by Jason Cohen
On the night of Pulp’s first London performance of 1996, the spacious two-level room is fit to burst. The queue out front snakes up one set of stairs and down another. Admission is granted only to those lucky people possessing both a printed invitation and one of three different-shaded wristbands or stickers. The area in front of the bar is impassable, as are all other open spaces, many of which are occupied by solitary people moving in spastic, rapturous rhythm to the piped-in dance music and pulsing lights. Crane your neck and blink through the coloured haze and you might spot Tricky, or St. Etienne’s Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell, or Miki out of Lush — the British music celebs are out in force among the throng, which numbers anywhere from 600-1000 bodies.
A pretty decent turnout, especially considering that this isn’t even the gig. ‘Cause when it comes to pop stardom in the U.K., forget about record sales or critical acclaim, and never mind the glossy covers, tabloid scrutiny and breakfast chat show appearances. The real measure of success for a British band is when your after-party draws a bigger crowd than the shows you were headlining a year or so ago.
In Pulp’s case, that will never happen again: tonight’s revel comes in the wake of a spectacular display of dense, discomfiting music and bombshell showmanship for the benefit of 10,000-some fans at suburban London’s legendary Wembley Arena. Tomorrow night, they’ll do it all over again — same venue, same sold-out crowd screaming at every chorus, their happy hands clutching an assortment of Pulp stickers, Pulp T-shirts, Pulp keychains and Pulp knickers (i.e., panties).
It’s easy to forget that for much of the summer and fall of ’95 the British music community consumed itself with the question of who’s more popular and brilliant, Blur or Oasis, since the answer, provided by both critics and consumers alike, turned out to be Pulp. In November, their Different Class album stood the ground that three insinuating, catchy and unusually relevant singles had already implied in previous months: Pulp were the biggest, bestest band in Britain. They swept the year-end polls, stormed the mainstream media and now, with this triumphant national tour, had become the weirdest arena band ever.
It all happened so fast — another thrilling rise-to-stardom in that wacky, ever-fickle Blighty pop scene. Except that Pulp have been together, in one form or another, since the dying edge of the ’70s. They’ve survived countless line-up changes, innumerable records and record companies, popular and critical apathy, a geographical shift from Sheffield to London and, in singer Jarvis Cocker’s case, a bone-crushing tumble from a two-story window. Like all the best overnight success stories, Pulp’s took years. The fame was much deserved: not just for the band’s time and effort, but because stardom did not strike until the hour of Pulp’s finest work.
Different Class (along with its immediate predecessor, 1993’s His ‘n’ Hers ) reveals a band of uncommon eloquence and whimsical originality, a group that was both intelligent and cheeky, glamorous and geeky. Cocker’s savagely delineated lyrics are both well-detailed and ambiguous, while the odd melange of Pulp’s music, ballasted by aggressive drumming and sturdy pop songcraft sent flying in a gaseous cocktail of squiggling guitars and dancing keyboards, doesn’t lend itself to easy comparisons. No one could ever give Pulp a quick listen and say, ‘oh they sound like so-and-so,’ and in this age of retro-modernist reinvention (Oasis, Supergrass) and visionless rock-by-numbers (take a bow, Bush and Silverchair) that actually counts as an achievement. Or maybe it’s just that a British band had never thought to mix Gloria Gaynor and Laura Branigan (to take two specific, separate examples) with art-pop doodling and romantic deconstructionism before.
Jarvis Cocker, for one, modestly chalks it up to longevity. “We had influences when we started,” he says, “but after 12,13,14 years you can’t help but develop your own style.”
It’s impossible to comprehend just what it is to be Jarvis Cocker in 1996. To be a pop star, U.K. style. Before the Wembley gigs Cocker inadvertently introduced himself to America when he helped the so-called “King of Pop” pull off his most memorable performance since the days of Thriller. But even before the drunken, overblown “Jarvis vs. Jacko” incident, Pulp had achieved a level of notoriety that went beyond the music world. Cabbies, passport control clerks, parents, teachers — everybody in England knows “Jarv,” which is not something you could say about, for example, Damon Albarn or Darius Rucker — in case you didn’t know, the guys from Blur and Hootie and the Blowfish, respectively. If we put our artists on a higher plane simply because they speak to our experience, we keep them there by deciding that they’re somehow above it, and Cocker, in his ubiquity as well as his achievements, has reached that place. It’s easier to do in England, where all media is national, a cross-country tour takes 10 days and a double-platinum record means you’ve reached a tangible percentage of the nation (as opposed to fractional figures in the States).
