Extract from 'Truth and Beauty: the Story of Pulp'
© Omnibus Press 2003
This extract takes up Pulp's story in September 1983. The original line-up of the band (formed in 1978) had split the previous year, and Jarvis had put together a new Pulp with Simon Hinkler, Peter Boam and David Hinkler. The group had recorded and released the first Pulp album, 'It', but the record's commercial failure, a series of line-up problems and doubts about the group's musical direction were all leading Jarvis to consider abandoning music and leaving Sheffield to belatedly take up his place at university.
Sometime during September 1983, Pulp split up. The process of disintegration began when Simon Hinkler, who had musically nursed Jarvis through the past 13 months, left the group. "Things were starting to happen in a way with Artery around then," says his brother David, "and I think he wanted to get back into that. There was a general feeling that things with Pulp weren't going anywhere, and nobody was really sure what was going to happen after Everybody's Problem didn't do anything."
"All I know is that Simon went very, very quickly," says Peter Boam. "I just turned up to a rehearsal and he'd gone. Still don't know why to this day. I think Jarvis had decided he was going to move the furniture a bit - David and I were invited to this rehearsal, Simon was gone, and Russell was there."
Jarvis' friend Russell Senior had by now returned to Sheffield from Bath University. As well as his Management Studies degree, he also brought back with him a surrealist play called The Fruits of Passion, a battered Rosetti electric guitar, and a handful of songs he'd originally performed with his old bands The Nightmares and The Bath Bankers. "I'd quite liked the original Pulp," says Russell, "but hated the album. It had nice tunes, but that didn't seem enough somehow - there was no edge to it, and it just didn't have any kind of emotional power. I knew Jarvis felt the same way, so I approached him and said 'Look, I know you're not happy with the way the band's going, and I think I can help you put it right.'"
"We'd made this gentle, polite LP," agrees Jarvis, "so I thought 'Fuck off, let's go to the other extreme'." The new, hardline, Russell-influenced approach wasn't entirely successful at first: new songs like Silence, Back in L.A. and Maureen (the latter two of which were old Nightmares songs with new lyrics added by Jarvis) were a long way from the melodic lushness of It and didn't seem to show much promise for a new Pulp. "It wasn't really Pulp in the sense of what came before or what came after," says Russell. "At that point, the band as such didn't exist - it was just an unsuccessful attempt at making some music. We tried for two pretty bad rehearsals, and gave up."
You only need to compare lyrics and musical attitude of the likes of There Was . . . with the initial Cocker/Senior compositions to see that this period found Jarvis at something of a crossroads, both personally and musically. He'd just turned 20 and, after what could be seen as an unsuccessful year out trying to keep alive the remnants of a band that had to all intents and purpose ended a year previously when his former schoolfriends left to go to university, was now faced with the very real option of surrendering to normality, closing the door on his teenage dabblings, and belatedly following his friends to university
"I think Jarvis went to pieces a bit after Simon went," says Peter Boam, who would be the next to leave the band, "and also he'd had his first shag around that time, which kind of messed him up . . . Musically, he needs a rudder, someone who can mix his palette for him, and when Simon left I was ready to get in there take over that role." In view of which, it perhaps seems surprising that within a few days of Simon's departure, Peter was gone as well.
David Hinkler: "Peter leaving so soon after Simon was surprising. Pete tended to be miffed by the fact that he didn't get any credit for what he did - he did have some good musical input and some good ideas, but Jarvis and Simon often wouldn't take them on board. Because he and our Simon had always been competing over who played what and how and where, it seemed strange that after one of them had left, the other would go as well. It was like, you've got what you want now!"
However, Jarvis had other ideas about who was going to provide the musical direction in the post-Simon Pulp. "Very quickly," says Peter Boam, "it became very apparent that Russell was driving it - the new stuff just seemed to be riffs rather than songs, and it wasn't that we didn't like it, but all of a sudden it was a different band. So I left - I think after one rehearsal with him. There wasn't any animosity or anything; we were all still friends, but I just didn't go to the practices any more."
David Hinkler stayed for a couple more rehearsals after Peter's departure, but was similarly unconvinced by the new direction: "Russell basically just got noise out of his guitar. One string, naïve, nothing compared to what I was used to. I just thought 'Why has Jarvis let two competent musicians go and got this idiot in?' Nothing personal against Russell, but I just reckoned he couldn't play. Anybody who had a guitar that didn't have all six strings on it wasn't someone I wanted to work with."
David was also having trouble getting to grips with the famous Pulp Farfisa organ. "I just didn't like that instrument at all, so that put me off a bit as well. I tried for two rehearsals in Jarvis' garage, but there was just nothing coming."
