50ft Queenie: PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me Turns 30

If 1992’s Dry was her Godfather, then this was her Godfather Part II

PJ Harvey Rid of Me poster (Island Records)

Polly Jean Harvey burst on the scene quickly enough that there was no grand plan for how to keep it going.

But she found a way.

PJ Harvey’s second album, Rid of Me, released 30 years ago today, proved to be rawer, heavier and, yes, better than its predecessor.

If 1992’s Dry was her Godfather, then Rid of Me was her Godfather Part II.

It hadn’t taken long to go from rather humble beginnings to a taste of success with respectable sales and tastemakers like John Peel championing her.

Harvey had served a sort of apprenticeship in a band called Automatic Dlamini, learning the ropes on guitar and performing onstage, but not being the lead singer or songwriter.

She left to form PJ Harvey. The trio of Harvey, drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan made its live debut in April, 1991 at a skittle (sort of a precursor to bowling) alley to an audience that could hardly be less receptive. Years later, she told NPR, “We started playing and I suppose there was about 50 people there, and during the first song we cleared the hall. There was only about two people left. And a woman came up to us, came up to my drummer, it was only a three piece, while we were playing and shouted at him ‘Don’t you realize nobody likes you! We’ll pay you, you can stop playing, we’ll still pay you!'”

In less than a year, Harvey would release Dry to a response much more enthusiastic than they received from confused skittle alley patrons. The album almost cracked the U.K. Top 10, drawing the attention of major labels in the United States.

Island was the winning bidder, but even with the buzz surrounding her, Harvey wasn’t quite thinking of long-term success.

“I’d done a foundation course in art school and was going to do a degree in sculpture, but instead of doing that, I’d signed a record deal and deferred my place,” Harvey told SPIN in 2013. “After making Dry, I thought, ‘I’ll make one more record.’ Then I thought people will probably get bored of me. So I deferred my college course again to write Rid of Me.”

The writing process was ongoing, with some of what became the album coming up during the creation of Dry. It wasn’t always easy at first. Harvey was sharing an apartment that wasn’t conducive to writing music, as anyone needing to go to their room or someone else’s had to go through hers.

A whirlwind touring schedule, coupled with things going on personally, left Harvey in need to decompress.

An eventual move to an apartment on the seaside, close to Dorset where she grew up, aided that immeasurably.

Initially, the plan was to work again with Howard “Head” Bullivant, who’d co-produced Dry with Harvey and Ellis. But after five days and just one song done (“Man-Size Sextet”, which sounded like it emerged from the soundtrack to a ’70s English horror film), Harvey and Bullivant mutually decided not to go further.

Bullivant would, some years later, go on to be sound engineer for Harvey’s tours, but in 1992, she needed a producer.

Given her state of mind, Harvey was in no mood for a laborious recording process. She was a fan of Steve Albini’s work on the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, as well as his work for bands like the Breeders, Slint and The Jesus Lizard. Albini’s engineering style meshed with what Harvey wanted at the time – to get things done without fuss and extraneous bullshit.

“There’s a common perception that going into the studio is a completely different experience for a band than a gig or a rehearsal or something like that,” Albini told SPIN. “There’s an expectation that you’re just going to take everything apart and start from scratch. I don’t like to do that. My engineering aesthetic, coming out of a background of being in bands myself, was to try to set the band up completely and let them perform normally, then record it as it happened.”

Harvey’s new digs, an apartment above a restaurant, proved to be much better for her creative process, so she had more material ready. The demos won Albini over, not that he needed much convincing. 

Of course, the band had to play more tour dates in the fall of ’92 before staying in the U.S. in December to decamp to the semi-frozen tundra and isolation of Pachyderm Studios, nestled in the woods southeast of the Twin Cities.

There were five people staying at the house next to the studio, not in town, so distractions were kept to a minimum. Feeling spending too much time recording could weaken the final album, Rid of Me was put together in a matter of days, not weeks.

