Top five tunes: Pulp

Who? Pulp

Years active: 1978 – 2002 & 2011 – 2013

Band members*:
Jarvis Cocker (lead vocals, guitar, keyboards) 1978-2002, 2011-2013
Candida Doyle (keyboards, organ, vocals) 1984-1986, 1987-2002, 2011-2013
Nick Banks (drums, percussion) 1986-2002, 2011-2013
Steve Mackey (bass) 1988-2002, 2011-2013
Mark Webber (guitar, keyboards) 1995-2002, 2011-2013
Russell Senior (guitar, violin, vocals) 1983-1997, 2011

*The above constitutes the core members during the height of the band’s career. There were a number of other members that came and went during the early days, of which Jarvis Cocker was the only constant.

It (1983)
Freaks (1987)
Separations (1992)
His ‘n’ hers (1994)
Different class (1995)
This is hardcore (1998)
We love life (2001)

In September 1994, I went to see Blur perform live at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto. In the lineup into the show, I met up with my friend Tim, who had travelled in from Waterloo with a bunch of his friends with whom he was attending university there. We were all excited to see the headlining act, Blur, who had just released “Parklife” and were riding high on the waves of that excellent album. What we didn’t know as we stood waiting outside the Phoenix was that we were about to blown away by the opening act.

In fact, Jarvis Cocker led his band Pulp onto the stage that night as if they were the headliners, not Blur. The only song by them that I had heard was “Do you remember the first time” and just earlier that afternoon on the radio, but their energy and their dynamic performance had me (and the rest of the crowd) rapt from the outset. It was glam, it was dark, and it was sexy. The tall and thin front man had a charisma shinier than his reflective blazer and was reminiscent of a David Bowie or Lou Reed. It was a set that few of us in attendance would ever forget and that forced many of us to go out the next day to purchase “His ‘n’ hers”. Shortly after that, Pulp released the single “Common people” and they exploded, even here in North America.

Pulp originally formed in Sheffield in 1978 and despite getting a John Peel session in 1981, struggled to gain a foothold throughout the 1980s. They finally broke in 1990s with the aforementioned “His ‘n’ hers” and then, even more so with 1995’s “Different class”, their fourth and fifth albums, respectively. Their name became synonymous with Britpop. Their headline set in place of The Stone Roses at Glastonbury in 1995 is the stuff of legends. Frontman Jarvis Cocker found even further notoriety when he jumped onstage to moon Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards in 1996. They released the brilliant “This is hardcore” in 1998 but by this time, Britpop was on the wane and the album didn’t really get its due. There was one last album, “We love life”, in 2001 before the band’s dissolution the following year.

Jarvis Cocker reunited the roster that released the band’s two best albums for a run of shows that was extended for a period that ran between 2011 and 2013. Unfortunately, none of the shows came close enough for me to see them again so that one original show is the only time I’ve seen them live. Still, I remember that one show fondly and much of their output in the 1990s ranks among my favourite ever songs. The difficulty in choosing just five songs was that they have great songs beyond “His ‘n’ hers” and “Different class” but how do you voyage very far from near perfection?

Nonetheless, the below constitute some of my favourites that Jarvis and the gang have released. I’d love to hear from the other Pulp fans out there (I know you’re out there) as to your own favourite tunes.

The top five:

#5: The night that Minnie Timperley died (from “We love life”, 2001)

I almost felt like I had to include a song that was recorded and released outside of Pulp’s two year heyday in the mid 1990s to prove they were more than a one trick pony. They just had so many great songs in that period that are now classics and I’ve constrained myself to just the five but this is an example of how great they were right up to the end. It was never released as a single off their final album but really should have been. The drum machine rhythms, rocking guitar riffs, and handclaps bely the dark subject matter of the song, a touchstone of Pulp’s oeuvre. Jarvis Cocker’s wry and often salacious lyrics and his knowing delivery are often what make their songs the masterpieces that they are. “The night that Minnie Timperley died” is an account of a teen’s murder, a snapshot into the minds of both the victim (“How can a girl have sex with these pathetic teenage wrecks?”) and the murderer (“He thought he was still dangerous – paunchy, but dangerous”). Brilliant.

#4: Disco 2000 (from “Different class”, 1995)

If that opening guitar riff that you leads into that disco danceable beat sounds familiar, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. It’s based heavily, if not a complete ripoff of the melody of “Gloria”, originally an Italian song by Umberto Tozzi but later translated to English in a cover by Laura Branigan. It’s meant to invite the memories and harken back to a younger time, back when disco was at its peak. It’s a case of the music reflecting the lyrical themes. The story here, apparently semi-autobiographical, is about a man wondering about his childhood crush, Deborah, (“The boys all loved you but I was a mess”), wondering what she was doing now, and fantasizing about meeting her again. “Oh what are you doing Sunday baby. Would you like to come and meet me maybe, you can even bring your baby.” Hilarious and touching at the same time. And of course, it’s disco so you want to dance to it, no?

