(Work in progress.)
I was working as a teacher on the Isle of Sheppey when Pulp released "Common People" in Spring 1995, and grabbed everyone's interest, and then audaciously yet naturally stepped in to replace The Stone Roses as headliners at that summer's Glastonbury. That was the year that Channel Four broadcast the whole festival live, and Pulp's performance, which has gone down in history as the best Glastonbury performance, was broadcast live into millions of homes. 1995 was a great year, and Pulp were a significant reason for that.
Pulp were an English rock band formed in Sheffield in 1978. Their best-known line-up from their heyday (1994–1996) consisted of Jarvis Cocker (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Candida Doyle (keyboards), Russell Senior (guitar, violin), Mark Webber (guitar, keyboards), Steve Mackey (bass) and Nick Banks (drums, percussion). Senior quit in 1996 and returned for tours in 2011, while Leo Abrahams had been a touring member of the band since they reunited in 2011, contributing electric and acoustic guitar.
Throughout the 1980s, the band struggled to find success, but gained prominence in the UK in the mid-1990s with the release of the albums His 'n' Hers in 1994 and particularly Different Class in 1995, which reached the number one spot in the UK Albums Chart. The album spawned four top ten singles, including "Common People" and "Sorted for E's & Wizz", both of which reached number two in the UK Singles Chart. Pulp's musical style during this period consisted of discoinfluenced pop-rock coupled with references to British culture in their lyrics in the form of a "kitchen sink drama"-style. Cocker and the band became reluctant figures in the Britpop movement, and were nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 1994 for His 'n' Hers; they won the prize in 1996 for Different Class and were nominated again in 1998 for This Is Hardcore. Pulp headlined the Pyramid Stage of the Glastonbury Festival twice and were regarded among the Britpop "big four", along with Oasis, Blur and Suede.The band released We Love Life, in 2001, after which they entered an extended hiatus, having sold more than 10 million records. Pulp reunited and played live again in 2011, with dates at the Isle of Wight Festival, Reading and Leeds Festivals, Pohoda, Sziget Festival, Primavera Sound, the Exit festival, and the Wireless Festival. A number of additional concert dates have since been added to their schedule. In January 2013 Pulp released "After You", a re-recording of a We Love Life demo track, as a digital download single. It was the band's first single release since "Bad Cover Version" in 2002. On 9 March 2014 Pulp and filmmaker Florian Habicht premiered the feature documentary Pulp: A Film about Life, Death & Supermarkets at SXSW Music and Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The film toured the international film festival circuit and was released theatrically by Oscilloscope Laboratories in the US in November 2014. It is the first film about Pulp (and Sheffield) that has been made in collaboration with the band.
Most bands hit the big time immediately and fade away, or they build a dedicated following and slowly climb their way to the top. Pulp didn't follow either route. For the first 12 years of their existence, Pulpl anguished in near total obscurity, releasing a handful of albums and singles in the '80s to barely any attention. At the turn of the decade, the group began to gain an audience, sparking a remarkable turn of events that made the band one of the most popular British groups of the '90s. By the time Pulp became famous, the band had gone through numerous different incarnations and changes in style, covering nearly every indie rock touchstone from post-punk to dance. Pulp's signature sound is a fusion of David Bowie and Roxy Music's glam rock, disco, new wave, acid house, Europop, and British indie rock. The group's cheap synthesizers and sweeping melodies reflect the lyrical obsessions of lead vocalist Jarvis Cocker, who alternates between sex and sharp, funny portraits of working class misfits. Out of second-hand pop, Pulp fashioned a distinctive, stylish sound that made camp into something grand and glamorous that retained a palpable sense of gritty reality.
Charming, acoustic-led debut album. Cocker's voice is strong and distinctive. It sounds like a demo, with an empty hollow feel as though recorded in the village hall on a cheap cassette, which adds to the charm.
Pulp's second album five years after the first is a totally different band - the only points in common are Cocker and the name Pulp. Different musicians and record company. Hmmm. This is more interesting than attractive. It mostly doesn't work.
