Listening to Pulp now, out of the context of the Live Forever, Cool Britannia of the ‘90s, it’s obvious how completely out of synch with that empty triumphalism and cocaine bluster they were. Untainted by the excess and madness of those days, they were always a little too arty and awkward to fully belong to that scene’s failings—their rackety glam pop and twisted lyrics about sex and misfits always owed more to fellow oddballs The Fall and Roxy Music than The Beatles or The Kinks. Considering John Peel’s role in their history, it’s appropriate that they should join the list of bands who are having their famous Peel Sessions released. Apart from the inclusion of Pulp’s first ever Peel Session recorded back in 1981, all of the sessions here date from 1994’s His & Hers onwards. And shorn of the rough edges evident on their early albums, it’s immediately apparent what a fantastic live band Pulp became in the ‘90s.
As for that early session, remembered fondly by Jarvis in the sleeve notes, it’s a wonderful lost artefact documenting Pulp’s earliest musical fumblings. According to Jarvis, the keyboard was propped up on Peter Dalton’s mum’s ironing board as they didn’t own a stand, and most of the session was spent attempting to make a synth drum sound out of a rubber burglar alarm mat and an electronic calculator. Given these memories, you’d probably expect the four songs from the session to be something of a shambling muddle but they’re actually not. “Turkey Mambo Momma” is delightfully silly piece of absurdist pop nonsense featuring a kinetic xylophone riff, whereas “Wishful Thinking” sounds like an off kilter Factory Records off-cut. The best of the bunch though is “Please Don’t Worry”, a charming music hall pop miniature which hinted at a musical direction the fledgling Pulp would never really follow up.
Even in these earliest of ventures, the affectations and inimitable touches that would become Cocker trademarks are present, albeit in embryonic form. The existence of this session is actually as much a testament to John Peel as anything else. It’s amazing to think that it based on a cassette tape handed to him by Cocker at a “John Peel Roadshow” at Sheffield Polytechnic; he was willing to stick this bunch of rag-tag teens—most of who were still at school—into the BBC’s Maida Vale studios to record a prestigious session. As with the brilliant collection of PJ Harvey’s idiosyncratic Peel Sessions, this record serves as a timely reminder of just how big the John Peel shaped hole remains in British music. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a DJ like Colin Murray (now presiding over Peel’s legendary Radio 1 slot) or Zane Lowe now giving the time of day to a band as amateurish and peculiar as Pulp were back in 1981.
The rest of this bumper double album is made up of mostly brilliant session and live recordings of some of Pulp’s best work. The session that preceded the release of His & Hers from 1993 (some 12 years after their first one) represents a huge leap forwards for Pulp, as they seemed to hit on some previously dormant commercial potential. Here, “Acrylic Afternoons” already sounds stirringly huge and ready made to rock the dancefloor of any indie disco, whilst the non-album ballad “You’re A Nightmare” is something of a lost gem. Even by the time we reach 2001, and the broadcast highlights from a gig recorded at Kings College in London, Pulp still sound, vital and increasingly musically ambitious, with Jarvis’ onstage banter remaining as enthralling and daft as ever (he dedicates “Help the Aged” to the listening John Peel). Songs like, the sweeping, paranoid “This Is Hardcore” take on a new swagger live, and likewise, “Sorted For E’s & Whizz” becomes a swaying, sing-along comedown anthem.
No band from the last 20 years managed to soundtrack the failure and broken dreams, and messy ins-and-outs of illicit relationships quite like Pulp—and the The Peel Sessions versions of “Underwear” and “Pencil Skirt” from their masterpiece Different Class play out like brilliantly seedy bedroom operas—tangibly real and always effortlessly touching. The tracks here from the underrated We Love Life album are sparklingly wholesome pop tunes, injected with a seasoned urgency live. The euphoric “Sunrise”, and “The Trees”, a song flecked with the earliest bittersweet memories of love, are the highlights of the band’s final sessions for Peel. Fittingly, things are brought to a close on disc two with a rampant version of “Common People”, which explodes from its electronic krautrock beginnings and grows and grows towards its dizzying, frantic finish.
The Peel Sessions is not a definitive retrospective of Pulp’s unique career, but then, it is not supposed to be. Instead, listening to the band’s formative earliest session from 1981 alongside sweeping, defining pop monsters like “Common People” serves as a poignant reminder not only of how far Pulp came from those beginnings, but of how important John Peel was to the development and evolution of British music. His show gave music that would have been ignored everywhere else a platform to be heard by likeminded people who were listening eagerly. One of the reasons his passing was so deeply felt was that people seemed to know that we would not see anyone like him again. It’s unlikely either that there will be story quite as weird and wonderful as Pulp’s in the near future. It took them over a decade from that first session to get anywhere near the mainstream, and even then their appearance was fleeting before they, commercially at least, fucked it all up. Along the way they made some of the most insightful, funny and danceable pop songs of their generation, many of which are included in this collection—a remarkable record that is every bit as relevant to the Pulp story as anything else they’ve released.