“If you want to know what it is that makes Sheffield different to other cities in the UK I would say there is a very dry humour, people don’t talk a great deal, people aren’t so open…it takes a long time to get to know people there.”
(Jarvis Cocker, 2015)
Sheffield, united, has a long history of producing pop groups who are ground-breaking, arty, art house, weird, wonderful and revolutionary. The new romantic soul glamour of A.B.C, the Dadaist musings of Cabaret Voltaire, the post-punk Comsat Angels, the genius of Phil Oakey and his Human League, the alternative dance stylings of Moloko and their tight sweater…it’s a list that stands up alongside the best of Manchester or Glasgow for influence, style and quality. Something in the water? Whatever it is we should be thankful.
The rain falls hard on the slate grey streets of Paisley.
It must be summer.
Four seasons in one hour.
I’ve been at the “University” of Paisley for about three months. I wouldn’t say I was miserable…it was far worse than that. I had been low in High School but I was sinking to new depths here. I hadn’t managed to secure a place in halls so the hedonistic life I had imagined wasn’t happening. Instead I had secured an attic bedroom in the home of an elderly couple which basically cast me as a flower in the attic. Their home was miles away from the city centre and so most of my evenings were spent hunched over my record player and dreaming of a life less ordinary.
Bill Clinton was in the White House.
John Major was in Number 10.
It’s possible that Mr Blobby was at number one in the charts.
It was a Monday.
On my way home from some lecture or other I stopped off at Stereo One behind Paisley Gilmour Street train station. It was a big record store, I have a feeling there was an upstairs and everything. I didn’t smoke or drink (I still don’t) so despite my meagre budget I had more money than most of my contemporaries for the things that really mattered like clothes, copies of the N.ME and records. As I browsed the racks a sleeve jumped out at me.
I didn’t know if it was a band called “Lipgloss” who had released a single called “Pulp” or a band called “Pulp” who had released a single called “Lipgloss”. I hadn’t heard of either one. I stood looking at the cover for a while. It made me feel a bit wobbly in my tummy. Was that lipstick; tall, firm, hard meant to look like…? Nah. Nope. No way. But then I looked at those ruby red lips, shaped for sin, parted; were they meant to be suggesting…? Nah. Nope. No way.
I bought it.
I trudged back to the attic.
I listened to it.
It wasn’t a song about what I thought it might have been about from the cover.
It was a harrowing tale of a relationship turned sour.
A relationship blighted by boorishness.
A relationship built on the abuse of power.
A woman broken, battered and bruised by a man who doesn’t love her, who never loved her and who doesn’t care about her?
It left me reeling.
It made me want to dance and sing along.
It made me want to find the girl, fling my arms around her and let her know that things could get better, that there were good people in this ugly world too and then prove it to her.
Just look at the second verse;
“And you feel such a fool,
For laughing at bad jokes,
And putting up with all of his friends,
And kissing in public.
What are they gonna say when they run into you again?
That your stomach looks bigger and your hair is a mess,
And your eyes are just holes in your face.
And it rains every day,
And when it doesn’t,
The sun makes you feel worse anyway.”
Has she “let herself go”?
Is she pregnant?
Eyes that are just holes in a face.
Sun makes her feel worse than the rain.
It was the sort of thing Morrissey used to write.
The voice was pure Northern soul.
I’ll be honest with you, I was smitten.
Jarvis Branson Cocker was born in Sheffield in 1963. 15 years later he was already set on the path for pop stardom when, alongside his school friend Peter Dalton, they formed a band; “Arabicus Pulp”. Initially Cocker had wanted to call the band “Pulp” after the 1972 Michael Caine film of the same name, that, felt Dalton, was too short and so they added a twisted version of a coffee bean found in the pages of the Financial Times (Arabicas) and they were ready to go. Between 1978 and 1992 there were Peel sessions, flirtations with various styles, line-up changes and riots. There was no overnight success for Jarvis, instead the sort of long, fraught, tiring, march towards the top of the pops and Top of the Pops which would make a wonderful rags to riches Hollywood tale was to be his journey. One cannot help but feel that it just had to be that way for him, he had to feel his time had come for it to be as glorious as it turned out to be.
