Photo: Maria Mochnacz

Voodoo Working: Delving into PJ Harvey’s Demos and Reissues

PJ Harvey is in the process of revisiting her back catalogue, reissuing her albums and their previously unheard demos. With the expanded versions of Dry, Rid Of Me, and To Bring You My Love now released, Matthew Barton takes a deep dive into the singular auteur’s early work.

When PJ Harvey dropped a tantalising photo of some old C90 cassettes on social media in May, fan speculation went into overdrive. Hand-written J-cards of demos for her first three albums – could a rarities box set be coming? Remastered, expanded editions? For an artist as forward-thinking as Harvey, an artist so intent on never re-treading old ground, it seemed somewhat surprising. But, when one considers that she did in fact release an album of 4-Track Demos as a follow-up/companion to Rid of Me in 1993, it’s true that Harvey does have form when highlighting earlier stages of the creative process.

Fast forward four months and here we are, three releases into Harvey’s reissues campaign – the cassettes photo turned out to be a mouth-watering trailer for a series of reissues of all of her records with accompanying demos albums. In other words, the holy grail for fans. Anyone who has followed Harvey’s career even semi-closely will know the preponderance of raw lo-fi demos in her catalogue, whether on the aforementioned 4-Track Demos or as b-sides to singles (“Nina in Ecstasy”, “Darling Be There”) or even as stand-alone releases (her cassette demos for the All About Eve soundtrack). Harvey revels in the raw; she appreciates the beauty of the rudimentary, of tape hiss, of inadvertent sound effects. Fundamentally, she wants to capture an idea at its essence, before it becomes too studied, too affected.

To this end, her music has always felt alive and visceral, even without the context of accompanying demos. Harvey is the kind of artist who will allow, even favour, a “mistake” on the finished piece if it evokes the right feeling. But, almost 30 years into her solo career, it’s still incredibly interesting to look back on these records, now with the benefit of hindsight and with the knowledge of where they rest in the winding, unorthodox path of her career.

The freshness and boldness of Harvey’s sound immediately captured public imagination. Upon the release of “Dress” and “Sheela-Na-Gig” as lead singles in late 1991 and early 1992 respectively, she became a radio favourite of renowned indie tastemaker John Peel, earned cover features in British music weeklies, and developed a rapidly-growing following.

Dry emerged in the spring of 1992 and heralded the arrival of an unexpected talent – much was made of the apparently jarring disconnect between Harvey’s slight appearance as a young Doc Martens-clad “farm girl” from England’s rural south-west and the commanding powerhouse that came blasting through the speakers; someone who wielded her Gretsch like a weapon and careened her way through these weird, bluesy, powerful rock songs with their Biblical imagery, allusions to architectural grotesques, and frank depictions of love, lust, and bodily functions. Harvey said she was determined to “shock,” but paid little attention to how the press might view her. For her, her music was informed by the Beefheart, Hendrix, Dylan, Howlin’ Wolf, and Stones she grew up on, and she wasn’t about to explain it to anybody. From the very start, then, Harvey was not about to fulfil anyone’s predetermined idea of what she could or could not do.

PJ Harvey was the name, of course, of Polly Jean Harvey the writer and frontwoman, but also the name of the trio, comprising Rob Ellis on drums and Steve Vaughan on bass in addition to Harvey’s guitar. The reissue of Dry sounds incredible; what’s most obvious is how perfectly attuned each element is to each other and how electric – both literally and metaphorically – the trio was, blazing through these 11 songs that still seem fresh, timeless, endlessly inventive. The rhythm section locks around Harvey’s guitar, which vaults between simple rumbling bar chords, bluesy slide, and strange shifting patterns. Ellis’ drums highlight some of the peculiar rhythms inherent in Harvey’s songs, such as on “Hair” and especially “Dress”, which, three decades on, still sounds exciting and unique with its pounding rhythm, frenetic pace, and liberal scraping of violin. The trio sound tight, yes, but not staid – there’s a verve about the record, recorded quickly at Yeovil’s Icehouse with Head, that captures an authentic live sound. (A far cry from their calamitous first gig at a Dorset skittle alley, where they cleared the hall and were begged to leave the stage.)

