Jarvis Cocker, the only kid in his Sheffield classroom who wore lederhosen, didn't have a girlfriend till he was 19. Now he's a pin-up and rock idol, the king of Sex City...
Jarvis Cocker always wanted to blend in, to be the same as everyone else. He didn't want to stand out like a freak, but nature dealt him a certain look. At school in the downtrodden Sheffield suburb of Intake, young Jarvis was a head taller than his classmates, which didn't help his assimilation. Then there was his name: not much good being a Jarvis when everyone else was John, Peter and Paul. "That was a cross to bear, although now I think it's alright. I don't know why I was called Jarvis. My mum went to art college, so I know why my sister's called Saskia. She was Rembrandt's wife."
To make matters worse, Cocker was the only kid with long hair - "so people thought I was a girl" - and his mother had an eccentric dress sense. "My uncle married a German woman and their relatives used to send me leather shorts - lederhosen, the sort Austrian goatherds wear. Mum thought they were really cute," Jarvis pauses. "I went to school looking like an extra from Heidi. It was mortifying."
Funny how these formative experiences shape a life. These days Jarvis Cocker is considered to be quite the dandy; not just a pop star but a sex symbol. He looks fairly conventional today, sitting in an ante room at London's Town House studios, where Pulp are recording their new album. The brown cords are only slightly flared, the jacket is woollen and the chisel-toed, buckled shoes sport a modest heel. But hang on: isn't that a satin shirt? Indeed it is, and it's collars are long and pointed. Does that tie have a kipper tail? I think it does. And what about the glasses? They may scream Michael Caine to the cognoscenti but it's "Hey Buddy Holly!" and "Are you Roy Orbison?" to the louts and yobbos of Intake.
"I don't think I'm strange, but experience tells me I must be," he sighs. "I walk round Sheffield near me sister's house and within ten minutes I've been called a daft name. They shout: 'What decade are you in then?'" Have no fear, style will out. The boy who got pushed around at his first Stranglers concert for daring to dress like an individual - well, he wore a crocheted tie - will have the last laugh. "It's a personal triumph over adversity. I never had a girlfriend at school, I didn't cop off until I was 19, even though I stayed until the sixth form. I was paranoid about girls, so if people think I'm good-looking now, well... it's nice to think it might be true, but I can't do anything about it without turning into this terrible person."
Cocker fronted an early version of Pulp at school in 1977, the year punk broke. They were Arabicus Pulp for a while, after the coffee-bean commodity. "We were in Economics and somebody had the Financial Times, that's how it happened. It was a very unwieldy name, so it soon became Pulp. Everyone hated it. People thought you'd coughed - pulp - and it was frequently spelled wrong. We've been billed as Pope and The Pulps. It's fine now. I like the idea that it means ephemeral material that gets thrown away, like the cheap novels printed on crap paper. People collect those books now. Things that are meaningless and throwaway often survive to define a period."
Over a decade of spectacular independent under-achievement in commercial terms has lent Jarvis a wry defence mechanism. After all, way back in the early '80s, the fledgling Pulp did their first John Peel session. They had an album called It out in 1983; another called Freaks in 1986. Subtitled "Ten songs about power, claustrophobia, suffocation and holding hands", Freaks coincided with The Smiths' heyday, which still irritates Jarvis, who views Pulp Marks 1 and 2 as fit to stand comparison with Morrissey's mob.
The year before Freaks was released on an unsuspecting world he'd fallen off a 30ft window ledge, attempting to impress a girl, suffering injuries to the pelvis, wrist and foot. "That literally brought me down to earth. I've had all the aestheticism beaten out of me. I thought I was sorted out to be a pop star. I had this very romanticised view of life. I'd never have to do anything practical; I wouldn't bother with shopping or anything practical. Even as a kid I never learnt to ride a bike. I thought I could live on this aesthetic level, head in the clouds. Then I fell out of the window."
Cocker took stock of his life thus far from his hospital bed and found he was in the red. 'It did me good. Before then I used to get up in the afternoon and avoid the obstacles of the mundane everyday. I'd done nothing except live in the future. It was my countdown period. I saw myself like a rocket on the launch pad waiting to take off, but it went on indefinitely. I was stuck in a ward with a lot of old blokes who'd worked down the pit and talking to them made me alter my viewpoint." Jarvis started to go hyper on details and specifics. Reading Tom Wolfe, nuister of minutiae, pointed him another direction. "He made stuff I might have dismissed as crap seem exciting - stories about stock-car racing or surfers. It was a revelation. Reality wasn't this grey lump of concrete after all. It's been my personal thing ever since to try and do that. To be specific. I hate it when we get called the K word or reviewers say we're camp."