This is getting close to the Pulp we know and like, but it's not quite there yet. This sounds like some off-cuts from an Eighties Leonard Cohen album. The lyrics are either "interesting" but don't quite hit the mark, or juvenile attempts at trying something new with cliched subject matter. The music is more of an accompaniment to the lyrics than something in its own right. There's an Eighties backing soundtrack feel to the music, and some superficial synth-dance-house sounds which at times, such as on "Death II" and "This House Is Condemned" can be quite ugly. There are hints here of what Pulp will become, but the album itself fails. Not completely. It is quirky and interesting, and you can see a lyricist who is trying something different, and occasionally has a novel approach, and an interesting oblique view on relationships, and this is the band who will make Different Class, so there's stuff here to pique an interest. But if Pulp stopped here we wouldn't be listening to this album. This is too much in the shadow of Leonard Cohen - Cocker has yet to find his own voice.
Ah! Now this is Pulp! Not a "proper" album as officially its a compilation of previously released singles (none of which were on an album, though a different version of "Babies" will appear on His 'N' Hers), but it is an album and it is Pulp. The singles were released in 1992 and 1993 by the Gift record label. Start here.
The music is stronger - more pop and rock and less Eighties synth. The lyrics are stronger - less Leonard Cohen, less 6th form twists on relationships, and more original, more genuinely observant, and more linked in with the music. Now the music and lyrics are working together as they will so stunningly on Different Class. And here is the first really great Pulp song - "Babies". Not everything works, there are some awkward pieces like "Sheffield: Sex City" which is a not fully realised idea spread over eight minutes like a long slow failure of an erection. Good bits, and promising, worth checking out, but not a complete album.
Score: 4 1/2
|His 'N' Hers (1994)|
This is proper Pulp in their first major label album release, and it all works.
|Masters Of The Universe (1994)|
Another singles compilation, but this is from Eighties Pulp when they were on the Fire record label, and so is similar to the material on the first two albums rather than Pulp as they actually were in 1994. Most of the tracks would later be incorporated on CD releases of Freaks. One to avoid.
|Different Class (1995)|
This is it. An exceptional album.
|Countdown 1992-1983 (1996)|
Another Fire label compilation album - material from the first three albums released at the height of Pulp's success. This is quite a common commercial activity, and if the material is embarrassing (as here) then the artist will speak out against it, as Cocker did. However, it does serve as a useful overview of the early material.
|This Is Hardcore (1998)|
The much anticipated and difficult follow up to Different Class is, of course, disappointing. Critics liked it for the darker theme and general professionalism; however, let's not kid ourselves, this is not on the same level as Different Class - it's not even as good as His 'N' Hers, nor even as good as Intro. You can see that Cocker has tried, but the bravado and creativity has gone, and in its place is a nervous attempt at making a serious album. And its the attempt that you hear rather than the achievement. The cover sums it up - it's a failed attempt at sexual irony. For all the talent involved in making and touching up the image, it remains porn, and is ultimately as superficial and missing the point as the songs. If a genuine piece of porn had been used as the cover, that would have been effective. It's that lack of confidence, lack of understanding, and lack of authenticity that marks the album as a whole. Pulp is over.
And it is significant that Russell Senior, who - along with Candida Doyle - had been part of Pulp since the Freaks album in 1987, was not part of the album, having left earlier saying Pulp was no longer creatively rewarding.
|We Love Life (2001)|
A slightly refocused Pulp which returns to more familiar Pulp territory and sound, but ultimately fails to capture the essence of what made them special back in 1995. This is the final Pulp album - anything else is compilations of older material or live performances.
|Peel Sessions (2006)|
A splendid overview of the band from 1981 (two years before the debut album) to 2001, when they release they final album and break up. A good number of the songs had not been previously available on any recording. There is a huge leap from the first four tracks recorded in 1981 to the next session in 1993 - Cocker himself quipping that they hold the world record for the longest gap between sessions. While this is a remarkable record of Pulp's progress, it's also a remarkable testimony to John Peel's importance in British music history.
His 'n' Hers (1994)
Different Class (1995)
This Is Hardcore (1998)
We Love Life (2001)
Links* PulpWiki (fan site)
* Acrylic Afternoons (fan site, last updated 2014)
* FaceBook (last updated 2016)
* JarvisCocker.Net (last updated 2011)
* Mother, Brother, Lover
* NME album reviews and ranking
* Guardian poll on Pulp's greatest album
* Adrian's album reviews
Best albumsThe conclusion is:
1. Different Class
2. His 'N' Hers
3. This Is Hardcore
832 March 2019