It’s dark, freezing cold, you’re in an impossibly impressive converted steelworks and you’re surrounded by multimedia projections, flaming torches and endless sizzling hotdog stalls. The whole thing has the feel of a carnival in some futuristic cityscape, like the switching on of the Christmas lights in Gotham City. As festivals go, Steve Mackey’s Auto festival is up there with the most unorthodox.
With a line up including bands like The Bees, Royksopp, Zongamin, Lemon Jelly and The Kills, this was still considered by perhaps 90% of the shivering crowd to be merely a Pulp gig. And perhaps understandably, as this appearance is generally considered to be their final ever show: the Common People were out in full force to see their heroes for maybe the last time.
In such an arty setting, it was refreshing and something of a relief that Pulp gave what we were all hoping for – largely a greatest hits set. Common People, Babies, Sorted, Lipgloss, This is Hardcore, Do You Remember the First Time and even Razzmatazz got a play, as well as a few unexpected gems such as Lyndhurst Grove. The fans were not disappointed.
There seemed a strange atmosphere onstage, Jarvis Cocker flitting between his trademark onstage humour and a sarcastic bad mood (with something of a reticence towards playing some of the older and more obvious songs), but he still found time to throw sweets and peanuts to the crowd and berate Sheffield’s new lapdancing club. Despite glimpses of waspishness from The Jarv, however, the general mood was that of jubilance, celebrating the career of arguably the greatest Sheffield band of all time.
“This is the last time we’ll meet for a while,” says Jarvis at the end, “but you never know, we may meet again”. With their greatest hits album reaching the criminally low depths of number 71, and Jarvis immersing himself deeply into the arty electronica scene with the likes of Jason Buckle and Fat Truckers, it seems ever more unlikely. The inclusion of old album track Happy Endings into the encore adds a further hint of finality to the proceedings.
So this is where we’ve ended up. Pulp are seriously considering their future with no record deal and an album that sold about six copies. Meanwhile Oasis still manage to sell out to hordes of identical monobrowed gibbons down the road at the Arena, and Blur are producing absolute codswallop but every inane word that emanates from Damon Albarn’s mouth is plastered across the music press. In the fickle world of pop, my friends, there is no justice.
So now it’s over, and we know we’ll (probably) never meet again. But Pulp, we just wanted you to know - we’ll remember every single thing.
The Sheffield Star gave its front page to the Gallagher brothers on the Monday after AUTO. It seemed to revel in the news that hundreds of pissed blokes were scrapping outside the Arena after the show, many of whom hadn’t even bothered to watch the supports in favour of soaking up a few more in the nearby bars. How could AUTO compete? The worst thing Sandman heard of was Martin Lilleker standing in some sick and everyone having to queue for a piss.
On the other hand AUTO was magnificent, the best night out we’ve had in a country year. Imaginative, ambitious and fun, it deftly avoided the sterility of ‘big’ events by giving the punters the freedom of mobility (if not bladder control) and enough ear and eye candy to mollify the soul of even a man who’s had to wait a while for his beer. Perhaps, above all, it gave a great band the opportunity to withdraw with a dignity that is all too rare in the music industry. Steve Mackey should be getting the keys to Rotherham and Sheffield.
For myself it was the first time I’d been to the ex-steel works and, after taking a taxi from Meadowhall, the scale of the place became apparent as it cost us another two quid just to drive round it to the entrance. The place just seemed to throb and glow from the inside much as if someone had restarted the machines and begun smelting anew.
Inside it was Christmas as far as I was concerned. Cold, of course, but with lots of pretty lights, good stuff on the box and more music than a body can digest in one sitting. Add the smell of hotdogs and it was Christmas at a funfair.
We wandered past Erland Oye in the icebox room 2 spinning 80s pop, the Pet Shop Boys, Bronski Beat. He confounded the stereotype of dour Nordics by leaping off the stage and dancing with the crowd. Maybe he was simply happy to be there or he was off his twat, either way it was funny.
The centre of the event was AUTO 3, a blackpainted, cavernous aircraft hanger of a room. In the distance James Yorkston was finishing his set so we split up and went for beer. An impressively brief half an hour later we reconvened and watched the early Bowieisms of the likeable Baxter Dury who responded to the ‘Cockney Wankah!’ chants with charm and a string of incomprehensible Estuary Anglicisms. Streaming out it was a nice surprise, in amongst a crowd of 3,500 to keep bumping into people we knew. Despite the scale of things this was shaping up into the best pub gig I’d ever been to.
