Pulp, the now-iconic English rock band formed in Sheffield in 1978, remains one of the most influential alternative groups in the long history of British popular culture. Throughout the 1980s, a time when the band struggled to find success, they continued to draw on a wide range of influences, and at their earliest, they sounded like “a cross between ABBA and The Fall”. Despite working hard to find their feet, their genre-melding abilities was an aspect that the band used to their strength and, actually, it would remain a facet of their makeup when they reached their peak, only by then it was far more refined.
A local fanzine would note the eclectic nature of Pulp’s early incarnation, describing them as sounding “as if they listen to the John Peel show every night in an endless quest for influences.” Ironic, as in October 1981, Pulp would give a demo tape to Peel, who granted them a recording session with the legendary broadcaster. This would truly start the band on their long, winding road to greatness. The session was a great leap forward for the young band, and it made them one of the most prominent outfits on the local music scene.
Their unrefined, all-encompassing sound could be perhaps put down to how young they were, given frontman Jarvis Cocker was only fifteen when the band formed, and eighteen at the time of the Peel session. Faithful to being impressionistic youths, the tracks the young Pulp recorded were in keeping with the typical Sheffield sound of the time, following the electronic, new wave tendencies of The Human League et al. These tracks would eventually be released in 2006 on The Peel Sessions Compilation in a reflective look on a pivotal moment in their history.
By late 1982, they had managed to get enough local attention to record a mini-album. Entitled It, the album was released in April 1983 by Red Rhino Records. It consisted of folkish, romantic pop songs that were largely influenced by Leonard Cohen, marking a stark departure from the sounds delineated in the Peel session. It failed commercially, but the band were undeterred and continued to seek success.
Subsequently, they recorded the single ‘Everybody’s Problem’/’There Was’. This presented another shift in style for the band, who had been advised by Red Rhino’s Tony Perrin. He had convinced Cocker that he “could write commercial songs like Wham!”
Typical of the band at the time, this approach also failed. Cocker became jaded and unhappy with this chosen musical direction. He had resigned himself to ending the band and going to university. However, a rehearsal with new members Russell Senior and Magnus Doyle led to establishing a new incarnation of the band. This experimental, artier version of Pulp would lay the foundations of the band we know and love today.
The band’s next major release would not come until 1987 with their second album, Freaks. It was recorded in one week due to pressure from new label, Fire Records. Cocker was angered by the situation and argued that “the songs could’ve been done a lot better if we’d have had a bit more time.” The album had a darker, more sinister style that can be considered as the antithesis to It. Typically again, it failed to be a success. Cocker would eventually enrol in a film course at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (CSM), which effectively folded the band. His time studying there would influence that line in their opus ‘Common People’.
In mid-1989 and creatively revitalised, the band would record their third album Separations, which would not be released until three years later in 1992. It built on the foundations Freaks had laid but incorporated acid-house grooves and again, Leonard Cohen-esque ballads. The lead single ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’ became a fan favourite and, subsequently, the second and final single ‘Countdown’ started to attract mainstream press attention – this is when Pulp’s quest for success and fame began to finally bear fruit.
Pulp’s star then began to rise quickly. They eventually came to prominence in the mid-1990s with the release of their fourth album His ‘n’ Hers in 1994. The following year, they reached their critical and commercial peak with their fifth album, Different Class, solidifying their presence as indie-rock legend status.
Appropriately, their heyday is considered to be 1992-1997. It produced songs that would touch and define a generation. The line-up from this period consisted of frontman Jarvis Cocker, Russell Senior (guitar, violin), Candid Doyle (keyboards), Nick Banks (drums, percussion), Steve Mackey (bass) and Mark Webber (guitar, keyboards).
Different Class reached number one on the UK Albums Chart. It spawned four top ten singles, including the timeless ‘Common People‘, which included that line about Cocker’s time at CSM and ‘Sorted for E’s & Wizz’ – both singles perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the time and consequently both reached number two in the UK Singles Chart. During this peak, Pulp’s musical style had become the sum of all its disparate parts. It consisted of disco-pop matched by brilliant lyrics referencing all facets of British culture, feeling like a true “kitchen sink drama”.
Given the decade, and the extent of their success, consequently the band became the unwanted lump-in with the Britpop movement. Opinions aside, it is a testament to their success that they were regarded as one of the “big four” of Britpop, along with Oasis, Blur and Suede. It is dizzying just how successful Pulp became, considering the perceived failures of their first few attempts. They were nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize in 1994 for His ‘n’ Hers. Then, they went on to win it in 1996 for Different Class. They didn’t stop there though. They were nominated again in 1998 for This Is Hardcore. Capturing just how far they went, they headlined Glastonbury not once, but twice.