#3: Razzmatazz (from “Razzmatazz”, 1993)

You might have noticed a thematic trend in my words on the first two songs. The draw in Pulp’s music is not just the danceable glam swagger but also Jarvis Cocker’s wry, facetious, and life-observing lyrics. Each song is a story, often of the salacious and lecherous underbelly of society that plays just below its surface. And you can’t get much more lecherous than the first two line of “Razzmatazz”: “The trouble with your brother, he’s always sleeping with your mother. And I know that your sister missed her time again this month.” The idea of the title, that of showy and noisy and attention-grabbing behaviour, is played out in the song. Whether lessons are learned is questionable but the consequences are certainly felt. And the music, with the driving strings and slithery soul, is dark and red lit, fester and pain, a shadow just beyond sight in the corner. This non album single is such a revelation and you just try to crack it out of your skull.

#2: Do you remember the first time? (from “His ‘n’ hers”, 1994)

As I mentioned above, this is the one track that I had heard before heading to that Blur show that they opened. It also just happens to be one of their first big hits, definitely the first to crack the top 40 in their home country. I’m not sure I remember what I thought of it as I first heard those driving basslines, intergalactic synths and electric guitars, and Cocker’s Ziggy Stardust-esque vocals, but it has since become one of my favourite ever tracks. The tune is pure sex, just as its title suggests. But it’s not really about the “first time”. It’s actually about a man trying to convince his lover not to go back to her husband. And with lines like “still you bought a toy that can reach the places he never goes” and “I don’t care if you screw him just as long as you save a piece for me”, you wonder how he could possibly fail. Hilarious and desperate and one hell of a groove.

#1: Common people (from “Different class”, 1995)

The fact that “Common people” is number one on this list shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. It is the song for which the best band is best known, their highest charting and best selling single, and is something of an anthem for the Britpop era. This last, in itself, shows how varied that movement was because outside of perhaps Suede, Pulp sounded little like the other big groups of the time. It is a highly danceable number with a hyper addictive synth line, electric violin flourishes, driving and raging guitars, and a drum beat that keeps everything moving at a frantic enough pace. And Cocker is really at the top of his vocal and lyrical game here. He tells a semi-autobiographical tale about an arts student he was after but is ultimately turned off by her interest in slumming and class tourism. This leads to ironic and sarcastic interplay between Cocker and his adversary. I don’t know how many times I’ve shouted along on the dance floor as he tries to explain: “Rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job. Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you never went to school. But still you’ll never get it right ’cause when you’re laid in bed at night, watching ‘roaches climb the wall. If you called your dad he could stop it all.” So much pure awesome.

For other top five lists in this series, click here.

Best tunes of 1990: #1 Depeche Mode “Personal Jesus”

<< #2

Happy new year all!

I figured the first post of the year was a good time to finish off the first series I started this blog with and this song certainly ends it with a bang. Back at number eleven, I proclaimed “Enjoy the silence” as one of Depeche Mode’s biggest hits. Well, at number one, we have what is surely their biggest: “Personal Jesus”.

And I’m well aware that it was technically released as a single in 1989 but I feel it belongs more in 1990 for two reasons. Number one, it was the cornerstone for their 1990 smash hit, “Violator”, a near perfect album, and touched off a string of great singles and pure magic the band hasn’t been able to replicate. Number two, the use of guitar as primary instrument and the driving force behind the song signalled a turning point, a seismic shift for the group from their new wave/synthpop roots into alternative rock, a path they would tread throughout the 1990s.

By all accounts, the song was inspired by Martin Gore’s reading of Priscilla Presley’s memoirs, “Elvis & me”, and the idea of that when you love someone, that person can be your everything. Another twisted love song then. Gore certainly has strange ideas about love but he’s honest, and this alone, this ‘honesty’, is how classics are written. That iconic opening line, “Reach out and touch faith”, for instance, evokes so many ideas about how scary it can be to open up and totally trust someone. Is it as religious as he infers by invoking the idea of your partner being your personal Jesus? I suppose it could be.

Or maybe I’m reading too deeply into what is really at its heart a great pop song for your liking? I sense that could possibly be true as well.

When this song was released, I was in high school. My musical tastes had yet to mature and so I hadn’t yet become the music geek whose words you read today. And I definitely wasn’t reading too deeply into the words sung by the ever enigmatic David Gahan. The title smacked of religion, something I was starting to rebel against at this time, my parents’ enforcement of church attendance each Sunday, and so something that sounded even vaguely sacrilegious was appealing. The heavy beat of the song also didn’t hurt. It made my step fall in line with it whenever it came on over my Sony Sports Walkman ear phones and got me up to dance whenever the DJ inevitably played it at our high school dances.

