Then origins of Pulp go back to schooldays at the City School in Sheffield when they borrowed the title of the 1972 movie Pulp, starring Michael Caine and directed by Mike Hodges with a score by George Martin. A brief period as Arabicus, after the coffee bean, and various line-up alterations led to a period of independent recordings and a demo tape sent to influential English DJ John Peel who rewarded them with a Session. A mini-album called It was released by Red Rhino, later reissued by Cherry Red Records. Various stylistic dabbling and long periods of banging heads against the wall was rectified when they signed to Fire Records to make Freaks, which slipped through the net for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that the members at the time were involved in academic pursuits – Cocker, famously going to study film at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design.
To cut a long story shortish, by 1989 the well-known line-up was in place with Mackey being the last to join. Toying with then on trend acid house, crossed with idiosyncratic Leonard Cohen-styled ballads, enabled them to arrive at their own sound – one where a love of The Velvet Underground, Serge Gainsbourg and European chanson, Scott Walker and disco music were placed carefully into the melting pot.
While you couldn’t accuse Pulp of hanging off the coattails of so called Britpop, they were far more esoteric, the arrival of the whole Blue and Oasis thing didn’t harm them, nor did the contemporary rise of Suede.
Pulp signed to Island Records in 1992 and released the singles “Babies” and “Razzmatazz” before making their proper Island debut with “Lipgloss”, the lead-in track from His’n’Hers (1993). Peaking at #50 on the UK charts “Lipgloss” was the turning point. His’n’Hers dropped in spring 1994 and spawned “Do You Remember The First Time”, a classic tale of fumbling teen angst. We recommend the album with Deluxe edition bonus tracks including cuts from their Sisters EP, demos and BBC sessions for Peel and Mark Goodier.
Having been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize for His’n’Hers they won the darn thing thanks to the brilliant new album Different Class that topped the UK charts, hitting an extraordinary 4xPlatinum figure and carving whopping great inroads into the Euro market. Different Class has become one of those iconic events that are regularly placed highly in Best Of lists of all time. Undeniably a modern masterpiece the impact of “Common People” and “Mis-Shapes/”Sorted for E’s & Wizz” (both #2 UK hits) gained them household name status and an element of useful notoriety.
The double meaning of different class was embodied in the songs: both the English idiom “that is different class” and the socio-political interpretation of the UK’s class obsession are embodied in the title. Good work.
Recording with Chris Thomas (The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Queen, Elton John, Roxy Music, The Sex Pistols and so many other luminaries) resulted in a sound that was a revelation, as confident and assertive, as their independent discs were hesitant if promising. The fact that “Common People"’s theme has passed into pop music folk-lore would be reason enough to cherish the album but “Disco 2000” (a kind of kitchen sink Northern drama loosely related to The Human League) and “Something Changed” are also worth re-discovery, especially on the 2006 Bonus deluxe edition where the live at Glastonbury Road to Damascus moment “Common People” is joined by B-sides, demos and their version of the Irish folk standard “Whiskey in the Jar” (from the charity album for “ChildLine”).
In 1998 the well-anticipated This Is Hardcore (with Thomas again) hit the coveted UK #1. Adding Anne Dudley string arrangements and Nicholas Dodd orchestration was a smart move. Successful singles tumbled off the disc and Pulp were in line to record the theme for the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Heat seek the This is Glastonbury and Deluxe edition bonus discs for further delectation.
Now in a league of their own with Roxy-esque artwork to match the exuberance of the songs, Pulp released their seventh and final studio album in 2001 with the legendary Scott Walker at the console to assist the gestation of We Love Life. The result is quite different to anything they’d done before with “The Night That Minnie Timperley Died” and “Wickerman” striking ever-darker chords. The elusive “Bob Lind (The Only Way is Down)” and the more playful “Bad Cover Version” fire off decades of knowing pop cultural references.
