Pulp's sleaze-pop tales of sauce, sex, sin and seduction in Sheffield have caught the nation's imagination. At last! After 12 years as underdogs, Pulp are the cats who got the cream. Ou quelque chose. With the re-issue of the classic 'Babies', we join South Yorkshire's finest in France and witness Pulpmania first hand.
"I was wondering", says Jarvis Cocker. "There was a baboon in the top floor of a flat behind where we played in Paris last night." A baboon? "Yeah, we were doing this television interview and we looked across and in a three-room flat there was this baboon, two-foot high, just roaming free. Well, there was chicken wire across the windows to stop him escaping, but... I mean I was wondering, because it was in the red light district, as to whether the baboon was being used for certain..." He watches the French countryside roll past the coach window. It looked healthy, it looked well groomed." Gosh. "Yes. Sorry, it just came into my, mind. It's got no connection with anything we were talking about."
I find this French newspaper with a convincing photograph of a woman with four legs on the cover. "SHE HAS FOUR LEGS!" hollers the headline, only in French. I translate painstakingly. "AND SHE IS LOOKING FOR LOVE!" Well of course she is.
Pulp play Pigalle. How apropos. The audience bounce up and down. The floor follows suit. It's like watching from a trampoline. Recommended. Jarvis attempts to speak only French. Is mostly successful. The crowd help out eagerly when he gets stuck. "Shush," he admonishes them, "don't spoil it." That's class. Lilli La Tigresse is the name of a bar opposite the Moulin Rouge. We follow Pulp plus Moose plus Elastica there. It's a bit sad and shabby. A near-naked female gyrates on the bar and another slides blearily down a pole from upstairs. I gaze at them dispassionately, thinking about something that happened to me in '88.
"I can see why being 'on the road' turns people into beasts," says Jarvis. "Just to get through it, you have to get into a beast mode, which is quite difficult for me. I tend to be quite reserved. It's hard to keep in mind what you're supposed to be doing. To be singing songs about people having it off in Sheffield council flats when you're halfway across France. To project yourself into that, while witnessing strange dream-like things, you have to concentrate very hard. Nothing's permanent, you have none of the routines of your normal life. It's an invitation to decadence."
You're always described as "quintessentially English", yet the French adore Pulp...
"So I'm quintessentially French. That's it, I'm a social chameleon. When we go to Germany I'll be quintessentially Kraut. Well, from what I know of the French music I like, it tends to deal with quite adult subject matter. Like, Serge Gainsbourg talking about having it off with his 13-year-old daughter is probably going a bit far, but there does seem to be a French disposition to lyrics which probe a bit. Mind you, they probably don't even understand our words, they probably just think the tunes are all right. God, what have you done to your hand?" I, er, fell over. "Last night?" No no no. Some other time. "That's good. Apparently two of Moose were apprehended by gendarmes for stealing two eggs." An egg each? "Presumably."
Pulp have their photograph taken in Paris. (La Belle Noiseuse: Divertimento). Stephen Sweet wants to wrap them in clingfilm and have them suck dummies. They don't mind hamming it up with the dummies but the clingfilm is a definite no-no. Everyone's a bit tired and irritable. Pulp saw a dead body on the road the previous night. I go for a walk, look at the history of art for 10 minutes. Come back. Jarvis stares at me blankly. "Hi," I venture imaginatively. He doesn't respond. Have I said something terrible? Is everything going disastrously? Is everyone out to get me? Jarvis finds his glasses. "Oh, Chris," he mumbles, sorry, I can't see a thing without these."
Russell has a suitcase full of toy sunglasses. "We're not Joy Division. It's not supposed to be a downer trip." Red ones, silvery ones, space-age ones, I wouldn't put it past him to have some of those "ZOOM" ones in there. A bag of cherries is found, used as props. You can do the Eric Morecambe trick with the paper bag when it's empty. You wouldn't think, watching these five weary people, that they were capable of playing an exhilarating show at La Cigale two hours later.
