I always felt that my life was like a film, and that it would turn out all right in the end.
- Jarvis Cocker
It is difficult to imagine waiting for success as long as singer/songwriter Jarvis Cocker.
Over a 16-year period that saw a steady stream of band members walk out1, wander off or generally lose interest, as frontman for the band Pulp, Jarvis incessantly wrote music and performed it - as the saying goes - to anyone who would listen. Not many people did. Eventually, in his 30s and with only patchy success, it appeared that the former Sheffield fish-market crab-scrubber was destined to become little more than a local eccentric. Obscurity, it seemed, would simply not let him go.
Cocker's undying faith was, however, rewarded when 'My Legendary Girlfriend' became a minor hit in 1991, and Pulp at last began to edge towards the wider public consciousness. With the 1990s incarnation of that peculiar phenomenon known as 'Britpop' about to blossom, Pulp, alongside numerous other home-grown acts - notably Blur, Oasis, Suede, Sleeper, Elastica and Shed Seven - were poised to release a dozen or so excellent albums that would rate among the finest ever to leave this Sceptered Isle. Unlike their stablemates, Pulp's musical influences ranged far wider than guitar-based pop/rock. Here, they had much in common with Blur, who were never shy of wandering away from the guitar-bass-drums power pop format.
While the band's current offering - We Love Life - is enjoying good reviews, this entry concerns the three albums for which Pulp are thus-far best remembered: His n Hers, Different Class and This Is Hardcore. They span a remarkable four-year period that saw Jarvis Cocker elevated from provincial also-ran to national icon.
His n Hers, 1994
In that green jumper, you can have anything you want
- 'Acrylic Afternoons'
Whereas the more lucrative American 'alternative' market is largely centred on endless, gloomy self-contemplation and lumbering neo-goth cliché, its British counterpart has usually favoured edged humour welded to an upbeat, confident instrumental track. The Smiths' string of singles are usually held to be the primary examples of this style. Indeed, it is virtually impossible for any English band post-1980s to escape comparison, and Pulp are no exception. Both Cocker and Morrissey sang very much in their speaking voices: Lancashire consonants for Morrissey, Yorkshire vowels for Cocker. However, where Morrissey had bemoaned his contemporaries while quivering in the fairgrounds of Whalley Range, Cocker assaulted them head-on. This was apparent throughout His n Hers.
Typical of Britpop, it is an examination of and ode to the ordinary. The album is liberally dusted with tables set for tea, visits to your Mum, and kids called David from the garage up the road. Nonetheless, there is passion enough. 'Oh, I wanna take you home. I wanna give you children!' breathes Cocker in 'Babies'. It was 'Babies', together with the bouncy 'Do You Remember The First Time?' that gave Pulp their first glimpses of popular appeal. 'Babies' dealt with adolescent voyeurism with the usual Cocker homing missile frankness:
I know you won't believe it's true - I only went with her coz she looks like you!
The suffocating familiarity of relationships past their sell-by date was examined in 'Do You Remember The First Time?' In one of his many semi-autobiographical efforts, Jarvis observes that:
It makes good sense for you to live together
Still, you've bought a toy that can reach the places he never goes.
Lamenting unattainable lovers as they sink into staid dreariness is a common theme in Pulp's pre-This Is Hardcore catalogue. 'You never have to face up to the night on your own', indeed.
With its focus on the trans-mundane, the album is reminiscent of the kitchen-sink dramas that prodded the social fabric of 1950s Britain. Each track has a central character, and studies their interaction with their day-to-day existence. Hopeless delinquents, uneasy teases and bored mothers - no one, it seems, is innocent. 'She's A Lady' is a vague parody of girls'-night-out karaoke classic 'I Will Survive'. The largely spoken-word 'David's Last Summer' shows clearly Cocker's stated preference for writing his lyrics as poetry before handing over the instrumental treatment to the rest of the band.
Different Class, 1995
Watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your Dad he could stop it all
... You'll never fail like common people
You'll never watch your life slide out of view
- 'Common People'
There has always been a tendency in English popular music to lampoon stereotypes. From George Formby to Damon Albarn, via Ray Davies and Elvis Costello, there is an almost unbroken line of clever-clever wordsmiths stabbing a lyrical quill into the bloated nonsense of the voluntarily disenfranchised. With Different Class, Cocker established himself as arguably the sharpest lyrical observer of English life since Geoffrey Chaucer.
It was 'Common People' that lifted Pulp into the stratosphere. Nearly six minutes of spitting, spleen-venting, utterly furious machete-ing of middle-class student pomposity, it was the 'My Generation' of the 1990s. Funny, sad, poignant, angry, witty, blunt and savage all at once, it was also the highlight of Pulp's legendary 1995 appearance at Glastonbury Festival, where Cocker and Co stepped in at the last minute to replace perennial Mancunian slackers the Stone Roses. 40,000 people went loopy in the pouring rain for what has been cited as the greatest live performance in modern music history.
