Pulp - Biography
Pulp needed a revolution. As a band with a seemingly endless amount of talent, intellect and a handful of ignored albums, what Pulp lacked throughout the ‘80s was a cultural renewal they could score a soundtrack to. The mid-‘90s rise of Tony Blair, and with him, the renewed interest and impulse in English culture known as Cool Britannia couldn’t have provided a more perfect opportunity. Led by the flamboyant, working class poet, Jarvis Cocker, and armed with a battalion of guitar hooks, heavenly orchestration, bags of social and sexual wit and enough dance beats to keep the floor filled; Pulp needed a social and cultural movement to up the anti…and they got it. As one of the seminal acts of the mid-‘90s Britpop movement, Pulp lacked the boyish good looks of Blur or the debaucherous immediacy of Oasis. Instead the band offered something deeper — subversive intellectualism that simultaneously functioned as pop art. Pulp stoked the fires of young Britain’s social consciousness by giving them something they could empathize with, namely being young, working class and British. It’s no accident that “Common People” became the rallying cry of the Britpop movement. The song is exactly what Pulp intended it to be. Pulp yearned to be the biggest band in Britain and when they finally were, the band stopped stoking the movement by becoming the movement. Yet, as is the way with all revolutions, this one ended — and with it, so did Pulp.
Pulp always has been, and always will be, the conduit for Jarvis Cocker’s sexual obsessions and hilariously poignant story-songs. Cocker’s first incarnation of the band began in his hometown of Sheffield, England in 1978 when the aspiring musician was only 15-years-old. Backed by various City Secondary School classmates, Cocker christened the group “Arabacus Pulp.” It was shortened to Pulp a year later. The young band recorded their first demo in early 1981 and managed to get it into the hands of legendary disc jockey John Peel, who invited them to play his highly influential radio show. These, their earliest recordings, are available alongside later sessions on Pulp - The Peel Sessions (2006 Island). The four songs from this period reel from post-punk to jangle pop and are revelatory. Needless to say, Cocker and company were more than disappointed when fame remained elusive and most of the band abandoned Cocker to attend university later that year.
Cocker next enlisted a new line-up with his sister, Saskia, Simon Hinkler (later of The Mission) amongst others. This incarnation took a dramatic shift in direction toward twee, folk-pop. Pulp issued their debut full-length album, It (Fire Records) in 1983. In it, a wide-eyed, virginal Cocker hopefully and naively pines about love and longing. Musically, it falls somewhere between Aztec Camera and early Leonard Cohen. Unfortunately, it did nothing commercially and Cocker mulled over disbanding the group to attend university before deciding to give Pulp another go. After holding a rehearsal with guitarist/violinist Russell Senior and drummer Magnus Doyle, the frontman’s creative enthusiasm for the band reignited, in part due to a close songwriting partnership he developed with Senior. The month he joined, Pulp released the single "Everybody's Problem" b/w "There Was" (Red Rhino records), an obvious attempt at getting a hit single by writing a song in the style of Wham! that sank without a trace.
Jarvis returned to recording a changed man, living on the dole and bitter about being stuck in his first serious relationship, his outlook was now much bleaker. Armed with darker, more avant-garde material, the mid-‘80s incarnation of Pulp eventually took on Doyle’s sister Candida on keyboards and the group began releasing one off singles for the Fire label, which were later collectively released as Masters of the Universe (Fire) in 1994 (minus “Silence,” a particularly melodramatic piece that was left off on Jarvis’s request). The four singles and their B-sides are dark, goth-tinged and frequently pretentious - but not without their charm. “Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)” perversely (yet poetically) addresses his estranged father’s carnal relationship with his mother, “They Suffocate at Night” is stiflingly claustrophobic. Only “Dogs Are Everywhere” hints at the humor-and-cynicism-balanced take on sex Jarvis would later be known for.
In 1985, Cocker was trying to impress a girl at a party and accidentally fell 30 feet from an open window, resulting in injuries to his foot, wrist and pelvis. Confined to a wheelchair for two months, Cocker dreamed up the bleak, gothic tracks that made up Pulp’s sophomore release, Freaks (1986 Fire Records). Recorded (due to record company insistence) in one week, the tracks are in the vein of their preceding singles, albeit slightly more tuneful and immediate. While filming a video for the single, “They Suffocate at Night,” the band abruptly broke up. Cocker next moved to London to study film at St. Martin’s College. The split would be short lived however, and the band reunited in 1987 with new bassist Steve Mackey and drummer Nick Banks joining the ranks.
