Known for their Britpop anthems and undeniably sexual frontman, Jarvis Cocker, Pulp became the alternative band of the 1990s. Where we had Oasis on one side battling Blur on the other, Pulp were on the other side of town, creating songs which will never loose their context, purpose or relevance. But unlike Oasis and Blur, Pulp weren’t formed in the 1990s, neither were they formed in the 1980s, but instead, formed in 1978 by then 15 year old Jarvis Cocker. The band were music revolutionaries. The mistakes, misshapes, misfits of music in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. They changed the way that music could have direct relevance with day to day life, for whereas Oasis were singing about cigarettes and alcohol, Pulp were singing about E’s, Whizz and the affair you wish you were having with your next-door neighbour. With stand out LP’s such as His’N’Hers and Different Class, they proved that the unpopular life can be an interesting one, how sleaze can be listenable, how a band can be capable of giving your brain an orgasm as well as the rest. Pulp only released seven LPs over a three decade period, but with such seemingly scarce material they incorporated so many styles. From Indie Folk-to an LP somewhat resembling the equivalent of a video nasty. Then with the exploration of Acid House before finding their feet with the sexy alternative rock sound that Jarvis encapsulated so beautifully. Before soon enough, ending with two LPs, one holding a candle to mental health and sex worker sleaziness and the other on the complete opposite page, presented to the listener not as an object of affairs and aesthetics, but as an object of nature. Pulp’s discography cannot be summed up with one word or with one genre, with one album or with one song. To many people, Pulp are merely the group who sung about the Common People, but to the fans, they’re revolutionaries. They are the appeal to the bedsit adolescents with the handed down jackets and worn out trainers. For the teens who either stay in or get chased out of town, for the self labelled misfits, Pulp writes about their world with such clarity, you have no doubt that they too lived it themselves.
The band’s beginnings may lie in 1978, but It wasn’t until 5 years later, in April 1983 where they released their debut album, the Mini-LP (and only limited to 2000 copies) It. It, is notable for being a fairly forgettable album for Pulp, being critically panned and lasting only 25 minutes. It’s only interesting feature is that the line up features Simon Hinkler, who went on to be the lead guitarist of the Sheffield-Gothic Rock band, The Mission. I feel that Pulp’s It is a demonstration of the lyrical qualities the band had rather than to the instrumental. The ‘indie-folk’ aspect Pulp fantasised within this LP isn’t seen again in their discography until around 2001’s We Love Life, yet the writing style of Jarvis Cocker is definitely starting to blossom with tracks such as: My Lighthouse, Blue Girls, and Joking Aside. The environment given to us with Blue Girls I feel is definitely continued through Pulp’s career yet the style of songs such as Love Love is happily left behind, which I wouldn’t call an exact shame. What is a shame however, is the lack of recognition this album received at the time of release and at the time of Pulp’s successful period. Even though It was rereleased in 2012 with bonus tracks and a new cover, it’s still easy to ignore and to step on.
1985 saw the band starting to get a foothold of what’s soon to come, after several line up changes Pulp finally welcomes the joining of permanent keyboardist, Candida Doyle (who’s brother, Angus, was the drummer at the time) and Guitarist/Violinist Russell Senior, the band were soon signed to Fire Records. Not too soon after this signing, Jarvis was hospitalised following a Spider-man impersonation led him from trying to impress a girl to falling out of a window and leaving himself to perform in a wheelchair for the next few gigs. It was also not until 1985 where the band had their next release, Little Girl (With Blue Eyes), a 12″ single which offered the listener 4 tracks. Senior was beginning to prove himself as a key player in developing Pulp’s sound. Senior also leads the vocals on the final track, The Will To Power. While the line up starts to take gravity, the music however, is still distant from what the band is recognised for. With the addition of Russell Senior to the line up, he brings in a much more darker presence. This is encapsulated in the band’s second album, Freaks, released in 1987. It features ten tracks, labelled on the cover as ‘Ten stories about power, claustrophobia, suffocation and holding hands.’ The album is just about the most claustrophobic work Pulp have provided us with.
The music is frightening to say the least, starting with the track Fairground, which is led by Senior with the distant calls of Cocker. The song sets the listener up to what they’re to expect to experience from the album. To question whether it’s a good album is unnecessary knowing how the band were only given one week by Fire to record it. It’s tricky to know where to stand on the LP, I feel that some songs, musically have pieces missing, for instance, Anorexic Beauty starts with this awkward keyboard and drum set but soon takes off, and songs like Being Followed Home and They Suffocate At Night, are examples of how materially rich the tracks can be. This album is one for the experienced fans, and definitely not one to start your recognition of Pulp with. Not to be mistaken, Freaks and the 12″, non-album singles; Little Girl (with blue eyes) and Dogs Are Everywhere are worthwhile but I feel it’s something that is heavily overshadowed by Pulp’s musical capabilities which were proven in the 1990s.
1988, the second summer of love, but for Pulp it seemed like the end was nigh. Freaks was a commercial flop and Jarvis had started to get involved with further education in London. Yet it was in London where Cocker met Steve Mackey, who soon became the bassist Pulp needed to complete the equation. By mid-1989, and with a bigger budget, Pulp’s third album, Separations, was starting to come into shape. I find this album something of a musical marvel. Pulp seems to present us two very different sides of the same coin. On the first side of the record we’re presented with 5, somewhat average at the time, tracks. Listening to them, I can feel some sort of bridge between 1985-87 Pulp and 1990s Pulp. The dark undertones in tracks such as ‘She’s Dead’ and ‘Separations’ are reminiscent of Freaks but I feel comfortable in saying that this LP does have a life of it’s own and should definitely be recognised for that. I adored listening to this album, the tracks on the first side remind me of a Cobbled French Street Café style of music, especially represented in the track, Down By The River. However the second side comes as somewhat a surprise.
Steve Mackey’s influence on Jarvis is very evident in the second side of the LP. Mackey, being an enthusiast for Acid House had taken Jarvis to several raves and introduced him to the general scene. To put it simply, Pulp ventured into Acid House. Successfully? Well, the tracks aren’t exactly up to par with the biggies such as Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald. Instead Pulp mix things up, Jarvis still has his unique lyrics and baritone voice but instead of guitars and single violin suits, they are sung over electronic bass and arpeggio keyboards, especially recognisable in the song Death II. I adore this album by the fact it has some kind of overarching story but incorporated over two musical genres. And strangely enough, it works, it leaves the listener confused yet loving every second. On the first listen it may take some time to get well adjusted but if you love Pulp and you love Acid House then this is something representative of a bible for you. The album may have been recorded in 1989 but it wasn’t released until 1992, seeing out the end of the Acid House pantomime which was by now, no longer underground, but in the charts. In 1991 the NME even labeled their single of the week, Pulp’s My Legendary Girlfriend (12″) as “a throbbing ferment of nightclub soul and teen opera”. Pulp were speeding up, getting closer to the light, in this album Jarvis first incorporates his signature spoken word monologue, somewhat recognisable of John Cooper Clarke, with the track Love Is Blind. Another stepping stone for the band is the completion of the affirmed band, with drummer Nick Banks now in place, the circle was complete.
By 1993, the band had left Fire Records and released the single’s Babies, Razzamatazz and O.U (Gone, Gone) via Gift Records. The songs are, for me, where the new beginnings lay for Pulp, the keyboards work magically, creating an ever increasing atmosphere, the bass carries sensibly underneath each of the tracks, giving the lister a taste of Pulp’s new style, The crescendo of Jarvis’ lyrics during the chorus leaves the listener to buckle in an effort to believe if what they were listening to was real. By the end of 1993, the compilation album; Intro-The Gift Recordings, was released and I find this reminiscent of the Beatle’s Revolver, not in style but in preparation, these tracks are the quiet before the storm.
In these recordings I really feel Jarvis’ veneer start to shine through, the music is great and the production is great. It’s hard to describe but when listening you can always picture the situation, this is the beginning of the street-light, back alley night club, running from the popular kids sound Pulp fitted into so well. Within no time they were soon signed to Island Records, and this is where Pulp are given the recognition they were finally deserving of. Signing to Island Records was the boost Pulp needed to take over the alternative world. Under this record label they released their first top 40 chart scoring single, Do You Remember The First Time…? A song which sits in the mind of every one, from the socially distant 17 year old, to the mother of two, reminiscing of the days of her young adulthood. It’s with the songs such as there where Jarvis makes nights trundling around suburbia sound much more romantic than nights spent in fancy restaurants.
This feeling is felt throughout the entirety of the band’s first charting album, His’N’Hers, an album with so much musical presence and relevance it’s hard not to listen to it, over and over again. Joyriders, the opening track, with it’s lyrics and it’s music specifically sets the tone for the album, it’s fast, it’s slow, it’s sleazy, it’s lovely but most of all, it’ll make you smile. His’N’Hers is possibly Pulp’s best album, but what I find most fascinating are the B-sides to the singles and the EP, The Sisters, which lay down a much more materially rocketed set of numbers. It’s hard to put your finger on, but there’s a certain amplification of the atmosphere presented to us in His’N’Hers, mainly visible with songs such as Street Lites, Frightened and You’re A Nightmare, make for a much more gritty and interesting listen with orgasmic keyboard riffs and darkened lyrics, low and swinging bass and interesting guitar work, Pulp’s B-Sides encapsulate variety and show a more shadowy side to the band.
1995, Pulp may have had a taste for popularity the year before, some knew them, which was a lot more than what can be said for the band’s previous 17 years of existence. It was in May, in the year that marked the half way point of the decade. Common People, the working class anthem, elevated Pulp’s success to beyond measurable accounts. After 17 years of taking shit from record companies and running from riots, the band were now on all the music shows. Pulp, with ease, then released Disco 2000, a pub rock song with a rocking guitar lift and textured lyrics which can only leave the listener singing and dancing along. In November, the band’s first Number 1 album, Different Class was released to wide acclaim. It’s the album of all albums. It’s gospel.
