Jarvis - as intimate as a grimy bedsit

Pulp | Reading Festival Queens of the Stone Age | The Garage, London The Wisdom of Harry | Social, London
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Pulp's headlining set at the Glastonbury Festival in 1995, filling in at the last minute for the Stone Roses, is widely credited as having rocketed them to superstardom. Personally, I'd argue that this has been over-emphasised, not least because I was comatose in my tent for most of the performance. Instead, I'd nominate the previous Reading festival as a more seminal occasion in Pulp history. It was here that they premiered "Common People" before a crowd that realised it was in the presence of a star in a nylon shirt.

Pulp's headlining set at the Glastonbury Festival in 1995, filling in at the last minute for the Stone Roses, is widely credited as having rocketed them to superstardom. Personally, I'd argue that this has been over-emphasised, not least because I was comatose in my tent for most of the performance. Instead, I'd nominate the previous Reading festival as a more seminal occasion in Pulp history. It was here that they premiered "Common People" before a crowd that realised it was in the presence of a star in a nylon shirt.

Six years later, Pulp opened their headlining set at the Reading Festival last Saturday with that very song. It's still amazingly powerful: even more seething and acerbic than it sounded in 1994. And Cocker, returning after a two-year sabbatical, immediately reminded us that he is British pop's most brilliant entertainer: no one else can make a field seem as intimate as a grimy bedsit.

Over all, though, Pulp weren't at their best. The music wasn't as fresh and vital as it has been. And Cocker, barefoot and wearing a brown Arran polo neck, wasn't quite as magnetically flamboyant and funny. Some of his banter had a surreally vicious tone (what should we make of "I'd rather shit on my own back than let this evening go by without any damage occurring"?) and he'd incorporated two violent new moves into his choreography. One was a vigorous leg waggle, as if he was trying to detach a pit bull from his trousers. The other was a frantic flap of his hands around his head, as if he was under attack by wasps. As the song says, "Something's Changed".

The curious thing was, though, that as Cocker stripped off the jumper that hid the quintessentially Jarvisian mustard shirt underneath, it became clear how consistent a band Pulp have been. They played several new songs - including a raucous, Dylanesque one called "Weeds" and others on which Cocker asserted "It's such a beautiful world" and "I love my life" - and while none of these had the instant impact of "Common People", they were all accessible and distinctive. Pulp have stuck to what they are best at.

Since the mid-1990s, the other names on Britpop's A-list have changed their tunes, with Oasis preferring to battle each other than other bands, and Blur and Radiohead striking off in new directions, ie, away from the charts. Pulp, on the other hand, haven't got lazy, dishonest or self-indulgent. Even 1998's reputedly depressing This Is Hardcore is a neglected classic. It's true that the dirge-like title track was a questionable choice for a festival, but the other selections which Pulp played at Reading, "Help The Aged", "Party Hard" and "The Fear", all have lyrics that get you thinking and melodies that get you whistling. It's probable that in six years Cocker will still be writing that kind of song. I hope so.

Queens of the Stone Age may seem like the most abominable band name ever scribbled on the back of an envelope, but if you consider how descriptive it is you'll realise that it is, in fact, only mildly wretched. The "Stone Age" part evokes the group's dumb, thudding one-note riffs. The twist given by the word "Queens" intimates that the group use their heads for more than headbanging. Sure enough, the songs betray off-kilter, art-school influences. The robotic clanks of "Leg of Lamb" owe more to Wire than to Black Sabbath, and there are echoes of the Pixies both in the pop-eyed squawking of bassist/co-vocalist Nick Oliveri and in the twisted guitar style of his co-vocalist, Josh Homme.

You can see why the music press is treating them like royalty. With the release of the Queens' new album, R, the Californian band have been hailed as the saviours of rock - the new Nirvana, no less - and on Monday they seemed set to take home the title. They offset the bludgeoning noise with the whines of a lap-steel guitar and with poppy refrains sung in a ragged falsetto. Visually, too, Homme and Oliveri make a memorable pairing: the former looks like Elvis Presley, the latter looks like Charles Manson.

Once the initial adrenaline buzz wore off, though, the set dragged. It wasn't just that the Queens's songs were less than the sum of their inspired parts, it was also that there was little of the charisma, fire and danger we'd been promised. The repeated mentions of cocaine only served to illustrate how monotonous the drug can make its users; and while Oliveri played the encore naked, the Garage's sauna-like climate made this seem more sensible than sleazy.

The Queens' trendiness may be related to the current, slightly patronising rehabilitation of heavy metal. These days, it's considered high fashion to wear Motörhead and Iron Maiden T-shirts, and knowingly suave to trumpet the genius of AC/DC. But as the glory years of such titans are in the distant past, there is an opening for a hard rock band that has some alternative credibility, an ironic sense of humour and a lack of embarrassment about "rock'n'roll behaviour". The Queens fill the gap for now, but they'll have to work hard if they want to be more than kings for a day.

Getting back to band names, the Weather Prophets were a group who knew, appropriately, which way the wind was going to blow. In the 1980s they were Britpoppers long before anyone else was, and they were signed to Creation while Liam Gallagher was still bunking off school. Sadly, they crashed and burned before Britpop took off. Their leader, Pete Astor, is now making lo-fi records under the name of The Wisdom Of Harry. Sometimes he'll sing in a distorted whisper, sometimes he'll play a bluesy guitar, but mostly he uses samples, old drum machines and cheap keyboards to make creeping, dubby background music for a dark night of urban paranoia.

On Wednesday, Astor took the idea of going underground literally. Squeezed into the claustrophobic downstairs room of a bar, he and a sidekick had no lighting at all except for that of the subtitled Eastern European film which was projected onto them. Their simmering, sinister grooves were even murkier than on the new album, House Of Binary, but they were never boring and the gig was like none I'd been to before. Perhaps Astor is still ahead of his time.

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