquish”… it sounds like a Nigel Kneale TV play, or an episode of Doctor Who from Tom Baker’s first couple of seasons, or a parody of these things, but one played completely straight.

A third of the way into the song, we lurch with a drum-fill into the instrumental section, which is at an entirely unrelated tempo and rhythm to the rest of the track. For the first minute or so it goes along very nicely, with the theremin sound taking the place of the vocals, but then it breaks down into a couple of other brief sections which stretch the band’s ambition past breaking point. The burden is on Wayne Furniss’s shoulders, and unfortunately he seems unable to carry it off, so the transition sounds painfully clunky.

The third and final section starts as a slightly slower version of the first. The lyrics have moved on from general to personal horror.

It’s not that I am so unstable
It’s just that there’s something inside me
It’s fighting, tearing for a way out
So at last it can be free

Is this to be taken literally, or as a strained metaphor about self-expression? From Jarvis’s description of the song in 1995 it would seem the latter – “it just sounds like I’m trying too hard. It’s a bit like when you find a bit of poetry you wrote when you were 17 and you try to say everything about the world in three sentences. It always seems a bit too much.” It might not be fair to question a writer’s view of his own lyrics, but I find the end section to be much more playful than he gives it credit for. The teenage Jarvis seems to not only be aware of his own pretention, but confident enough to poke fun at it.

We’ve previously seen that this incarnation of Pulp were not particularly adept at finishing songs, and ‘Refuse To Be Blind’ offers the definitive example of this. It was a new song, the only one not previously demoed, and they appear not to have even finished it when they arrived in the studio. While they were searching for effects they could use, session engineer Peter Watts turned a dial which made Jarvis’s voice sound like a dalek. This excited the four of them enough that they demanded it be used as the ending of the track – and Dale Griffin, reluctantly, had to agree. As they mixed it, the van driver arrived back, drunk, shouting “I am a fucking dalek!”

The dalek voice sounds very silly indeed, and if you’re still attempting to take the song seriously this is the point where the song breaks down into utter ridiculousness. Take it as campy gothic horror, however, and it’s the ludicrous cherry that tops off the preposterous cake. All in all, it’s a joy to listen to.

Next week we again venture into the land of missing songs and line-up changes.

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#3 to #8 – Arabicus Pulp

14 Jan

 

Arabicus lasted just a few practices before fizzling out towards the end of the year, taking Ian Dalton and his coal scuttle skills with it. Jarvis and Dolly were by no means finished, though; as 1979 began they roped in two of their friends to make a proper four-piece band. David Lockwood (”Fungus”) was on bass, though he apparently failed to become a proficient player in his time with the group. On coal scuttle (there were still no drums around) was Mark Swift, known as Dixie. Another friend, Glen Marshall, wanted to be involved with the project, but lacking musical talent elected himself the group’s manager. This entailed tape-recording practice sessions and filming super-8 films, including a music video for ‘Shakespeare Rock’.

“Arabicus Pulp,” as this incarnation was known, never played a gig or recorded a session, so the only record of their existence is the various tapes and film clips presumably owned by Glen Marshall. This is therefore one of a few periods of (especially early) Pulp history where songs are unavailable as anything other than brief descriptions.

 

#3 – Queen Poser

Written by Peter Dalton. Apparently the title was just picked up from the NME, rather than being a critique of a popular girl at school. It seems to have been a staple of their early sets, before being dropped from the setlist when the band realised they had accidentally plagiarised Teenage Kicks by The Undertones.

#4 – What You Gonna Do About It?

A Jarvis / Dolly collaboration, this seems to have been their first attempt at writing a Punk song. Not Whatcha Gonna Do About It by The Small Faces, though it does sound like it may have been suspiciously similar.

#5 – I’ve Been Looking at the World Today

Had a rhyming couplet about “toilet rolls and dead sea scrolls” – further information is unavailable.

#6 – You Should’ve Known

We’re back in the realms of “trying to explain the whole world in a song” territory here, with an excoriation of person or persons unknown for failing to pay attention to current events. It’s hardly surprising that a high school student would be annoyed at the pig-ignorance of some of their more boorish classmates, but such feelings tend to be fleeting and limited to school days:

Someone died last night
As you polished up your shoes
But you were unaware
‘Cos you never watched the news
Too involved in your own existence
To see the world outside
It’s all too challenging
You just prefer to hide

It’s not quite as embarrassing as ‘Life Is A Circle’ but it’s close enough.

