Tag Archives: the sisters ep

#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.

Advertisements

#125 – Seconds

8 Feb

pulp 1994

Seconds (‘The Sisters EP’, 1994)
Seconds at Pulpwiki

“In Sheffield it sometimes seemed the life of my contemporaries was like a marathon who’d give up first. People got picked off one by one, and were failing by the wayside. There got to be less and less people who were still trying to do something, and who kept ‘refusing’ to settle for second best. Then later you think: ah, but I might end up with fifth best…. Also, on ‘Seconds’ there’s the idea of the ‘second-hand’ people, who’ve been through the mill a bit. It sounds a very silly analogy, but it’s like reconditioned tyres, remoulds. You have to get remoulded before you go back out on the road. I don’t think that’s a negative or sad thing at all. I think it’s quite interesting, third or fourth time around.”

Don’t you ever feel like saying: don’t rattle that tin at me, I’ve already given…?

“I suppose you get a little more tentative and guarded about things. But unless you’re prepared to run the risk of getting hurt you’re never going to get much out of a relationship. You have to take a deep breath and dive in. At least you know you don’t die. It’d be a boring life without, wouldn’t it?”

– Interview in Melody Maker, 1994

This blog is called ‘Freaks, Mis-Shapes, Weeds’ as shorthand for the journey a group of people took from being defined by others as undesirable outsiders, taking this as a badge of honor and finally acknowledging that their outsidership was a creation useful primarily to the insiders, to define who they were or weren’t. From this progression we’re perhaps missing a step. Though in some ways it’s a minor example (it doesn’t stick strictly to the topic, and was relegated to the status of b-side) ‘Seconds’ is still in a sense the best-realized of these attempts at self-definition, the one where the personal meets the general, the one where the group attempt to tally these ideas and feelings with words – or amore accurately a single word, densely packed with meanings.

Second rate (adj): of lesser or minor quality, importance, or the like.

One of the sources I relied on heavily in the early days of this blog was Martin Lilleker’s “Beats Working for a Living: Sheffield Popular Music 1973-1984”. It’s a massive A4-sized tome seemingly detailing everyone who so much as picked up a synth in the city boundaries, at least in the late 70s. By ’82 things are beginning to fizzle out, and by ’84 it’s done. Lilleker, a local music journalist at the time, has indicated that he doesn’t consider the mid-to-late 80s or 90s interesting enough to write about,* which is fair enough from a personal perspective, but, well, how about those people who weren’t Phil Oakey – what could they do now? It might seem trivial, but this is what the life of the majority of musicians is like – without a career or family to take you out of town or change your circle of friends you’re stuck on a downwards spiral, but does the alternative equate to giving in? It’s not easy, and the five current members of the band had to count themselves lucky that they’d been able to make it. Most hadn’t.

Secondhand (adj): (of goods) not new; previously owned and used by another

It’s probably not much in the way of a confession to say that I only really bought clothes in charity shops in the mid-90s, solely because it was the Pulp thing to do. This may have been less problematic if I weren’t severely colour-blind or didn’t have ginger hair and painfully pale skin. Stubbornly sticking to “my idea of what’s good” without anyone to trust for feedback was the killer blow. I probably looked ridiculous at times, but did it matter? Honestly, I’m not sure. We live in a culture where other people judge you on how you look and it would take a stronger person than most to be genuinely oblivious – it just depends on whether you want to stand out or not. Nowadays charity shops have fashion experts doing valuations, so the time for this sort of thing has passed anyway.

Seconds (n): items of clothing that have failed quality control and are sold at a discount.

The intersection of individuality and being flawed is one of the central themes of ‘Seconds’ – perfection is treated with disdain, equated to lack of personality. “Looking a state”, being flawed physically or emotionally; this might invite disgust from others, but in a world where all but a tiny group are doomed to fail in their sky-high ambitions, flaws are all we have to *be* and failure is proof that you at least tried. A more minor theme is how well-hidden this truth is, and how little it can help you through the drudgery of everyday life. It doesn’t make things better or easier, but that’s the world we have to live in – and we have to make the best of that.