“I remember doing takes and me saying, ‘I’m really not happy with that take, can we do it again?’ And [Albini’d] say, “What are you talking about? That’s absolutely fine,'” Ellis told SPIN. “We were done in three days. We were there for ten days in total. I remember feeling completely shattered, and then by the time I’d recovered, we’d recorded the whole record.”

Both Ellis and Harvey were dealing with relationship issues at the time. He noted his marriage at the time was on the rocks. And while Harvey’s known for keeping her private life private, it’s known that she’d gone through a breakup that informed some of Rid of Me’s material, including the title track.

It was that song which proved to be the key in guiding the album’s direction. 

PJ Harvey Rid of Me, Island Records 1993

“I remember starting to write the song ‘Rid of Me,’ sitting on my bed in my damp front room by the gas heater. When I’m writing towards a record, there’s often one song that emerges as the linchpin,” Harvey said. “At that time, I very much wanted to write songs that shocked. When I was at art college, all I wanted to do was shock with my artwork. When I wrote ‘Rid of Me,’ I shocked myself. I thought, ‘Well, if I’m shocked, other people might be shocked.’ The sound of the words was powerful, and the rhythm felt clean and simple to roll off the tongue. I knew that this was the type of song I was trying to write.”

The song starts the album with a restrained menace over its opening two minutes as Harvey sings lines like “I’ll make you lick my injuries/I’m gonna twist your head off, see” the same way someone else might sing sweet nothings.

Then, bam! The drums kick in with loud volume and Harvey lets out the words in snarls before going back-and-forth between restraint and would-be catharsis. At the end, her heavily distorted voice repeats “Lick my legs, I’m on fire/Lick my legs, I’m desire.”

And if the drum sound with that particular “thwap” paired with the quiet-loud dynamic is familiar, Kurt Cobain, already a Harvey fan from Dry, liked it so much that Albini was asked to record In Utero.

But Harvey was quick to caution against reading the album as an open book on her life, telling the Guardian that year, “I would have to be 40 and very worn out to have lived through everything I write about.”

There’s the artistic license of “Me-Jane”, which explodes from a strummed blues riff. Harvey gives the character agency she rarely had, telling Tarzan in no uncertain terms that she is tired of his shit.

There’s a certain irony in Rid of Me being such a fiercely feminist album (one that would influence plenty of women, including the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O), considering that wasn’t Harvey’s mindset in writing it. But there are no fucks given when it comes to gender roles. 

It was a mindset all the more understandable given that, as rapturous as praise in the English press was for Dry, it was also accompanied at times by a patriarchal, patronizing gaze towards Harvey’s image.

Harvey wittily inverts the trope of the strutting lothario on the fast-paced bluesy stomp of “50ft Queenie.” Telling Casanova himself to bend over by the third verse, she sings in the chorus “Hey, I’m the king of the world/You oughta hear my song/You come on, measure me/I’m twenty inches long.” Then with comic braggadocio, she gradually increases that to 50 inches, certainly more tuneful and better for the environment than a monster truck.


VIDEO: PJ Harvey “50ft Queenie”

She also has fun not coloring within the lines on her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”. Introduced to Dylan by her parents, Harvey said she appreciated his writing even more doing the cover. That said, she refuses to Xerox the rollicking original with its twangy slide, instead turning it into a percussive, heavy romp that stays on the rails no matter how much you think it won’t.

“Man-Size”, in its trio version recorded at Pachyderm, pretty much wears the loverboy tropes like a suit, bursting through the speakers as Harvey forgoes the noisy/soft quiet dynamic, never returning taking her foot off the throttle.

Harvey wasn’t exactly traveling the waters of, say, those three former Yardbirds on guitar, there’s unmistakable blues creeping throughout Rid of Me. It’s there on the loping start of “Rub ‘Til It Bleeds” where, again, the band sustains tension for two minutes before releasing it as if every untouched nerve had been stimulated simultaneously.

