Wednesday, September 07, 2011
PULP – London Brixton Academy 01 September 2011
Your first question is always Do You Remember The First Time? And the answer is yes. The second, and best, is always Could It Be Magic? And the answer is yes. It is as good as the first time. And in fact, even better. Yes, that good.
Has there ever been a time when the world needed Pulp more? For their sins, little as they are, Pulp always thrived under the Conservatives. Their songs, a clarion call of the articulate poor steeped in nostalgia for a time that never really existed (except in our collective imaginations), have quietly sat in our memories. Waiting for a time.
Whilst the rabidly undeserved nostalgia for Blur threatened to topple humanity two summers ago, Pulp's relatively low key return as a touring act may not have set the world alight, but what is important is not how many tickets you sell, but how much you mean. Blur? Good, but not great. Even at Blur's reunion shows, Albarn was half-busy distancing himself from the Blur identity, and it felt that Albarn was playing the role of Blur singer who happened to have the same name. Pulp? Every ticket in this room means more than almost any other ticket for any other band on the reformation circuit. This is here and now. This is real.
And thus it begins. The penultimate night of Pulp's 2011 Tour at a rabidly sold out Brixton Academy. Sold out in less than an hour. At 8.58, the lights dim, a curtain lights up with lasers and – over a torturously extended, ambient shimmer through “Common People” - a stream of near endless text begins. Are you ready? Do you want to see a dolphin?
“He said so you've gotta go home?” Jarvis sings. And it begins. The whole world is taken back, but also forward. These songs always meant something – not just because of the meaning we gave them, but also because they were songs obviously about something : no single Pulp song existed without having a reason or a purpose. Do You Remember The First Time? meanwhile rolls on the premise that maybe every time is as good as the first time, maybe better, and each first kiss could be the last first kiss of your life. And the best first kiss. There is no point in this life settling for second best.
And its no mere nostalgia show. Whilst Pulp topload material from their glory years (arguably, Pulp are one of the few bands that hit a commercial and artistic peak at exactly the same moment), the set stretches back as far as “Countdown” from their rampantly unsuccessful Fire Records years, to three songs from 2001's unapologetically rural, and poor selling, “We Love Life”.
Perhaps, about the time the moment hits me that this is as good as, no better, than the first time, was “The Fear”. For most people, it was the sound of Pulp drifting away from mildly introspective pop anthems. For me, it was the connection – for life itself is not easy, or fair, and for me, at that time, the late twenties was the moment in my life when the party came to an end. Though I always felt I was born old, and went straight from some kind of innocence to some kind of jaded disappointment in the course of one single week in 1989, I was no longer searching for beauty or love : just some kind of life with the edges taken off. This was my heroic quest – to find life OK, to find life worth living. This was The Fear. A song that sits within my top handful of songs that communicates the meaning of my life. It may mean nothing to you, and if it does, I hope there is something else that – in art – evokes as much as this does for me.
This was Pulp : not just the lipgloss, the razzamatazz, the disco 2000, but also the fear, the day after the revolution, the bad cover version. For there is no yin without yang. No light without shade. No Morecambe, without Wise. But there is also a determination for death or glory. To go out trying.
There's no shame in my eyes going wet. In the day to day of life we try to survive, to get through, to drag ourselves to the end of another month, and know that its one less month here on this earth, one more notch on a sordid bedpost on the bed that has seen it all, and also that life is just this stuff that happens around us, and we ride a wave and hope we make it to the end of the storm. When the crescendo of “Disco 2000” hits the intellectual gut, all the rationalising and thinking ultimately is meaningless in the face of emotion, in the face of recognition. Look how we've changed. How much we have grown. And how we are also, still, who we are, just different. Pulp 2011 is the same ; but different. Older, and wiser, and still, forever young inside.
By the time “Something Changed” fades into the ether, Brixton fills with smoke and lasers, and “Sorted For E's And Wizz” - maybe, unconsciously, an attempt to cross the void between rave and indie with a hangover, captures an air of the celebratory, arms-aloft, end of the night that was sometimes bookended by The Waterboys “Whole Of The Moon” being a post-rave 6am anthem 20 years ago. Already so far, there's been a comprehensive overview of most parts of Pulp's latter day career. The sense of a moribund, and unrewarding, replay of the whole of “Different Class” thankfully avoided in a set that pleases both the hardcore and the disco : 14 singles, from the barely heard “Countdown”to the dying moments of “Sunrise”, and a scattershot of obscure album tracks : “Sorted” turns into a white noise squall, and then, what I hoped, and feared I may never experience – the glory of the legendary “Sheffield : Sex City”. The city is a woman, a sophisticated lady.
