Who Wants a Normal Life?
Jarvis Cocker builds a better pop star
In the middle of the afternoon, in the middle month of the middle year of the 1990s, Jarvis Cocker sat in a small tent at Glastonbury and waited for his moment. His band, Pulp, was to headline the festival later that evening, playing to over 100,000 people, and Cocker was more nervous than he’d ever been in his life. He tried to tune out the noise of the crowd he knew he’d have to entertain in six hours’ time, and to gather his thoughts. ‘It got nearer and nearer to zero hour,’ he later wrote, ‘and I spread out all my little jobs: at half ten I got changed, at quarter to eleven I put my contact lenses in, at five to eleven I put my make-up on. Lots of little jobs so I didn’t have to sit there pondering the awfulness of existence.’ A brief respite from existential angst came in the unexpected form of Robbie Williams from Take That, who stuck his head into Cocker’s fortress of solitude to wish him luck. ‘Robbie read us some of his poetry,’ said Cocker. ‘I was dubious at first, because sometimes poetry can be embarrassing, but it was really good.’
Pulp had been offered the headline slot after the Stone Roses had cancelled at the last minute. The long-lost hopes of British indie had been planning to use Glastonbury to herald the release of their second album — titled, with characteristic modesty, Second Coming — but had to pull out after guitarist John Squire broke his collarbone. While Cocker had mixed feelings about replacing the Roses, there was an undeniable symmetry to the way things had worked out, which clearly pleased the singer. Glastonbury would see Pulp’s first live performance of a new song called ‘Sorted for E’s and Wizz’. ‘I’m not that into fate,’ ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼he said, ‘but the title came from me talking to this girl about when she went to Spike Island. That was her main memory, all these blokes walking around saying: “Is everybody sorted for E’s and Wizz?” It just seemed like a totally appropriate place to play it for the first time.’
‘Sorted for E’s and Wizz’ would be the second single released from Pulp’s forthcoming album, Different Class. The first, ‘Common People’, was the reason they were headlining Glastonbury. Written around a sparkling keyboard riff, and pushed into overdrive by Russell Senior’s siren-like guitar, ‘Common People’ seemed at first to be a breathless tale of art-school romance, but soon revealed itself as something more. The girl, it transpires, loves Jarvis not for his looks, or for his mind, but for his ineffable aura of working-class authenticity. Her attraction to him is mingled with a certain amount of envy, because — while she is rich and popular and good looking — she wants, more than anything, to be real. ‘I wanna live like common people,’ she tells him. ‘I wanna do whatever common people do. I wanna sleep with common people, I wanna sleep with common people like you.’ Cocker manfully obliges (‘I’ll see what I can do’), but warns the girl from Greece that working- class chic is not so easily acquired.
Cocker wrote the song as a response to a mid-nineties trend, ‘A certain voyeurism on the part of the middle classes,’ he said, ‘a certain romanticism of working-class culture and a desire to slum it a bit.’ Talking to The Face, he mentioned the new fashion for football and the popularity of Mike Leigh box sets. But the singer surely had Britpop in mind as well — he couldn’t fail to have noticed the hungry look South London journalists got in their eyes when they talked to Oasis, or Damon (‘I’ve lived in Essex all me life’) Albarn’s increasingly strained attempts to prove that he was the salt of the earth. These were just the more obvious signs of a cultural craze for downward mobility, which saw middle-class youth embracing ‘good, wholesome things’ like football, lager, pool and pop music with a vengeance; trying to live like common people, to do whatever common people do. Pulp’s record company, Island, had originally planned to put the single out in July. But as 1995 got underway, Cocker began to get the feeling that, for the first time in Pulp’s long history, he had written a song that captured the mood of the nation at precisely the right time. Not wanting to miss the moment, he persuaded ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Island to release ‘Common People’ in the last week of February. By the end of the month, it had gone to number two in the national chart.
Cocker’s portrait subsequently appeared on the cover of over a dozen magazines, including the NME, Melody Maker, Smash Hits, The Face, Vox and Select. He looked supremely comfortable on all of them, as though he’d been practising to be on the cover of magazines his whole life. This, it transpired, was not too far from the truth. The singer had always imagined that, in the moment before he died, he would have to watch the reruns of The Jarvis Cocker Story as they flashed before his eyes, and he felt he owed it to himself to make sure they were entertaining. ‘If you’ve got these long boring bits of sitting in watching telly doing really crap things, they’re the bits that come back to you,’ he told Select. ‘So you have to work on your life and make it worth replaying.’ ‘Did you always want to be famous, Jarvis?’ asked Andrew Smith. ‘Yeah, I was desperate to be famous,’ replied the singer. ‘Did you care what for?’ ‘I always wanted to be in a pop group.’ Cocker felt he had been faced, quite early in life, with a simple choice: pop stardom or oblivion. ‘It’s like this,’ he explained to Smith. ‘There’s something freakish about you, so you either consign yourself to the margins of society, or think of it as unique.’
Cocker learned, over the years, to cultivate his essential oddity, and to accept the burden of loneliness in exchange for the rare gifts it bestows upon the nascent pop singer. In 1972 he was a sickly child with coke-bottle glasses, sitting alone in his bedroom with the radio on. In 1983 he was fronting an oddball post-punk group called Pulp, trying desperately to maintain the momentum of playing the band’s first BBC Peel Session to very little success. In 1989 he almost gave up on music, moving to London to study photography at St Martins College, a decision that only served to make him more painfully aware than ever that he was from Sheffield. By 1991 he’d reconvened the group, and found himself struggling to bring disco back in a baggy world. Now, in 1995, he was the nation’s favourite pop star, with a Top Ten hit and a legion of fans. Andrew Smith watched him being chased by a gang of teenage admirers on the way to an appearance at HMV’s Oxford Street megastore. After taking a quick survey, the reporter found that Cocker’s fans loved him for exactly the same reason kids used to ignore him at school, the same reason he couldn’t get arrested in the eighties and ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼couldn’t fit in at St Martins, the very same reason the NME described him, in 1991, as ‘looking like one of the Good Lord’s genetic mishaps’: ‘The one thing they all agree on,’ wrote Smith, ‘is that he’s different.’
