Best Old Band In Britain
Words: Simon Price
Taken from Melody Maker, 27 February 1993
It's true - Pulp have been ploughing the same electro-kitsch furrow for over 10 years. And now, Sheffield's premier synth-sleazers are hip at last, name-dropped by all and sundry. Our very own guru of glam, Simon Price, meet's Pulp's camp commandant on the eve of their mini-tour with St Etienne to discuss, among other things, sex, sin and, um, syncopation.
"It's a bit like Status Quo, isn't it?" asks Jarvis Cocker, elongated Nineties dandy and Mick Jagger for the terminally uncool. "I find it a bit strange meself that we've been doing it for 15 years. Sometimes I wonder whether I could've spent my life in a more constructive way. But then again..."
"We're like reserve astronauts waiting on the launchpad for our chance to go into space, but we never get called and the stars remain as far away as ever" - Pulp fanzine, "Disco-Very"
"When you're in a band," Jarvis sighs, twirling an alarmingly slender wrist around a vegetarian lasagne, "you believe the countdown is going on. It can be quite dangerous - you keep looking forward to this mythical day when life becomes exciting, thinking, 'I might be living in a one-room flat with a hole in the roof, no one likes me, but give it another year and I'll be a Pop Star'. Then suddenly you're 35 and realise, 'Oh, perhaps it isn't going to happen'. That's why I came to London, to study film at St Martin's School Of Art. (Jarvis actually made a film, about an angel who comes to earth and winds up in a pub singing competition. Very Pulp.) Every town has its fair share of people who used to be in bands, just walking around looking lost. I didn't want that to happen to me."
ODD JOB MAN
In the intervening years, Jarvis had, indeed, put up with all manner of dead-end jobs, including playgroup leader and bingo-caller at kids' parties ("I'm good with children," he deadpans). "And I worked in a fish market for about a year," he goes on. "I didn't want to do it, but my mother wanted me to go out and meet people, and thought it would be a good place. But I wasn't very popular with girls during that time. Y'know, due to the smell. The staff outings to Blackpool were a laff, though, and you got to shout things like 'mind yer backs!' and 'how about a nice piece of tail end, luv?'. It was always good for a bit of innuendo."
Suddenly, in 1993, it looks as though it's all been worth it. Pulp's name is being dropped everywhere. The lift-off has begun. "It's probably a combination of the mood of the times changing and us getting better. It's quite an ironic thing, but as soon as I packed it in and went to college, within six months people started to like us. Maybe sometimes you can try a bit too hard..."
THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'
A glossy magazine recently ran an article on an alleged New Wave Of English Pop, featuring Suede, The Auteurs, Saint Etienne, Denim and Pulp. (The Scene That Swaps Chicory Tip Singles With Itself, anyone?) Maybe the times are changing, in Pulp's favour.
But there's no way their popularity can be attributed to simple Seventies revivalism. Pulp are a truly unique hybrid of Serge Gainsbourg sleaze, Northern Soul/soft-porn soundtrack Farfisa organs, and early Eighties New Romanticism (think the low-rent grandeur of fellow northerners Soft Cell's "Say Hello Wave Goodbye", or The Human League's "Dare"). And they soar like nothing this side of The Walker Brothers.
David Bennun, reviewing "Babies", wrote of Pulp's "budget magnificence... a blueprint for an epic to be constructed in a more liquid future. String arrangements are sketched in by organs and synths, and, in lieu of the Royal Albert Hall, Jarvis has to make do with a deep-throat echo chamber."
"That's quite a laff, that! That took us ages to do. But we've just got the instruments we ended up with. They're no good, or anything, but I think Razzmatazz sounds quite... BIG. I always wanted to use an orchestra. Maybe a school orchestra, y'know, just a little off-key."
FIFTEEN YEARS IN A BAD SHIRT
Jarvis Cocker's dress sense (imagine Mark E Smith with a style transfusion) is almost as remarkable as his music. It's hard to tell whether it's some retro chic thang, or he never actually stopped dressing like that first time round.
