- 04 Apr 01
They've got the songs, the attitude and the neatest line in Oxfam chic since The Smiths but when will Pulp be famous? Niall Crumlish delves into the seedy twilight world of Sheffield's new sex gods.
Say what you like about the North of England, but it is undeniable that it has brought forth more than its fair share of indefatigable, incorrigible visionaries; legends who plough their lonesome furrow for years, wait for the rest of the world to catch up with them and then become heroes on a grand scale, enriching the otherwise drab lives of the masses while they’re at it.
Where, for example would we be had we never been exposed to the sometimes addled but always interesting worldviews of, say, J. Charlton or M.E. Smith? (A rhetorical question, but the answers are: losing 4-1 at home to Liechtenstein and, em, not much worse off, actually, respectively. If you’re interested.)
As Jackie and Mark will both tell you, the trouble with being a visionary is that it can take forever for the man in the proverbial street to even begin to share your idiosyncratic way of thinking. Which is where Jarvis Cocker, the singer with Pulp and the latest incumbent to the Incorrigibility Hall of Fame, comes in.
“I’ve always wanted to be famous,” he confirms: “I never wanted to be a minority interest .”
Well, it took him long enough but he made it. After thirteen years of wearing red flared cords and Oxfam suits and sculpting mini-operas about council estates and buses and shagging in Sheffield, Pulp are suddenly darlings of the media – having been called “the best band in the world” by a Melody Maker writer, having had every single since the wonderful ‘Babies’ played to death on MTV, having stormed The Word, and so on.
One theory is that their sudden hurtle to fame is on the back of the indie scene’s recent fondness for all things camp and ‘70’s and archetypally English – see Suede and the Auteurs. Candida Doyle, Pulp’s keyboard player for a mere decade, takes the point: “Well maybe. It seems that, like, our music and our clothes and that kind of thing are more acceptable. We were considered really weird before, but we seem to fit in at the moment, which is kind of a weird coincidence. It must seem weird to people when we say we’ve been going for years and then, all of a sudden, we’re kind of well known: it’s like, ‘What have you been doing for the past ten years?’”
While you can see the connection, it could not be said that Pulp have tried desperately hard to endear themselves to lovers of the new wave of Britpop: their songs remain the same, “a bit more poppy, maybe,” thinks Candida, but still dealing with life as they know it, mainly around Sheffield, with ordinary characters living ordinary, mostly sad lives.
“We’ve got a lot of songs about quite ordinary things,” explains Jarvis, “and I like the idea of that being in songs , ’cos often songs tend to operate on some kind of high aesthetic level or something. It’d be nice if people recognised things from their own lives and thought they’d been in a song. Because usually things like travelling on buses get left out.”
Their penchant for dramatising that which everyone else considers too painfully mundane to draft a ditty about extends to their songs about sex. Sex is something of an obsession with Jarvis: this is to be expected from a man who, in 1985, broke his pelvis and nearly never walked again after falling thirty feet from a windowsill from which he was hanging in a vain attempt to impress an obviously very demanding girl. Talk about dying to get laid. His songs tend more towards the frustration, zits, incest and inadequacy end of the subject than to the Al Green route, where carnal knowledge is the one true path to the Almighty. But, he says, he doesn’t want to bring us down or anything . . .
“I hope that I don’t make it sound like a terrible experience! I mean, I just think that it’s something that drives a lot of the people a lot of the time, and it’s got its good and bad sides. And usually in songs, if they are about sex, it’s usually about the horror of it all or else it’s the kind of Prince ‘I can do it all night to lots of different people and I’m so great and sexy’ type. It’s like Barry White, y’know, ‘Let’s get it on’ kind of thing. I mean, I like Barry White”, he says, leaning in towards my tape recorder so that there will be no ambivalence regarding his affection for the Walrus of Lurve, “I’d like your readers to know that I’m an admirer of the work of Barry White, but I just couldn’t do something like that. It just wouldn’t sit well, really. I haven’t really got a macho persona.
Pulp’s first major label album is being recorded now, for release in the Spring. It will be a fresh new experience for them to record something that even gets to sit patiently in a record shop rack, after spending the ’80s with the tiny indie, Fire, who were, says Candida, searching for a non-expletive, “ a load of . . . rubbish. They’d never release any of our records, and if they did it’d be a year later, or with our LP (they recorded two for Fire) they released it three years later, and only then because we left them and they wanted to make some money back.”
Pulp finally broke free from Fire and, guess what, signed to them again: “No-one else would release our records, so there was no reason for us to go on, so we signed to them again, which, I know, was very stupid. We have lived to regret it.”
Their bacon was belatedly saved by Island, who part-financed the three breakthrough singles on Gift and ultimately signed them. The first fruit of the collaboration is ‘Lipgloss’, the current single, about what a pisser it is when you go to all that trouble getting to know your girlfriend’s friends and then she leaves you, which wasn’t Top 40 but should have been. The album, also called Lipgloss, follows in the spring.
The prospect of an enormously successful Pulp and the poss-ible influence they might have on the general public is an intriguing one. The band themselves have quite down-to-earth aspirations. Russell, the enigmatic guitarist, who is for once not sporting any tacky white-rimmed sunglasses, would, he says, “hope that it would be uplifting in some kind of way, that it would raise them a little bit.”
“We don’t want to bring pain into people’s lives, really,” agrees Jarvis: “It’s not like we’re all sunny and optimistic but I hope that, no matter how downbeat the subject matter of the songs might be, you’ve always got the music to temper that, so it’s not like a downer trip of, like, ‘Alright, I’ll go up and slash my wrists now when I’ve listened to this record’.”
They would also, if they start selling more records than their Zooropean labelmates, do a lot of good work for charidee. As it is, all their fans show up to the gigs dressed in the same Oxfam chic that Pulp themselves love (“They put us to shame. They spur us on,” smiles Jarvis), and they would like to see it catch on like grunge chic did, although they can’t see it happening, and there is the slight worry that all the shops might sell out and they would have to dress properly. Heaven forbid.
If Lipgloss doesn’t sell, Pulp will pack it in. They have been working for ten years to reach this point. “We’ve always wanted to get to the stage where there were no excuses, really,” says Mr. Cocker, matter-of-factly. “Island seem to be doing a pretty competent job of getting records out and letting people know they’re out. So if people don’t buy the record then it’ll be because they don’t like us. And that’s fair enough because at least they’ve had the chance, and if they don’t want it then maybe it’s time to start looking for something else to do.”
So now you know. Support your local Pulp or you won’t get the chance to throw things at them at Zooropa ‘97. You have been warned.