The right to be different was asserted in the first thirty seconds of Pulp’s new album with ‘Mis-shapes’, a stirring anthem for the dispossessed set to a sprightly, Hit Factory beat. ‘Oh, we don’t look the same as you, and we don’t do the things you do,’ sang Cocker, ‘but we live ’round here too.’ But the song moved speedily from a plea for understanding to a declaration of war: ‘Brothers, sisters, can’t you see? The future’s owned by you and me.’ Cocker went on to explain that, as an act of revenge undertaken by smart, poor people against rich, stupid people, the war would be fought by intellectual, rather than physical means. And yet it was a war, nonetheless. ‘We want your homes, we want your lives,’ he sang, ‘we want the things you won’t allow us.’
Cocker had a strong sense, by the end of 1995, that this future might have arrived — or at least be not too far away. ‘There is a battle going on,’ he told the NME’s Roger Morton. ‘But I think it’s won, or about to be won.’ The singer was referring to pop rather than politics — but the two seemed very closely connected at the time. When Oasis — the band that had announced its arrival with the words ‘You’re the outcasts / You’re the underclass’ — had its first number one hit with ‘Some Might Say’ in May, the effect was comparable to that of Nirvana beating Michael Jackson to the top of the charts in 1991 — a victory for ‘proletarian guitar rock’ over conservative pop. Jon Savage, watching the band perform on Top of the Pops, noted the fact that Oasis had triumphed in the same week that the Conservative Party had been beaten in a council election, and had the feeling that ‘something was really happening’, a feeling Noel Gallagher appeared to share. At the 1994 Q Awards he’d bounced out of the bathroom, having hoovered up a few little white lines, and been surprised to find himself face to face with Tony Blair, the recently appointed leader of Britain’s Labour Party. ‘Fuckin’ hell,’ said Gallagher, as he threw his arm around the somewhat flummoxed Blair. ‘Fuckin’ do it for us, man!’
Over the course of the next year, Blair and his entourage had made a concerted effort to garner the support of the music industry, and of Blur in particular. Albarn went to a meeting with Blair and Alistair ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Campbell at the Houses of Parliament, and New Labour’s Darren Kalynuk worked hard to get Alex James on side as well, by introducing him to Labour MPs and top-shelf whiskey in exclusive after-hours clubs in Soho. Six months later, Noel Gallagher made his own support for New Labour public when he took the stage at the Brit Awards to accept Oasis’s award for Best Group from Pete Townshend. ‘There are seven people in this room who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country,’ he said. ‘That is, me, our kid, Bonehead, Guigs, Alan White, Alan McGee and Tony Blair. And if you’ve all got anything about you, you’ll go up there and you’ll shake Tony Blair’s hand, man. He’s the man! Power to the people!’ Margaret Thatcher’s successor, John Major, had resigned on the same day Oasis played Glastonbury. The next general election would not be held until 1997, but Blair, as John Harris noted, was looking more like the prime minister every day.
For Jarvis Cocker, pop had always been somewhat political. Older by some years than his Britpop contemporaries, Cocker had fond memories of punk, and very few of the 1980s. ‘It was like, “Right, you’ve had your fun, that’s enough permissiveness, back to Victorian values.”’ Cocker saw the decade’s conservative, materialistic politics mirrored by conservative, materialistic music. Eighties idols like Simon Le Bon and Mick Hucknall seemed to him too much like the popular, good-looking, well-off people who had made his everyday life miserable to be proper pop stars. ‘That’s when music went wrong,’ he told The Face. ‘That’s when it lost it.’ He felt shut out of pop, a loser in a decade of winners. But he also grew to hate, with a passion, the indie culture that grew up in new pop’s shadow, a culture that defined itself in opposition and grew far too comfortable with its outsider role. Cocker felt that the eighties indie scene allowed bands to get away with bad ideas and bad music far too easily because its goals were small to the point of being non-existent. ‘I always felt it was important to be doing things in the proper world,’ he explained. ‘I never liked the idea of “alternative music”, I wanted to make the mainstream better.’
After ‘Country House’ went to number one in 1995, Cocker went out drinking with Blur until six in the morning. Three hours later he was at the Smash Hits offices, wearing a cheap silver spacesuit and having ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼his picture taken for a cover story with the headline ‘Intergalactic Pop Megastar’. Cocker felt like he was going to die, and die looking like an idiot, to boot. But he resisted the temptation to throw a rock star wobbly and refuse to do the shoot, out of what he described as ‘a sense of duty’. Cocker felt he owed it to his thirteen-year-old self, to the Jarvis Cocker who used to get kebabs shoved in his face up the back of the bus, to be the kind of pop star he’d always wanted to be, and to enjoy every ridiculous moment of it. Having grown up odd in a suburb of a northern industrial town, Cocker had always seen pop as his one means of escape from normality. Pop music was a hole in the fence, through which society’s mis-shapes might find their way into places they weren’t supposed to be, into the ‘proper world’ that had once been the exclusive domain of the Marti Pellows and Simon Le Bons. Now that he had found a way in, Cocker had no immediate plans to leave. ‘The Cranberries have complained that being pop stars has deprived them of the ability to lead a normal life,’ said Melody Maker’s David Stubbs. ‘Sod that,’ replied Cocker. ‘Why did they join a group in the first place? Who wants a normal life?’