It was the week that Jarvis Cocker, the Prince of Britpop, took on Michael Jackson the, ahem, King Of Pop™ and won. But as the dust begins to settle and the evil eye of the tabloids turns on other innocent victims, Pulp start out on their most challenging gigs to date, their first arena tour. John Mulvey catches up with the band at Birmingham NEC and finds that all is well in the land of pencil skirts and peeping toms. John Perry hears the truth according to the others and discovers that the angry fans are more than ready to come out fighting.
There are, you may be surprised to hear, no miracles in the arena tonight. No corpses are re-animated, no felled trees are sent springing back to life, no water is magically turned into Tizer. Acrylic Armageddon - when the sky rains Spangles and all nicely-behaved children are granted entry to a pure kitsch heaven - has been postponed indefinitely.
No. After 90 minutes of singing and dancing, war, famine, pestilence, religious intolerance, misery, brutality and the pathetic existence of Michael Jackson still continue unabated. After all, as any sane man or woman knows, pop music really cannot heal the world.
Sometimes, though, it can make a little more sense out of it. That, perhaps, is Pulp's mission on Earth: to promote self-respect among their hardcore brethren of freaks and wallflowers; to advise tolerance to their newly-converted masses; and to encourage hatred towards the hypocrites, creeps and sanctimonious arseholes ranged against them. And us. For, as Pulp's triumphant first stadium tour begins, it's suddenly become a whole lot easier to put them into context. To realise that, for all Jarvis Cocker's vainglorious posturing and all the glittery showbiz trimmings, this is a group firmly grounded in reality. That it needed Jarvis to pit his not-inconsiderable wits and peculiarly lithe dance-moves against such a deluded, quasi-messianic buffoon for us to see how ordinary, at heart, he really is.
Sure, you can watch him shimmy and sashay around, one moment fondling himself suggestively, the next genuflecting in readiness for his knighthood, the next standing - arms outstretched ready for crucifixion - with a look of supremely fraudulent innocence.
Sure, this is phenomenally snazzy theatre, directed broadly enough to enrapture 12,000 people at a time. And yes, sure, he can inspire a near-pathological brand of devotion. But compared to Michael Jackson, Jarvis comes across as a pretty normal bloke. Thinner than average, probably. Cleverer, in most cases. More confident, almost certainly. When that specky northern streak of piss climbed onstage with you-know-who, waggled his arse and flicked a couple of V-signs, he was doing exactly what a planet load of repelled ordinary people wished they had the guts for. Brothers and sisters, he was arrested so that we could go free...
Oh, and yes, it was a great publicity stunt, too. It would be foolish to dismiss Jarvis' act as entirely selfless - he has, after all, been practising long enough in readiness for this pop star malarkey. But at least he had a point. One of the many nauseous and bemusing things our holier-than-who? tabloids have claimed in the past week is that Jarvis is a 'rock 'n' roll lout' in the same class as the ever-charming Brothers Gallagher. WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! Oasis' behaviour at the Brits was boorish, arrogant and entirely self-aggrandising.
Meanwhile, Jarvis' was creative, subversive and very, very funny. Traditional rock 'n' roll rebellion - y'know, smashing up hotel rooms, that kind of stuff - is cowardly, petulant and, ultimately, utterly pointless. This was everything but: insurrection fuelled by a fierce and dynamic moral rectitude. Frankly, it's impossible to go over the top with the praise.
Tonight, then, as his face appears on the giant screen at the NEC, Jarvis Cocker looks a fraction more tired and drawn than usual. "I'm especially pleased to be here," he says. "It was either coming here or spending a few more nights in the cells." Cue massive cheers. "It got a bit lonely in there. I don't wanna go on about Michael Jackson because it'll look desperate and I don't want to be seen as milking it..." More cheers... "Well, I'll go on a little bit, then. I did not go onstage and start shovelling kids off and throwing them off and stamping on them. That's not really my style of doing things."
He tails off, wanders back to the flight of stairs at the back of the stage. It seems, for once, as if he's stopping himself from saying what he really thinks - from, perhaps, voicing the kind of libellous thoughts shared by every single person in the stadium. A possible jail sentence and an impeccably-timed bout of flu are hardly ideal preparation for the biggest, most important tour of your life. Nevertheless, it all works just fine. There's a fairly unique hybrid of family entertainer and tabloid pariah at work here: a man who can almost imperceptibly switch from righteous avenger to sinister voyeur in the space of one song. For, in spite of the humanity and moral courage that pervades the anti-Jacko protest and, say, the celebratory call-to-arms of 'Mis-Shapes', there's also some distinctly unwholesome stuff going on.
So the show kicks off with 'I Spy', the astonishingly sustained baroque disco opus wherein a particularly virulent strain of voyeurism, humiliation and general nastiness is exposed. "I specialise in revenge." he murmurs, and you get the impression Michael Jackson may not have heard the last of Jarvis Cocker, one way or another.