The accompanying demos were first released on the early limited editions of Dry, as Dry – Demonstration, and here they are again in all their pure beauty. Dry – Demos is, in some ways, the missing link between Harvey’s early recordings that later wound up as White Chalk b-sides – the jangly, descending chord shuffle of “Wait” and the exuberant “Heaven” – and the raw power of the finished album itself.

Recorded when she was 20 and 21, Harvey’s acoustic features more prominently in these recordings, somehow bringing out more of the unease in “Dress” and highlighting her rhythmic prowess on “Joe” (which, on the album, is cloaked in feedback and features Ellis’ drums pummelling their way, brilliantly, through the squall) while showing off some of the vaguely alt-folk leanings in songs like “Happy and Bleeding” and “Plants and Rags”. Harvey credited John Parish, her bandleader in Automatic Dlamini in the period before Dry, with inspiring the distinctive rhythmic style of her playing.

The biggest changes between versions are in songs like “Oh My Lover,” where the breezy, standoffish charm of the demo is replaced by an altogether slower, sludgier arrangement highlighting the bass and, at one point, Ellis’ doleful harmonium. “Sheela-Na-Gig”, too, transforms from exuberantly humorous, with some its lyrics borrowed from South Pacific, to a grungy fireball on the album.

Harvey’s voice on the demos has more of a youthful naivety than on the finished counterparts but with no less abandon – all of these records show her for the remarkable singer that she is. Some might say that later records feature some of her most sublime vocals, but from the very beginning she had the uncanny ability of being able to sing with equal parts passion and precision. Harvey doesn’t care about staying resolutely inside the lines of her melodies, yet she always does. She is so vital as a singer, so connected to her material, that her music always has a pulsating, breathing excitement regardless of whether it is raucous or seemingly unobtrusive.

In this period that Harvey was promoting Dry with club dates around the UK and, during the summer, high-profile festival slots, she was continually writing and demoing new material. Finding the intense scrutiny from the media and the rapid changes to her life too much to bear (she was still toying with accepting her deferred place at London’s Central Saint Martins art school), she retreated and wrote some of the most intense songs of her career. That material, recorded between the summer of 1991 and summer of 1992, was partially collected at the end of the following year on 4-Track Demos.

These songs show Harvey’s speedy development as a writer and performer. Still using her Yamaha four-track, the comparative breeziness of Dry – Demos is replaced by songs that lace their dark, heavy mood with macabre humour. The building blocks were always there – Harvey’s guitar style, her unique imagery, her insistent, simple melodies – but on 4-Track Demos she lets loose. She relies exclusively on her electric guitar and, with occasional bursts of distortion and blasts of organ, not to mention her increasingly dynamic vocals, she absolutely packs out the sound. 4-Track Demos is colossal.

Rid of Me would be all about the ferocity of the trio’s sound, while the original 4-Track Demos is all about the essence of the songs themselves. Largely recorded in her kitchen, Harvey does away with any real vocal effects; they are sung dry, and remarkably the absence of bass and drums (there may be a metronome here and there) does not diminish the intense power of the sound.

Her titles are tongue-in-cheek and offbeat – “Yuri-G,” “M-Bike,” “50ft Queenie” – and her vocal performances are confident and assured, sometimes with swagger (“Reeling”) and sometimes utterly deranged (“Legs”, “Snake”). There are the beginnings of her ‘character’ voice rolling forth, from the disbelieving, mesmerised narrator in “Yuri-G” to the frantic longing of “Snake,” a tangled web which conflates sexual desire with pleas of innocence. Harvey was taking singing lessons from a local retired opera singer, and the rusty barbed wire that is “Hook” blasts out, like a volcanic eruption, from a mournful operatic snippet of Harvey’s record collection. If Dry was the sound of the elements, of sculpture and stone, then the songs that became Rid of Me are blood, guts, and venom.

