Pulp are the world's most patient overnight sensation... The punk rock roots in Sheffield. The naive first album. The naive second album. Moz envy. The wheelchair. Art school. The timely dawn of Crimplenism. 15 years in a rayon shirt. Sit back and enjoy then, as Jarvis Cocker remembers.
Autumn in Peckham. Is there a more romantic phrase in the English language? On the balcony of Jarvis Cocker's town residence, every bird in South London seems to have ritually defecated on Jarvis' bicycle. He points to a sheet of stagnant water lying on the top of the adjoining row of lock-up garages. A few forlorn fag packets and plimsolls loll in the oily water. "We used to have a family of ducks living there. How stupid can you get? You've got the ability to fly, you stupid birds. Don't live on top of some garages in Peckham!"
Inside, the orange curtains are emphatically drawn against the glorious sunshine. A massive fairground amusement labelled 'Cupid's Secret' dominates the front room. Above the stereo is a large anatomical model of the human ear. There are two vases filled with outlandish plastic sunflowers. And a football-sized transparent strawberry on the coffee table. This has been Jarvis' home for the last two years and now he is moving on. The end of an era.
What better time to reflect, to look back on the strange and tortured story of Pulp, the longest-running overnight sensation in pop, the Sheffield mavericks, prophets without honour in their own land, forced to wander in the wilderness for 15 years before a miraculous leap into the popular consciousness, the sudden realisation that, yes, those tank tops and mirror-balls and tinsel and songs about council estates and sexual misdemeanours were the right thing to do all along. And now happily ensconced on Island records, home of U2 whose sales figures they shall surely be outstripping before long. Let us look back then on the laughter, the tears, the good times, the bad times, the wheelchairs, the crocheted ties. The rum and chequered history of Pulp. "Are you sure this is a good idea? I could end up sounding like Peter Ustinov. Like a boring sod." Trust us.
Pulp, or to give them their full inexplicable original name, Arabicus Pulp, was a child of the punk-rock revolution that swept Britain in 1976/77. For the 13-year-old Jarvis Cocker at school in Sheffield, punk swooped into his life like a hawk into a dovecote. "The great thing about punk was you had to decide, almost instantly whether you were for it or against it. It was so hardline. I remember listening to local radio, Radio Hallam, and the DJ said, Well, you will not be bearing any punk rock on this station. It's terrible."
"You just wouldn't hear that now. So I thought it was great. My disenchantment began when I went to see The Stranglers - who, unfortunately, I liked - at the Top Rank. So, believing in the punk spirit of individuality and self-expression I went along in a jumble-sale jacket and a blue tie that my mother had crocheted for me. And all these people in mohicans took the piss and said I was a mod. The irony is that punks used to take the piss out of Teddy boys and that's exactly what they've become: the modern Teds. But, anyway, punk was a very important thing to happen to you at 13. Without it I'd probably have become a Led Zeppelin fan and gone to university."
So were fledging Pulp a bona fide punk outfit? "We weren't a bona fide anything. We couldn't play. The bass player just hadn't grasped the idea of playing in a band. He thought it was a competition to see who could finish the song first. He'd play really fast and finish first and then go off to the fridge to get something to eat. So he went. I mean we were terrible. We played second from the bottom of an all-dayer at The Leadmill which had just opened. I was 16 by this time, I was the eldest. We'd never been on a stage before. The bass player got feedback and only vaguely knew what to do. He just walked away from the amp until eventually he ran out of stage and fell into the crowd. I do remember individual songs, but I'm not going to tell you what they were, no chance. We've never been musos but a modicum of ability is necessary I suppose."
Like many before him, Jarvis cites John Peel as a major influence on his young life. "It was through his programme that I first heard all this new music. And then just before I left school I went to see his roadshow in Sheffield - 1981 this would be, and I gave him a tape of us. And he got in touch and we did a Peel session. His producer rang up my mother, cos I was at school of course. It was a magical thing to happen. I remember thinking back that this was it, it was music for me all the way. My life had taken this irreversible step. So I decided I wasn't going to go to university. I was going to stay in Sheffield and carry on with the group."
Having convinced his mother that this was a wise move ("she's pretty broadminded: she's been to art college"), it was only left for the other members of the band to work similarly persuasive manoeuvres with their parents. This proved a little harder. "One of the group, his dad was a teacher. He over-reacted, he threw his dinner at him. In the end. the rest just went their own way. Pulp was just me and I had to find a new band. And then my life started to take on a really strange shape."
