Thirty-somethings Pulp may have got the zimmer-time blues (ouch!) on new single 'Help The Aged' but a squirt of Dentugrip sees them bite back with new album 'This Is Hardcore'.
'In Loving Memory Of... ' Ethel? Stanley? Ada? Sinatra The Singing Donkey? It's impossible to read the full dedication carved into the weather-bleached park bench. That brief moment when you scan the dedication to a departed loved one, check the cranky old prewar name for absurdity value and weigh up the merits of being immortalised on a bench is scuppered by a shoulder.
Was it Ethel who whiled away her ordinary afternoons wandering amongst the lurid foliage outside Kenwood House? Or did some beloved showbiz pet spend its twilight years trotting after an imaginary carrot on the lawn of this Hampstead Heath arboretum? We're not to know. The secret life contained within the bench inscription is not about to reveal itself. Because two old duffers are sitting in the bloody way, blocking out the wording.
She's about 58 and dressed in tweed. He's in his silver-haired beige-trousered '60s and sports rubber overshoes. They have binoculars, newspapers, half-glasses and a faraway look in their eyes that lends them an extra vulnerability. It's an affecting tableau on this chilly autumn afternoon. So much so that for a moment the despicable thought occurs, that Jarvis Cocker has paid for them to be there.
Pulp are about to end 18 months of virtual silance with their very own 'When I'm 64' - called 'Help The Aged'. You could understand them diailing for a bit of backup. "Hello, is that Rent-A-Wrinkley? We're doing a photo shoot for NME..." But there's something in the way that Jarvis carries himself in front of the camera this afternoon, kind of subdued gravity - a lack of contorted mock-star posturing - that tells you he just wouldn't do that. Not at the start of this new phase for Pulp. And anyway who needs stunts and props, when at the flick of a Cocker-clasped Biro, you can make whole generations appear from nowhere?
Look outside! There's people over 30 out there! Look inside! There's three of them lined up on the back seat of a car threading its way from Hampstead Heath to A Certain West London Neighbourhood. Jarvis Cocker, 34, Pulp's solidly unaffected keyboardist Candida Doyle, 30-something, and a journalist, 35, have just learned that the make-up girl in the front seat's been 'doing' Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman on the East Anglian set for Eyes Wide Shut and Jarv wants to know if what he read about Nicole's skin disorder is true?
"Was she pale? How tall is she? Was she nice?" Jarv and Candida interrogate the make-up girl until she confesses to the heavy insider knowledge that, "Tom cooks his own pasta on set". Yikes! Satiated, the Pulp team relent. Clearly the '95/'96 phase of Soaraway Pulp Scandals has not ruled out curiosity about the skin condition of big stars. But it has had an effect. An humungous, mind-altering, perspective-warping, mirror-shattering effect.
The first tips of this particular iceberg of scarification emerge as we pull up to the bar where the interview is to take place. The previous week Pulp had put their toes back in public waters with a spot of DJing at HMV. At one point Jarvis found himself sandwiched between a couple of cleavage thrusting alleged Bond girls, while a photographer attempted to snap the sleazy setup. "It was really 'orrible," says Jarv looking queasily out of the window at the venue for his next step back into public life.
"I'd rather you didn't mention the name of this pub. It makes things easier," he requests. Shame really. It's a mad old tavern, divided into cosy sections with wooden partitions that you have to negotiate virtually on all fours. "There'll be limbo dancing later," says Jarv, bending up like a Phillippe Starck lamp in corduroy. But there won't be. Neither limbo dancing nor Alvin Stardust comedy pelvic pontification. Because there's a full year of deep realignment in the Pulp camp to examine.
When they dropped out of sight with a final glorious flounce at Chelmsford V96 they were a band still tumbling forward from the momentum created by Britpop, 'Sorted For E's And Wizz', TV quiz show triumphs, Glastonbury Zeitgeist victory, 'Common People' and mooning at Michael Jackson at the '96 Brit Awards. After 15 years of fiddling with tinfoil pop star dreams in pub back rooms, Mr Wiggly Fingers Geekster From Sheffield was right there at the top of the chat show guest list. The outsider had jiggled his way into the gooey innards of pop and made his point in banner headlines. So then what?
As your O Wilde reader will tell you, there are two great tragedies that can befall a person. One is that they never achieve their ambitions. The other is they achieve them. And then have to go out and face the lads in the glass shop over the road. When Pulp ducked out of sight in autumn '96 they could no longer avoid the yammering questions. What had they done? Who had they become? What about a slightly longer haircut?