Second best (adj): next after the first in rank or quality, inferior to the best

A happier version of the same theme is found on Dodgy’s ‘Good Enough’ from a few years later – this time it’s presented with the gloss that being satisfied with what you have is the be-all-and-end-all, which is true, in a sense, but I’m glad Pulp always had that tension between romantic ideas and depressing kitchen-sink truths – squaring the two so neatly is bound to be unsatisfying.

Second (n): the SI unit of time; one-sixtieth of a minute.

If we lived forever this tension might be more resolvable, but in this world it takes decades to work out who you are and what you want, and by that time you’re too old to change things, probably tied down to family and career, stuck in a society that focuses almost exclusively on the tastes of the young. Wouldn’t it be great if at the age of 40 we could all wake up one day to find ourselves back at the start of our adolescence to find it had all been a prophetic dream? But it’s pointless to waste your time thinking about this – your life is inescapably ticking away and you have to make the best of it from where you stand. ‘Seconds’ conveys the stretching out of time in the chorus, and the keyboard pattern throughout sounds like a clock ticking at double-speed. It’s a nervous song, but a focused one.

Seconds (n): a second portion of the same thing, usually of food.

It’s churlish to make ‘Seconds’ sound so serious, though – caring so much about using your time well is just a demonstration of your lust for life – for more life. The characters here might be in a bad place, but they are still in the game. As cynical as the lyric is, there’s an underlying message that you shouldn’t give up, no matter how bleak things seem. That might be a cliché or a truism elsewhere, but here it’s been earned.

Second place (n): a position among the leading competitors, the second at the finish line.

‘Seconds’ is a b-side, taken from the His ‘n’ Hers sessions and left off the LP. I was going to add the word ‘bizarrely’ there, but when you see what else was left off and left on, it certainly fits a pattern. It’s an emotional song because its internal logic has worked so well that the group have been swept along with it. It’s seamless throughout, from the way it switches from nervous panic to existential acceptance from verse to chorus, to the very sound of the instruments. There are no star performances, no intrusive production – it’s an idea, thought through and carried out. The one slightly odd thing is the underwater echo effect on Jarvis’s vocal, but this is forgivable. To say it’s one of the group’s best songs is a little too much perhaps, but it’s up there.

*The mid-80s – Pulp’s ‘Freaks’ era – was a bit of a quiet patch for the Sheffield scene, but with the advent of FON and Warp I’d say there’s plenty he could reasonably write about.

#111 – Your Sister’s Clothes

12 Oct

The Sisters EP

Glass (Mark Goodier Session, 1992)
Your Sister’s Clothes (The Sisters EP, 1994)
Your Sister’s Clothes at Pulpwiki

“Your Sister’s Clothes” features the sisters from “Babies” four years on. Now the younger sibling finally gets her revenge for earlier years. – original sleeve notes

If the story of Babies was impossible to fully unravel, then what hope is there for Your Sister’s Clothes, the supposed sequel, where contradiction and opacity are spun out into a series of overheard conversations? Some would say ‘not much’, I suppose. I’ll try to get to analysis at some point, but once again it’s sort of a side issue. The headline here is that Pulp have finished trying to recapture that spark and have instead bottled up something far rarer – a little bit of magic that works entirely on its own terms, sounding at once emblematic of its era and notably unlike anything else the group recorded.

The genesis of the song came once again from experiments on the equipment the group suddenly found themselves owning or having access to – in this case a keyboard effect which (according to now almost-member Mark Webber) sounded like composer Philip Glass. And it really does, too, at least like that repetitive interlaced piano work which seems the most memorable part of his music for non-experts like me (listen to this for a minute or two if you aren’t sure what I mean). In the finished version, released two years later on the near-flawless Sisters EP this line works almost subliminally, but once you’ve spotted it, it’s remarkably difficult to un-hear. It’s integral to the structure, but enough other layers are woven into it that you could easily miss it.

