Sunday, December 30, 2007

There Was

Tucked away as the b-side to a failed attempt during the ‘80s to sound like Wham called “Everybody’s Problem” lies a beguiling, eerily captivating piece that stands as Jarvis’ first sublime song. A waltz that sounds effortless, yet is quite rhythmically challenging when you really listen, the song also contains some of the most impressive vocal harmonies on a Pulp song, as Jarvis and his sister Saskia create a slow-building round choral that reveals a sudden complexity. The musical backing is a perfectly sparse blend of electric guitar and keyboards. Jarvis sings about an attempt to hold on to last few embers of a fading relationship. As the title indicates, the song is fixated on the past and the need to bring it back. “Don’t let it die away,” he pleads. The music seems to provide the hope he seeks, making this ballad strangely uplifting.

In 2000, “Everybody’s Problem” and “There Was” appeared on the soundtrack to something called Schooldisco, a film regarding which I can little information. But it appears that the soundtrack is still in print, if this is any indication.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Another stellar opening track. As the first song on Pulp’s first major-label full-length, “Joyriders” takes advantage of the wider canvas without ever overdoing it. The instruments, captured with newfound confidence, seem to burst out of the speakers. Jarvis’ portrayal of bored lowlifes is at first sheer mockery, but with every minute it shades into darker and darker territory. In fact, in the last few minutes, he’s mainly just repeating the same few lines over and over. But his relentless recital of stolen cars, trips to a reservoir and a tragically doomed girl – as the band’s backing gets more measured and careful – makes the song become suddenly and powerfully very sinister.

Watch a live version here.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)

A seminal moment in the Pulp discography. The first release of the post-It band, “Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)” unveils a new lineup with an almost wholly different aesthetic.

For the first time on record, Jarvis is supported by two key collaborators: keyboardist Candida Doyle and guitarist-violinist Russell Senior. Doyle plays what would become her trademark instrument, the Farfisa organ. (She also provides one of her rare harmony vocal performances.) Meanwhile, Senior’s art-damaged avant garde impulses make an especially noteworthy mark here; what might have been another of Jarvis’ gentle, Velvet Underground-influenced ballads is given a stark undertow thanks to Russell’s queasily amateurish violin playing.

But Jarvis too has evolved on this song. After the fey innocence of It, the sharp, grim perspective of “Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)” is pretty shocking. “There’s a hole in your heart/And one between your legs,” he sings in the chorus. “You’ve never had to wonder which one he’s going to fill/In spite of what he said.” For the first time in his career, Jarvis has unveiled here his talent for a savage turn of phrase. Making the song even darker, Jarvis is singing here about his own mother, describing her pregnancy with him, which led to her marrying the father, a reportedly less-than-dependable man, and abandoning her aspirations to become an artist.

In the ‘90s and beyond, “Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) was possibly the early song the band played most often. Here is a performance by Jarvis, Candida, Russell and the rest of the Different Class-era lineup on British television.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Birds in Your Garden

In some circles, it’s considered that this warm, simply melodic song should have been the first single from We Love Life. But the charms of “The Birds in Your Garden” have largely passed me by. The scenario here is seemingly ripe with potential; a Disney-like chorus of feathered friends persuades Jarvis to make his way into a would-be paramour’s pants. But there’s something mind-numbingly predictable about this acoustic-driven, sweeping ballad. The song lacks the lyrical nuance or, more importantly, musical surprises that Pulp can usually be counted on providing. It winds up sounding like little more than a rewrite of “Something Changed.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Described by Jarvis as “His ‘n’ Hers” meets “The Fear,” “Frightened” shares with the former an overriding paranoia regarding domesticity. And here, the occasional gothy chord change – occurring right between Freaks and This Is Hardcore – is used for an almost comic effect. Jarvis contrasts his fear over mundane materialism in the verses with his fear of his own raw desire. So, he’s a pretty fearful guy in the whole song, but what did you expect with that title? What really drives the song is the sweep of the melody and arrangement, pushing and pulling Jarvis from the brink several times during the song. Despite the strengths of the song, it’s easily surpassed by “His ‘n’ Hers,” which instead received release on the masterful Sisters EP.

Sunday, December 9, 2007


I always thought this would make a good concert opener for the band. It begins quietly and simply and ends with a rousing, epic finish, ushering the audience into the show. This doesn’t appear to have ever happened. Instead, “Sylvia” served as the last song of the main set during much of the This Is Hardcore tour. Shows what I know.

“Sylvia” also handily refutes Hardcore’s reputation as a morose, joyless sex-and-drugs-fest. Alright, so the song is still pretty morose, or at least a pained reflection on a failed relationship. Still, this is an unabashed power ballad, and maybe it’s a little too eager-to-please and sentimental, but there’s genuine emotion in the bombast. I heard this song once in an HMV store shortly after the album came out. It sounded oddly appropriate and even a little stirring there. There’s something especially memorable about Mark Webber’s Big Guitar Solo, which he executes with just a few notes.

There is, of course, a twist to the lyrics. Jarvis begins the song singing to a woman who reminds him of the title character. But soon enough he begins to address Sylvia directly. It entirely possible that he’s using the woman he’s just met as a proxy for the absent former lover, simply so he can say the things he was unable to tell her face to face.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Catcliffe Shakedown

Nearly seven minutes long, all of them ridiculous. “Catcliffe Shakedown” is a long narrative of working-class follies, set to some the (intentionally?) cheesiest music the band ever wrote. (Why on earth does the track start and end with Candida playing the theme to Jaws?) Most of Jarvis’ observations are not exactly subtle; although, as always, his unwillingness to glorify the less savory aspects of proletarian life is commendable. Even with the comical melody, the burning desire to escape remains palpable. Nevertheless, it’s not too shocking that the song didn’t make it onto Different Class.

Incidentally, the band’s rehearsal space resided in Catcliffe, which is a village just outside Sheffield. A good enough reason to lead you to this.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Grandfather's Nursery

As established earlier, the “Bad Cover Version” single served as the band’s swan song, in many ways. However, there were a few codas, subsequently. The strangest of these was certainly this song, not so much for the music itself, but more the event of the song’s emergence. For reasons no one seems to know, a professional-sounding 2000 demo recording of “Grandfather’s Nursery” popped up in 2002 as a free download on (Sadly, the song is no longer available there.)

What fans heard, just as Pulp was bidding adieu, was another bottomless well of melancholy. Supported by gentle tremolo guitar and glass harmonica, Jarvis devises a series of metaphors for something once flowering that has ceased to live. It could be a relationship, it could be Sheffield, it could just be his state of mind about life in general. As with “Bad Cover Version” it became impossible to hear as it anything but a eulogy for a band that felt its zeitgeist slip away. The song is as morose as anything on This is Hardcore, but in its last moments rescues redemption. Jarvis takes a sailboat to reconnect with his “true love.” (Remember, the band’s first single was “My Lighthouse.”) Finally, he imagines an opportunity for a life-giving rain, as the band enters full-force in the final minutes, with an appropriately Beatlesque guitar line sharing center stage with Jarvis’ cries of “Here comes the rain.” The song successfully alchemizes the botanical themes of We Love Life, and one could argue it’s a more effortless mix of the band’s gentle and anthemic sides than anything on the album.