By his own admission, Jarvis was hopelessly naive at this juncture. Particularly where girls were concerned. "I was writing all these songs about girls and I'd never had a proper girlfriend. Have you heard our first album?" Jarvis reaches into a pile of scuffed vinyl and from behind a copy of 'The Cars Greatest Hits' produces 'It', Pulp's first album from 1983. "Then we got involved with Fire records," he says in a tone of voice normally reserved for sentences such as 'I had been sentenced to 30 years in a Lebanese jail'. Jarvis puts the record on, mumbles a few excuses and retreats to the kitchen. The first track, 'My Lighthouse', is a whimsical acoustic number in which a youthful Jarvis sings feyly of love and chatting and lighthouses. The latterday Jarvis returns and whips the stylus off.
"You can just hear the naivety, can't you? And then within three years, that had become this." He waves a copy of Pulp's second album at me. 'Freaks' was recorded in a week in 1986 for £600. The cover displays distorted and grotesque pictures of the band. The album bears the sub-title 'Ten Songs About Power, Claustrophobia, Suffocation And Holding Hands'. This odd, mordant, twisted music will surprise those who know the Pulp of today and cherish their ebullience and good humour. The murky and disjointed nature of Jarvis' existence shine (if that's the right word) through the songs which chronicle Jarvis' journey from schoolboy adventurer to embittered twenty-something.
"In my naive days I thought that you were going to get a girlfriend and then it was all going to be alright. And then you find out that it's not going to he alright. It was called 'Freaks' cos I was worried that I was turning into a freak," he says matter-of-factly. "I'd been left school three years and was living in a kind of warehouse that was a focal point for all the downs and outs and misfits in Sheffield. There was a model railway there and a rat-infested food place. My life had no shape, no discipline. Things with the band weren't great. Candida's (Pulp keyboardist) brother used to drum with us and he and the bass player were, well, a bit loose, I suppose you could say. They would smoke dope all day and have endless arguments with Russell (Pulp's guitarist/violinist who was in his very strict disciplinarian phase.)"
"Gigs were a farce. At one, Magnus the drummer threw his kit to the floor after every song and then had to re-assemble it before the next one. All of our fans seemed to be mentally unbalanced. The Smiths were just taking off so of course I was jealous of him getting successful because they were in a faintly similar vein to us compared to all the other stuff around then... 'Club Tropicana' and Gary Numan singing "I am a fucking robot". Anyway, I just felt completely out of step with everything. And this all culminated in me falling out of that window."
Some of you may have seen pictures of Pulp onstage from this point wherein Jarvis sits disconsolately in a wheelchair. You may have assumed it was rather a grotesque affectation in the disability chic vein. It wasn't. In 1986, Jarvis fell 30-plus feet from a window from which he was dangling. He fractured his pelvis and smashed up his wrist and foot. Doctors said he would never walk properly again. Anyone who has seen Pulp recently and marvelled at the singer's lithe and snake-like manoeuvres will know that Jarvis has triumphed in the face of medical scepticism.
"I was in poor spirits at the time but I wasn't trying to kill myself. I was just arseing around trying to impress some girl. But there's nothing like spending six weeks flat on your back to help you take stock. The first thing I thought was that I could have died and that it wouldn't have been noble or dramatic. It would have been pathetic. Me hanging there by my fingers saying, I can't get back in. In a film there would have been drums or exciting string music or something. Up till then I'd always thought that life had some meaning. Imagine a soap opera. If Michelle in East Enders sees a man going into a shop and we see her seeing him, you know that it's significant. You know that in a couple of weeks he's going to nick a baby or something. I'd always thought life was like that, that somewhere along the line everything would tie in. Falling out of the window made me realise that nothing was going to tie in, there was no magical thread running through life. It's all random. But once you realise that, it's quite good."
A classic absurdist turning point which anyone ploughing their way through Camus or Sartre will instantly recognise. Except that this one didn't happen to a gaunt, disenfranchised pavement artist in Montmartre, this happened to a pissed-off singer from Sheffield.