The all-embracing Hits (2002) wraps up the chapters and verses of the band to that point while The Peel Sessions has very early BBC material plus a second disc of live goodies. Fellow Sheffield man Richard Hawley plays guitar on the final seven tracks, captured at Birmingham Academy in late 2001. This package is a splendid addition to the rest and fills out many gaps for older fans and wannabes.
While Pulp effectively went their separate ways Cocker and co did return for the digital download single "After You” (2013), which they also played on The Jonathan Ross Show and made available as a Soulwax mix for 2013 Record Store Day.
In the interim Jarvis proved to be yer actual Renaissance man. His BBC6 Music shows, his tenure as Editor-at-Large for Faber and Faber, his acclaimed curation of the 2007 Meltdown Festival at the South Bank Centre in London (he invited Motorhead, Roky Erickson, Clinic, Devo, Iggy & The Stooges, Cornershop and The Jesus and Mary Chain – best line-up ever) and his acting roles in Fantastic Mr. Fox and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire would indicate a man with an endless capacity for art and fun. Oh, he’s also made an album for The National Trust and released the Jarvis disc in 2007 with assists from fellow Pulp members, also Hawley, Philip Sheppard and Graham Sutton.
As for the future? You never know. As Jarvis says, ”It's like a volcano; you can think 'wow, that's dormant' and then the next day your house has gone, because it's erupted... Everything to do with Pulp or to do with me happens at such a glacial pace, that's it hard to tell whether anything's happening or not, but when it does, the whole geography of the planet is changed." Fingers crossed, there will be more to come one day. If not, there is plenty here to keep idle minds occupied.
Words: Max Bell
After years of obscurity, Pulp shot to stardom in Britain with 1994's His 'n' Hers. By the time Different Class was released at the end of October 1995, the band, particularly lead singer Jarvis Cocker, were genuine British superstars, with two number two singles and a triumphant last-minute performance at Glastonbury under their belts, as well as one tabloid scandal. On the heels of such excitement, anticipation for Different Class ran high, and not only does it deliver, it blows away all their previous albums, including the fine His 'n' Hers. Pulp don't stray from their signature formula at all -- it's still grandly theatrical, synth-spiked pop with new wave and disco flourishes, but they have mastered it here. Not only are the melodies and hooks significantly catchier and more immediate, the music explores more territory. From the faux-show tune romp of the anthemic opener "Mis-Shapes" and the glitzy, gaudy stomp of "Disco 2000" (complete with a nicked riff from Laura Branigan's "Gloria") to the aching ballad "Underwear" and the startling sexual menace of "I Spy," Pulp construct a diverse, appealing album around the same basic sound. Similarly, Jarvis Cocker's lyrics take two themes, sex and social class, and explore a number of different avenues in bitingly clever ways. As well as perfectly capturing the behavior of his characters, Cocker grasps the nuances of language, creating a dense portrait of suburban and working-class life. All of his sex songs are compassionate, while the subtle satire of "Sorted for E's & Wizz" is affectionate, but the best moment on the album is the hit single "Common People," about a rich girl who gets off by slumming with the lower class. Coming from Cocker, who made secondhand clothes and music glamorous, the song is undeniably affecting and exciting, much like Different Class itself.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
"This is the sound of someone losing the plot/you're gonna like it, but not a lot." So says Jarvis Cocker on "The Fear," the opening track on This Is Hardcore, the ambitious follow-up to Pulp's breakthrough Different Class, thereby providing his own review for the album. Cocker doesn't quite lose the plot on This Is Hardcore, but the ominous, claustrophobic "The Fear" makes it clear that this is a different band, one that no longer has anthems like "Common People" in mind. The shift in direction shouldn't come as a surprise -- Pulp was always an arty band -- but even the catchiest numbers are shrouded in darkness. This Is Hardcore is haunted by disappointments and fear -- by the realization that what you dreamed of may not be