Just as perplexing as its appearance, “Grandfather’s Nursery” also appeared on a 2005 Spanish compilation entitled 100% Sinnamon.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


“Countdown” has received more attention than most indie-era Pulp. That’s probably because it served as the title track to a well-publicized, double-disc anthology of early Pulp that came out in between Different Class and This is Hardcore. But “Countdown” is also a handy compendium of some of Jarvis’ most potent and resonant themes. Synths and programmed beats dominate, but with an extra dramatic edge. The lyrics convey a palpable sense of anxiety, commemorating Jarvis’ anguished decision in the late-‘80s to put the floundering band on hold while he went to London to study film. There are references to an unattainable woman, but it’s all a metaphor for the rapidly fading dreams of a career in music. All of his fears are cataloged; chief among them are the twin ideas that not only has he peaked at the age of 26, but because of a decision (to become a professional musician) he made nine years previous. “You’ve got to understand that I was 17!” he cries, incredulous that a decision he made at such a young age could possibly doom him to a life of impoverished obscurity and terminal unhappiness.

There are three mixes of the song. There’s the Separations version, an eight-minute single mix, and a radio edit of the single mix. If you hear Russell’s wah-wah guitar, it’s one of the single versions. The video here features the radio edit, which is probably my favorite.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Modern Marriage

The funereal organ sounds like mid-‘80s Pulp, but the edgy humor in the lyrics is more in line with their ‘90s work. In the verses, Jarvis oozes faux-sincerity, working through his apparent wedding jitters with caustic ruminations on domesticity. Favorite line? Probably “I will never sleep with your friends – well, not your best friends.” Some of his observations on home consumerism connect this song to the great “His ‘n’ Hers.”

The band juxtaposes all this with an oddly repetitive, sing-songy chorus. It sounds like Jarvis is warbling from a lounge room in his own private hell. As usual, his liner notes provide key insights. “I am audibly inebriated on this recording which is probably because I was engaged at the time. The marriage never took place.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Mark of the Devil

The Pulp disco beat makes its first appearance here. But the arrangement also makes room for the band’s mid-‘80s raison d’etre: that creaking, moodily gothic racket. Jarvis’ lyrics, describing a macabre kind of alienation and premature aging, are expertly written but hard to take in their relentless seriousness. Whether he’s condemning himself or someone he knows isn’t that relevant.

At some point in the ‘80s, the band partook in a low-low-budget documentary about Sheffield’s music scene. Bits of the doc wound up as bonus material on the band’s 2002 DVD Hits (still unreleased in the U.S.!). This clip features part of a live rendition of this song.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Pencil Skirt

Different Class’ second song introduces the “sex-as-great-leveller” leitmotif that would garner the album a fair amount of notoriety. Here, Jarvis serves as a woman’s secret lover, and he revels in the wrongness of their act. For all its arch theatricality, this is a classic cheating song. Maybe some brave country singer will get around to covering it one day. The song’s finest moment comes in the third verse: “If you look under the bed, then I can see my house from here.” I’ve no idea what this literally means, but I think it’s alluding to the other Big Theme of the album – class. The narrator is probably poorer than the woman he’s addressing, and he’d rather not be reminded of that. The whole affair might be his way of trying to forget it.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Surrounded by squiggling synths and stylophones, Jarvis ruminates for a few minutes on what appears to be a promising drug-related experience and its woozy, regretful comedown. Or maybe it’s another metaphor for the unfulfilled promise of Pulp’s days in the ‘80s, and the possibility that the band’s fortunes are finally improving. Or maybe it’s a simple statement of purpose, as Jarvis renews his commitment to kitchen-sink drama, rather than lonely old self-pity. As the song reaches its climax, the rhythm section enters with some enthused bashing, showing off the band’s new instrumental focus as well.

And then there’s the alternate version, a soundcheck for a BBC performance that appears on the His ‘n’ Hers reissue. Different lyrics this time, as Jarvis explains in the liner notes: “I appear to be pretending to be an alien ready to prey on female Mancunians - oh dear.”

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Fear

And so we come to the source of this blog’s name. When I wrote a little while back that “Love is Blind” is Pulp’s best album-opener, well, I misspoke slightly. Fact is, all the first tracks from Pulp’s ‘90s albums are near-equals in their amazing ability to set the tenors of their respective albums, setting the listeners on paths that move unexpectedly.

The title “The Fear” indicates that This Is Hardcore will tap the band’s dark side like no album since Freaks. The grinding guitars that open the track assure this much. But the band has changed, and grown immeasurably as writers, players and arrangers since Freaks. “The Fear” is equally a sign that This Is Hardcore will approach the subject of depression and fame hangovers from a multitude of angles.

And so, the song’s first two verses find Jarvis chronicling his breakdown in a dashing yet harrowing manner. It doesn’t sound like “someone losing the plot”; the song simply “is the sound of someone losing the plot” (italics mine). But as the song progresses, Jarvis adjusts the perspective only slightly, making a huge difference. Suddenly, he addresses the listeners, assuring them that, in time, the song will become a soundtrack for their own breakdowns. “The Fear” becomes oddly comforting. Emotional meltdowns come, emotional meltdowns go. The song remains.

“The Fear” also serves as a hallmark of the album’s sound, with its diamond-hard, unrelentingly expert production. And even in the throes of bad times, the band hasn’t lost their witty sense of rock culture. The backing singers on the chorus are all but imported straight from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (which was mixed by Hardcore’s producer, Chris Thomas).

Watch a performance of this song on Later with Jools Holland here.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

We Can Dance Again

For a long time one of the most notorious (among hardcore fans) of lost Pulp songs, “We Can Dance Again” was, like “The Boss,” initially known only through a widely bootlegged, amateurish live recording. Again like “The Boss,” the demo emerged thanks to the 2006 reissue campaign.

On both versions, despite largely different lyrics on each, “We Can Dance Again” is a celebratory misfit anthem, clearly in line with “Mis-Shapes.” The music is among the band’s brightest slices of nouveau new wave (listen for Jarvis’ quoting of Blondie’s “Atomic” near the end.) with a killer bridge to boot. On the demo version especially, the lyrics give a palpable sense that the band realized that the window for their triumph was, in truth, really small. And there are plenty of intimations of the years of struggle, fear and doubt that came prior to this one moment of elation.

So how did this song wind up in the vaults? As Russell Senior puts it in Truth and Beauty, “After seeming like it might be a single for a couple of weeks, it started looking like we were pasticheing ourselves.” But the song’s commercial appeal still lingers. According to Jarvis’ liner notes, “My Mum still asks me when we’re going to release it.”

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Duck Diving

During the We Love Life era, part of the point was for the band to get back to a more organic place, after the increasing production excesses of their major-label output thus far. It didn’t completely work out that way – We Love Life, while one of their warmer-sounding albums, still carries many hallmarks of the Big Rock sound. But one of the tracks the band toyed with live around this time, “Duck Diving” provides an intriguing side road the band could’ve explored. While Jarvis reads from a children’s story by Philippa Pearce (prefiguring the Jarvcasts), the band provides a softly repetitive electronic backing, with delicate synths to the fore. On We Love Life, Candida Doyle’s keyboards are pushed way back in the mix. This track suggests what the album might’ve sounded like had she been given a more prominent role, perhaps making the album a gentler version of His ‘n’ Hers and Different Class.

As for the story, it’s no surprise it would appeal to Jarvis. There are pinpointed details, and the narrator is a misfit child. Definitely of a piece with his usual lyrical concerns.

Monday, November 5, 2007

She's a Lady

The swirls of keys and synths opening this song manage to sound both seductive and mechanical. In a similar way, “She’s a Lady” find Jarvis feeling both intense and flippant. The furiously dramatic disco rhythms push and pull him in all sorts of directions, thinking about all sorts of girls: the ones who left him, the ones who saved him afterwards. You get the sense he’s having as much trouble telling them apart as we listeners are. Nevertheless, his tongue remains in cheek throughout. The song title is stolen from that master of kitsch, Tom Jones. The bridge references “I Will Survive” just as cannily as “Disco 2000” will borrow from “Gloria” on the next album. There’s even a rare Jarvis rap. And, of course, my favorite moment of them all: Selling pictures of herself to German businessmen/Oh, that’s all she wants to do.