Their next album, Separations (1992 Fire), was recorded in 1989 and bears the influence of the then-burgeoning house scene, thanks to Steve and Jarvis’ regular attendance of raves. While side one is composed of Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave-influenced ballads, side two finds the band amateurishly twiddling knobs and attempting to reflect their house influences. The results, while a bit rough, are a batch of classic tunes. The epic “My Legendary Girlfriend” was even picked as NME’s single of the week in 1991 and finally sparked Pulp’s slow rise to fame. Unfortunately, Fire sat on Separations for three years and, when finally released, wasn’t the overnight success the band was hoping for. The band, understandably frustrated with their label’s inept handling of their record, left and subsequently recorded for Warp Records’ Gift imprint.
Undoubtedly, the release of “Babies,” in 1992, was a turning point in the band’s then 14-year existence. Here, all of what would become thought of as Pulp’s signature components were finally in place. Over the course of four amazing minutes, a yelping Jarvis paints a ironic tale of sexual shenanigans. The promo video showed a pasty and hairy Jarvis awkwardly yet soulfully shimmying, backed by a band (and insterspersed with clips) that introduced the world to Pulp’s ‘70s-influenced, junkshop glamour aesthetic. After the tune’s release, the band was picked up by Island Records who compiled Pulp’s three Gift singles and released them as the album, Into — The Gift Recordings (1993 Island).
Pulp followed with the modestly successful singles, “Do You Remember The First Time?” and “Lipgloss,” building up to their first major label full length. Under the watchful eye of former Psychedelic Fur, Ed Buller, (fresh from producing Suede’s debut), the band fashioned the flawless His ‘n’ Hers (1994 Island). Armed with mountains of wit, sexual obsessions, dance beats and snarling guitar hooks, His ‘n’ Hers was a huge UK success, charting in the Top 10. At the time of its release, allmusic wrote of it as Pulp’s debut, and for some fans and critics, it remains the point where Pulp truly took off. His ‘n’ Hers projected a huge amount of innovation and swagger, with Cocker confidently taking the lead as Pulp’s working class poet laureate. Musically, the band showcased a sound that swung flawlessly between pop perfection and orchestral dourness, but it was Cocker’s street smart lyrics that spoke to the disenfranchised members of the public. The masses not only listened, they ate it up. After 16 years with little to show, Cocker had finally found his niche. He wasn’t just praised as s rock star, but as a preacher, rallying an ever expanding congregation into a glorious fervor. After His ‘n’ Hers was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize it was official, Pulp had arrived.
By early 1995, the Britpop movement was in full swing and Pulp garnered considerable attention. Cocker made constant television talk show appearances which showcased his cleverness and considerable knowledge on subjects as varied as politics, art and music. Pulp was now a household name in the UK, but hardly the best-selling band in the land. But while Blur and Oasis competed for the top spot as critical darlings, Pulp snuck through the back door to steal the title out from under them. After taking on second guitarist (and former Pulp fan club president) Mark Webber, the band unleashed their first release of 1995.
“Common People” was an infectiously exuberant single that took Britain by storm. The tale of class tourism touched a nerve and propelled it to #2 on the British charts, providing Pulp with what would be their biggest hit. The band got another career boost when the Stone Roses bowed out of their 1995 Glastonbury Festival performance. Although their fifth album had yet to be released, Pulp were asked to step in as last minute replacements and performance is still viewed as one of the most adored and memorable in the renowned festival’s history.
Different Class (1995 Island) followed shortly after, going gold its first week and platinum the second. As a treatise on Britain’s class system with sideways glances at sexual politics and the haplessness of age, Different Class was more than a great album, it was another rallying cry, this time for the public to stand up and examine (and change) their political and social circumstances. After the band won the 1995 Mercury Prize for Best Album, there was a widespread consensus that Pulp was the best band in Britain (even if they were outsold by Blur, Oasis, Paul Weller, Simply Red, Wet Wet Wet, Queen and Robson & Jerome). Success wouldn’t come without a hefty price however, and it wasn’t long before Pulp, and particularly Cocker, fell headlong into the trappings of fame.