Then there's the moment, during 'Underwear', when Jarvis reaches out just once to the fans clustered at the end of his catwalk. Hands reach out to touch his, slowly moving towards them... until, mere millimetres from contact, he coquettishly pulls away, perfectly enacting all the libidinous frustration inherent in the song.
And 'Sorted For E's & Wizz' - the first Pulp cause célèbre, of course - is postscripted by Jarvis asking, "What if you never come down, though? That's what I wonder. I mean, it might be a nice view..." Which begs the question: what if it's better to go through life permanently off your face, blissfully immune to Jacko-esque outrages, utterly opiated and benign? Is that necessarily so bad? Exactly the sort of ambiguous, stimulated musing, in other words, that'll keep landing him in trouble until the tabloids finally, and delightedly, nail him once and for all.
In the meantime, though, we can savour him scandalising hundreds of innocuous family outings again and again so that, by the end of 'Acrylic Afternoons', he's gone through a long, panting, gurgling, sweat-sodden comedy of arousal that climaxes - literally, more or less - in unambiguously orgasmic squealing. The randy bugger.
In spite of illness and, presumably, worry, it's typical of the calculated frenzy Cocker spends much of the gig working up to. The whole pantheon of splay-legged leaps. explicit handjives and camp salutes are wheeled out; every movement being so knowingly exaggerated that a mere wipe of the brow seems imbued with profound poetic significance. Every flinch comes across as even more larger-than-life on the screens, the footage interspersed with odd clips - notably some cheesily graceful ice dancers - that give some clue as to where Jarvis finds the inspiration for those idiosyncratic swoops. Well, maybe...
Screens apart - which also, incidentally, do full justice to drummer Nick Banks' 'Jarvis Is Innocent' NME T-shirt - the show isn't that different from those on Pulp's pre-Christmas jaunt. The stage set - giant flashing polkadots, a high gantry for those most important posing moments - remains the same as, for the most part, does the set, with nothing pre-dating 'Babies' and the bulk plucked from 'Different Class'. The one new addition is 'Mile End', a twitchy squalorfest from the 'His 'n' Hers' sessions that's ended up, suitably, on the Trainspotting soundtrack.
The major change, of course, is one of scale. The band is augmented by a percussionist and - decadently enough, for just 'Acrylic Afternoons' - by a flautist. Many of the songs, too, have been stretched and swollen for the full arena effect, with bonus flaming choruses, brooding longueurs, extravagant cod-classical introductions and in the case of a quite brilliant 'Live Bed Show', gently wallowing guitar solos from Jarvis himself. That the songs survive without seeming bloated is due, in part, to so many of them having intricate melodramatic systems of climax after CLIMAX! That more grandeur, more gravitas, more pomp and thunderous circumstance actually becomes them.
It's also - as Glastonbury so comprehensively proved - because Pulp are better suited to the biggest stages than practically any British band of the past ten years. Even in their drabbest days, playing in front of 30 or 40 true believers in select north London hovels, there was always a sense of occasion, of marvellously - if preposterously out-of-place - glamour. Once, to a tiny crowd, they played a ten-minute atmosphere-building introduction while a giant tacky star studded with lightbulbs pulsed behind them and Jarvis fed the faithful with doughnuts skewered on his fingers. Another time (with Suede, making their first appearance without Justine Frischmann, in support), they played behind picture frames constructed from footwear: shoe-gazing, see? Fundamentally, their style, their self-image, their flamboyant creative drive, hasn't changed that much in the past five years. What has changed is lust about everything around them.
So now we get stadia full of disconcertingly well-adjusted people spiritedly bawling along to 'Mis-Shapes'. We get, in Block 15 at least, tranced-out rave-dancing to 'Sorted For E's & Wizz', the "Nice one! Geezer!" line spat out so contemptuously by Jarvis echoed, irony-free, as a terrace chant. And we get, in the middle of 'F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E''s austere synthdrama, a very respectable looking bloke mooning in the aisle. Enough.
This is Pulp now: a national institution, albeit an occasionally wicked one. And this is Jarvis: regardless of Noel and Liam's cocksure bravado and Damon's deceptively clean-cut teen appeal, the single most recognisable face of Britpop. A personality big enough to represent Britain in a Transatlantic superstar face-off. And a band wry enough to fill the screens with photographs of happy smiling children between encores.
Oh yes. By the end of the tour, and whatever shitstorms they weather in the meantime, you wouldn't bet against Jarvis Cocker moonwalking across the Wembley stage. A virtuoso thriller. Walking on water, however, may still be some way off...
Nick Banks, Drums
Tell us about the Michael Jackson incident.
"I thought the whole thing was hilarious! It was like the Keystone Cops, all these bouncers dressed up as beggars and hiding behind Michael Jackson - they looked ridiculous. Then to watch them chasing Jarvis all around this huge pyramid shaped set, it was a farce."
