9pm, 25 May 2011. We’re in a tiny venue, situated at the far end of a technology park on the edge of Toulouse’s southern suburbs. An eight and a half year wait over. Finished. Gone.
The lights go down. The vocoderised chant of the Different Class statement of intent signals their entrance, just as it did at the V96 Festival all those years ago: "Please understand. We don’t want no trouble. We just want the right to be different. That's all." One by one Pulp emerge from the haze of the dry ice: Jarvis (note to beard watchers: facial hair still attached); Mark (with rimless spectacles); Steve (the trademark sleek-black look); Candida (pink dress and cardigan); Nick (the usual), and tonight’s main draw, Russell (passing his half-century the previous week, looking more like Morrissey by the day and taking the best dressed prize for his beige suit and white shirt).
Looking a little older, wiser, finer... this was the moment that years of expectation (on our part) and months of rehearsals (on their part) had led up to. They were ready to give it their all and got straight down to business with Do You Remember The First Time?
But what of the camaraderie? Was there any mileage left in this sometimes fragile alliance? You bet there was. By the time they'd performed the much-requested-yet-rarely-played Pink Glove, the signs were auspicious thanks to three telltale occurrences. The first came with Russell who seemed uncharacteristically hesitant and nervous on taking to the stage. Mid way through through their opener he turned to look at Candida, exhaled and raised his eyebrows approvingly. 'So this is how I do it...' was the thought he seemed to channel to her. She shot back a knowing smile as if to suggest she'd had faith in him all along. From that point onwards, his confidence started to grow. Before the main set had finished he was pouting away like it was 1993. Result.
The second occurrence came when Nick, raring to begin Pink Glove, interrupted Jarvis' banter by counting the band in. Jarvis was having none of it and issued a swift if sarcastic reprimand, much to Nick's delight. Jarvis was only mid way through an exposition of the symmetry of today's date (they played the old Bikini venue on 25 May 1994). Nice try Nick, but Cocker’s bilingual button is set to '10' tonight, so each explanation takes twice the time, generates half the enlightenment and provides double the bemusement.
Finally, and once Pink Glove had begun, the affectionate tradition of Webbo baiting recommenced. “He doesn’t care what it looks like / Just as long as it’s pink and it’s tight”, sang Jarvis while pointing provocatively at Mark. It even made him smile.
Plenty of joie de vivre in the Pulp camp tonight then.
Two other things were readily apparent. The first was a youngish-looking guitarist at the end of the stage to Steve’s left. Jarvis introduced him later in the night as Leo Abrahams. Leo toured quite a bit with Jarvis over recent years and tonight was augmenting the live sound mainly on guitar but also on keyboards. The second thing was the volume of gear scattered across the stage. There were two concert bass drums, countless amps and monitors, guitar racks either side the stage and nine, yes nine, keyboards: Mark had his Fender Rhodes piano and what looked like a Nord synth; Candida had no less than four items, including the Farfisa and the Stylophone mounted proudly atop a separate rack to her left hand side; Leo had a further two synths and there was a final one placed right at the edge of the stage. Behind them all hung a metallic-looking back cloth that resembled scrunched aluminium foil. Even without the bog-roll and bags of coloured water, I’d like to think they were paying homage to their stage sets from twenty-five years ago.
The undisputed low-point of the evening came when Russell departed the stage just after Underwear. As he went to leave, Jarvis made a belated attempt to introduce him to the audience and explained that he was off for a little sit down because they were going to play This Is Hardcore.
Are you telling me Russell’s incapable of lending anything to the song? Even Leo remained on the stage, so his absence - including for the follow-up Sunrise - seemed plain weird. I really hope they don’t do it again. It was marvellous to hear him play violin during the old songs and was equally looking forward to Russ’ contribution to the post ’96 songs. But it wasn’t to be.
Thank goodness then that Sunrise was as fulsome and uplifting as it was a decade ago. As the song built towards the instrumental a bright yellow stage-light shone through the concert bass drum creating a sun slap-bang in the middle of the stage. A bit literal? Yes. But a very nice touch indeed.
Aside from Pink Glove, the highlights in the main set were some long-forgotten Different Class favourites: Disco 2000, I Spy (which I narrowly missed hearing on the last occasion they played it in 1998) and Bar Italia, during which things got a bit hairy...
Jarvis’ guitar connection seemed to be faulty resulting in the guitar cutting out intermittently. In a monumental display of stroppishness he threw the guitar up over his head and let it smash to the floor, cracking the guitar neck. Unsatisfied, he tackled his mic stand to the floor and, for good measure, kicked the capo that'd broken free from the guitar. It was a strangely electrifying moment. Now Mark and Nick were the ones exchanging knowing glances. Unsatisfied, Jarvis proceeded to throw some of the best, most intense Cocker-esque shapes I'd ever seen: elbows, legs, arms, shoulders all twitching away furiously. A roadie desperately tried to uncoil the lead from around the mic stand, an unenviable task given that Jarvis was marching off in the opposite direction towards Russell while tugging away on the other end of the lead. Unforgettable stuff and certainly the most aggressive rendition of Bar Italia there’s ever likely to be.
In any case, this was a warm-up concert and Pulp tradition dictates that some piece of equipment will malfunction. My money had been on the Stylophone, which even 20 years ago was on its last legs and which, curiously, had yet to be touched.
