x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pulp to reform

The Britpop band Pulp have announced plans to reform.

Britpop stars Pulp have announced plans to reform.
Britpop stars Pulp have announced plans to reform.

It's strikingly apt that one of the British pop band Pulp's most well-known hits is Do You Remember The First Time? After all, when Jarvis Cocker announced last week that his old band - perhaps the most literate, intelligent, thoughtful and downright funny group of the mid-1990s - would be the latest to reform, it provoked a wave of nostalgia. People did remember. And they recalled that while Oasis were lamely asking their fans to Roll With It, Pulp were musing on the British class system in hit single Common People.

Such emphasis on lyrics was in the end Pulp's undoing - particularly when they released This Is Hardcore, their rather complicated meditation on the darker side of fame in 1998. But Cocker's fans have stuck with him through thick and thin. The news that he was back with the original members of Pulp was greeted with genuine delight. And that's because, for many, picking your favourite band during the Britpop explosion of the mid 1990s was like supporting a football team. You didn't switch. You went around the country to see them. You even dressed like them.

Britpop, for the truly uninitiated, was a popular wave of guitar music emanating from England in 1992. A response to the sludgy sound of grunge made popular by Nirvana, Suede were perhaps the first band to suggest that something interesting was happening. The frontman Brett Anderson was a proper, androgynous pop star who cared about his appearance - which was quite a relief after years of guitar bands taking to the stage looking like they'd just got up. And their music - a sexy blend of David Bowie and The Smiths - was genuinely unlike anything else.

But even in these early days, Suede fostered a sense of confrontation and - if you liked them - of genuine belonging. Anderson wrapped himself in a Union Jack on the front of magazines that pronounced them the best new band in Britain. And, if you believe the legend, he was spurred on to write hit after hit because a young man called Damon Albarn had stolen his girlfriend, Justine Frischmann (who would go on to enjoy success with her own band, Elastica).

Albarn had the girl - but he also wanted Suede's acclaim. It's not an exaggeration to suggest this is what drove his band, Blur (Albarn has admitted as much himself) to channel the sound of bands such as The Kinks and Small Faces for their second album Modern Life Is Rubbish in 1993. The record was a huge success; hordes dressed in Albarn's de rigeur Fred Perry top and Dr Martin boots. Indeed, it was possible to tell on which side of the divide a music fan was on by the merest of glances: Suede fans would be more likely to wear black leather jackets and look a bit more "troubled".

And then came Oasis. In fact, the much-publicised enmity between Blur and the Gallagher brothers' band was at first rather one-sided; Oasis's default position being just to dislike everyone except The Beatles. Indeed, Albarn had actually praised Oasis in song, in the lyrics of Country House. But his competitive side once again got the better of him and in August of 1995, Albarn made the decision that would characterise Britpop in its entirety. He decided Blur would release Country House as a single on the same day as Oasis did the same with Roll With It.

It was decision time for the fans. Should they side with the rather knowing, Kinks-loving Blur, or Oasis's straightfoward rock'n'roll? In fact, this was as much about regional divisions and class as any notion of what was the better music - Oasis coming from Manchester in the North and Blur being posher southerners (as much as they tried to hide it). Listen to both songs now and they're probably among the worst the respective bands produced.

Blur won the battle but lost the war - Oasis going on to sell far more albums. As a southerner living in the North, I copped out and bought both - while it did matter whether you liked Oasis or Blur (particularly in Manchester) that didn't mean you couldn't also cherish Pulp's chart-topping album from that time, Different Class.

It didn't always work the other way around - the proper Cocker clones in acrylic trousers and skinny ties were not likely to be seen at an Oasis gig. But for them, the knowledge that an odd band from Sheffield had finally made it wasn't a reason to brag in the same outlandish way an Oasis fan might. It was just another small victory. It meant they were cool. And in fact, because Pulp steered clear of most of the tribal rivalry, they still are.