A SECRET HISTORY OF PJ HARVEY
from Record Collector, April 1995, Number 188, Pages 32 - 37
"I like something that grabs you and shakes you around, makes you feel sick and gets in your stomach. I don't want something you can listen to or not listen to - take or leave." (Polly Harvey, late '92)
A GIFTED, IF DISOBEDIENT, SONGWRITER WITH A PENCHANT FOR NOISE, POLLY HARVEY IS THE MOST UNPREDICATBLE TALENT OF THE DECADE MARK PAYTRESS PROFILES THE DORSET DAME
In today's seen-it-all done-it-all rock culture, it's not easy to turn that 'queasy listening' mentioned in the quote above into something tangible. That's what makes PJ Harvey, once a three-piece band, now simply Polly Jean Harvey, such a thrilling proposition. By drawing on several sources - vintage blues, punk Celtic folk, the Dylan-led singer-songwriter tradition, Beefheart-inspired deviant rock - Harvey was almost guaranteed to excite the critics. But few could have imagined such a musical patchwork working so naturally, which is largely down to the strength of her songwriting; or have guessed that the architect of this work would become one of the decade's stars.
What's most surprising is that there aren't more musicians like Polly Harvey. Ever inventive, and with a healthy disdain for offering glib soundbites about her work, she's sometimes depicted as an irritant on rock's chummy surface. Her unwil- lingness to ally herself to feminism, for example, aroused the anger of many who'd been favourably disposed towards her as an assertive and unquestionably frank role-model. This is part of a wider reticence that comes dangerously clos to 'my art says it all' mystification, a faintly precious standpoint that nevertheless does her no harm in public image stakes. She's enigmatic, you see.
And, more's the point, a musical mischiefmaker of the highest order. Just when you'd made a friend of the twisted melodies and enriching hooks which graced her debut album, "Dry", issued early in '92, she called up rowdy ex-Big Black numero uno Steve Albini. Polly's perfect commander-in-(mis)-chief on 1993's "Rid Of Me", he helped bury any of the band's remaining subtleties under a thunderous hail of rock'n'roll brutalism. Now having exorcised her hardcore fantasies, she's back with "To Bring You My Love", an infinitely more relaxed and spacious record that adds luxurious textures to her still murky rhetoric of disquiet.
TWO OR THREE THINGS WE KNOW ABOUT HER
Polly Harvey was born on 9th October 1970, to parents who were probably still mourning the passing of Janis Joplin days earlier. She was brought up in North Dorset village of Corscombe, nine miles south of Yeovil, where the sounds of sheep, stone quarrying and tractors were complemented by her parents' rather splendid record collection: the Rolling Stones, blues, even Captain Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica" to accompany the Sunday roast. Inevitably, Polly rebelled - by clapping along to Mud and Pan's People on 'Top Of The Pops', and briefly sporting a Bay City Rollers scarf.
As she got older, PJ acquired farm skills, like ringing sheep's testicles and lambing; began to delve into her mother's mythology books; and had a teeny flirtation with Duran Duran and U2. She also took up the saxophone at her Plenistow secondary school and, at 15, became part of an eight-piece instrumental group. Called Boulonge, the ensemble (apperently not dissimilar to a latter-day Porthsmouth Sinfonia) was the plaything of future Mike Leigh musical collaborator, Andrew Dixon; his game was imperfection.
By the time she'd passed nine O-levels and two A-levels, Polly had started writing songs on guitar. She formed the uncreatively-named Polekats, a folksy trio (with bassist and flute) which played standards in the local pubs. And the John Parish, a veteran of the South-West scene for several years, and his makeshift band Automatic Dlamini, entered her orbit.
Polly was the last of the four future PJ Harvey members - Rob Ellis, Ian Olliver, Stephen Vaughan and PJ - to join the occasionally productive West Country scene. Drummer Ellis has the longest track record which stretches as far back as 1980, when he was a member of New Series (alias Surface Tension, alias Strange To Behold) whil at Yeovil College. Conspicious for their penchant for flairs and crap names, the band included Mark Vernon, who'd later become PJ Harvey's manager. Leaving behind them two inconsequential demos, the pair formed Techniques Of Persuasion and upped sticks to London. No-one wanted to know, so Rob returned home and got a job in a Yeovil record shop. One of his customers was John Parish. Parish was then drummer with Thieves Like Us, an old fartish, turn-of-the-decade rock band who even made several unexceptional forays onto local Bournemouth patch, a space memorable only for the incomparable avant-punk of the Animal Haircuts.
The pair formed the Headless Horsemen in 1981, with Ellis on drums, Parish on guitar and vocals, and Mark Vernon on key- boards. Vernon quit after a handful of gigs, but Parish and Ellis, together with bassist Dave Dalimore, persevered until the end of '82. Three appearances on compilations exist to prove that the Headless Horsemen were not a figment of someone's scrumpy-addled imagination: "A Glimpse Of Heaven" on "The Sheep Worrying EP", given away free with the Bridgewater-based 'Sheep Worrying fanzine; "Wet Lunch Hour", "Drive My Car" and "Hopeless" on the "Burnt Offerings" cassette; and "Junctions" from the "Magical Mystery Sheep" tape.
After Dallimore's departure, Ellis and Parrish formed Automatic Dlamini, a group now better known for the absurdity of their name than for the music they made. I find it difficult to believe but authoritative sources claim that its origins lie in a trip to Swaziland where Dlamini is apperently a common surname. Chancing upon a fridge of Western origin while searching for a name for these new-born, one family of Dlaminis were smitten by the word Automatic...
Many thanks to Gavin Sharrock, former editor of PJ-zine, 'Daphne Dog', Dave Wilson, Lorne Murdoch and Paul Cox at Too Pure