Pulp play two sold-out nights at Brixton Academy this week, ending a summer of triumphant festival appearances. But one lifelong fan won't be there. Charlie Ivens explains why.
Sun 3 July 2011, 9.30pm, at the Wireless Festival in London's Hyde Park. Pulp are midway through their first UK show in nine years, having been officially "on hiatus" since their (underrated, in retrospect) final album We Love Life failed to ignite the charts as its three predecessors had. The six-piece band look bullish, proud to be back at the top - and, it's impossible to ignore, not only old enough to know better than to join the often depressing indie heritage merry-go-round, but also grimly prepared to offer a swift uppercut to anyone questioning their decision.
Luckily, theirs is a flawless, seamless, rocket-fuelled performance. Truly, it's like they've never been away. As thousands of now slightly balding, slightly paunchy men and their now slightly laughter-lined, slightly more tired other halves relive their twenties with wide grins and evocative singalongs to 'Mis-Shapes', 'Disco 2000', even early-set surprise 'Mile End', singer Jarvis Cocker reminds the throng why Pulp were once so important. He quotes Shelley before 'This Is Hardcore', and muses about the irony of the working class Sheffield band playing on the London doorstep of scores of crazy-wealthy plutocrats and oligarchs up the road in Knightsbridge and Kensington.
But is it really ironic? For all their "grass is something you smoke/birds are something you shag/take your Year in Provence/and shove it up your ass", urban class warrior schtick of yore - both 'I Spy' and inevitable teary-eyed finale 'Common People' sound doubly venomous in Hyde Park - the band that provided both soundtrack and context for a generation of outsiders, bookworms, introverts and geeks are more part of the establishment today than they've ever been. Their decision to reform for the 2011 festival season (20 international festivals and a couple of side shows since May) could reasonably be viewed as one final, unapologetic tilt at the capitalist dream, for a band of self-confessed dyed-in-the-wool lefties. But they've given no interviews on the subject, so fans are left guessing.
By way of context, I'm one such fan. Around the end of 1993, hearing 'Razzmatazz' on John Peel's Festive Fifty led to Pulp rapidly replacing The Cure in my post-adolescent mind as The Band - y'know, The Band, the totem, the everything, the one by which all others will be judged, so help them. And there they remained for the next decade - becoming, in the process, the subject of the first live review I ever had published, in April 1994 - joined occasionally by close running mates but still miles ahead... for their absurdly crunchy take on artful pop music; and for their wonderful taste in clothes and culture; and for Jarvis's peerless way with a devastatingly well observed, darkly witty rhyming couplet.
Hell, his couplets often didn't even rhyme - 'I Spy' again: "The crowd gasp at Cocker's masterful control of the bicycle/skilfully avoiding the dog turd outside the corner shop" - but they truly spoke to me, made me laugh as much as they made me think (and dance, and drink and screw)... and to thousands of others, who a decade earlier would've been transfixed by Morrissey, another decade earlier by Bowie or even Jake Thackray, and another by Ray Davies or (perchance to dream) Anthony Newley.
I heard friends burbling with unabashed, redole(sc)ent joy at seeing the first Pulp comeback show at Spain's Primavera festival in May (which I was meant to have attended), and then witnessed it myself in London in July - the band absolutely owning the stage, the audience and the venue (it's surely no surprise their 1998 live DVD, also filmed in London, was titled The Park Is Mine) at Wireless. I then watched with (yes) ill-placed paternal pride as Pulp racked up rave review after rave review across Europe and Australia, fans and critics alike united in adoration, repeating the new orthodoxy that states that in the battle between Blur and Oasis, Pulp were the real winners (never mind that Pulp started as the little Art Rock Engine That Could, as contemporaries of The Smiths and The Fall and James a decade earlier). I heard all this, and then I thought... enough.
Because what can they do now? As a band of perennial underdogs, whose very existence was arguably founded on Having Something To Prove, Pulp are fresh run out of motivation. Sure, there's a new generation to entice - as the also recently reunited Suede have realised successfully - and no doubt a fair percentage of the Brixton crowd will be younger folks wondering who the hell might represent them, when the adults in their line of sight seem intent on exposing themselves as venal, self-serving liars, and their own peers' self-appointed spokespeople are woolly-minded, self-destructive druggies or cold-eyed, MBA-wielding careerists.
But Pulp, really, with all the greatest will in the world, are over - and they may actually have failed. The world they sing about no longer exists, but the class divide is more yawning than ever, and no doubt it won't be long before an odious MP is vaulting blithely over the point and proclaiming himself to be a fan of old, just like David Cameron did with The Jam and The Smiths. Jarvis, such a welcome addition to the BBC 6 Music roster, may feel duty bound to echo Johnny Marr's "banning" of Cameron's fan status, but he might also stop to think about the mis-shapes he left behind, and the fact that the substantial cash Pulp have no doubt earned during this tour could take the band further from the roots they so love.
Damned if they do (and they did); damned if they don't (and there are plenty of passionate quotes suggesting they never would). Pulp have covered themselves in glory with a perfectly pitched, dignified but determined reunion run. They've reasserted their position as UK pop's last great outsiders, and they've reminded two or three generations of their sizeable arsenal of deathless, uniquely speckled, potentially life-altering tunes.
But now - in a post-Manics, post-Gaga, even post-Amanda Palmer world, where there's plenty of representation for people who don't feel at home among the Normals - it's time for Pulp to stop before it all becomes unedifying. I still maintain a great love for Pulp, and for exactly that reason, I'm staying at home.
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