Phew! From self-indulgent, arty gigs in front of two pensioners and a dog to ram packed stadium shows in Europe and beyond, it's certainly been a crazy 18 years for Jarvis Cocker and Pulp. Vox flew to Germany to catch up with the band whose career seems to be running in reverse.
The flamboyant, pole-thin fellow in a pinched, brown suit hold a plastic razor aloft on stage. "What d'you think," he deadpans. "Shall I shave it off or not?" The crowd roar a thunderous "Yeeeaaah!!" for the public 'tache-removal of a little-known man with majorly expressive hands fronting a curious combo from Sheffield called Pulp. No bloody wonder: the moustache has quite obviously gone wrong, a thin wispy affair of no fixed shape with stick-up bits at the end enlivening a motionless demeanour with the preposterous smirk of The Laughing Cavalier. Or Leslie Phillips after particularly lusty lip action round the back of the screens in
Way back then, in a world awash in US grunge introspection and UK shoe-inspection, we had never seen their like. Unless you lived in Sheffield of course, where you'd seen their like for the last 12 years already as the amorphous Pulp collective, an oft-seen Vic 'n' Bob-styled novelty item, shedding and recruiting members as often as conceptual stage gimmicks. They were a band whose fans were of the terminally devoted fanzine variety, versed in the favoured food and footwear of each member to the point of personal religion. This could only mean one of two things: international superstardom or third on the bill at the Viv Stanshall Memorial Tent At Glastonbury before Frank Sidebottom and Half Man half Biscuit. Whichever came first.
Most favoured the latter, few could have predicted that four years hence, Pulp would be the Biggest band in Britain (alongside Oasis) and Jarvis Cocker would be Undisputed Man Of The People, slayer of the man called Michael - the most powerful pop star on planet Earth. Jarvis: friend and saviour to a nation of misfits, mistakes, mis-shapes (which means every single one of us with the sense to realise it), a man who precursed New Geek by around, ooh, 30 years, arguably the most lauded figure in popular British culture this decade. Even fewer could have predicted that in spring '96, on Pulp's second US tour (after the great-missing-of-cultural-minds that epitomised the demoralising Blur support slot of '94) Jarvis would be the country's Public Enemy Number One - to the extent that, in fear of his life, he'd contemplated wearing a bullet-proof vest. Unfeasibly, there were no psychologically unstable Jacko Fans in Uzi-wielding outrage in the undergrowth and, even more unfeasibly, all of America sided with the little fellow in the modern world's sequel to David and Goliath: ('Meet the man who mooned Michael Jackson' trumpeted the New York Daily).
In an illness-dogged tour (Jarvis crumbled from bacterial dodginess contracted on a holiday in Hawaii), events stayed low-key, the only scares resulting from Steve's nerve-related wobblers when playing that "all-important" Letterman show due to his imminent fatherhood scenario back home, and an everyday American tale of the fatal stabbing of a white policeman by a black man in the deep south, where the band were playing. A police escort for Pulp ensued - as did deep paranoia in the crew who were left behind to pack up. And so the world-weary Pulp returned home for - steady - four whole days, finding Jarvis intact in the Groucho Club, alongside... Gary Glitter. Back, then, to "normal".
Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, autumn '95.
Pulp, pre-Jarvisgate tabloid fame supernova, have just concluded a supernaturally euphoric 'Common People' and there, in the fourth row of the moshpit, a great big beardy bicker fellow thrusts his fist up in the air and shouts at the top of his tonsils: "Jarvis, I love you!" This, as Vox sees it, is A Moment In Time; if Pulp, and Jarvis in particular, could crack the heart of that which can safely be assumed as their one-time diametrically opposed nemesis, there was nothing more to be said. They'd quite simply done it.