The loss of David, Simon and Peter was swiftly followed by that of Tony Perrin's managerial services. "There was no big argument or anything," he says now. "Things just seemed to have drifted to an end. I could appreciate that Jarvis wasn't happy with It, but I wasn't really confident of where they appeared to be going. We were going in different directions and I couldn't do anything for him."
In the space of a fortnight, Pulp had seen the departure of three key members and a manager, and the initial attempt to relaunch the band with Russell seemed to be going nowhere artistically. As a result, a dispirited Jarvis decided to break up the band and take up the place at Liverpool University that he had deferred a year earlier. "The future," he later noted, "was cancelled due to lack of interest."
Of course, it wasn't cancelled for very long. Despite the seemingly fatal loss of the musical core of the old Pulp and the fact that he was supposed to be leaving Sheffield for Liverpool in a matter of weeks, Jarvis continued to practice with Magnus, Russell and Tim Allcard in the vain hope that the embers would somehow pick up and give him a reason not to abandon the music that had defined the previous five years of his life. Astonishingly enough, they did: the signs that something worthwhile might come of this unlikely collaboration between a wannabe-child-star-turned-easy-listening-vocalist, a hardline noise-fixated conceptualist and two arty Sheffield oddballs ("I think Magnus and Tim spent a lot of time trying to out-weird each other," remarks Peter Boam) were promising enough to prompt Jarvis to defer his university place for another year and stay in Sheffield.
It should be noted that at this point there was no 'Pulp' as such: when Russell, Tim, Magnus and Jarvis first began working together, their main interest was theatre - primarily the production of Russell's play The Fruits of Passion. Although some of the music they provided for the play would later become part of Pulp's repertoire, there would be no actual band until January 1984.
"I'm sure Russell had a big influence in the change of direction," says David Bocking, a Sheffield photographer who had followed the various incarnations of Pulp since their early days playing the Hallamshire. "He was quite a champion of strange music and noise. Quite how that worked with Jarvis, I don't know. I can imagine Jarvis trying to adapt Russell's approach to Pulp's approach and coming out with what came out, rather than laying down the law and saying 'we'll play like this'."
Tony Perrin is more emphatic: "Russell was the catalyst in Pulp becoming a band. Without him, Jarvis would just have drifted off and become a tragic waste. The whole time around It was a bit of a non-period really; I don't even think it was Pulp. Pulp existed when they were a school band, and they existed after Russell got his teeth stuck into it, but the period in the middle was Jarvis' solo career - or his first one anyway. It was Jarvis' little scene, before he'd decided what Pulp was going to be. There was no identity, people were drifting in and out in this void that existed after the It album. I remember seeing the flyers for these offshoot projects, and thinking 'What the fuck's Jarvis up to?' They were just one-off gigs with a couple of days' rehearsal in Jarvis' garage, I think. They were all a symptom of when Jarvis was disenchanted with the It period, and kind of casting around for ideas and that spark of inspiration that was going to tell him where to go - which Russell provided. The catalyst in what happened thereafter, really, was when Russell came on the scene - that was when they started focusing on a direction and an identity."
Direction and identity certainly weren't lacking when, his initial plan of producing it with the Crucible Youth Theatre having fallen through, Russell decided to employ the largely idle remnants of Pulp to present his "Dadaist piece of agit-prop", The Fruits of Passion, to the public. For the project, Russell, Jarvis, Magnus and Tim dubbed themselves The Wicker Players (after named after the somewhat insalubrious area of Sheffield that housed the former silk factory where Magnus lived, and of which Tim was the caretaker), roping in a couple of friends, Steven Faben and Ellie Ford, to act in the play, and Magnus' flatmate Peter 'Manners' Mansell to help out behind the scenes.
Dig Vis Drill vocalist Ogy McGrath was also asked to be in it, "but I'd written a play at the time called Friendship House, and after Russell read that I think he kind of went off the idea of me being in it! The Fruits of Passion had characters like First Authoritarian and Second Authoritarian, and I wasn't sure which authoritarian to play. Russell goes 'There's no difference'. 'But I need to get into my character, do you want me to be low authoritarian, high authoritarian or what?' Great sense of humour, Russell. One day they'll find it and give it him back. I liked him back then though - I think I was the only one in Sheffield who did, so I was ahead of my time in that sense . . . "
The raison d'être of the play, which ran for four performances at various venues in Sheffield during December 1983, was the provocation of its audiences. "It was kind of Zurich 1919 revolutionary, very much inspired by Dada," says Russell. "The idea was that people would either walk out in disgust or stay to the end and think it was really cool, and the people who'd stay would be the people who we'd start the socialist revolution with . . . "
The action was interspersed with musical interludes from Jarvis, Russell and Magnus. If abrasive performances of new compositions like Maureen, Back in L.A. and The Will to Power didn't send audiences packing, the narrative (such as it was) of the play hopefully would: "The stage directions were something like 'Put vacuum cleaner on stage. Switch it on. Leave it on until audience becomes restless'," remembers Jarvis with amusement. "The climatic scene was me eating a plate of fake shit at a job interview. I remember the last performance we did, at the Crucible, it looked really real. I looked at Russell and he had this look in his eyes, and I thought 'I hope you aren't testing me out here'. It turned out he'd employed a new recipe, which I think was peanut butter and chocolate. But it looked very realistic."
