I just learned, from Tony Clayton-Lea’s Twitter, half an hour before posting this piece, that Pulp are playing St Anne’s Park in Raheny next June. This is complicated! God, I loved Pulp. I reviewed for Hot Press this 1998 headline festival show just outside Galway, which was one of the best and bravest performances I ever saw. Not too thrilled with my closing line: “This really is hardcore.” OK—think harder, Niall. I saw them in the Ambassador in December 2001 after their Scott Walker-produced final album We Love Life came out. This was my first show after a very close friend died by suicide in November, and it’s a show that looms large in my affective memory. I interviewed the band, mainly Jarvis and Candida, in Jury’s Christchurch in late 1993, circa Pulpintro (‘Babies’! ‘Razzmatazz’!, ‘Stacks’!) That was also for Hot Press, six months into my tenure there, and was a big interview for someone so junior, but I was subbing for someone senior. I remember someone from Pulp’s management greeting me in the foyer with—OK you’re Bill Graham? Em… no. Why complicated? Well, I’ve written elsewhere about my distaste for reunions and I’ve hosted a piece here by Fergal Bunbury on the same theme. Still I loved Dexys in 2003 and I can’t see Jarvis doing this without finding a way of creatively evolving his band. So. Two tickets please.
THE BIG DAY OUT (Castlegar Racegrounds, Galway).
BEFORE WE even begin, I have to hang my head and admit that for me this was no more than a medium-sized day out. As Jarvis Cocker was being forced off stage at half past nine, he apologised for his band’s evident weariness with the explanation that “It was really hard to get here today. We woke up in Barcelona.” I have a similar excuse: through no fault of my own my day began among Limerick’s equally Gaudian vistas and even as Ian Brown was doing his moribund King Monkey shuffle, circumstances made it impossible for me to be any further north than the adorable, flower-festooned post office in Gort.
And so I can’t in good conscience comment on Junkster, nor indeed on the (on record) glorious Cornershop—though something makes me suspect that the kids were enthralled for three minutes and otherwise forming five mile queues for beer. Nor Ian Brown, and I’m glad, because even the Roses at Féile were a sad enough spectacle and I can only take so much morbid fascination standing in big smelly fields. Apologies anyway.
There’s something very right about a group when the only predictable thing about them is that they will shout ‘Sabotage’ and wear colour co-ordinated spacesuits on stage. And so to the Beastie Boys who continue, miraculously, to be sheer unconfined joy all of the time and surely the band of all bands that everyone wants to be in. They kick off slowly enough—after the euphoria of just laying eyes on them, Adam Yauch’s need to address the crowd ultra-obviously about how great Gandhi was before launching into dull endless noodling jams like ‘Lighten Up’ is ominous indeed—but as the set reaches the second reel he’s MCA again.
‘Body Movin’’ and ‘Super Disco Breakin’’ are plenty stoopid and storming, ‘Root Down’ provokes almost but not quite the outbreak of apeshit that the Ill Communication amphetamine thrash duo of ‘Tough Guy’ and ‘Heart Attack Man’ does, but it’s the enormous encore of ‘Intergalactic’, the crisp calamitous ‘3 MCs And One DJ’ and ‘Sabotage’, complete with Money Mark sprinting across the stage and high jumping his sound system, that leaves you grinning like a goon, spent and ready for a snooze.
Just as well Garbage are on next, then. I won’t even waste words on them because for once (!) I wonder if I’m qualified to criticise: there are people for whose opinions I have all the time in the world who will defend this group till their last breath, but I remain mystified. The misery Shirley Manson closes the show with in ‘Only Happy When It Rains’ is no more than a gentle, comfortable ennui. Garbage are three too-good technicians and a fine frontperson making slightly wonky, stadium-friendly noises with no heart and absolutely no point. Why anyone would sit through an LP—three-quarters of an hour of your only life!—of this stuff is beyond me.
Pulp, then, display again just why they’re one of the few bands anywhere for whom you just have to have unconditional positive regard. I don’t like talking about bravery in pop music when the biggest failure Jarvis Cocker now faces is maybe having to survive with only eight very big houses in the country, but this is brave music. The show they played here, the same show with which they’re headlining festivals all around Europe, is as dark and unforgiving a set of songs as you could ever wish for.
This Is Hardcore—one of very few truly great records that we’ve heard this year—is, in the words of ‘The Fear’, “the sound of loneliness turned up to ten”, and as such has no place soundtracking the summers of ten thousand Galway-bound teenagers.
‘The Fear’, at least, you can hum, and Jarvis is generous enough to toss out ‘Do You Remember The First Time’ and ‘Sorted For E’s And Wizz’, from back when you had to search a little harder for the despair at the heart of their songs, but the openly malevolent ‘Party Hard’, openly horribly empty ‘Sylvia’, or ‘Seductive Barry’, a nine-minute, snail pace monologue by a twisted sex fiend topped off by Jarvis’ hilariously off-key synth solos… these are songs that all those impressionable minds gagging for ‘Disco 2000’ shouldn’t have to hear.
They do still appreciate pop, though, and so the most hilariously inappropriate stadium act alive round off their set with ‘Help The Aged’, ‘This Is Hardcore’—cruel, harsh, chilling but a hit—and ‘Common People’. And after ‘Common People’, after this set drawn from the most commercially suicidal, most courageous and nakedly powerful follow-up LP in memory, what exactly do you do for an encore? You go home. You say goodbye to Pulp the stadium act, who after this summer will never play to this kind of crowd again. This really is hardcore. Astonishing.