Pulp at Finsbury Park: still the biggest band who can pull off a set list featuring so many obscurities

On their second reunion tour, Pulp give us the hits, and plenty to please themselves and their hardcore fans

The only comparison I have to a gig in north London’s Finsbury Park was when I saw Oasis here in 2002, pushing Heathen Chemistry – a record I think even Noel Gallagher has forgotten. Liam wore an overly complicated parka that day, which instantly became a coveted item. It rained heavily and there was an extraordinary amount of piss in the air, even for an Oasis gig. A friend of a friend went home with only one shoe – a Clark’s Wallabee, of course. I loved every horrible second of it.

Oasis weren’t as far past their prime as Pulp were at that time, who’d released their final album a year before and would split up a year later. We’re currently basking in their second reunion since, their first being a huge triumph in 2011, and a reminder that they really were the sensible choice as your favourite Britpop band, as any Pulp lifer will constantly tell you.

The Finsbury Park of tonight couldn’t be more different to the Finsbury Park I experienced in 2002. There’s not one fighter between the 40,000 of us, and you get the sense that if they let a single punk loose in here, they’d have every one of us. It makes for very pleasant evening indeed, where the front circle remains half empty until 10 minutes before the band come on, because everyone is too polite to even try to enter it.

When Pulp do arrive, it’s after an extended VT that begins with a very early VHS tape of the band sitting around at a rehearsal (they couldn’t have been much more than teenagers in it), some extended ambient chords and then, eventually, the famous Different Class Pulp font introducing: “Welcome to a night you will remember for the rest of your life.” It instructs us to make noise, and then more noise, and finally gets to: “This is what we do for an encore,” answering the question asked in ‘This Is Hardcore’. When the velvet curtain peels apart and the band start with ‘I Spy’, more curious and very Pulp selections are about to follow. Jarvis Cocker sings from under the stage before slowly rising through a trapdoor at the top of raked steps, silhouetted against a ginormous full moon, as his jagged, bendy body was designed to be seen, and somehow appears even when he’s not backlit.

There’s no warming up – Pulp sound exactly like Pulp from this point on, with Cocker’s voice only getting better as we go. There are some clever helping hands here, including a few extra band members on percussion and keys and an extra guitar (usual show band tricks for productions of this size), and, most notably, a string section who make ‘Something Changed’ a sweeping beauty in particular, which Cocker dedicates to the late Steve Mackey. Before that, ‘Mis-Shapes’ goes out to the LGBTQIA+ community on the day of Pride, and later the always-euphoric ‘Do You Remember The First Time’ is for anyone present who saw the band’s last Finsbury Park show, 25 years ago.

Hits, hits, hits, it would seem, and Pulp do give us want we all want on that front, but aside from ‘Sorted For E’s & Wizz’ (during which the string section don’t exit the stage while they’re not performing, but put on bucket hats and whistles and pull out bongos and wot-not after Cocker introduces the track with: “Well, it’s nearly dark now, so it must be time for a rave”), the perfect ‘Babies’, and what else but ‘Common People’ to end. We also get not just ‘Weeds’ from that final album (We Love Life) but ‘Weeds II’ and ‘Sunrise’, which ends the show before what is essentially the encore. There’s the permanent puzzle of the excellent ‘Pink Glove’ from His ‘n’ Hers too, and, with the band pushing their luck as far as they possibly can, ‘Like a Friend’, from the abysmal 1998 film adaption of Great Expectations – the best things in the movie by a long way, and the least-known song tonight, including the 1993 standalone single ‘Razzmatazz’, which is the real finale, bravely, stubbornly following ‘Common People’.


But I wonder how lesser-known these songs are to everyone here. It’d be a lie to say that ‘Like a Friend’ lands quite like ‘Disco 2000’ and ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.’ (thank god we get that too), but casual Pulp fans don’t really exist. Pulp are, to all intents and purposes, the country’s biggest cult band ­– you either love all of them, or only ‘Common People’, in which case you don’t love Pulp and all of their eccentricities at all. And besides, after a run of ‘This Is Hardcore’ (sadly the only track from that masterpiece of an album), ‘Do You Remember The First Time’ and ‘Babies’, our shredded voice boxes needed the respite of ‘Sunrise’.

When the band did walk back on after ‘Common People’ for one last song, the exit signs and travel information had briefly come on to signify that that was definitely the end of the show. And how couldn’t it be? The fool in me then remembered ‘Help The Aged’. A bit anticlimactic, I thought, but very happy to hear it. After the band then whipped through ‘Razzmatazz’, with the crowd just happy that Pulp were playing anything at all, and Cocker, after 90 minutes of twitching and jerking and thrusting and leaping like his mid-20s self, choked up as he said goodnight for the final time, I realised that following their biggest song with something so obscure wasn’t just about Pulp being crowd pleasers despite their best efforts, but also about them being unable to drag themselves away. It’s rare you can say either of those things about a band reforming so successfully 20 years after they first split up; together, they only apply to this one.

Photography by Jamie MacMillan