"In the everyday course of events I'm not very emotional," says Jarvis. I don't run up to people and go 'Hi! Great to see you!' and all stuff like that. So for me to actually scream my head off, as I do during a concert, is quite out of character. It means I'm transporting myself into some other state. It helps that nowadays there's lots of people there."
The dazzling "His 'n' Hers" album, produced by Ed "Tony Visconti of the Nineties" Buller, and the ribald run-up of sinuous singles, have ensured that nowadays there's lots of people there wherever Pulp play. After 12 lean years on the fringes, Pulp have bagged the bulls-eye. "We've had over a decade of grinding reality!" says Jarvis. "After feeling so marginalised, with people thinking you were a joke or a sad character in some way, it just makes you feel more validated, does some success. If you connect once, you think maybe you can connect again. You don't feel like you're operating in a vacuum."
Wild rock 'n' roll excesses were planned for the five-hour coach trip from Paris to Nantes, like chess, or cards. But words like "morning" and "hangover" put these on hold. After video showings of what seems to be Serge Gainsbourg's entire life story in real time, and a pit-stop at Le Mans, Jarvis and affable bassist Steve Mackey nobly undertake the chore of being formally interviewed by a man who is remembering more acutely with each passing kilometre that he suffers from chronic car-sickness. He is not nodding when he normally would, and is grunting when he normally wouldn't.
The overriding theme of "His 'n' Hers" appears to be a hatred of shiny happy couples. "Oh no, not a hatred," says Jarvis. "Just... that thing where two people start wearing matching clothes, their personalities start to merge, they know exactly what each other's thinking, and they haven't a whole personality of their own any more. They've just got half of something else. And if that's taken away, they're less than a person." Isn't that why people do it? To lose a part of themselves? "Well!" Jarvis' expression suggests my Barthesean flyer is a bit rum for this time of day. "I wouldn't look for someone who was the same as me - I get bored with myself. So it's nice to have a bit of a distraction, somebody who looks at things in a different way. To try to appreciate why they think like that. Obviously you don't want it to be too polarised, like going out with someone who hates black people - 'Oh, I just wanted to know what it was like to go out with a fascist..."
Ultimately, the differences either gell or flare up... "Yes, it's inevitable. Time changes things. It's not something I can really say I have an answer for." The problem is time, then, not gender? "I never used to think there were such big differences between men and women. Perhaps that's because I was brought up solely by women, with no father figures, so I had my own 'feminine' outlook. But then it becomes... not a battleground exactly, but... more of a competitive thing. That was hard for me to deal with when it first happened." When Jarvis was young he used to listen to his mother and her friends who'd all come round to her house at about four in the afternoon and talk in the kitchen. All the husbands had long since "pissed off, you see." His mother and his Auntie Mandy had parties "where there were all these people snogging on the stairs and stuff like that. So that was my introduction to those kind of things."
It put him off, made him vow that he'd never get married. Because there was no example of anyone who'd stayed together, he couldn't see the point. "I remember one discussion they had, they were saying,'0h, he's too nice,' that was the thing. I was only about nine, and that was a strange concept for me to try to grasp. That somebody could just be so nice that they got on your nerves, and you didn't want to see them any more." Most of the album's stories are, subsequently, both glib and bitter. "I just don't like happy songs. When people are happy, they get on with being happy. That's what they should do. People often listen to music in times of emotional distress, and the last thing they want is somebody singing about how f***ing happy they are. Its like: f*** off, I'm not. Me uncle died recently, and I turned the radio on, and 'Don't Worry Be Happy' was on, and... y'know, the radio went out of the window... "
I'm intrigued by "sometimes second best is the best that you can get", a motif on the current "The Sisters" EP (the classic "Babies" plus three new siblings). Is that a truism for you? Do people generally settle for second best? Or is that lucky?
"Yeah, that's it. In Sheffield it sometimes seemed the life of my contemporaries was like a marathon who'd give up first. People got picked off one by one, and were failing by the wayside. There got to be less and less people who were still trying to do something, and who kept 'refusing' to settle for second best. Then later you think: ah, but I might end up with fifth best."
So chips are cashed in?