Then, at the end of '96, guitarist Russell Senior left the band after 14 years. He was recently quoted saying that he didn't think it was "cool" to be in Pulp any more. After deciding against replacing Russell, it's taken the five of them over ten months to record a follow up to 'Different Class'. Their initial steps outside the studio appear to signal a mad determination to avoid repeating themselves.
'Help The Aged' moves from a wilfully slushy beginning into a florid string-laden epic. It's not exactly sonic radicalism, but it was written on tour in '96 before the bulk of the album. The pro-oldie sentiments however - "Help the aged / Don't just put them in a home / Can't have much fun in there all on their own" - are hardly the obvious way to compete with the robust thrust of nippers like Oasis. In fact, it displays about as much 'commercial sense' as making your first live foray for 18 months at a tiny charity event for an obscure avant-garde American composer at the Barbican. Which, on the week of our conversation, is precisely what the band are doing (three 'experimental' new songs at the Lamont Young fundraiser).
Ever get the feeling Jarv and co are having doubts about the appeal of glossy enormaloid hyper fame? Safe in his undiscovered neighbourhood, Jarv sips on a cider and rubs his overloaded eyes under shady Mott lenses. Just down the road is the house he shares with three other common folk in order to avoid the "morbid thoughts" which he says he is prey to when living alone. There won't be limbo dancing tonight. Instead, there'll be a single man, 34 years old, of rented rooms, staring hard and sifting through the chaos. Like you do after you've been shagged through the bushes by snickering swollen celebrity.
"Before I moved here I was kind of stuck in our house a bit," he begins. "Because people knew where we lived in our road. They were alright, but if you get up in the morning and you feel a bit tired and you go to the shop, it was a bit like a dawn chorus. There was this glass shop across the road and all the blokes in there used to go, 'YEAAH JAAAARVIS. AWWRIIIGHT MATE! HOWSYAMATE MICHAEL?' and all that crap. But because it's a bit snobby round here people don't want to demean themselves by acknowledging you."
Did a big influx of cash arrive on your doorstep? "Well, none of us are multimillionaires. Although I should imagine it's hard for people to believe that. Because I certainly would have thought it. You tend to kind of think that if you see people on the telly or they have Top Ten records, then they're absolutely made of money. But due to various boring business things, that hasn't actually occurred in our case. I've got more money than I've ever had in me life. Whether it's made me any happier is a moot point.
"It's a cliché isn't it? It's a joke! It's like when you see stuff about Lottery winners having to go through psychiatric therapy to deal with it. Because I suppose most people spend their lives dreaming of something that'll happen, and then if you do win it, there comes some kind of responsibility. Choice enters your life. You come up against the thing of having had fantasies in your head of something before and then the reality of what it's like. It's just like getting famous I suppose."
Are you saying that you've been struggling with the reality of your success?
"Well, yeah. Unfortunately, there isn't some kind of guide book that says, 'Now that you are a pop star this is what you're supposed to do'. Are you supposed to attend premieres every night? Are you supposed to get married to a supermodel? It all seems a bit too clichéd, the situations that you find yourself in. But then again, you look like some kind of div if you still try to go to the local pub and act as it nothing has happened. So you can make yourself a bit ill and worried. You're constantly walking around going, 'Would a pop star do this? Would a pop star go in this shop? Would a pop star buy those shoes? Would a pop star still go in Oxfam and have a root through shit?' After a while of winding yourself up about it, you get to a point where you think, 'F- it, stop worrying about it'. Because there aren't any rules about it. The last six months I've felt happier because I just thought, 'Well, why worry about it? Just do what you feel like doing rather than worrying about what you're supposed to do'."
It says a lot about Cocker's intelligence that he has to go through three stages of self-analysis before concluding that he should just get on and do what he wants to. The X-ray vision that peered into the underwear drawers of Sheffield on 'His 'n' Hers' and cut through Londoner foibles on 'Different Class' is of course going to be equally surgical with his own predicament. And once Britpop got going, the main thing Mr I Spy songwriter saw through the lace-curtained window was not lusty Mrs Jones getting ready for the whist drive, but his own steady pupils staring back from the TV. Oh, the hall of mirrors of it all.
