Tag Archives: they suffocate at night single

#79 – Tunnel

9 Mar

“The above piece of writing appeared on the rear sleeve to “They Suffocate At Night” when it was first released in late 1986. At the time I paid no attention to the date I had chosen for my entrance into the tunnel – the 10th of July 1985 – I presumed I had simply picked it out of thin air. It wasn’t until I was looking through some old papers that I realised the date’s significance – amongst the papers was a copy of our first contract with Fire Records. It was dated – you guessed it – the 10th of July 1985. Had my unconscious mind been trying to tell me something I wonder? Hmmmmm.”
Jarvis’s rejected sleeve notes from the “Masters of the Universe” compilation, 1994.

Tunnel (B-Side to ‘They Suffocate At Nght’, 1987)
Tunnel at Pulpwiki

…there was nothing else to do, I was bored…

As strange as it may seem, ‘Tunnel’ started out as something of a pop song. Admittedly, this was only within the context of a famously shambolic late 1984 Pulp gig, set among the morbid and the painful, but it’s still very odd to hear. The bass riff is much more playful and melodic, and Magnus seems to be playing a brushy post-punk-jazz fill throughout. The song is much faster, half the length of the recorded version, and instead of echoed announcements Jarvis has dusted off his punk yelp. Most vitally there is no breakdown, no wall of noise and violence, but the song itself is still there, somehow, though lacking the reference to the 10th of July 1985, of course.

…don’t ask stupid questions…

Then the band, for whatever reason, left the song to fester for two and a half years, digging it out at the tail-end of the “Freaks” recording sessions. In a week full of misfires, fudges and rush jobs, it’s the only track that really blossomed in the studio environment. After it had been laid down, Russell commented that “the muse was with us” – and not without reason. The success of the recording was, however, at the expense of the future of the track, the finished eight minutes being very much a studio product, and not reproducible in a live setting.

…a thousand bodies stink and sweat, and somebody’s trying to roll a cigarette…

Once again form reflects subject. The track (never has the word been more apt) feels like a progression through a tunnel, though (spoiler) we never get to emerge from the other end. We enter along Manners’ locomotive bass line, pounding drums emerge, battering you from left and right, their rhythm jarringly out of step until suddenly everything slots together. Soon words emerge, like megaphone pronouncements from a crumbling communications room, the announcer asleep, or undergoing some kind of schizophrenic breakdown. Then, crashing walls of distorted guitar. We move through several sections, the insanity building each time the rhythm shifts. Finally we descend into fiery chaos, backward sounds wailing like trapped animals with seemingly random flashes of noise and melody including misplaced surf rhythms coming in like radio interference. What we have here is more than a bad trip – it’s the unreliable narration of a fall into hell.

…at 3 o’clock that the morning I awoke in an unfamiliar room…

Of course, there are plenty of people out there who don’t like “Tunnel” – Pulp fans, music reviewers, people in general…. Reviewers on Bar Italia (presumably some of the keenest fans of all) described it as “pointless, rambling, horrible, crappy drivel” and “over-indulgence of the worst kind.” When I first heard it on the ‘Masters of the Universe’ compilation in 1995 I remember universal disapproval from friends and family. It’s clear then, that my love of the song puts me in a tiny minority, and sometimes I even doubt myself. Is it just nostalgia for the piece that introduced me to the world of discordant, experimental music? On balance, I honestly still feel not. It’s a powerful, original piece of work, and comparisons to Joy Division or other post-punks does nothing to dilute this. Why? Because it’s not a pastiche – it’s real.

…Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!…

How did Jarvis write the lyrics to ‘Tunnel’? The greatest influence seems to be film noir and the twilight zone, but there’s also a section that reads like cut-up poetry – an effective simalcrum of a schizoid mind. The protagonist is clearly disconnected from clear thought and speech – he keeps going off at odd tangents and being distracted by disconnected thoughts. The passion excuses the opacity, which in turn excuses the strangeness. This is also the first sighting of “sunlight through net curtains” – a premonition, perhaps.

…and to be clean again. But I know I’ll never ever be clean again…

‘Tunnel’ could easily have been the final track in the Pulp discography. The band had split up, and Jarvis would, within a year, be heading down to study at St Martin’s, hundreds of miles away from the rest of the group. Fire’s decision to put out a single release of “Master of the Universe” a few months later was barely noticed – its b-sides having been salvaged from old demos, the single contained nothing in the way of new material. ‘Tunnel’ would have been a fitting end to the band – a summation of “the worst years of our lives” – as well as a great buck “fuck you” to the people responsible – Fire Records, the venues, the record-buying public, the members of the band themselves…
It would be four long years until the group put out another record, but that’s a whole other story.

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#74 – They Suffocate At Night

2 Feb

Video for tsan

They Suffocate At Night (album edit, Freaks, 1987)
They Suffocate At Night (music video – 7″ mix, 1987)
They Suffocate At Night at Pulpwiki

Two years had passed since the band had got together, two years of frustration with Fire records, two years of failing to make a success of things, or even get along well with each-other. Two years of living in the Wicker factory building. Two years stuck in the same failing relationship. The creative spell was over, the rot had set in.

“They Suffocate At Night” is emblematic of all of this, and more besides. The last great dark sixties ballad and one of the few tracks from ‘Freaks’ still in the band’s sets when it was released, it represents a place and a time in their lives like nothing else does. Still, it’s a difficult song to love – not because it’s as dark or uncompromising as much of their other work around this time, but because it strains too hard to be a classic, and fails to hit the target either in concept or execution. If you can look beyond this failing, though, there is a surprising amount to appreciate.