And, don’t forget, plenty of “ma ma ma ma ma”s. A live television performance of this song is here.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Being Followed Home

I’ve been pretty hard so far on Pulp’s second album, Freaks, it’s true. I do think that the album should be examined by scholars looking to see the effects of societal hostility on artistic temperments (maybe Richard Florida). However, for the rest of us, the album only offers badly recorded unpleasantness. The band members are quick to acknowledge this as well.

However, if there are a few songs on the album where everything comes together, one of them is undoubtedly “Being Followed Home.” As the opening sound effect of footsteps leads into a careful guitar line, the song is an excellent example of Pulp’s ability to create a vivid scenario with music. And this time, Jarvis has conceived an actual metaphor -- something few other Freaks songs contain -- to carry his fear and paranoia. The imagery here is fantastic; I’m especially fond of the attacker who “says something in a language I don’t understand.” But the song’s crowning moment is that it does end with the narrator’s attack. Rather, we move forward to some point later; the memories of the evening have faded, but the fear lingers. Adding to the spooky sense of mystery, I’m pretty certain Jarvis is addressing a number of people in this song; not just the ones who have followed him home, but someone else, someone he knows. This is someone else from his past that haunts him, reminding him of other bad choices and failed chances.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Laughing Boy

It’s easily the only Pulp song to feature a country-style pedal steel guitar part (played by one Gerry Hogan). “Laughing Boy” nevertheless cancels out any lingering taste of roots-rock by also prominently featuring synths and electronic drums. The end result is another of the band’s effortlessly world-weary, last-call ballads. Jarvis sounds utterly defeated as the losing, constantly humiliated member of a love triangle. Even his sarcastic put-downs -- referring to the other man by the title, calling out the woman for the cleanliness of her teeth -- don’t offer much catharsis. He realizes, “I must go,” but the song ends with him endlessly wondering if he actually has it in him to carry that threat out.

The band must’ve thought pretty highly of “Laughing Boy.” It’s one of the few Pulp b-sides to occasionally show up in a live setting. Thus, a performance of the song appears on the band’s concert film The Park is Mine.

One more thing: Does anyone with more knowledge about (presumably) British terminology know what it means to “ladder your tights”?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


On Different Class, Jarvis partially sealed his fame with observations of affairs of the bedroom that were both wry and matter-of-fact. “Underwear” is the song where it all coalesces. In one light, it’s the most salacious song on the album; in another, it’s the most affecting.

“In sexual situations, underwear is the last line of defense,” Jarvis explained at one live gig. The woman described in the song, “semi-naked in someone else’s room,” is feeling especially vulnerable, not just because of the loss of most of her clothes, but also because her sudden feelings of apprehension and doubt. As is his wont, Jarvis approaches this scenario not gingerly, but with a sympathetic eye all the same. When, on the third verse, he gently tells the woman to “remember that this is what you wanted last night,” the song ties in with the themes of second half of Different Class, the way the supposed freedoms of young adulthood often fall short of expectations.

Compounding the doubt and confusion of the song, Jarvis sings it from the point of view of someone who ardently desires to be with her in such a situation. So while his end proclamation, “I want to see you in your underwear” could conceivably sound seedy, instead it gains an odd longing. “Underwear” is a song with two protagonists, both of whom are at that moment not where they want to be.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


“A real kitchen sink drama,” writes Jarvis in the liner notes for this track originally on the Dogs are Everywhere EP. Scenes of domestic intrigue occur all over Pulp’s discography. Later, more famous attempts displayed the musical influence of Scott Walker, David Bowie and Roxy Music; “Aborigine” is a transparent, but very good appropriation of Joy Division’s sound. There’s a relentless rhythm section and choppily dramatic guitar riffs. Jarvis, perhaps advisably, sings a one-note melody. The lyrics are dependably bleak, with a chorus of “He hates his life/ And he hates them all.” Still, “Aborigine” has a real energy, and groove, making it just a little less claustrophobic than most mid-‘80s Pulp. The song “was so called because it sounded like aboriginal music,” Jarvis later said.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Boss

With the 2006 release of the Deluxe Editions, a few tracks that were previously only known in lo-fi bootleg live recordings emerged in full-fledged studio guises. Or at least as demos. “The Boss” initially emerged in a ragged but enthused concert incarnation. Introduced by Jarvis as a song about “wondering about someone’s who going out with your ex-girlfriend or your ex-boyfriend”, the song is a typically exciting Pulp song of the early ’90, with a speeded disco beat, insistent Farfisa, and Jarvis saying “ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma,” a lot. Despite the bad sound quality, it sounds like a single. The studio version (from the band’s “audition tape” for Island Records) builds on this potential. It’s not fully finished; the lazily repetitive guitar line betrays the demo-ness. But Jarvis strings a compelling storyline of panic, sexual confusion and escape, and the band makes these emotions sound exhilarating. On trains and in hotels, Jarvis can’t help but bump into (or imagine) his ex and her new lover. It’s enough to convince him to get out of his current surroundings – a resolution we’ve heard from him plenty times before.

In case you wondered, it’s titled “The Boss” because, Jarvis claims, the band thought it sounded like Bruce Springsteen. (It doesn’t.)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bad Cover Version

This song just might’ve been Pulp’s last chance. Another sweeping ballad possibly musically inspired by Gene Pitney, “Bad Cover Version” was a last-ditch attempt at getting a hit single out of We Love Life. Nevertheless, despite one of the greatest music videos ever, it was not to be, and “Bad Cover Version” is to date the final Pulp single. It’s oddly appropriate for a track that manages to singularly combine snideness and melancholy. Jarvis marshals every last withering put-down – including some of the most obscure pop-culture references to appear in a rock song – in order to catalog all the ways an ex’s new lover unfairly compares to him. But the majestic ache of the melody only makes him sound more alone, as he lingers on every “great disappointment.” The fact that Pulp themselves were on the way out increases the bittersweetness. Now, six years later, with young, hot, less talented bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Long Blondes liberally copying pages from the Pulp textbook, the song stings even more.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


For the B-sides to the ’93 “Razzmatazz” single, Jarvis indulged his literary ambitions with Inside Susan: A story in three songs. (A fourth part showed up as a B-side to another single.) The first part, “Stacks” could’ve been an A-side in its own right. While the rhythms shimmy and the stylophones bleep, Jarvis saucily unfolds a tale on burgeoning teenage hormones. In one light, “Stacks” could be a dry run for “Disco 2000.” It’s clear that Susan has captured the boys’ attentions just as Deborah did in the latter song. But whereas “Disco 2000” collects memories of adolescence, “Stacks” occurs in the present tense. And so, along with the descriptions of lust, there are reminders that “the world is bigger every day.” Susan’s opportunities seem limitless. For now, anyway.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

My First Wife

One of the roughly recorded early live songs floating around the internet, “My First Wife” appeared on a compilation cassette, Oozing Through the Ozone Layer, put together in 1987 by future Pulp member Mark Webber. The band’s evolving interest in mixing disco and Eastern European folk is on full-display here. The lyrics are mostly unintelligible, apart from Jarvis’ constant exhortation, “I won’t think of love.” The song comes alive mid-way through, when new member Nick Banks lets out a frantic eight-bar snare volley. It’s not virtuosic, but it’s definitely lends the song some extra energy.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Love Love

The strangest disconnect on It occurs here, where Jarvis’ croon seems wholly at odds with the almost ridiculous music-hall pastiche of the melody. With its goofy clarinet and trombone, “Love Love” could easily become a Brit-com theme song. Jarvis’ pontifications on romance feel unfinished, or maybe just playful. The first verse alludes to a scenario Jarvis would later flesh out on “Acrylic Afternoons.” The second verse incongruously describes Jarvis and his lover jumping into a pond after the ducks scornfully reject their offered breadcrumbs.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Don't You Want Me Anymore?