"Going on the telly wasn't supposed to be just an ego gratification exercise," he says. "What it was supposed to be was that it seemed important at that time to show that not just the rock hierarchy are allowed to go on programmes, that you can show that there's an alternative to that. But then I got offered quite a few adverts. Even as recently as the last couple of weeks I got asked to go on Noel Edmonds' House Party. They offered me five grand. I thought, 'Yeah. Five grand to just completely ruin any respect that you might have built up over the years.' So I deliberately backed off from that kind of stuff, because I just thought people were going to get sick of seeing me."
"After that Michael Jackson thing, I could've gone the way that Mark E Smith has ended up now, where they'll wheel him out and know he'll have a go at everybody and says that they've all nicked their ideas off The Fall. You could easily end up being that kind of caricature of yourself. I would never want to take it any further than I went."
"From the time of going on TOTP and slagging Wet Wet Wet off, it seemed logical because I was a bit of a gatecrasher into this glittery pop fraternity. So instead of sucking the cock, and selling out you had to say something. Then it reached its zenith or nadir with that incident (The Battle Of Michael Jackson), and after that I just thought, 'Well, I'll end up being Mr Angry. I'll end up being this daft get who's always going to say something controversial for the sake of it'. And I just thought, 'What's the point in that?' So, yeah, I did deliberately back off."
Jarvis picks up his cider and rubs his eyes like he's trying to get something to disappear. There's currently a kind of veil in front of Jarv. He appears to be looking out at us through a mist formed by all that's happened to him since the '90s got going. Where formerly the deadpan balloon burst of wit would jab out, now he talks more and more in giant looping digressions, trying to piece together a policy on the cloud of chemically hazed raves, drunken telly studio backstages, tabloid front covers, limousine rides, lonely rented room moribundity, boredom and bar propping which his recent life has consisted of.
You get the impression that he's not that arsed about trying to be the funny interviewee any more. But then the popular conception of friendly old Jarv, the droll and decent Northern Lad, with the ironic stage gestures, never did quite match up with Pulp content. Amid the long run of '96's touring they gave a rendering of 'I Spy' on Later With Jools Holland that comprises one of the darkest, most venomous pop TV performances ever. Jarvicious Cocker. The Britpop Bendy Toy lashing out.
"It's not like I want everyone to listen to our record in a darkened room with ceremonial robes on. But all that other stuff that goes on is just what you get involved in because of the process of being in a band. And if that becomes a barrier to people listening to what you're doing, where they think you should really just be a stand-up comic, then that's not right. So again, I thought it was a bad idea."
As '96 edged towards '97, the fallout from Pulp's explosion continued to disturb Cocker's thoughts. If Mr Angry From Indieland was now all too predictable a role and the disguise as Vic 'n' Bob's Funny Frankenstein (Barrymore's body with Paul Merton's brain) was getting in the way then what did Jarvis Cocker really add up to?
"The other thing was that I wasn't an outsider any more," he says. "Whether I liked it or not, you do become a part of the establishment and so it becomes a bit bogus to come on as this outsider figure. It didn't seem appropriate any more."
Did you take practical steps to deal with all this? "I've not been through therapy. I have not had any cognitive therapy, honestly. I suppose working on the album has helped. But again there's that thing of not wanting to go over old ground and repeat things. And even 18 months ago it was obvious that a lot of the stuff I'd written about in songs was ordinary, everyday things, which wasn't the life I was living at that time."
"Certainly in the last year-and-a-half, I haven't been able to just do normal things. I'm not whining about it. It's just a fact of life. And so... I suppose I was worried about that a bit too much really. You don't want to come up with some kind of pale imitation of yourself, some kind of karaoke version because you think you should keep writing about underpants and nylon fabrics. But then again. don't want to go off on a tangent, Like, 'Yeah! We're gonna go on a jazz odyssey now. That Spinal Tap concept album idea. So it's a bloody minefield that's what it is."
I'm surprised you didn't come back with a beard and a beret. "Well, I've got the specs. I've decided to go for the specs now. And me hair's slightly different. But that's as far as I'm going!"
If the new version of Jarvis, due to emerge fully when the Pulp album comes out sometime early next year, is a pared down and, erm, more serious individual than before, then it took a while to get there. Work on 'This Is Hardcore' started in November '96; then Jarv got "fed up" and legged it to New York for three weeks to sort his head out. "A bad idea," he admits.
By the time Russell left they hadn't got very far, and the guitarist's departure didn't help. It was problematic because I hate it when people leave groups," says Jarvis. "And I don't like change. So it was quite a stressful time when he left." Does it feel like it's a different band? "Yeah, it is different. I'm just hoping it's going to be different in a better way."