#7 – Message To The Martians

A novelty semi-instrumental which originally featured Fungus making alien noises while the others jammed over a bass-line nicked from Joy Division. It survived Fungus’s departure and featured in sets for the next year or so, eventually morphing into an infectious, repetitive drum-led piece which could continue for up to fifteen minutes. Of all the tracks in this short list, this is the one I’d most like to hear.

#8 – The Condom Song

When I was 16 years old some of my friends found the word ‘spoon’ hysterically funny. I may well have joined in with them. Other friends thought the word ‘cheese’ a touchstone of hilarity. Fortunately we were all worldly enough not to choose the word ‘condom’.
Back in late 70s Sheffield certain teenage boys thought it would be amusing to sing a song about these items, presumably as they’d never had the opportunity to see one, let alone use one. Personally I’m not really bothered if this song remains lost forever.

 

This entry owes a lot to Mark Sturdy’s book, as there seems to be no information out there about this time apart from what he uncovered in his interviews.

#1 Shakespeare Rock / #2 Life is a Circle

7 Jan

Shakespeare Rock (Songbook, Sky Arts, 2009)
Shakespeare Rock / Life is a Circle (School Assembly, The City School, Sheffield, 2011)
Shakespeare Rock (Faber & Faber interview, 2011)
On Pulpwiki Shakespeare Rock / Life is a Circle

In November 1978, in an O-level economics class in The City School,Sheffield, two distracted pupils, Jarvis Cocker (then aged 15) and Peter Dalton (aged 14) decided to form a band. Naming themselves “Arabicus” after the coffee beans in the Financial Times commodities index, they made plans for a rehearsal at Jarvis’s grandmother’s house on a Friday night. Jarvis was assigned guitar duties, Peter (“Dolly”) was on organ, and Peter’s younger brother Ian attempted rudimentary drumming on a coal scuttle. As beginnings go, it was far from auspicious, but everyone has to start somewhere.

After practicing ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ as all amateur musicians seemed obliged to do, they started work on their first proper song. Shakespeare Rock is quite obviously the product of an O-level student, a simple three-chord twelve bar blues strum (Jarvis had been reading Bert Weedon’s famous ‘Play in a Day’ book) accompanied by one-joke lyrics whose sole purpose seems to be to cram as many Shakespeare quotes in as possible.

Got a baby, only one thing’s wrong
She quotes Shakespeare all day long
Said ‘baby why’re you ignoring me?’
She said ‘to be or not to be’

Among creative people, being embarrassed about the work of your 15-year-old self must be near enough a universal trait. Something about the mix of painful sincerity and unconcealed pretension can make the revisiting of an old diary or poem excruciating. The worst fear is that our juvenilia will revel unpleasant truths – that under layers of artifice and irony constructed over the years there still lies that naïve teenager, so sure he has something to say, blissfully unaware of his ignorance.

It’s not really surprising, then, that most writers and musicians tend to hide their pre-professional work, and until recently Jarvis has been typical in this regard (indeed, in the mid 90s he seemed to be embarrassed by anything recorded before 1988), but with the release of Mother, Brother, Lover and the Pulp reunion he seems suddenly to have an interest in excavating his own past.

The first 21st century sighting of Shakespeare Rock was on a 2009 edition of ‘Songbook’, a programme on Sky Arts where songwriters are interviewed about their song-writing methods. Since then he’s performed it at his old school, and read the lyrics out at promotional appearances for his book. Each time he’s expressed embarrassment about the song, but it doesn’t seem to be of the genuine stomach-churning kind.

The truth is, Shakespeare Rock isn’t actually that bad – it’s just a throwaway novelty song, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. To describe it as “charming” would be going a little too far, and it’s very unlikely to make anyone laugh, but within the very narrow goals he set it, it seems to be a success. What’s more, the tune itself isn’t bad – particularly the alternation of the final note of each line. On ‘Songbook’ Will Hodgkinson describes it as “Chuck Berry goes to a comprehensive,” which isn’t far off the mark. As far as high-school novelty pastiches go, it’s really not that bad, and thirteen years later the chord structure would be recycled to make something truly special.

It’s much less easy to be kind about ‘Life is a Circle’ – a song so obscure that it seems to have been completely unknown until its performance at The City School in 2011. It’s a particularly egregious example of what Jarvis has described as “trying to sum up the whole world in a song” – a ‘thoughtful’ ballad with lyrics so ludicrously pretentious and full of half-baked metaphors that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t conceived as a joke.

Life is a circle you’re caught on,
Life is a road that’s much too long.
It winds, goes ahead,
It only stops when you’re dead.

Now that’s embarrassing.