Yeah, I don’t mind saying that “People are people” was my first introduction to Depeche Mode but that “Personal Jesus” was my real gateway drug. It’s the reason why “Violator” was among the first compact discs I ever purchased, even before I had my own CD player. And it’s likely one of the main reasons why “Violator” was among the first of my vinyl purchases when I started collecting records again, even before I got my new turntable. It’s all rhythm and twangy guitar. It’s rage without the anger. It’s sadness without the tears. It’s passion without the physical touch. “Lift up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer.” It’s like new age blues. But these are all just words. It’s a great song that should be danced to, rather than be written about.

So press play and dance away your first day of 2018.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.

Best albums of 2017: #1 The Clientele “Music for the age of miracles”

Those of you who have been following along and paying close attention will notice that each of my top three albums of the year could be considered comeback albums of a sort. The National’s “Sleep well beast” at number three was their first album in four years, which isn’t a long time when you consider the album at number two was Slowdive’s first in 22 years, but in this day and age, The National’s inactivity felt like a hiatus nonetheless. And of course, the span between Clientele’s last album and this year’s “Music for the age of miracles”, at 9 years (8 years, if you count the mini-album “Minotaur”), pales in comparison with Slowdive’s too.

That there are all these ‘comeback’ albums at the top of my list could say something about my tastes in music and might suggest that I tend towards nostalgia when making my picks. However, there are a bunch of “comeback” albums that are not on this list that could also easily slide into the nostalgia category. No. These three are all fine albums, by some of my favourite bands, and the fact that they didn’t disappoint, given the lofty expectations heaped upon them as soon as they were announced, is a good part of the reason they are ranked so high.

The Clientele has been one of my favourite bands since I first heard their 2003 album, “The violet hour”. Between then and their announced hiatus in 2011, they put out a string of beautiful, and delicate releases that slanted towards 60s psychedelia. And never did creative force, Alasdair MacLean allow his group to stray from this course. But don’t mistake this as stagnation, as my friend Andrew Rodriguez did when he stated that all their albums sounded the same. When listened from end to end, you can definitely hear the progression in their sound but you will always recognize them as The Clientele.

When I purchased the record from my local record store Compact Music, Tyler, my favourite vinyl pusher, noted the album with a grin and said it was a good one. He used all the usual adjectives dragged out when describing their music, but assured me that when that “hazy, epic tune backing a spoken word monologue” (“The museum of fog”) came on, he said to himself, “oh yeah… these guys”. And he nodded slowly in a way that suggested he was hearing the song again in his head at that very moment.

When I put on “Music for the age of miracles” for my own first listen, it didn’t disappoint at all. It was like returning home and sitting in your favourite comfy chair and watching the greatest movie you’ve never seen before but with all your favourite actors and characters. Familiar yet mind blowing and new. For those new to The Clientele, prepare yourself for a heavenly backdrop that will make you forget whatever menial task you are performing and for your face to hurt from the smile that will be permanently pasted there the whole while. It’s an album rammed full of beautiful songs that beg for repeat listens but here are the three I’ve picked for you to sample from. Enjoy.

“Everything you see tonight is different from itself”: This first track here definitely backs up my point on the band’s evolution. I could be wrong but I don’t remember drum machines being Clientele tropes, nor do I associate horns too much with their music. At six and half minutes, “Everything you see tonight is different from itself” is as much of a mouthful as its name, the length giving itself space to grow and yes, evolve from one thing to the next. The end sounding nothing like the beginning. Heady stuff.

“Lunar days”: After the intro that is reminiscent of children’s windup toys or a midway carousel, “Lunar days” settles into something that more resembles The Clientele we know and love. Gentle guitar plucking piggyback on peppy but understated snare and rim drumming, the strings tease, and Alasdair MacLean’s breathy vocals lilt upon them, like a falling leave upon the breeze. It’s all so easy and free that you feel you could easily just step back into childhood in the late summer, replaying the same dog days, never to return to school.

“Everyone you meet”: Here were are! A pop number! The melody even actually reminds me oddly of something Neil Diamond might have sung. There’s horns and strings and peppy drumming and of course, MacLean’s vocals that are impossible not to love here. He actually sounds like he might be smiling as he sings them. Interesting, then, that he appears to be singing about depression “Everyone you meet breathes low, moving soft and slow, blue very blue. I can’t sleep at night, I don’t know what to do.” I feel like maybe he should just listen to more of his own music. So beautiful.

For the rest of the albums in this list, check out my Best Albums page here.