St Anne’s Park, Dublin
Britpop is today remembered for the ding-dong existential struggle between Blur and Oasis. But Jarvis Cocker and Pulp were the most quintessentially British of the indie bands to conquer the top 10 in the mid-1990s, with songs that combined the grumpy melancholy of Philip Larkin and the “Oh, matron!” suggestiveness of Kenneth Williams.
Larkin meets Williams remains the persona with which Jarvis Cocker, the band’s frontman, greets the world as Pulp’s first tour in a decade touches down at St Anne’s Park, a low-ambience space on the northside of Dublin. It is a straightforward greatest-hits set – though one undermined slightly by the fact that Pulp, for all their importance to Britpop, didn’t necessarily have all that many stone-cold smashes.
Or at least not the sort that will shine in an anonymous park on a random Friday. Cocker is dressed like a professor pretending to be a scarecrow – and his performance has that same spasmodically quirky quality that made him globally (in)famous following his Michael Jackson stage invasion at the 1996 Brit Awards.
A big setting calls for big songs, and now and then Pulp deliver. Disco 2000, the second track of the night, is essentially a rock-opera version of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, its adolescent mopeyness tacked to an epic disco beat. There is banter, too. “It’s nice to be back in Ireland,” Cocker says, still lithe and up for it at 59. “It’s nice to be back in Europe. We’ve missed you.”
Not every tune matches the occasion. Down at the back of the venue, where the grass runs into tarmac and then ebbs gently downhill, we endure the filler with good grace. But with Cocker a twitching outline on the horizon, there are moments it’s a bit of a slog. Or not: many people are happy to talk or look at their phones as Pulp lurch towards their B-list: almost-bangers such as Something Changed (dedicated to their late bassist Steve Mackey, who died in March, aged just 56) and Pink Glove.
Thus much of the concert wafts past like a tepid breeze. Halfway through, what you look forward to are Cocker’s between-song quips. He reveals this is Pulp’s 525th gig – fewer than he imagined, given the band had come together in Sheffield in the early 1980s. There is also chatter about St Anne’s Park potentially serving as a refuge for Ireland’s dwindling red-squirrel population. Time has come close to standing still.
Until, suddenly, all is in motion again. Do You Remember the First Time? tenderly recounts Cocker losing his virginity in a public place – a park, it transpired, though thankfully not St Anne’s. And then, with their support act Richard Hawley guesting, comes their great glittering mother ship of a hit, Common People.
The song is both a big shiny anthem and a deconstruction of class in Britain – something that may not necessarily have clicked with an Irish audience. (We have our distinct class system, about which Common People understandably has nothing to say.)
Still, the tune showcases the band’s pugilistic earnestness – they always meant it in a way that Blur and Oasis did not – and the frontman’s crazy dancing. It has taken a while, and goodness how tiny Cocker is all those miles away, but Common People brings a rather ordinary gig to an extraordinary place.