"I'm reasonably proud to have come from Sheffield, I'm not ashamed. But I don't say that because I think it's such a fantastic place. I didn't really realise until I moved away that Sheffield has had a lot to do with the way I turned out as a person; and when I realised it, that was when I started writing about Sheffield more specifically. I've always written about myself; because I find myself such a fascinating subject. But moving away makes you realise Sheffield IS different from other cities. It does have a certain character. I'm sure our music would have been different had we come from Huddersfield or Lyon." - Jarvis Cocker, Headtrip, 8th October 1994
34 years, 29 members, several incarnations and musical styles, 7 albums. The line-up changed, the sound changed, but Pulp continued to tell the stories of The Steel City over four decades. Not the ones that the city's marketing types would ever tell you about, or of the places in the tourist information brochures.
At the start of the movie The Full Monty you see an excerpt from Sheffield: City on the Move, a promotional film produced by the City of Sheffield in 1971 and a misguidedly optimistic prophecy of the city’s fortunes. A swinging city of tourism, thriving commerce, of (relatively) successful football teams and where a good time could be had by all. A city whose post war redeveloped housing was seen as cutting edge, as Park Hill flats rose above the edge of the city centre with their "Streets in the Sky".
Pulp's Sheffield a decade or so on was a working class Sheffield, where post Steel industry collapse and the closure of South Yorkshire’s mines, the lives were hard, social deprivation common place. Sheffield painted as grey as the steel for which it was famed. Stained not stainless. Pulp told stories of the everyday suburban mundane or high rise hell, livened up by the hope of a seedy grope around the back of Roxy's on a Friday night or in a dank, wood-chipped bedroom, of a council house on the Manor estate after bunking off school for the afternoon.
For 13 years Pulp, in their many amorphous forms, languished in near total obscurity, even in their home town. You need to do a lot to draw praise from the Sheffield public and even then it is rarely effusive. Three albums and six singles were released to an indifferent public, even despite the exposure afforded by a Peel session and the support of the DJ himself.
They gigged all over the area and were regulars at the city's main venues; The Limit, Leadmill, Hallamshire Hotel and the University and Polytechnic. Even playing gigs with Cocker in a wheelchair after he fell 30 feet out of a window, injuring his pelvis, foot, and wrist, whilst trying to impress a girl by doing his best Spiderman impression. Their sound morphed from folk and new wave to post-punk to dance to mainstream indie.
Yet it was only when four of the then members of the band had left Sheffield that success began to develop. Cocker and collaborator Russell Senior had moved to London to study film and were about to give up on music when a single from the album Separations, ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’, was released. NME awarded it Single of the Week and in 1991 Pulp’s career suddenly took off.
Early the following year the band left Fire Records for Gift, and a series of singles followed which built on their initial success. ‘Babies’, set in a bedroom of a house on Stanhope Road at Intake (not far from Cocker’s childhood home), told of seedy teenage liaisons and wardrobe based peeping tommery and rightfully earned the band a great deal of attention and a first major label deal with Island Records. The label debut, ‘His 'n' Hers’ reached the Top Ten and garnered a nomination for the 1994 Mercury Music Prize.
Pulp were now in the mainstream and were gaining plenty of media attention. Jarvis in particular was a regular on television and radio, winning people over with his sardonic observations on the music scene and modern Britain. Louche, intelligent, unconventionally suave, the women wanted Jarvis, the men wanted to be Jarvis, broad Sheffield accent and all.
1995 saw the release of Different Class, an album that elevated Pulp to the top of the Britpop movement with four Top 10 singles and a headlining appearance on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, standing in at late notice for The Stone Roses. They grabbed their moment with both hands, but the success masked a band struggling to come to terms with the trappings of their new found and long sought fame.
This is Hardcore three years later is a darker album reflecting those difficult times and although critically acclaimed (nominated again for the Mercury Prize) it struggled to repeat the success commercially. A further three years on they delivered their final studio album; the Scott Walker produced We Love Life, where the symphonic production lifts the maudlin lyrics of Cocker to another plain. Ending where they started with songs of real life and references to the Steel City.
Mis-shapen. Arms and legs at jaunty angles. Gaunt face drawing out every hollow and on anaemic skin. Twitching body, facial tics. A leader for a marginalised youth at the same time man of the common people and mis-shapes everywhere. That’s how most people would think of Jarvis Cocker. The people who know of Pulp from Common People, Disco 2000, the Platinum selling album Different Class. Yet the festival friendly choruses belie the fact that he was also a lyrical poet, telling the stories of working class Sheffield in the 1980’s and 90’s. Sheffield people and places permeated Cocker's lyrics. 20 years on from the era defining album Different Class the band has moved on, and many of the places Jarvis wrote and sung about have long since been turned to rubble and replaced. Some were named; such as the infamous Kelvin Flats, renowned for crime and anti-social behaviour,
“And if you're good then when you grow up maybe you can live on Kelvin. Yeah, you can live in Kelvin. On promenade with concrete walkways, where pigeons go to die.” (Deep Fried in Kelvin)
Others were just there un-named, but if you knew the city you would know. The Goodwin Fountain which used to stand at the top of the city centre pedestrian precinct Fargate in Disco 2000.
“Be there 2 o'clock by the fountain down the road”
The importance of locality permeates Pulp’s songs from an early demo ‘I Scrubbed the Crabs that Killed Sheffield’ referencing an early job at the now derelict Castle Market, through to ‘Wickerman’ on We Love Life leading you on a journey taking in the Moor, Broomhall, The Leadmill, Forge Dam and finally T’Wicker, which as Sheffielders know, is weer t’watter runs under t’weir. Places were name checked with such lucid, vivid descriptions, such that non-Sheffielders would recognise them if they ever visited the city.