An arch tango that nevertheless avoids sounding too chilly – thanks perhaps to the acoustic guitar – “Don’t You Want Me Anymore?” can be read two ways.

A) It’s a simple character piece by Jarvis, about a poor, deluded character who thinks he’ll be returning home to the arms of an ex-lover. Instead he finds that she’s moved on to another man, and our narrator is reduced to nothing but a laughing stock. No one has any time for him anymore.

B) It’s a reflection of Jarvis’ experiences in the late ’80. Having put Pulp on hold to attend film school at St. Martins College in London in 1988, Jarvis returns to Sheffield, hoping that maybe this time the band will rise in triumph, and he’ll be accorded the fame, respect and love he deeply craves. But everyone has moved on to other bands, and our narrator is reduced to nothing but a laughing stock. No one has any time for him anymore.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A Little Soul

Because it’s maybe the prettiest song on This Is Hardcore, it’s also one of the bleakest. At the time of its release, many critics theorized that “A Little Soul” addressed Jarvis’ relationship with his then-estranged father. I happen to think the song is more a fictional but cautionary tale Jarvis wrote to himself.

If anyone needs any indication of just how despondent Jarvis Cocker felt at the tail-end of his time as a bona fide celebrity, just listen. He’s all but ready to find himself in the scenario of this song, wearily lifting his head up from the bar to see, at the other end, a young, cocksure player and serial heartbreaker. “Hey man, how come you treat your woman so bad?” And he can easily imagine the horrifying realization that this cavalier, uncaring ladies’ man is his long-abandoned son. He’d try and set the boy back on the right pack… if he had any idea how to find that path himself. But he’s already resigned himself to a life of dissipated, quiet ruin and can only urge the kid to just get away from his old man.

The song is all the more heartrending thanks to the opening guitar riff, an easily detected rethink of “The Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. That song is one of greatest about a man hiding his emotions. “A Little Soul,” on the other hand, is about a man trying desperately to remember how to have emotions. The simple beauty of the melody and arrangement keeps the song from being an unpleasant slog through Jarvis’ sense of self-loathing. It instead becomes, in the context of the album, one final, necessary descent into the wells of despair, before finally looking for a way out.

Watch the video here.

Sunday, September 30, 2007


The first voice you hear on the second Pulp album is not Jarvis’, but rather that of Russell Senior, who also wrote the lyrics. Everything on this cacophonous ode to circus freaks reeks of low-budget, b-movie doom. Russell’s stentorian vocals open the song: “As the signs outside proclaimed, ‘Nature sometimes makes a mistake.’” It’s pretty indicative of Freaks as a whole. At times, the band approaches these gloom-laden sagas so mirthlessly, it’s almost impossible not to laugh. Fortunately, “Fairground” is also one of the few songs on the album where the band seems to be enjoying themselves, attacking the demonic laughter in the choruses with palpable relish.

Jarvis may have passed on vocal and lyric duties to his second-in-command, but his stamp is on the song anyway. He provides some carny announcements near the song's end, and it’s probably no small deal that the song’s concept inspired the album’s title and overriding theme. (“It was called Freaks because I'd been out of school four years and lived this marginal life with no success,” he told an interviewer in 1994.) In “Fairground,” Russell spends much of the lyrics reflecting not on the deformed circus attractions, but a man who laughs not only at the freaks, but at Russell and his sister as well. It’s one of the moments on the album that fully embodies the band’s outsider status. Freaks is easily the most difficult album of Pulp’s career; I’m rarely able to listen to the whole thing myself. But I bet it’s as good as any document of what it was like to be weird, different and broke in England in the ‘80s.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Don't Lose It

While the entire Different Class album is Pulp’s tightest, most streamlined album, this outtake from the album’s demo sessions sounds charmingly unfinished. The band’s staccato, halting attack gives the impression that they’re making it up as they go along. But there’s definitely a compelling lyrical perspective here. Jarvis urges a woman not to give in to undeserving would-be suitors. And he seems to include himself among their ranks. Can we not assume that Jarvis is the one who “wants to put it down on paper/ And put it in a song to sing”? Later he suggests that “you’ll be famous if you let him touch you.” And a few moments later he pleads, “Don’t throw it away/ It means more than a song.” “Don’t Lose It” serves as proof that he’ll give a deep, satirical glance at just about anything, even his own modus operandi.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Happy Endings

Maybe it’s all that reverb on His ‘n’ Hers, but the album is an especially cinematic one for Pulp. More to the point, I think this is the album where the band hit upon the mix of big sounds and intimate stories that makes their songs sound like little Mike Leigh films.

Movies are especially central to “Happy Endings,” as Jarvis opens the song inviting a woman to imagine her life as a film. As keyboards swirl like mirror balls, he sets a scene of romantic surrender, as “the orchestra makes a sound/that goes round and round and round and round…” But by the next verse, he’s revealed that this scenario is indeed fiction; the woman is an ex-lover and he tenderly explains that he’s too cynical and defeated to believe in happy endings. But, knowing that she is also feeling deeply wounded at this point, he hopes that she remembers that she once believed in them, and indeed finds one someday.

Pulp had plenty of big, swooning ballads like this – “She’s Dead,” “Something Changed, “Sylvia,” “Bad Cover Version.” For a possible prototype of these songs, check out Jarvis and Steve’s excellent mix CD from 2006, The Trip. Included therein is a Gene Pitney song called “24, Sycamore,” a gorgeous work of swelling emotion and pinpointed lyrical detail.

At their last concert in 2002, Pulp revived “Happy Endings” with a delicate reading, dominated by slide and acoustic guitars. Since the concert was broadcast on the BBC, it’s fairly findable around the internet, and this performance is among the band’s most poignant.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

We Are The Boyz

Although recorded during the sessions for This Is Hardcore, this song ultimately made its home on the soundtrack to the heavily hyped Todd Haynes glam-rock odyssey Velvet Goldmine. (It actually first appeared as the b-side to “Party Hard.”) With thick guitars and an intentional misspelling, the track was largely viewed as a pastiche of Slade. Tersely describing young lads on the scene, the song initially seems to fit in with “Party Hard” and “I’m a Man”; it may in fact be the more energetic and commercial song of the three.

The twist comes about three-fourths of the way through, when Jarvis fast-forwards to the present day. Suddenly, “We were the boyz.” With just a few simple word choices, the song suddenly goes from brash and proud to mournful and pleading. “C’mon, we’re still the boyz/We’re still the boyz.” You practically watch them age right before your eyes. It’s a testament to the benefits of concise, focused storytelling. Too bad Velvet Goldmine didn’t follow suit. (However, the soundtrack is uniformly excellent.)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Dogs Are Everywhere

An anti-tribute, if you will, to the laddish hard-drinkers who formed Pulp’s rhythm section in the mid-‘80s, bassist Peter Mansell and drummer Magnus Doyle, “Dogs Are Everywhere” is another almost-pop song from this era. It’s nearly wry, especially lines like “They have too much and then/ They have too much again/ And then more.” But Jarvis’ voice is oddly ponderous, striving for profundity. You remember that he really did disapprove of their carousing back then. But now, 20 years later, it’s difficult to tell that the song is not, in fact, a rickety indie-goth novelty, i.e., a joke.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


And in this corner…

“Wickerman” is arguably the culmination of the lyrical and musical themes that had occupied Jarvis and Pulp during the better part of their career. It’s nearly all here: Sheffield and the waters that surround it (in this case, the River Don); the do-or-die moments that come in every romantic situation; a sense of discovery and escape; morbid fascination; working-class desperation; missed opportunities; and the unknowable future. The appeal of a river as a motif in this song is clear: It provides both a sense of stability and mystery.