Let’s start with the production. The whole song sounds reassuringly warm, but discordant – like a record that’s melted in the sun, slightly. Aside from Jarvis’s vocals, everyone is on form. If the goal of production is to capture the moment when everyone can play instinctively together, but before the players have begun to tire of it, then we’re getting it right on the cusp here. The chorus is like the magnificent take-off of an injured bird on a doomed flight. One moment is perfect – the little descending chord sequence in the bridge – and otherwise an atmosphere of despair and wonder is successfully conjured up.

Unfortunately Jarvis’s vocal proves to be both catalyst and Achilles’ heel. For the first couple of verses we have the details of another failed relationship, but this time the characters have gone. Not because they’ve been poorly thought out, more because the pretence of presenting them as fictional characters has worn away. This is Jarvis and his girlfriend, still “in love” (or, more accurately, still attached to the idea that they love each-other) but not really – the affair seems to belong to a time that has passed, the moment has gone but they are both too scared to let go. In the third verse the veil is lifted completely as he moves from third person to first. It’s a break-up note, or a going-to-break-up note at least, and it could be a shockingly heartfelt one too, if he could just refrain from breaking out the proto-Scott-Walker-croon one last time. Hiding your feelings behind a wall of irony, or behind a pose, does not make for great art.

A magnificent but frustrating failure is an odd choice for a singe, but no odder than the one before or after. This one, however, was agreed upon by both band and record company alike, albeit edited into a bizarre mini-mix which unceremoniously lops off the first verse and fades straight into the second – and more understandably cuts Russell’s interminable violin noodlings off the end.

The professional-ish music video – Pulp’s first – isn’t actually that bad. Directed by Michael Geoghegan, apparently lighting director on “Chariots of Fire”, it stars Jarvis’s sister Saskia and Steve Genn from Heroes of the Beach as “the couple”. They sulk and smoulder while the band play in the rafters above, surrounded by the usual array of coloured liquid in plastic bags. The video was shot in the abandoned factory complex Jarvis called home, and it seems he spent a fair amount of time setting the place up, converting a sunken inspection pit to a claustrophobic bedroom. Typically, Mags and manners didn’t take the shoot quite as seriously, arriving late and failing to follow Russell’s usual strict instructions to the letter. As the days work finished, at 4am, another argument broke out, not an unusual occurrence, but a final straw. The album having been finished, the ideas drying up, it was time to break up the band again.

#72 – Aborigine

19 Jan

John Bindon in "Poor Cow", 1967 POOR-COW

Aborigine (Dogs Are Everywhere EP, 1986)
Aborigine at Pulpwiki

Modern life, as one of Pulp’s britpop contemporaries later noted, is rubbish – and the everyday drudgery and frustration of the common life is perhaps the most rubbish part of all, especially to those who have dreams or aspirations of any sort (i.e. everybody.) We started this era with Little Girl (With Blue Eyes), which for all its pop trappings was nevertheless an insightful, heartfelt slice of genuine empathy. In the following couple of years topics became more improbable and the treatment became more melodramatic – until with songs like 97 Lovers the band appeared to be verging on the histrionic.

Aborigine is, given these criteria, an unqualified return to form. What it absolutely is not, though, is a pop song. Any ambition the group had of bringing the kitchen sink into the charts now seems to have faded from view. Whether you view this as a retreat or not depends on your idea of what the band should be. It can’t be denied, however, that Aborigine is a wholly successful piece of music – dark and troubling, but lacking the depressing malaise that dogs much of Freaks.

Aborigine isn’t, of course, about Australian natives. The title (presumably a working title which was never changed) refers to the low drone introducing the piece – not a didgeridoo, but Russell slowly bowing a bass guitar. Actually everything about the track is a drone, down to Jarvis’s hypnotically dull vocals, which he intones like a man in a psychotic trance. The protagonist has indeed been driven to psychosis, first by the disappointments and tedium of adult life, and later by the wife and family he wrongly thought could comfort him. His mental state is a highly sensitised form of dulled stupidity – the insanity felt if you sit in a yellow-wallpapered room listening to your own tinnitus too long. Boredom has led to discomfort, and aggression is all he has left to grasp for. Though generalised and focused on one specific issue the lyrics paint a nevertheless vivid picture. “Stupid animal that can’t know why / Something’s wrong so someone has to die” – the words may stick in the same note, but the hypnotic trance has a rhythm – each line is measured into rhyming couplets – not exactly iambic pentameter, but finely crafted all the same. You can almost taste the bitterness of this cabin fever. The fact that these experiences were drawn from Jarvis’s imagination rather than his own failing relationship truly demonstrates his growth as a lyricist.

Elsewhere Simon Hinkler’s production is again key to the track’s success. He seems to have been the only person capable of restraining the band from their dramatic excesses. It’s been suggested that Aborigine is a rip-off of Joy Division, but while it does have a vague resemblance, it’s far too original to be called a facsimile. Behind the drone we have a steady build-up of energy and aggression, driven by a seemingly primitive motorik beat which turns out on closer analysis to be a completely un-danceable stuttering quintuple-metre. At two points (which we probably can’t call “the chorus” – but that’s where they go at least) the tension gives way to a brief but brilliant instrumental break. Jarvis forces out a short series of unconnected guitar phrases, Magnus bangs his sticks together, and somehow it’s utterly addictive, and all the better for waiting through the psychotically monotonous buildup.

At the end we have the inevitable climax, consisting of a steady increase in violence and power until Jarvis is almost screaming. Though this breaks the spell somewhat, it’s probably necessary to express the vast downwards slope of despair and destruction down which our protagonist is falling and it’s difficult to think of any other way the track could have finished. After the climax, Jarvis repeats the song’s mantra, only this time using his true voice. Odd as it may seem, this is the first time we have heard him speak without any kind of posture or affectation. Yes, it’s just a muttered coda to a b-side, but it still feels like the start of something.