You wouldn’t peg Jarvis Cocker as the biggest pop star in England simply by looking at him, though. He’s tall, skinny, awkward, near-sighted and wan — just about everything you’d expect from an art student who grew up in the dank industrial north of England. In the empty, pre-performance bowels of Wembley, a nondescript single-level arena that’s half the size of the average multi-tiered American hockey oval, Cocker is tucked away in catering, a spot with all the elegance of your average high school cafeteria or bangers-and-mash takeaway. There’s a newspaper in his lap, and a quilted blue coat wrapped around his shoulders; his greasy hair dangles just a few centimeters above a pair of black, thick-rimmed (and thicker-lensed) glasses. Pulp went straight from the controversy of the Brit awards to this triumphant national tour, and the band has been working, both in the studio and on the road, for a solid year. Cocker is ready to go home, maybe even pretend to be a regular bloke for a spell. “I just need to do things like, y’know, get me underwear washed, and buy some new clothes,” he says. “Take some shoes to the cobbler and get them reheeled.”
This mundane normality melts away when the frontman takes off his glasses and stakes out a stage. He’s a dervish, a blur of pirouettes and punctuations who’s both cocky and fey, intimidating and melodramatic. Even during soundchecks he can’t help but be the consummate entertainer, as he executes his trademark leg kick during “Babies” for the benefit of absolutely no one. The man just can’t help himself, and that’s what got him into trouble at the Brit Awards, where the combination of enthusiasm, alcohol and genuine disgust for Michael Jackson’s sanctified, Christ-like stage show prompted Cocker and a mate to storm the stage. They preened, they wiggled, but contrary to what was initially reported, they did not make contact with the child performers. “It wasn’t particularly well thought out,” Cocker says. “There was a reason for it, but it was quite spontaneous, and then you have to live with it for the rest of your life, that little snap decision, that’s it.”
But after 24 hours of vilification, the national sympathies shifted. Suddenly the tabloids — who had already slammed Cocker for an earlier incident, misperceiving “Sorted for E’s and Wizz,” Pulp’s wry inquiry into drugs and raving, as pro-drug propaganda — were on his side. “Justice for Jarvis” T-shirts began appearing around London. A major editorial suggested that Cocker should be knighted for puncturing the pompous balloon of the washed up mega-star with the funny (and allegedly evil) fixation on children. Driving up the motorway from central London to Wembley, a caustic cab driver suggested that Cocker didn’t go far enough. “He should have nailed [Jackson] to the cross.” Clearly, Jarvis could do no wrong, and indeed, in subsequent weeks Cocker was cleared of all charges and Pulp went back to the business of being famous for their music again.
For ten years, they weren’t even famous for that, and with some reason. No one seems to think much of Pulp’s early material, including the band. “You can kind of trace the progression, which is quite painful in some ways,” Cocker says. It’s not easy to dismiss ten years and five albums worth of music just like that, but Pulp were utterly ordinary for a very long time, churning out minimal post-Fall indie music and then wooden, badly-sung art-disco that fit in just fine with other Sheffield bands (ABC, the Human League) but wasn’t as lively, glamorous or pop-smart. Even as late as Separations, which was recorded in 1989 and released in 1992, there was only the tiniest indication of the band to come. Obviously the ten-plus years counted for something, but it was not so much a case of evolution as a protracted breech birth producing a surprisingly vibrant baby.
