Americanism (and Technology, Advertising, Socialism) in Weimar Architecture
To introduce this paper I'd like to point to the differences between these two images. This building was originally built in 1912, as a factory in what is now Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, near Alexanderplatz in eastern central Berlin. In 1926 it became 'Karl-Liebknecht-Haus', the headquarters of the KPD, the Communist Party of Germany. After suffering severe bomb damage during World War Two, it was restored to its current state. It is currently the headquarters of Die Linke. As it now stands, we see a minimal, rather Beidermeier-esque urban block, sober and traditional, without any extraneous detail bar some minor political advertising on the façade. In the earlier photograph, taken in 1930, the entire surface of the building has been taken over by slogans, proclaiming opposition to Fascism, the SPD, the Young Plan and so forth, culminating in the slogan 'for a Soviet Germany', with poster of Lenin added accordingly – other contemporary posters show Liebknecht and Luxemburg along with him. The significance of these two images is as follows. Within these of the same building is the promise of a polemical architecture, a socialist aesthetics that bases itself on the techniques of modern advertising. The KPD headquarters here is a slightly more low-technology version of the famous illuminated facades of the Kurfurstendamm, a Communist's spin on the 'Reklamarchitektur' or 'advertising architecture' of commercial architects such as Erich Mendelsohn. It is a fragment of something which never quite came to pass – a Communist Weimar architecture, as opposed to a reformist or consumerist architecture, which makes its form all the more interesting, particularly seeing that it derives, after one or two degrees of separation, from a particular idea of the American city.
It's notable that façade's interaction with the architecture is blaringly loud and aggressive. It is not minimalist, but makes the form of the building itself completely subservient to propaganda and sloganeering. Yet the particular approach taken at Karl-Liebknecht-Haus, where the advertising forms continuous strips of sans serif text, running in bands along the building, is indebted to the approach of commercial architects. Mendelsohn and others explicitly attempted to rationalise American advertising, stripping away its kitschy crassness into an almost – but not quite – abstract play of lights, in which the chaos of signage of a Times Square would be reworked into sheer lines and planes of neon. In this it would seem to be in opposition to the lack of ornament and lack of aesthetic 'noise' in the architecture of Weimar Modernism, the highly advanced and influential movement then known as the 'Neues Bauen' and retrospectively, dubiously rebranded by American critics as The International Style. If there is a definable Social Democratic architecture of the Weimar Republic, then it is the one constituted in the 'siedlung' low-cost housing estates planned under the SPD architect and planner Martin Wagner. These estates, part of a mass housing programme memorably described as 'built ideology' by the architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri, exemplify a particular received idea of Modern architecture, with their ornament-free surfaces, their blocks dispersed across landscaped greenery. They are not wholly suburban entities, with the architecture of Bruno Taut in particular displaying a garishly artificial use of colour which would not feature in the version of this modernism that would eventually become 'the international style'. Nonetheless they do not appear metropolitan, do not partake in the onslaught of advertising, traffic and spectacle that are central to the Metropolis. If they are indebted to an American source, it is not the delirious USA of skyscrapers, jazz and neon advertisements, but rather the upper-crust architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the apparently 'enlightened' capitalism of Henry Ford.
At this point it's worth digressing into Tafuri's theories of the city and modernism, and their relation to the class compromises that marked urban planning in 1920s Berlin. Tafuri is in English-speaking scholarship the best known thinker associated with the Venice school of architectural historians, of the 1960s and 1970s, whose Workerist-inflected Marxism was shared by the architect Aldo Rossi. Their stance can be summed up in a sentence from Rossi's 1966 book The Architecture of the City - 'there is no such thing as an oppositional architecture'. Similarly, Tafuri would write 'there cannot be founded a class architecture, but only a class critique of architecture'. Nonetheless, his project, and that of his collaborators such as Francesco Dal Co and Massimo Cacciari, would return frequently to the experiments in municipal housing of the 1920s, if only in order to argue for their essential uselessness as a political instrument, as a means of achieving serious reform within the capitalist city. Although unlike their postmodernist successors, both Rossi and Tafuri appeared to believe that 'the socialist house' was at least possible, and Rossi actually identifies it in the monumental workers flats of 1920s Vienna. Nonetheless, they relegate its achievement to an 'after the revolution'.
In Architecture and Utopia, his short study of the links between the avant-garde, social democratic reformism and the rationalised metropolis, Tafuri discusses the estates on the outskirts of Berlin and Frankfurt as an example of an alliance between social democracy and rationalised capitalism, in which an attempt is made to solve capitalism’s contradictions under the conditions of a mixed economy. Tafuri lists these as
'the virtuous linkage of mass production techniques, mass consumption and advertising, based on the nuclear family household, Taylorist work organisation, collective wage bargaining, the hegemony of the large corporation, Keynesian demand management, the welfare state and the mass production of standardised housing'
Although Tafuri leaves out from his list the workers' organisations and co-operatives who were very much a part of this compact, and the analysis appears to describe post-1945 capital more closely than post-1914, the general thread is sharp enough. The estates are ‘partial utopias of the plan’. They are invariably at a remove from the Metropolis, they are pure suburban enclaves which try to cut themselves off from Metropolitan chaos and contradiction, while partaking in its networks of transportation and employment. Aesthetically, this results in an urban form that has often been considered standardised, rectilinear and stark – although it should be pointed out that this is based on a misunderstanding, via black and white photos of luridly coloured buildings – and an urban form which is essentially indebted to the garden city and the garden suburb, that Edwardian, publess emblem of arts-and-crafts reformism. It is a kind of idealised Americanism, where Fordist management, rationalised technology and the avant-garde’s mutation of industrial aesthetics is placed in the service of the dispersed, verdant enclave of the garden city.
So these estates try to have it both ways – to be both socialistic and capitalistic, to build a new city while the old continues to multiply its contradictions and inequalities. Tafuri's critique of this is distinctly similar to that of Walter Rathenau, the German industrialist and politician who was a noted thinker and planner of the rationalised, compromised capitalism that would become known as 'Fordism'. Rathenau wrote of the garden cities in his The New Society (1920)
'it is tacit lying and deception to act on the tacit assumption that thoroughgoing socialism means something like a garden city idyll, with play-houses, open-air theatres, picturesque raiment and fireside art. (...) the requirements of the population are not medievally simplified – they could not be, in view of the density of the population and the complexity of individual and professional vocations. They are many and diverse, and they are moreover intensified by the spectacle of extravagance offered by the profiteering class and the licence of social life. The traditional garden-city idyll of architects and artists-craftsmen is a Utopia with about as much reality as th pastoral Acadianism of Marie Antoinette.'
Ironically enough, after Rathenau's assassination an AEG company garden city would be named after him, but this remains a critique decidedly close to Tafuri's, although with rather different aims. The attempt at medieval simplification and the production of non-metropolitan space is critiqued in favour of the large city with all its inequalities and exploitation. In Architecture and Utopia Tafuri briefly sketches some examples of architecture that actively participates in these contradictions – we will mention here Erich Mendelsohn, Hannes Meyer, Hans Poelzig and Ludwig Hilberseimer. Erich Mendelsohn's expressionistic functionalism, to use an appropriately contradictory compound, is particularly important. Tafuri refers to Mendelsohn’s work as ‘inebriating’. It’s an architecture which, rather than sitting calmly and Platonically on the outskirts, employs all the potentialities of the metropolis in its architectural organisation. Corners are glazed, dynamic angles employed, clashes with previous architecture are accentuated, advertising is integrated, and electric light becomes a central architectural feature.
