‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ is one of PJ Harvey‘s best-loved and greatest songs. The second single from the PJ Harvey band’s 1992 debut, Dry, it is a fuzzy, anthem drenched in satirical feminist themes. Duly, it is one of Harvey’s most unrelenting songs in the whole of her back catalogue and remains one of the best from her early career.
Aside from getting some of Harvey’s best lyrics on the song, the musician also blessed us with some of her best guitar moves, showing us to be what she truly is; a remarkable multi-instrumentalist.
Hated by conservatives when released, it was the song’s themes that really drew the ire of our stuffy compatriots. A Sheela na gig is a sculpture of an old naked woman that can be found on some of the oldest churches across Britain and Ireland, and they usually depict a distorted image of a woman showing her exaggerated vulva.
The song’s opening line clearly demonstrated the sarcastic, overly sexualised spirit that makes up a part of the song: “I’ve been trying to show you over and over / Look at these, my child-bearing hips”. The brutal rebuff she gives this fictional misogynist at the end of the song is genius: “Gonna wash that man right out of my hair / Heard it before, no more / Gonna take my hips to a man who cares / Turn the corner, another one there”.
It wasn’t just the lyrical content that outraged the John Major supporters either. Part of Harvey’s promotional campaign for the song came with a cover shoot for the NME. On it, she exposed one of her breasts, and the negative to reaction to it shows just how long ago 1992 actually was.
However, the song’s detractors were so lost in the brilliant sarcasm and feminist connotations only a portion of the song concerned itself with, that they couldn’t see that it wasn’t the only element of the track.
“The song’s a collection of different moments between lovers,” Harvey told Melody Maker in 1992. “I suppose it’s about being able to laugh at yourself in relationships. There’s some anger there but, for me, it’s a funny song. I wasn’t intending it to be a feminist song or anything. I wanted it to have several sides.”
Notably, near the end of the song, when Harvey sings: “Please take those dirty pillows away from me”, she takes her thought away from lovers and instead references Stephen King. This was not the first time the hero of horror fiction has been referenced in a song, and it was not the last. Nevertheless, it was perfect.
The line directly invokes King’s first work, Carrie, and how the religious maniac Magaret White refers to her daughter’s breasts as “dirty pillows”. There’s never been any mention by Stephen King of the song in the media, but we’re sure he’d love it, given how much of a self-confessed music lover he is.
He’s referenced music many times across his works, so it only fits that a wide range of the best musical artists have also referenced him in their work.
Listen to ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ below.