“For whatever reasons we kind of found a good balance around ’91,” Cocker says. The band, which had as many line-up changes as you’d expect over the years, had crystallized into its current line-up of Cocker, guitarist Russell Senior, bassist Steve Mackey, keyboardist Candida Doyle and drummer Nick Banks (utility man Steve Webber was also around, but didn’t officially join until last year). Suddenly, with the release of three singles on the Gift label (an imprint set up by the techno label Warp specifically for Pulp, who were in between their second extrication from Fire Records and their eventual deal with Island), Pulp were a sizzling, weirdly glamorous pop band dripping with sass, style and sex. “The trouble with your brother/he’s always sleeping with your mother,” the second effort, “Razzmatazz” began, while “Babies” told of a guileless coming of age spent peeking at your best girl’s older sister from the thrilling confines of the wardrobe. Pulp’s breakthrough album, 1993’s His n Hers , continued in this vein, delineating moments like deflowering (“Do You Remember The First Time?”) and suburban adulteries (“Acrylic Afternoons”) on an action-painted canvas of stolid song structures and contravening spikes of keyboard, guitar and voice.
Sex sells, but not, evidently, as well as social insights. For while Different Class is a stronger album than His ‘N’ Hers, it also managed that rare rock’n’roll feat of clicking with the zeitgeist, offering up just the right blend of the universal and the critical, subversive and sublime. “Common People” kicked things off in the summer of ’95, a barreling satire of slumming rich kids that became England’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “WANNA LIVE LIKE COMMON PEOPLE!” When Pulp grabbed the headline spot at July’s Glastonbury Festival (as a last-minute substitute for the Stone Roses) its status was changed forever.
By October they’d already outgrown the venues they were playing in support of the split single “Misshapes/Sorted for E’s and Wizz.” The former tune is your basic revenge of the freaks/nerds anthem, the kind of song everyone can identify with because everyone considers themselves an outcast in one way or another. “Sorted” was the real stunner, a languid, bubbling bit of spoken folk that briefly revels in youth, drug and rave culture only to find it profoundly lacking. “In the middle of the night/it feels alright/but then tomorrow morning/ooh ooh/ then you come down,” Cocker sings, before warning, “this hollow feeling grows and grows and grows/and you want to call your mother/and say mother/I can never come home now/because I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere/somewhere in a field in Hampshire/alright.” That it was taken as as the ’90s version of “Puff the Magic Dragon” is a bit laughable, except for the fact that the CD booklet contained detailed instructions on how to make a speed wrap.
One of the most unusual things about Pulp’s success is how important the minutely detailed pointedness of Cocker’s lyrics have been. But as with Nirvana, or Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” popularity breeds ignorance and misinterpretation. “You’re bound to have more ‘normal’ people,” Cocker says. “I mean, we have quite of lot of lads coming now, and something like “Misshapes” is directed against them, really. They’re the kind of people who made my upbringing in Sheffield a misery. They like me now, but I know they’re probably still out there punching people’s lights out just because they have a streak in their hair.” By the same token you’ll find people dropping E’s to the sounds of “Sorted…,” or changing into Pulp’s “I’M COMMON” T-shirts after tea time at Cambridge.
With their British triumph complete, the inevitable question on everyone’s mind, from the U.K. press to the corridors of Island Records, has been will it play in America. Big words, class consciousness, arch wit, unfamiliar sounds — no one thinks it will play in Peoria, but what about Chicago? Or radio and MTV? Before “Common People” hit, there was some question of whether Island U.S. would even release the record. They’ve done that little tour that all British bands do, and there was some ghostly MTV play, but even as Pulp spends the summer reaffirming their superstar status in England (rather than play Reading, or one of the established festivals, they started their own), it would appear the book is closed on Pulp’s U.S. impact for now. Though he’s well aware that all British bands like to deny they don’t care about the States, Cocker says he’s basically unconcerned with the American market.
“I think it’s silly when English bands say ‘we’re going to go over and kick America’s ass!,'” Cocker says, diplomatically declining to utter the names Blur (who haven’t) and Oasis (who have). “It took us so long to get famous here, and we’re from this country. What worries me is as I perceive music in America it tends to be quite well defined in what it’s dealing with and who it’s aimed at, and that is something that we’re not. We’re not a very neat package and also I don’t tend to write about obvious, general things.
But on the other hand, “I think it can translate to anybody, because it’s all human experience. So we’ll see; if we feel that people in America want us, great, but I can understand that they might not want it.” Not content to leave it at that, the mischievous British arrogance finally surfaces: “I think you could do with us. From what I can make out of your music scene seems pretty bland, not very exciting. You’re buying Bush records aren’t you?”