Tag Archives: underclass

#128 – Joyriders

1 Mar

'Joyrider' by Ross McDonnell

Joyriders (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Joyriders (acoustic) (b-side, Common People, 1995)
Joyriders (Sky Arts ‘Songbook’, 2009)
Joyriders (live film)
Joyriders (live film, Glastonbury 1995)
Joyriders (live film, Reading 2011)
Joyriders at Pulpwiki

“I was trying to push the car off the road so I could make my way to the garage on foot when a new Ford Mondeo pulled up and the (very young) driver asked me what was up. His (also very young) friends got out of the back of the car and helped me push the [1974 Hillman Imp] off the road. They then offered to give me a lift to the garage, which I accepted. Once inside the car I realised that it very probably did not belong to them… …The driver and his friends seemed very excited and offered me chocolate limes. We drove (at speed) to the garage and then they drove me back to my vehicle with the necessary jerrycan of fuel. This is how I repaid their kindness.”
– Jarvis Cocker in Mother, Brother, Lover

One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at His ‘n’ Hers is that delicately crafted songs are drowned in the heavy cream of Ed Buller’s production. So it’s an odd sensation, playing it after a year or two away, to hear that familiar unfiltered Britpop guitar riff, and an immediate launch into the most standard indie track of Pulp’s career so far. No layered synths, no ghostly undercurrent, just chunky guitars, a straightforward melody and the uncluttered production sheen associated with “classic rock.”

For many professional reviewers this is decidedly *a good thing* – for example, here’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine at Allmusic:

“Joyriders kicks the album into gear with its crashing guitars. It establishes Pulp not just as a pop band that will rock; it establishes an air of menace that hangs over this album like a talisman”

If this quote makes you feel slightly nauseous then I don’t blame you. Pulp had many mission statements in the early 90s and none of them expresses an interest in “rocking” in any form. And yet, he’s right – Joyriders does indeed work as a conventional rock song, and it does set the tone for the album – it just happens that this tone isn’t really what many of us came here for.

Before this all starts getting negative again, we should remember that this is still a decent indie pop song – it sounds bright throughout, has a memorable tune and a story to it, glitters and shimmers in all the right places and has a nice short-story style dramatic arc to it. This all sounds fine on first listen, in the background or at a festival, all perfectly reasonable uses for music, and all immune from criticism. Sometimes staring at something until it falls apart is more of a sickness than a skill, and there’s no point spoiling anyone’s fun.

And yet, here we are, and here is Joyriders, the sound of something working quite well until you check under the bonnet and find it’s been running on fumes the whole time. What’s wrong then? Well, let’s start with the story. Instead of the lift to the garage described above the Joyriders here are two-dimensional underclass villains; brainless, malevolent thugs, unacquainted with women, who want to get the rest of us hooked on a bit of the old ultraviolence. As Jarvis admits himself, it’s not really fair payback for doing him a favour, but beyond this aren’t the real chocolate-lime-eating surprisingly helpful delinquents much more interesting? As we saw with Watching Nicky, Jarvis seems to reduce real people to clichés while creating hosts of believable fictional characters elsewhere.

And then at the end “we’re taking a girl to the reservoir / oh oh the papers say it’s a tragedy / buy don’t you want to come and see?” Aged 14 this seemed impossibly dangerous, chilling in its implications. Now though, it seems a bit silly. People are voyeuristic often, yes, but meta-level awareness of this point from sadistic teenage gangs is fairly unlikely, and nobody in their right mind would even consider going with them. A pedantic point, perhaps, but it’s all it deserves. I remember playing the song in my dad’s car one time – he laughed at the line and said “no, I don’t, thanks” and you have to admit he had a point.

This wouldn’t be such an issue if the section were not repeated for most of the last two minutes of the track. It’s easy to see why they do this – the clever phrasing, the gravity of the situation, the issue is such that repeating it drills the numb horror of it all into you. Except when you don’t take it seriously, of course, then it has the exact opposite effect of underlining how trite it is. The final touch is the nail in the coffin, Jarvis aiming for sinister but only achieving Charles Hawtrey.

Also in the “do not want” list is the main melody, once again nice on a casual listen, but the way the guitar chords mirror whatever Jarvis sings is annoying, like a rock treatment of a nursery rhyme, and results in the song being completely undancable. This only has the effect of focussing attention on the story, and well, enough about that already.

Let’s finish on a couple of positives, though. Candida’s synths are once again a strong point, as buried as they are here. The hauntological layers she put in with Ed Buller sound as eerie and poignant as ever when they finally make an appearance, and she even produces the song’s only truly satisfactory moment when Jarvis stops at “it’s a tragedy….” and she carries over the melody of the rest of the line on her keyboard. There are also lots of nice little touches in the production, the half-second of feedback before the solo (yes, there’s a guitar solo) is nice too. The acoustic version found on the Common People single is not bad either – the guitar line being the whole song anyway, it helps to let it stand on its own, and Jarvis sounds weary, which just works better.

Joyriders is a survivor. If there had been a 4th single it would’ve been the obvious choice, and it was popular at festivals for years. Lots of people still like it, and they have every right to. I just don’t anymore.

#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.