Great big beardy fellows don't holler their "love" for anyone, not even Lemmy, let alone half-blind, sparrow chested pop boffins in acrylic shirtwear, but the great beardy fellow knew that Jarvis Cocker stood for The Truth; here was a man who knows that life is dull and difficult and full of bad sex and sorrow and cockroaches and comedy moustaches you didn't ever mean to grow, so you'd best make the most of it with whatever you had inside. A star had come among us, but this one was truly rare in the constellation of bone-fide glitterati: a human being. He shared with us his failures as much as, if not more so, his successes. Indeed, if failure is the greatest leveller of them all, Jarvis Cocker is the plumb-line incarnate. He understands failure, so we not only allow him his success, we actively will him it. He's just like us - only more talented and cleverer and funnier.
Like all of us, then, he's the culmination of his own history which began, creatively, in 1978, when embryonic Arabicus Pulp practised round Jarvis' gran's house in the days when no one he knew had enough money for a drum kit. So the drummer played the coal scuttle. Before they'd ever played a concert they'd made a film called The Three Spartans, but there were only two spartans in the finished product because the drummer's Mum wouldn't let him out 'cos it was time for his tea. So he was replaced with a hard hat on a piece of cane. Around then, Jarvis worked for an alcoholic fishmonger at Sheffield market where, one day, the crabs were delivered early and left there overnight in water. By morning they'd already started rotting, but a few had already been sold before the Health Inspector condemned the lot. Jarvis wrote a song about it called 'I Scrubbed The Crabs That Killed Sheffield'.
By the time their first John Peel session was recorded in '81, they had progressed to a home-made syn-drum made out of a calculator and a rubber burglar mat. Not surprisingly, wilderness years ensued. The first wave, in the early '80s saw Jarv splinter off into groups called Heroes Of The Beach (who did concerts for parents and kids which ended in chaos when a member pulled their kecks down), repressive Minority (who had a song about cockroaches called 'Wiggle Your Antennae'), Michael's Foot and the doomed-from-the-outset Jarvis Cocker Explosion Experience. Defeated, he returned to his original idea and Pulp concerts "proper" were staged in Sheffield, featuring stage moonscapes built with tin foil, projected slides and Super-8 movies over the band.
Russell Senior called this a "multi-media cosmic tangerine experience," They filled stages with spray-painted footballs and dangled things from fishing lines. They held a "concept concert" at the Leadmill called The Day That Never Happened, featuring films, slides and tin foil, a few trees sprayed white, dry ice (home-made, not very good, barely puffed over the saucer it was in), smells (home-made out of charcoal incense, not very good, Leadmill too big to "carry" concept across) and a "snowfall' during a "sensitive" ballad farce which culminated in people running across the stage with hair-dryers, attempting to encourage a falling effect. That didn't work either.
Meanwhile, Antony Genn, Pulp's infamous Glastonbury streaker, about to be lost to Sheffield's infamous rave-sex vicar of '95's tabloid revelation (and eventual keyboardist for Elastica), was already concluding concerts naked. Then, of course, Jarvis fell out the window. And Russell, naturally, tried to persuade him to be wheeled on stage on an operating trolley and perform on it while attached to a drip. Jarvis did the "ordinary" thing of performing in his wheelchair instead. It was the beginning, naturally, of the beginning.
In 1991 NME made 'My Legendary Girlfriend' Single Of The Week; by October '92 the video for 'Babies' appeared on The Chart Show and people turned up at their shows 'cos they'd heard the good news. Something funny, in every sense, was going on...
Shows like the one at the Camden Underworld, supporting someone everyone's forgotten, a show featuring a glitter-ball and two huge on-stage picture frames resplendent with girls' spike-heeled stilettos stuck over the frames, the resultant "installation" spray painted in all-over gold. (That was the anti-shoe-gazing statement, then.) "This pop star business..." muses the brown-shirted frontman. "People think it's about being driven around in chauffeur-driven limousines, whereas in reality it's about starin' in a cracked mirror backstage, trying to put your contact lenses in."
Shows like the one in Cardiff, supporting the Manic Street Preachers, where, somewhere, your stranded Vox reporter and chum were taken pity on by the good men and women of Pulp. Stay with us, said Jarvis. We slept in one single bed of the two-bed room, Jarvis and Steve in the other, Jarvis concocting the assembled a goodnight cup of piping hot chocolate. Then, from his bed, with his specs in place, he read us a bedtime story from a children's book of Russian fairy tales.