The album had other treasures: 'Mis-shapes' - returning to familiar ground and acting as a neat counter-balance to 'Common People' - was a rallying cry against 'townies'2 everywhere.
Check your lucky numbers
All that money could drag you under
Oh what's the point of being rich
If you can't think what to do with it
Because you're so bleeding thick
'Disco 2000' was another hit, a belting, funky ode to a childhood sweetheart from a small house with woodchip wallpaper in every room.
Your name was Deborah. It never suited ya.
Despite being 'the first girl at school to get breasts' she pays Jarvis no heed. In the final verse, it is clear that Deborah has moved on:
What are you doing Sunday, baby?
Would you like to come and meet me, maybe?
You can even bring your baby
It is the familiar 'unattainable into unavoidable' take on Cocker's erstwhile sweethearts.
But there are happier moments. 'Something Changed' is a charming and whimsical ditty, almost McCartney-esque, albeit without the backing track of ringing cash registers that one often feels should accompany anything written by the ageing moptop. 'Underwear' recalls the uneasy sexual caperings of 'Pink Glove' from His n Hers. Again, Cocker has a chance to showcase his poetry on 'F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E.'
Controversy engulfed Pulp twice in the commercial afterglow of Different Class. The track 'Sorted For Es and Whizz' was taken as a ghoulish tilt at the death of teenager Leah Betts3. Typically, the tabloids had neglected to study the lyrics, which mocked the shallow pleasures of the narcotic and were scathing about the ultimately facile nature of the drug/dance scene:
Is this the way they say the future's meant to feel?
Or just twenty-thousand people standing in a field?
Nonetheless, conciliatory noises were made by Island Records4 and the matter faded. 'Bar Italia' also mocked the 1990s 'beautiful people':
That's what you get for clubbing it
You can't go home and go to bed
Because it hasn't worn off yet
'Bar Italia' is an actual place in London, which is indeed 'round the corner to Soho, where other broken people go', and was one of the few entities that didn't try to sue Cocker at this time.
Cocker's other brush with scandal was his invasion of the stage during Michael Jackson's performance of 'Earth Song' at the Brit Awards5. The sight of Jackson - who had recently settled out of court over extremely strong suggestions of the sexual abuse of minors at his home, Neverland - being lowered from upon high, clad in white robes, with adoring children clutching at him, and priests, rabbis and other religious figures bowing for his approval was too much for a tipsy Cocker. Onto the stage he scampered, flicking v-signs6 at the 'king of pop', waggling his rear end towards all and sundry and pursued by what appeared to be a monk. In the melee, a child was said to have received a cut ear, and Cocker was arrested and questioned by Scotland Yard, with Bob Mortimer7 acting as his legal representative. You couldn't have made it up. Half of the press called for his head, the other half called for a knighthood. No charges were ever brought, but the incident is firmly and marvellously lodged in popular folklore.
This Is Hardcore, 1998
When you're no longer looking for beauty or love
Just some kind of life, with the edges taken off
- 'The Fear'
From His n Hers to Different Class to This Is Hardcore. In the best tradition, each album was different from the others, but none could have been recorded by any other band. With This Is Hardcore, Cocker would complete his journey from wacky to witty to wry.
It is heavy, heady, brilliant stuff, loaded with high drama and low morality. The opening salvo of the first track, 'The Fear', sets the tone:
This is our 'Music From The Bachelor's Den'
The sound of loneliness, turned up to ten
This Is Hardcore subjects the listening ear to the darkest pen strokes of Cocker's lyrical canon. The title track (usually held as their finest moment, ahead even of 'Common People') lays bare the murky world of amateur pornography. With a heart stopping thirty seconds of sonic artillery barrage mid-tune - over which Cocker sings 'Oh this is hardcore, and there is no way back for you!', it remains the centrepiece of the band's live act. It is a truly disquieting piece of music.
As ever, there is a mix of sounds, reflecting the many influences to which the band were subject. 'Help The Aged' and 'Sylvia' are standard power chord crowd pleasers, illuminated by Cocker's take on old age and mental illness respectively. Not the usual lyrical fare of popular bands, tackled with verve. 'Dishes' provides light relief: 'I'm not Jesus, but I have the same initials'. The best lyrical effort is probably 'Glory Days', with sees Cocker ruminating that:
I used to read the I Ching, but then I had to feed the meter
Now I can't see into the future, but at least I can use the heater
And so on...
Morrissey once famously stated that the ultimate aim of popular music was to make the listener laugh and cry at the same time. Post-Smiths, it is probably Jarvis Cocker who has come the closest. With a newly-released album and an extensive tour already underway, Sheffield's skinniest is set to resume hostilities. Brace yourself.