Sunday, March 01, 2009

Number 19: Pulp

The Sisters EP (Island CID 595)

Chart Debut: 4 Jun 1994

Writers: Pulp (lyrics by Jarvis Cocker)

"Your Sister's Clothes" features the sisters from "Babies" four years on. Now the younger sibling finally gets her revenge for earlier years. "Seconds" explores the idea that perfect people are... well, perfectly boring to be honest whilst "His 'n' Hers" is one man's fear of domestic interiors set to music. What are you frightened of? (And remember - shove it in sideways).

With sleevenotes like that, it's hard to add much with my own scribblings. And yet Pulp are an act I was determined to sneak in here - not only a very good band, but one who were a major pop success for a while and seem almost tailormade for this feature. They're also the band I keep coming back to, never the first name I'd think of but every now and again I go through a phase of listening to them fairly intensely and wondering whether they're the best pop group ever. Of course the downside of this is that several of their hits fail the Hit Parade test because they're still too familiar to be worth writing about, so I've chosen a four-song EP.

Babies is of course by far the most familiar of the songs here, already enjoying a second lease of life by the time it made the chart: it was originally released as a single in 1992, on an indie label but with the cover backing of Island. Once Island had officially signed the band, they unsurprisingly wished to make the most of it, squeezing a remixed version onto the His N Hers album; the EP features an edit of the original mix, reportedly at the band's insistence. It's musically somewhat atypical, being more than averagely guitar-based, but at the same time unmistakeably Pulp: there are few acts who'd have written a song about spying on teenage girls from a wardrobe, and fewer still who'd do it well. Apparently the young Jarvis Cocker really did fall asleep in a wardrobe once, during a family holiday.
Whatever misgivings Pulp might have had about returning to the song, it certainly made a major chart breakthrough for them after the fondly-remembered-but-it-only-peaked-at-33 'Do You Remember The First Time?', and led to their debut Top Of The Pops appearance, something Cocker must surely have been looking forward to for a very long time. Although it's not really visible in the clip, he celebrated by revealing a sign inside his jacket that reads "I HATE WET WET WET", a reference to that act's weedy version of 'Love Is All Around' having just climbed to Number One. Little can he have known that it would stay there for another 14 weeks...

The real value for money comes with the three previously unreleased tracks. Well, those and the print that came with the 12" single, anyway. Your Sister's Clothes is the one with the closest connection to the lead track, and between the two of them they presumably account for the EP title. Given the sleeve note, it seems that the younger sister is taking her revenge by sleeping with the older sister's boyfriend, who might logically be the character singing the song - though if so he seems to be using both of them. Musically, it's notable as one of the last Pulp tracks to feature Russell Senior's, er, unique, violin style so prominently. It's laid over a minimal synth line (so minimal, indeed, that the working title was 'Glass', after Phillip Glass) which leaves plenty of room for Jarvis to be Jarvis. Mind you, I don't remember Phillip Glass ever writing as catchy a chorus as this.

Seconds is more of an exercise in song-writing, perhaps, revelling in the many possible meanings of the title word: "second rate", "seconds turn to hours", "slides into second place", "he said he'd last all night then gave you seconds"... But the key concept is about second best - is it something to fear or something to look forward to? Cocker himself described the fear of refusing so long to settle for second best that you end up with fifth best. Funnily enough, when I was a kid I used to think Curtis Mayfield was singing "take nothing less than the second best" on 'Move On Up', which I found quite an interesting idea in retrospect. Also apparently referred to is the notion of second-hand people who've been around the track a few times, which of course is most of them. It's no surprise that in terms of the band's worldview, that's not treated as a bad thing. After all, they were famous for their second-hand clothes, and enjoying their first Top 20 success over a decade after their first recordings (albeit not with the same lineup) they must have felt like a second-hand band themselves sometimes.

Whilst His 'N' Hers failed to make the cut for the album of the same name, it embodies the main lyrical theme of the album, and indeed of much of Pulp's material at this time - a fear of domesticity. This is tricky territory for rock music, because most songs that try to do this end up sounding merely smug - and the standard ideas of "rebellious" "not like everybody else" lifestyles embraced by most rockers are every bit as conventional and unimaginative as that which they affect to disdain. What marks out much of Cocker's lyric writing in this period is partly the eye he had for detail and the sense of humour with which he describes this world, but mainly the sense of vulnerability he shows. He's not walking around boasting about how he's so much cleverer than people who work for a living: he's fearing the idea that his life might go nowhere. Indeed, this song seems distantly derived from a demo called 'Frightened', unreleased at the time but recalled here in the section where the protagonist is asked post-coitus what scares him: "Belgian chocolates... James Dean posters... endowment plans..." and so forth. He does admit in a 2006 sleevenote that this may have played on his mind all the more because their rehearsal room at the time was a warehouse of pottery figurines. It also prefigures later songs like 'I Spy', where sexuality is used as an escape from everyday life. It's not necessarily a convincing point of view, and its somewhat tawdry nature makes it a difficult place to spend a lot of time, but it's certainly a compelling one.

Even allowing for the fact that they'd gone four years between (recording) albums, it says quite a lot for the amount of music Pulp were writing at this stage that they were able to leave such high-quality material for what were, effectively, B-sides - for that matter, even 'Babies' wasn't on the original LP version of His 'N' Hers. In fact, I'm hardly the first to say this but the B-sides of this time are rather more impressive than those from the bigger and better Different Class.

Official website: Pulp People (not very up to date).
YouTube if you want to: The original 'Babies' video features more of Cocker's chest hair than was strictly necessary, but look out for a cameo role by Fred Pride. This release occasioned a more glamorous remake and for some reason a spoken-word version. This latter-day performance by a bearded Jarvis makes it easier to understand why Mrs Brown is so keen for me to shave. Somebody's also uploaded the audio of 'Seconds', and a live version of 'His 'N' Hers', complete with audience participation.
Where to get it: Your first port of call should surely be the 2006 deluxe version of His 'N' Hers, which includes all four of the songs discussed here (and 'Frightened') although the version of 'Babies' is the 1994 mix, as is that on Hits. The original single version shows up only on Pulpintro .
Also recommended are the DVD edition of Hits, rather more carefully put together than its compact disc equivalent, which includes both promo videos and the spoken-word edit. And Mark Sturdy's biography Truth & Beauty was very helpful and a genuinely entertaining read.