In weaving their favorite themes in a little over eight minutes, the band winds up with one of their most unique songs, one that seems to unfold unexpectedly every time you hear it, with new lyrical touches rising to the forefront. The music moves sublimely, rising and falling, eventually reaching a crescendo that might be their most dramatic (and from this band, that’s saying something). Additionally, there’s a bittersweet sense of farewell, of a curtain drawing down, as the song closes, fittingly for what’s probably Pulp’s final hurrah.

The connection between this song and Robin Hardy’s classic British horror film The Wicker Man is pretty tenuous at best. Apparently there’s a sample of the film’s soundtrack somewhere in this song, but I’ve yet to precisely detect where it is, in both the song and the film. As noted earlier, Wicker has a different connotation in Pulp’s songs.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

I Spy

The key to understanding this sex- and class-conscious revenge fantasy is that it’s equally a joke, and a canny self-parody at that. Jarvis tips his hand during the mid-song monologue, with one his funniest asides: “It’s just like in the old days. I used to compose my own critical notices. ‘The crowd gasps at Cocker’s masterful control of the bicycle, skillfully avoiding the dog turd outside the corner shop.’ Imagining a blue plaque above the place I first ever touched a girl’s chest...” The song is equally about getting caught up in self-mythologizing, particularly when you’re busy elaborately planning the comeuppance of your foes, real and imagined. This aspect of the song is much more palatable to non-UK listeners, who may not totally comprehend a put-down like “Take your Year in Provence/ and shove it up your ass.” I know I don’t.

At the time of its release, “I Spy” was the apotheosis of the band’s dramatic John Barry side. I believe it also marked the first appearance of a full orchestra on a Pulp album. The song hasn’t entirely held up, partially because Pulp later topped this epic with the string-laden likes of “This Is Hardcore” and “Wickerman.”

Monday, September 3, 2007

You're a Nightmare

With a title like that, you easily expect a withering put-down of a train-wreck of a friend, lover or ex-either. (After all, Pulp have their share of such songs – like “Razzmatazz” and “Like a Friend.”) But Jarvis means the title literally; it’s his way-more-downcast version of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” His nocturnal visions of a past lover are no relief. Instead they’re constant reminders of a time he cannot fully escape or put behind him, despite his best efforts during waking hours.

To those fans attuned to the autobiographical references littering Pulp songs, “You’re a Nightmare” contains a tantalizing one: “There were hotel bedroom birthdays/sleep in factory hallways.” It’s unclear what the first part of that lyric is about, but the “factory hallways” most certainly refer to the abandoned Wicker Factory in Sheffield – a fairly frequent reference point in Pulp's music – where Jarvis lived in the ‘80s in squat-like conditions.

The music of “You’re a Nightmare” perfectly realizes a weary last-call spirit. It helps that the band recorded the song at the BBC for a Peel Session, with no time for endless overdubs, edits and polishes. The band thought highly enough of this rendition to include it on the “Lipgloss” single. Thus, the song wound up on two of 2006’s archival Pulp releases: The double-disc His ‘n’ Hers reissue and The Peel Sessions.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Down by the River

Post-It, Pulp was not a harmony band. Most of the time, Jarvis just overdubbed himself umpteenth times, or they hired outside vocalists, such as the Swingle Singers. On their last few tours, the only other person with a vocal mic on stage was the touring, auxiliary guitarist, Richard Hawley. However, “Down by the River” is one of the three Pulp songs to feature harmonies from Candida Doyle, who accompanies Jarvis on the wordless chorus. (There are also two songs where she has a spoken-word part.)

The river in this song is a place of regret and perhaps sinister memories. It has the potential to be hackneyed, but Jarvis’ command over language is so strong by this point that the scenario comes alive. It also helps that the song is perhaps the epitome of the band’s Euro-folk phase, a delicate waltz with a sure and steady swell. I’d love to hear another band take a stab at this, performing it with an extra amount of restraint. Or maybe Pulp could one day revisit it. Hey, it could happen.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia)

Based somewhat on an earlier, very different Pulp song “Nights of Suburbia,” this song wound up on the b-side to the original 1992 “Babies” single. Jarvis’ spoken monologue is almost wholly upstaged by Russell’s groovy surf guitar. The rest of the song title can be explained by Candida’s instrument here -- the stylophone. It is most famously heard on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and it looks like this.

As for that monologue, it describes a lost tribe happening upon a strange (to them) land. A land of bad food, bad weather, bad sex. Yet the easy, convenient comforts of this society lure them in, and soon they are trapped. And because this is a culture founded on repetition, on living life the same way day upon day, it’s all that much harder to break loose.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Blue Girls

In the midst of the sweet, naïve emotions of the It album comes this bombshell, a decidedly morbid piano ballad, with Jarvis crooning eerily about girls who sun-tan themselves to death. “These girls you have loved/are slowly decaying now/Drying out in the sun.” Nothing – not the gentle female backing vocals (including Jarvis’ sister Saskia), not even the jazz flute solo – makes the song any less uneasy, and that’s a good thing. The language here is first-rate, if a little oppressive at times. Many of the pieces of Jarvis’ lyrical voice – his empathy, his morbidity – were in place this early in Pulp’s career. It just took a while for him to meld them convincingly, and to add the all-important sense of humor.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Released in May of 1994, The Sisters EP is a friggin’ masterpiece. When Island Records wanted to re-release “Babies” as a single (it had first come out on Gift Records in ’92), the band allowed it with the provision that three His ‘n’ Hers outtakes also be included. The resulting four-song EP is a testament to Pulp’s incredible streak in the early-to-mid ‘90s.

Perhaps because Separations didn’t see release until June of ’92, two-and-a-half years after the band completed it, they fruitfully channeled their frustrations over the umpteenth setback. After all, here they were, finally in a stable, functioning lineup, with a unique sound within their grasp, and yet their progress was still being stymied. So they built up a backlog of songs that fully crystallized the classic Pulp aesthetic – sleek and stylish, yet witty and wry as well, with ‘70s glam filtered through a forward-thinking mindset. Altogether, the music was always big-hearted, clearly the work of people interested in humans, and in being human. The work the band released on Gift Records in ’92-’93 (anthologized on Pulpintro), followed by their inaugural work for Island Records, His ‘n’ Hers, and the b-sides (and outtakes that would eventually surface) represent a sustained, jaw-dropping burst of creativity.

All four songs on The Sisters EP delight in arpeggio and staccato notes. “Seconds” (track three) strikes immediately with the tense, insistent interplay between Candida’s keyboards and Russell’s plucked violin. It’s a perfect musical backing for Jarvis’ storyline; like many, it’s not about the winners or the losers, but a couple that exists somewhere in the middle, hence the title. She’s an unmarried mother (“with another on the way”). He’s simply “twisted out of shape.” They don’t get along much; they don’t even seem to be from the same planet. They will never feel comfortable in this world, nor have the chance to realize all or any their aspirations. But it doesn’t matter. The chorus positively bursts open, and Jarvis keeps the possibilities equally open. “It still feels like the morning.”

And he makes it clear that this isn’t just where his sympathies lie, it’s where his preferences reside too. “But you’re so perfect,” he sneers halfway through, to a character we did not realize existed in the song till now, someone he’s actually aiming this story towards. “You don’t interest me at all.” And on the final chorus, he lets his misfit couple reign over their ungainly landscape. “My God, they’re still alive/ They got it wrong but they still tried/ And they made it through to the morning.”