The most infamous song is probably ‘Sheffield: Sex City’, B-side to the 1992 single ‘Babies’. An eight and a half minute orgasm as Jarvis and Candida Doyle describe a citywide orgasm, tell a tale of lust, sleaze and longing whilst giving a whispering name check to districts such as Frecheville, Intake, Wybourn and Park Hill as they tour the city in a knackered old Chevette. Jarvis adding lusty grunts in bestial fashion as the story unfolds.
“All the things we saw: everyone on Park Hill came in unison at 4.13 AM and the whole block fell down. “
Even when most of the band were living outside the city, in Jarvis’s case for a longer period of time than he had lived there, he answered critics of his steel city references. “It’s the soil that you’ve grown from, so it’s formed your view of the world.” This soil was fertile heightening the senses, absorbing observations and imagery.
In Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets a young musician who skipped psychiatric care to tune in to Cocker's 6 Music shows extols the virtues of getting mugged in Sheffield, rather than London, because "in Sheffield you usually know the people who are mugging you".
Sheffielders rarely speak up for their city. We look for the negatives, we find the aspects to complain about, the things that irritate us. We don’t sell Sheffield in our observations. What we do is sell the city in our actions. It is said that Sheffield has the best stay on rate of any university city in the country. That is not down to fabulous job opportunities or top of the band salaries. It is down to the place and the warmth of the people. People find something that they like in Sheffield, the warts and all.
Jarvis’ acerbic condemnations are affectionate, they recognise the gritty realism of the time. It is how things were, not necessarily what we wanted them to be. In reviewing A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets for the Guardian, Henry Barnes completely misses the point. Clearly irritated by all the positive fan talk of the band and the city he sees a paradox between their eulogies and a band whose “music denigrated the people as much as it celebrated them”. Yet Pulp never took the piss out of Sheffield. They just told of life how it was. Probably the most acerbic commentary came in Catcliffe Shakedown which picked apart the Rotherham suburb where the band rehearsed.
"Straight down the Parkway follow your nose to a place where nobody wants to go
It's a fare and a half; they're having a larf
Everybody's broken or they're a dwarf
Pierrot mirror on the wall who is the ace-est of them all?
The Catcliffe girl who gets out before her 18th birthday"
The delicious irony of Pulp going mainstream was that those dancing to Pulp in the pubs and clubs were the “bleeding thick” townies Cocker had written about in Mis-Shapes. The frequenters of Cairo Jax and Josephine's, all white shirt, smart trousers and pent up aggression and front, were throwing their hands in the air to Common People in pubs celebrating those they had once bullied because of their clothes, their style and their musical taste. The musical taste that included the band they were singing along to in unison. The contradiction not lost on Jarvis’s original misfits. The band had broken down the barriers through great hooks, gritty glamour and perfect lyrics.
The final show, a farewell at Sheffield Arena back in December 2012 was joyous but in many ways telling. The band showing the paunches of middle age, but stage presence unchanged. Candida Doyle, static behind keyboard. Mark (a former official of the band’s fan club) anonymously playing the guitar in the background. Steve Mackey, greyer and lacking the flapping fringe of years gone by, driving the sound with his bass. Nick Banks steadfast behind the drums. Then Cocker, prowling the stage like a panther, climbing speaker stacks, straddling a mic stand, twisting, contorting, then crouching in a ball before exploding into a flurry of flailing arms and limbs. The fans a mix of old and Britpop, similar paunches, fanaticism undimmed apart from when the band dipped into a back catalogue lost to many.
Between songs Cocker held court, with sardonic observations on people, life and his home city. A stream of consciousness on a city much changed. The Arena where he stood on stage was part of a developed East End that had previously housed steel works and heavy industry that the city was once renowned for, yet the one constant in the city is the people. Yeah, we are from Sheffield, it’s a bit shit, but we will never leave. An audience enraptured, amused and entertained as Cocker reminisced and ripped into the city and its failings that we all recognise and choose to live with, cracking wry smiles of recognition. Thirteen thousand people wrapped around his bony, spindly, index finger.
And that’s the thing about Pulp. If you grew up in the North of England in the 1980’s you could recognise the people they sung about, you knew of the types of places, they existed. This was the kitchen sink drama of Billy Liar, This Sporting Life and A Taste of Honey in musical form for a new generation. If you were from Sheffield your knowledge of the places just added to the grim reality. You could see them, experience them first hand. You were living in those places, recognised the characters, and understood the feelings.
Things are different now. The much vaunted "Northern Powerhouse" is nowhere near realisation, I doubt there ever will be one, but things are better, much better than they were. The brutalism of the post-war re-build of Sheffield is gradually being replaced, but stifled by a council lacking foresight and looking for excuses and blame. Opportunities are still missed around exploiting and extolling the city’s football and musical heritage. Like its people, the city doesn’t seem to want to sing its own praises from the rooftops. Socially things are better with greater acceptance of all minorities, be they based on race, sexuality or just individual tastes and beliefs - Cocker's misfits. Their cause enabled as the cultural development of the city continues apace.
Those harsher elements that peppered Separations, His and Hers, Different Class et al are still there. Marginalised now, possibly more extreme in nature but less prevalent, less visible, generating a less visceral response. To those listening to Pulp for the first time today the imagery created, the places described, might seem like a work of fiction. They were far from it. This was Sheffield. It still is, if you peek behind the net curtain or venture up the dank, unlit stairwell.
Ian is @unitedite. Picture Credit to Jenny.