It is hard not to be nostalgic on nights like this. About an NME night when Pulp were on the bottom of a bill headlined, I think, by Kingmaker. About the party for “OU” at the Leadmill, with a problematic balloon launch and a large papier mache head, and the party for “Do You Remember The First Time” at the ICA.

It is hard not to be nostalgic on nights like this. About an NME night when Pulp were on the bottom of a bill headlined, I think, by Kingmaker. About the party for “OU” at the Leadmill, with a problematic balloon launch and a large papier mache head, and the party for “Do You Remember The First Time” at the ICA.



About Glastonbury, of course, and Reading, and the ‘shoegazing’ show at the Underworld, when the band played behind picture frames made from gold-painted shoes and Suede supported, appearing without Justine Frischmann for the first fateful time. About an extraordinary night at the Dome in Tufnell Park, when Pulp opened with a ten-minute instrumental to soundtrack Jarvis Cocker feeding the sparse audience miniature doughnuts off his fingers. And about the farewell show in a Rotherham museum.

In many ways, Pulp can come across as a rather callous band, but they are also one with a repertoire – “Do You Remember The First Time”, “Disco 2000”, naturally – that could have been written for sentimental reunions. So it is that 2011’s most noted revival act nears the end of its summer activities with a relatively intimate show at, as Cocker notes early on, a venue with an actual roof. The Mis-Shapes are back, too, though one suspects a good proportion have grown into decent media careers.

Watching the BBC’s Reading coverage at the weekend, a few things about Pulp were striking: how they could once again make such an imposing racket out of relatively crude musical skills; how many great songs they have, and how few actual hits. The Reading show looked brilliant, and was brilliantly constructed, balancing the rueful intimacies with surging epics: “This Is Hardcore”, “Sunrise”,
“F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.”, “I Spy”.

But those last two songs sadly don’t make an appearance at Brixton – tonight, the setlist doesn’t have quite the same graceful arc. It does, though, have a bunch of songs dug out of the less frequented areas of their catalogue: “Bad Cover Version” and a mightily atmospheric, if somewhat lost, “Wickerman” from “We Love Life”; the art school disco of “Countdown” from “Separations” (though not, unfortunately, “My Legendary Girlfriend”); and a superb “O.U”, its frazzled, homebaked take on spacerock given extra muscle by an extended lineup that includes Leo Abrahams on guitar.

Richard Hawley also sits in with his former employers on a few numbers, most notably “Lipgloss” – a song which Cocker admits they’ve always had trouble playing – where Hawley out of the four guitarists seems to be handling the peculiar, rapidly looping main riff. It’s not always obvious what this army of musicians are actually doing, but the sound they make, especially when they cluster round the Peter Thomas sample that threads through “This Is Hardcore”, is seriously impressive.

“This Is Hardcore” remains, to these ears, Pulp’s best and most wrenching – poignant even, after a fashion – song. It’s run close by a few more in this set, though: the aforementioned “Sunrise”, still sounding like a cross between Roxy Music, Spiritualized and something very roughly approximating folk music; the jangling and ecstatic “Babies”; and of course, “Common People”.

It was to Pulp’s commercial benefit and, perhaps, ultimate misfortune, that Britpop came along, giving them a vehicle into the mainstream that other putative genres (I remembered, mid-gig, one dreamed up by Stuart Maconie and Andrew Collins, called Lion Pop, ostensibly to take the piss out of Steve Lamacq’s energetic neologising) had failed to provide. Away from all that, though, it’s clearer than ever that it was an accident of circumstance that lumbered Pulp with such a tag.

In reality, they belonged – and belong – to an older and better tradition of chippy British artrock, one that from time to time comes into fleeting but delicious contact with the mainstream. A reminder, then, of the powers of a great band, but also of what the British music scene currently, and so grievously, lacks.

SETLIST

1. Do You Remember the First Time?

2. Countdown

3. Lipgloss

4. O.U.

5. Have You Seen Her Lately?

6. Something Changed

7. Disco 2000

8. Sorted For E’s & Wizz

9. Wickerman

10. Bad Cover Version

11. Babies

12. Underwear

13. This Is Hardcore

14. Sunrise

15. Bar Italia

16. Common People
~
17. Razzmatazz

18. Mis-Shapes