Uncommon Cocker

Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker on his lyrics, the birth of 'Common People' and why he hates opera

Arriving on stage to whoops and cheers – as well as receiving an extra round of applause for “bumrushing” the stage at the Brit Awards more than a decade earlier during Michael Jackson’s performance – Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker was always going to be a natural at a literary festival. Erudite, witty and well prepared with a presentation on the importance (or not) of lyrics in his and others’ songs, it was a spellbinding hour at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival.

The event was to celebrate the publication of Cocker’s book of lyrics, Mother, Brother, Lover. In typically self-effacing style, the singer said that he chose the title because he was horrified when he realised how many times he rhymed those three words in his songs – this way, he could make it look deliberate. The lyrics in the book, he said, should be read as “words to songs”, not as poems – they wouldn’t stand up otherwise. “Speech has got its own rhythm,” said Cocker, “When it’s in a song, you have to chop it up.” Opera, that most speech-driven form of music, Cocker said, “drives me insane. It takes ages… and because it’s telling a story, it hasn’t got a proper tune.”

He demonstrated how integrated lyrics are with music – and how what is being said isn’t always important – with a look at a 1966 performance of The Kingsmen’s hit ‘Louie Louie’, which became the subject of a year-and-a-half FBI investigation into its ‘pornographic’ lyrics. Then watching those supposed (genuinely filthy) lyrics as subtitles, it was clear that people were hearing that they wanted to.

For Cocker, “It was appropriate that I started writing lyrics at school because it was like, ‘Ugh, I have to do my homework.’” Pulp fans were treated to very early photos of the band – an awkward bunch of boys looking sullen in a mum’s living room – as well as their first gig ticket from 1980: handwritten, costing 20p and entitling the purchaser to 30 minutes of live music. The first song that Cocker wrote was a jokey one called ‘Shakespeare Rock’; the second was an overly sincere number called ‘Life is a Circle’.

From writing the latter, Cocker realised that while one might have “this idea of ideas flying above you”, what the songwriter needs to do is to look down. “What can be blindingly obvious to you can be exotic to someone else,” he said, which was made clear from him when moving from Sheffield to London. Combined with the influences of poets like Roger McGough, as well as “magic” TV and of course pop music, Cocker formed his distinctive style.

Cocker’s acute and witty observation of everyday life has always been based very much on his own life. “The great thing is you can improve on reality,” he said, citing the famous example of the girl who came from Greece and studied at St. Martin’s College of Art but who, contrary to the lyrics of ‘Common People’, actually had absolutely no interest in Jarvis Cocker. The title came from Pulp bassist Steve Mackey saying that the tune sounded like Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s song ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, which Cocker turned on its head by bringing in the disparaging northern sense of the word ‘Common’. “Although some people want to think they’re above or better than other people, they’re not,” he said of the song’s class-war anger.

In writing these true-life tales, Cocker said he had “earned himself a couple of black eyes”. He learned to change names and wait a few years before writing about someone, since for him writing about his life isn’t a choice: “I’ve just got no imagination, so I just write what happened.”

What the devoted crowd really wanted to know, of course, was whether there would be more Pulp gigs or material on the horizon – they were (mostly) to be disappointed. The recent reunion was good, Cocker said, “because we knew it wouldn’t be forever.” There was audible excitement when he said, “We may do a couple of shows in the spring,” followed by sadness when he said they would then “bow out graciously”. Fans will have to make do with his wonderful lyrics to get inside their hero’s head.

Mother, Brother, Lover by Jarvis Cocker is out on 20 October, published by Faber. Photo by Rankin.