In the pub with no name the four Non-Jarvis Pulps gather round in a mature but sardonic huddle. Candida and drummer Nick Banks form the plain-speaking, kettle-on contingent. Cherubic guitarist Mark Webber is tactically mute in the avant guitarist style of Lee Ranaldo, gone Sheffield. Only the sharp tongue of long-serving bassist Steve Mackey appears to want to wag diagnostically.
"We've taken control again, we've grabbed it back," says Steve. "The idea is to do it on our terms this time. We're starting in the right way with this Lamont Young concert. First concert after 18 months, a benefit for some obscure avant-garde composer, billed with the words, 'The purpose of this concert is not for entertainment'. It might seem a strange way to come back, but I'm looking forward to it. And I hope we can continue in that manner."
The extent to which (mostly) Mark and Steve's left-field artsiness stamps itself on '...Hardcore' remains to be seen. Russell's departure, which they present as a minor, natural, amicable event (except for the recent 'backhanded slap' of saying they weren't "cool" any more), may have created some more expansive soundscapes, but as Steve sadly concedes, "It isn't exactly 'Bitches Brew'."
Despite Mackey's personal agonising about whether he should stay in the band at all, the Pulps eventually put behind them memories of being ordered about by "19-year-olds with clipboards" at teen pop events and applied themselves to ten months of recording and, er, picking on their singer. "Well, he's got to have something to write about hasn't he?" smirks Mackey "Paranoia, psychosis, lack of self-confidence, those are the kind of things that lead to fairly reasonable songs."
So you help Jarvis with his angst? "Well, one thing you don't want to do with Jarvis is go round complimenting him. That's really not a good idea."
Even your full-on 'adult' likes to tease. Post-'Help The Aged' the non-lyrical portion of Pulp have little choice but to go along with their leader's mid-life confessions of 'adultness'. The '...Aged' video is a treatment on mortality based on the movie A Matter Of Life And Death starring David Niven and Michael Powell - a set of references likely to go several million feet over the head of your average teenager.
None of your Pulps, however, seem to be good on teenagers. "How can you relate to them if you don't what they are?" says Steve. Candida stares at her drink wondering whether she should have confessed to a recent investment in a (shhhhhh) pension. Mark is lost within the fractal harmonics of an interior drone symphony. So briefly we elect Nick's pub-visiting, nearly-two-years-old son Jackson as Spokesman For Youth. But "Dog" and "Dad" don't get us far, so Steve takes charge of a perspective on 'Help The Aged'.
"At least it is a real issue," he says, tersely. "It probably all does sounds a bit horribly 30-something. That's the thing that puts me off talking about it. It sounds like 30-year-old people coming to terms... It sounds awful, dunnit? It's everything that rock or pop music shouldn't be about. Just remember who wrote the lyrics, that's all I say."
The author of the immortal, scarf-waving chant-along lines, "When did you first realise / It's time you took an older lover, baby" has however necked another half of cider and is warming to a debate on the tunefulness of the animal kingdom. "Some animals make an alright noise. The 'Song Of The Nightingale'."
What about The Song Of The Blimmin' Donkey? "Probably to a donkey, the sound of a donkey is like Frank Sinatra. It's probably how they find out about partners - a mating call. One's singing like Frank Sinatra and the other one's singing like the singer from Embrace. That's how you choose which one you're going to go out with."
As any donkey knows, it's not a wise idea to enter a musical tussle with the pop-quiz meister after a couple of drinks. In the last 20 minutes he has laid waste to 'so-called' Easy-Listening Scenesters, dubbing them "knobheads in safari suits", launched an unprovoked nuclear attack on The Lighthouse Family, declared that Big Gigs are out, Upstairs At The (Tiny) Garage is in, and concluded thus: "I do think it was important to get into the mainstream. But when you get into that arena, there's always this force that comes into play. And to keep things exciting something else has to happen. Like I say, we're part of the establishment. And I'm sure that there's people who think that the establishment needs overturning and something else needs putting in its place."
Feelings of being trapped in the goo of mainstream pop are precisely what lies behind the soul-baring 'Help The Aged'. When Britpop won the war it left one of the sharpest lyricists in pop without much of a target, Writing a tune called 'Middle Class People' would, as he says, have been "pathetic". Suddenly Cocker's pathological honesty had to contend with the fact that he wasn't some dysfunctional Lurex deviant of the backstreets, but a successful, worldy, 30-somethinger moving easily from rave to art gallery to squat to members club.