Shows like at Islington's Powerhaus, London, Christmas 1992. The stage swathed in wrapping Paper. To the sound of a bass and synthesiser, one long finger pokes through it's centre and begins rotating, round and round before coming to a dead-stop, pointing at the bewildered crowd. A song crashes in, and the hand attached to the finger bursts through the paper. The hand is attached to Jarvis Cocker in full flight, legs akimbo, arms askew, performing theatrical gymnastics to astonished whoops and guffaws. It's the first known public celebration of the legendary Cocker digits. Pulp are becoming something truly remarkable.
So they did the Pulp thing and disappeared. And returned in '94, after the 18th wilderness period of legal quagmires in '93, with an Island Record's deal and an LP called His 'n' Hers, and the rest is... a mystery, quite possibly, to Jarvis and pals, whose lives ever since have become the whirl-bestrewn stuff of cultural mythology.
Frankfurt, the Birmingham of Germany, summer 1996.
To the bleakest outpost of the relentless European trawl, Pulp bring their travelling cavalcade for the second time in six months alone. And in the Birmingham of Germany, there's only one thing to do: get wazzocked off one's trough on finest Germanic fermentation options, which Jarvis appears to have done with a heroic zeal. Or perhaps he just thinks: If I can survive America, I can survive anything. Whatever, he greets this group of 2,000 twentysomething troopers von Pulp band with a gallant general's salute, a boom of "Hello!" and a finely-boned triple-angled all limbs a-pogo ensemble as the dramatic bit from 'I Spy' reverberates with synth perfection from the keyboard of the luminous Candida (tonight ravissante, darlings, in sequinned electric blue). Funny lot, the Germans. Prior to Pulp's appearance, they watched the supporting Longpigs while chewing on sausages the size of clothes poles (bread? Don't bother them with details) and now they're just standing there, swaying, some blowing bubbles, others holding nylon red roses, one long placard requesting: "Show Us Your Underwear, Jarvis!"
To this restrained reaction, Pulp are astounding; with maximum gusto and note-honed professionalism, they've perfected pretty much the same set of songs since last summer when 'Common People' went globally beserk. And now, introducing, on vibes, SuperJarv�, a man who appears in equal parts irrepressibly confident and emotionally bamboozled, like he knows he can do absolutely anything and they'll love him anyway; like he doesn't quite understand it, 'cos he was only ever being himself. So he'll keep on doing it in the meantime, as if he has a choice. Maybe he'll see how far he can take it - right here, right now, in the Birmingham of Germany... "Can I have a taxi, please?" enquires SuperJarv™, "Can I have a taxi, please, to Amperthore?" Amperthore is a small town near Sheffield. Frankfurt blinks. The technical crew nigh collapse on the sound desk with mirth.
"Are you well then?" he enquires, nonchalant as you please, following a shimmering 'Mile End' and a rousing 'First Time'. "Yeah? Good. (begins singing incomprehensibly to himself) Well, I'm not bad myself. This is a song about my favourite day. 'Monday Morning'." And he twirls right round, with ballerina's panache, kicks out to the left, arse-wiggle to the right, and chirps "fielen, danke! before the last of his one-time on-stage observational plot leaves the building. "I'm in my mid-thirties," he states, matter-of-factly, "and it's about time." Whatever can he mean? "I need to father a child" hollers Jarvis. "Everyone else is doing it. [dramatic pause, a nod to Steve] I know I can do it. I just need to find a willing partner to do it with..."
Jarvis Cocker, temptress, Jezebel, flicks his digits around his acoustic guitar for the string-soaked 'something Changed', before leaping upon a risen platform on the left during 'Acrylic Afternoons' with the side stepped shuffling and knee-jerked high kicks of a snake-hipped James Brown - lost in his own oblivion beneath the blue and purple back drop of psychedelic swirls before he begins a conversation with himself in two distinct voices: Python-esque Spike Milligan-speak and, er, Barry White. No one has the slightest idea what he's on about. The crowd whoops and hollers, bringing him back to "normal". "Ey!" he booms. "I'm the one on stage. I'm the one who does the talking, OK? And people pay good money to listen to me talking a load of rubbish, right?"
