As the ‘That’s What I call 90’s’ comps have it, Pulp were the kinky third party during the ugly Britpop Wars, the sophisticated Sheffield synth-pop humourists who survived the Thatcherite 80’s before slinking into Camden Town in bri-nylon suits, rapier-sharp tongues fixed in powdered cheeks.
It’s neat enough for Wikipedia. But it’s not the band that I came to love, in that nauseating way that only arrogant sixteen-year-olds can. I found them on the kitchen shelf, uncomfortably sandwiched between Dire Straits and Sting. I don’t think it had ever been played more than once. Now, I knew Different Class was an “important” album. It won the 1995 Mercury Prize. And Jarvis Cocker was just cultural oxygen; even if you thought he looked like a perverted librarian with stringy hair, you knew he was important for something or other.
Anyway, I was interested, so I popped the disc into the CD player and spent the following 52 minutes feeling dazed, elated, and ever so slightly unwashed. I’d never heard a din like it. Yes, the opening declaration of class war in ‘Mis-Shapes’ is naive, but Jarvis meant every single word. He promised you a revolution and spat out the particulars with a venomous fury to make Johnny Rotten wince. It was almost too much.
Then there was all the rutting, so central to every good Pulp song. Jarvis’s queasy yelps invited me to enter an adult world of eiderdown fumbles and unmade beds, and I didn’t quite know how to RSVP. Sex wasn’t wrapped up in sequined cocktail dresses. It was lethal. Just listen to ‘Underwear’, where Jarvis croons over Candida Doyle’s analogue synthesisers ‘He’s standing far too near/And how the hell did you get in here/ Semi-naked in somebody else’s room’. Eek. Bedroom floors were political minefields. One stumble and you were a goner. And yet, the melody was so euphoric, like chart balladry with the messy bits left in. I couldn’t get enough.
Eventually, Jarvis’s T-shirt-ready lyricism overshadowed his bandmates, and shamefully so. Candida overcame juvenlie arthritis to provide pillowy keyboards on the twinkling ‘Dishes’. Then there’s Steve Mackey’s throbbing bassline on 1993’s ‘Sheffield: Sex City’, a 10-minute spoken-word landscape painting where the protagonist copulates with a crack in the pavement and high-rises are flattened by the bomb-burst force of a collective orgasm. I hate rock critic clichés- you know the sort, guff about music being timeless or whatever- but I can confidently say no other group has ever put out a song quite like it. It’s the city as fetish object, a ‘jewellery box’ bursting with romantic potential, and perhaps the most singular achievement in this band’s varied discography.
That’s the thing about Pulp. In an era when conformity was hip, they pushed forward. While Oasis strip-mined John Lennon’s songbook, Pulp were cutting jagged little diamonds like 1998’s ‘Party Hard’, a disco stomper that married the twilit electronica of Scott Walker’s Nite Flights with the vinegary-sharp wit of Madonna. Their influences spanned borders and set an example. In Pulp land, you could know all the mumbles on Hex Enduction Hour, adore the mellow ‘oppahs’ on “Super Trouper” and still have someplace to call home. Music was music wherever it came from. So if the lyric sheet on ‘Common People’ exposed the futility of class thinking, then its intercontinental kraut-disco beat made Britpop’s nationalist rock look as outdated as a Pretty Green parka.
So how do I end? Look at Jarvis. At 6’2, he was nobody’s vision of a star. I was an anxious child when I first heard his unlikely pop group. Back then, I hated my stutter and felt embarrassed by my bony chest. Watching YouTube clips of Jarvis’s gawky staccato dancing showed me that the limits of my body weren’t static, but negotiable. My imperfections could be amplified into something unique. They were my style. So what if you stood out? To be different was to be righteous. That may be an oversimplification, but it got me through. Great pop can aspire to no less.