Forget Blur vs Oasis - this was Pulp's year. Two Number Two singles, a Number One album, triumphant festival appearances, the MM hacks' LP and single of the year. We meet the people's and the critics' choice at the Smash Hits Awards.
"This place," mutters Jarvis, "is like a bloody abattoir." I got caught up in the Poll Tax riots, I saw Chris Eubank fight Nigel Benn on both highly charged occasions in Birmingham and Manchester but I've never been quite so unnerved at a public gathering as right here, right now. The 1995 Smash Hits Awards.
It's Sunday afternoon and I'm wending my way through a real Jack The Ripper of an East End pea souper around the outskirts of the London Arena, past queues and queues of anoraked 14-year-old girls, every man-Jackie of them armed to the teeth with metal whistles. The air is heavy with drizzle and hormones. The original plan was to interview Jarvis Cocker in a Chinese Restaurant just off Lime Harbour but that's out. Security have advised us that there's no way Jarvis can be let out of the building, where he's been holed up since nine o'clock this morning, short of smuggling him out, Cleopatra-style, in a rolled up carpet (or, in his case, rolled up lino, maybe). He'd be torn to pieces like an early Christian by a pack of peckish lions. Purely in spirit of wild adulation, of course.
And so I edge into the building, praying some glamour-starved, gum-chewing teenie doesn't mistake me for Jack Dee or that bold one out of EastEnders and I'm not battered to death with autograph books. Inside, the Arena is all breeze-blocks, exterior piping and blue carpets, the dismal corridors of pop life. Andi Peters is in a huddle with his production team. Clipboards and headsets flap about the staircases, panicking because Take That are due on in 40 minutes' time and they aren't rooted to the spot in the wings ready to make their entrance. Various pop flunkies wander vaguely about the place like errant tots, refusing to sit still.
"Pulp, Radiohead, Menswear," reads the door. The indie crossovers are all herded into one dressing room that's got the air of a bad student party about it - piles of smelly coats, 20 empty wine bottles and every larger can overflowing with ash. Johnny Menswear is hogging all the mirror time. Hairspray is being dispensed like dry ice. Cough, cough. Yet, for all this preening, these are appallingly dressed people. Every member of all three of these bands is dressed like they've just been playing "Supermarket Sweep" at a Save The Children charity shop. There's Russell Senior in a ghastly checked suit, Chris of Menswear dressed like I used to when I was 12, Thom of Radiohead wandering around with a wry smile in some fulsome, feathery jacket that makes him look like an enigmatic chicken... perhaps it's an article of faith that all bands shall attire themselves like early Mark E Smith, but it's so commonplace they seem barely conscious of it. Please, you record companies, hurry up with those royalty cheques so that these people can get some decent trousers!
It's chaos, it's impossible - so eventually I talk to Jarvis in the marginally less chaotic catering room upstairs. Catering courtesy of Planet Hollywood. Upon realising this, Jarvis casts a remotely contemptuous contact-lensed eye around the room, before embarking on a solemn tirade. "Planet Hollywood. Hard Rock Cafe. I hate that place. It's basically an embodiment of what's wrong with music today, to me. Y'know the way they have, like, people's guitars on the wall? It's institutionalised rock. It reminds me of Q magazine. I went to them Q magazine awards and it was like the annual meeting of an accountancy firm. Even the time they had the awards. They call themselves a rock magazine and then they have an award ceremony at 12:30 in the afternoon. I mean, anyone who's rock'n'roll just would not be up at that time, y'know what I mean? Something's gone wrong. I've tried to live my life without going into a Hard Rock Cafe and they had one set up in the MTV thing in Paris. And it was the only place you could get a drink so I had to go in there. That kind of thing worries me."
I ask Jarvis if he's worried, now that Pulp are huge here at the back end of 1995, about being sucked into all kinds of places and situations he'd vowed never to find himself in but we're cut short by young Lindsay, who wants Jarvis' autograph. He takes the distraction in his stride. Head and shoulders above the crowd, lips permanently set in an expression of deadpan self-assurance that reminds me, of all things, of Muhammad Ali after he beat Sonny Liston, shielded by a thick and perpetual veneer of extrovert eccentricity, surveying the world with a deceptively glassy stare that's the result of a visual impairment he suffered as a boy, and basking in the sort of commercial and critical success it's impossible to argue against after "Common People" and "Different Class", it would take a lot right now to knock Jarvis Cocker out of his stride.
One of the many reasons for Pulp's success is similar to that of Morrissey's - a feeling among the vast, culturally disenfranchised constituencies, especially up North, that for once in a London-based media spectacle, their lives were being talked about, in all their gauche seediness, with all their remote longings, in familiarly deflated, flat vowels. "Well, I hope so, but to be honest with you, not having lived in Sheffield for seven years now it would be bogus of me to say that I know that's true. I've hardly been to Sheffield this year at all."
