Everything's Back To Normal
Words: Peter Robinson, Photographer: Martin Gardner
Taken from Melody Maker, 21 November 1998

It's time for Pulp's frontman to forget the pressures of fame and become the wit and raconteur of pop again with quips about Robbie Williams, Ron Davies, and, er, peacocks.

Somewhere in the corner of London's swanky Holland Park, where children run free and the peacocks run for their lives, a plastic carrier bag and polystyrene cup sit discarded against a fence. Nearby, a large mound of leaves twitches intermittently. The camouflage is almost complete, but when a little pink nose pokes through the leaves it can only belong to one man.

"I feel like I've made an error of judgement," murmurs Jarvis Cocker as he stands up, brushes himself down and shuffles his scuffed black shoes along the ground in an attempt to shed mud. That's typical of Holland Park: compared with Clapham Common you get a much better class of oik loitering in the bushes. It's also typical of Jarvis - what may have been an aside was also Pulp in microcosm, attending to the public consciousness in an offhand remark as readily as elevating minor personal trauma to the status of stomping manifesto. 1998's been "a bit of a year" for Pulp, though Jarvis seems slightly wary, when I propose that it's been dense.

"You don't mean stupid, do you?"

Well, let's look at the evidence. It began with an album that managed to top 1995's "Different Class" in its depth, breadth and unabashed pop tunefulness, continued with a triumphant return to the brown fields of Glastonbury and a sell-out bash in Finsbury Park (celebrated with a live album and a live video respectively), and was peppered throughout with a clutch of storming - if not chartstorming - singles. So not entirely stupid, no. Pulp are always current, always relevant. Pick a lyric at random and the issues of the day will pour out. So is Jarvis a convincing spokesman on literally any aspect of contemporary culture hurled his way? There's only one way to find out...

Of all the political scandals to hit the politicians in recent years, Ron Davies' indiscretion on Clapham Common has been among the most entertaining. It's certainly the one with the clearest parallel to goings-on in the music industry, though George Michael's post-willy career shot in the opposite direction to Davies'. Now ensconced in the Holland Park cafeteria with a bottle of water and salad bap ("mayonnaise please, not salad cream"). Jarvis tears into the subject.

"I never courted tabloid outrage," he begins when I mention George's surge in popularity in the same sentence as Pulp's "Sorted For E's & Wizz" tabloid storm. "I got caught up in it. The thing with these people is that I wonder, if they hadn't got caught out, then would they ever have come out of their own free will? It just seems really old-fashioned to be ashamed of your sexuality. You should be allowed to be ambiguous, and certainly neither of them should have to apologise for that sort of thing. It's funny that Ron Davies feels he should have to."

Jarvis pauses for a bit, leans over the side of his chair and takes great effort to flick the ash from his cigarette away from our bags. He's probably concerned by the fact that today's trip to the park has necessitated a 1m insurance deal should things go awry. Was Jarvis convinced by Davies' alibi about being invited back for dinner?

"I've heard that with these parks there are various sectors, so if you want specific things, you can go to different bits of the park and get serviced. So I supposed maybe there's a section on Clapham Common where you can go to get invited to dinner parties, y'know."

If Pulp were to annex Finsbury Park for one more night, what would be on offer in Jarvis' sector?

"Oh, mine'd be very innocuous, I'd have this bit where you'd have a little camp fire, and people could just sit around all night singing songs. Not that I'm camp, at all."

At all.

"A bit of 'Ging Gang Ghoulie', that's all. And you won't need to go anywhere for a meal. It'll be all right."

The docusoap explosion will surely mark 1998 as the year when telly programming went to shit, with such gloriously trite titles as "Hotel", "The Cruise" and "Health Farm". You'd imagine that the man who turned everyday voyeurism into an artform might have an interest, but he remains baffled by the popularity of this strange phenomenon.

"People are wanting to watch absolute normality, as if somehow absolute normality has become exotic," he muses. "Cheap TV, basically, is what it comes down to. The joke is the fact that the makers of docusoaps keep setting things up, which, if you ask me, is completely evil. It just screws everything up. Maybe people aren't living real life any more, so they need to get it from telly. It must say something very enlightening about our society at the moment. Anybody can be a celebrity and I'm not sure if it's such a big thing to aspire to now. It seems more difficult for people just to get on and lead a normal life than it is to become famous."