Even for an album recorded quickly, Harvey made sure to get things how she wanted, telling SPIN, “Rub Til It Bleeds’ was quite a difficult song for me because it took me a long time to get the timing of the pauses right. There are a lot of pauses and it keeps building to a crescendo at the end of each verse. Then when it hits the chorus, it has to explode. That was very hard to get that feel right.”

Albini’s production wasn’t universally praised. Some felt the sound was flat, that there were moments where Harvey’s vocals weren’t prominent enough in the mix. In reality, the production may not be surgically clean, but it is intimately in-your-face, making you feel like you’re the fifth person in the studio with the band and Albini.

But it’s clear 30 years later that the way Rid of Me sounds was not an accident and exactly what Harvey herself was going for.

Even on the rare occasion they futzed around with the sound, they quickly thought better of it. A revised “Yuri-G” was given what Albini called “ridiculous rockabilly affectations” in the mix. The changes pleased no one, so they went back to being straightforward, outside of distortion on her vocals.

Just what those vocals are about is definitely left up to interpretation, what with its references to the goddess Luna, possibly Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gregarin and maybe even hints of lesbian lust, all tinged with isolation.

There’s no such vagueness to “Dry”, where Harvey tells an ex or would-be lover that he has been weighed, he has been measured, and he has absolutely been found wanting.

Even within Rid of Me’s aesthetics, Harvey works in twists to the formula: the broken and breaking down protagonist of “Legs”, the heartbreak and grief of “Missed” being made more palpable by the brevity of the outbursts and the lumbering, intense gait of guitar-dominated closer “Ecstasy.”

The album drew mostly universal praise, with some exceptions like a painfully misogynistic capsule review in Entertainment Weekly, which dismissed it as “one of those angry-woman-spews-sexual-politics records” while claiming it had “no heart.”

The album was chock full of exposed raw nerve with a beating heart underneath. Even with its playing around with guises, with its wit, there was a “I’m joking, haha, but not really” quality to those moments as well.

Rid of Me’s umistakable musical intensity wasn’t limited to Harvey. Ellis was clearly having a field day behind the kit with Vaughan solidly underpinning things on bass. That intensity sprang in part from where the three musicians were at mentally sessions. 

Rid of Me back cover (Discogs)

There were some tensions, exacerbated by what Ellis later said was all three of them being uncommunicative. The situation was exacerbated by a tour where a rising Radiohead opened, not always drawing an audience receptive to the headliner. Ellis, then Vaughan, left before the Rid of Me touring was finished, leading to Harvey finishing the remaining shows by herself.

Ellis would later return to appear on Harvey’s albums from 1998 through 2004 while Vaughan wound up living what Ellis called “a hermetic existence.”

Her first serious time off followed that tour, setting the stage for 1995’s To Bring You My Love, the first album where she’d work with John Parish.

Parish had been a help to her as a performer during their time in Automatic Dlamini, where he’d been the frontman. To Bring You My Love was the first of numerous collaborations that continue to this day, with Harvey’s newest album, I Inside The Old Year Dying, slated for a July release.

Years later, Ellis said of Rid of Me.  “It’s ugly music, but ugly in a good way. It makes me squirm in places but the reason it makes me squirm is because it is quite close to the bone. Some of the vocals are literally hysterical, mad, crazy. It’s a difficult listen because you’re not sure whether it’s embarrassing or funny or scary or what. But you can’t ignore it. It’s a pretty unignorable record. I’m proud of that.”

For her part, Harvey’s goal was to say what she wanted to in a fresh way, saying “I had just come out of my teens and at that time you really want to make your mark on the world. So I just wanted to say something that hadn’t been said in that way before. I was trying to cause a riot in one way or another.”

There may not have been riots, but the ripples formed by the intense, abrasive utterly absorbing Rid of Me are still traveling today.



Kara Tucker

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love—music. She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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