The band released final album We Love Life in 2001, and then, after selling over ten million records, they took a hiatus. They have since reunited multiple times, playing dates at Reading and Leeds, Primavera and Isle of Wight Festival to name but a few.
Jarvis and Co. are national treasures, and there is simply no debating it. Yes, their first three albums can be regarded as somewhat ill-guided misfires, but the way they bounced back and captured the zeitgeist of Britain in the nineties is triumphant and has endeared them to fans ever since.
It is only right then, that we list their albums in order of greatness, showing every angle of the Great British monument that is Pulp.
Pulp’s albums ranked from worst to best:
7. Freaks – 1987
Released with the subtitle Ten Stories About Power, Claustrophobia, Suffocation and Holding Hands through on Fire Records, Freaks is the second studio album by Pulp. It gained little commercial success and features a much darker sound, contrasting the hopeful folk-pop of its predecessor, It. The album is a sinister oddity, and the influence of The Fall is certainly pervasive.
Guitarist and violinist Russell Senior sings lead vocals on the highly unhinged ‘Fairground’ and ‘Anorexic Beauty’. ‘Master of the Universe’ was released as a single, and in the “sanitised version”, it replaces the word “masturbates” with “vegetates”. ‘I Want You’ is the only song from the album that has been performed live regularly, most notably during the UK Forest Tour in Summer ’02.
Freaks was reissued and remastered by Fire in 2012. This release also included new bonus tracks, new artwork and liner notes from music journalist Everett True.
The album isn’t for everyone, however, it marked the direction the band would go in. ‘I Want You’ and ‘There’s No Emotion’ particularly express what was to follow after it in the nineties. Furthermore, there is something pleasurable to be had with the utterly batshit self-awareness this album has.
6. It (1983)
The debut album by Pulp, It, is psychedelic and folky, inspired by Leonard Cohen and The Smiths. The track ‘Looking for Life’ is strangely resemblant to the first Brian Jonestown Massacre album, Methodrone. Jarvis’ vocals are warm and raw, and are way more accessible than on Freaks. It is true the album represents somewhat of the antithesis to Freaks, and is a hazy, reverb-laden moment in the band’s back catalogue.
The listener can rest easy in the knowledge that Russell Senior does not make a crazed vocal performance on this record, however, Jarvis’ impersonation of the ubiquitous ’80s baritone becomes humorous at points. The album’s title is a deliberate pun, when added to the band’s name it spells “Pulpit”.
All songs were written by Cocker, apart from opener ‘My Lighthouse’ which was co-written by Simon Hinkler of goth legends, The Mission. The album was also re-released by Fire in 2012.
5. Separations – 1992
Recorded in 1989, Pulp’s third album was very belatedly released by Fire in 1992. The first half of the album is composed of songs reminiscent of Pulp in the eighties, and the songs on the second side incorporate acid-house, synth-pop and experimental. Singles ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’ and ‘Countdown’ opened up the gates of success for Pulp, and looking back are suggestive, highly ’90s numbers, featuring Cocker’s trademark ruminations.
All songs were written by Cocker, and in the grand scheme of things, the album represents a stark departure for Pulp. It sees them start to truly hone their trademark style and refine their eclectic mix of influences. The album sees the band lapping up the zeitgeist of the time with ‘Love is Blind’ – the second half of the album is reminiscent of Manchester duo Electronic. ‘She’s Dead’ and ‘Down By The River’ show the varying influences Pulp had, incorporating elements of swing in the former and embodying Nick Cave‘s foreboding on the latter.
The album was also remastered and reissued by Fire in 2012. The re-release gives the opportunity to hear ‘Death Comes to Town’. The song was previously only released in 2005 on a CD that accompanied Sheffield journalist Martin Lilleker’s book Beats Working for a Living.
In short, the album certainly embodies a separation.
4. We Love Life – 2001
Pulp’s final album, We Love Life, marked a departure from the tumultuous recording sessions for its predecessor This Is Hardcore and saw the band move towards more a leisurely, relaxed sound, overseen and produced by the late, great Scott Walker. The album saw positive critical reception and peaked at six on the UK Albums Chart.
The band were disillusioned with themselves after 1998’s This Is Hardcore and so chose this new, nature-inspired way of doing things. Cocker explained: “I never took any notice of nature when I was a kid. I thought we’d all be living on space stations or floating metropolises by now. But after This Is Hardcore, which was a very alienated record, it was time to go back to simpler things, like this, the natural world.” In trademark style though, Cocker was keen to add: “This isn’t Pulp’s pastoral album. I was very aware of avoiding hippy-dippy stuff.”
It feels like the time when the Kinks went all Village Green Preservation Society. ‘The Birds in Your Garden’, ‘Weeds’ and ‘The Trees’, really add to the feel of the band pottering about in the garden between takes, watched over closely by the king of cool, Scott Walker, whose essence colours the album greatly. Looking at those titles alone, what was that Cocker said about it not being a pastoral album?
Furthermore, the album contains the brilliant ‘The Night Minnie Timperley Died’ and ‘Bad Cover Version’, two songs influenced by nature, but not as explicitly as the ones mentioned above. Furthermore, in ‘Bad Cover Version’ Walker’s album ‘Til the Band Comes in is mocked in the lyrics, which Cocker claims to have written long before the albums recording sessions, regardless, Walker called recording the song “embarrassing”.
The album’s title was originally planned to be called Pulp Love Life, however, after the September 11th attacks, the plan was changed. Cocker recalled: “To be honest, I was really freaked out when that World Trade Centre thing happened. So in the aftermath of that, I thought, actually this Love Life business isn’t a bad sentiment at this particular time.”
3. This Is Hardcore – 1998
The sixth album by Pulp, This Is Hardcore, came three years after their opus Different Class, and was hotly anticipated. It is often considered one of the best albums of the nineties. Furthermore, the album was drenched in alienation and disillusionment. It can be seen as representing the comedown from the height of the decade. Jarvis almost sounds broken at points on the record.
Regardless of all the pain surrounding it, This Is Hardcore is still a classic. It features Jarvis having drug flashbacks on ‘The Fear’, his entering middle age ‘Help the Aged’ and the title track carries in it a disparagement towards the adult film industry. The band’s pop sensibilities shine through once more, with grand strings and horns. However, the Sheffield natives’ compositions are this time more melancholic, seemingly knowing it was the end of an era, given what they would produce next. ‘Sylvia’, ‘Glory Days’ and ‘The Day After the Revolution’ capture this downbeat rush most.
In terms of emotion, it does what it says on the tin.
2. His ‘n’ Hers -1994
The album that truly hailed the arrival of the band we all now know as Pulp. A bonafide classic. Crazy to think the band had been around for the best part of two decades upon its release. The album represents the band reaching adulthood. Featuring what are now classic Pulp hallmarks, such as seedy, voyeuristic lyrical themes, His ‘n’ Hers contains so many classic Pulp songs.
‘Babies’, ‘Razzmatazz’, ‘Do You Remember the First Time?’, ‘Lipgloss’ and closer, ‘David’s Last Summer’ are all Pulp at some of their finest moments.
The album also builds on the themes that would become intrinsic to its successor, Different Class. This is the album where Cocker would start to perfect his witty lyrics, heavily influenced by class and society. Retrospectively, Robyn Strachan has described the album’s opener, ‘Joyriders’, as perfectly setting the tone for the album with “acerbic observation and lurking seediness and decay”.
Again showing the band’s wide range of influences, track six, ‘She’s a Lady’ takes a lot of its musical cues from Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’. The album is almost faultless from start to finish.
1. Different Class (1995)
Everything about Different Class is iconic. The lyrics, the music, the album cover, everything. Released on 30th October 1995 by Island Records, it was a critical and commercial success entering the UK Album Chart at number one. From there, it went on to win the coveted Mercury Music Prize a year after its release. It has been certified 4x platinum and is often regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, and there can be no doubt about why.
The album caught the hearts and minds of the British public, and in doing so conjures that image of Gandalf saying “a wizard arrives precisely when he means to”. It is almost as if Pulp had been waiting, slowly perfecting their all-encompassing, theatrical formula – releasing it just when they meant to in 1995. Every song on the album perfectly captures different elements of British society at the time, no wonder it resonated so deeply. It is still a mainstay of discos and parties.
If Oasis represented the no nonsense working-class culture of the ’90s, and Blur the middle-class art-school cynicism, acting like two school kids who hated each other, Pulp’s Different Class sounds and feels as if it fits somewhere in between. It is like a musical Allison Reynolds from The Breakfast Club, the odd one out, sitting in the corner, taking everything in, and full of strange insights.
One only has to note that every track on the album is a certified classic. ‘Mis-Shapes’, ‘Pencil Skirt’, ‘Common People’, ‘I Spy’, ‘Disco 2000’, ‘Underwear’, ‘Something Changed’, ‘Sorted for E’s & Wizz’ are just some of the iconic tracks from this LP.
Different Class represents Pulp at the most refined, and there is no doubt it is their greatest album.