He grins, as much as Jarvis ever grins, announces something indecipherable which appears to be about killing a fireplace for getting in the charts, leaps past Russell, who receives a protracted Jarvis stare right in his ear, over to the far side of the stage where he performs a bizarre Marcel Marceau "my-body-is-my-tool" jaggy-limbed mime artiste extravaganza. Russell, who has taken to playing his guitar at shoulder height like George Formby on the banjo, stares motionless - as ever - while his flamboyant chum reels through a triumphant 'Sorted...' ("I got the ticket from some fucked up guy in Camden Town"), 'Pencil Skirt' and 'F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E', while 'Underwear' heralds a volley of knickers raining upon their heads. "Pants," notes Jarvis, correctly, inspecting a pair lovingly strewn at his feet before a huge sigh. "Fifty pairs of pants..." He looks up. "About your size?" Now he's on a roll of underwear-inspired exorcism. Or perhaps he's just utterly hammocked.
"I'm 32 years of age." He sways, padding slowly up and down the stage. "Still useless. I'd be a spare prick at a funeral. Er... don't know that one... Liebe, liebe! Er..." He coughs, raises an eyebrow, tries again. "I'm 32 years of age... [huge pause] And I couldn't organise a piss-up in a brothel. Er... A piss up in an orgy... [Shouting] A piss-up in a brewery! So... [Another huge pause] This is a song for anyone who's thinking about killing some-body tonight. 'Gewöhnliche Leute!'" That's Common People' to you , unilinguists, as Frankfurt explodes to the People's Anthem, the pop single of the decade thus far, 2,000 Frankfurters (cough) bawling along in the emphatic knowledge that their lives can slide out of view "watching roach!/Ez!/Climb the wall!/Dah! Dah! Dah! Dah! Dadadadadadadadada!"
An ecstatic 'Babies' and 'Mis-Shapes' precede the 'Bar Italia' comedown, and with another SuperJarv� salute, they're gone, leaving the head reeling with the notion that two weeks contracting superflu in Hawaii and four days down the Groucho Club with Gary Glitter hasn't quite been holiday enough. There's no misery here, mind - "useless" comments or not - just the abandon of man whose life is plainly bonkers and all he can do is say "Prhrthrt! Fuck it!!" and have another drink. Or perhaps he just can't be doing with Frankfurt. And who can blame him? In a room backstage the size of a kettle, Pulp are in various stages of post-gig disrepair in the midst of what their seventh member, tour manager Richard Priest, calls "an unfeasibly large rider". At least it was until Jarvis, evidently, drank it all. If this is insanity, it's taking the perfectly sane form of spectacular drunkenness; here is a man in the throes of deep incomprehensibility (apart from declaring tonight's show "not bad, not bad", his mental health "not bad, either"), spending the hour before their bus journey to Prague practically inside the shoulder of Crispin Longpig. Crispin Longpig is even more oblivious, apoplectic with excitement at having met Joe Strummer the previous day and the Sex Pistols at Top Of The Pops. It was "one of the best days of my entire life."
Russell is hovering by a lengthy portable clothes rail pointing out his metallic blue jacket, the only one swathed in polythene protection: "I'm not having mine next to that lot's. They all smell." Candida's in a huff, declaring the show "Shit. There just wasn't the atmosphere was there?" And Steve, Mark and the newly bethrothed Nick (who, earlier on, was barking down the phone in "conversation" to his dog at home) are hovering over a memo left by the man Priest, which goes: "PRODUCTION OFFICE/PULP MEMO: [Drawing of some scrawly line in ink] Does anyone have a clue what the above picture is supposed to be? It looks like someone in a hammock with his tail out and a baby Dalek creeping up on them. Any better offers?" Underneath, four members of Pulp have scrawled: "No", "Yes", "Maybe" and "Welcome". Hilarity, joy, conversing with dogs on the blower: another average day in the on-tour Pulpworld.