The opening track just touches the indie kid with such a way you can’t help but fall in love with Cocker, whether you’re male or female. The music is well produced, it just works. This album works. Where Oasis and Blur were fighting the Battle of Britpop, Pulp were battling society. It was the way they dressed, the way they sounded, the way the lyrics were so detailed and dirty yet so relatable. Jarvis wasn’t afraid and he exchanges this fearlessness to his audience, with songs about cheap café romance in the form of Something Changed, and stories about desperate and haunting love in the song, F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E, it’s with tracks such as these where you seem to loose yourself. They vary so much but then again, it does has a tight grip upon itself. Pulp incorporate a sense of confidence to the fact that they’re misfits. Pulp represented charity shop culture and a Different Class just reasons with this idea. I don’t think this album can ever be matched by any other band. This is Pulp’s Sgt. Pepper, Pulp’s A Night At The Opera, Pulp’s The Queen Is Dead. And when listening to their previous LPs and singles it’s hard to believe that they could suddenly produce something with so much individuality. Jarvis is 32 years old when his is recorded and released, and he’s sharing the chart with a bunch of 20somethings and it feels like he is the one with the more accurate ideas of youth culture. I don’t think there are any bands out there who could make a song about Monday mornings sound good, bar the Boomtown Rats of course.
After achieving a last minute main stage spot at Glastonbury in 1995 the band welcomed 1996 with a plethora of awards. Winning the Mercury Prize Award for Different Class, the NME awards for best music video (Common People) and Best Live Act. Also, with Jarvis winning the prestigious NME award for both, Best Dressed and Worst Dressed person of the year. Pulp were riding along on the back of Different Class, their live shows still theatrical as ever and Britpop in full swing. However it’s in 1997 where the band slow down, they try to settle down to record a follow up to Different Class. But Jarvis has a mental breakdown. Russell Senior soon leaves the band after they make a U-Turn on releasing the track Cocaine Socialism in time of the ’97 election. After the Jarvis’ breakdown and the absence of Senior, leaving Mark Webber to be the only guitarist in the band, they recorded their penultimate record, This Is Hardcore. I feel this album is a lot more grown up in comparison to the band’s previous record. It isn’t sexy either in the attractive way the band had once portrayed sex. Instead contorting the idea of sex creating the image of fake fur coats and dirty needles.
This Is Hardcore comes across as a much more melancholic album, with songs reminiscent of Disco 2000 in the form of Party Hard and also touching upon the likeliness of Joyriders with the song I’m A Man. There are links to the old Pulp but there is no doubt they’ve grown up, Jarvis has changed and expected by his age, now in his mid-30s, they were not the young band they once were. Musically and lyrically the album is greatly present, but it’s hard to listen and think about how it has come off the back of Different Class. But maybe the real issue is that too much was expected from this LP, there’s no question to whether or not Jarvis and the rest of the band were under pressure to create a record with the same quality Different Class. An even tougher concept was the dawning realisation that Britpop was beginning to see it’s ending. And in 1998, with the release of This Is Hardcore, the critics say, that was the last testament of Britpop. The movement had lost it’s momentum, Oasis and Blur were past their best, Britpop had gotten two big and under the pressure, just fizzled out.
A new decade, a new century, a new millennium. The year is 2001 and Pulp finish their career off withtheir final LP, We Love Life. There isn’t much to say about this album, besides the fact, it should experience more praise than it does flack. The song writing is excellent, tracks such as Bad Cover Version and The Night That Minnie Timperley Died shine the light on the style Pulp once had, and the lyrics are still meaningful. However, it’s a tangent, a definite change, Pulp aren’t as frisky as they once were, instead of E’s they’re singing about Trees and Weeds. Pulp ended as they began, with a record which is simply forgotten or stood on. It’s a great shame to know that this is how things ended but it had to happen some time. Jarvis was now coming on 40 years old. This album is much more relaxed, much more of a retirement album. Settling down and less focus on clubs, and more focus on the Sunrise.
In 2002 the band dissolved, Jarvis has since released two solo albums, in 2006 and 2009, with Candida Doyle and Steve Mackey taking up instrumental roles. The band reunited, with Russell Senior in 2011 for a tour, and released the finally finished single, After You, in 2013. However, since then, nothing has been revived. But what counts is the music, that’s what we are left with, the stories, written so beautifully through the pen and told so beautifully through the microphone of Jarvis Cocker.
Pulp is Jarvis’ life work, and this work is a key demonstration of determination, of working class spirit, for you’ll get out what you put in. It took a while but Pulp got there. With so many genres and so many, completely different, albums, one can only comprehend the idea of how much relevance Pulp has to everybody’s lives. That’s the beauty of the band, the beauty of Jarvis’ song writing skills, he can whisper anything in your ear, and all you can do is smile, because you know just how right he is. No matter how sordid or deprived it is, the music makes you smile, because it sounds perfect musically and lyrically, the band is brilliant, Pulp worked and still work today.
by Sam Johns