On August 10, L.A. Pulp fans gathered at Cinefamily for a sold-out screening of The Beat Is Law: Fanfare for the Common People, part of this year's Don't Knock the Rock film festival. The movie is Eve Wood's follow-up to the stellar documentary Made in Sheffield, a must-see if you're a fan of bands like the Human League and Cabaret Voltaire. The Beat Is Law isn't essential viewing like its predecessor does; in fact, what it lacks raises some interesting questions.
The Beat Is Law is really three interconnected mini-documentaries. First is the story of mid-'80s Sheffield and Chakk, a next-big-thing sort of band who, though they didn't make it, founded the influential recording studio FON. Following that is the rise of Sheffield's house music scene. Connecting those two stories is Pulp, whose strange propulsion to fame after more than a decade of obscurity deserves feature-length documentary itself. The film's climax is Pulp's headlining engagement at the 1995 Glastonbury Festival, but because The Beat Is Law glosses over the early 1990s, there's a gaping hole in the story. Yet despite The Beat Is Law's missing pieces, the documentary is significant for another reason.
When Wood released Made in Sheffield back in 2001, there were the beginnings of a renewed interest in early-'80s Sheffield bands. Electro was making a quick ascent at nightclubs across the world, and artists like ADULT., Ladytron, Miss Kittin and the Hacker and Felix da Housecat were drawing inspiration from the sound that evolved in the English city. Further, the Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and ABC were beloved acts. Wood didn't just shed light on a particular scene, she nailed what was going on musically in the early '00s at the same time.
The Beat Is Law similarly is seeing release around renewed interest in Pulp; the band announced its reunion late last year and along with European festival dates. Meanwhile, the song “Like a Friend” — previously included in a '90s big-screen adaptation of Great Expectations — took on a new life when it was included in the season finale of The Venture Bros. Pages dedicated to Jarvis Cocker's hands and legs have turned on up Tumblr. Local clubs like Underground and Part Time Punks are bringing the band back onto the dance floor — not that they ever completely disappeared. Pulp's leader, at one time thought unsuitable as a frontman, is once again a subject of nerdy fanaticism.
On Friday, we headed to Underground's last night at The Echo, which was also its “Pulp Party” event. Throughout the night, the DJs played huge blocks of Pulp songs, both on the dance floor and out on the patio. “Common People,” “Lipgloss,” “Babies” and “Countdown” got the crowd dancing like it was 1995. Later on, we asked Larry G., promoter of Underground as well as one of the party's DJs, if he had been seeing a Pulp revival.
“Absolutely,” he says.
“Pulp is like the Smiths,” he continues. “Obviously the Smiths didn't really reform, but people don't really talk in the past tense about them.”
For Angelenos, Pulp would have seem unlikely to come back into vogue. During the 1990s Britpop heyday, Oasis, Blur, Elastica and James all received more support from radio and MTV. I can't recall ever hearing a Pulp song on the radio, not even “Common People.” (Larry can't either.) They didn't play Los Angeles often. There was a gig opening for Blur at The Palace in 1994 and a 1996 date in support of Different Class, though. Larry was among the few people who saw them here.
“I remember people kind of fainting in front of you,” he recalls of the 1996 date.
Where Pulp did thrive in Los Angeles was at clubs. Late-1990s Britpop disco Cafe Bleu championed the band. Later on, they would become a staple at Bang! and Underground. I was a resident DJ at Bang! during the early '00s, and can say with utmost certainty that I got more requests for Pulp than I did for The Smiths. Yes, really.
“In many ways, they never really went away because Pulp fans are Pulp fans are Pulp fans,” Larry says. “Once you're a Pulp fan, you're a Pulp fan for life.”
In The Beat Is Law, Pulp's accidental stint at Glastonbury headliners is pinpointed as the moment when the band finally broke through in the U.K. It's safe to say they never had an equivalent moment in the U.S. Their popularity here grew steadily, but always remained a cult thing. Now, nearly ten years after the release of their last album, We Love Life, Pulp is making a comeback, as slowly and surely as ever.
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