By the time I picked up my copy of “Lipgloss” from Stereo One the line-up of the band was Jarvis on vocals, Candida Doyle on keyboards, Russell Senior on guitar/violin (of course they had a violin player), Mark Webber on guitar/keyboards, Steve Mackey on bass and Nick Banks on drums. It was this group that would propel Pulp, and Jarvis, from the fringes of the fringes of the mainstream to the sort of success that normally eludes eccentric boys from Sheffield and their mates and turned them into a cultural phenomenon.
“Pulp was a way of looking at the world and ordinary people.”
She was a girl.
I was a boy.
She wasn’t, as it turned out, the girl.
I most certainly wasn’t the boy.
My father’s “bird’s and the bee’s” chat consisted of him explaining that a fishing rod comes in two sections and that if you popped this section into this section then you got a complete fishing rod. I can remember being with him as far as there being two sections and that those two sections could join together…he lost me when he returned to the fishing rod analogy. That conversation made the first time very awkward…I doubt it was her first time and I think she was genuinely shocked to see me approaching in waders and clutching a Shakespeare ugly stick. It’s all fine now though. I’m married so I don’t have sex.
By the time Pulp released “Do You Remember the First Time?” they had featured in that issue of Select magazine as front line troops in the battle against grunge. Alongside Suede, Denim and The Auteurs that issue of Select made it look like Britpop was going to amount to nothing more than a gaggle of slightly effeminate young men in charity second hand clothes casting envious glances back towards Bowie and T-Rex. Of course the scene became something very different to that…something more sub-sub-substantial. All of those bands though made a contribution to the development of that period and all released fabulous albums; “Back in Denim” by Denim is, in my opinion, the best work of the long, strange and turbulent career of Lawrence and “New Wave” and “Now I’m a Cowboy” by The Auteurs are both wonderful things (Luke Haines will be enraged about being discussed in an article about anything to do with Britpop but, whether he likes it or not, The Auteurs were part of whatever it was that was fomenting in British music at that point).
“Do You Remember the First Time?” didn’t just arrive as a single but as a short film too where the likes of Alison Steadman, Terry Hall, Bob Mortimer and Justine Frischmann discussed, described and dissected their first times. It highlighted the fact that both Pulp and Jarvis (as a separate entity) were more than a pop group. They had loftier aspirations.
“That thing where two people start wearing matching clothes, their personalities start to merge, they know exactly what each other’s thinking, and they haven’t a whole personality of their own any more, they’ve just got half of something else. And if that’s taken away, they’re less than a person.”
(Jarvis Cocker, 1995)
“His ‘n’ Hers” is a collection of 11 songs that deal with the truth, the reality, the horror, the dread, the fear and the dreadful boredom of the conventional. By adding in hints of the opposite of the conventional and tossing in the sort of dry, uniquely Northern humour that so defines bands from that part of the UK the ordinary becomes extraordinary at the nib of Cocker’s pen.
“Joyriders” tells the humdrum tale of a group of boys who live for the thrill of driving their cars as fast as they can on a Saturday night. They’re not nice boys. They have a sneering contempt for the bloke in the Jesus sandals. They pick up a girl and taker her to the reservoir and something awful happens there…the papers call it a tragedy. Another girl in a hideous relationship fills the lines of “Pink Glove”, he doesn’t love her…he just wants her to dress up for him. Something tight. Something pink. But if that’s all that relationship is then who is she? “Happy Endings” suggests that something very, very different to that is the truth of relationships. The whole album is littered with these stories and with a musical and lyrical prowess that takes your breath away.
“His ‘n’ Hers” put Pulp on the front pages of the music papers and, thanks in large part, to the joy of Jarvis they stayed there for a very long time. The final single taken from the album was an E.P. entitled “Sisters” and it featured four tracks but as far as the record buying public were concerned it featured only one…”Babies”. It reached number 19 in the charts and now 24 years later it still fills the dance floor at any indie night or Britpop celebration with boys and girls doing their very best imitation of Jarvis. Like a floor filled with stick insects being delivered a mild electric shock.