The other important feature of the early version of ‘Glass’ recorded for the Mark Goodier session is Russell’s violin. Experimental music being right up his street, he joins the minimalist party with a violin performance so aggressive it’s bordering on the psychotic – it sounds, in fact, like he’s picking a fight with the rest of the song. Instead of joining in with the repetition he’s constantly pulling it apart, imitating it, shoving it sideways. It’s not exactly what you’d call virtuoso, but it works, completely, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine how it would work without it – but of course it does.

Two years later, the song re-named ‘Your Sister’s Clothes’, Ed Buller again managed to remove all traces of Russell’s improvisation from the song. Or perhaps he didn’t – Nick Banks seems to suggest that it was all Russell’s doing, using a varispeed to warp his violin until it sounded almost like another line of synths. Buller was busy elsewhere, though, the chance to produce Pulp-meets-Modernism being exactly what he was born to do. Candida’s keyboards are piled up, layer after layer, all cascading and chiming in complex but deeply satisfying patterns. The first, most dominant keyboard line is the strangest of all, especially when removed from the rest, sounding like a night-time level of an early 90s Sega game. Then there’s the drums, thumping and rolling like Magnus had never left. Earlier versions had a lurch, a sudden shift in tempo when reaching the chorus. This is lost in the final mix, but it’s not a huge shame, such is the hypnotic, sickly fever-dream power of the thing.

This is the important stuff, then, not so much the lyrics, which are as difficult to nail down, meaningfully, as their prequel. What is this woman getting revenge for, her sister sleeping with Jarvis? When Jarvis is the narrator? If serious, this would seem egotistical, but the title and the topic being little more than a pretence or a theme, it doesn’t really matter. Pointing out these narratives is a neat bit of misdirection – “don’t read the lyrics while listening to the recording” – so we get a title, a brief cue and a list of impressions, vividly memorable lines, opportunities for vocal experimentation – the way he sings “todaaaaaaayyyyaaaayyyyheyhey!” is twisted in just the right, completely unexpected way. That’s more than enough, surely.

#103 – Babies

17 Aug

babies

Babies (1992 music video)
Babies (1994 music video)
Babies (1994 Spoken word video)
Babies (The Warehouse, ITV, 1993)
Babies (The Beat, ITV, 1993)
Babies (Top Of The Pops, 1994)
Babies (BBC Late Show, 1994)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 1994)
Babies (Live film, Reading 1994)
Babies (Naked City, 1994)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 1995)
Babies (Live film, Brixton Academy 1995)
Babies (Live film, Lorely, Germany, 1996)
Babies (TFI Friday, 1997)
Babies (Live film, Reading 2002)
Babies (Live film, Eden Project 2002)
Babies (Sky Arts Songbook, 2009)
Babies (Live film, Glastonbury 2011)
Babies (Live film, Mexico 2012)
Babies at Pulpwiki

“Although sleep pressed upon my closing eyelids, and the moon, on her horses, blushed in the middle of the sky, nevertheless I could not leave off watching your play; there was too much fire in your two voices.”
Propertius, 50BC-15BC

Childhood is not only the childhood we really had but also the impressions we formed of it in our adolescence and maturity. That is why childhood seems so long. Probably every period of life is multiplied by our reflections upon the next.
Cesare Pavese

Yes it happened years ago on some damp, acrylic afternoon. I know you got your own back years later (that’s another story) but it wasn’t such a big deal anyway – in those days you packed people rather than divorced them. I liked it that way and still do, but then again I’m imma.
Original sleeve notes

Let’s get one thing out in the open first – yes, it does feel odd to be talking about ‘Babies’ at such an early stage in this project. Common People is the headline hit now, but Babies was the song that put Pulp on Top Of The Pops and the cover of the NME and Select – the ultimate goal of indie bands in the days before Britpop. First performed live in July that year, almost a year before the release of Separations, it was first held back, then released, then re-released as the lead track on the Sisters EP. That’s where I come in, I suppose, listening to the Top 40 with Bruno Brookes, thinking “I haven’t heard anything like this before. It’s sort of good, but sort of strange, and I’m not sure if his voice is annoying or interesting…” Then for the next decade or so it was my favourite song of all time, by any artist. It may well still be.

So, it’s proving difficult to write about this one. It has so many memories tied up with it, most of them irrelevant to anyone besides myself, and after disentangling, what’s going to be left?

