A week of songs: day seven

OK, so thanks to the Facebook chain post doing the rounds, I’m doing that song-a-day-for-a-week thing where I post a song I like and write a bit about it. You should do it too, eh? (Seriously, if you like the post, go write your own, and tell me in the comments, as I’d like to read your picks.)

This is day seven. Again, there’s been a break in the continuity, but life continues to get in the way, I suppose. The song I have chosen for the seventh day is Pulp’s ‘Babies’.

‘Babies’ is a song I didn’t really like when I first heard it. I don’t know what it was – I sort of pegged myself as an INDIE ROCK guy, and this clip (from the song’s 1994 remixed version, which charted) irritated me at the time. I think it’s great now, but then – it seemed like an entirely manufactured, almost boy-band presentation. Which, Young Luke, was probably the fucking point.

(I didn’t even know that there was an earlier, rougher film clip as the polished one was the only one that was shown on Australian TV, I think. The rougher one has much better dancing, however, and show a lot more Sheffield grit. The clip is for the first release, in 1992, which didn’t chart. That version of the song can be found on Intro: The Gift Recordings, which ended up being the first thing I bought from the band.)

I eventually heard the song enough times for something to click in my head, overriding the visuals I associated with it. I started to like the way it seemed there was much more going on beyond its ostensibly poppy exterior – something that has ultimately become the reason why I like the band – and so I grabbed a copy of the Intro record and started playing the thing repeatedly. Disregarding the instruction to avoid reading the liner notes while listening to the music, I discovered a world of pathos and sadness hidden by the song’s yeah-laden chorus.

Musically, the thing is a confection. Ringing guitar introduces the song, before airy organ chords set the scene, playing over insistent bass and almost-Bond guitar. The song rises and falls to allow space for Cocker’s lyrics. And those lyrics are what I’ve come to love about Pulp, particularly Cocker’s peculiarly honest thoughts about attraction and sex, which run kind of contrary to boy-meets-girl pop standards.

‘Babies’ is about voyeurism, about being caught and having to shit or get off the pot, as they say. The chorus is an invitation to sex, either a childish visualisation or a baby-talk proposition, and as with much of the band’s work, there’s a moment where cascading guitar work highlights the kitchen-sink pathetic excuses of the busted:

We were on the bed when you came home
I heard you stop outside the door
I know you won’t believe it’s true
I only went with her ‘cos she looks like you
My god!

And then that chorus again. It’s a sordid little tale, wrapped in colourful nylon instrumentation, a confidence of clothing.

(As an aside, the Intro record features the excellent ‘Razzamatazz’, the first lines of which – “The trouble with your brother/Is he’s always sleeping with your mother/And I know that your sister/Missed her time again last month” – remain some of the most provocative the band’s laid down.)

Eventually, I picked up His ‘N’ Hers, the album which ‘Babies’ was from, which properly introduced me to their sad/happy style. It’s a cornucopia of sordid suburban stories, tales of lost love and shredded dignity, all with ice-cream headache keys and guitar. And it contains one of the most anthemic, terrifyingly lonely songs of previous-partner attraction ever, ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’

Which features this heartbreaking section:

Now I don’t care what you’re doing
No I don’t care if you screw him
Just as long as you save a piece for me

I was in second year at university when Different Class came out. I remember buying a copy the day it was released, and discovering that my copy came with a glittering iron-on logo. I bought a black long-sleeved shirt from the now-defunct Gowings store in town and applied it, creating something that I still wear today, even if the glitter has mostly come off. It looks a little bit crap, and a little bit fabulous. I think they’d probably approve.

That album, though. Jesus. ‘Disco 2000’ and Common People survived the continual airplay of 1995. I honestly think it’s because there’s that dissonance in the tunes, between the jauntiness of the music and the grim-up-North combination of desire and straight talk of the words. Of all the albums of that period – the Britpop wars, I suppose – I think this is the one that speaks to me the most, and it’s certainly the one whose wordplay still has the ability to skewer without warning. Blur’s funnier, and Suede’s more depressing, but Pulp stick the knife in just between the ribs.

(When I moved to London I worked in Berners St, not far from the Bar Italia, of album closer fame. It never got old, walking past, especially when I was down. On those days, I was put in mind of the I can’t go on/I’ll go on Beckettian thrust of the song, and sometimes that was just enough to keep me going. London eats its young, let alone its visitors.)

The next album, This Is Hardcore took things to a Roger Waters-level blackness. I couldn’t get into it when I first heard it, but it’s now one of my favourites – a piece of brilliant self-sabotage, whose title track was a Hollywood production of horror, while the most noteworthy single was a memento mori for drug kids, with a filmclip that ended in the afterlife.

And if you look very hard
Behind the lines upon their face
You may see where you are headed
and it’s such a lonely place.

After that, I was pleasantly surprised at how joyous their final album, We Love Life was. It was acerbic, yes – “Bad Cover Version” was a laundry list of also-rans – but it was more positive, more pastoral. “I Love Life” still has a seedy affair going in, but it’s about trying to own your life, to regain control over things. Hell, in the lyrics he even admits it’s corny that he loves his life, but that it’s the truth. As a sign-off, it felt kind of right.

I never got to see Pulp live until quite recently. When they were first together I missed them, as I wasn’t as into them then as now. Their reunion tour rolled into Sydney, and it was with some hesitation I went. I didn’t want it to suck.

I didn’t really have to worry. The neon logo hung above the stage. There was a laser light-show to begin, and then ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ began, from behind a curtain. As the song built to the first chorus, the curtain fell to the floor, as Jarvis snap-kicked his way off the mixers, impossibly tall and impossibly daggy.

This festival footage is pretty much identical to how the band were when I saw them:

For years, I’d heard these songs about losers, and had internalised them. And now, dancing like a granddad, Cocker brought them to life. Things I never thought I’d get to hear, sung to us, shouted back in response. I have never seen a gig where there was such a sense of catharsis: all of Pulp’s songs are terribly dispiriting, if you think too hard about them, about futility and momentary escape from things. But they’re clothed in musical joy, a lot of the time, and when those two feelings cross each other, there’s a delicious sort of happy/sad nexus. It was at once euphoric and crushing and I don’t know that I can think of another gig where I’ve been full of such teenage, confused emotion. Hearing thousands of people singing ‘Common People’ was spine-tingling in the extreme, howling along as the tune gathered speed, rocketing towards its end.

It was an absolutely perfect moment. Not enough gigs deliver you from woe with such force that you cry with happiness. Thinking about it now, I feel the same; Pulp are a band built on frailties, on the fault lines that run through all of us, rooted in desire. For sex. For acceptance. For dignity. For affection. To be normal. To fit in. To be loved.

I’ve never felt more alone and more understood than with Pulp.

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