Jarvis Cocker: ‘We’re all just getting through it the best we can’

Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker reflects on the ups and downs of breaking into the music industry in this week’s Letter to My Younger Self 

I’d wanted to be in a group from being really, really young, probably from around eight. I used to watch The Monkees TV show and The Beatles films on Boxing Day – they often had them on then – and that just filled my head with the idea of being in a group. I was a fairly shy kid, so the idea that you could have a band who were a gang and they all lived together was very exciting to me. And eventually, by 16, I’d managed to actually persuade some people to be in a band with me.

I recently came across an old school exercise book from when

Pulp Jarvis
Jarvis exercise book
Jarvis' exercise book is a real-life Pulp Masterplan
I was 16, so I know exactly what I was focusing on then. It has a plan for the band Pulp – or Arabicus Pulp as we were called at first – and the first thing I talk about is Pulp fashion. It says “most groups have a certain mode of dress which is invariably emulated by their followers” – I’d obviously been reading a dictionary. “The Pulp wardrobe shall consist of duffel coats, preferably blue or black, crew-neck jumpers from C&A” – not sure why, I don’t think we had a sponsorship deal – “garishly coloured T-shirts and sweatshirts, preferably of an abstract design, plain-coloured shirts, thin ties, drainpipe trousers, pointy boots, cheap white baseball boots, Oxfam jackets, preferably with buttonholes, silly socks, hair shortish, no sequins unless for silly purposes.” I don’t know how I came up with these ideas, especially the duffel coats. I mean, they’d be too hot to wear on stage, wouldn’t they? Maybe I was imagining we’d play a lot of outdoor festivals.

Pulp Jarvis
Jarvis exercise book
Jarvis' exercise book is a real-life Pulp Masterplan

The next thing after fashion is a section called The Pulp Masterplan. The first bit goes “Category A: music” – a bit formal for a teenager. Then: “Being first and foremost a musical unit, it is fitting that Pulp’s first conquest should be of the music business. The group shall work its way into the public eye by producing fairly conventional, yet slightly offbeat, pop songs. After gaining a well-known and commercially successful status, the group can then begin to subvert and restructure both the music business and music itself.” So that was the idea. I guess that must have been influenced by being brought up in the punk years, the idea that music wasn’t just a form of entertainment, that it could effect some kind of social change as well. And that’s probably why, when we did make it, it went a bit sour. Because I realised we couldn’t change the whole world. So I got a bit of a downer then.

This manifesto idea is the classic thing of locking yourself away in your room and coming up with a way of how you’re going to change the world, then when you’re out in the world, not being able to actually say any words to anybody, especially girls. I was quite awkward. I think I got my first girlfriend when I was 16. I used to have a Saturday job in the fish market, and it sounds a bit silly, but it was like, our eyes met across a filleted cod. That was exciting to me because she wasn’t a girl who went to my school. I did fancy girls at school but it was just was too nerve-wracking to talk to them.

John Peel was my first real musical compass. You read about punk in the music papers but you couldn’t really get to hear it, not on local radio in Sheffield anyway. There was a rock show on a commercial station and the DJ made a real point of saying, “You won’t hear any of that punk music on here, that’s not real music.” So I remember one night when I was about 14, just twisting the dial and I randomly came across the John Peel show. I think he was playing an Elvis Costello song. And once I discovered him that was it, the gateway was open. It was a musical education. Then when I was 17 Pulp recorded a demo in a friend’s house and I knew John Peel was doing a gig at Sheffield Polytechnic. So I went along and followed him out to the car park like a stalker and gave him this cassette. A while later, when I was at school, my grandma took a phone call from his producer John Walters. We were offered a Peel session. Well, you can imagine, it just blew my mind.

I’d tell my younger self to just chill the fuck out. Calm down. ’Cause at that age you think it’s just you who doesn’t know how to do things. And, of course, what I’ve learned in the intervening years is that everybody’s got that feeling of being an imposter or faking it. Nobody really knows how it all works. Once you realise that, you can start to relax and say, we’re all just getting through it the best we can. But I had this very strong feeling when I was young, that I was just completely inept. Maybe it was the fact that my dad had left when I was seven, so I’d never really had a male role model, no one to talk to about relationships or any of that stuff from a male perspective. I was a bit at sea. And I imagine I was some kind of neurotic nightmare to go out with.