A long stint of independent worthiness with Red Rhino and Fire Records in the '80s resulted in several fine but largely overlooked recordings - the almost posthumous album Separations waited like a convict for five years to be released. The Fire years are the subject of mild mud-slinging; label boss Clive Solomon put Separations on hold when Rough Trade went into receivership. Despite a brace of critically adored singles - 'My Legendary Girlfriend' and 'Countdown' - Solomon, an avowed fan of the band he signed twice, now blames "factors beyond our control" for the postponement, though you wouldn't need to be Carol Vordermann to understand the mutterings of discontent coming Fire's way from Sheffield.
Solomon's partner at the time, record executive David Bedford, echoes the oft-heard, but at that point seldom-believed, opinion that Jarvis was a star. "He was witty, funny, clever. Pulp made good, cheap videos and they obviously had a vision that they've only recently been able to achieve." Demands on their time were not very great with the press back then. The odd interview with a fanzine maybe. But they stuck at it and now it's third time lucky at Island. Bands like Suede and Blur have certainly learnt a few tricks from them, and I can't see why they shouldn't succeed in America now. In the current climate, their Englishness shouldn't be a hindrance.'
But oh, the benefits of hindsight. Despairing at the pop lark as he saw it then, Jarvis enrolled at St Martin's with bassist Steve Mackey to study film-making in 1988, thus managing to sidestep baggy, shoegazing and all that malarkey. During their hiatus, guitarist Russell Senior was dealing in antique glass and dreaming up his board game, soon to go into production as The Housing Ladder; key-board-player Candida Doyle worked in a toy shop and drummer Nick Banks was teaching.
"While I was at college I thought the group would disappear, but we got our second or third wind," recalls Jarvis over Holsten and Silk Cut. "By 1991, what struck me was how sexless pop music had become. I thought I could see a gap in the market," he smiles. "I mean sex is constantly on people's minds, isn't it, but in pop it gets written in a such a stupid or nebulous way, even though it rules people's lives. Look at that Bank Of England bloke... he's off to the job centre because of it. It's either the Prince approach of doing it all night long or it's like that TV series 'The Good Sex Guide', which was enough to make anyone celibate. Let's consult the manual: I've done me 20 minutes of foreplay; now I can achieve penetration."
The aptly named Cocker needed to look no further than his own experiences in Sheffield, Sex City, and the adolescent fumbling and groping that have provided the coda to British film culture from Tony Richardson to Mike Leigh. "Maybe it's cos I'm immature, but adolescence interests me because it's such an emotionally charged time. You've not done it yet, all that much, and you're taking this amazing step. It's always on your mind. Kids aren't PC about it, either. They'll go out with someone for two weeks and then pack 'em in, but it doesn't end up in the divorce courts. You feel crap for a few days, then find someone else. People get more furtive and perverse as they get older. I'm hoping to extend my adolescence as far as possible."
Armed with a psycho-sexual blueprint, Pulp embarked on the '90s with classic recordings like 'Inside Susan: A Story in 3 Parts' and the makings of what became 'His 'n' Hers', the album that opened up the handbag and spilled its guts out: all Boots No 7, handy applicators and cautionary urban tales like gang-bang scenario 'Joyriders'. Alternately bleak, comically gauche and fatally romantic, His n' Hers came with an NB: "Please do not read the lyrics while listening to the recordings." They would certainly make your glasses steam up if you did. In 'Babies', the teenaged protagonist develops a penchant for hiding inside a potential girlfriend's wardrobe and watching her big sister shagging. In 'She's A Lady' - a tangled web of affairs and deceit - the libidinous hero two-times his girlfriend with an insatiable older woman who sells candid snaps of herself to German businessmen. That doesn't put him off, mind. "Wore her back to front... kissed her where she said it hurt, but I was always underneath." So that one's about anal sex, eh, Jarvis?
Jarvis looks some-what taken aback and time and ever so slightly cross. "I don't think that's what I intended... erm... but if people want to have anal sex to it, that's fine by me." Thanks. There is an awkward silence. I've gone too far. Let's be vague. His 'n' Hers? "Well, it was definitely better than anything else we'd done. The theme was mostly about couples and how if you get into a relationship you subjugate parts of your personality. If that relationship breaks up you're suddenly an incomplete person. 'Lipgloss' was specifically about social skills going rusty. That and the fear of large shopping malls like Meadowhall in Sheffield."
Without hammering out a social tract of Britain in mall-culture decline, Cocker hit a raw nerve that will preserve His 'n' Hers in perpetuity - if not for longer. "There's just something ridiculous about these grand-scale shopping centres with their marble halls and canopies. They're so bogus. They install Victorian theme streets even though everyone knows the place was only built five years ago. It started with McDonald's, all that 'Have a nice day, please call again'. You couldn't ask for a bag of chips; you had to say: 'Fries please,' when everyone knew they were called chips. I think all that's bad, but I can't fathom the mindset of young people and how they see it. For example, when people tell me they were born in 1976, that means punk rock never that happened for them. It's historical, like Elvis Presley is to me. I know it happened, but it isn't quite real. I don't know what young 'uns are like now," he deadpans in exaggerated Sheffield-ese. "Don't understand 'em. Actually, we have a lot of young fans, which is encouraging. We can't be and totally out of touch. Or maybe they're just end curious to see what it were like in olden days. Eeh, it were grand."