Yes, but things don't change much up there.
"Well, yeah, because I didn't leave Sheffield until I was 25, by which time I was a fully formed sad adult - so I'd been formed by Sheffield. That's what 'Different Class' is really all about, me coming down to London with one particular worldview and being confronted with a completely different world to the one I'd grown up with - having all these ideas formed in my head and having to filter everything through that. You never lose that - you might want to try and lose it, but you can't."
You've always been a dreamer, right?
"Oh yes, I was always considered a very unrealistic person at school. Cos I was quite brainy and that, but I just wasn't arsed - I didn't see schools as a place where you got qualifications to get a job, I just quite enjoyed learning things and I would never take it seriously. And then they'd say [goes into Ebeneezer Schoolteacher's voice], 'Oh, you've got to chose your subjects for A levels so that you can get to university.' And I wasn't interested in that at all. It's horrible when you find that's what it really comes down to - careers. I was just interested in learning things."
But how can you carry on being a dreamer now that all your dreams have come true?
"My dreams have become really sad recently. I keep dreaming about fixing my car. I keep dreaming about changing the oil filter and replacing the break lights. Which worries me."
A bit of Freudian wish-fulfillment, maybe - you secretly hanker for a "normal" life?
"No, it's cos my car does need its oil filter changing and the brake lights replacing. It's a sad thing, really. Dreams are supposed to be unbounded in the limits of the imagination, and I'm there dreaming about trying to fix a Hillman Imp. Hello. What's your name?" We've been joined by a small boy, grinning gingerly at Jarvis, standing about one foot eight in his trainers. "Hamish," squeaks Hamish, before grinning gingerly for a few more seconds, then scuttling away.
Then, I would say that, although you're a dreamer, you're not a romantic.
"Oh, I would," retorts Jarvis, emphatically. "If I'm not a romantic that infers I'm a cynic, which I'm not."
I mean to say, someone without many romantic notions - again, quintessentially Northern in that respect, always up for dressing up, putting on a top hat in Sheffield, but always prosaically aware that it's all ultimately as bogus as false eyelashes.
"No, but - I think there is romance in life. At the heart of things I do want to believe in romance, I really do. And I am a sucker for sentimentality and I hate myself for it. I've always loved pop music for its romance, it's artifice but I always had a problem with the words in pop songs, maybe because I was a bit of a sad kid and I took a lot of notice of films and songs when I grew up so that when I came to live my life I felt I'd been sold a dud because they hadn't really prepared me for what life was like, 'I love you forever', all that kind of thing. But when you start having relationships, it isn't quite as simple as that. So I'm in love with the sound of pop, but I can't go along with the idealised aspect so I try to make the words undermine it a bit. Which is why I always think our records would be a terrible thing to play if you were trying to cop off with someone. They'd have a very bad time. And I apologise if anyone's ever tried to cop off to one of our records. I'm mellow on this principle. I used to be very hard line. Now I can see that Luther Vandross probably does have his uses."
Whereupon a blonde headset interrupts to inform Jarvis that he's onstage in 15 minutes. The producer's already given birth to a litter of kittens because Pulp didn't bother to rehearse walking onstage and waving "hello" earlier on.
I locate myself at the side of the stage to watch Pulp mime their way through "Common People". Miraculously they don't fluff the walking onstage bit. I tell you, if you're a fan of extremist, abstract, avant-garde white noise, then come to the Smash Hits Awards. The kids keep up a wall of screeching, whistling feedback that would put any My Bloody Valentine gig to shame. Jarvis is spurred on to gawky heights of finger-stabbing, kung-fu kicking and reversing arse-first into guitarist. "But still you'll never get it right cos when you're laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall if you called your Dad he could stop it all." Everyone chants every word. I find myself wondering about the wretched Greek art student whose crass insensitivity has provoked such a chanting, ferocious response from the groundswell of Britain's lower middle classes. Is she aware of what she has unleashed, wherever she is?
Afterwards, Jarvis and I hunker down, student-style, in a quiet corner of the dressing room and share some wine someone's hidden under their coat. Like I say, real student party stuff. That went rather well, I thought. "It was bloody unreal," says Jarvis. "Three o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, of all times. I've been here since nine, I've had no sleep..." You don't seem that fazed. mind you, nothing seems to faze you much. "Yeah, that's because my reactions are so slow... honestly, I have very slow reactions. Probably about two months after this has happened I'll realise what this meant."
Hardest to reflect on is that only four years ago Pulp seemed, commercially, to be as hopeless a case as you can get - a band who had malingered, refused to die a natural death but showed so few signs of breaking through that even John Peel stopped playing their records, which is the equivalent of the Salvation Army turning a tramp away from their soup kitchens on Christmas Eve. Yet Jarvis' determination to become a star which wrenched Pulp away from Fire to Island has caused a turnabout that's the equivalent of, say, Northside becoming huge in seven years' time. You have to imagine it, there is no precedent.
"Yeah... but the thing is, for us, it's not a big deal, we just did it because we wanted to do it - and although the years were going by it wasn't like we were in jail marking them off on the wall with a bit of chalk. It is a bit bizarre - 13 years of nobody giving a shit about you and then suddenly making it big, it hasn't happened before. And I pity the next group it happens to. I don't recommend it as a route to stardom. We just took a wrong turning."
Yet listening to, say, 'Mis-Shapes' now, which musically is so cleverly redolent of the glitzy plasticity of glam but also lino on bedsit floors, with its straightforward call to the Softies of the world to unite against the Menaces ("We won't use guns, we won't use bombs, we'll use the one thing we've got more of - that's our minds"), a song that so brazenly pushes all of the right buttons, it's hard to see how they were ever anything less than an instant pop success. And not just among the Softies - the Menaces, the moshers and townies love 'em, too.
Does that ever bug Jarvis?
"Oh yeah, we got that a lot on the last tour, like that show that The Stud Brothers reviewed in Glasgow. But, y'know, you can't choose your audience. You might as well say, we only want to appeal to 24-year-old brown-haired people. All you can do is be as precise and be as good at what you do as possible and throw it out there. You can't control who goes into the shop and buys your records, you can't say, 'Oh, we're going to move into a more mature market.' People have to decide that. I mean, you write a song like 'Mis-Shapes' and it should be perfectly clear that it's saying, 'I don't like intolerant people.' But it's become clear to me after that last tour that it goes over some people's heads. Townies were coming out to see us. It's the same thing with 'Sorted For E's and Wizz'. Me being a naive get, when I first went to raves I thought there was some change in people's attitudes going on, that people had decided that they'd got fed up of boozing and looking for birds and fighting, that they'd prefer to go out and have a good time and be nice to other people. And 'Sorted' is actually about that disillusionment, that one minute, people'd be shaking your hands saying, 'Yeah, all right, geezer, you're my best mate,' and then as soon as the thing had finished and you were trying to thumb a lift off these same people they'd be like, 'Fuck off'!"
Was 1995 the best year of your life, or the most disillusioning?
"In terms of the group, certainly it's been the best year. We always wanted to be a pop group, we were never interested in the indie thing, because that was ghettoised, saying, 'Sure, you can have your freedom, but you have to have it over here and we'll get on with everything else up here in the meantime.' It was always important for me to be doing things in the proper world - doing something a bit real, y'know, not spinning some shitty fantasy... in other aspects of my life, I daresay I've become... sad. My personal life is fragmented, because I'm never at home..."
What was the high point of your year?
"In terms of the group, Glastonbury. That was when what had happened to the group became real. We didn't even expect to play there, then they said, 'Oh, you can play there Saturday night.' Which I didn't even like because I was planning to skive in and see The Stone Roses, who pulled out. And everybody's going, 'Oh, you're headlining Glastonbury - but you have to respect the fact that Glastonbury, the event is bigger than anyone appearing there'. I saw Oasis on the Friday and it gave me the ammunition to perform on the Saturday."
Funny. I thought you might have thought of the Heineken festival as the high point.
"Heineken was weird because it was the first day where I couldn't go out for a walk. I'd wanted to see some of the other bands but I was banned from walking out there, they said I'd get hassled. That was strange."
In England, then, Jarvis is condemned, for the foreseeable future, to wander the streets in a deerstalker hat and false beard if he wishes to go about unmolested. As for the eventual world domination, Jarvis makes no bones about Pulp's lack of transatlantic crossover potential. "We had this bloke from an American magazine earlier and I said to him, I don't know why you're here, really, because we haven't got a cat in hell's chance of making it over there. Because it's too hard to get - for Americans. We've got six people, all totally different, a 10-year age gap between Russell and Mark, so it's all a bit messed up and it isn't going to make much sense to them. It's not that I've got anything against Americans, but I don't see why we should bother troubling them or troubling ourselves by going out there. I'd rather go to other places."
And so, Jarvis Branson Cocker ends the year as, in a very real sense, our tallest and thinnest pop icon, an unlikely sex symbol to Millions, the man who, striding ahead in atrocious corduroys, has led all the misfits, the regional castaways, the unloved and lost souls who find solace in pop a merry dance out of the shadows - he is their Pied Piper, their gangly patron saint.
"I can't complain," he concludes. "It's been a buzz." The Cranberries have complained that being pop stars has deprived them of the ability to lead a normal life. "Sod that. Why did they join a group in the first place? Who wants a normal life?"
Blur vs Oasis? The answer, it seems, is Pulp...