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Three Songs No Flash

"Still A Deeply Political Act Of Listening & Love": Pulp Live
Neil Kulkarni , July 6th, 2011 08:56

Neil Kulkarni breaks his no-festival rule and braves the corporate overkill of Wireless to see his Pulp. His verdict? They "now stand mighty amidst the dwarfed mediocrity of modern indie" and, crucially, they're a band we need so much, right now. Photograph by Hayley Hatton

I've avoided festivals for nearly 15 years now, avoided the live-music explosion that now so proudly is the real money-maker for the music-biz, avoided all the reunions, repackaging and remastering of my youth, resisted the irresistible lure of my favourite bands playing the same old shit they played when I first saw them. Nowt to do with principles, I would've loved to have seen Pixies and Pavement for example. I stayed out of it mainly because I've been too poor a punter to see any of it. But there is this, too, the branding that hits you as the cattle come through the gate and Barclaycard Wireless Festival bring you this stun-gun to the temple, this Nintendo cocktail bar, this Live-nation VIP grandstand, this Jagermeister shot-bar, this gnawing sense that you're in an out-of-town leisure-plaza. Be grateful and be happy 'cos that's an order right from Huey Fun Loving Criminal on the big screen. He's got a Barclaycard too.

So far so harrumph. BUT I'm here squinting at the sun just off Marble Arch because even my grouchiness can get broken. Even I can live in hope again. In two hours Pulp are going to be on stage and I can't think about anything else. Some bands get back together and you're happy for them, wish them luck on their bank-raid, wave the fizz-swilling party out to the waves forlornly from the shore of your skintness, rattling your bottles in Rollocks Yard all the way home to watch it on YouTube instead. Pulp I wasn't gonna miss. Pulp I had to see. Couldn't live through a year knowing they'd played and I hadn't been there. The kids can starve this summer and my arse is taking Barclaycard's short and scalys up to the hilt. Because if any band can rise above, just like they always did, then it's Pulp, if any band can remind you that music transcends commercial taint and transports you into another way of life, another model of living, then it's Pulp.

Yes I'm here chasing memories. But I'm also hoping for a reminder of hope. The whole day my skin is tingling, my heart is pounding, time lagging and then catching up with itself in crazy moments of blurred acceleration, every side-street a memory and every snicket a regret.

Weird old journey down from Cov, driving down Holloway Road through Archway, remembering parties, times where you could hitch to the smoke with nowt but your pretty face and still survive, still end up on a friendly floor or pitch up arse-about-tit on the pavement. Those London balconies, those mattresses and those regrettable fumblings, those pills and powders, those long nights of longing and laceration, happiest days of my life when I didn't have to worry about getting up in the morning, and could start every day not knowing where the hell I was.

15 years on, I park my car at Euston, stroll past benches I once kipped on waiting for the 5.30 am train back up to Cov, take a long leisurely stroll down Tottenham Court Road, the shock of the missing Astoria, the angry rush of Oxford Street, a smoke and a wettened whistle on Soho Square and then onward to the park.

London's a city that immediately brings Pulp and the 90s vividly back to me, the still-resonant conviction that in an era draped in the flag, at a time where independence was being turned into a orthodoxy, Pulp uniquely were OUR band, for OUR people. In a pop world where other bands were trying so hard to be your heroes or your heartthrobs Pulp were like your mates, and knew that your mates and you were all the stars you needed. Like your mates, an odd bunch, ageless, sharp, like your mates shot through with a thread of genius that stood out in the crowd and drew the eye. OUR band, that repaid belief longer than the Manics or Suede ever did, alongside Pram as true poets of that age, but writing pop-songs and blessed with a front man too good not to occasionally take over the mainstream they provided such withering counterpoint to.

In an age when the dumb and clever-clever were being propounded as our only alternatives, Pulp were about real street-level intelligence and guile and survival and they gave us songs that spoke like we did about the messes we got ourselves in without any jazz-hands smarm or monkey-walk lairyness. They delineated our first loves, our lingering decay, our furies and our freakouts and our dance-steps, the cuts of our jib and our clothes, helped us to know we weren't alone standing off to one side, scowling on the stairs, waiting moodily for their songs at the edge of Britpop's dancefloor, conquering it every time 'Lipgloss' hit. Their songs were so much better than anything else, so naturally, effortlessly, breathtakingly superior in sound and word and stance.