While, as Jarvis says, there is no doubt that the play "crystallised the attitude of the group" at the time, it's not entirely surprising that it was rarely appreciated by its Sheffield pub audiences. More often than not, performances would degenerate into riots - most famously at a Hallamshire gig, advertised in the Sheffield Star as a 'Wicker Players Christmas Panto', which failed to impress locals hoping for Aladdin or Jack and the Beanstalk. "I just remember them doing something really weird," says Garry Wilson. "The audience were going 'What the fucking hell's this?'. It reminded me of when I went to see Wire in Halifax: they walked on stage, and they had an orange each. They stood in a line and just lifted the oranges above their heads. They did that for 20 minutes while everyone was going 'Come on yer bastards! Play that song wot we know. Cost me three quid to get in here!'"
"That was around when In A Belljar and all that sort of thing were going on," remembers Murray Fenton. "Sheffield was very arty then. Just about everybody seemed to think that Art played a big part in what they were doing. I think that's where a lot of that stuff stemmed from. I remember that performance art thing in the gig room at the Hallamshire . . . vomit-eating, Magnus having sex with oranges and what have you. That was taking it to extremes. Everyone was just going, 'He's just shagged that orange!' Unbelievable. That was a bit insane."
"It was very intense," says Russell of The Fruits of Passion. "After getting about half the people walking out of this thing and the other half thinking it was really cool, we decided to continue things and make a bit of music."
At this point, the story becomes yet more convoluted. After The Fruits of Passion had completed its brief run, Pulp played an impromptu gig at the Leadmill. Neither Russell nor Magnus, however, was present at this concert. Instead, the band consisted of Jarvis on vocals and guitar, Saskia on percussion and Tim on keyboards and hunting horn, making it possibly the only band ever to have formed solely for the purpose of a promotional photo (on the back of Everybody's Problem) and not to actually get round to playing together till six months later. "That picture inspired the idea that the three of them were an act in their own right," reckons David Hinkler, "and they thought they'd possibly give it a try just to see what'd happen."
"It was a lunchtime gig, around Christmas," recalls John Quinn. "Saskia was just hitting things, playing a tambourine or something, and Tim was doing his terrible poems about yachts."
Martin Lilleker just remembers "Tim, blowing some sort of horn, something that made a hell of a bloody noise, and then shouting some fairly obscene poetry at the audience. I think this might have been the one where he had one half of his hair cut short, and the opposite half of his beard shaved. But what the rest of the gig was like is gone."
Whatever it was all about (Saskia claims not to even be able to remember the concert), presumably Jarvis decided that The Fruits of Passion offered more promising pointers toward some sort of musical future, because in January 1984 he, Russell, Magnus and Tim set about putting together the third incarnation of Pulp proper. "Having done some music for the play," says Russell, "it was obvious that there was some kind of dynamic between the four of us that was very distinct from what the previous incarnations of Pulp had been. We decided to carry on as a band and, because it's difficult to get 30 people to come and see a new group at the Hallamshire, we thought we might as well call it Pulp simply because it was a name that was known. But really, this was year zero for what happened in the coming years, and what Pulp are doing now."
The initial Pulp 3 lineup of Jarvis (vocals/guitar), Russell (guitar/violin/vocals), Tim (keyboards/percussion/hunting horn/poetry recital) and Magnus (drums/occasional keyboards) was completed by Magnus' flatmate (and Fruits of Passion roadie) Peter Mansell on bass. "It was tiny, and full of all this shit amplification," remembers Manners of his first practices in the inevitable Mansfield Road garage. "The first time I went there was for an audition, and Jarvis was holding this little microphone against a cymbal. Russell was playing his Rosetti guitar with a bow. I thought, bloody hell! This is nothing like It. I thought I'd be playing My Lighthouse and all those catchy songs."
Thanks to the Wicker Players' musical experiments of the last few months, the new Pulp already had the beginnings of a repertoire, and so wasted no time recording a new demo tape at Victoria Studio, which by now was under new management and renamed Vibrasound. "We sent it out to every record label," remembers Russell, "with a very pompous, 'You can't ignore this!' type letter. I've still got all the rejection slips somewhere."
