Five Pulp Obscurities That Are Just As Wonderful As Their Hits
Pulp at the Royal Albert Hall For the Teenage Cancer Trust, London, March 31, 2012
Paul Hudson via Flickr/Creative Commons
The Coachella-enabled return of recently reunited UK musical powerhouse Pulp, fronted by ever-lanky-and-dry-witted frontman Jarvis Cocker, is the kind of event that Southern California Anglophiles have been dreaming about for years. Having only ever placed twice in LA before -- a stellar opening set for Blur in 1994 and a headlining club show in 1996 marred by Cocker's fierce cold at the time -- it's little surprise the band's standalone show next Thursday at the Fox Theatre in Pomona sold out within half an hour, especially after word that their initial reunion shows in Europe last year were arguably even better performances than they'd managed at their mid-'90s height. Pulp's big hits, inevitably and most notably the picture perfect portrayal of class tourism "Common People," are masterpieces in and of themselves but they're the type of band who have a back catalog that practically explodes with brilliant songs, even beyond the measure of chart placements and album favorites. We could pick five -- heck, 25 -- other relative obscurities just as good (and that doesn't even touch the one-offs from Cocker, plus his solo career and the twisted brilliance of Relaxed Muscle) but for now, a little sampling of the kind of work that transforms a lot of Pulp fans to become utter Pulp fanatics.
1. "My Lighthouse"
Pulp's earliest days were a combination of youthful pluck and dogged persistence -- Cocker founded the band in 1978 when he was all of fifteen years old and by 1981 Pulp had already scored a John Peel session before even releasing anything. Cocker and company's often wayward musical and lyrical impulses sonically had settled down enough by 1983 so he and a six-piece band -- including guitarist and producer Simon Hinkler, who would soon gain somewhat greater international fame as part of arena-goth-hippies the Mission -- recorded a sometimes melancholy but often whimsical debut mini-album, It. Engagingly light in feeling, it mirrored the brashly romantic touch of the young Cocker perfectly, far more in line with acts like the Marine Girls and early Aztec Camera than anything else. Its leadoff song also became the band's first proper single, "My Lighthouse." On an album of breeziness it works as a shimmering, sweet declaration of love and idleness, an invitation to an equally sweet young thing to come dally in the titular object, ignore the rest of the jealous world and have a genteel blast. With a chorus that features Cocker's young singing voice at its strongest, not to mention words tackling the relative improbability of talking about love and lighthouses in the same breath, it's all veddy English," a kind of light but passionate comedic touch that Pulp never revisited but suggested the alternate career that the band might have taken had their early effort succeeded beyond being cult hits. As a result, Pulp surprised its fanbase considerably when the group played "My Lighthouse" for the first time in nearly thirty years the other week in London, with the help of the original backing singers: Cocker's sister Saskia and his school friend Jill Taylor.
2. "Sheffield: Sex City"
After nearly a decade of stop-start activity -- including a couple more albums and a slew of singles that showed Cocker's increasingly curdled lyrical voice start to take stronger shape, even as the band's musical approach, now shaped by key newer members Candida Doyle on keyboards and Russell Senior on guitar and violin, was a darkly appealing but often grimly tough affair -- Pulp entered the '90s better able to balance a kind of perverse, low-rent glamour with its other concerns. The music turned into a kind of 1970s of the mind, UK version, mixing in everything from oily French easy listening sleaze to synthesized pomp to a nervous take on disco, and a slew of singles put together on the Intro compilation captured the band's newer confidence. "Babies," the most immediately memorable of them, was rerecorded for 1994's His'n'Hers album, but "Sheffield: Sex City" perhaps best summed up the band's ethos in those years. Putting together all those musical reference points and more besides, the band created a playfully tense background for Cocker to half-sing half-speak the story of chasing down a subject of mutual erotic obsession all while being distracted by the heavy-breathing possibilities of Sheffield itself, Cocker's unglamourous hometown city turned into a modern Babylon. Doyle adds in not only understated call and response vocals but a bit of subtly powerful luridness thanks to her introductory reading of a snippet from Nancy Friday's breakthrough study of female erotic fantasies, My Secret Garden. It's the lyrical antithesis of sex-in-pop-music as silk-sheeted smoothly choreographed rapture and yet still sounds like one of the most passionate things on earth, class-aware and going for broke.