"Check Jarv!" beams Richard Longpig, spying his Sheffield chum at 45 degrees before speaking for a nation. "I'm that chuffed for them, y'know? For what's happened to them. Years ago, Jarv was always the guy walking about with a Hoover in his hand, and 'cos he wore glasses, we always thought he was a mad scientist who was always trying to make a rocket out of an old shoe. But they were just boss, even then. Always had the style. I went out with him and Antony [streaker] a while back and we're not famous, really, but Jarv, poor fucker, couldn't make his way down the street, he was on call the whole time. And he handled it really well." "Incredible," states the ever-pondering Crispin Longpig of his chance to play with his much-revered pals. "They're one of my favourite bands. Music's so incredibly golden underwear at the moment, all shiny and superficial, and Pulp are incredibly golden underwear, but they're well political, too, totally political. To have managed to get that sense of humour across is just fucking fantastic, to have gotten that joke that huge...They're one of the few bands that's taking rock 'n' roll somewhere else... He finally finds the phrase he's been grasping for and is now apoplectic with enthusiasm. "To have gotten that intelligence over to literally millions of people is a masterpiece of achievement." Richard (chortling): "Should've seen the state of that lot at Nick Banks' wedding do..."
Tomorrow, border problems will prevent them from playing the festival at Prague. For weeks after, they'll appear somewhere else. Very soon, the Chelmsford and Warrington festival headline jamborees. Thereafter... Pulp Phase 367. Whatever that will mean. Which could still mean anything from world domination to Ermintrude: The Musical.
What, you may wonder, is Pulp? Intelligence. Oblivion. Songs. Words. Truth. Wit. Style. Dignity. Humility. Wisdom. Anarchy. Purest anger in the guise of a comic persona. People out of time who define these times impeccably. People who talk to you about your life, as political, in their own way, as the Manics, as universal, in their own way, as Oasis, and today more punk rock than the Pistols: a masterpiece of achievement. In the olden days, Pulp left free and lovingly crafted leaflets at shows defining their life-enriching worldview. Since then, something changed, but the fundamental ethos stays the same. That Pulp leaflet, across the nation in clubs swathed in fishing lines and golden shoes and shattered dreams and future hope and wonky eyes and several bottles of cherry brandy and billions of fags near you, in full, 1992:
Pulp is... being an anachronism of any kind... never using words like 'gig', 'quintessential' or 'basically... living on nothing but breakfast cereal... never overdoing anything... always going the whole hog... having massive achievements and keeping quiet about them... spending your last penny on something unphysical... mind over matter... matter over mind if it's that good... not only saying things but doing them as well... doing a wheelie on a Raleigh Chopper... going to parties you haven't been invited t... sleeping in someone's garden because you can't be bothered to go home afterwards... wearing suede trousers with nothing on underneath... living in a dream world... eating lots of fresh fruit and veg... going on day-trips to the seaside in mid November... flying a kite at 4am... a Ginster's Cornish pasty and a can of orange halfway down the M1... tripping up and pretending you did it on purpose... being rubbish at video games... being OK at pinball... being boss at cards... going to the supermarket in a Lurex jumper... enjoying washing pots... sending postcards from places you've never been to... hitching a life in a hot-air balloon... making contact with beings from other planets and snogging them... painting everything in the house silver and regretting it the next day... having difficulty finding trousers that fit properly... enjoying reading toilet graffiti... being very knowledgeable about antique glass... not knowing how to use a computer... working in a toyshop... doing origami with crisp packets... having deep conversations with the woman in the laundrette... getting told off for putting nail clippings in the ashtray... filling a bath as full as possible and lying in it for at least an hour... feeling nostalgic about things that haven't even finished yet... going in a cobbler's and asking for sexual healing (and getting it)... it's not being different just for the sake of it - that's immature... it's all these things and more - but most of all it's about you and us. And what we can get up to together. OK? Alright, here we go."