"I've always had the piss taken out of me," he sighs. "I realised early on that I could never look like the other kids, because I was too tall, so I thought if they're going to take the piss anyway, I might as well... accentuate it, rather than stoop and pretend not to be tall. You 'ave to turn it into a fashion feature. But I think I'm stylish. Take this coat - it was me grandad's," he claims, indicating a plush, dark fake fur overcoat that no one's grandad would wear. "I've had it for 10 years. I never wear things for a joke... but I suppose it makes walking down the street into more of an adventure."
What, you mean watching the reactions on people's faces?
"No, I don't agree with that. You might as well just walk around with your cock hanging out. But you have to be prepared to make an effort. I shaved before I met you today, because I felt a mess. Oh, I sound like me grandma, don't I?"
GLAMORISING THE UNGLAMOROUS
The ultimate Pulp song is surely the erotic epic, "Sheffield Sex City" (B-side of "Babies"), which traces a day (and a night) in the mind of a man on heat, pursuing his own libido through a maze of council estates, encountering dogs f***ing in central reservations and causing multiple pile-ups, as well as taunting groans from the back of T-reg Chevettes, before, at last, reaching a climax:
"We finally made it on a hilltop at 4am. The whole city is your jewellery box... Everyone on Park Hill came in unison at 4:13am and the whole block fell down. The tobacconists caught fire and everyone in the street died of lung cancer."
This man clearly needs a tungsten chastity belt (even Pulp's one and only druggy moment, "Space", is interrupted by the double-entendre, "Space is okay, but I'd rather get my kicks down below"). Most extraordinary of all is the way Jarvis groans and heavy breathes his way through a list of hopelessly urbane Sheffield districts ("Catcliffe... Brincliffe... Eccleshall... Woodhouse"), as though it were Birkin/Gainsbourg's "Je T'Aime". In this setting, prosaic details like, "The sun rose from behind the gasometers at 6:30am", or "I must have lost your number in the all-night garage" sound as mythic and romantic as anything in, say, "Casablanca".
"People think of suburbia as very boring," he says,
leaning forward conspiratorially, "but in a way it's quite
exotic. Some very strange things happen in these places.
At Christmas, I went to see this boy who goes to our
school..." (Note the present tense, and the word
'boy': at 29, Jarvis will still refer to another male as
REAL, REAL, REAL...
"The trouble with your brother / He's always sleeping with your mother / And I know that your sister missed her time again this month" - Pulp ("Razzmatazz")
"It's the most bitter song we've ever done. But however harsh I am about the people in 'Razzmatazz', I'm not writing from above their level. I've got a lot of experience of being just as sad as them, if not more so."
But why insist on writing about real people and situations?
"You see, I wish no one had ever written songs and films about love and sex. Because as soon as I got round to doing it, it were right obvious that it wasn't the same thing. It was such an anticlimax. So I decided to be as down-to-earth and meticulous as possible."
Jarvis' incorruptible realism has its dangers.
"One girlfriend used to hit me. She didn't like me singing about her on stage. And I don't blame her: it'd be 'orrible if I thought 'I'll go out with her because she'll f*** me up and I'll probably get a few songs out of it'. I wouldn't want to be exploitative. But," he adds with no trace of a smile, "my love life has been so barren the last three or four years that at least I hardly see the people I write about any more..."
With that, Jarvis disappears into Camden, predicting that this year, like every year, he won't be getting any Valentine's cards. And they say life gets better with a little razzmatazz.
PULP ON ST ETIENNE
"Oh yeah, I do quite like their music." (Quite? Jarvis is being a little evasive here. In a recent MM questionnaire, he named the 'Enne as his favourite band!) "We've probably got nothing in common with their approach to music, but it's pop music, isn't it? They've got tunes. I always appreciate the effort that goes into providing a song with a tune."