what you really wanted. Nowhere is this better heard than on "This Is Hardcore," where drum loops, lounge piano, cinematic strings, and a sharp lyric create a frightening monument to weary decadence. It's the centerpiece of the album, and the best moments follow its tone. Some, like "The Fear," "Seductive Barry," and "Help the Aged," wear their fear on their sleeves, some cloak it in Bowie-esque dance grooves ("Party Hard") or in hushed, resigned tones ("Dishes"). A few others, such as the scathing "I'm a Man" or "A Little Soul," have a similar vibe without being explicitly dark. Instead of delivering an entirely bleak album, Pulp raise the curtain somewhat on the last three songs, but the attempts at redemption -- "Sylvia," "Glory Days," "The Day After the Revolution" -- don't feel as natural as everything that precedes them. It's enough to keep the album from being a masterpiece, but it's hardly enough to prevent it from being an artistic triumph.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Pulp had been kicking around since 1981, but for all intents and purposes, their 1994 major-label debut, His 'n' Hers is their de facto debut: the album that established their musical and lyrical obsessions and, in turn, the album where the world at large became acquainted with their glassy, tightly wound synth pop and lead singer Jarvis Cocker's impeccably barbed wit. This was a sound that was carefully thought out, pieced together from old glam and post-punk records, assembled in so it had the immediacy (and hooks) of pop balanced by an artful obsession with moody, dark textures. It was a sound that perfectly fit the subject at hand: it was filled with contradictions -- it was sensual yet intellectual, cheap yet sophisticated, retro yet modern -- with each seeming paradox giving the music weight instead of weighing it down. Given Pulp's predilection for crawling mood pieces -- such effective set pieces as the tense "Acrylic Afternoons," or the closing "David's Last Summer" -- and their studied detachment, it might easy to over-intellectualize the band, particularly in these early days before they reached stardom, but for all of the chilliness of the old analog keyboards and the conscious geek stance of Cocker, this isn't music that aims for the head: its target is the gut and groin, and His 'n' Hers has an immediacy that's apparent as soon as "Joyriders" kicks the album into gear with its crashing guitars. It establishes Pulp not just as a pop band that will rock; it establishes an air of menace that hangs over this album like a talisman. As joyous as certain elements of the music are -- and there isn't just joy but transcendence here, on the fuzz guitars that power the chorus of "Lipgloss," or the dramatic release at the climax of "Babies" -- this isn't light, fizzy music, no matter how the album glistens on its waves of cold synths and echoed guitars, no matter how much sex drives the music here. Cocker doesn't tell tales of conquests: he tells tales of sexual obsession and betrayal, where the seemingly nostalgic question "Do You Remember the First Time?" is answered with the reply, "I can't remember a worst time." On earlier Pulp albums he explored similar stories of alienation, but on His 'n' Hers everything clicks: his lyrics are scalpel sharp, whether he's essaying pathos, passion, or wit, and his band -- driven by the rock-solid drummer Nick Banks and bassist Steve Mackey, along with the arty stylings of keyboardist Candida Doyle and violinist/guitarist Russell Senior -- gives this muscle and blood beneath its stylish exterior. The years etching out Joy Division-inspired goth twaddle in the mid-'80s pay off on the tense, dramatic epics that punctuate the glammy pop of the singles "Lipgloss," "Babies," and "Do You Remember the First Time?" And those years of struggle pay off in other ways too, particularly in Cocker's carefully rendered observations of life on the fringes of Sheffield, where desperation, sex, and crime are always just a kiss away, and Pulp vividly evokes this world with a startling lack of romanticism but an appropriate amount of drama and a surplus of flair. It's that sense of style coupled with their gut-level immediacy that gives His 'n' Hers its lasting power: this was Pulp's shot at the big time and they followed through with a record that so perfectly captured what they were and what they wanted to be, it retains its immediacy years later.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