It's not surprising that the demo met with such indifference: while the quality of the material is undeniable, the songs there could easily be the work of at least three different bands, none of which was working in a musical style that was even vaguely bankable back in the age of Linn drum machines, mullets and glossy Trevor Horn production-line pop. Coy Mistress alone could probably qualify as one of the oddest pieces of music ever produced. Less than two minutes long, it features Russell declaiming heavily bastardised lines from that perennial A-level English favourite, Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress ("If we had but world enough and time / Then this coyness, mistress, would be no crime . . . "). Jarvis provides a gentle keyboard backdrop, punctuated alternately with random xylophone tinkles and the sound of drums apparently being thrown down stairs.
Then there was a two-chord thrash called Maureen, based on an earlier Senior composition that formed part of the repertoire of his old rockabilly band The Nightmares. Jarvis elaborated on Russell's original lyrics, telling the delightfully macabre story of man who gets a sexual thrill out of being run over by the eponymous character. "My blood upon the tarmac / I tore the dress from your back" indeed.
If that wasn't enough to send sensible, commercial-minded A&R men packing, there was always Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) - a brilliant, edgy ballad that would eventually serve the band well (uniquely, it was still an occasional part of Pulp's live set 10 years later). Perhaps more than any of their other early compositions together, the song's darkly poetic lyric shows Russell's influence on Jarvis' writing: "If I hadn't been there, Little Girl would have been so soppy as to be unlistenable," says Russell. "My typical tactic was to tell Jarvis, 'Stop being so bloody soft'." In such company, the warped '60s balladeering of I Want You ("Now we come to the end of it all, see it squirming almost dead / No, you can't leave it to die there in pain, you've got to stamp upon its head") practically counts as easy listening.
Nevertheless, the demo clearly demonstrates what set the new Pulp apart from the various bands that it had been previously. Like all mid-80s Pulp, there's a certain intensity and a tension that is hard to pin down, but impossible to ignore. Perhaps the most palpable evidence is in the lyrics: it's hard to imagine the tender 18-year-old Jarvis behind the whimsy of My Lighthouse and Boats and Trains singing a line as unflinching as "There's a hole in your heart and one between your legs" or writing a song with as direct a title as I Want You.
If the new Pulp had succeeded in establishing a powerful, immediately impressive (if none too commercial) musical identity, re-establishing themselves on the Sheffield band scene would prove to be slightly more difficult. A lack of places to play (the Hallamshire had temporarily lost its music licence, while the Marples' stage area had been converted into a snooker room) meant that there would be no Pulp 3 concert in Sheffield until April 1984.
"It wasn't at all easy to make your mark in Sheffield at that time," remembers John Avery of Pulp's former Red Rhino labelmates Hula. "It was the time when a lot of bands who'd been doing interesting, progressive stuff were disintegrating and splitting up. It was frustrating because you'd be very well known within Sheffield, but just about unheard of outside the city. In the Nursery were just starting up though, and Chakk and Dig Vis Drill - all of whom were very noisy and powerful, although Chakk changed a lot once they got signed. Unfortunately, the industrial stuff didn't really leave a lot of space for quirky guitar-based stuff like Pulp."
"The Sheffield scene was going downhill a bit by '84," agrees Murray Fenton. "There were quite a lot of pop bands around - poppy funk music was coming into the mainstream, and people were picking up on that. There was the industrial thing as well - Hula and Chakk, with the advent of FON as a label and a shop. Hula were actually quite good - I saw them when we [Artery] played in Amsterdam, and they had all this film stuff going off. Then there was Treebound Story, who were quite Smiths-y, jangly guitar pop, and Dig Vis Drill, who were . . . one of a kind, really. Very entertaining band. And there was Criminal Sex from Chesterfield, Steve Genn's band Mr. Morality, and Hole in the Wall, who turned into The Happening Men, which then became The Longpigs. And the Ya-Yas, who were brilliant. Really genuine, plucked straight out of the '60s . . . fantastic. But on the whole, the scene was dying down a bit."
As with the failure of the demo to enrapture A&R men, it seemed that Pulp's wilful individuality was their Achilles' heel as well as their strongest point. The songs that were in the band's repertoire at the time (many of which would see the light of day in the next couple of years on the Freaks album and various singles) are easy to make sense of and appreciate in hindsight, but what were audiences supposed to make of skewed '60s-esque ballads alongside thrashy rockabilly numbers and wildcards like Coy Mistress, at a time when the Zeitgeist was defied by Paul Young, Sade and Karma Chameleon? The question would blight Pulp's career for a long time to come.