This was described as Reklamarchitektur by the critic Adolf Behne, literally ‘advertising architecture’. Tafuri appears to offer this up as the delirious, dreamlike, dynamic, somewhat seamy underside of the Neues Bauen, and one which unlike the social-democratic ‘built ideology’ of the estates on the outskirts, is entirely sanguine about an embrace of rationalised, Americanised capitalism, without illusions. However the other examplar of a politically realist architecture for the Venice school is the work of Ludwig Hilberseimer, a planner and later collaborator of Mies van der Rohe, whose urban plans are notoriously, relentlessly stark. These gigantic, repetitious city-districts, organised and designed on as standardised a principle as possible, are notable particularly for their lack of ‘signs’, whether architectural detailing, advertising, slogans, colour, and so forth, making this work, at least aesthetically, the diametric opposite of the advertising-architecture of Mendelsohn. This bareness and obsessive order gives the work a strangely classical appearance, and its deliberately blank and inhumane anti-aesthetic led Tafuri and Dal Co to call it, after Robert Musil, ‘the city without qualities’, and a repentant Hilberseimer to retrospectively call it a 'necropolis' in the 1960s. Hilberseimer considered himself a socialist, and always described his city plans as embodying the (at least implicit) logic of capital. In Groszstadtarchitektur he writes:
'The present type of large city owes its birth above all to the economic form of capitalist imperialism, which in turn is closely connected to the evolution of science and of production techniques. With the maximum concentration and an extensive and complete organisation it achieves a superabundance of intensity and energy (...) the large city appears primarily as the creation of omnipotent large capital and therefore is imprinted with anonymity...(and he goes on) at the same time the maximum isolation and the greatest crowding together of its inhabitants. In it, an enormously intensified rhythm of life very rapidly represses every local and individual element'.
It is here deeply unclear whether Hilberseimer's Metropolis is a critique of this by holding up to it a distorted mirror, or whether it attempts to rationalise still further. So while he talks about energy and intensity, his images remove all aesthetic charge, all dynamism or potential jouissance from urban architecture, as if to classicise, eternalise the repetitious forms and constant transit; while the anonymity is amplified rather than leavened. This is the inverse of advertising-architecture, in that it strips the pretty electric dressing from the skyscrapers and department stores, leaving only strips, boxes, of empty floors. If Weimar modernism was enormously indebted to images of the steel frames of American skyscrapers before their ornament was applied, Hilberseimer takes this to the extreme of there being no visible goods inside either, nothing to sell, no content in the interior no advertising on the exterior - only the system of distribution and organisation in its most abstract form is visible.
What unites the radically differing approaches of Mendelsohn and Hilberseimer, other than their immersion in the Weimar Republic’s American-funded capitalism, whether directly or ironically, is their shared roots in wilfully distorted images of the United States, the emblem at the time of a rationalised capital, of megacity metropolitanism, and of alleged dehumanisation, and also of an inadvertent assault on traditional ideas of aesthetics. So, Hilberseimer frequently reproduced, in books such as Groszstadtarchitektur, images of American skyscrapers at their most repetitious, such as the towers of General Motors Headquarters in Detroit, or McKim, Mead and White's Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City. These became, when stripped of their ornament by Hilberseimer himself, depictions of totality, of a society run entirely on the basis of the principles of Fordism. Meanwhile, Mendelsohn published Amerika in 1926, a documentary record and an architectural critique of a journey round the USA, in the company of Fritz Lang among others, who used his impressions of the trip as the basis for Metropolis. Mendelsohn admired much in American architecture, but attempted to transform it into something less mythic, less irrational, and considerably less tawdry. One of the most telling juxtapositions in the book is of two images of Broadway – one where it is glittering at night blurred into an image so abstract that El Lissitzky would later use it as the basis for this collage; followed by the same scene the morning after. While the first shows an electro-mechanical show where individual advertisements can barely be distinguished, so you can no longer see what is being sold to you, an 'ad without products' in Giorgio Agamben's phrase, the other is merely shrill, crass and obnoxious, and perfectly clear. The response to the evident irrationality of rationalised American capitalism can either be to abstract its techniques further, in the case of Mendelsohn, or to strip it completely, leaving only the outline of total organisation, in the case of Hilberseimer.
Another, equally extreme response to that of Hilberseimer was that of Hannes Meyer. K Michael Hays' study Modernism and the Posthuman Subject aligns him with Hilberseimer as a sophisticated anti-humanist thinker, but seems to miss the striking aesthetic contrast between Hilberseimer's city-planning and some speculative proposals by Meyer himself. Meyer was the avowedly Marxist second director of the Bauhaus, sacked after donating the school's money to a Miners' Strike, but before that was an architect and planner for the Swiss co-operative movement. Before becoming Bauhaus director he composed a series of works all named 'Co-Op' – linocuts mostly, abstracting his housing co-ops into suprematist compositions – the most interesting of which were the 'Co-Op Vitrines'. These are arrangements in glass cases of standardised products from co-operative stores, into what resemble miniature model cities, cities literally made out of commodities, in a dreamlike taking literally of advertising's role in architecture. While we may ponder whether Hilberseimer's city was satirical or not, the Co-Op city was meant wholly sincerely as a representation of the liberating possibilities of mass production, and Meyer was straightforward in his praise of neon lights, mechanical advertisements, traffic, and so forth. At the same time that helped politicise the Bauhaus, he also introduced an advertising department – both his Marxism and his praise for department stores and neon signs were utilised in opposition to the idea of a pure art, and both involved the use of technology as an architectural element. Meanwhile, he claimed that prospective buildings, such as his Constructivist Peterschule in Basel, would work not merely as a critique of the surrounding buildings, but would actively work for their destruction - an architecture of aesthetic war, which at least aimed to be an instrument of class war.
There is another potential architectural response to metropolitan spectacle, mass organisation, ubiquitous signage, technology and advertising which limits itself to one building, and that is in the cinema, where Mendelsohn again attempted to abstract and rationalise his image of America. This is is the Universum Kino, which Mendelsohn designed for UFA in 1926, as part of a luxury housing development in the Kurfürstendamm. In the advertisement at the top of its tower, there is a proclamation of the building's integration of light-advertising and dwelling. On the cinema's opening, Mendelsohn published a poem, which essentially argued that his cinema was more American than the Americans. While they had a cargo-cultish approach to cinema design, in which modernity and ancient or national architectural styles were mixed together to create an effect, imitated in early Weimar cinemas, that was memorably described by Siegfried Kracauer in the essay 'Cult of Distraction' as a 'pseudo-totality' which works against the radical two-dimensionality of the films themselves, attempting to return the mass, aura-free act of going to the pictures into the mythic, Wagnerian space of the gesamtkunstwerk. Consciously or otherwise, the Kino Universum was an attempt at answering Kracauer's critique – a streamlined, rationalised picture palace, with light architecture integrated into but not distracting from the film programme, working instead as a kind of city crown for the surrounding area. The Universum Kino would, he wrote, entail 'no rococo palace for Buster Keaton, no wedding cake for Potemkin'.
The 'Lichtberg' Kino in the solidly Communist district of Wedding took a similar approach, adding a floodlight for even more dramatic effect; but it was at the centre of a deliberately Americanised development of similarly streamlined rental flats called, in a combination of Rathenau's objections and his solutions, the 'Atlantic Garden City' – a speculative scheme, not one of the social democratic estates. To finally bring this back to where we started, there is another modernist picture-house built at this point, which seems to sit between the American Moorish palaces and the upright, stark approach of the Universum Kino – the Kino Babylon, designed by occasional film set designer Hans Poelzig, which was built next to Karl-Liebknecht-Haus, again as part of a housing scheme. Unfortunately I'm unaware what the KPD thought about this building, but the similarity of its strips of advertisement to that of their headquarters may have given them pause. Nonetheless, the examples I have outlined here, in the cases of Meyer's Co-Op City and the decoration of Karl-Liebknecht-Haus, are an attempt to show how an urban form traditionally opposed by left aesthetes, most obviously of late in the form of Adbusters, was once taken as a model for a left architecture, while its absence, as in the plans of Hilberseimer, was felt as a loss rather than as political progress. It suggests another form of modern architecture which Tafuri hints at, a left modernism which, rather than setting up a purism on the periphery, engages fully with the metropolis on the basis of a technological anti-aesthetic.