Would Pulp make a good docusoap? You could call it "Pulp".

"Er... (puffs cheeks, big pause) No. Cos we're really boring."

Hardly. This is, remember, somebody for whom year after year of obscurity gave way to international superstardom in a matter of months, whose life on the periphery blossomed into one in celebrity's inner sanctum. Or wilted.

"Certain things happened to me where I was thinking, 'Is this the kind of world I want to be inhabiting?' In the end, it's not saying, 'I'm part of the establishment', it's more to do with what you enjoy in your life and if you keep doing things that you don't enjoy, you should just stop.

"What you expect and what you actually get are two totally separate things. There was nothing unfair about it - I was mad for it, to coin a phrase. Course I was. You have to look at yourself, which is something I don't particularly like doing, and ask yourself why you need fame in your life. And I still don't really know. But there was nothing very unfair about it. It was my own fault."

Jarvis laughs his biggest laugh of the day.

There are lots of old people in the charts at the moment, aren't there Jarvis?

"Well, there's meself..."

Er, yes. But more specifically, the instance last month when Cher, U2, Culture Club and a barrage of doddery old croakers invaded the charts and everybody ran around as if the world had ended.

"It's just a sign that things have got back to normal," Jarvis sighs. "Actually, when I first heard that Cher single I thought it was Erasure. Has she had plastic surgery on her vocal chords?"

Off to the Culture Club gigs?

"Certainly not. They always sounded piss-poor in the first place, and the Eighties revival hasn't really thrilled me very much. The eighties were a totally despicable decade. Unfortunately, you can't help the fact that if you've lived through it, then when you hear these records again on the radio - and these are records you despised at the time - you can't help but like them a bit, because they represent a particular time in your life. And then it's not such a seriously crap thing because in 10 minutes' time they're going to play some decent records. So it's not so unpleasant." Pause. "But I would like to say once again the Eighties were crap, and always will be crap."

There are two crazes currently sweeping the nation. They'll both be big at the Christmas parties and curiously, both will result in aching wrists.

Have you ever used a yo-yo, Jarvis?

"They always seemed to be a bit unbalanced to me. I've never been able to do that walking the dog thing. I must have missed out on that craze. Tell you what, though, I used to have clackers. Do you know those?"

No.

"They're like two hard balls on a bit of string and you clack them. Um, that's it. They actually got banned from our school because people were breaking their arms, but then people used to keep doing it with their tops on, cos it wasn't as dangerous then. But that's the last craze I was into. That's a late-Seventies one for you."

And what, inevitably, of Viagra?

"I haven't tried it, and hope that I never will have to - it seems a bit dangerous to me. I've heard that you can buy it down Soho like you can by an E, but the state of some people is quite worrying anyway, so imagine them dropping a Viagra and being in a disco wandering around with a permanent erection. Gotta shag something. It's a bit scary. You hear about people taking three and then having loads of poppers as well, and you're surprised they don't just explode."

Do you have your own substitute for Viagra?

"What gets me going? Erm, clothes. Good clothes. Costumes. Let's not go any further."

From rumpo, there's only one logical next step: and let's face it, everyone's doing it. It's pregnancy, and in two years from now the country will be flooded by a sea of pop children running riot. Will this be a gift to the world of entertainment?

"Oh yeah, they're all going for it," Jarvis mutters. "It seems a bit cynical to think of it like a marketing ploy or a fashionable trend, doesn't it?"

Yes.

"But it does come across a bit like that. Again, I suppose, maybe that's another example of the way that rock's changed - where once it was about being young and irresponsible, it's now the younger people who are quite conservative. And if pop's now about family entertainment, then I suppose the logical extension of that is that you have a family. They're probably being paid by New Labour to promote family values. Maybe it's a good thing. Maybe the generation gap, getting up your parents' noses, is over. It seems very over at the moment..."

Talking himself to this conclusion, Jarvis seems rather disappointed. Maybe a little left out. What can be done to help the situation?

"Oh, I'll do me best," he sighs, with the tone of your dad when you ask for the Christmas bike he's already wrapped and stashed in the loft.