A top ten album and a top 20 single. The cover of every music paper you could name. An appearance on Top of the Pops. Sell-out concerts. It was all the dreams of little Jarvis come true. It had taken the best part of 20 years but he had made it. If it had all finished right then I reckon he would have been happy. What he didn’t know, what none of us knew (how could we) was that this was just the warm-up and that the main event was going to be so spectacular none of us would ever really recover.
“Modern Life is Rubbish”, “Suede”, “Definitely Maybe”, “Parklife”, “Dog Man Star”, “Elastica”, “Everyone’s Got One” and “Smart” had all been released before May 1995. Albums from some of the big hitters of Britpop…blur, Suede, Oasis, Elastica, Echobelly and Sleeper. Each one of them offering up something identifiable as being “Britpop” and all of them offering something totally unique at the same time; the referential blur albums offering the sort of English vision of self that had been the preserve of the Kinks, the rock ‘n’ roll anthems of Oasis, the Bowie tinged Suede, the art-pop of Elastica and their Wire obsession, the darker side of life from Echobelly and the witty, pop obsessions of Louise Wener and the other blokes in Sleeper.
Between 1991 and 1994 we had been offered more music “movements” and “scenes” than you could reasonably expect me to list here…grunge, the death throes of shoegazing, the crossover between dance and indie, the new wave of new wave, a mini Mod revival and others I’ve already forgotten. Britpop should, judging by the shelf life of those other scenes, have been dead and buried by about the 27th June 1994…another blip, another blink and you miss it movement, another juicy nothing burger. But it wasn’t dead, it wasn’t close to being dead…it was, very much, alive and kicking. Thanks to what Pulp were about to thrust into the nations faces Britpop was about to take its place alongside Mod, Glam, Punk and 2-Tone as a pop culture moment that would define an entire generation.
“It’s about a guy who’s liking this girl who’s a bit posh and, in a way, he’s put off by some of her attitudes. That bit is true, I did meet this girl at St. Martins who was doing a different course and we are at a bar and she was going on about wanting to go and live in Hackney with the common people and I thought “That’s a bit much that innit.” but I did fancy her.”
(Jarvis Cocker, 2012)
To the wider music listening public “Common People” is the Britpop record. It’s anthemic, radio friendly, crowd pleasing, storytelling pop at its very best and it took Jarvis and the gang to places they probably weren’t ever brave enough to even dream of. The first of these places was into the top ten, specifically to number 2 and would go on to sell over 400,000 copies and become a Gold record. After all the years of gigs, line-up changes, different styles and struggle Pulp had arrived. An overnight sensation.
So much has been written and recorded about “Common People”; an hour long documentary on BBC Three, multiple interviews with Jarvis, press speculation over who the Greek girl in the song could have been, cover versions and appearances on more indie compilation albums than you could imagine. It was, and remains, a pop cultural phenomenon. Just as importantly it elevated Jarvis from fringe figure to pop star and, I think it’s safe to say, a national treasure. His charity shop chic inspired thousands of slightly awkward boys across the country, his interviews were things to cherish, his stage presence and between song banter is legendary. He also became great friends with the other King of Pop at one point. Or something.
It was all going terribly well.
Then the tabloid press decided to take an interest in Britpop and set about trying to do what they do best; ruin things. The tabloid press have a long history in the UK of wilfully trying to destroy anything they don’t understand or that they don’t approve of. Despite their complete lack of morals and their willingness to do, say and print anything in order to sell papers rather than focus on the truth they are always happy to act as the voice of morality when it comes to the behaviour of young people. They turned the Mods into a folk devil, turned the skinhead into a demon, turned the rave movement into the end of civilisation and now it was the turn of Britpop.