I'll end, however, with an excerpt from a film by Buster Keaton himself, where he erects a building which is itself far from a rococo palace. It shows what is missing both from Tafuri's urbanism and from the social democratic siedlung - the idea of a ludic architecture, of an architecture which could be self-created, a non-metropolitan but high-tech building which could entirely destroy the very idea of the permanence of architecture, and the profession of the architect, by exploiting its lines of transport and communication rather than being determined by them. If it suggests any 'radical' architecture, it is that of the 'Workers' Council For Art' of 1919, with their exhibitions of architecture by the untrained and anonymous, or the disurbanist cities of Mikhail Okhitovich. Yet it also appears as an architecture of disaster, erected and destroyed with equal carelessness.
Slavoj Žižek remarks somewhere that the most common cinematic representation of industrial production is in the Bond film. In those moments where the secret lair of the villain can be seen churning out some fearful weapon of mass destruction, with our hero dragged along as an unwilling witness, the real of production is uncovered, as something shadowy and sinister. Certainly, there's little doubt that the place of work, particularly the factory, is a dirty secret on-screen. Not the least interesting thing about Wang Bing's West of the Tracks is that it spends a large chunk of its 9 hours looking coldly, if not dispassionately, at the usually unrepresented or unrepresentable.
The hypnotic depiction of Shenyang's Tie Xi district in West of the Tracks owes very little, however, to any previous industrial film, a genre which begins with Frank Gilbreth's creepy time-and-motion studies, films of mundane work tasks designed to be viewed by scientific managers for the purposes of rearranging how the worker undertakes the task. However a more influential example provides an instructive contrast – Dziga Vertov's 1931 'industrial symphony' Enthusiasm, a touchstone, along with the likes of Viktor Turin's Turksib, for the British documentary movement, itself a pivotal moment in industrial film. This hour-long montage of industrial scenes is notable for the way in which it consciously (and unambiguously) forms the industrial material, montaging the scenes of physical extremity and industrial sublimity, but leaving out the boredom and the drudgery. This isn't to say that Vertov prettifies, or imposes a smooth, glossy aesthetic on the process of production. The film has a loud, lumbering power which the fast-cut montage doesn't wholly efface, and the work that is seen frequently appears to be difficult, no matter how much it is formed into a Taylorist ballet. Yet the machines, like the people, are tightly organised, aestheticised – something very unlike the ruination and listlessness of Wang's Tie Xi.
Two of the artists very influenced by Vertov – Joris Ivens and Hanns Eisler - developed the idea of 'blast furnace music' while making a film about the industrial new town of Magnitogorsk. This idea of harnessing the brute power and noise of industry into something coherent is precisely what Wang Bing repudiates here. Instead of organisation and fast-cutting, the tracking shots and unobtrusive scenes of canteens and waiting rooms are notable for their directorial hands-off approach. In an interview with Robert Koehler on the later Fengming, he claims to be 'concerned that I don’t impose a message, as I don’t want to visually force anything on viewers. In other words, I want to make it as loose and open as possible (...) eliminating any possible obstacles, especially those that could be created by the filming itself.' While boredom and rumination are the things which Vertov avoids at all costs, these are integral to West of the Tracks' seeming non-technique, where the drift of the camera across the dilapidated factory seems designed, in his words, 'to let the audience freely roam and observe details at their own leisure.'
Accordingly, one of the most odd and jarring elements in West of the Tracks is precisely this unobtrusiveness. Wang's camera tracks up and down factories, sits unassumingly in bathrooms full of naked men, films shocking examples of unsafe work practices, with temp workers clearly taking no precautions amidst stalactites of solidified industrial fluids littering the factories, yet nobody ever seems concerned – or, indeed seems to notice Wang at all. There are isolated examples, such as a moment in Ruins where a worker in one of the bankrupt factories makes a 'get out' gesture at the camera, or casual interjections ('quick, get that on camera! Running around, bare-arsed...'). In Rails, there is a rare direct address from the scavenger 'one-eyed Du', introducing his shack in the freight yard: 'this is my son, and this is our little house'; and near the end, when flares on the tracks are used as impromptu fireworks, a valedictory 'we wanted you to see this, a real railroad experience. Now he knows all about the fun of signal flares!' Yet overwhelmingly, it's remarkable how little Wang is noticed, and how easily he assimilates himself into this mundanely apocalyptic landscape.
Brecht, in a dig at the industrial photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch (one of whose collections was entitled The World is Beautiful) claimed that a mere photograph of a factory tells us nothing about that factory, and instead just presents a meaningless aesthetic object. Accordingly, the element of West of the Tracks that stops it being a bizarre industrial metamorphosis of Albert Speer's 'Theory of Ruin Value', a poignant journey through the rusting detritus of an obsolete industrial model, is his attention to the workers themselves. While in an Enthusiasm the workers chant the occasional exhortation or pledge themselves to produce a given amount of coal or pig-iron, in West of the Tracks the workers are allowed to speak at will. They speak at length, sometimes inconsequentially, sometimes scatologically, but mostly as people who are intelligent, conscious and wholly aware of their predicament, yet almost entirely without hope.
Letting the Workers Speak: Boredom and Class Consciousness
When most of us think of Chinese industrial capitalism, the immediate thought that comes to mind – usually mediated by photographs in anti-corporate literature – is a shiny white plant devoted to producing various kinds of consumer goods for the Western market. Machines and tat, produced at an astonishing rate to satisfy the bored desires of the neoliberal west. So in a sense China itself takes on the role of the hidden factory that Žižek talks about. Except this is given the lie by West of the Tracks, especially Rust's apocalyptic, monumental depiction of a dying industrial district. The Shenyang factories Wang charts are for heavy industry, the remnants of the first industrial revolution rather than the third. So when, as a Westerner, I watch the destruction of the Tie Xi district, it's impossible not to think of what was done in the 1980s to South Wales, to Sheffield, to the East End, Detroit, Ohio...we've heard the angry plaint of one worker, sent home with no pension after 30 years of service, who tells one of the film's many shabby offices that 'they said we had a job for life. Pensions, health care, a safety net. Doesn't seem likely now. They don't care if you get sick, much less if you die – and forget about a pension...Next thing you know, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) will be renaming itself the Republican Party'. In China, too, the neoliberal restructuring has destroyed similar lives, thrown similar people on a similar scrapheap, with a similar total lack of support.
The workers of Shenyang have few illusions about what is being done to them. As one says, commenting on the vast canyon between rich and poor that is opening up, 'we're not what you would call 'educated', but we read the papers, we watch the news. We know how we compare.' At another moment, a Robert Tressell-esque ragged trousered philanthropist patiently explains how much of even these failing factories goes on profit. Later, snatched moments of a canteen discussion show the clarity, anger and hopelessness: 'I'm telling you, this is the bosses' fault'...'what kind of society is this, anyway?'...'survival of the fittest...'. There's a sense of shame at what they've been reduced to, from workers at one of the state's 'first rank' factories, given (relative) prestige and privilege, and now: 'does this look first rank to you? Have you ever seen a sorrier bunch? We've all got lead poisoning.' Another worker insists that his children will have to 'study hard so they don't end up like us'. These people are remarkably clear-headed in their bitterness at the new grotesqueries created by the 'restructuring'. Someone explains that prostitutes are going extremely cheap, and notes that there is only one reason for this: 'layoffs. That's why there's a glut. It makes me so angry'. Similarly, the inhabitants of the soon to be razed shacks at Rainbow Row are under no illusions about the collusion between state and business that, not content with destroying their jobs, is now destroying their homes.