Let’s start at the beginning, then, the genesis of the thing. In order to spark new ideas, Pulp would try playing each-others instruments from time to time. By the 1990s this was only done at band practice, and they no longer tried it out on record or on stage. By now the main rehearsal space was in Nick Banks’s family pottery warehouse in Catcliffe, a room packed with china figurines and delinquent teenagers outside, both of which would seep, through osmosis, into Pulp’s early 90s material.

“The others had gone to make a cup of tea, so I was just playing Jarv’s guitar. He came back and said ‘What’s that?’ Dunno! No idea what these chords are. he said, ‘Oh, show us,’ and I showed him, and we were just like jamming around these two chords. Ten minutes later, there you are, that’s the song”
Nick Banks in ‘Truth & Beauty

“[Nick] got his hands on the guitar [and played an A] on the wrong three strings…. …That’s what made it so bizarre. It’s when you get the note just before what the note should be…. If you think of something that’s just one note off, it should be like the devil’s note, but somehow it’s really beautiful.”
Jarvis on ‘Songbook’

At this point, and for the next couple of months, Babies was called ‘Nicky’s Song’, and according to Russell it featured “Jarvis singing to Nick rather like Elvis sings to the hound dog on The Ed Sullivan Show. He used to run around the rehearsal room and grope Nick’s breasts during it.” You can still feel a hint of that on the chorus, “I wanna take you home…” Jarvis thought it was corny, a rehearsal room novelty, but further jamming gave the thing a story and a climax, and in July of that year it was even recorded live for ITV’s Stage One. Though it failed to make the TV edit, it was released on the ‘Party Clowns’ live CD in 2012 and makes for an odd listen. The song is 90% there, but that missing 10% vitally includes some of those little touches that make it work. It’s oddly shambling, a little discordant, and the chorus fails to take off the way it should. All the same, it stands out, and the audience seems to love it on first listen. Later gigs in 1991 have it missing, but since the start of 1992 it’s been a fixture in almost every set, essentially unchanged.

Babies, then, is a story in a song, albeit a confusing one. There are multiple narrators, opaque ‘you’ and ‘him’ and sudden shifts into reported speech. Even after reading the lyrics while listening (I know…) it’s far from clear what exactly transpired, or even how many people were involved. The description on wikipedia shows quite how impossible it is to untangle.

The song’s protagonist spends platonic afternoons in a female friend’s room listening to her older sister and the boys she takes to her room and, presumably, has sex with, but this is not enough for him and he hides in the elder sister’s wardrobe and watches her with David, who works in a local garage. Unable to tell the younger sister, who appears to be the real object of his affections, for fear she will tell her mother the song’s narrator listens outside as she proposes sex to a boy named Neve. Finally he comes “home” to the disappointment that the elder sister has moved out, presumably in an act of nostalgia he re-enters the wardrobe but falls asleep and is found by the elder sister and the two have sex, only to be caught by the younger sister, culminating in the boy making the pathetic, but seemingly genuine, excuse: “I only went with her cos she looks like you.”

Are we clear now? I hope I’m not the only one who tried to work out why there were two named boys and no named girls, why he came “home” to somewhere that wasn’t his house, why he felt having sex was the necessary reaction to being found in a girl’s wardrobe, and ultimately who it was wanted to take whom home. Looking back on it, though, the mystery and ambiguity was part of the appeal. In the words of Alex Thomson on Freakytrigger “the genius of “Babies” is that the harder you try to make sense of the story the less sense the song seems to make: and the more you think about the song the less the story matters.”

Take away the attempt at forming a narrative and you’re left with something else – a breathy, jumbled series of confused confessions, a strange mix of childish and mature viewpoints – the first joy of discovery of sex, but based on an unformed notion of what the adult world will be, or a look back at how juvenile agonies set the model for future relationships. There’s something so intimate about the way it’s related, but also a perverse joy in the revealing of salacious gossip – a recklessly throwaway, utterly immature description of events that still somehow escapes self-parody.