It was clear that This Is Hardcore was a difficult, turbulent experience for Pulp -- it was such a troubled-sounding record that it was hard to tell where they would go next. Apparently that was as true for the band as it was for the listeners, since Pulp spent over three years preparing an album, cutting nearly a full record with longtime producer Chris Thomas before scrapping it all and entering the studio with cult hero (and Jarvis Cocker inspiration) Scott Walker. The pairing was intriguing but problematic, since Walker is not known as a producer and his recent recordings, such as Tilt and Pola X, were as inscrutable as Cocker was lucidly literate. Miraculously, the pairing resulted in the vibrant, reaffirming reinvention of We Love Life, an album that hints at music from Pulp's distant past (it's much closer to It than anything they've done since, though it has elements of the epics scattered through His 'n' Hers) while finding a new voice for the band and Jarvis as a lyricist. It's easy to see that this is a mature album, but that suggests a studied self-consciousness and safe, coffee-table artiness. This is maturation in a different sense -- Cocker has lived through dark times, as was evident in This Is Hardcore, and still sees difficulty in the present and past (the haunting centerpiece of "Wickerman"), but here he embraces life, even seeing his place in the grand scheme of things. Previously, Pulp's sleek music had been as darkly romantic as a drunken late night in a metropolis, and Cocker's lyrics were wittily urbane, embracing and mocking the idiosyncrasies of contemporary life, but here the music is considerably more organic -- Candida Doyle's synth, a former signature, can barely be heard -- and Cocker's elaborately detailed lyrics are trim and focused, filled with nature imagery. This is hardly a pastoral album, though, even with the occasional string section and acoustic guitars, nor does this sound like Pulp's version of a Scott Walker album. Instead, this is an emotional and musical breakthrough, finding the band leaping beyond the claustrophobic Hardcore and consolidating their previous obsessions, creating a textured, reflective record that in its own measured way is as impassioned as Different Class -- it's just that Jarvis is railing against the impulses within himself, and he winds up finding a way out. As such, We Love Life is warm and embracing, even when it delves into darkness, never nearly as despairing as Hardcore, and nearly as affirming as Different Class. And if that record was the mis-shaped misfit finally letting the world know that he was special, this is that same misfit turning inward, realizing that the world itself is special. Not the kind of thing that results in a massive hit, but it's tremendously rewarding all the same.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
As Jarvis Cocker points out in his liner notes for the 2006 double-disc set The Peel Sessions, Pulp allegedly holds "the world record for The Longest Gap Between First & Second Sessions (12 years!)" -- a situation that says more about Pulp than it does about John Peel, since there is a reason why the legendary British DJ didn't quickly invite the Sheffield group back to his studios: it took them a long time to realize the potential they demonstrated at the outset of this career. This set cuts out that long decade of struggle -- since there are no Peel sessions documenting the stilted steps forward during the '80s, those awkward transitions are nowhere to be found, which makes the leap forward from 1981 to 1993 all the more startling. The tentative yet exuberant art-punk on their first session has plenty of promise -- its gangly rhythms, jittery guitars, swaths of synths, and echoed vocals all recalling Factory Records' tightly wound sound without belonging to it, largely due to Jarvis himself, whose schoolboy poetry has a beguiling innocence and whose love of pop already is peeking out behind his artiness. That artiness may overwhelm "Refuse to Be Blind," which only points the way toward the murk of Pulp's mid-'80s work, but the other three cuts from 1981 -- the insistent, surging "Turkey Mambo Momma," the cheerfully dorky "Please Don't Worry," and the understated melancholia of "Wishful Thinking" -- all show a good art-pop at their beginnings, fumbling forward but performing with a kinetic enthusiasm that makes this session better than Pulp's debut proper, It.