Victorious though Pulp's return to Glastonbury undoubtedly was, Saturday's mainstage was voted by most to be the piss-marked territory of Robbie Williams. Maybe he's man of the year; maybe, taking into account the second solo album, he's not. Fortunately, the arbiter of taste is here to provide the conclusive statement. Jarvis?

"Well he could do with some new songs, rather than just World Party B-sides. I think he's a symbol of what's happened to the music business in the last 18 months. Met Oasis, decided he wanted to turn his back on a fluffy pop career, did so, tried to kind of be a proper, real rock business person, couldn't handle it, went to rehab, didn't seem very happy, then came back into the fold and is now back in the right environment. And the music industry has been the same - there was a big explosion when everybody got charlied off their nut and it all seemed like things were going to change. But nothing did change. Same thing."

So did it all go wrong, in both respects, with Oasis?

"You shouldn't allow indie stars to be proper pop stars," Jarvis observes, "that's the thing. They just don't know what to do with fame when they get it. I'm not saying it's a negative thing - I mean, who wants to be a part of the establishment? If the main pop scene's seen as being quite cheesy, it's easy for the alternative to be against that. It's like at school, everyone takes the piss out of the teacher. Who wants to be a teacher? It's better to be the noisy kid at the back of the class."

The purchase of Xfm by our friends at Capital Radio has been one of the less popular events of 1998. A mixture of outrage and slackjawed disbelief has greeted the heavy-handed shift in music policy and preposterous choice of guest DJ. Does Jarvis, the man whose ascent to stardom may well have been helped by Xfm, feel any sense of loss?

No.

"You've gotta realise," he begins, "that people tend to listen to the radio while they're driving. You don't want some indie sludge on, you might have a crash. So you want something that washes over you, and there aren't that many people who are arsed about indie music. It is a shame, but I'm sure it'll find another way to come out. It always did in the past. Pirate radio stations and stuff."

This said, Jarv's had a lengthy association with Radio 1 (or, more pertinently, John Peel) - Pulp recorded their first Peel Session in 1981, and a couple of years ago, Jarvis stood in on the show while Peel was on holiday. Are the airwaves beckoning again?

"I'd love to do some more, actually. The breakfast show would, I think, be a bit of a mistake for a start - I wouldn't be able to get up at that time of the morning, and also I'm in such a terrible mood at that time that people would not want to listen to me. Having said this, the thing that puts me in a total mood is having irritating DJs shouting at me. You wake up with a hangover and it's like, 'F***ing hell, simmer down a bit.' So maybe I could solve the problem with a hangover breakfast show. 'OK, you're not feeling so good, it's raining, let's just kinda keep it nice and simple...' Also I could have it about half 10, cos that's when I get up, and I could cater for those people, the waster, the lazy loafer. A good bit of niche marketing."

The crisis in British radio is pinpointed by Jarvis' choice of Single Of The Year, a choice he attributes directly to the fact that "it's on the radio when I'm in the car".

"For some reason, I really liked that Jennifer Paige one, 'Crush'. I find myself singing along with it in the car. Um...I'm slightly horrified by that, but it's just really catchy. It's the same with the record labels, I just can't find it in myself to get upset about it, much though I'd be upset to see Shed Seven getting dropped. It seems that it's only the more corporate aspects of the industry being shafted, and there's still a lot of good records coming out at the moment, but they do tend to be on really tiny labels. That's good. I'm not crying. Cliff's gone back to an indie, and if it's good enough for Cliff, then

I'm sure it's good enough for Pulp."

Jarvis has found a peacock and is attempting to arouse it.

"Come on, mate," he purrs, hand outstretched, arse pointed in the air. "Show us yer tailfeathers. Go on. That's it. No, go on. Hmmm."

It's dark now: time for us to go home and leave the park to its more regular, frisky users. Unless, of course, Jarvis fancies some alfresco action.

"I couldn't do that," Jarvis comments.

It's a bit risky, isn't it?

"No, I just wouldn't be able to do it. It's terribly cold, after all. Maybe I'd need a hairdryer."

And with that, he disappears, into the shadows. Maybe he's off to finish editing "Outsider Art", his new Channel 4 documentary due for screening next year. Maybe he'll lie in the corner of the park, throw more leaves over himself and catch 40 winks. Or maybe he'll just pop home for a cup of tea. Either way, that peacock's missed out on the night of its life. A million pounds? Bargain.

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