Icon: Pulp

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 04.04.12 in Icons

Some artists take a while to find their mature voice, and few have taken quite as long as Pulp. Founded by singer Jarvis Cocker in 1978 as a spirited if unfocused post-punk band, they spent their first 16 years or so experimenting with styles and attitudes, releasing a slow trickle of increasingly accomplished, witty and thoughtful singles and albums that eventually came to treat desire and frustration as their prime subjects. Then, in the mid ’90s, the band burst into blossom with a cluster of records that surfed the wave of Britpop: music that explicitly acknowledged the connection of pop songs themselves to eroticism and to political power, and that became the soundtrack to the sex-drugs-and-dancing ideal of leisure that they savaged. “Common People” and the singles around it made them stars, but Cocker’s reaction to Pulp getting huge was to push them even harder toward the uncomfortable territory they’d always sidled up to: a final series of recordings that found the stink of decay within the shadowy heart of hedonism.

Five years into their career — and with only a couple of members, notably frontman Jarvis Cocker, left from their original lineup — Pulp finally got around to making their first mini-album (the title is a pun on "pulpit") in 1983. It's fascinatingly far away from what they'd become, and a curious game of spot-the-influences: Cocker's nasal baritone recalls Scott Walker (who would later produce the band) and Orange Juice's Edwyn Collins in turn, there's a bit of ragtime on "Love Love," and "Looking for Life" hints at Blue Orchids' garage-organ trudge. Mostly, though, it's worth hearing for fans to get a sense of how much the band grew in its early years, how clearly Cocker knew from the get-go that he wanted to strike exactly the right aesthetic pose, and how hard he had to struggle to find it. The 2012 reissue appends two more songs and two alternate mixes from that era, including the single version of their heavily Postcard Records-inspired debut single "My Lighthouse."

Two key members of Pulp's classic lineup joined in time for this uneven but promising 1987 set: keyboardist Candida Doyle and guitarist/violin-scraper Russell Senior, both of whom gravitated toward unnerving, slow-creeping parts. (Senior also sings the two creepiest songs here, "Fairground" and "Anorexic Beauty.") Jarvis Cocker hasn't quite found his voice yet as a lyricist or singer, but he's working on it, paraphrasing the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" as "I Want You" and working up to a frenetic minor-key polka on "Master of the Universe." The one thing he's worked out for sure is that he's got a talent for cruelty that will serve him well later. The 2012 reissue's extra disc adds two singles from that era, both of them also variants on the "Femme Fatale" template — "Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)," a bombastic portrait of a woman in a sex-and-money bind, and the slower-then-faster "Dogs Are Everywhere" — as well as a pile of B-sides, most notably the eight-minute, two-chord garage-rock piledriver "Tunnel."

The third Pulp album, released after a bit of delay in 1992, brought on new bassist Steve Mackey, and its first half was their most rhythmically limber take yet on Jarvis Cocker's aspirations to Scott Walker-style balladry with an arched eyebrow. Its second half, though, introduced a new sound for the band: In the years since Freaks, the acid house phenomenon had overtaken Britain, and all of a sudden Pulp, like seemingly every longstanding rock band in the country, was experimenting with the grooves and textures of dance music. Cocker, though, was as interested in undercutting the precision and relentlessness of club beats as in figuring out what they could do for his new songs, with their themes of mortality and frustration. Separations' highlight "My Legendary Girlfriend" is effectively an inside-out "Love to Love You Baby," with Cocker gasping and panting across the beat in what sounds more like pain and disappointment than ecstasy. (The bonus tracks on the 2012 reissue are remixes of songs from the album.)

Intro: The Gift Recordings


The three 1992-93 EPs collected here were Pulp's moment of transition from scrappy underdogs to significant Britpop force, although it helped that Britpop as a concept became a big deal at the same time. "Babies," in particular, became an enduring staple of their repertoire, but Jarvis Cocker's fascination with the frantic tango of desperate sexuality and suburban domesticity also emerges in "Razzmatazz" and the three-part suite "Inside Susan" that first appeared as its flip side. And "O.U." might have been the first time they were comfortable playing disco without putting quotation marks around it.