Afterwards, Jarvis loosened up and even pretended to walk off the stage in mock annoyance. They rounded off the main set with Common People, just as they used to play it in the ‘90s and were amply rewarded with the best audience reaction of the night.
Come the encore, Jarvis asked the audience if they could try out a few more songs. The whole reason for coming here tonight was the anticipation of Pulp using us as a test bed for gauging which songs should be included in the festival sets. It was just possible they'd play a random gem which - if they’d taken against for some esoteric reason - would be deemed unfit for public consumption a second time around.
I was, however, totally unprepared for Jarvis uttering something along the lines of the next song being about an 'open learning resource'. Jesus! Could it really be? Webbo fired-up the Stylophone (stylus in one-hand, Maglite torch in the other) and we were treated to a 2011-version of the classic O.U. The sleazy synth and violin-looped intro was far longer than the recorded version and had a raspy dance-groove to it. And you know what? It rocked liked like a fucker! Who’d have guessed?
"Shall we go back further just to prove the brain cells are still working?", asked Jarvis, getting drunk on the excitement of it all. Assuming the mantle of Chief Pulp Archivist once more, he informed us that the song they were about to play had first been aired at the Sheffield Leadmill exactly 20 years ago this very evening. He then took to a keyboard and produced a replica of the tinny PortaSound beat that forms the backbone of Countdown. Once again, their execution of the song was flawless and I’m certain we’ll hear it again sometime during the summer.
But oh how they were indulging us! What next? Anorexic Beauty? Live On? The Mark Of The Devil? Never before were the setlist opportunities as limitless as this. After Joyriders, it seemed both unexpected yet entirely unsurprising when they reprised their 1994 b-side His ‘n’ Hers (sans audience participation sadly... anyone else out there associate wasps with early-evening television and self portraits...?)
Time was beginning to run out. My top three ‘realistic hopes’ for tonight were Acrylic Afternoons, She’s A Lady and Razzmatazz in that order, though I’d clearly never expected O.U. to be a contender. So when Jarvis introduced Acrylic Afternoons ("Les apres-midi acrylique... screwing someone inappropriate in the afternoon") it was a really special moment. Not only my favourite Pulp song but also the first song I’d ever heard the band perform live. Here it was once again, 15 years after I’d last seen it performed, but this time with the added bonus of Russell doing his thing less than three metres away from where I stood. Mark gave the Fender Rhodes some serious welly and it was one of the few songs that Leo played keyboards on too. We all have those extra-special, extra-memorable live Pulp moments that stand out way above the others and which we’ll remember for years to come. Well that was mine, and it’ll take some beating.
Jarvis made the audience guess the last song of the night. Predictably Razzmatazz and She’s A Lady seemed to be the popular choice for those hanging off the front barrier. Instead they opted for Mis-Shapes. By rights it should have the same unifying resonance for Pulp fans that Trash has for Suede fans. But it doesn’t. I understand why they’ve resurrected it, but performed live it continues to chug along with all the charm of a decrepit tube train. But you know what? Nobody cared. Pulp played for almost two hours and arguably gave us their most diverse set since the 1994 fanclub show at the Theatre Royal. It was an honour, a privilege and a pleasure to be there, to share the moment with them and to revel in the symbolism of it all.
Granted, it was by no means perfect. Some of the songs would benefit from a thicker, lusher sound as it’s hard not to make the comparison of how they were performed several years ago. Jarvis also appears to have developed a habit of talking rather than singing some of the lyrics and delivers them ever so slightly out of time. He’s probably showing a healthy irreverence for the songs, but it niggles ever so slightly. And in any event, they’re our songs now Mister Cocker, so hands off! But we can forgive him for some lyrical departures such as this gem: "Just like a modern shopping centre / Like... Carrefore / Or... Westfield / Or... Waitrose". He could get away with reading the index of a book on retail brands and we’d still be gripped. Finally, and it may have been where I was standing, but the Farfisa and the violin in particular seemed way too low down in the sound mix. Bring them to the fore I say. We’ve waited 15 years for Russell’s return and we demand that he be heard!
Oddly enough, I’d spent the last two months wondering if this gig would happen at all. News of the concert was spread by the venue, but no confirmation or acknowledgement was made on Pulp’s official website. The tickets went on sale on April fools day - coincidence or ruse? Soon afterwards, the venue had removed all references to the concert from their website. After a two week period of nerve-inducing silence a cryptic email arrived from the venue. The show really was happening, they said, but they weren’t allowed to publicise it in any way. Very odd, even for Pulp, but sufficient reassurance to buy the airline tickets.
Looking back, the event had a surreal quality to it. The semi-secret nature of the concert. The intimate but ever so slightly random location of the venue. The fantasy setlist. The breaking of Russell’s self-imposed exile and the band’s return after nearly nine years. When the lights came up, you could see people trying to process what they’d seen and understand what the past two hours had meant to them. That’s the measure of how special it felt.
As Mike Skinner once said, “Memories are times we borrow / For spending tomorrow”. In Pulp’s case, tomorrow may come along sooner than we think. If the 2011 concerts are the only ones they’ve planned, then so be it. Let’s celebrate each and every one of them as if it’s their last ever performance and cherish all the memories they provide: they’re ours for the keeping.
Welcome home Pulp.