Pulp — The Peel Sessions

The Peel Sessions artwork For a band that’s been on ‘hiatus’ for the past five years, there has been a remarkable amount of activity on the Pulp front. Jarvis Cocker’s solo album is due to be released very soon. Pulp’s three most popular albums — His ’n’ Hers, Different Class and This is Hardcore — have recently been re-released, each with an extra disc of bonus b-sides, rarities and suchlike.

It’s a bit odd, because when Pulp’s greatest hits album was released a few years ago it didn’t even enter the top 70. But they must have decided that enough time has passed for people to get nostalgic about Pulp.

The £15+ per go I’m being asked to pay for the re-releases of albums I already own from a period when I was such a big Pulp fan that I own all of the b-sides anyway is a bit much. I’ll wait for the prices to come down. But when I was browsing in Virgin the other day I spotted this CD in the corner of my eye and I jumped on the chance to buy it.

It is the ‘complete’ set of Pulp Peel Sessions. It certainly feels complete with two CDs and twenty-nine tracks spanning twenty years. Most people are probably unaware, but Pulp were actually formed in the late 1970s. Their first Peel Session was in 1981, about fifteen years before anybody else had heard of them! Pulp also hold the dubious honour of having the longest gap between their first and second Peel Sessions — a fist-gnawingly long twelve years. Ouch!

Jarvis Cocker has always let it be known that he thinks that Pulp’s material from the 1980s is poor. I quite like most of it. The only genuinely dodgy album of theirs is Separations, their misfiring experiment into acid house territory.

In the liner notes to The Peel Sessions, written by Jarvis himself, he says that he has always resisted the release of Pulp’s first Peel Session because it sounds naive. Perhaps inevitably, it’s the most interesting aspect of the CD. I am actually quite impressed with these songs, performed by a band whose members were still in their teens (the drummer was 15). It certainly could have been a lot worse. Jarvis had nothing to be embarrassed about.

‘Wishful Thinking’ is probably the strongest song, although ‘Refuse to be Blind’ is an interesting glimpse into the slightly experimental approach that Pulp were taking even in their very earliest days. It does sound as though they were a bit overawed by all of the equipment they had at their disposal, but it doesn’t sound too bad for it.

With the first session out of the way, we skip a decade to the period when Pulp were first getting noticed in wider circles. The contrast is huge. It is a very different band. Jarvis is the only member remaining from the original lineup. These performances from the mid-1990s are not actually particularly strong. Cocker sometimes appears to forget his words, or miss his cue. Instead of putting in a quality performance, Cocker relied more on his charisma.

I can’t help but feel that most of Pulp’s eventual success was down to Cocker’s charisma. His famous idiosyncrasies, absent from the 1981 session, are in full force in the later sessions. Of course, the songs themselves aren’t bad. But it doesn’t quite sound like the Pulp most people probably remember.

The performance of ‘Common People’ is especially jarring. It sounds nothing like the powerful epic that would go on to make Pulp the kings of Britpop. It sounds like a really hastily-organised first rehearsal; a cheaply put-together demo tape. It starts of with a weak synth intro and Jarvis’ performance is nowhere near to being the rip-roaring interpretation that made the song what it was. It generally sounds as though their hearts aren’t in it. Imagine if the song had been produced by somebody else — they might never have been as big as they became.

Their later, post-success performances, are easily the most impressive on this collection. It exhibits a more back-to-basics, down-to-earth and comfortable band. They were no longer desperately seeking success, and they were no longer trying to cope with the success when it eventually came.

While We Love Life was not as popular as their previous three albums, I feel as though some of their strongest material came from this period. The assuredness of these performances echo this. ‘Duck Diving’, essentially a charming short story read out by Cocker, is a particularly good inclusion. I had not been aware of the existence of this at all.

CD2 is made not of conventional Peel Sessions, but of special concerts broadcast on Radio 1 including a celebration of John Peel’s 40th anniversary in broadcasting. Sadly, as we know, there weren’t to be many more years. The inclusion of a jokey remark from Cocker that their performance of ‘Help the Aged’ is dedicated to Peel is a tad unfortunate. Luckily, when it’s all over we hear Peel himself make a sarcastic remark about it.

Although Pulp’s limitations as a live act are exposed here (for instance, what is going on in that out-of-tune performance of ‘Common People’?), these live performances are generally stronger than the actual Peel Sessions themselves. It’s a fairly broad selection of songs aswell. In a way we have been treated to a Pulp live album of sorts.

All-in-all, The Peel Sessions is a great album. It not necessarily great because of the quality of the music. But it is certainly an interesting document of Pulp’s evolution. We see three distinct phases exhibited on this album — from the slightly lackluster experimenting youngsters to the popular Britpoppers to the more mature, post-success, relaxed band that went on hiatus in 2001.

A very good documentation of the career of one of the key bands of the 1990s as filtered through the ears of John Peel.


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