Pulp are peculiar. But are they really 'prophets of sleaze'? With the release of their delicious major label debut, 'Lipgloss', we brave a night on the seedy French tiles with Sheffield's doyens of Oxfam chic and kinky urban sex to find out.
Adventure hung in the air like gunpowder. The night was young and the city was ours for the taking. Russell Senior, sleek style icon and Pulp guitarist, sauntered over to end of table. In this staid Lille bar, his turquoise PVC jacket and chunky, white-framed space-shades marked him out clearly as an absentee from the common herd.
"I," he announced, "am going in search of sleaze." Near our hotel, it transpired, he had spotted a sprinkling of clubs, barricaded with bolted steel doors. We could only guess what lay behind. It was time to find out. It seemed appropriate that Russell should lead us on a quest for debauchery. I first encountered him, earlier in the evening, seated before a dressing-table mirror. His hair clung to his brow like glossy wet leather and, as he dabbed at his cheekbones with rouge, he lectured Nick Banks, Pulp's solid drummer, on make-up techniques:
"Blusher is not necessarily a feminine thing. If you wear foundation without it, you look like a goth, just two eyes peering out from a flat, white face. Now, if you want to give the appearance of a heterosexual male - which, presumably, you do - a bit of blusher is in fact very masculine." He paused and inspected his fingers. "Ooh! Send for the manicurist. A hangnail!" If anyone could find fin-de-siecle naughtiness in Lille - the French equivalent of Pulp's home town of Sheffield - it had to be this man.
Of course, Pulp have already inadvertently done much to rescue Sheffield's reputation. Inimitable frontman, gangling genius, and all-round unlikely sex god Jarvis Cocker has penned the epic "Sheffield Sex City", wherein the entire metropolis sets to f***ing on a steamy summer's night, a mass copulation which leads to the spontaneous collapse of the narrator's tower block.
"It's a bit crap", reasons Jarvis, if you're so parochial that you're only allowed to write about humbugs and chippies. Sheffield may not be very sexy. But, then again, it is, because that was where I grew up, and where all my sex was had."
"Never to be had again," caws a gleeful rabble of eavesdroppers. "I didn't have sex in London for about two years," Jarvis admits. "I had lovers block. I couldn't get it on. But, in Sheffield, when it's hot, you can feel the sap rising, and everything seems as if it's got something to do with sex, as if the whole city has sex on its brain." Russell joins in: "Americans can quite happily write a song about Seattle, or some crappy little American town, and mean it, and be serious, and elevate their own surroundings to a certain kind of drama. But English people have to be self-deprecating."
And this is one of Pulp's many triumphs - to glory in provincial life, to portray it with wit but without sneering irony. To fashion great, gasping pop songs from it. To sex it up.
Not that it wasn't easy to see the downside of British life. Little examples popped up all the time. An English hotel would have piped ghastly muzak into its foyer. In our Lille establishment, the mournful maudlin voices of Leonard Cohen and Kris Kristofferson whispered to us in husky reproach. Only Kenny Rogers' sentimental classic, "Ruby (Don't Take Your Love To Town)", I remarked, could have impressed me more. Curiously enough, the band informed me, it was this very song that took Jarvis through the heats of a London Karaoke competition. He wowed the audience with his lugubrious baritone; cheering, they rocketed him into the regional finals.
Then, something snapped. Success went to his head. Overconfident, he started in the wrong key, tied his larynx in a clove-hitch trying to change pitch, cricked his neck in his efforts to save his voice-box, put his back out untangling his neck. Wheezing through the song, his praying-mantis form horribly twisted and hunched, Jarvis' performance became an accidental but grotesque parody of Ians Curtis and Drury. Defeated and humiliated, he crept away to become a real pop star.
This tale recounted, I left the bar in the company of Russell and three of the road crew. A few rough-looking types followed us around the corner (so we were later told); but we neither saw nor were troubled by them; most likely, they were merely headed in the same direction, en route to a meeting of the local philately society or somesuch. With bated breath, we stood aside as Russell boldly faced the first door of dissolution and, briefly doffing his Venusian sunglasses, knocked.
Steve Mackey, bassist and suave bastard, says this about Pulp's extraordinary ability to hoist mundane happenings skyward: "We never wanted to be pompous. There must be ways to sound grand without being pompous. Otherwise, it's a bit like Squeeze or something; everyday stories of everyday folk, in a nice pub-rockish manner" - his voice drips contempt - "which is very worthy and dull. You have to make it a bit grandiose."