Friday, August 17, 2007


With this track, the band is well into its darkest, artiest period. The verses are queasy and groaning, the chorus is frantic and hectoring. This is goth to the point where it sounds like the band is trying to will itself back into the Dark Ages. (Is that a hammered dulcimer in there?) Still, as the song reaches its final crescendo, Jarvis gets in some good, disturbing imagery, though without a lyric sheet it’s pretty impenetrable. “…your reasonable wishes, timetables kisses, your well rehearsed phrases, your separate bedrooms, your forbidden places. Out on the moorland, you're naked and bleeding with no sign of shelter and no place to hide in….”

Monday, August 13, 2007

I'm a Man

Unfairly dismissed by Jarvis a few years after its release, “I’m a Man” proves that the band could never become completely ordinary; they’re just too damned neurotic. (In Mark Sturdy’s Pulp bio, Truth and Beauty, Nick Banks suggests that the song was more successful in live settings.) This is practically the sibling to “Party Hard,” another rock song that combines stadium-sized bloat with Jarvis’ bitterly pointed lyrics and panicked vocals, in order to show the listener how dehumanization really feels. And, like “Party Hard” again, “I’m a Man” is just a potent now, almost ten years after its release. Consider the sobering notion that lad magazines may in fact be the most successful mid-‘90s UK export to America.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Don't You Know

As close to pop as the Freaks album gets, “Don’t You Know” is almost snappy, thanks mainly to Candida’s memorable, simple piano hook. On one hand, Jarvis is still fixated on doomed relationships. “Don’t you know she could break you,” the chorus begins. “Every bone that’s inside of you?” But he spends much of the song advising someone (himself, maybe?) to try to see the positives. I think so, anyway. Read another way, he might just be saying that since you’re stuck here – “here” being both the relationship and Sheffield – you might as well make the best of things. Because, face it, you’re hopeless.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Love is Blind

The best opening track on a Pulp album, “Love is Blind” begins with a yelp from Jarvis over thudding, tribal drum beats. As mentioned before, the band at this point has not wholly integrated itself in a studio setting. Nevertheless, this song announces something, that this is a band with a renewed purpose. The tight, no-frills rhythm section compliments the melodramatic keyboards and call-and-response between guitar and violin. The music gives Jarvis’ romantic and urban angst a new, electric urgency it never really had before. You can almost believe that the fate in the world is indeed in the hands of these hopeless lovers commiserating together one dreary morning.

Many songs on Separations are driven by, if not obsessed with, a sense of time running out. The ten-or-so years of musical struggle had really taken their toll by this point. But Pulp don’t sound defeated here; they’ve instead managed to rally themselves for their latest last chance.

Jarvis’ spoken monologue in the third verse is really something (“We held hands, and we looked out of the bedroom window. We could see the buildings collapsing around us. So we kissed, and we laid on the bed, and we waited for the ceiling to fall in…”). It excuses the clumsy metaphor he follows it with, as he frantically curses a “butcher” who eats lovers. What?

Monday, August 6, 2007

Can I Have My Balls Back, Please?

The title’s hard to beat, that’s for sure. Think of this catchy but dolorous song – which never got past the demo stage – as Pulp’s contribution to the wonderful world of mope-pop. Jarvis doesn’t do much more than repeat the title… but can you blame him? He also makes a vague reference to Christmas of 1997, which he spent in the throes of a nervous breakdown in a luxury hotel in New York City.

In the liner notes to the This Is Hardcore reissue, he uses the song to make a point of Pulp’s disconnect from at least one of their peers. “Some people buy a Mellotron and write OK Computer, we bought one and wrote this.” Sure, “Can I Have My Balls Back, Please?” is a bit of a throwaway, but at least the band committed to even give their throwaways some cockeyed wit. And it’s nice to hear the band in a fairly relaxed performance mode, compared to the heavy, labored sound of Hardcore.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Live Bed Show

Perhaps to balance out these Lynchian portraits of doomed ladies a bit, there are also Pulp songs that take an achingly empathetic view towards brokenhearted women. “Live Bed Show” exists in the same line as what possibly may be Pulp’s greatest song, “Lipgloss.” Whereas “Lipgloss” describes a woman in the early aftermath of an ended relationship, “Live Bed Show” looks at what could be that same woman several years on, still unable to pick up the pieces. There are plenty of songs where Jarvis looks himself in the mirror, trying desperately to wake himself the fuck up, to move on from whatever past event he’s been obsessing over. He’s been there many a time. Even so, it's clear from this lyric alone that he knows what this is all like.

The song twists the “if these walls could talk” cliché, viewing the woman’s life from the perspective of a bed that once witnessed acts of great intimacy and passion, but no longer. “The silences of now/ And the good times of the past.” Even when Jarvis mixes the metaphors more than once – bringing games and TV shows into the mix – it makes perfect sense; he’s showing how someone can see their life as a sad waste, no matter how many different ways they cast it.

I often think of the middle section of Different Class as a treatise of romance from three distinct angles. “Disco 2000” looks at adolescent crushes, “Something Changed” at the surprising ways new love can emerge. “Live Bed Show” fits in by showing what love leaves in its wake.

An alternate mix of “Live Bed Show” is available as a b-side to “Disco 2000.” The main distinction is a spaghetti western guitar solo that occurs after the intro. It’s a minor addition, but it seems to make a difference, prolonging and emphasizing the slow dramatic swell of the music.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Night That Minnie Timperley Died

“Cocker’s fascination with doomed young women is approaching the Lynchian.” So wrote Dennis Lim regarding this track, in The Village Voice in 2002. In fact, you could probably make a mix CD, possibly two, of Pulp songs about alluringly troubled women and send it to David Lynch himself. “Minnie Timperley” is one of his most eerie of these songs, all the more so due to its anthemic pop-rock sound, with a sparkling, perfect balance of programmed and played instruments. The chorus is so big and proud, I often delude myself into thinking this could’ve been a hit, in America even.

But songs with incredibly detailed and morbid storylines do not become hits, not in any country. This is why I do not work in A&R.

At any rate, the lyric is one of Jarvis’ most vivid and inventive. It opens with a quote from Minnie, and from there, he lets the details unfold with truly cinematic fluidity. The rhymes come effortlessly yet unpredictably as well (“Oh, the football scarves/The girls drink halves”). When the awful title act is about to occur, we pull away to a chorus that takes the rock language of triumph and makes it sound mournful and tragic.

Perhaps the Lynchian aspect of this movie is due to the entire scenario coming to Jarvis in a disturbingly vivid dream (see the interview excerpt here).

Saturday, July 28, 2007

All Time High

This is one of the few bright spots on Shaken and Stirred, movie composer David Arnold’s collection of covers of James Bond movie themes. It’s not really Pulp per se – Jarvis, Steve Mackey and Mark Webber are supported by Arnold, an orchestra and a session drummer.

Shaken and Stirred came out about five months before This is Hardcore (but only a month before the album’s teaser single “Help the Aged”). In many ways, Pulp’s “All Time High” (originally recorded by Rita Coolidge for Octopussy) is of a piece with Hardcore. The lush setting is undercut by a seedy, gasping, mannered vocal from Jarvis. “All Time High” becomes another of his slightly ironic lothario portraits. The original version was sung to Bond. Jarvis sings it as Bond, simultaneously meaning and not meaning the pledge of eternal devotion. In particular, his delivery of the second verse – “In my time I've said these words before/ But now I realize/ My heart was telling me lies/ For you, they’re true” – contains an oddly poignant flavor.

A few months after this album’s release, the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies came out, with a score by David Arnold. Pulp were among the acts invited to “audition” a title theme. Their submission did not make the cut, but they eventually found a good use for it, so it’ll get reviewed here eventually.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Please Don't Worry

When they make the Jarvis Cocker biopic (he’ll be playing himself for most of it, although Bill Nighy can play Future Jarvis), the first key scene will show his 18-year-old self gawkily but bravely presenting a demo tape to legendary BBC DJ John Peel in the fall of 1981. One quick month later and the enthused, youthful amateurs of the first Pulp lineup (Jarvis, Peter Dalton, Wayne Furniss and Jamie Pinchbeck) are recording their first Peel Session. For most nascent bands a Peel Session was often the first step to indie-bred acclaim. As Jarvis would wryly note years later, for Pulp it resulted in a 12-year period of struggles, frequent line-up changes and near-constant indifference from the UK music scene. And they didn’t record another Peel Session until 1993.