His N Hers


Over the course of the early '90s, Pulp had become a much more lithe, glossy rock band than they'd ever been before. Jarvis Cocker, meanwhile, had pinpointed both his favorite lyrical topic — the way sex warps the edges of everything it comes near — and a new way of singing: stretching toward the whooping top of his range rather than the bottom, enunciating his words as if utterly strung out on lust, trying to play Casanova while unable to conceal his baser impulses. The group had also internalized the ideas from dance music that they'd carefully tinkered with on Separations, and didn't try to ironize their songs' beats and riffs and flights of grandness any more. ("She's a Lady" even lifts its chord progression from "I Will Survive.") 1994's His 'n' Hers was where Pulp toughened up their already-ferocious satires of the way people talk and think about pleasure by making them overtly fun — a contrast that's especially powerful on "Do You Remember The First Time?," a thrilling fit of jealousy whose narrator hopelessly declares "I don't care if you screw him/ Just as long as you save a piece for me." The deluxe edition's extra disc features a handful of demos and B-sides, songs from radio sessions that never made it to studio recordings, and three songs from the Sisters EP that extend the themes of "Babies."

Different Class


1995's Different Class was one of the peaks of the Britpop era and the high point of Pulp's career, and its secret ingredient was right there in its title: What Jarvis Cocker added to his already fearsome critique of his 'n' hers desire was a laceratingly smart awareness of how class affects the equation. That comes out most of all in its masterpiece "Common People," in which a rich girl tries to pick him up to fulfill her fantasy of how the other 99 percent lives, and he responds with a six-minute crescendo of fury. Still, it's all over the album: Cocker's vision of a unified underclass launching a cultural uprising in "Mis-Shapes," his remembrance of a love-object's childhood house being "Very small/ With wood-chip on the wall" in "Disco 2000," the jealous narrator of "Underwear" quipping that "if fashion is your trade, then when you're naked/ I guess you must be unemployed," the language of drug-addled ravers in "Sorted for E's and Wizz." (In that context, even the lush strings in the self-referential, apparently earnest love song "Something Changed" and the reggae gallop that underscores the first half of "Monday Morning" serve as class signifiers.)

On top of all that, Different Class is Pulp's most muscular rock record, thanks in part to new guitarist Mark Webber; it's their only disc on which both Webber and Russell Senior play. Glorious enough to serve as a psych-up to a big night out and cruel enough that it could provide a soundtrack for the next morning's walk of shame, the album elevated Pulp to a different class of their own in England — which, unsurprisingly, threw them for a loop. The 2012 bonus disc's B-sides and demos are fascinating mis-shapes and mistakes, notably "We Can Dance Again" (a recast impression of Blondie's "Atomic") and a bizarre, somewhat off-key take on "Disco 2000" bellowed by Nick Cave.

This Is Hardcore


"I am not Jesus, though I have the same initials," Jarvis Cocker drawls at the beginning of "The Dishes," by way of response to being anointed as the savior of British rock. If Pulp had been a typical band, they'd have followed their commercial breakthrough by making a record along the lines of Different Class: playful, snarky, detached, poppy. But they'd never been a typical band, and following the departure of longtime guitarist Russell Senior, they made this slithering, introspective 1998 album, whose jokes are mostly at Cocker's own expense when they're not simply bitter about fame. Its single "Help the Aged" finds him playing a sleazy old man trying to inveigle an ingénue into the sack; "Party Hard" is a Bowie-ish rocker about partying too hard and its aftermath. The album's centerpiece is its ingenious, relentlessly creepy title track, on which stuttering orchestral loops flicker across the mix like strobes, while Cocker describes an artist's career in the spotlight as intimacy transformed into brightly lit pornography, passion stripped of meaning for its participants and then recharged with sick new meaning by voyeurs. (The "deluxe edition" is augmented with a set of B-sides and sketched-out demos from that era that are mostly broader, but not much less cutting.)

The John Peel Sessions


Pulp's first recording was the spiky, inchoate 1981 session for John Peel's BBC radio show that opens this set. Then it jumps forward to 1993, by which point they'd opened themselves up to dance music and Jarvis Cocker had turned his attention to sex, class and escapism. Half of The Peel Sessions, though, comes from the final few months of the band's original incarnation, the 2001 We Love Life tour on which they were in top form.