If the past and the future were a confusion, at least the present became tangible for Cocker. Pulp even got nominated for the Mercury Prize - two years' free phone calls - and were invited to play at the Pulp Fiction premiere party held in the Ministry Of Sound. Dead posh. He could finally forget the wasted decade. "The '80s was a terrible time for lots of people, not just Pulp. If I'm in a bad mood I really resent the '80s. It should have been an important time, my 20s, an era of exploration. I wanted it to be exciting because I was born in the '60s and you look at the old films and it seems really good, all them parties. Now, suddenly it's your time and everything's gone matte black and grey and people are saying: 'Right, you've had yer fun, that's enough permissiveness, back to Victorian values.' Obviously, it's all a lot better now but then I won't get my 20s back. I want a refund."
To counteract life caught between yuppy materialism and innate poverty, the doleful doleite went into denial and became a jumble-saIe fanatic, establishing the look and the sound that helps Pulp strike their chord now. No longer an outcast, Jarvis looks back on a troubled childhood with something approaching equanimity. His father left home when Jarvis was seven, which probably took some coming to terms with, although he bequeathed an element of the Walter Mitty / Billy Liar persona to his day-dreaming son. "Dad was a bit of a musician and a bit of an actor. His main claim to fame was being friends with Joe Cocker (no relation) before he became famous. They had this act pretending to be brothers. He was a bit of a one. He went to Australia to avoid paying me mum alimony and conned his way on to a Sydney radio station pretending to be Joe Cocker's brother again. They believed him. I haven't seen him since."
The tale is amusing, but no doubt such a trauma has taken a toll. Mrs Cocker gave up her aspirations to be an artist when Jarvis arrived. "She sacrificed her career when father left and went to emptying fruit machines. I feel bad about that now, didn't appreciate it when I was a kid." Maybe Jarvis has finally exorcised most of his personal demons. Pulp circa 1995 are his vindication. His 'n' Hers is gold and selling in excess of six figures.
The new single 'Common People' will underline their prestigious ascent to the top flight of British pop. The single may also prove to be a marker as it tells a tale of London life, being an account of a liaison with a rich Greek student at St Martin's. "I was in my second year of film-making and you had to do another subject. I chose sculpture, and met this girl who wanted to live in Hackney like common people. She said she wanted to suffer. I was saying: 'That's impossible. You can rent a shitty flat and go to rough pubs, but you've got a get-out clause. Your dad will send you some money. You're not trapped like they are.' Anyway, she wouldn't have it. I only slightly embroidered the truth. She never wanted to sleep with me, unfortunately. In fact, I'm writing less about sex on the new songs. I did on His n' Hers, but probably because I wasn't getting any. I just hankered after it a lot." Have you got a girlfriend now? "Might 'ave," he replies, all nonchalant, but in a tone that actually means: 'And what if I do, it's certainly no business of yours.'
Putting the Jarvis tapes aside, we wander into the studio where Cocker and Steve Mackey, resplendent in De Kuyper Cherry Brandy cycling shirt, natter happily about their love for Lee Hazelwood, Scott Walker and Serge Gainsbourg - "songwriters who can tell a story and keep your interest". On the console, up to date Pulp is pouring out in the shape of a song called 'Bar Italia'. It's about the mixed delights of heading out into the dawn chorus in that ungodly hour before the milkman whistles his merry tune, nursing the after-effects of a good night out on the E or whatever in search of a reviving cappuccino.
Producer Chris Thomas regales anyone who will listen with tales of working with The Beatles as he inserts a sound effect of blackbirds over the track. "When McCartney did 'Blackbird' on the (so-called) White Album we had to train a bird to sing in tune," he reckons. This seems unlikely, but Jarvis and Steve nod like they believe it. Later on Thomas, a respected veteran producer somewhat further up the pecking order than Pulp's last knob maestro Ed Buller, will tell me that Pulp "don't remind me of anyone I've worked with before except for Roxy Music. They've got highly individual ideas and that's just as important as being great musicians".
Back in the studio, Jarvis admits he's developing a few expensive tastes. "I don't usually drink beer anymore. It's whisky or brandy for me these days. I don't want to get fat. Part of the job of being a musician is you have to drink a lot. You drink before a concert because you're nervous. If it's a crap gig, you drink to forget. If it's a good one you drink to celebrate." He pours out several fingers of Remy Martin VSOP. "Good stuff this is. To compensate I go to the gym occasionally with Steve whenever we're in Sheffield. I've got a bullworker, but that's going rusty. I know there is a process of decay in life but I'd like to slow it down as much as possible. You've got to make an effort, haven't you? So, I won't get fat. I'll just have a red nose."