Of the four songs from that first Peel Session, “Please Don’t Worry” shows most clearly the roots of the classic Pulp sound. A fairground organ lurches drunkenly onto center stage, while a comically large synth-drum sound punctuates each measure in the verses. He’s not even 20, but Jarvis is chronicling a lifetime of disillusion; it appears that drinking, sex (or the lack thereof) and financial issues have already been preying on his mind for some time. And for the chorus, he just repeats the line “Please don’t worry, I feel fine” till you can’t tell if he’s mocking or trying to convince himself and others.

The pop hooks never let up on “Please Don’t Worry” and the whole thing is perfectly timed at 3 minutes and 21 seconds. Seriously, you mean to tell me not one indie label owner in 1981 wanted to put out a 7-inch of this?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Pink Glove

Even by Pulp’s standards, this is a song title rife with provocatively sexual connotations. Jarvis certainly seems to relish every last “uh-uh-uh-uh” and lines like “You’ll always be together/ ’Cause he gets you up in leather.” But it’s the seething jealousy and regret of the chorus (“I know you think I’ve got to be joking/ But if you touch him again than I’m going”) that really sticks in his throat. The pink glove becomes a metaphor for all the ways people compromise themselves in relationships, leading to behavior that’s infuriating, funny, pathetic and sad. “Wear your pink glove, babe/ You put it on the wrong way.”

The His ‘n’ Hers version displays the unique recorded sound of the early ‘90s lineup (Jarvis, Russell Senior, Candida Doyle, Nick Banks, Steve Mackey). No one in the band was a virtuoso really, but by this time they had hit upon a winning strategy: If everyone plays very simple parts on their instruments, and just right amount of reverb gets added, the results would be incredibly powerful. Just listen to the chorus: Candida’s one-note organ part, plus Russell’s clanging guitar chord on the one, plus the relentless Banks-Mackey rhythm machine – there’s little doubt that this is a band that Jarvis is in.

Meanwhile, the live versions of “Pink Glove” from this era remove the reverb and copious overdubs, boiling the song down to it’s tightest, tensest possible form. If you’ve heard the version on The Peel Sessions, you know what I’m talking about. This TV version is an equally perfect example.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Boats and Trains

The shortest song in the Pulp discography and therefore something of an anomaly, “Boats and Trains” is the only song-sketch the band ever did. I think of song-sketches as very short pieces that nonetheless manage to feel complete and even tell some sort of story. For example, “Her Majesty” by The Beatles, “A Pretty Girl is Like…” by The Magnetic Fields, “Love and Kisses” by Sam Phillips and “Through with Buzz” by Steely Dan.

Despite its brevity, “Boats and Trains” is one of the finest entries on It and an early inkling of Jarvis’ subversive writing abilities. Acoustic guitar, organ and (for one time only!) mandolin gently make their way through an ingenious set of chords. Jarvis softly warbles about his secret fears and the futility in opening up about them. “You’d be sure to leak it/ You couldn’t keep it inside/ No matter how hard you tried/ On Boats and Trains and/ And Boats and Trains and/ Funny things and…” Are the boats and trains (and funny things) a way for him to imagine his private thoughts spreading far beyond the relative safety of his Sheffield home? Already, the paranoia that would infiltrate many a Pulp album has begun to set in.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

O.U. (Gone, Gone)

What people think of as the “classic” Pulp sound, it begins here. Sure, before that, there was “My Legendary Girlfriend” and Separations, but much of that work was made before the band truly coalesced as studio performers. On “O.U. (Gone, Gone),” some key elements of the Pulp sound emerge. Candida Doyle’s reliable Farfisa organ no longer signifies low-rent horror; now it’s something glammy and kitschy, yet oddly uplifting. And drummer Nick Banks finds a way to fit his style into the band, by combining Moe Tucker-like simplicity with the disco-rock rhythms of Blondie’s Clem Burke.

Jarvis’ vocals and perspective mark the biggest change. Finally, the guy has cheered up a little. He’s still talking about a busted relationship, but his attitude has completely shifted. He’s not mulling over the shattered remains, he’s scheming to get her back. He’s referring to himself in the second person, like he’s trying to narrate his life story, give it some drama, for additional motivation. He’s begun to develop his penchant for idiosyncratic vocal interjections. I believe this is the first appearance of “Ma ma ma ma ma ma ma…” and he ends the song with some euphoric “Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, oh yeah”s. By the end, he just sounds really fucking happy to be alive, not necessarily related to the story of the song, more because he can barely believe he and his struggling band of oddballs actually came up with such a joyous pop song.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Life Must Be So Wonderful

Of course, you know, the title is meant sardonically. Like the other songs on Pulp’s difficult second album, Freaks, the mood here is dour, the imagery almost oppressive (“And now blind eyes watch you bleed/ You rot in your bedroom, you cry on the phone”). And Jarvis struggles to eke out a tune with his tight, two-note baritone voice. Maybe “sardonically” is the wrong word; it implies a certain amount of humor that’s actually in woefully short supply on this song.

Nevertheless, “Life Must Be So Wonderful” is no lost cause, not quite. Arguably the most impressive element is the rhythm supplied by then-drummer Magnus Doyle (brother of Candida). Whereas most of his stickwork was loose and haphazard, here Doyle cleverly utilizes supple, Al Green-style beats in an unlikely setting. And the rest of the band has already begun to hit upon a unique skill in dramatic sweep, as the song lurches from sweet to dissonant and back again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Since this is quite possibly Pulp’s slickest, most facile song, they deserve some sort of credit for perversely letting it languish as a b-side. Or maybe they were just too aware of how tossed-off the song is. True, it’s the b-side of one of their most commercial singles, “Disco 2000,” but that song is a truly glorious pop moment, filled with aching emotion alongside its big production and bigger hooks. Conversely, “Ansaphone” sounds thin and just a little too eager to please to be a truly worthy moment from the band. Sure, the frothy keyboard arrangement has charm, and Jarvis sounds almost sweet, listening forlornly to an ex-lover’s answering machine, hoping one day she’ll leave a message on his. But ultimately this is as close as Pulp ever got to the more soulless end of Britpop.

Perhaps this is why, on the 2006 double-disc Deluxe Edition of Different Class, the demo version of “Ansaphone” is featured instead of the commercially released one. The two versions don’t differ all that much, but at least the demo feels considerably less fussed-over.

“Ansaphone” also brings to mind the Different Class paradox. The sessions of His ‘n’ Hers and This Is Hardcore yielded many grade-A quality b-sides. Different Class, not so much. I think this is mainly because the band saw DC as their do-or-die moment; therefore, all the best songs from that era are on the album itself.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Death II

This song is the sequel to “Death Comes to Town,” a Pulp song that, curiously, is more readily available as a remix, under the title “Death Goes to the Disco.” But if “Death Comes to Town” finds Jarvis attempting to half-imagine the Grim Reaper hanging ‘round a dance club, “Death II” seems to dispense with this scenario. Instead, it appears to be another Jarvis ode to the after-effects of love lost in Sheffield.

The lyrics contain some Jarvis staples: off-kilter interjections (“Let’s do it now”… “Oh, Jesus Christ now”); more off-kilter descriptions of fairly commonplace actions (“So I go out and fill my eyes with other women/ Oh, they look good to me and I think that I might kiss them”). However, lines like “The touch of your skin is a legend” suggest that the woman he’s singing about is deceased. Or maybe it just feels that way.