Perhaps even this is irrelevant. Babies works because it captures a feeling of joy – the words set the tone, but it’s the whole group that lead you there. Nick’s opening sets it in motion, and the rest of the track is made up of variations on that theme. There’s an odd magic to these chords – joyful, sure, yet with a certain nervousness – and Candida reinforces this with the transcendental synth lines previously heard on Space, only here they’re coupled with a guitar lick to sound more sun-drenched than mystical. From then on it’s a question of piling on the hooks – those poppy SFX bleeps, that beefy, almost jokey guitar line. Each band member takes centre stage for a moment, then passes the baton to the next. It’s like a selection pack of hooks, and it would’ve been understandable if they’d used them for three or four songs, or one ten-minute long one.

At this point it’s frankly all I can do to stop myself listing each second of the song as it progresses. It wouldn’t be difficult. In live versions this piling-on turns into a series of pulls back and sudden lurches. In the recorded version(s) things are a little calmer and smoother, but the delay just allows more buildup to the inevitable climax – that moment where words fail and it’s all just “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” and the song dissolves into great swooping pirouettes of joy.

Putting this level of care and craft into a song indicates that they knew what a hit they had on their hands, and the track’s subsequent lifespan bears this out. First a demo version, produced by Simon Hinkler, was mooted for a limited release on Caff, then it was held back to be the group’s second release on Gift, and recorded with new producer Ed Buller in Island’s Fallout Shelter studio.

A music video was made – the one that features first on the running list of both video compilations. Though it evidently was made for as near to nothing as possible, it’s as charming as the song itself, especially due to the inclusion of Bob Stanley’s friends Celina and Sophie as the two sisters.* The video is as bristling with ideas as the song itself, with costume-change jump-cuts, vignettes of seventies household tat, a fantastically scary performance from Russell, and an introductory frame stating that “A music video is an advert for a song.” For many this video’s inclusion on ITV’s The Chart Show was their first exposure to the group.

Two years later, when Pulp were officially signed to Island, and had a single in the top 40 to their name, Babies was taken out of the vaults for a re-release. Generally speaking, I hate it when groups do this – it shows a lack of faith in your new material to re-release old songs – but it would’ve been a great shame to leave the track as an obscurity. The song was re-mixed (very slightly – it’s hard to pinpoint any actual changes, but it sounds a little more polished, especially in the first minute or so) and included on an EP with His ‘n’ Hers session tracks. The Sisters EP is fantastic, in my view superior to its parent album, and got the group into the top 20 and on Top of The Pops. Another video was made, not quite as charming as the original version, but a wonderfully shiny collection of Pulp tropes anyhow, and all fitting so well into the airbrushed, objectified image of the His ‘n’ Hers era that it might as well have been directed by The Designers Republic. There’s a spoken word version too, with comedy sound effects; a little unnecessary, but it’s brilliant that it exists, and that they went to the trouble to record it.

It was a hit, of course, and was shoehorned onto His ‘n’ Hers – a touch of 1992 in the middle of 1994,** and unfortunately served to highlight some of the minor weaknesses of the other tracks. Not that they were bad, just not quite as good. Until Common People came along it was the Pulp song, and it’s been the highlight of a thousand indie discos and house parties, an intimate anthem. I’ve tried to get down what it means to me, but two thousand words later there still seems to be so much left to say. I guess it’s just hard to step back, the song is that firmly embedded in my subconscious.

Babies is a composition of great craft, care and inspiration, which seems to survive an endless number of listens, not only intact, but getting better each time. It’s been a long, winding path, but Pulp have followed it all the way out into daylight – mainstream pop from the group that brought us Aborigine and Manon, and all the better for being entirely on their terms. It’s an utter triumph, four minutes of utter joy, and I’m not sure it can ever be bettered.

*I’m mentioning them as Celina also sang with Golden, who released a cover of Wishful Thinking, and featured on the cover of Foxbase Alpha, therefore = notable.
*It wasn’t on the original vinyl version of the LP, which has led to an impression amongst some that it’s a CD bonus track and not included in the “proper” tracklisting. Really, though, let’s not be silly here, it’s on His ‘n’ Hers.