History and education both lurk in the background. Although the current corruption of the occasionally mentioned Party cadres is acknowledged by everyone, what came before it is acknowledged seldom, or in flashes: as when one worker, noting the lack of education that helped to leave them all at the mercy of the state and the market says that 'we didn't even learn phonics at school. If the teachers made us work, we'd struggle with them, put up big character posters', a strangely casual memory of the Cultural Revolution, something also obliquely referenced when, in Rails, it transpires that two railwaymen went to the same school – 'yeah, and Lin Biao was our teacher', one replies ironically. All this might imply that these people are merely political ciphers, shown only when they have something significant to say about their dire predicament. On the contrary, perhaps hours of digital stock are spent on seemingly endless games of cards or Mah-Jong and exchanges of insults, with the boredom reaching a kind of nadir as a group of smelting workers spend interminable days being treated for lead poisoning, in countless hours of listlessness and conviviality, where watching hardcore porn together in a shabby hospital waiting room and (an eventually deadly) spot of fishing is about all that can while away the hours.
'Great Leaders, Past and Future, Lead us into A Great New Age'
West of the Tracks is marked by an extremely mordant streak of irony, something which comes out particularly sharply in the use of songs and televisual background noise. Rust features a grim New Year's Party, where the factory boss confides, in-between toasts, that the factory has gone bankrupt: 'we've got to privatise everything we can. Will it work? Maybe not.' Yet blaring out in the corner are old revolutionary and patriotic songs, like the one quoted above, the tragicomic spectacle of a worker blaring into the microphone, searching for the tune, 'here begins the future!' Wang plays knowingly with the imagery of these old songs, with their imagery of a future at hand, provided through struggle and the efforts of the heroic Communist Party. The future as a workers' paradise, although no doubt not a freethinker's one. Yet although it's very clear that the workers of Shenyang are in no doubt about just how severely they're being screwed over, and the absurdity that it is all perpetrated by a 'Communist' Party, there's never a deliberate comment about the irony of these songs of the heroic proletariat being sung by now-destitute proletarians. These are the old songs you remember from childhood. Nursery rhymes. One person might sing a mawkish Sinopop ballad, another (as happens in Rails) might consolingly sing to themselves of 'the hardships of revolution', or melodically mutter 'my heart grows wider, as I walk towards the future'. Soon after the smelting workers arrive in the hospital to be treated for their lead poisoning, one of them plays a revolutionary song on a saxophone. We see a brief shot of an acne scarred face wincing, singing 'we welcome the liberation army'...
Yet the actual future is faced with trepidation. The tenants of Rainbow Row, for instance, who wonder how on earth they could possibly pay the rent on the new flats that they're being resettled in, as their brick and wood shacks are levelled. The young Wang Zhen, one of the most listless of the film's many listless youths, asks his father (while no doubt knowing the answer) 'why are you so fucking worried about my future?' Although these are people intent on hanging onto the little they have, and unsurprisingly suspicious of state largesse, some are guilty at going from being favoured industrial workers in a peasant country to becoming obstacles in the way of the parade of progress. As one tenant puts it, 'you can't hold back the tide of progress...but at least this place is rent-free'. What the future actually holds in store for these people is symbolically illustrated by the later shots in Remnants, after the supplies and the electricity have been cut and most of the houses are flattened, leaving something resembling Warsaw in 1945: 'what the fuck. Did everyone die or something?'
There is undeniably a sublimity about the sheer vastness of destruction in this film, with the criss-crossing sheds, walkways, power lines, tracks, chutes of Tie Xi presenting themselves as the ruins of a previous future. Nonetheless, what seems enduring in Wang's film is something rarer and and peculiar than the romance of the future ruin – a new Surrealism, one inflected by industrial film and cinema vérité , and based on careful observation, as opposed to the free play of images and ideas. What lingers in the mind, as the camera drifts through the derelict sheet metal factory, along the freight line or the doomed shacks of Rainbow Row, is the sheer weirdness of the short images and comments that flit past. The notion of excavating industrial waste when the whole place is levelled, as when someone notes 'there must be a metre of steel sunk in that soil. They'll be digging it up for years'. The hellish, grimy and steamy baths, where naked men discuss their unpaid wages with anger or resignation. The 'six months of winter' that someone complains about, which becomes painfully beautiful in the vivid 'night' section of Rails, where the snow is pervaded by smoking oil, lurid sodium lights, bright violets and pinks. The horrendous cold that overtakes the factories, with workers in woolly hats and gloves hacking ice off the production lines. The glimpse of a steam train. A man in a medical white coat rollerskating up the frozen wastes of Rainbow Row. The inexplicable final sequence of Remnants, where a phone rings, and with the words 'you've got a call', a man walks through an open door into a roofless house. The men of Rainbow Row dragging along tangles of wire, with slabs of metal placed on them, to sell off to anyone who'll pay. The bizarre, horrible fight between the scavenger Old Du, finally arrested, after he returns from prison, and his son, whose mood swings from supplication on bended knee to 'I hate you...fuck you all' within seconds.
Although this is the tragedy of a whole community, and one that has no need for any stars or 'human interest stories', it is Old Du and his son, with their makeshift house in a shed on the freight yards, whose small tragedy is played out in its last two hours, who encapsulate what is unprecedented in Wang's film. That is, letting those who are usually banished to the periphery, ignored, or redesigned to fit into an industrial-positivist montage, actually speak, at length. These are people who cling onto modernity at its fringes, trying to survive by staying one step ahead of those with money and power, until the inevitable time that they are found out. 'I've got no job, no home, but let me tell you, I've got connections, I've got files and records...', until he realises that none of that is relevant anymore. 'Now they've got a file on me!'
'Brutalist' architecture was never just an aesthetic style. It was a political aesthetic, an attitude, a weapon, dedicated to the precept that nothing was too good for ordinary people. Now, after decades of neglect, it's divided between 'eyesores' and 'icons', fine for the Barbican's stockbrokers but unacceptable for the ordinary people who were always its intended clients. When the heritage industry lays its hands on Brutalism, it unsurprisingly gets its fingers burnt.
English Heritage was formed in 1983, at the height of the reaction against the new face grafted on to England by old Labour's technological 'white heat' - Brutalism's aesthetic and the heritage ethic would seem inherently opposed. Romancing the Stone, the second episode of English Heritage, a grimly funny BBC2 series on the quango's activities, incongruously following a Jacobean mansion, profiles the 'regeneration' of Sheffield's vast, Grade II* listed Park Hill council estate. At Park Hill preservation experts worry over 'historic fabric', while Urban Splash, the property developers who are transforming it, threaten to paint the whole thing pink. Stereotypes are rife: the English Heritage contingent speak in RP, the developers are flash Mancunians, the restoration's architect a middle-aged Frenchman who dresses in lime green, and locals are presented as bluff Yorkshiremen who don't know much about architecture, but know what they like.