"When Jarvis came back and sat down, all the audience were stamping and cheering. People kept coming up to him, slapping him on the back, giving him the thumbs-up and going, 'Good move Jarvis!' Not bad for someone who can't usually walk one end of the stage to the other without falling over. There's been no end of support for Jarvis, we've had thousands of letters and faxes. The people are truly behind him. We even had the tabloids ringing us up to apologise, saying they backed the wrong horse."
What do you think will come of it all?
"Well, the record industry needs huge cash cows like Michael Jackson, so they'll no doubt keep tolerating his behaviour, no matter how sick he gets. So it's great to have someone like Jarvis standing up to protest. Which would you rather have: Jarvis, or Bob Geldof trying to get his tongue as far as he could up Michael Jackson's arse?"
Candida Doyle, Keyboards
What do you think of the 'Jarvis Is Innocent' T-shirts?
It's true - all true. It was all my fault though! Well, no, it wasn't entirely, but I was encouraging him. But you can't make Jarvis do anything; he only ever does what he wants to do. The truth will come out - the papers get closer to the truth every day, you'll all find out soon enough."
Steve Mackey, Bass
Tell us about the Michael Jackson incident.
"We really didn't want to get involved in this because people will think that we're just seeking publicity, especially after all the nonsense around 'Sorted For E's & Wizz'; but we're not. And it's become obvious that people realise the other night was bullshit. I mean, two years ago, the press and record companies would have slaughtered us, but now they're siding with us. It's quite an optimistic thing to happen."
"I actually like Michael Jackson, I like some of his songs and I thought the last album was alright. But Monday night was a case of the Emperor's new clothes; someone had to stick a pin into the balloon and burst it, so everyone could say that he was shit. And that's what Jarvis did."
Did you think about getting up there yourself?
"To be honest, I could see it was going to happen. I could see Jarvis was well in. But he's a better dancer than me so I let him get on with it while I stood on a table and clapped him on."
Is he innocent of hurting the kids?
"Oh yes. I was there. I saw it all. I've also seen the video. That's why we all feel quite bullish about it all. In our eyes, Jarvis has been defamed: he really didn't touch anyone. I think they should show it on telly and let the public make up their own minds."
Mark Webber, Guitar
What do you think of NME's 'Jarvis Is Innocent' T-shirts?
"Well, it's a true statement. I think you used a very provocative pose - a nicer, more relaxed one would have been more appropriate, because Jarvis is a very nice man. We don't want people getting the wrong idea. Basically, all I want to say is that the video tapes have been located, and the truth will out. Jarvis isn't seen touching any little girls, he isn't even seen stepping on any little girl's toes."
"I'm a little bit disappointed that this antagonism has developed between us and Michael Jackson because I've recently come to realise that I quite like is music. I paid out good money for that 'HIStory' album and I like 'Earth Song', especially towards the end where he keeps going, 'Ooooh!', so I'm a bit sad about it all. But it's nice to hear that Michael Jackson respects Pulp's music!"
Emily Hall, 19, Birmingham
"I don't blame Jarvis for standing up against Michael Jackson. Somebody's got to do it. Michael Jackson was pathetic acting like God, all glowing white. I'd have cracked Michael Jackson if I'd have got the chance! I wouldn't have given him any really serious injuries, but he was asking for it."
Mandy, 25, Wolverhampton
"It's true what Jarvis said about Michael Jackson living out his fantasies onstage; the way he kissed the rabbi was disgusting. And what about the little kids! I blame the parents. Even if he wasn't Michael Jackson, even if he was some bloke living across the road from you and he'd been accused of child molesting, you wouldn't let your children anywhere near him. Just because he's famous, they think it's OK, plus he's got enough money to get around it. I'd rather Jarvis looked after my children any day."
Tim, 32, Milford Haven
"It's a throwback to The Sex Pistols and it's brilliant. Jacko needs a good kick up the ass and Jarvis gave it to him. I reckon he's made a valuable contribution to pop culture."
Michelle, 25, Cardiff
"I thought what happened was brilliant. Jackson thinks he's God. If I'd been there and I'd been off my face, I'd have done the same."
Emily, 23, Nottingham
"Michael Jackson's got a Messiah complex really, hasn't he? I think it's right what Jarvis did. I mean, you can't condone getting up onstage during another performer's act, but if it means stopping Michael Jackson, then anything's worthwhile. That man is evil."
Alex, 17, Birmingham
"Jarvis is definitely innocent. Michael Jackson's a tw*t, basically. He's got so above himself with all his, 'I am God', rubbish. That's what's so good about Jarvis - he never pretends to be anything he's not whereas look at Michael Jackson - he hasn't even got his own skin!"
John, 28, Chepstow
"I found Jackson's performance to be quite offensive and Jarvis' actions were quite understandable. It was brilliant that he made a stand. I shouldn't think he's in too much trouble. It's all good publicity at the end of the day. And I'm sure that he didn't hurt anyone."
Helen, 17, Newport
"Jackson is a complete tosser and Jarvis was right to do what he did. I don't think anybody would throw the book at him."
John from Wolverhampton
"If anyone is God, then it's Jarvis. Jarvis IS GOD!"