These demos formed the blueprint for the Rid of Me sessions in December 1992, and it’s interesting to hear how Steve Albini and the trio built up the sound. Harvey sings the songs deeper, the guitar is even more distorted, and the drums have a vicious ferocity about them. It’s an exercise in contrasts, from the burbling menace of the verses of “Rid of Me” to the clattering, shouty chorus; the demo of “50ft Queenie” is a shade slower and is more perceptibly humorous (“tell you my name, F-U-C-K” sings Harvey, aping and gently mocking the self-aggrandising statements she was hearing in rap music at the time), while the album version is a warped kind of rockabilly, with Ellis’ crazed drums and Harvey’s screeching guitar sounding like it might explode. Dry and Rid of Me are sometimes grouped together, but hearing them this go round, complete with their demo counterparts, their differences are highlighted as much as their similarities. Rid of Me ups the ante considerably on the atmosphere of claustrophobic oppression. It’s a direct challenge to the listener.

Not enough, though, is made of Harvey’s humour; there’s a wry knowingness about her bloodlust in “Legs” and in the campy B-movie action queen of “50ft Queenie”. She makes use of non-sequiturs and bizarre imagery (from the moon-obsessed voodoo doll-pricking in “Yuri-G” to the priceless opening gambit of “Reeling” that runs: “I wanna bathe in milk, eat grapes / Robert DeNiro, sit on my face.”) Harvey tired of her image in the press as an “angst-ridden old bitch cow,” when, really, much of Rid of Me, behind the fury and ferocity (or even in tandem with it), is tongue-in-cheek. You sometimes get the sense that Harvey is playing with her own sense of humour as much as playing with the listener.

There are moments of sheer beauty – how gorgeous is the guitar line and melody of “Missed” – but Harvey, signed to Island, wanted to make clear that she would not be cowed into reproducing any particular style. The PJ Harvey that we know in 2020 can, of course, be directly traced back to these early albums – from the very beginning, her determination to make records ferocious in their simplicity and power was her modus operandi. From the iconic cover photo by Maria Mochnacz (which Harvey and Mochnacz insisted should not be retouched) to the nakedness of the musical delivery, Rid of Me is an exposed nerve.

But where to go when you’ve exposed that nerve? At the end of a lengthy world tour, the trio disbanded and Harvey was unsure where to go next. Save for a performance with Björk at the BRIT Awards in February, she went underground during 1994, immersing herself in art, music, and literature including, notably, the stories of Flannery O’Connor.

She would emerge, as “Joan Crawford on acid,” at the dawn of 1995 with the volte-face of “Down By The Water”, replacing the brutal guitars with fuzzy organ and swapping blistering power for disquieting menace. Here, she was deconstructing the blues inherent in her musical DNA. The song heralded To Bring You My Love and, with it, a new sound, a new look, a new mode of creative expression.

Listeners have, of course, had 25 years to get to know To Bring You My Love, which makes the demos all the more intriguing. The main thing the listener takes away is how intact Harvey’s vision was from the outset, before any outside collaborators, be they musicians, engineers, or producers.

If the Dry – Demos have a bracing naivety that grew into rumbling blues-rock, and the 4-Track Demos an intense power that ended up coarsened and savage in the studio, To Bring You My Love – Demos presents Polly Jean Harvey as auteur, the master of her own arrangements, performance, vision. Armed with her newly-acquired 70s Yamaha SK20 synth and drum machine, she built the loose concept of the album – the yearning quest for love, salvation, and deliverance, to a soundtrack of gothic blues, deconstructed Morricone Spaghetti Western, and flamenco inflections – in an old barn in the middle of the Dorset countryside. Isolated and at a low ebb, out grew, like a phoenix from fire-flames, the record on which the rest of Harvey’s career would pivot.