Enjoyable as these tensions are, they obscure a deeply complex story, one which perfectly exemplifies Britain's tortured relationship with its recent past. We would never know that Park Hill was an early response to what were considered, even in the 1950s, to be Modern architecture's failures. Empty spaces, isolation, a lack of street life, a middle-class 'this is good for you' ethos – all were fiercely critiqued by its planners and architects. Unfortunately for its advocates, the style of these buildings – reliant on 'béton brut', unpainted concrete - was christened 'the New Brutalism'. The New Brutalism's chief propagandist, Reyner Banham, pondered in a 1966 book whether the idiom was an 'Ethic or Aesthetic', so firmly marked was it by social concerns. He claimed that the Brutalists were the architectural equivalent of the 'angry young men' of the '50s, of Arnold Wesker or Alan Sillitoe. Banham wrote that these architects were of 'red brick extraction', products of post-war class mobility, usually Northerners.
Park Hill was, and still is, along with London's contrastingly affluent Barbican estate, the largest scale application of Brutalism's ethic and aesthetic. It cleared a violent slum by Sheffield's Midland Station nicknamed 'little Chicago', but rather than rehousing the residents in isolated towers, the architects – Jack Lynn, Ivor Smith and Frederick Nicklin, selected by the City Architect Lewis Womersley – attempted to replicate in the air the tightly packed street life of the area. The New Brutalists were enthusiasts for the close-knit working class life supposedly being broken up by the new estates and new towns. Books that documented these communities from the outside, such as Willmott and Young's Family and Kinship in East London, or from the inside, like Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, were required reading. So claustrophobic walk-ups or corridors were rejected in favour of 12ft wide 'streets in the sky'. These 'streets' were almost all connected with the ground, on steeply sloping land. Street corners were included where the winding building twisted around, with the spaces around the blocks filled with shops, schools and playgrounds. It even had its own tenants magazine, called Flat.
Meanwhile the architectural aesthetic was shaped by a rejection of the clean geometries of mainstream Modernism, in favour of roughness and irregularity. The marks of concrete shuttering were left on the surface, showing the imprint of manual labour rather than imitating machine production. The bricks were yellow, red and purple, its abstract patterns aided by artist John Forrester. The blocks rose from 4 storeys at the highest point of the hill to 13 at the lowest, giving a continuous roof line visible from much of the city. Despite – or because of - its aesthetic extremism, early responses to the blocks were very positive indeed, as you can see in Romancing the Stone's footage of children and OAPs praising the place's modernity and community. Over old footage of the playgrounds, a South Yorkshire voice intones 'there's no stopping this collective thinking. It's the future'.
Encouraged by these responses, the architects clearly thought they had solved the problems of Modernist housing. A 'Park Hill Mark Two' was built just behind the site – Hyde Park, which rose to an 18-story 'castle keep'. Later, a mark three, Kelvin Flats, was designed by other architects west of the city centre. In 1962, the book Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield, documenting Lewis Womersley's tenure as City architect, was published in English, French and Russian – Sheffield's council housing was world-famous. Streets in the sky were only one facet of its housing programme. The less futuristic but equally remarkable suburban counterpart to Park Hill's urbanity was Gleadless Valley, a collection of houses and flats making remarkable use of the hilly landscape, resembling a strange socialist South Yorkshire version of '50s Southern California. By the end of the '70s, nearly half of Sheffield's housing was council-owned. This is a reminder that council housing was never intended to be the emergency measure it is now, but something which was genuinely 'mixed'.
Perhaps Park Hill was too successful at recreating the space of the old rookeries - like them, it was full of escape routes and shadowy spots. Romancing the Stone mentions that the 'dream turned sour in the early 1980s', but not why that might be so – the collapse of the steel industry, which in a matter of years turned Sheffield from a prospective City of the Future into a remnant of the past; or the 'Right to Buy' council housing, which would turn unpopular estates into refuges of last resort. In an optimistic time it looked confident; as that world collapsed, it looked intimidating. In the 1990s Hyde Park was partly demolished, its remnants tackily re-clad. Kelvin flats were levelled completely. It's almost certain that Park Hill would have suffered the same fate had it not been listed in 1998. Practically inescapable in Sheffield, it is an overwhelming reminder of what it once wanted to be – the capital of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, a rough but sociable metropolis; rather than what it wants to be now, a local service industry centre.
On a recent visit to Sheffield I interviewed two interested parties: first Ben Morris, a local Defend Council Housing campaigner, and then Simon Gawthorpe, of the property developer Urban Splash. Morris wasn't all that interested in Park Hill - though he liked the building, he had a wider story to tell. He took me to Modernist estates like Womersley's Woodside, now almost completely demolished; and to traditionalist inter-war garden suburbs like Parson's Cross and Shirecliffe, pockmarked with demolition sites. Sheffield's New Labour Council, under the administration of the unelected Bob Kerslake, was proud of its policy of demolishing council housing to create 'Housing Market Renewal', i.e to artificially stimulate a property boom. Whether tower blocks or houses with gardens, nowhere was safe. The policy, intended to invite 'mixed communities' through new buildings that seldom arrived, had created a huge council waiting list – between 2001 and 2007 it quadrupled from 14,301 to 58,706, and Morris estimates that the recession may have pushed it as high as 90,000. If you don't want council estates to become emergency refuges inhabited mainly by the desperate, this a weird way of going about it. Park Hill will lose around 600 council flats, with roughly 300 being run by a Housing Association – a fraction of the thousands lost under Kerslake.
On the basis of his 'success' in Sheffield, Sir Bob Kerslake was appointed chair of the Homes and Communities Agency, a super-quango merging the PPP sponsors English Partnerships with the Housing Corporation. This proud demolisher of council housing is now head of the agency that intends to sponsor new social housing to help people through the property crash. Appropriately, the HCA has 'frontloaded' its £14 million sponsorship of Park Hill's redevelopment, most of which is funded by Urban Splash. This Manchester-based property developer is best known for turning derelict mills, office blocks and factories into city-centre 'lofts'. It grew out of founder Tom Bloxham's record shop, and is an interesting amalgam of two New Labour fixations – the 'creative industries' and property speculation, as opposed to Old Labour's heavy industries and social housing.
This is apt in a sense, as the streets in the sky have always been a presence in Sheffield's electronic music - Kelvin Flats were referenced in the sleevenotes to The Human League's 'Dancevision', Park Hill was on the cover of their Golden Hour of the Future compilation; and later, Park Hill features as utopia and Kelvin as dystopia in Pulp's early '90s work. Urban Splash's brochure for Park Hill was elegantly rendered by The Designers Republic, who made their name as sleeve designers for Warp Records and Pulp - themselves recently claimed by the recession. It's full of quotations from Sheffield bands like the Human League and ABC, all written in infantile music-press clichés, promising to restore 'the love' to Park Hill.
Walking around Park Hill today is a surreal experience. At one end it's still inhabited, and people were indeed chatting on the streets in the sky – at the other it's a monolithic, empty frame. I asked Simon Gawthorpe why Urban Splash took so drastic an approach, and he replied that the intention was to transform the place from a 'sink estate' into 'a place where people would want to live and invest'. Some of their ideas are sensible, such as opening a four-storey entrance to relieve the block's wall-like appearance; others seem designed to make Park Hill as brightly tacky as any other piece of Regeneration architecture. In a move decided upon before market failure made money scarce, they stripped the entire North Block at great expense, when this structurally sound building could have been refurbished simply enough.
I had assumed it was space standards that dictated the stripping, but Gawthorpe says they will mostly keep its internal proportions. What they are doing is removing all the bricks, to be replaced by anodised aluminium panels, replicating John Forrester's colour scheme, if entirely abandoning truth to materials. Romancing the Stone shows English Heritage eventually reluctant about the redesign, then giving in. This might be a repudiation of Brutalism's rough Aesthetic, but neither developers or conservationists mind destroying its Ethic. Reyner Banham claimed that Park Hill was the culmination of a 'moral crusade'. Urban Splash certainly find this 'utopian' rhetoric attractive, and Gawthorpe proudly talks about about a woman who has lived there since the '60s telling them 'people think we live in a slum. They don't realise that I live in a penthouse looking out over the city'. He can't tell me where she lives now. Already 300 of the residents who were cleared have registered an interest in returning, but only 200 flats will be available for social rent.
The feeling is inescapable that a whole claque of publicly funded bodies have become subject to a property developer's whims. Perhaps the only sympathetic figure in the documentary is the estate's caretaker, who drives along the streets in the sky in a golf buggy, picking up refuse bags and drug paraphernalia. In the face of this astonishing structure, patronised by heritage and property, he comments 'I love the old girl. She's an old lady who's fallen on hard times.' Here, at least, Park Hill has inspired the sense of belonging its architects tried to create. Park Hill is a battered remnant of a very different country, one which briefly turned housing for ordinary people into futuristic monuments rather than shamefaced little hutches. The ideologies of Regeneration and Heritage, when applied to the very different ethical aesthetic of the old New Brutalism, can only destroy the thing they claim to love. Nothing in the rest of this series, back in the familiar heritage England of Victorian railway stations and Elizabethan gardens, is anywhere near as tragic.
'Director's cut' of piece originally published in The Guardian. 2009 photos by Joel Anderson, 1960s photos by Iqbal Aalam.
(shameless plug: some of the below is taken from the first chapter of the forthcoming book Militant Modernism, published in April)
The next three Pulp singles were released on Gift Records, from 1992 to 1993. Gift was a subsidiary of Warp, and it's an interesting counterfactual to imagine the 1990s, and Pulp's 15 minutes of fame, if they had released it on Warp proper. Given that they've since besmirched their techno rep by signing all manner of indie bands, including the utterly nondescript Maximo Park, they perhaps missed a bit of a trick here. Obviously Pulp didn't make straightforward Sheffield techno records, with the exception of the so-so 'This House is Condemned', but you can't imagine them without house and techno. In a sense this is true of lots of Britpop. Noel Gallagher was, along with Pulp's members, perhaps the only ex-raver in that mileu (with Pulp and Oasis interestingly its only working class bands), and Oasis' endless, insufferable exhortations to 'shine', take me higher and so forth are really an application of rave's vague, all-purpose, non-specific euphoria to the pub and the muddy music festival, rather than the club or the orbital rave. This meaningless positivity became the perfect soundtrack to the rise of New Labour, more on which in later parts. Pulp did something far more intriguing with these forms, though, using their least classicist possibilities, taking the expansive space, non-verse/chorus song structures, and the layers of artificial textures, and applying them to a rickety glam-disco band.
The city is a woman, bigger than any other
With the major exception of 'Common People', you can't necessarily hear this in their singles, which are perfectly structured, melodramatic three minute capsules, quintessential 7" records - 'O.U', 'Razzmatazz', 'Lipgloss', 'Babies', all of them charged yet controlled pop songs. But you can hear it in the albums and in the B-Sides, and you can hear it especially on what vies with 'Common People' and 'This is Hardcore' to be their masterpiece - 'Sheffield: Sex City', b-side to the 1992 release of 'Babies'. When I was 16, I and my girlfriend were completely obsessed with this song, and we walked round Shirley in Southampton as if it were the teeming, simmering, carnal city described, peering up into the windows of its tower blocks, past the twitching curtains of the semis, imagining the couplings and perversions inside. It also soundtracked something fairly momentous between us. It's a record so improbable that even to describe it sounds fantastical. Jarvis intones a series of Sheffield place names, with luridly sensual relish - from 'Intake' onwards. The next voice you hear is Candida Doyle, deadpan and Yorkshire, reading - of all things - from one of the sexual fantasies in a Nancy Friday book. Here, as in 'My Legendary Girlfriend' (to which it is, according to the sleevenotes, 'the morning after') the city itself is the focus for all the libdinal energies. 'We were living in a big block of flats...within minutes the whole building was fucking. I mean, have you ever heard other people fucking, and really enjoying it? Not like in the movies, but when it's real...'
The most important sounds in it (aside from Jarvis' own increasingly astonishing groans, howls, gasps and ecstatic squeals) are hers, too - the banks of synths, either taken from the same jumble sale ransacked at the same time by Stereolab, or more recent sounding noises - regardless, it's these arpeggiated synths, repetitious house vamps and Russell Senior's queasily treated violin, which seem to simulate the vertiginous feeling of nervousness, anticipation and mania which underpin the ridiculous, magnificent lyric. As the metronomic kick drum pounds, and deep, relentless bass throbs, the whole city is 'getting stiff in the building heat', and Jarvis walks through its entire extent trying to find his lover. So overwhelmed is he by the sheer sexuality of Sheffield that he finds himself 'rubbing up against lamp-posts, trying to get rid of it'. The sheer detail of the places made sexual - the semis, the gardens, 'years' in the housing benefit waiting room, 'grunts from a T-reg Chevette - you bet...you bet...' and in a particularly memorable moment a 'crack in the pavement', it all builds and builds and builds until in a final explosive moment they 'make it', and they survey the wreckage left over - 'everyone on Park Hill came in unison at 4.13AM, and the whole block fell down.'
This was probably our favourite line in the song, and we always imagined it taking place in the vast slab block Shirley Towers, which loomed over this particular courtship. I was absolutely ecstatic a few years later when, as an English & History MA student developing a part-time interest in architecture, I found out just how famous and important Park Hill was, and I saw photographs of this enormous, snaking collective housing block, with its wide streets in the sky, its gradations of colours, its form rising to different storeys depending on its place on the hill. It was absolutely perfect, a sort of visual emblem of the familiar 1960s-built city turned into a utopian, libidinal megastructure, and I can to a large extent blame my interest in brutalist architecture and the city to this specific song and our reaction to it as oversexed teenagers.
Shirley is a pretty typical but nonetheless odd place, in that Victorian terraces and 1930s semis are right next to vast 1960s council estates. Because of this it was a deeply class-conscious place. As an illustration, around this time she moved with her parents to the other side of St James Road, to a semi - which counted as going up in the world, given that the street here became the more prestigious 'Upper Shirley', although the difference was a matter of yards. I lived in a short cluster of terraces at the bottom of a street of semis, and was equally keen to maintain that I wasn't in the Upper part. So the other major urbanist song on Intro was, if not as world-shattering an experience as 'Sheffield: Sex City', something which seemed to describe our environment perfectly: 'Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia)'. The detritus of the 70s was everywhere, in the many, many local charity shops and in the furnishings of our houses, and here it was described as something richly perverse - black hair, sprouting beneath bri-nylon underwear. The song actually dates from the 'Little Girl' era, but appears here as a cranky yet sweeping Stylophone epic. It's all much more mordant than the ecstatic 'Sex City', pitching itself as a vicarious tour through a 'strange land', and it's this sort of thing that leads to the accusations of voyeurism, seediness and so forth. We didn't take it as such. It was far more a way of making the city and suburbia interesting, of making our (built) environment and the people in it more than a random collection of buildings and people tediously grafting - we knew they were absolutely full of intrigue behind the fences, at the end of the plazas and above the hedges, had to believe it in order not to give way to the consumerist tedium which was then remaking our city. We were fascinated by the 'thousand fake orgasms every night, behind thick draylon curtains', and listened out for them.