Musically, “Death II” is one of the Separations songs largely built with computers, drum machines, etc. Nevertheless, it’s a credit that the band retains their musical personality – that vaguely low-rent disco-pop mélange they were just beginning to master – pretty much no matter what equipment they used. Despite the fact that it’s debatable as to how much the band knew what they were doing with this technology, “Death II” still surges with an impressive amount of drama. Future entries on songs from this album will examine this oddly unique sound.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Party Hard

“Party Hard” opens with a phalanx of overdriven guitars and a pounding, resolutely unsubtle rhythm section. As with the rest of This Is Hardcore, the production is state-of-the-art, nary a note without digital polish and finesse. It’s just this side of antiseptic – and that’s entirely the point. “Party Hard” is one the album’s portraits of a costly, finely wrought and seductive version of hell.

As you might have guessed from its title, the song describes the whirling adventures of Jarvis on the scene, a möbius strip of loud music, dancing, sex and drugs. But his voice – processed through vocoders and other synthesized effects – is pure disaffection, dripping with weary disdain. You can easily imagine George Sanders sardonically proclaiming the opening line: “I used to try very hard to make friends with everyone on the planet.” In his book Britpop! (titled The Last Party in the UK), John Harris notes that “Party Hard” bears a musical resemblance to David Bowie’s “Look Back in Anger.” True, but the been-there-shagged-that attitude brings to mind “Love is the Drug,” by Bowie’s contemporaries Roxy Music.

“Party Hard” is also one of the most prescient songs on the album, set in a land of sensory overload, conspicuous consumption and instant gratification, of moremoremore. Let’s just say the song isn’t exactly what you’d call dated.

Pulp: The Peel Sessions contains a relentless rendition of the song from a live show at the Birmingham Academy in October 2001. Here, Jarvis’ voice is processed until it sounds like he’s swallowed every microphone on the stage.

The video for the song – quite possibly the campiest the band ever made – can be viewed here. (Watch all the way through – the best jokes are in the last ten seconds.)

Monday, July 2, 2007

Have You Seen Her Lately?

The first verse contains some excellent lyrics, as a vampiric and insidious lover “directs all the dreams you are dreaming.” Upon further examination, however, this is a somewhat puzzling song.

I saw a friend of yours today,
She called me over just to say:
"I don't know if you've seen her lately,
but god, she's looking rough"

Why derive the title from this quote if the song is actually in the second person, directed towards the woman “her”self?

For that matter, as Jarvis describes this man as a child, why does he think she should “teach him how to walk”? Maybe he’s just stressing that she needs to get this man out of her life, but the metaphor doesn’t hold too well, a rare occurrence in the Pulp canon. And the payoff line – “He's just a piece of luggage that you should throw away” – just doesn’t have the necessary, venomous snap.

Fortunately, musically, “Have You Seen Her Lately?” holds up better. A swooning ballad blown up big with billowing reverb, the recording affirms the band’s ability to blow kitchen-sink drama up into a lovingly grand, but no less human, affair.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

My Lighthouse

The first Pulp single and first song on their debut It, but not the first significant recorded work by the band… but we’ll get to those eventually.

This is virtually unrecognizable as Pulp music, and not just because this lineup broke up shortly after the album’s release. On “My Lighthouse,” Jarvis croons uncomfortably, and his lyrical stance is not sardonic and witty, but callow and virginal.

Nevertheless, there are hints of his future songwriting prowess. The opening line is charmingly and knowingly awkward: “Come up to my lighthouse for I have something I wish to say/It can wait for a moment; well, in fact, it can wait all day.” The song itself is pretty beguiling piece of soft folk-pop, with an opening mix of seagull sounds and chiming guitar riffs that shows an early facility for evocative arrangements. A simply but catchy keyboard part enters mid-song, something very similar to keyboards on later Pulp hits. It’s just that Jarvis can’t sing yet.

Things you learn from Wiki sites: The “My Lighthouse” single was released on April 18, 1983, almost exactly a month before the release of the first Smiths single, “Hand in Glove.” (May 13, 1983). I just thought you should know.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

I Love Life

The sorta-title track of Pulp’s final (to date) album, “I Love Life” is the most literal of the album’s songs, in its uneasy steps towards feeling good about one’s existence. The main part of the song seems to be in two keys at once, before resolving in a splurge of furious rock at the end -- vaguely chaotic, but small change compared to mid-‘80s songs like “Tunnel” and “The Never-Ending Story.”

What matter most are the details – Jarvis’ specialty, after all. There’s nothing here bemoaning a fame hangover; it’s all stuff any weirded-out person might say. “Look at these buildings and houses/I love my life, I love my life,” is positively David Byrne-esque. The bridge seems to hint at a lost set of house keys leading to the end of a love affair.

We Love Life draws a pretty mixed reaction from Pulp’s fanbase. I’ve been pretty firmly on the pro side. For a long time, I never really understood the distaste some held for the production by Jarvis’ idol, Scott Walker. However, the version of this song from last year’s Pulp: The Peel Sessions anthology does indeed garner strength from lower production values and less gloss. The spirit is closer to the ramshackle but anthemic sound the band made all their own in the mid-‘90s.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sorted for E's and Wizz

Upon its release, Pulp’s breakthrough 1995 album Different Class was thought by many to be a brash statement of intent from the misfits of the world. It seemed that the lanky, gawky, oddly attired Jarvis Cocker was the perfect vessel to deliver the message that the wallflowers of the world had united and we had every right to parties, sex, revenge, all of it.

Twelve years later, it’s pretty apparent that this is merely a superficial read on Different Class. The album really illustrates the way the freedoms of young adulthood can slowly calcify into routine as easily as any staid middle-class existence. The brash outsider who declared war on the squares in the album’s beginning is, by the end, exhausted and hung-over, one of the “broken people.”

“Sorted for E’s and Wizz” is the eighth track on Different Class and the moment where the disillusion really begins to set in. Documenting Jarvis’ brief dalliance circa 1989 with rave culture, the song pinpoints his realization that a park full of wasted kids is not the unlocking of the secrets of humankind; it’s just a park full of wasted kids. More crucially, the song describes the realization that you don’t have much in common with your chosen social scene. Add to that the sinking sensation of too many drugs and you get a literal hangover to go with the figurative one. And “then you come down,” as the chorus goes. (At the song’s end, Jarvis cleverly alters it to hammer home the woozy paranoia; “What if you never come down?”) Is it any wonder the band’s next album, This is Hardcore, detailed his descent into overindulgence and exhaustion?

You don’t need to have attended a rave to get this song. It certainly helped that it’s one the band’s most effortless pop efforts, with skipping drums, twinkling synths, Jarvis’ acoustic strums and a fantastic chorus melody. “Sorted” went to number 2 in the UK charts (watch the video here), garnered the band some controversy (see here) and was played at most (if not all) Pulp concerts from this point onward.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Blue Glow

Quite possibly my favorite Pulp song released in the ‘80s, “Blue Glow” shows that even as the band was still trying to master the rudiments of songwriting and instrument-playing, they could happen upon a work of utter musical clarity like this. The members who would carry the band into the next decade distinguish themselves best. Candida Doyle sketches a simple, lonely line on an upright piano. Russell Senior’s violin rises and falls from eerie calm into frenzied panic and back again. And Jarvis Cocker matches him with a lyric that touches on what would become a cornerstone subject matter: romantic obsession in the unlikely poetic setting of Sheffield at night. As he peers into her bedroom window, the thick, black sky and the surrounding river (possibly the Porter Brook or the River Sheaf) conspire against him. This could be a work of autobiography, or it could be Jarvis playing a more dangerous, sociopathic character.