"So all this tale of woe ends with me deciding, at the age of 25, to leave Sheffield. I had to admit that I'd taken a wrong turn. You know when you're in a car and you take a wrong turn, you don't like to admit it. You think if you keep going you'll come right again. But you don't, do you? I'd spent the best part of a decade in bed and in an unsuccessful group. I was forced to admit I'd been wasting my time. It's humiliating. But I was lucky enough to get into St Martin's College in London doing a film course so I was off. I just imagined the group would cease to exist."
In fact something quite different happened. Pulp entered a state of semi-hibernation with three of the group in Sheffield and Jarvis and bass player Steve based in London. Meeting on a roughly bimonthly basis and playing the (very) occasional gig, they maintained a nominal existence, little knowing that true recognition was just around the corner. In the meantime, however, Jarvis was adjusting to London life.
"I thought I'd be mixing with the beautiful people of the film world, but it wasn't like that. It was a good laugh though. It was 1988 and acid house was happening so, naturally, I'd become a drug addict. I surprised myself by how much I got into it. I'd never been particularly into trends before. No way was I being a goth. And I couldn't be a new romantic. I would have looked a tit in knickerbockers." Ironically, it was just as Pulp stopped really trying that the world took notice. They had recorded an album 'Separations' for Fire in the summer of Jarvis' first year of college. Fire wouldn't put this out despite Jarvis' pleading, but they did, unexpectedly, release the track 'My Legendary Girlfriend' as a single in the spring of 1991.
Suddenly, Pulp's idiosyncratic, dilettantish English pop was snugly 'in' within a year. The Zeitgeist reacted to them like a chameleon. Pulp and their ilk represented elegantly light refreshment from the staple stodge diet of American greasemonkeys and the embarrassing fag-end of 'baggy'. It came to be called Crimplenism. A kind of movement (although many of the bands had not so much as shared a creme de menthe and egg-nog) which emphasised fun, the shared British experience, nostalgia, cool, a weird, second-hand glamour. And Pulp's music, still tiptoeing daintily along the line that separates dark, crazy things from brash and shiny chart pop, exemplified it, even if it was a myth. Pulp were unashamedly closer in spirit to Neil Young the Manchester City footballer and Space 1999 than Neil Young the free-world rocker and Wayne's World.
And Jarvis' status of star-in-waiting became apparent to anyone who saw him onstage; debonair and somehow disturbing, off-kilter glamour. Adrian Mole playing the starring role in Goldfinger. "I'd always wanted to be doing this thing. It had been something that I'd had running around in my head since being at school. I know a lot of people have that sort of stuff going on in their head but it was an obsession with me. Life's a rum business, isn't it? For a long time, Pulp had taken up every part of my being. I'd wanted it to happen more than anything in the world and then the minute we stop trying people sit up and take notice."
Through the next year, on their own Gift label, Pulp put out single after single that swelled their growing band of admirers; 'Razzmatazz', 'OU', 'Babies'. Funny, endearing and sometimes slightly nightmarish. For Jarvis, however, 1992 was a frustrating year. "We were still trapped in this legal minefield with Fire. So, there was a lot of labels courting us and it is like courting. It's the nearest a bloke gets to being chatted up, getting taken out to dinner and stuff - but we couldn't do anything about it. All these people suddenly taking notice."
One of the people who took notice was Island Records to whom the band are now signed. A resume of Pulp's recent history entitled 'Intro' is available now with a new album for Island being recorded even as we speak. "It's like going on holiday. When you're sitting on the ferry or the train and everything seems possible and it's really exciting. It's that kind of feeling... and I'm very excited about this."
He jumps from his chair and dashes upstairs. Various crashes and bangs emanate from his bedroom. Eventually he emerges with an acetate of Pulp's forthcoming single 'Lipgloss'. Placing a ten pence piece carefully on the stylus, he goes to hide in the toilet while it plays. It is, happily, fantastic. Simply a straightforwardly marvellous pop song, so direct and refreshing that it will confound those who have the band tagged as a quirky novelty act. Re-emerging, Jarvis slips the vinyl back into its plain white sleeve with a glow of pride.
"I'm pretty realistic, you see. I understand the nature of a relationship with a record company. I know that if we don't sell any records, we'll get dropped. But at least I feel like we're working towards some kind of conclusion. At least we're going somewhere. It might be that the end titles are in sight. But I'm hoping that it's just this particular film that's ending and there's going to be lots of sequels like Friday The Thirteenth. Pulp... The Nightmare Continues!"