The last time I saw them was also in a park in London, Finsbury in 1997, and it was perhaps the only time (this side of Public Enemy or the Muses) in my gig-going life where I'd felt proud to be part of the mass, proud to call myself one of the many, because it felt like a glorious calling-together of the Pulp nation, the Pulp tribe, it felt like going to see Pulp was a political act, an act of bravery and courage in a sea of rock & roll gestures and retrograde rearranging.

Stella supped, roach ground out, wobbliness definitely setting in, let's see if we can belong to something bigger than ourselves again, let's go rejoin the Pulp collective and see how gracefully we've all grown up. I bet the bastards look better than I do.

Today's crowd out front is not really a crowd. It is a group of people united only by a shared ticket purchase and a shared box of chips, eaten while huddled on the dusty ground (five quid). And, have to say, they don't LOOK like Pulp fans. Where are the Nancy-boys, the anti-girls, the tall drinks-of-water and the little geeks? They're all wearing shorts and sandals and can afford the goddamn food and are gonna sing along with 'Common People' then go home and hate chavs. I'm feeling a trifle disconnected, a feeling I fear won't dissipate all night. For how can I feel connected with these people anymore? They're not my friends. They have their own friends. Pulp is all we now have in common and I don't think they need them as much as I did and do.

I look around and I see all the things that have become associated with festivals, all the things I find impossible to know are real or not. Cowboy hats, dancing like a hippy, aviators, denim shorts, beach balls, whoops, phones aloft – are these things to do or things we do at the rock show now, expected behaviour waiting for an emblematic moment on the big screen from the swooping crane? So often seeing gigs recently I can't help thinking that in these Guitar Hero, TopShop Ramones-t-shirt years all we've been doing is playing at stuff, bands PLAYING AT being in bands, audiences PLAYING AT what it means to see a band, behaving in a way as predictable and unspontaneous as the ghastly phrase 'party like a rock star' demands.

Pulp themselves of course had presentiments of this: This Is Hardcore is a whole album about how pleasure can play itself out, how those zones and centres of joy can become dry and arid through saturation, just how middling the highs and lows can become. So I find myself, holding my breath, wondering whether this show is for me and mine or everyone here, realising that no one here is lost, no one here is tripping the fuck out, most of us have work in the morning, everyone here is hoping that their entertainment dollar has been well spent as the clouds gather, the sun hides, and a message travels across the black sheet that obscures the stage. “Do you remember the first time?” We've changed so much since then, we've grown. Apart from each other.

But. Hold the phone. There he is. There they are. Here is 'First Time'. All is whole. Pulp are still a deeply political act of listening and love. First thing that needs noting, my god how fucking brilliant do they sound? A band that's played together long enough to click in each other's pockets and on the one straight off, never making a show of that rock solid togetherness, able to be six individuals yet part of something bigger than any single personality.

Senior's violin has taken on a beautifully Cale-esque droning pall, slightly off-tune, Candida marshals the full palette and pushes it to all the right peripheries, keyboards and string swelling with a symphonic strength bigger and louder than I've ever heard them before. And my god Banks, Webber and Mackay are still such a fucking amazing thump of electric wow, coiling round The Voice, attendant to every syllable, enacting high-wire drama and low-life luridness with a pan-optic blast that seems to fill the sky fresh every second.

And of course, thank god, Jarvis is still perhaps thee greatest British lead-singer we've had in the past 20 years, sharp, bearded but beautiful, chatty, funny, serious, utterly believably still bound up in these songs and the memories and moments they evoke, not just for us, but for him and his band. So it doesn't matter that the set mainly focuses on Different Class – these songs were universal and timeless to begin with, hearing them now, in the new contexts of both our age and his, they actually sound more lethal than ever, cast an even harsher light on the piddling pleasantry the post-Pulp age has mainly given us.

