The tower-block messiah
Jarvis Cocker sings about sex, Sheffield, lip gloss and chips. Ben Thompson met him
"Intake, Manor Park, The Wicker, Norton, Frecheville…" A deadpan South Yorkshire voice reading off a list of local place names is not a conventional start to a great pop record, but that's how Pulp's "Sheffield: Sex City" beings. The song is a 10-minute epic of comic urban lust. The rapidly overheating narrator scours the streets in search of his lover – "I just wanna make contact with you... that's all I wanna do" – while all around him the city seethes with unsuppressed eroticism. "There were dogs doing it in central reservations," he shudders, with priapic longing. "We heard groans coming from a T-reg Chevette."
It is a rare songwriter who dares to claim the middle ground between Alan Bennett and Barry White. Pulp's Jarvis Cocker is that man. His delivery matches the compelling overripeness of his material: on stage he uses his amazing lanky body to great effect, attempting to swivel and drop-kick his way out of the sinister sexual force-field which seems to have him in its grip. Sometimes he produces an orange and squeezes it languorously over himself as he sings. His band, a strange assortment of violinists and Stylophone players, apparently recruited straight from the deck of the Starship Enterprise, look on unmoved.
Cocker (his real name – no relation to Joe, though his dad sang with him once) earns his reputation as a dandy. His spindly frame and wan face are set off by Michael Caine glasses, a dark jacket, flannel shirt and navy cords, whose flares flap round his ankles. He blends into an old-fashioned Islington café, his gentle, dry voice occasionally fading into the woosh of the water boiler.
This man is such a born star, you'd think his band must come from no-where, but before they stepped into something like the limelight a year or so ago, Pulp had toiled away in obscurity for more than a decade. They were not easy times. Irate rugby players threw bottles at them. For a year or so Jarvis appeared on stage in a wheelchair, having fallen badly when jumping out of a window to impress a girlfriend. But they had only themselves to blame for this ill-fortune.
"We used to be quite confrontational." Jarvis says. "We had this bloke who used to read poetry between songs and he'd got one of those sirens that factories use to tell people it's time to go home, and he used to set it off at random moments. It was very loud and at one concert he blew all the fuses in the building, so it was 20 minutes before we could start the next song." What was the atmosphere like during that time? "It wasn't good."
The three EPs which made the band's name came out between June of last year and February of this, and are now being reissued by their new record company as Pulpintro, The Gift Recordings (Island, low price CD/LP/tape, out now). As well as "Sheffield: Sex City", there's the splendidly catchy "Babies", which is essentially an episode of Grange Hill scripted by David Lynch, and the vibrant "Razzmatazz". Best of all though is "Inside Susan: A Story in 3 Parts" – a psychological odyssey of greater depth and complexity than any previously attempted in British pop music. Susan the adolescent temptress lights up a land of "sky-blue trainer bras" and "German exchange students who were very immature", before settling for a man whom Jarvis – "Oh, he's an architect and such a lovely guy" – plainly wants dead.
It must be quite unnerving for people to have their lives dissected in such detail. The names are always changed, and Susan is in fact two people, but still … "It is a bit exploitative," Jarvis admits. "I used to get in loads of trouble with girls I went out with because they thought I was a bastard for writing about them," he says ruefully, "and I don't blame them. Especially when I wouldn't even tell them the things I was talking about in the songs to their faces."
Many of Cocker's songs and spoken stories are based on memories of a Seventies childhood, of "people getting off with each other's wives and snogging on the stairs at my mother's parties". After years of being persecuted for his distinctive looks, Jarvis has recently found himself in the unaccustomed position of a fashion leader, but this is not a band of revivalists. "It was funny to be in sync with the times for a while, but it's over now," he says. "The Seventies was an interesting time, though, before everybody started going on about it, because it was such a mess. There were all these ideas of freedom left over from the Sixties, and people weren't sure about what they could do and what they couldn't.
Pulp's first major-label single, "Lip Gloss", marks a determination "not to sing songs about pikelets". The B-side is the extraordinary "Deep Fried in Kelvin", a major piece of social observation which, its author observes succinctly, "sounds like 'Another Day in Paradise' by Phil Collins, but isn't". Kelvin is a sombre estate in Sheffield, a place "where pigeons go to die". "Suffer the little children to come unto me," intones Jarvis the tower-block messiah, "and I will tend their adventure playground splinters and cigarette burns, and feed them fizzy orange and chips; that they may grow up straight and tall."
Is he worried that his new-found status as a wage-earner and fully paid-up member of society will affect his capacity to see things in an interesting way? He grins. "Yes."
(Melody Maker, 6th March 93)
(Melody Maker, 6th March 93)
(The Star, Sheffield, 13th February 93)
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