Having ranted about something I dislike, I feel it’s time to return some cheer that is obligatory in the festive season, and therefore it’s entirely necessary to write about Britpop. Again. Because I love it so very, very much.
Ever feel like you were born in the wrong era, musically? Born in the week that ‘The Drowners’ by Suede, the first Britpop single to get noticed by the music world, was released, I was born in exactly the right era; the trouble is, babies can’t really appreciate music properly, and therefore I’ll still hand-wring that I was a case of wrong-era-conception. Thankfully, the spate of band reunions is fantastic for those of us who face this problem and spend half their lives wishing they had access to a time machine, and given the contemporary reunion-bandwagon, it’s no great surprise that Jarvis Cocker’s critically-adored outfit Pulp were the latest in a long, long line of artists who have reconciled over the course of the Noughties (along with my beloved Suede and Blur). Their defining legacy in popular consciousness is that of their fantastically camp, charismatic leading man Jarvis Cocker, his actions at the 1996 Brit awards (invading Michael Jackson’s Messiah-channelling performance of Earth Song, which he disagreed with on a moral level) and their biggest hit, ‘Common People’, especially its resonance in an age when having working class roots was the key to credibility, and an attribute which the record companies then sought to exploit. In any case, Pulp were genuine misfits; a bunch of (then) over-30s from Sheffield who had fallen out of windows whilst trying to impress girls (and people wonder why I love Jarvis Cocker…), had drum-kits fashioned from calculators, and had stuttered through the 80s making albums that were ignored or dismissed out of hand, in between sessions on John Peel. But then they got good. In fact, they got better than good… they released ‘Babies’.
‘Babies’ is the encapsulation of everything that is good about Pulp’s reunion – not that there’s anything bad about it. It narrates the story of a boy whose female best friend, who he’s always secretly fancied a bit, has a sister who has sex with boys in the room next door while they listen in; he then becomes obsessed with doing this and hides in the sister’s wardrobe and listens from there, before the sister one day opens the door, sees him in there, and has sex with him. EPIC SONG CLIMAX: the best friend hears them having sex! And why does he succumb to the slutty sister? In his own words, “I only went with her, ‘cause she looked like you!” Because he loves her, and not the sister! [weeps.] Convoluted? Extremely. But it makes for a song which has a geeky, gawky heart and soul. It’s not about brushing one’s teeth with a bottle of Jack or something equally dispensable and soulless. I can articulate less well the emotion which Cocker conveys in his impassioned cries of “Yeah! Yeah yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah.” Therein lies the point: Pulp are both explicit and implicit. They say everything even when they’re saying nothing, but most of the time they are saying something – they’re speaking for reality and rejection, for awkward fumbles and predatory teenage boys. They’re real. They’re articulate. They’re storytelling maestros. I’ve probably moaned about lyrics in modern music before (seeing as I have bemoaned everything else about it), but even contemporarily they’re sharp. Even during their 80s nay-day they came up with gems such as “There’s a hole in your heart and one between your legs/You’ve never had to wonder which one he’s going to fill.” If he wrote novels, they would contain the sort of wittily insightful, poignantly perceptive pearls of wisdom that fill his songs. And, of course, they’d be full of affairs, sordid sex and scandal. Even the most straight-laced soul can’t deny that they obtain a sort of gossip-laden joy from reading The Sun’s more risqué elements, so why would anyone fail to enjoy the more smutty aspects of Pulp’s songs? Everyone loves a voyeur.
Lyrics aside – after all, they can only carry you so far – there’s the breathy, seductive vocals, which are full of a kind of lovable sleaze often heard in pubs and clubs that so fits the lyrical content. Image-wise, they’re riffing on a 70s-esque love for charity shop chiq and man-made fibres; they’re quirky! Joy! Back to the music, there’s the riffs and the synths and the occasional violin in the background which all work to a swooningly perfect effect – the latter in particular sounding absolutely beautiful in their Glastonbury ’95 version of ‘Underwear’. Candida Doyle’s synths help make them both indie-disco material and personal listening music; particularly with regard to ‘Disco 2000’ and ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’. But they can also do a self-loathing reminiscent of modern emo music, but without the parody; penultimate album This Is Hardcore’s opening track ‘The Fear’ is effectively music to slit wrists to. But it rises above such lowly stature by infusing a dark wit (“You can’t get anyone to come in the sack”, “So now you know the words to our song/Pretty soon, you’ll all be singing along…”) with its doom-filled rock. And then one need only look on songmeanings.com to see the other benefit to Pulp’s music: whilst not something which I myself have utilised it for, it’s apparently great music to have sex to (‘This Is Hardcore’’s title track being an apparent favourite; considering it’s a song about Cocker making his own porn movie, this hardly comes – ho, ho – as a surprise). So it has various uses, and they’ve got range.
And then there comes their apogee. Glastonbury 1995 was the moment when Pulp ‘made it’, filling in for The Stone Roses at the last moment. They had only just hit the heights of the chart with ‘Common People’, but this cemented the fact that they were, now, one of the biggest bands in Britain. I was lucky enough to see the footage on television the other evening; this marked the point when I went from wanting to see Pulp at next year’s Wireless festival to needing to see them. Jarvis Cocker’s random dance movements/gestures are quirkily endearing and strangely natural, whilst the songs sound great live (especially the aforementioned ‘Underwear’, the BBC footage at the end of which showing a sweetly wistful Cocker looking somewhat beautiful as his eyes are fixed skyward, presumably apologising to the Almighty for having unclean thoughts). The crowd’s enthusiasm is never dampened by the Roses’ no-show – they’re loving it. We were loving it at home. If Pulp can pull out similarly spirited, legendary shows at Wireless and Primavera in Spain, then there’s no worry about the audience not getting value for their money, because it truly was an astonishing performance.
So, what are we loving most of all about this reunion? We’re loving the songs, we’re loving the charisma, we’re loving the soul and the fact that Pulp are a voice for the talents of non-conformists all around the country. As they self-consciously put in the ‘Different Class’ sleeve: “Please understand. We don’t want no trouble. We just want the right to be different. That’s all.” Is there anything I don’t love about Pulp? No. So in my opinion, this reunion is a very good thing indeed. Jarvis Cocker shares the same initials with Jesus Christ for a reason.