Rock: Britain's best band - for tonight, anyway

The Critics
Glastonbury it wasn't - and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The inaugural V96 festival in Hyland's Park, Chelmsford, had no half- hearted nods towards cultural diversity, no comedy tent or jazz tent, nor a marquee for unsigned bands so that John Peel could write an article about how they were better than the acts on the main stages. No, this was a Britpop showcase, as commercial as you'd expect from an event named after a record company (Virgin). The corporate organisation seemed to stretch even to the perfect weather and the field that sloped down conveniently to the stage.

Each of the four biggest names on Saturday's bill - Pulp, Elastica, Supergrass and Cast - released an album last year, and has toured it for months, criss-crossing the country at least twice. And each is due to start work on their next record. Mid-August '96 was the time to bid a fond farewell to Britpop '95, to have one last dance before the bands have to prove themselves all over again.

The three bands who preceded Pulp all have to follow up exceptionally successful debut albums, so they have the most to prove. Cast's record was less interesting and less ambitious than either Supergrass's or Elastica's, and yet - probably for that very reason - theirs was the best set of the three. There was no confusion about what they were trying to do. They're a straightforward sub- Oasis guitar-pop band with verve and catchy choruses. John Power may talk about alien-abduction in interviews, but musically he's got his trainers firmly on the ground.

Supergrass are more problematic, but they have progressed as performers. Since their album came out, Gaz Coombes - whose nervy, steely voice is the band's greatest asset - has acquired an orange shirt, a pair of bug- eyed sunglasses, and a hairbrush. He looks like a rock star - admittedly a rock star in the midst of a transformation to lupine form.

The band as a whole have gained a new horn section and new confidence, but they have lost their identity. They can't decide whether to be the Sex Pistols or Pink Floyd. Their last single, "Going Out", was melodious enough, but lacked direction, whereas the earlier "Caught By the Fuzz" and "Alright" knew where they were going and didn't stop till they got there. Too often, when a Supergrass song loses its way, they change the tempo, add another section or two, and stroll off into psychedelia.

What has changed for Elastica since last year? Well, there's a new haircut, two new black dresses, a keyboard player who gives their sound a welcome extra dimension, and a tough new bassist, perhaps chosen because she looks so much like her predecessor. Their new songs retain the jerky, robotic motion and crunching guitar of last year's oldies. Condemn Elastica as Stranglers plagiarists if you like, but at least they don't sound like any band around today. (Yes, I know the Stranglers are around today, officially, but you know what I mean.)

Compared to their album, however, they are a disappointment live, simply because the pieces don't quite fit together. Donna Matthews's voice is too thin, and Justine Frischmann tries to compensate for an absence of charisma with some of the most pitiful banter you'll ever hear. Her Sloane Square vowels don't help: she should go to rock'n'roll elocution lessons before she mentions "Glass-tonbury" again. And without the necessary disbelief- suspending oomph, some of the material didn't seem all it was cracked up to be. One-idea songs such as "Vaseline" are sassy and sexy the first time around, but not the second. Before the end of the set, we trekked over to the main stage to get a good view of Pulp.

Several albums older than the support acts, Pulp know what they're about, and in case anyone doubted it, they started by broadcasting their manifesto over the PA in a Dalek voice, as their logo swirled in multi-coloured lights around the silver and neon stage: "Please understand. We don't want no trouble. We just want the right to be different. That's all."

The focal point of Pulp's spangled glory never wavers from Jarvis Cocker, a man who can be stylish even when gesturing to the soundman to turn up the vocals. With a dancing style whose only precursor is Graham Chapman wrestling himself in a Monty Python sketch, he truly performed the songs, putting something of himself into every word. He can do so, I suppose, because he means every word, and every word means something.

"Someone in Time Out wrote that they were surprised I could still sing this song," he remarked before "Common People". "But I'm not surprised at all." If you could no longer relate to its lyrics, reasoned Cocker, you were in trouble. I can only agree. Pulp can play their songs as often as they like, because the work's depth of meaning and sincerity imbues it with a lasting significance that few of the songs we had heard in the afternoon could claim.

Highlights were the sinister and magical "Do You Remember the First Time"; "Mile End", with the very frightening Russell Senior banjo-strumming his violin; a poignant "Live Bed Show"; and "Disco 2000", whose snake- hipped panache was underlined by fireworks set off in time to the music.

There was no mention of Michael Jackson, but maybe Jacko's purported friendship with an orang-utan was inspirational. Cocker held up a gorilla mask, and told us how, earlier in the day, he had walked around the site undetected, in full-length hirsute suit: "So I've seen you all." It's that willingness to stray from the VIP enclosure and among the common people that makes him the utterly likeable personality he is. And in a gorilla costume, he was lucky no one mistook him for Gaz Coombes from Supergrass.

A final tear-jerking announcement - "We're going to be going away for a bit now, so you'll have to get on without us" - more fireworks, another classic ("Babies") and we pushed our way to the buses with no doubt who Britain's best, most valuable band were - for tonight, anyway. To answer the question posed in "Sorted For E's and Wizz", this isn't just 35,000 people standing in a field. It's the way they say the future's meant to feel.