Words and Photos by Mark Sturdy
Yes, I saw Pulp last night at the small, low-key gig they did at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh, and it was all right.
We arrived early because of the promise of a pre-gig DJ set from Cocker and Mackey, which did not happen (although they made up for it later - see later). On making our way into the throng, I was surprised by how small the place was - although it's apparently 900 capacity, a lot of that is seated, so the fact that we were standing meant we got a pretty good view of what was going on (it is a rare thing indeed to go see Pulp and not have to resort to staring at video screens to see the band). The stage was obscured on all sides by Venetian blinds like the one on the cover of Help the Aged - a clever thematic reference that they exploited by, er, not playing Help the Aged.
Now I assumed that when the band came on stage and started playing, the blinds would be raised. They weren't - they stayed in place for the whole first half of the set, while all the new songs were played. There was probably a very clever artistic reason for this (Jarvis' weak explanation was that "we've just played in Venice"), but I have to say I think it spoilt things a bit. It just seemed a bit 'fuck you' - it created a barrier between the band and the audience, and one of the main things about Pulp live has always been the removal of that barrier. Jarvis once said "It's not meant to be us and you - it's just us", which doesn't really work when five of "us" are all but invisible to the rest of "us".
Despite that, I enjoyed the concert. Musically, it was much more stripped-down than any Pulp gig from recent years - no backing musicians, singers etc, just the five of them on stage. Mark only had two guitars, Candida only had one keyboard (an Esoniq, not the Farfisa alas), and Nick had the most delightfully tiny drumkit - bass, snare, tom, cymbal, hihat, tambourine and that was it. Overall, it was as if Pulp were trying to strip themselves of the rocky glossiness of recent years.
Jarvis played acoustic almost throughout, and his technique seems to have improved a hell of a lot - gone was the "nanka nanka nanka" on that old wooden semi-acoustic that we've become accustomed to (and I have to admit that I miss slightly). Instead we got lots of surprisingly intricate (not showy), slightly folky fretwork.
Anyway, the new songs. The first number was a very pretty, mainly acoustic tune with a really nice, soaring feel - the chorus went something like "The birds in the garden - are all singing your song". One of my favourites of the new stuff. Next we had one of the songs that were played in Venice - the long, 'David's Last Summer'/'Deep Fried in Kelvin' type thing that had Jarvis reading from a children's book - something about diving to the bottom of the swimming pool to retrieve a brick, to atmospheric backing a little like 'Melody' by Serge Gainsbourg, if anyone's heard that. It's probably really good if you can hear what's going on, but I could only make out a few of the lyrics because unfortunately the sound quality on that particular song (and, it has to be said, a lot of the others) was pretty bad - really bassy and distorted. It was frustrating, cos it made what's probably a good song quite hard to enjoy - there is limited entertainment value in watching five people play the same chord for ten minutes when it sounds like they're underwater.
Next we had another pretty, acoustic song about a cuckoo - I think this is one of the songs Jarvis did solo at the Meltdown festival a couple of months back. Jarvis played one of those things, I'm not sure what you call them but they tend to appear in school music rooms, sort of like a glockenspiel but with a keyboard. Impressively, he sang at the same time, and the result was something rather lovely.
My memory becomes vague at this point - maybe it was the crap sound (maybe it was the drink), but I found my attention flagging around the fourth song to the extent that I really can't remember anything about it. I do remember the next one though, which was probably called 'The Quiet Revolution'. It was the most intense, upbeat thing they played on the night - a bit like 'His 'n' Hers' (the song not the album), with what I suspect were some truly superb, overheated, Cocker-sleazy lyrics, the only one of which I can really remember is 'Is this a microwave I see before me?". One I'm definitely looking forward to hearing again.
And with that, the blinds raised, Jarvis told us we were now going to hear some songs that we knew, and the band launched into Sorted For E�s & Wizz, followed by TV Movie. Good, straightforward renditions, but nothing could prepare us for what we got next. "We're going to play a song now that we haven't played for about 15 years. And people who've heard it on the record haven't heard it how it should really have sounded - it was all ponced up, and we're going to try and play it now the way it was supposed to sound. It's from the first album we did, and it's called Blue Girls. I couldn't believe it! A wonderful version too, quite different from the 'It' version. For a start it had the whole band playing on it - Jarvis strummed the piano chords on his acoustic, and Mark picked out the electric piano lines and backing vocals on the guitar (sorry, I can't remember what Candida was doing). It was just a tad faster than on the album (still quite slow then), and Nick played the drums with brushes, which worked really well. It started off very gently, and kind of swelled up till it was quite loud at the end. The only change in the lyrics I noticed was Jarvis singing "Quite a strange affair you might think" instead of "one might think". The result was really magical, and it actually sounded very much like some of the new songs. Hopefully it'll emerge on record at some point - if not as an album track then a B-side at least.