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Obviously there are lots of absent fathers and broken homes – that’s not a nice way to put it, but single parents. But what was unusual for me was that he just disappeared. He went to Australia, and nothing was heard of him. There was no contact. It wasn’t like, you know, meet in McDonald’s at the weekend, it was, your dad does not exist any more. My mum tried to talk about him a bit but she was not kindly disposed towards him – he never gave her any money, she was just left high and dry, so he wasn’t a popular topic of discussion. I was really curious because I had a vague memory of him and you know, he was my dad. And when we had an argument and she was really upset, my mum would occasionally say, you’re just like your father. Which was amazing to hear. I kind of grew up with… males weren’t getting a good press in our house, let’s put it like that. I did meet my dad later, when I was in my mid-30s, but it was just too late for me and maybe too late for him. It was awkward for both of us. There was nothing to really hold on to. So that was a bit of a letdown. Both me and my sister took lessons from what happened with my dad when we had children of our own. We both actually ended up splitting up with our spouses but we definitely made sure that we were always in touch with our kids and were with them. We made a big thing about that.

If I wanted to impress the teenage me, given his Beatles obsession, I’d say, listen, in 40 years’ time you’ll sit next to Paul McCartney and you’ll talk to him for an hour. And you’ll get on with him. When Paul McCartney’s last album [2018’s Egypt Station] came out I hosted a Q&A thing at the LIPA institute he’s got up in Liverpool. I was really nervous about doing that because since I was a kid I’d just thought of him as a mythical figure. That’s happened to me a few times. I got to work with Scott Walker. I interviewed Leonard Cohen, who’d always been such an influence on my songwriting. I don’t agree with that thing that people say, don’t meet your heroes. You’ve got to because then you realise they’re just people like you.

When I was 16 I didn’t move at all on stage, I was just petrified. Then, at a concert in a pub on the 9th of October 1980, my exercise book tells me, my guitar amp broke and I just had this big freakout, basically just a tantrum. I just kind of
rolled around on the floor. And people clapped at the end of it. I wrote in my diary, “freak-out on my part, enjoyable”. And I realised performance isn’t just about playing the right notes in the right order. It’s actually about acting it out. And gradually over the years I just kind of evolved. I enjoy being on stage. That’s my little kingdom. You have total control, you’ve got everybody’s attention because you’re playing over really loud equipment, and it’s your chance to really do your thing.

Because we had that John Peel session so early on we thought, this is going to be a piece of piss. And then it was just a gradual long period of disillusion which unfortunately coincided with Margaret Thatcher. It was just like, whoa. As soon as the Eighties really got going it was like, this is really shit now. Cities were falling apart. It just got to be not fun. There were loads of times I thought, what the fuck, I should have gone to university. I thought I’d made a mistake, taken a wrong turn. Our album from that time, Freaks, kind of depresses me because it reminds me of a time when things were not working out. I was coming to the end of my first serious relationship. We had almost no money to make an album. It felt terrible to let that ambition, that I’d cherished from such a young age, die. But I really did think it was over and I’d have to seek a new career in a new town, as David Bowie said. But I kept going and hoping and eventually, towards the end of the Eighties, [the single] My Legendary Girlfriend got a good review in the NME and we made a breakthrough.

After going through all the Britpop thing and especially the Brits thing [in 1996 he invaded the stage during a Michael Jackson performance] people thought I was some kind of shock jock. And that’s not what Pulp were about at all. That one moment propelled us into this other world. We had come out of the independent music scene, with roots in punk from when I was really young. We came from an alternative place. And then we got shoved right slap-bang into the middle of the mainstream. And we realised that it’s very intense there, and you’re mixing in a world that doesn’t share any of your values. That’s what made me feel so uncomfortable.

There are two moments I’ve been most proud of on a stage. One was playing at Glastonbury in 1995 when everybody sang Common People. That was kind of a crazy moment, when we realised that this fantasy had come true in some way. Then after Pulp got back together in 2011 and we played at Radio City Music Hall in New York, this incredible kind of Thirties palace… it felt like those formative dreams I’d had as a kid had probably been premiered in a place like that. I think Bowie did a famous concert there where he was lowered on to the stage at the start and it was just amazing. It seemed like I was going back to the source of a lot of my early dreams. And for Pulp, it felt like we’d finally got back to where it all came from.

Image: Jeanette Lee