Once "Refuse to Be Blind" wraps up, The Peel Sessions jumps forward 12 years to the summer of 1993, just as Pulp was leaving the indie Gift behind for the major Island -- just as the band was beginning to blossom, actually. Jarvis had devised his outsider persona, raising his obsessions with sex and otherness to near-mythic levels, and the band had developed a sound to match: a blend of '70s glam and pop tempered by the artiness of '80s indie post-punk, both in its mood and its emphasis on Cocker's lyrics, which recalled Morrissey's dominance in the Smiths without ever sounding like Moz. The 1993 session consisted of two of the moodier numbers that would later appear on 1994's His 'n' Hers -- "Pink Glove" and "Acrylic Afternoons" -- plus "You're a Nightmare," unreleased to now but of a piece with its companions, only not as immediate or hooky. Immediacy and hooks were what distinguished the other parts of His 'n' Hers written after this session and they drove Pulp's 1995 masterpiece Different Class, and three cuts from that seminal effort were played for Peel in 1994: "Underwear," "Common People," and "Pencil Skirt," all sounding glorious here, if not quite as robust as they would just a year later, when a road-tested Pulp, buoyed by the Brit-pop phenomenon of the mid-'90s, conquered Glastonbury and hit number one with "Common People," thereby sending the band to superstardom. Here, the band does not play with the authority of stars; they're still hungry and nervy, which makes this an interesting contrast to the assured live performances they'd deliver not long afterward (to hear exactly how, compare the "Common People" here to the Glastonbury performance on the Different Class deluxe edition released at the same time). Even their next Peel session -- which does not arrive immediately after the 1994 session for some reason; rather it's sandwiched between two latter-day performances on the second disc -- doesn't showcase Pulp as superstars: it was recorded just prior to the release of Different Class and contains none of the songs from the album, just the Trainspotting anthem "Mile End" and two singles from His 'n' Hers, "Do You Remember the First Time?" and "Babies." The confidence is there, but not necessarily assurance: they're conquering, they haven't conquered yet. Nevertheless, the performances are absolutely cracking, particularly a bracing "Babies."
The rest of the set doesn't chronicle either the conquering Pulp of 1995/1996 or the dark introspection of 1998's This Is Hardcore: it contains three sessions from 2001, all from the last days of the band, just as they were releasing their final album, We Love Life. The first of these was performed a couple months before the album's release, featuring three of the album's songs plus the otherwise unavailable "Duck Diving"; the second derives from a performance aired in conjunction with the BBC's 40 Years in Broadcasting Celebrations, finding Pulp covering "Theme from Peter Gunn," reviving "Sorted for E's and Wizz," then doing two Hardcore songs before finishing out with "Sunrise"; the final is taken from a performance at the Birmingham Academy not long after the album's release, where four songs from We Love Life are balanced by "The Fear," "Party Hard," and "Common People." All three sessions stand in direct contrast to the unwieldy band first heard in the 1981 session: this is an assured group of veterans whose new music is nuanced and complex and performed with skill that makes it seem easy, yet also able to perform the old favorites with spirit -- not so that they sound fresh, necessarily, but they still sound vital. It's as if that long wait to return to Peel's studios made Pulp determined to make each of their (what turned out to be many) sessions count, even when they were stars, even when they were quietly winding down their career, and that's what makes this a necessary addendum to their career.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Separations is the birth of the modern Pulp. Not only does the record feature the lineup that would eventually break through into the mainstream, it is the first album to contain the fusion of pop, dance, and rock that would take them to the top of the charts in the mid-'90s. More than anything, the influence of acid house and raves weighs heavily on Separations, as the band stretches out into the disco groove of "Countdown" and the long jam "This House Is Condemned." But what is especially noticeable about Separations is how Pulp is finally starting to write some fully realized songs. "My Legendary Girlfriend," the song that earned the band its first Single of the Week in NME, is the leader of the pack with a brilliant, sly lyric and vocal from Jarvis Cocker, and an appropriately melodic and slightly dirty instrumental backdrop from the band. "Countdown," with its insistent beat, is nearly as good, as is the loping opener, "Love Is Blind." Pulp isn't able to keep the pace throughout the album -- there are several weak spots, particularly the awkward stab at house, "This House Is Condemned" -- but Separations is the first album that illustrates the band's potential and exactly what it could accomplish.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine