Pulp, unlike moody Britpop brethren Oasis, Radiohead and the Verve, are unabashedly happy. Well, at least Jarvis Cocker is, and as far as crowds go, he is Pulp. The pallid stickfigure with a bad haircut (and, really, is there any other type of British rocker?) is the English band's face, and deservedly so. Alternately vogueing and gyrating spasmodically in some creepy reflection of the Elaine-on-Seinfeld dance, Cocker is a born performer who attracts more women's undergarments than Wilt Chamberlain's bedroom floor.
On June 16, 1998, Cocker did not disappoint the sold-out throng at Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom, a cavernous room in which smaller bands are easily lost. It was the third and final night of Pulp's three-city mini-tour (Boston and Washington D.C. were the others), their first appearance stateside in more than two years, and it was patently obvious that almost every soul (save the requisite supermodels angling for street cred) could recite the Pulp catalog backwards.
Though the band has never enjoyed the popular or critical acclaim here of contemporaries like Radiohead or Oasis, their following is perhaps twice as rabid. And while plenty of Premier League soccer jerseys, yellow sunglasses and ironic logo tees dotted the house, an equal number of nondescript New Yorkers (who could just as easily have fit in at a James Taylor show) truly brought the house down. At times, I could barely hear or see the preening Cocker for the trio of bobbing, squealing heffers occupying ample square-footage just in front of me. At every opportunity, a round of "Yes, Jarvis!" "We love you, Jarvis!" screeched from one or all of the group, who by surface appearance could well have stumbled from a Long Island librarians convention.
Those not versed in Pulp legend may be surprised to hear that the group is actually more than 15 years old and toiled for ages in the English club scene before finally breaking out in 1995 with the U.K. chart-topping single "Common People." Cocker himself may be vaguely familiar to non-fans from his infamous outburst at 1994's Brit Awards, during which he crashed the stage during a Michael Jackson performance ostensibly to protest the singer's exploitation of children. Vindicated by the English press, Cocker still has trouble shaking that image in the States among the populous (maybe because journalists like me keep bringing it up), though the latest album This is Hardcore may go a long way toward wiping the slate clean many critics are already giving it the Radiohead treatment, touting the disc as one of the year's best. Now having seen the songs played live, I find it hard to argue.
If you can get past appearance, it's not hard to see what the ladies see in Cocker (other than his Dickensian moniker, of course). Women love men who emote, and Pulp's lyrics swell with feeling love, remorse, melancholy and most of all, sex. Cocker wriggles and writhes, his arms are like snakes that twist around and his pelvis gyrates with such fury he should need a license to operate it, all while lascivious lyrics drip off his tongue and slide across the bobbing swarm.
Performing songs from each of their albums, Pulp laid it heavy on songs from Hardcore as well as soundtrack cuts like "We Are the Boys," a raucous rock 'n' roll jam from the forthcoming glam-rock film Velvet Goldmine, which served as the band's second encore a rare treat at the curfew-crazy Ballroom (it is, after all, located under a hotel full of Moonies).
I'd love to say that Bran Van 3000, the super-cool but impossible to categorize Canadian beat farmers, rocked the house too but, well, I didn't make it in time (in the interest of full disclosure, I also missed Pulp's first song as I stood fuming in a completely unnecessary press queue). Bran Van's album, however, is one of the year's true surprises, and I certainly plan to catch them somewhere soon perhaps even at their free show on Central Park's Summerstage.
As for Pulp: should you be so lucky as to encounter a show near you (dates in Europe, Japan and Australia look to occupy much of the rest of their year), run, don't walk, to your nearest ticket agent. And ladies, don't forget an extra set of panties you'd hate to be the only one there with nothing to throw.