Backstage during Pulp’s raucous return to Sheffield, two huge shaven-headed roadies are watching Jarvis Cocker cavort around the stage and throw himself off speakers, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with every thrust of his impossibly sharp hips. Eventually, during the long, strange intro to ‘Party Hard’, one turns to the other, a baffled look slapped across his face. He tilts his head towards Jarvis and mutters: “There’s something not quite right about him.”
34 years after Jarvis decided to form a band during a boring economics lesson, Pulp remain elegant outsiders. They’re still the band that every mis-shape, mistake and misfit and in the country see themselves in. When they stepped in to headline Glastonbury at the last minute back in 1995, Jarvis told us: “If a lanky get like me can do it, and us lot yeah, you can do it too.” Their underdog triumph made it cool to be different. They weren’t afraid to be smart or literate. Their songs were like Philip Larkin poems rebuilt for the indie disco.
But all things must pass. Rumours are flying around that this will be their final UK show, with only a pair of dates on the Coachella Cruise remaining of their reunion tour. Fittingly, they’re playing at the arena home of the Sheffield Steelers ice hockey team. The rink has been boarded over with chipboard floors but it’s still there, frozen under their fans’ feet. Pulp are being put on ice.
It was even colder outside, but that didn’t deter the Pulp ‘hardcore’, who’ve been arriving since 8am. Someone brought a marker pen to write the order they arrive in on their hands. That way they can huddle together for warmth but still keep their strict positions in the queue. A fan called Susanne is wrapped in silver foil, like a collapsed marathon runner.
The first to arrive was Melina, who had flown over from Georgia in the USA just to see the show. “It’s my first time in the UK,” she says. “I’m so sad that I’m leaving again tomorrow. I first saw Pulp on television when I was 16. I fell in love right there and then.” She’s one of many international fans who’ve made the pilgrimage, knowing this could be the last chance to see their idols in the flesh.
The fans are younger than you’d expect for a reformed Britpop group. Another early arrival is Alice, who at 17 has been alive exactly half the time that Pulp have been a band. “When I saw them at Reading Festival it changed my life,” she giggles. “I was just like: “Marry me, Jarvis!” I can’t wait for ‘This Is Hardcore’, when Jarvis does his thrusting.”
Another fan, from Australia, sums up why Pulp are the sort of band worth queuing all day for: “It’s because of the people that Pulp write about. You don’t hear about people like me unless you listen to a Pulp song.”
There are 12,000 people at the Sheffield Arena who feel the same way, so Pulp have to work hard to make the show feel intimate. Before the band go on, drummer Nick Banks says: “We’re going to play a lot of songs tonight. We’ll play all the ones they want to hear, so I don’t think they’ll be leaving disappointed, but hopefully they’ll also hear some stuff they might not have heard for a long time – or even ever.”
Against the odds, Pulp manage to transform this cavernous sports warehouse into a local club. They have a fake fireplace on stage, beside which Jarvis nonchalantly sips red wine. The best touch, though, is what Jarvis describes as toilet paper-powered “time travel”. In the band’s early days they would festoon venues with rolls of it, in lieu of the pricier pyrotechnics they can deploy today. After inviting the audience to cover the whole arena in long white paper streaks of the stuff, they then reach way-back into their collective history, fishing out 1983’s My Lighthouse’ – accompanied by Jarvis’ sister Saskia – 1985’s brilliant ‘Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)’ and 1991’s disco-drenched ‘Countdown’.
The whole show is a barnstorming triumph, from the opening shimmy of ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ through to the collective ecstasy of ‘Common People’ and the anthemic ‘Mis-Shapes’.
Longtime collaborator Richard Hawley joins them onstage for a chunk of the set, most visibly when he plays the solo on ‘Born To Cry’ live for the first – and possibly last – time. He won’t be joining the band for their cruise-ship shows, so tonight is particularly poignant for him. He tells me later: “I’ll be seeing them off with a tearful hanky at the pier, I think, but it seems fitting to wave them off into the sunset.”
He adds his own thoughts on the significance of Pulp: “The only shame about them not doing anything new is that they could put a real spin on what’s happening in our country and the fuckwits that lead us, although in a way it’s already been said with songs like ‘Common People’. Jarvis’ lyrics aren’t just of a period of time, they still make sense. We’ve stills got cunts in charge. As long as there are dickheads like Cameron and his ilk, Pulp will always have relevance. Also emotionally they still resonate. Their songs go beyond political ranting to something far more subtle and important than that.”
Later in the night, at Pulp’s party for friends and family at The Blue Shed, you can see the baton being passed to a new generation as Pulp bassist and Palma Violets producer Steve Mackey hugs his protégés as Arctic Monkeys tunes blast across the dancefloor. Chilli from the Palmas is full of praise for their mentor: “Steve Mackey is a king! I saw Pulp at Hyde Park, but tonight the one! This was a whole different level, even if all the Sheffield references did make us feel a bit left out. I could tell how much they put into it emotionally.”
Emmy the Great describes the gig as definitely in the top three shows she’s ever seen, “possibly the top one.” She adds: “I saw a girl just behind me by the mixing desk, wearing a T-shirt with Pulp written on every square inch of her body. At the end she was just weeping, but I understood because that’s how this band makes people feel. Their first show may have been in 1980 but they’re still so good and so relevant.”
At the end of the night, Jarvis hosts a small party in his dressing room. It’s a chance to ask him exactly what it meant to him to come back and play in Sheffield. “The thing is,” he says, “even though I haven’t lived here for a very long time I always get in a right fluster when we come to Sheffield. Tonight was no exception. It had highs, and lows, and it was funny. There were lots of friends and family here, and that’s what piles the pressure on even more. Your mother’s there, your sister’s there – even onstage singing with yer. I think it went okay. I think we made a connection. The toilet rolls were good. It’s hard to play a big place like this. It’s an arena, so it doesn’t have any atmosphere of its own. You have to try and make an atmosphere happen. We were trying to take this shed, where anybody will play, and make it feel like a Sheffield thing and an intimate thing.”
So the only remaining question is: is this really it, Jarvis? The last ever Pulp show on terra firma? “Ooh, I can’t…” He cracks a smile and trails off. “Certainly for a while, yeah. I don’t believe in saying that it’s the last one forever. There was enough pressure on tonight without saying: ‘This is it: the final show.’ It’s not really your call, do you know what I mean? Ten years ago when we played at the Magna, it felt like: “Ooh, right, this is the end.” You can try to tie everything up neatly, but you just have to see what life throws at yer. I think that’s the way life works. You can’t impose a structure on it. So… we’ll see. But it’s it for now.”
Originally published in NME, 5 January 2013.