, the 1995 album that broke Pulp through to the commercial stratosphere in the UK -- all the more amazingly so given it was the year that Blur and Oasis, not to mention the agglomerated horde of what was labelled Britpop, seemed to be fighting it out for all the oxygen in the room otherwise -- remains for many the definitive Pulp album, a combination of polished edges, big production serving even bigger sounding tunes (producer Chris Thomas, who had done similar honors for Roxy Music and the Sex Pistols in the '70s, was the perfect man for the job) and spot-on performances lyrically and vocally by Cocker. Oddly enough, perhaps, amid all the singles that spun off from the album, almost no real B-sides emerged, nearly everything being alternate takes, songs that would surface on the album anyway or were intended for soundtracks and the like. There was one glorious exception, though, tucked away on one of the "Disco 2000"
"Ansaphone" uses the same general metaphor as the Replacements' "Answering Machine," both of them now testament to a time before cell phone use and texting completely changed the idea of phone communication. If slightly dated, though, that makes the moody, openly sad tinge of the song all the more fraught, the more so because of the sense of awkward comedy also present throughout. It's the resigned sigh of someone calling another -- an old flame or perhaps even a current lover -- and getting stuck with a message while that other "want(s) to stay out and be dirty." Cocker's mid-song monologue representing the message left, hesitant, quixotic hopeful, ultimately despairing, couldn't be more note perfect.
4. "Cocaine Socialism"
Pulp's follow-up album toDifferent Class
, 1998'sThis Is Hardcore
, was the antithesis of a "perfect sequel," at least in record industry terms. Shot through with stylistic experiments, brooding doubts about growing older and failed dreams and even sly flashes of tenderness -- "Dishes
," appearing early in the album, might be one of the sweetest songs about day-to-day keeping on with a domestic partner around -- the album's hooks didn't quite connect with its home audience on the same level as before. ButThis is Hardcore
probably just caused its core fans to love the band even more, with the dark heart of songs like thetitle track
, "Party Hard
" and "Glory Days
" an amazing counterpart to often thrilling music. The last song wasn't a Bruce Springsteen cover but its pumped up arrangement and despairing lyrics were one of several nods over the years to the American singer's equally barbed ways around anti-anthems, "Born in the USA" perhaps being most obvious. However, Pulp's original lyrical take on "Glory Days"'s music was even meaner. Surfacing first as a B-side for the "A Little Sou
l" single -- this "proper" version turns up on theThis is Hardcore
reissue -- "Cocaine Socialism" had its roots, like "Common People," in real life: in this case, Cocker's having been contacted by a Labour Party functionary with an eye to gaining some kind of endorsement in the run-up to the momentous 1997 UK election which ended 18 years of Tory rule. The story of a drug-fiending political hack who clearly lives less for ideals than association with power in whatever guise wasn't the only song that looked at Tony Blair's success machine with a less than pleased eye. Here, though, Cocker's acidulous contempt in tandem with the band's blasting performance -- that moment when the guitar and keyboard combine to herald the full arrangement is just wonderful -- made it one of the most definitive, a reminder that being 'cool' is hardly the same as being cool -- or even good.
5. "Bad Cover Version"
Pulp's final album to date, 2001'sWe Love Life
, has fallen through the cracks a bit -- unlike the band's three previous albums, it hasn't received any double-disc reissue treatment as yet, reaching nowhere near the commercial heights of previous releases in the UK while its original release in the US was somewhat haphazard. Far from being a failure, though, it's almost the band at the top of its game once more, thanks to sympathetic production from avant-pop maestro Scott Walker and a set of songs that took a simultaneously serene and sharp view on both expected subjects and unusual new turns. (For a great example of all of that at once, consider "The Trees
.") "Bad Cover Version" was the final single from the album, a typically barbed Cocker portrait of someone looking at an old lover with a new flame and imagining said romance to be a cheap knockoff of the real thing they theoretically once had. The song's video, though, took the idea even further. Cocker himself had studied as a film student and had co-directed both his own band's earliest videos as well as others' (check out his work forAphex Twin's "On,"
for instance), and one had a sense throughout the group's career that he never took the band's video work lightly. For his band's then-farewell he and regular co-director Martin Wallace served up a no-holds-barred vivisection of the phenomenon of the charity single from "Do They Know It's Christmas" onward featuring celebrity impersonators serving up all too familiar memories of mugging for the camera, fake bonhomie and self-congratulation. A few UK-based stars of the moment aside, it's pretty easy to tell who's supposed to be who here -- Meat Loaf, David Bowie, Bjork, Phil Collins, Noel and Liam Gallagher, even Jarvis himself among many others -- while Cocker gets the last word via impersonating Queen's Brian May, complete with hairdo, doing a decidedly non-heroic solo. It's a perfect representation of the kind of culture of crap Pulp fought against nearly every step of the way. Cocker recently said that he was considering writing new Pulp songs based on some initial ideas, but even if the band never does anything more in studio after this video, they can rest assured they went down delivering a final kick in the teeth.
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