"There does seem to be an English obsession with the worthy amateur," points out Jarvis, "struggling away in the garage and all that. And we've had a bucketful of that. I don't think there's anything big or clever about it."
"I think I paid a fiver to play at the Hull Adelphi," recalls keyboard player Candida Doyle, whom a French newspaper will characterise, with sweeping Gallic condescension, as "La petite Candida". The review also speaks highly of one "Jarvis Jocker".
After years of struggle, Pulp have signed to Island Records, and no longer need to hold a whip round before every gig. But will money change them? Will it alter their deliciously bizarre pop? Lead them to trade in their shiny man-made threads for real wools, cottons or silks? There is something truly grotesque about the idea of a tasteful Pulp.
"We've just recently got a clothing budget," Jarvis tells me, "and I thought, 'I'm going to go and buy something new'. I wandered around this massive shop outside Sheffield, and I couldn't find anything at all. I ended up going back to Oxfam and getting those 50 pence items."
"Mind you," he reflects upon his new-found fortune, "I have been frequenting a better class of second hand shop." Also heartening is the discovery that Pulp's excellent new single, "Lipgloss", has retained the curious mid-fi sound of their earlier releases. "You know," says Steve, "it took a lot of money to get it to sound that way."
The grille shuttled back. Red-rimmed eyes peered at the outlandish sight of Russell in full Pulp regalia. "Bonsoir, monsieur," Russell began. "With respect, I am a famous English pop star, and I would like to enter your club for free with my friends. Is this possible - oui ou non?" The door swung open. A thick moustache appeared, a swarthy face behind it. Their owner, suspicious, eyed us up and down, then stood aside and let us pass. Inside, our pupils dilated upon a scene to alarm the Marquis De Sade. A tiny, dimly-lit and sedate bar, populated by a few paunchy representatives of the bourgeoisie, led onto an even tinier dancefloor, where my former geography teacher (or reasonable facsimile thereof) and his lady wife were cutting a rug to the hypnotic, sensual pulse of Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me". Three "Hey hey hey hey"s were more than we could stand. We left.
Why, you have to wonder, do Pulp songs carry such erotic force? Jarvis would appear to be nothing short of sexually obsessed. "I haven't got a sexual obsession, really." That's his story. "But when people have sex in songs, it's done in a glossy way, or in a Prince way - 'I can shag 24 women in a single night'. But never in a realistic way, like 'I came after 30 seconds'. So I just wanted to write about it in a matter-of-fact manner. I know people don't do it that much really."
"Well. Maybe they do. But English people have to make sex into a joke. I wouldn't want it to be as open as in Sweden, where it's, 'Okay, I like dogs, and we have a good time...' Maybe English people like the thought of it being forbidden, a little naughty. But it's no good being reserved about it. You can't have sex reservedly - you know, a bit detached. And that goes against the English character."
Meanwhile, having been turned away from every dodgy joint in Lille, our quintet of English characters had shrivelled to a duo. Claiming to be showbiz celebrities, we'd almost made it into one place, until Russell pulled his sunglasses down his nose and told the bouncer, "Vous savez U2? Eh bien, je suis Bono." Finally, Russell and I inquired at a club where, after one look at the pair of us, they gladly granted us admission.
"There aren't any women in here," hissed the sharp-eyed Russell over the pumping Hi-NRG rhythms. He was prevented from saying more by an Algerian in leather trousers, who had sidled over from the bar to chat him up: "Hello. What do you like?"
"Let's get out of here," grimaced the sleaze-seeker, as soon as a break arrived in the stilted conversation. "No way," I protested. He was the one who came looking for a cheap holiday in other people's sexuality. "We could pretend to be a couple. No one will bother us then." He bolted for the door.
"We have," says Russell, "picked up all this 'Prophets of sex and sleaze' business. Which is obviously nonsense, because we're none of us intensely perverted."
"What about you knocking on the doors of sex clubs last night?" demands Nick. "I think we're all a bit fascinated by it," Russell summarises. "I think we're all peering through the door. But I'm not wanting to be hit with an iron bar for fun." After all, there's pulp, and there's Pulp.