"It's just one of those things. Also, on 'Seconds' there's the idea of the 'second-hand' people, who've been through the mill a bit. It sounds a very silly analogy, but it's like reconditioned tyres, remoulds. You have to get remoulded before you go back out on the road. I don't think that's a negative or sad thing at all. I think it's quite interesting, third or fourth time around."
Don't you ever feel like saying: don't rattle that tin at me, I've already given...?
"I suppose you get a little more tentative and guarded about things. But unless you're prepared to run the risk of getting hurt you're never going to get much out of a relationship. You have to take a deep breath and dive in. At least you know you don't die. It'd be a boring life without, wouldn't it?"
Are you genuinely frightened by James Dean posters, Jarvis?
"They're everywhere. In clip frames. That 'Boulevard Of Broken Dreams' thing. He's there with his coat, hunched up, in Times Square. You grow up seeing sad kids trying to look like him. Every time you go to get a takeaway he's there on the wall. It's like Marilyn Monroe: they're just around so much you get sick of the cliché. They represent a lack of imagination. Pathetic lip service to 'I'm a rebel'. They've had all the life sucked out of them through over-use. The notion of "rebellion" seems increasingly dodgy... In music it's stone-dead now. Institutionalised. Karaoke. Guns N'Roses. It's just a pastiche of rebellion. It's like when people are passing joints round - I suppose people think they're being rebellious by smoking a joint. It's more rebellious to say you don't wan any. Cos then people think: 'What the f***'s the matter with you? You're in a band, man! You're supposed to smoke dope!'" What is rebellious?. "Being quite straight is rebellious. Just being fairly normal." "We're not rock, you see," grins Steve. "We're pop." "So we're all right," concludes Jarvis.
Pulp sing about vandalism, loneliness, rape, rejection, infidelity, thwarted desire, abuse, voyeurism, drinking, records which jump at crucial moments, fetishism, a dream of a summer that never really comes, and "a certain movement in the air". They have loads of show stopping tunes and a bundle of good jokes. They're all right.
In Nantes, shortly after I have come within three inches of being run over two minutes after jovially describing how I was once run over in Paris, Pulp are signing albums in a record store. Next door but one, Baudelaire poems are used as advertising copy for shaving cream. Several hundred French people queue up to meet the British pop stars. Nick is cheery and ice-breaking - "c-mon then, who's next?" Jarvis is droll and polite, a fresh mock-surreal inscription for each satisfied customer. Steve is slightly saucy. The autographs start to map a course between Carry On and Hari-Kiri. Russell is mostly silent, signing with opulent flourishes. Candida is plain tired, on autopilot, although we do ascertain later that a friend of mine lives next door to her mum.
For fulfilling this bizarre promotional ritual, Pulp get to ransack the shelves. Steve nets a Brigitte Bardot box-set, a breathtaking artefact. "Shame she's married a fascist," I say. "Yes," our driver, suddenly understanding English, sighs. it's true." We discuss whether the next Tarantino movie being called "Pulp Fiction" makes us happy or sad. Jackie Kennedy, kitsch icon, dies. Pulp play "The Stone Age Ball" in Nantes. They are swirly, and musically adventurous and dynamic. My Nantes correspondent informs me, while Jarvis is introducing "Lipgloss" in French, that he is in fact saying "lipstick". She also informs me that in France, when Hugh Grant says "F*** a doodle doo" in "Four Weddings And A Funeral", the sub-titles say "merde". Jarvis has an onstage whinge about photographers wanting to wrap him in clingfilm. This doesn't stop the mob braying "Jar-vis, Jar-vis" like they're warming up for a spot of Bastille storming.
Some of Pulp hunt for "Club Floride". Some return to the hotel. Tomorrow the world. Every room has a "theme". The theme of my room is - get this for karmic exotica - "Great Britain". I feel this is somehow relevant. Wonderful Show, I tell Jarvis. "Yes, erm, a strange one," he mutters. Aren't they all? "Well, yes..." He ponders this awhile, très fatigue. "Yes. Yes, they are."