The in-built drum machine patterns allow Harvey to experiment with rhythms and textures; she uses her acoustic on “The Dancer”, “Send His Love to Me”, and “C’mon Billy” in a rhythmic, flamenco-inspired way, for example, while “Meet Ze Monsta” and “Long Snake Moan” allow her to flex her blues-rock muscles. It is quite remarkable how complete the arrangements are; Harvey sings the songs in the same way she would on the finished record, from the pinched drama of “I Think I’m a Mother” to the creepy “Working for the Man” and she even took the entire demo vocal from “Down By The Water” for the final version.

The artistic leap between Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love is pronounced, although more of the material than you might expect shares some DNA with trio-era Polly; the demo version of “Meet Ze Monsta” brings out the sound of the raw bar chords a little more, not a million miles from some of the Rid of Me material, and “Long Snake Moan” is in the same kind of sinuous, electric blues-rocker ballpark as “Naked Cousin”. But then you get something like “Teclo”, which is a more subtle, mournful kind of blues, or “Working for the Man,” where Harvey experiments boldly with texture and performance, introducing a hushed, offbeat spoken-word delivery.

The album sessions in the autumn of 1994 were reportedly fraught – perhaps confusingly since the final recordings are a pretty faithful replication of the demos. But the album has a liquid beauty and more evident theatricality to it that is not always as clear on the more naked, raw demos. “Meet Ze Monsta,” for example, takes the guitar/organ fuzz up a notch and, again, flirts on that line between sex and humour; “Working for the Man” benefits from Joe Gore’s creepy, hypnotic guitar line and Harvey’s uncomfortable close-miked whimpers; “Teclo”, meanwhile, incorporates some beautiful, dolorous piano.

The clearest differences are in “I Think I’m a Mother,” where the album production takes down Harvey’s scary Beefheart-influenced rock of the demo to a more subtle, threatening unease; “The Dancer” loses some of the more obvious flamenco signifiers of the demo but keeps the beautiful vista of its organ accompaniment.

As much as Harvey wanted to explore new avenues in her writing, she also wanted to use To Bring You My Love as a vehicle for a new onstage persona; the musicians faithfully (after trial and error) replicated her demos, allowing Harvey to unleash the ‘character’ of these songs, a distressed woman in various ball-gowns, catsuits, with garish makeup and white-powdered face. Harvey made the glamorous creepy, the “beautiful” unsettling, and her energetic rock music had an underscore of menace provided less, this time, by crunching guitars and more by organ replacing traditional bass and her voice testing the limits of its range. She plumbs new depths on “Teclo” and “Meet Ze Monsta”, screams with abandon during a memorable section of “The Dancer”, and sings purely and almost disconnectedly on “Down By The Water”, a simple vocal that foreshadows some of her later work. And what about “To Bring You My Love” itself, the encapsulation of the album’s mood and theme – a snaky guitar riff, occasional chordal blasts, a slowly unfurling arrangement incorporating ominous organ and disturbing vocals, and a lyric of Biblical gravity. Such was the clarity of Harvey’s vision that the demo is almost identical to the final version.

To Bring You My Love is both an ending and a beginning; as much as an exceptional piece of work in its own right, it helps to contextualise Dry and Rid of Me while providing the turning point for the experimentation to follow. If we can trace Harvey’s resoluteness, her artistic integrity back to the earliest records, we can trace her interest in storytelling, role play, and musical experimentation to To Bring You My Love.

All of these records – studio and demos sets – are bold, artistic statements by an artist fiercely protective of her vision and creativity. Harvey dropping that photo out of the blue in May has turned out to be one of the much-needed joys of this crazy year. These demo albums already provide intriguing clues, and alternate realities, to the creative process in general and to the development of these albums that many of us know so well. It’s a trip well worth taking.

PJ Harvey’s reissues of her first three albums and the accompanying demos are all out now, and can be bought from her official site. She has more planned for the future.

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