It was the sort of night where I could watch virtually all of Lemon Jelly’s set, vaguely enjoying it and vaguely thinking how different they sound live only to be told an hour later I’d actually seen Capitol K and Leafcutter John. Take the labels off things and you might find brussels sprouts are really rather nice. The Bees played pleasant, if bland reggae sea songs while AUTO 3 filled up for Pulp.
Fuck my old boots if they weren’t great. Jarvis shrinking the room to the size of The Grapes. How could a gig of this size seem so intimate? The funny thing was the songs post-Common People, and where their commercial clout began to wane, were some of the best of the set, This Is Hardcore was huge, Bad Cover Version left me wondering if they shouldn’t carry on and even the levellers-alike Weed one (?) was boss. An encore and they were gone. Goodbye. I don’t think they’ll be back. It seemed so quick and the crowd seemed so happy it was better than the glow of a tot of brandy in cold weather and we’ll remember it for longer too. (see Pete Mella’s review on page 11.)
We’d seen the Kills getting photoshot for the NME earlier and felt sorry for the girl. No doubt she’ll look very glam and dangerous when they appear but she’s stick-thin and only had t-shirt on and after an hour and a half she’d gone blue. Not wanting to sound smug but we let our interviewees wear jackets if they want. They played in AUTO 1 and were like Sigue-Sigue sputnik doing the White Stripes which isn’t that bad really but makes us think they’re more of a type than an actual thing.
One useful discovery: There are two ends to a queue. Always try and join the end nearest the thing you want to do or buy, it saves a lot of time. God, I love the British.
It got late and we got tired. Luckily the nice AUTO people had laid on buses into Sheffield City centre. Even the atmosphere on the bus was great.
One thought. Down the road they’re crammed into a stadium forced to look in one direction and are mugged by the merchandisers. Then they batter each other like large denim jacketed fish. Steve Mackey’s a thoughtful man. He provides other distractions. Please do it again, Steve.
At the end of one of the strangest journeys in pop, this was an enormously dignified way for Pulp to go out: throwing an eclectic, intelligent Art Event for the heads and misshapes of this fine city. Despite all the theoretical drawbacks of holding a festival of obscure music in a steelworks-turned-theme-park in the middle of nowhere, Auto was a resounding success to these ears and eyes. Low advance ticket sales notwithstanding, when it came to the night everyone realised they’d be mad to miss it and forked out their thirty quid.
Now, thirty quid seems like a lot for seven hours of entertainment, but you get what you pay for, and money had clearly been spent here, not only on the smorgasbord of left-field talent, but also on P.A. hire: the sound in all four rooms was nothing short of excellent. How they managed to achieve this in the mind-bogglingly huge room Pulp, John Peel and co. played in is beyond me. The only real drawback - and it was a major one - was the appalling bar situation. Still, being English, we can all see the funny side of queueing for half an hour to buy fruit-flavoured beer ar four pounds a pint. I’m not making this up. I went for “Kurrant”, cos “Apple” was too vile for words. Fortunately, I was on drugs.
Musical highlight for me was the fantastical Lemon Jelly: sequenced beats and synths with electric and acoustic guitars and some lovely trumpet. You can’t have too much trumpet in this world. Vocal bits and pieces courtesy of the geezer with the urntables and the collection of obscure spoken word records. They have a habit of playing (and singing) endlessly repetitive bits that lazier acts would loop, and this warms the cockles of my heart. Like an Orbital or an Underworld, they are dance music for people who don’t like dance music, and they are unique, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Musical highlight number two was Peel (who had been on form all night) playing “Mind Your Own Business” by Delta 5 soon after Pulp had finished. Maybe you have to be a sad old git of a certain era to moisten your gusset over Leeds Polytechnic students trying unsuccessfully to hybridise the Gang of Four and the Fatback Band in 1981, but it sure brought a smile to my face, and still sounds as good in its knackered-shopping-trolley way as it ever did. Anyway, there were plenty of us sad old gits around. Fuck, our generation invented this kind of thing. Saw lots of faces I hadn’t seen for years. A fine old time.
OK, this city is often synonymous with crapness - imagine building a spanking new Winter Gardens then giving planning permission to stick an ugly hotel in front of it, or thinking that Spearmint Rhino is appropriate to a Cultural Industries Quarter - but this is the kind of thing we do brilliantly, and it’s nice to get together and remind ourselves of that fact from time to time.
Some cunt from Brighton was trying to tell me Sheffield is provincial the other night. Well, what do you expect from someone who calls a breadcake a “roll”?
Sandman at Auto