Regardless of whatever we took from these songs and imposed on a Southern city, there's an undeniably a certain - if not nostalgia as such, then something nearer to the now-familiar plaint of 'nostalgia for the future', in which Pulp were paradoxically ahead of the game by a decade or so - in these city songs. In a 'Guide to Sheffield' that Pulp did for NME in the early 90s (reproduced on the invaluable Acrylic Afternoons site) there's mentions both of its role as centre of the 'Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire', when the red flag famously flew above the town hall (which comes out in a particularly quotidian way in the songs: ' I remember when the buses were only 10p to go anywhere. That's why buses are mentioned quite a lot in our songs. Anyway, it all stopped in the mid-'80s. There are about six different bus companies now, like Eager Beaver, Yorkshire Terrier... it's, ridiculous - if the driver sees the stop they're supposed to be going to hasn't got any people at it, they change the number and go to one that has. People came from Japan to see our bus service - it was the end of the Western World.") and, more particularly, the city's failure to become the modernist metropolis that Park Hill, the Miesian Sheffield University, Park Hill's more disputed successors Hyde Park and Kelvin, and the noted Castle Square 'hole in the road', and the 'peace garden!' squealed of in 'Sex City', all promised. One interview makes it especially clear: '"Sheffield's full of half-arsed visions of cities of the future that turn into a pile of rubbish," Russell Senior reflects, standing on the biggest traffic roundabout in Europe. "We grew up reading the local paper and seeing 'Sheffield, city of the future,' with a map of how it's going to be and pictures of everyone walking around in spacesuits, smiling. But we're the only ones who took it seriously..." "When I was younger I definitely thought I'd live in space," says Jarvis Cocker ruefully. "But when you realise you're not going to, it colours your life; you can't think, 'It's alright if I'm signing on because I'll be on Mars soon', you have to try and get it down here."
No-one ever really got inside Susan
It's this that lies behind all the obvious retro signifiers - the Farfisas, Stylophones and Moogs, the jumble sale clothes, the tower blocks, space hoppers and luridly bright artificial fabrics that pervade the videos - a sense of being cheated out of the future, responding by fetishising the last time that a viable future appeared to exist. Yet the songs delve deeply into 1970s nostalgia, not least as a way of talking about the stripped-pine compromises and bland conformities of the 1990s. You can hear this especially vividly in 'Inside Susan - a story in three parts', which concludes the Gift singles and B-sides collected on Intro. This tale of a 'Rotherham puberty' followed by 'wild teen years in Sheffield' and eventual middle-class stability in Camberwell, is another example of Jarvis' obsessive/sympathetic studies of women, although here with a detail and wit that shouldn't obscure how it eventually ends up, as they all do, to be about whether or not she'll sleep with the narrator. The first, 'Stacks' is Pulp at their most straightforwardly retro, albeit with the 70s parts all assembled in the wrong order. It's cheap, fizzing, and absolutely riven with nostalgia, all sports halls, gropings on the bus and 'sky blue trainer bras'. It's an enormously enjoyable bit of tat, but rather pales in comparison with 'Inside Susan', the centrepiece of the story.
The only obvious precedent for songs like this, with their detail and sympathy for their mundane protagonists elevating them into something almost mythical, is Scott Walker circa 'Plastic Palace People', but even he was never as sharp or poignant as this. Dispensing with actual singing of any sort, bar a refrain of muffled yelps and cries, this is all monologue, over a dense, bright, vividly exciting motorik pulse which intensifies at key moments in the plotless narrative. It's a bus travelogue, and develops according to where the bus is at any given point, sparking off Susan's alternately bored or intrigued thoughts, with the most mundane details easily transformed into something extraordinary -
The bus is waiting on the High Street when it suddenly begins to rain torrentially, and it sounds like someone has emptied about a million packets of dried peas onto the roof of the bus. "What if it just keeps raining?", she thinks to herself. "And it was just like being in an aquarium except it was all shoppers and office workers that were floating past the windows instead of fish."
As the bus drives on, she thinks of a party where she was hit on by 'some German exchange students who were very immature', and finally wonders: "maybe this bus won't stop", she thinks, "and I'll stay on it until I'm old enough to go into pubs on my own, and it'll drive me to a town where people with black hair are treated specially, and I can make lots of money from charging fat old men five pounds a time to look up my skirt, and they'll be queuing up to take me out to dinner'. As in Daniel Clowes' Ghost World - which is often evoked by Pulp's songs of this period, an awkward, urbane man's idea of a melancholic teenage girlhood marked by attempts to romanticise the mundane - Susan could easily be a feminised version of the author himself. Regardless, it ends with a hint of bitterness at the reactions of others towards Susan - 'they put her in a corner and let her heat up the room, warming their hands and backsides in front of her, and then slagging her off around town.'
This bitterness continues in '59 Lyndhurst Grove'. She's managed to get out of Yorkshire, is enjoying a comfortable but loveless existence with an architect in south London. The scornful lyric - delivered in a heartbroken but sly falsetto - is the first essay in what will become a major theme, the sexual politics of domestic interiors. 'There's a picture by his first wife on the wall. Stripped floorboards in the kitchen and the hall...they were dancing with children round their necks, talking business, books and records, art and sex. All things being considered, you'd call it a success, you wore your black dress.' The sound is very close to Stereolab, a droning Moog Muzak that evokes both the Romantic Moog albums of an earlier period of domestic conformity, and sounds like a sad echo of the synthetic excitement of 'Inside Susan'. Here, Susan snatches whatever fun she can in this stifling yet successful environment ('oh he's an architect, and such a lovely guy...') by having an affair with someone presumably rather more exciting, a role that Jarvis will assume many times in the next few years, Regardless, Jarvis himself claimed in the sleevenotes that the whole thing was motivated by jealousy anyway - 'I played these songs to Susan the other day - she just laughed and said I was being spiteful because she wouldn't sleep with me when we first met. She also said to tell you that she's perfectly happy where she is at the moment, thank you very much.'
Adultery & Interiors
His 'n' Hers is perhaps the only pop record which largely purports to be about domestic interiors. Or at least, uses them as a metaphor for sex, class and the usual things which are latent or blindingly obvious. It exists in a similar landscape to the Martin Parr photographs for the BBC Signs of the Times book/documentary, of matching towel sets, ornamented light switches, of carefully chosen signifiers of individuality which end up as signifiers of conservatism and conformism, of status and success. This is all filtered through a luridly 70s-damaged fixation on the erotic properties of the artificial fabrics of an earlier era. What we have here is a suburban record, where Intro was mostly vividly urban, and one marked by all the boredom and frustration that entails. The obligatory sleevenote communique links together the smugness of coupledom, the horror of interiors and the awesome tedium of the shopping malls that replaced the futurist city keenly and distortedly remembered on the earlier singles. The ballads on here - 'Happy Endings', or 'Someone like the Moon' - sound like they're coming out of some kind of supermarket tannoy, with the four-note synth chimes in the latter seeming to precede an announcement, 'could Mr Cocker come to the checkout please...', with the cavernous, reverb-drenched production implying the vast ennui-filled space of an out-of-town Asda.
It's a beautifully produced record, precisely for how far from 'live' it sounds. With a collection of antique synths (eight of them, from Korg to EMS, according to the credits) wafting around a huge, airy space. Ed Buller's piling on of effects intersects with the keyboards to create some breathtaking moments - the first few seconds of 'Do you remember the first time?', where the whines and chirps of the antique machines flutter with all the quivering nervousness of a couple of teenagers tentatively asking each other the pointed question. Odd moments and riffs abound, such as the echoed children singing at the start of 'Acrylic Afternoons'. Which is one of the strangest tracks on a deeply strange record - another slab of sexdisco, although here punctuated with high-pitched squeaks which take this approach even further from its eventual roots in, say, Isaac Hayes. All this effeminacy, Jarvis as Donna Summer orgasmatron, is dedicated to a scenario where he is the bit of rough, the bit on the side of, a suburban housewife. This isn't necessarily as part of some bit of 'Mr Jones'-bashing though, but seemingly based on a libidinal cross between the objects - the acrylics, the 'pink quilted eiderdown', the settee with the TV humming in the background, and the table set for tea for when the children come home - and the act. The atmosphere is feverish, delirious. It's weird, to say the least, to see (in the clip above) a crowd clapping along to this particularly furtive little tale, a tea-fuelled bacchanalia where the stifling, overfurnished suburban living room becomes a claustrophobically overheated space of sexual obsession.
