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.