Ten minutes before Pulp take to the stage at London’s Finsbury Park, some old footage of the band briefly flickers onto the big screen. Through a VHS wobble you can see Pulp - pre-chart hits, pre-Jarvis Cocker wiggling his arse at Michael Jackson – laughing and getting ready in a cramped dressing room as Cocker wraps himself up as a sort of Bacofoil spaceman. It flickers off again before a more polished intro tape informs us that we’re about to witness the 527th Pulp gig, but is a reminder of the group’s unlikely trajectory from art school misfits to national treasures.
Even the most of optimistic of observers wouldn’t have wagered in 1993 that thirty years later Pulp would be playing to crowds 45,000 people. But here they are, on their second reunion jaunt since calling it a day in 2002. With Blur playing Wembley Stadium next weekend, the long shadow the mid-90s casts over the current musical landscape doesn’t seem to be receding anytime soon. Much has been said of a musical un-adventurousness that might have come attendant with Britpop, but Pulp’s story is testament to what a remarkable moment it was. That after more than a decade of poking around the margins, a group of gangly outsiders raised on a diet of Peel sessions and Roxy Music successfully stormed the pop barricades. In that context, when it lands three songs in this evening, 1995’s Mis-Shapes sounds less like a rallying call and more of a monument to a seismic point in British pop culture.
Jarvis Cocker may be one of the unlikeliest pop stars this country has produced but he remains one of the finest, and tonight he is a joy to watch. Rising up from a podium silhouetted in front of a giant moon for sex-as-class-subversion opener I Spy, he’s part ‘68 Comeback Special Elvis, part Bruce Forsythe; a 59-year-old man from Sheffield in glasses and a dark green velvet suit with all the energy and elasticity of an eel.
Dusting off all his trademark hand gestures, limb-flails and ticks, he flings himself dramatically down onto a monitor for F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E., points into the near distance whenever he can, while amiably chatting away and throwing grapes into the audience as if he was performing in front of a crowd of 450.
With half the set taken from Different Class, tonight is unashamedly crowd-pleasing (rather than saving it for a hit motherload at the end, they play Disco 2000 second), but for all the mid-90s peaks and acrylic fizz of His N Hers’ Babies, Do You Remember The First Time? and - in tonight’s context – relative deep cut Pink Glove, two of the evening’s centrepieces come from the band’s more subdued final two albums.
1998’s This Is Hardcore is magnificent. Following an extended orchestral introduction, Cocker begins it slouched in a brown leather armchair below a chandelier before slowing descending down a lit-up staircase like a Raymond Revuebar Scott Walker, relishing every note of its grubby seediness. Taken from 2001’s underrated We Love Life, Sunrise, conversely, is a moment of transcendent joy; its ecstatic, bucolic rush casting a bright dawn light as darkness falls around the rest of the park.
Cocker pretends to finish the set before Common People, teasing “have we forgotten something?” before launching into an extended fanfare of the band’s best-loved song. It sends the audience into mass delirium and to see how a song so acerbic – and at times desperate – at its heart has become part of the national cultural fabric is once again testimony to the band’s genius and achievement. Such is the good will towards them, that they can even finish the set with the oldest song of the night, 1993’s Razzmatazz, a track that signposted the road out of obscurity for them. Thirty years ago, the year 2000 seemed like a long way off, Pulp’s position as one of the best-loved groups of the next millennium must have seemed like another universe.
Set List: Pulp At Finsbury Park, London, July 1, 2023
Weeds II (The Origin Of the Species)
Sorted For E’s & Whizz
This Is Hardcore
Do You remember the Frist Time
Like A Friend
Picture: Getty/Matthew Baker