'F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.' thunders with drama and heart, 'This Is Hardcore' blazing in red-lit Portishead-style doom and danger, 'Underwear' and 'Mile End' ushering in a beautiful sunkissed few minutes of bliss but smuggling pipebombs and prophylactics in the rear of your ear lyrically, reminding you how uncomfortably close to home, how voyeuristic Pulp always felt. OUR band. OUR problems. OUR only solution – by the time 'Mishapes' comes I'm remembering just how much that song held me together back in the day, how it still holds me together now, goggling at how Banks and Cocker have an almost Mick'n'Charlie knowledge of each other's moves (loved it when Jarvis started intoning Shelley's Adonais like Jagger in 1969), what a glowering still-fearsome presence Senior is in the sound. 'I Spy' and 'Bar Italia' are delightful surprises, 'Es and Whizz' still perhaps the greatest song of its era, everything played with a full-tilt perfection a million miles away from mere reanimation – these songs have grown since then, now stand mighty amidst the dwarfed mediocrity of modern indie pop, put out with a power and beauty that only seems to have increased with age, a dignity that feels immortal.

That's what's startling, how a 'reunion' show can actually reunite all those lost threads, bring something back full-force, can actually make you realise what you've been missing, how missed the majesty that is Pulp has been for so long. On a pulsating 'Disco 2000' and a riotous 'Babies' they're actually, impossibly, even BETTER than I remember them, somehow heavier yet freer, more precise yet even funkier (and they always were a bad-assed band to dance to). Couple of really revealing moments – one when he mentions the student protests and how crucial education was in bringing Pulp together, one where he talks about the new billionaires development at the bottom of Hyde park (placing us neatly in-between the recently-closed St Martin's College and Cameron's new Britain) – where the politics comes to the fore, and you're reminded, heartbreakingly, of just HOW FUCKING MUCH WE NEED A BAND LIKE PULP AGAIN in the current shitstorm, just what a big gap they left when they went, just how unprepared the modern audience has now been conditioned to be (both statements barely get a round of applause) for a band with something to fucking say.

I can't see a thing but I can hear, and that's all that matters to me, that I'm here and in the same place where this righteousness and romance is erupting. And it doesn't matter that I'm disconnected from the crowd, because the best Pulp always reminds me that in family and in friends and in solidarity there's a way, a stylish rather than merely fashionable way, to stay sane, to stay good, to stay true. 'Common People' is deeply telling tonight. Almost no-one here is living a life with no meaning or control, most of the crowd are singing along with 'Common People' 'cos it might just get them through, but some of us remember, and know in Cameron's new age how close that drift and derailment is no matter how grown up we might think we are, no matter how secure we think the emergency credit being advertised on all this branding is.

Crucially it's still a song that divides, that knows, that calls you out, that's still murderously accurate, that still showcases what a truly great resistant voice Jarvis Cocker and Pulp have been in English pop. OUR band. Still like our mates, a bit grouchy with each other, but still in love with each other and what they can create together. The band least likely to do something new together, but the band I would most like to be back in the fray. My voice has gone, my body aches, I have just been jumping up and down and screaming for an hour and a half. I have a routine to get back to. But for 90 minutes in a field in central London Pulp have made me happy again, made me believe that despite pop's ongoing self-censorship and refusal of possibility, its glee in its own pimping and dumbing down, there are still people able to take the form as far as it can go, to say things fearlessly, to try and create a heaven on earth, right wrongs, fight the good fight.

I have next to nothing to say about 2011, and very little to say about pop anymore but I do know this: it's not all about the music, it's not all about the fans, and it's not something that corporations have a fucking clue about. This much I know because I am a fan. Despite the enforced commercialism, the Styrofoam and the big-screens and the smarming security, while Pulp are on tonight nothing else in the world matters other than those six people under the big black sky and what happened in the space between them. Back in the game. Selling one of the kids to get tickets to Brixton because tonight was a groundshaking reminder that where Oasis bequeathed condescension and Blur bequeathed caricature, Pulp, more than any other 90s group, gave us compassion, something entirely different, something to live your life by, something that can sustain you. All hail.