"That's why I think people went off Morrissey," muses Jarvis. "Because he kept writing about how inadequate he was, which, fair enough, I'm sure he probably was and is, but somehow having had a certain measure of success, and by dint of repetition, it starts to ring a bit hollow. For me to write about, 'Yes I saw her in the chip shop / And I said get yer top off' or something like that would be pathetic because I haven't been in a chippy for ages. So I've tried to take that into account."
Cocker hasn't been hanging out at Andrew Lloyd Webber's birthday party, daaarling. He's keen to point that out. But his personal landscape has changed and so far his response has been shockingly (confusingly) honest. 'Help The Aged' is not about empathy for oldsters on park benches. That's just a side-effect. It's about Jarvis. No, really.
"It tackles personal issues, because I'm now 34 years old," he says. "And I have been aware of the ageing process for a couple of years now. And that's where it came from. It's not a heartfelt plea to help people cross the road."
Have you ever done that? "Of course I have. I'm a lovely lad. Very caring... But, I'm afraid it's just me whining on about getting old."
So it's a deep inner fear of mortality? "Everybody's afraid of dying. The thing is, you move the goal posts with yourself. I remember when I first came down here and started going out to raves and stuff, and thinking, 'F-ing hell! I'm getting into raving at 25, I'm past it'. What I'm hoping is that I'm not on my own in this sad pursuit of moving the goal posts. People are desperately gripping on to their youth into their 30s, which 20 years ago would have been quite unheard of. And because of the so-called youth revolution in the '60s, still all the images of what's to be desired in life are based around young, fit-looking people. So it's going to end up causing people lots of problems because the brutal fact of it is that the ageing process is something that no-one is immune to. Everybody gets old and everybody dies."
"It seems so unfair that the young part of your life goes on until your mid-30s, and then you've got this f-ing big chunk of your life where you're a giffer. And what the f- are you supposed to do with that time? Look back on your glory days? Like (switches into geriatric Cockney raver speak), 'Yeah! Centre Force 1989, f-in' yeaaas! We were 'avin it then, lad. I tell you, son, you think you're f-in' 'avin it now? We was 'avin it back then!' So it was my desperate attempt to come to terms with that, with trying to find some dignity in adulthood."
The other thing about 'Help The Aged' is that it's another Pulp song where social divides are bridged under the duvet. Different classes. Now different generations. "It's a heartfelt plea for me to get some f-in' sex, isn't it!? Erm... No, no. It's just that that's the ultimate 'how do you do'. Because the thing about sex is that while you're doing it, no matter what your car's like or how many gold rings you've got on, whether you're any good at it is nothing to do with your social standing. There's no hiding behind any kind of construct. You can either do it or you can't do it. And that's what I like about it. It's a leveller, isn't it. The great leveller."
Democracy in action.
"That's it! Let's all shag in the streets! Come on! We'll sort the problems out." So why's the album called 'This Is Hardcore'?
"Well, it's not Happy Hardcore, it's very Unhappy Hardcore. No, it's Hardcore, in that, for years and years, you sustain yourself with fantasies and dreams of what can happen. Then if success does happen it's as if the mists clear, because people think that it validates you. And generally I think success has a really bad effect on people. Generally it means they're on the slippy slope to getting f-ed. But in the eyes of the world it validates you. You are a success! You can walk with your head held high down the street! So you don't have to have this construct, or fantasy stuff any more. And it's weird, because then you come up against the essence of yourself... and often, you realise that you're... a bit of a tit. And I suppose that's what '...Hardcore' is about really. It's getting down to the marrowbone, the essence of what it's about and why you do it and why you continue to do it."
So this is 'ardcore. And Pulp know the score? "Well, no, I would never pretend to know the score. I have no idea of the score. I didn't even know the game had started."
For 14 years they were 'losers'. Now they're the most provocative, most adventurous and possibly the only honest 'winners' out of the whole Brit pack. None of them tarries long in the Nameless Pub. There's no limbo dancing. These people have babies to bath, neuroses to placate, obsessions, mates, dreams, doubts and duvets to attend to. And it's kind of reassuring to know that Jarvis is hellbent on transforming such realities as these into a lot more magnificent pop songs.
The full dedication inscribed into that twilight bench on Hampstead Heath must have been as follows: In Loving Memory Of Jarvis Cocker - Pop Clown. Geek. Outsider. Tabloid Escape Artist. 1980-'96. Wishing him peace and smooth skin, in his new hardcore incarnation.