Jarvis Cocker: I Remember

Richard Aldhous 16 September 2021

The singer who helped propel a nation into and beyond Britpop looks back on his childhood dreams, time with Pulp, and the infamous Brit Awards incident

We lived in what was actually a converted stable in the outskirts of Sheffield. The family were all close together—grandma and grandad next door, auntie across the garden. The kitchen was the heart of the house—as always. If something was going to happen it was going to happen in the kitchen. We had a big garden that was considered posh for the area. It was "home."

Social housing dominated where we lived. We were lucky to have space to roam around in. You’d see these towering, hulking stacks out towards the horizon and I was always intrigued by the concept of community. The North has always been very community-led and I worry it has lost some of that in recent years with the diminishing of industry and advent of the internet. I think the sort of childhood I had is gone forever.

A lot of people regarded lower-income, industrialised communities as uninspiring but personally I found them fascinating. They gave me a lot of inspiration and there were a lot of good people. I’m not going to dress up my childhood as some sort of philosophical rite of passage, but it certainly wasn’t unpleasant. The Seventies and Eighties in Sheffield weren’t pretty but it didn’t matter to us.

Jarvis Cocker as a child with his family

Jarvis' family outside his childhood home

I had menigitis when I was about five. I don’t remember much of it… being skinny, not being able to see. But, as with other things, we just got on with it. It wasn’t an era where you sought out sympathy or wanted to especially change the world, and I much preferred that. Even our parents knew no different—I think sometimes we can be overly sympathetic towards our children because we’re judging them on our own adult emotions and experiences.

My grandad was a collector of "things" who would find rich value in a simple object. He was a person who could take anything and put a story behind it. I love that appreciation for the minutiae. 

When I was young I wanted to be an astronaut. The whole space race thing was very current and the scientists would have you believe the next generation were destined to make huge strides intergalactically. 
Of course, that didn’t happen.

"I think sometimes we can be overly sympathetic towards our children because we’re judging them on our own adult emotions and experiences"

My favourite musicians growing up were the likes of Leonard Cohen—words, incredible song play, technique, honesty. Also The Stranglers, who were the first band I saw live. I also liked Scott Walker. My favourite DJ was John Peel. The Sheffield scene didn’t do much for me—we had the Human League; Manchester had Joy Division.

Cocker in the 1980s

Cocker in the 1980s

I don't think I had a full awareness of the divides in class and society until I was in my teens. When you’re a kid growing up, you’re living every day in the moment. It’s only when you get 
older do you understand your place in the whole system, and that can be slightly disconcerting… that moment you realise just how far away from the holy grail you are.

At one point I worked on a fish stall and a lot of the market humour, the sarcasm, ribbing, quipping and such, definitely rubbed off on me. You had to be quick and there was no hiding away, which I’d done a lot of before then.

Pulp's first proper gig was in August 1980 at the Leadmill in Sheffield. It was an all-day festival and we were on painfully early, but it was a raw experience that gave us the encouragement and impetus to carry on.

We signed out first record deal in 1984. It was always somewhat comforting that it took us so long to make the breakthrough. 
I couldn’t ever think of something any worse than being propelled into stardom from absolute obscurity. 

Cocker and Noel Gallagher smoking together

Cocker lighting up a cigarette for Noel Gallagher 

When I moved to London to study I played up to the working class thing a bit, but for the first time in my life it really became evident. London is always the perfect city in which on every corner you have the opportunity to realise and reassess where you are in the big picture.

Attending Saint Martin's College was an important time for me; it was more valuable than a few lyrics [referring to the Pulp track "Common People"]. It was the world to me, huge fun, and essentially brought me out of a shell. It made me proud to be who I was.

"London is always the perfect city in which on every corner you have the opportunity to realise and reassess where you are in the big picture"

Film-making was always a big passion of mine. When music videos came along I worked with Martin Wallace—who I’d met at Saint Martin’s in 1988—on producing some cool stuff for electronic artists [such as Aphex Twin, Nightmares on Wax and LFO]. I never wanted to be tied to one type of art or creativity and have been lucky enough to side with people cleverer than me who have taken me along for the ride.

When Britpop kicked in around 1995 there was a sudden intensity to what the band was doing. Musically we’d obviously had a long time developing our sound, but people were interested in us as people, which was bewildering, but exciting. That’s why I’d never regard the frustrations of that first decade together as a waste—essentially it became some kind of schooling for what followed.

Cocker posing for the camera in the 90s

Britpop gave Pulp a huge push, an acceleration. We were already making decent strides, but suddenly got swept along by this huge thing that was going on. It was a stunning time—suddenly we were catapulted by this bullet that also had Oasis, Blur, Suede, Supergrass, the Manics and a load of others sitting on it.

It wasn't a genre in its own right, though that’s how it’s become regarded now. Musically, all the bands that got put into that bracket were making very different types of music—we were all almost centred by the whole thing, which was great for exposure but ultimately became more difficult to break away from. Once the Britpop ship sank, so too did a lot of the bands.

A lot was made of the 1996 Brit Awards thing, but it wasn’t really a big deal [Cocker crashed the stage during Michael Jackson's performance of "Earth Song" and was subsequently arrested].

It was the most exciting thing in what is generally a turgid affair. People think I was making some big statement—maybe I was, maybe I was just bored. I found the performance distasteful.

"People think I was making some big statement—maybe I was, maybe I was just bored."

Cocker today

In the late nineties I sometimes wrestled with the relevance of my songs versus the life I found myself leading. When you move away from a place that created you, do you lose the right to discuss it? I think there was a time when it felt like I should be writing about something different. Ultimately, I realised that most songs were about people, their emotions and experiences. When you think of it in those terms it doesn’t matter where you grew up or where you are now; we’re having those experiences every day.

I've always loved the buzz of showcasing the work of others and for seven years I presented a show on BBC 6 Music. After so many years in the industry it was still a huge eye-opener.

I've been the only consistent member of Pulp across the band's 40-year tenure. We’ve surfed various peaks and troughs of the music industry’s popularity curve, and I think that’s the way it should be. Life would be terribly boring if it was always full of highs, or if it was always dredging along on the lows. 

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