Jarvis – as was always his forte – narrates a tale of the kitchen sink/bedroom drama : the ones that we actually live, and not the falsified, alienating broken drama. Lyrics fall from his mouth of suburban fucking and beautiful love in terraces and tower blocks and the teeth of Park Hill. In this world, a kiss could be a widscreen explosion of desire, and something as simple, as commonplace, as thrilling as a couple holding hands becomes an expression of hope. Tempered with a gritty social realism – think of an optimistic Ken Loach – these songs are our own acrylic afternoons. The worlds we live in. Albeit, set in the brown and pink of our childhood.
The artistic ethos of Pulp on stage is that which perhaps more than anyone, is the impossible. A world of once-kitsch seventies fashions, of neon and formica, set in the world of our childhood, the late seventies and early 80's, of whites and browns and plastic, where we were concievably, almost, living in a future that almost – but never quite – came true. You brought us up in the space age, and you expect us to clean toilets? When we've seen how big the world is, you expect us to live like this?
Rarely is music so meaningful, or so direct to the thoughts. Whilst we've changed now, we're fully grown, with babies, and jobs, and the fear of monday mornings, we still remain in some way connected to who we were – our inner teenagers, our hidden selves. As “Sheffield Sex City” melds, effortlessly into a thematically-complementing “Babies”, and then, the chaste “Live Bed Show”, in an extent there is a microcosm of a relationship from rampant passion to children to sexless resignation. I've been there, done (and didn't do) that.
In the line up tonight, the original lineage of Pulp – Jarvis, Nick Banks, Steve Mackey and Candida Doyle, are complimented by Russell Senior, Mark Webber, and where appropriate, Senior's replacement Richard Hawley for some of the latter songs. It's not just some form or reformation, but a genuine recreation of the players on the original songs. Aside from Leo Abraham who ably assists on almost every instrument known to man, this is the 100% original Pulp in all their mature eras. Candida even smiles at one point. Russell Senior proffers setlists made of paper planes.
The main set draws to a close with the ever-bitter, vibrant “Common People”. A song that meant more to anyone that loved it and understood it than any Wonderberlinwall. Because as Jarvis rightly point there are no common people – we are all people. They key element of the Pulp canon. No one better or worse than anyone else. The room sways, sings, bellows, its middle aged, rented-with-children-and-no-final-salary-pension-heart out. There are, to an extent, no words that could convey the importance of the song itself better than the songs own.
Encore time : “Party Hard” from the phoenomally underrated “This Is Hardcore” squeals and squalls and stays – deliberately - just outside its welcome. The enforced happiness of celebration ends in that bitter taste of being at a party just a minute too long. And then, for the faithful (though it kills the atmosphere), “Countdown”, where Pulp finally became a butterfly and not a pupae – a key moment where a decade of part time aspiration became a full time realisation. It was, as part of “Seperations”, probably the first finished Pulp song in the form that Pulp became loved. In front of me, two beautiful people live out the hand gestures that they have been demonstrating - early in the night at retro clubs named after 90's songs - as if they have just minutes left to live.
And then, perhaps another of the finest outsiders-scream moments in the underdogs-articulate-growl : “Mis-shapes.” By now it's 11.15pm, and Pulp have been on stage two and a quarter hours. If you didnt come to party then why did you come here, after all? It may be a Thursday at the fag end of a limp British Summer, but this is, for now - and possibly ever – the final Pulp performance on British soil, and, for that, it shows that some art is linked forever to a time, some fades in relevance to selling memories, and some – this – creates new memories, and a fresh line between the then and the now and the core of whatever being me is. Maybe the saddest fact is how little has changed truly, and how much at the same time.
The room empties slightly. But its still time for one more. One last dance. To “The Wicker Man” : a ten minute journey through the Yorkshire countryside for the seven strong band and their backing singers that leave an emptying room . At this point – 11.20pm – I can feel the band and audience start to seperate slightly. But life is a journey, we can't always go the same way forever.
Everybody's reforming nowadays. Even if nobody knew they wanted them. Can't Shed Seven get the hint? But if this is the last time for Pulp, we had this. As good as ever, and, as the best always does, meaningful. Stuff like this makes life worth living. It may not be the band, the musicians, but the recognition within ourselves, the meanings we give the songs, the community of mis-shapes that gives us a sense that perhaps, we are all common people and not alone in this world. It bodes well for the future. If Pulp were a once-in-a-lifetime return, an Indie Halley's Comet, then better to be remembered like this, burning as bright as ever, then any other way.
Do You Remember The First Time?
Sheffield Sex City
Live Bed Show
This Is Hardcore