Different Class may have been the unstoppable album of the year in Britain, but outside Europe, Pulp was still a relatively unknown band. Cocker rectified that to an extent at the 1996 BRIT Awards when he crashed the stage during a stomach-turning Michael Jackson performance in which the King of Pop, against a slideshow backdrop of starving children, sang surrounded by a chorus of worshipful children. Jarvis ran onto the stage, struck some poses, bent over and made flapping motions with his hands and flashed his stomach before security removed him. Jackson’s camp claimed he had injured children and Cocker spent that night behind bars. His televised antics made worldwide headlines with many critics and fans praising Cocker for his unwillingness to passively witness Jackson’s messianic portrayal of himself. Needless to say, after the BRIT Awards fiasco Pulp’s album sales skyrocketed not only in Britain but also in a previously indifferent America.
After numerous worldwide tours in support of Different Class, the band took some time off to recuperate. Jarvis began to develop a reputation as a party animal, quickly falling into a nasty cocaine addiction. During this time, Russell Senior, who sang and wrote several of Pulp’s darkest songs, exited the group. In addition to being unhappy with Pulp’s increasing commercialism, he expressed a desire to spend more time with his family outside of the tabloid spotlight. The following year, in 1998, he formed the art-pop band, Venini. After he quit that band, he opened an antique shop.
It would be three years before a Different Class follow-up and if fans were expecting another dance-flavored party album they were in for a grave disappointment. In many respects, This Is Hardcore (1998 Island) is the antithesis of Different Class. Revolving around the subject matter of drug abuse, ageism and life after the party, This Is Hardcore was an anxious, jaded, densely orchestrated affair. Although the album was critically lauded and the singles “Help the Aged” and “Party Hard” were UK hits, the album’s tone not only divided fans but also served as a final curtain for the short-lived, hedonistic Britpop scene. Even though popular British music trends were rapidly shifting, Pulp remained in the upper echelons of the country’s most beloved bands. All the same, as a group they were quickly running out of steam. Pulp became disillusioned with their relevance in popular culture and once again elected to take some time off.
After a two year break, the band recorded the majority of an entire album with producer Chris Potter before scrapping the sessions. When Pulp reconvened, it was another disillusioned, former pop star as producer — none other than the godlike genius himself, Scott Walker. We Love Life (2001 Island) turned away from the slummy streets of Soho represented on This Is Hardcore and headed for the countryside. By far the sunniest album of their career, the theme of We Love Life revolved around the rejuvenating power of nature. Critically lauded and embraced by fans, the album spawned the pastoral singles “Weeds,” “Trees,” “Sunrise” and “Bad Cover Version.” Pulp again hit the road, this time performing an entire tour at various National Parks around the UK.
In 2002, the band announced they were splitting with their long term label Island. The same year, Island issued the Pulp greatest hits album, Hits, which included one new song, “Last Day of the Miners Strike”. Pulp performed their final gig at the Auto Festival in 2002 before entering a prolonged hiatus they have yet to resurface from.
Since then, Cocker has taken part in numerous side projects including Relaxed Muscle (with Jason Buckle and Richard Hawley). He also wrote and performed three tracks for the film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, as The Weird Sisters (with Steve Mackey and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway). In addition, he’s directed music videos for the Aphex Twin, Erlend Øye and Nightmares on Wax. In 2006, Cocker released his long awaited solo debut, aptly titled, Jarvis (Rough Trade), which saw him reunited with Mackey and Richard Hawley. Mackey has since turned to producing the likes of M.I.A. and The Long Blondes.
Island released deluxe, two-disc, expanded editions of His ‘n’ Hers, Different Class, and This Is Hardcore in 2006 complete with B-sides, rarities and live tracks. Later that year, the two-disc compilation of the band’s complete Peel sessions was also released. While doing publicity for the Jarvis release, Cocker put to rest rumors of a Pulp reunion simply stating the band have no plans to perform or record in the near future but that the door has been left open.