After that, Jarvis started playing two minor guitar chords, and I was thinking "What's this? Another reworked oldie that I can't quite place?" Wonderfully, it turned out to be a stripped-down version of The Fear, without the goth-opera backing vocals and e-bow guitar. Nice. He sang it slightly differently as well, dispensing with the falsetto. And then he said "From one scary song to another", and Nick launched into the drum intro to This Is Hardcore, which was reworked even more radically - no Peter Thomas sample, but Jarvis strumming his acoustic, Candida playing the descending riff, and Mark again playing the piano part on the guitar. Finally a lovely version of 'Dishes', and they were off.
"I don't know if you know what the procedure is for tonight", said Jarvis, "but what happens is that we play to you, you thank us, we thank you, and the there'll be some music for you to dance to, which will be loud". And we were then treated to an hour or two of Jarvis and Steve DJ'ing for us, to which we danced the night away. The first record they played was the immortal 'Groovin with Mr Bloe' by Mr Bloe, and I got very very excited about this fact. For the bemused, 'Groovin with Mr Bloe' is a rockin' instrumental from about 1970 which was I used to jump around to when I was about five cos my mum, rather improbably, has a copy of it courtesy of her German boyfriend from 30 years ago. I hadn't heard it for ages, and it wasn't until last night that I realised what a brilliantly silly title it had. "It's 'Groovin with Mr Bloe'!!!" I said excitedly whilst giggling with disbelief, and no one knew what I was talking about. But it rocks, honestly. Other tunes included Ian Brown, Joy Division, Stone Roses, and (to close the evening) 'We Will Rock You' by Queen.
Pretty good night, then. I seem to be enjoying sitting here and looking back on it more than I enjoyed the actual experience, but it was cool. The band seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves - Candida was forever smiling at the audience, and Steve and Nick kept exchanging conspiratorial smirks - we even got the occasional grin out of Mark. They looked great too: Candida has a superb new hairstyle (quite short at the back with a nice floppy fringe) which really suits her, and Jarvis (you probably won't believe this) was looking very healthy and wholesome, probably a result of his alleged newfound love of the natural world - he even had a chunky white polo neck sweater. Certainly an improvement on the state he looked when he did Outsider Artists...
And that's about it. The show was allegedly taped by at least one person in the audience, and copies will no doubt weedle their way out before long.
Here's the nme.com review of the Edinburgh Show:
PULP aired their first new material since the release of last year's 'This Is Hardcore' LP at a special one-off show at Edinburgh Queens Hall last week (August 31).
They performed six new songs on the last night of the Flux Festival, in a show based on their recent performance at The Biennale Pavilion in Venice, Italy, dubbed 'A Quiet Revolution'. The songs were originally composed solely for the Venice show, which accompanied an exhibition by the Turner Prize-nominated artist Gary Hume.
After the Edinburgh gig, their first UK live appearance of 1999, Cocker explained to NME: "We were asked to write some songs to perform in this palace, amongst all these huge chandeliers and delicate ornaments, so we had to write music that would really work at a low volume. Once we'd written them, we realised that we wanted to develop them further and play them out in front of real people."
All the new songs were performed from behind a set of giant Venetian blinds, a pun on their geographical inspiration. "The whole event was so serious and formal," Jarvis laughed. "We just wanted to inject a bit of humour into the proceedings."
As yet only two of the songs have finished titles. One, 'The Birds In Your Garden', is an acoustic ballad with chirping bird noises and features the lyrics: "The birds in your garden/They all started to sing your song/Don't despair it's alright". The other titled song is 'A Quiet Revolution', which seems to touch on themes of dealing with growing older and watching friends die and disappear.
Lyrics include surreal late-night ruminations like, "Is this a microwave I see before me/As the clock strikes 3am?" and, "What can I do with the rest of my life/Even though your friends are dropping dead like flies?". Another new song to Pulp is a reworking of the bleak country-blues 'The Coo Coo Song', first performed by country singer Clarence Ashley. It was rewritten earlier this year by Cocker for Nick Cave's Meltdown festival celebration of Harry Smith and his legendary 'Anthology Of American Folk Music' LP.
"I felt a bit uncomfortable with covering some of the blues tracks from that collection, doing that whole, 'Well I woke up one morning' thing," Jarvis explained. "So I just adapted the basic song and tried to personalise it a bit more." The new lyrics include: "Well the cuckoo is a pretty bird/Sings the sweetest song I ever heard/I thought you'd like to know I still think you're the most/You left me living here, married to a ghost".
Other tracks played at Flux included an instrumental which featured glockenspiel and a song dedicated to "the sun coming up" accompanied by a Velvet Underground-style chiming guitar played by Steve Mackey. The final new track was a Belle & Sebastian-type monologue from Cocker, a bizarre story about the retrieval of a brick from the bottom of a pool thrown there by a teacher.
The rest of the set drew mainly on 'This Is Hardcore' and featured 'TV Movie', 'The Fear', 'Dishes' and 'This Is Hardcore', alongside 'Sorted For E's And Wizz'. As to whether the songs would feature on a new Pulp record is unclear. Jarvis said they may well point the way forward, though he added: "We're off to write some new songs with the next record in mind."