'She's a Lady', 'Lipgloss' and 'Pink Glove' continue in this general vein, the making-sexy of all manner of quotidian tat, with the protagonist alternately attracted and repelled by the paraphernalia of suburban sexuality, almost always from an outsider's perspective, either looking in on the relationships of others or as an invasive interlocutor into the exurbs and cul-de-sacs. 'She's a Lady' is especially torrid, enlivened by the frustration and resentment of 'Countdown' - while not obsessing over the lady of the title, the protagonist is staying in bed all day, moaning about 'all this crap that holds me down'. What ends up happening is that this world, with all its ambiguities and dubiousness ('I don't know why you pretend that it causes you pain', etc etc) becomes something deeply exciting, the model of adolescent fantasies. Certainly the world of 'Lipgloss', for all its grim cuckolding and inertia, seemed so to me, although maybe less so a few years later when all that I lived on actually was the proverbial lipgloss and cigarettes.
This doesn't make it any less brutal, mind you, and these songs are marked both by a fierce erotic fascination, with women's clothes, make-up, and obviously with sex itself (all combined in 'She's a Lady's fantastic line 'wore her body back to front') and some ferocious put-downs, whether they're put into the mouths of particular characters or not: 'Lipgloss' pivots on a woman too scared to leave the house in case other women notice 'that your stomach looks bigger and your hair is a mess, and your eyes are just holes in your face'. Here, women manipulate men and vice versa, as in 'Pink Glove's tragicomic fetishism, where the lover of rayon and acrylic sneers 'it's hard to believe that you go for that stuff - baby doll nighties, synthetic fluff...' The brilliant b-side 'Street Lites' meanwhile, one of the most breathlessly sexy things they recorded, has more cuckolding - 'it wouldn't be the same, if we didn't know it was wrong', this time accompanied by a shimmering, neon-lit vision of London seen from the back of a taxi couriering illicit liasons, as opposed to the album's suburban Sheffield.
The Sisters EP is maybe this version of the group, the Spectorian stylophonic glam-pop group of Separations, Intro and His & Hers as opposed to the mostly more conventional Chris Thomas-produced thing which followed, at their absolute peak, three songs ('Seconds', 'Your Sister's Clothes', 'His 'n' Hers') which pass in a blur of flickering keyboards, yearning choruses and almost tossed-off one-liners (these are probably the songs he would later refer to as 'just another song about single mothers and sex'). It's 'His 'n' Hers', the unused title track for the album, that is most stunning. 'One man's fear of domestic interiors set to music', the clip above doesn't quite do it justice, missing the stomach-churning, pre-orgasmic synth that drones through the chorus. Here, we are again in suburban Sheffield, and with a scenario of class conflict expressed through sex and domestic interiors: 'I wanna wipe you down, and lick the smile off your face...Though we know that it's wrong: towel sets, matching combs...oh it looks so good but does it turn you on?' The track is deeply uncomfortable, queasy, with moans and wails of excitement and disgust punctuating, rising into the guiltily ecstatic chorus, where DIY, bourgeois IKEA smugness is turned into sexual metaphor - 'pull the units down!' 'shove it in sideways!' and so forth. It all spills over into absurd comedy, when the unnerved narrator, led by his clearly assured bourgeois lover, is asked what he's so afraid of, leading to a litany of '90s middle-class tat: Belgian chocolates, James Dean posters, endowment plans, figurines, 26" screens'...and obviously her straightforward response is to put his hand somewhere intimate - and we leave the scene with his defeat.
Mister, we just want your car
This is developed from an earlier song called 'Frightened', included on the reissue of His 'n' Hers, some of which also ends up in 'The Fear' a few years later. The fear of the middle classes and their design choices is not the only one here. It would be incomplete to concentrate just on the libidinous and scathing portrayals of middle class life in these songs, as there are others which talk about lumpen proletarian habits and mores with much the same ambiguity and disgust. 'Deep Fried in Kelvin', the B-side to 'Lipgloss, is like a ten-minute reversal of 'Sheffield: Sex City'. Like the latter, it centres on one of the huge collective housing blocks planned by Jack Lynn & Ivor Smith for Sheffield City Council. Park Hill got Grade II listed and is being prepared for an Urban Splash-led regeneration/gentrification, but the apparently identical Kelvin Flats - mentioned in the Human League's sleevenotes for the sublime 'Dancevision' - were demolished in the 1990s. There's little interest in the utopian possibilities of brutalist megastructures in 'Deep Fried', with its tale of a man destroying his flat by trying to turn it into a garden, and talk of walking 'on promenade with concrete walkways, where pigeons go to die'. It's a vision of a consumerist, barely literate proletariat destroyed by Thatcherism, where children are 'conceived in the toilets of Meadowhall'. It has equal disdain both for the 'fizzy orange and chips' youth of this 'ghetto' and for those who might improve it (memorably, 'we don't need your sad attempts at social conscience based on taxi rides home at night from exhibition openings. We just want your car radio and bass reflex speakers. Now'), and eventually maybe for the narrator himself and his social concern.
'Joyriders' excises the angst over exactly who is speaking, as the bored teenagers are now in the first person. It's difficult to say, though, whether it's all satire or a genuine expression of class disdain (as if it would matter) - 'we can't help it, we're so thick we can't think - can't think of anything, but shit, sleep and drink'. The bleakest of all of these songs of working class boredom and casual violence/idiocy is 'Mile End'. Here it's the old East End, repository for proleface sentimentality, which is, when surveyed from the top of a tower block as the 'pearly king of the isle of Dogs', 'just like heaven, if it didn't look like hell'. While I'm trying to avoid biographism here as much as possible (except for my own, hah), they're all songs that are more or less autobiographical, tales of dole life when you could still get a council flat without having to lose an arm or a leg or have a family in double figures. Sometimes these spaces are rather romantic; the video to 'Babies', for instance, takes place in Camberwell's Sceaux Gardens Estate, where Jarvis and Steve Mackey were living at the time, somewhere with much architectural rep: Ian Nairn writes of it that 'the magical transformation has happened, an estate transformed into a place'. The block called 'Voltaire' gets a particularly wry shot in the video, a place perfect for the song's rum, giddy nostalgia.
The council flat dystopias are, for all their justified bitterness, the correlate of the failed utopia that is re-imagined in 'My Legendary Girlfriend' and 'Sheffield: Sex City', indicators of what has happened to the working class after (then only 15 years of) Thatcherism. While Oasis took this and played up to it, constantly stressing just how bovine they were with their beery anthems to nothing in particular, Pulp were in the context of britpop, the last gasp of a literate, articulate, arty working class pop, at least in terms of bands and self-publicising acts rather than bedroom producers and MCs. Yet the unstoppable urge to get out, while very different to the latter's dreams of Champagne Supernovas and guitar-shaped swimming pools, leads to its own uncomfortable contradictions and outbreaks of sheer, resentful rage. As well it should.
(...which will bring us onto the next two albums, after a much longer break than the one between the first two)
Park Hill images taken from here, and PulpWiki was very helpful.