“Sorted for E’s and Whizz” was a double-a side with “Mis-Shapes” and the first run of singles carried instructions on how to make a speed wrap. “Journalist” Kate Thornton decided that this was the beginning of the end for society and launched a campaign to have the single pulled. She was so concerned about “children” being given origami lessons that she pulled in the opinion of some real heavyweights to support her in the shape of…Dr Fox. Can you imagine a world where moral absolutes are decided by Kate bloody Thornton and “Dr” Fox? The whole thing was, of course, bollocks and was nothing more than an attempt by Thornton to push herself to a wider audience. With no real talent (as evidenced by her television “career”) Thornton had to rely on scandal and shit stirring.
The stunt worked and Pulp disbanded shortly after the article ran.
Where are they now?
What might they have achieved?
What glories could have been grasped?
We will never know.
Silly Jarvis. Was it worth it? Throwing away what could have been a brilliant career for a speeed wrap?
It didn’t bring Pulp to an end?
Are you sure?
They did what?
“…funny, phenomenonally nasty, genuinely subversive, and, of course, hugely, flamingly POP!… Different Class is a deft, atmospheric, occasionally stealthy and frequently booming, confident record.” (John Mulvey, N.M.E)
“…the album’s title alone announces that Cocker’s broadened his scope, has another axe to grind: social antagonism…not so much the jewel in Britpop’s crown, more like the single solitary band who validate the whole sorry enterprise” (Simon Price, Melody Maker)
“…no other Pulp album of recent years froths around the mouth so unselfconsciously… Pulp have managed to elevate their grandiose, popoid vision-thing to new and greater heights, without crashing into the realms of extreme fantasy.” (Keith Cameron, VOX)
“You’d have to be a fool or a low-fi obsessive not to concede that it’s easily the closest that Pulp have come to realising their potential… Different Class is curiously sparse yet lush enough in all the right places, warm and soulful where unnecessary electro-clutter used to be. Arguments about Blur versus Oasis are irrelevant. Pulp are in a different class.” (Bob Stanley, MOJO)
That’s just the British music papers…the same story was being told all across the globe. “Different Class” was, in so many ways, the defining album of the Britpop era. It was a pop record. It was an indie record. You could dance to it. You could sing along in a crowded field to it. It was sexy. It was smutty. It felt a bit dangerous in places.
Some people might not like this but while “Parklife”, “Definitely Maybe” and “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory” are great records, it is “Different Class” that best embodies the sense of what lay at the heart of Britpop…the arrival of the outsider on the inside. Jarvis was not a pretty boy like Damon, he wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll star like Liam…he was me and probably you. A bit awkward, a bit peculiar and a lot lost and looking for somewhere to belong. Jarvis was the outsider’s outsider. “Different Class” was the soundtrack to our lives…or the lives we wanted to live and love.
A lot of people shared that feeling, or at least enjoyed “Common People”, because it shifted more than a million copies in the UK alone and went platinum four times over.
“You’d grown up thinking that pop’s golden age was in the past. Throughout the 80’s indie music was a marginal thing, you were on the dole and you just wandered around looking a bit miserable. It was kind of weird then that it became the centre of things rather than just this thing off at the side. So I actually did get excited about it and I did want it to have a wider, sort of, social thing. This could show that the mainstream could be more interesting…it doesn’t have to be all bland rubbish.”
(Jarvis Cocker in conversation with Stephen Merchant, “Chain Reaction”)
How do you like those apples Kate Thornton?
As well as being responsible for one of the most defining singles of the era, one of the most defining albums of the era, one of the most endearing characters of the era, Pulp were also responsible for one of the defining live performances of the era too. When the Stone Roses had to pull out of their headline slot at Glastonbury in 1995 Pulp were elevated to festival headliners. A position normally reserved for “legends” was now in the hands of a skinny bloke from Sheffield and his indier than thou bandmates. This had disaster written all over it. At least it did if you hadn’t ever seen Pulp live. This performance gave Jarvis and the rest of the group the chance to show everyone else what they had been missing out on…it was an opportunity they didn’t waste.
One era defining single.
One bona fide star.
More hearts and minds won than you could count.