Fire Records Remasters: Freaks


Immediately you're thrown. The voice is unfamiliar. The mood is claustrophobic, spooked - a demented carousel ride of dark emotions and darker laughter. The pace is sinister, a stop-swirl of jolting movement. You can't take a step back. You don't want to take a step back. You're intoxicated by the horror show. The music is fairground nasty, and it jars.

"Freaks is a bit mad," commented music critic Mr Spencer in Sounds. "A jagged concoction of cruel words fastened to frequently enthralling music, the music of Jarvis Cocker reciting the lyrics with a dry, almost mockingly tuneless nonchalance... Interesting. Rather like a disembowelment."

"The word 'freak' comes nearer to their connection of comedy and horror: it suggests what's aberrant but recognisable, a source of laughter and shrinking fear," remarked Paul Oldfield in Melody Maker. "Even if Jarvis Cocker's vocal delivery brings Pulp within sight of It's Immaterial or The Fall, it's the crepuscular ballads, always bordering on histrionics, of Sixties godlike genius Scott Walker that are the nearest precedent... Pulp's pasteboard theatre finds the freak limits of behaviour amid life's parking meters, bed-sits and milk floats of mundanity."

The milk floats of mundanity. Pulp were a different band again. Everyone bar Jarvis had left after the release of It - to go to college or become fishmongers or shadow cabinet ministers or whatever it is musicians do in their spare time.

Pulp nearly fell apart, but then Russell Senior came on board, after a rehearsal that featured future Pulp mainstay Candida Doyle's brother Magnus on drums.

Senior had some exotic visions of what music should be. It's Russell's voice cackling on 'Fairground', the song that opens Pulp's second album (subtitled Ten Stories About Power, Claustrophobia, Suffocation and Holding Hands). No longer did Pulp sound pastoral, easy-natured, although they still sounded romantic. They've always sounded romantic. But now they were darkly romantic: brooding and noisy and a little bit Gothic in the way young folk who brush their hair a certain way are always a little bit Gothic. Pulp were out-of-tune with the times: but the times didn't satisfy Pulp.

"Antiques Roadshow is our favourite programme," remarked Senior. "Our ambition is to see one of our records on there. If you want any Fifties art deco then Jarvis is your man. I like Italian 17th Century paintings but I haven't been able to get hold of anything yet. That's what I'd eventually like to deal in because I like beautiful things. At the moment I can only afford ugly things."

Freaks is beautifully ugly in places, or is it desperately beautiful? The second song 'I Want You' starts off gentle and sweet, like The Velvet Underground's 'Candy Says' or one of the lesser-known Jacques Brel album cuts. 'I Want You' is a lovely, straightforward love song - Jarvis's croon marvellously expressive and caught up in its own theatrical sweetness: unrequited love and revenge fantasies nestling up to each other the way they often do. "Oh yes, I'll take you/ Just to push you far away," Cocker sings, before lapsing into a sentimental, bitterly learned, narrative. "Yes/ Yes, you're all, yes you're all that I ever desire/ Still I'll kill you in the end. When/ When it seems, when it seems that it's getting to soft/ When you lapse into a friend"

"I've never been a very carefree adolescent," Jarvis told Sounds. "I wouldn't go out with me if I were you. All those types of songs are basically about one girl who I went out with and unfortunately it went from being quite an innocent thing to being a very romantic thing without either of us knowing why. The freaks thing is like getting divorced from the rest of the world through something like that relationship. The other reason we called it Freaks was because we always get called freaks, the escape party from One Flew Over A Cuckoo's Nest, stuff like that. When we play live, everybody dwells on the fact that I'm thin with specs, he (Russell) looks like Count Dracula, Candida (keyboards) although she's 23 looks 14, while Pete [Mansell - bass] looks like a football hooligan. We were always getting called freaks so we thought let's call the LP Freaks just to... put two fingers up."

Ah yes. Two fingers up, the 'Harvey Smith', so much more eloquent than its bullish American cousin 'flipping the bird': it's a classic British gesture, a classic Cocker gesture. Don't you sometimes suspect that one of the main reasons Cocker kept going through the wilderness decade was simply a two-fingered gesture to those who thought he shouldn't?

A keyboard-player joined. A keyboard player left. Candida settled in, working in two separate toy shops in Manchester to support her music habit. The band signed to Fire Records following Candida's first concert: the bulk of the album was recorded in a week and then in stages, Russell sending Fire handwritten notes to update them on progress.

Here is my favourite biographical detail from the time. Who cares if it's true? Soon after signing to Fire in November 1985, Cocker fell out of a window while trying to impress a girl with a Super-Man impression and ended up in hospital, temporarily requiring the use of a wheelchair in which he appeared during concerts.

"Pulp are a Sheffield band and Freaks is their second album," wrote Roy Wilkinson in Sounds. "Pulp's core of Cocker and violinist/guitarist Russell Senior are creating a haunting music which is virtually without peer in the Britain of 1987, their nearest relatives being The Band Of Holy Joy. The similarities come with the way both have fostered a host of neglected styles (waltzes to crooning balladry), transmuted mundanity into the grotesque, projected an overriding mood of melancholy and drawn on a wealth of literary references."

The album's quite marvellous. Most of these songs stand the distance of time: it was here, possibly even more than 1992's Separations, that Pulp started coming into their own as a band with a fully-realised aesthetic. Despite the band's later reservations about the album, none of the songs here sounded let down by the rapidity of the recording process.

If anything, the album has an edge because of it. 'Being Followed Home' is simultaneously bleak and rousing, a spooky horror show once more with its sound of footsteps at the song's start and stalker mentality. You can totally lose yourself within the unfolding tale. The single 'Master Of The Universe' is a belter of a song, and should have charted: wickedly arrogant and brilliantly atmospheric, its dark, satanic majesty wickedly proving that Hazel O'Connor's theatrics as a doomed rock star in the 1980 film Breaking Glass had deep resonance in the rain-flecked street of Britain. (Some of the lines from the film's hit song 'Eight Day' are repeated, almost word for word.)

'Life Must Be So Wonderful' is charmingly dour: revenge fantasies rarely sound so compelling. Senior sings lead vocals once more on the skeletal chilling 'Anorexic Beauty' - a song that wouldn't have sounded out-of-place in an early Nipple Erectors set with its attention to sparse detail. The humour is morbid. 'The Never-Ending Story' is full-on, Jarvis shouting lines over tumultuous whirls of keyboard... only to be countered by a slight pastoral return with the vaguely unrealised 'Don't You Know'.

Among the nine bonus tracks included with this reissue are two non album singles: the enchantingly canine and understated 'Dogs Are Everywhere', and the rather crass lyrical analogy of 'Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)', with its nonetheless memorable lyrics, Little girl with blue eyes/ There's a hole in your heart/ And one between your legs/ You never had to wonder which one he's going to fill/ In spite of what he says". One critic compared Jarvis' deeply resonant vocals to Scottish singer Lloyd Cole, "only harder", and praised the song's "slow motion nursery rhyme broodiness".

Melody Maker made 'Dogs Are Everywhere' Single Of The Week, writing "Jive to the warped sense of humour, thrill to the insanities of their subject matter, have a laugh with Jarvis who looks like an undertaker's apprentice and sounds like a heavenly choir... thrill to the perverse logic of their lyrical adventures. Once you've heard Pulp you'll never need The Smiths again."

"I think Pulp will have a hit record within the next 18 months," wrote Record Mirror hopefully.

Everett True, 2012

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