Jarvis Cocker, most notably known for his work with the pioneering band Pulp, who were at the forefront of the brit-pop movement in the 1990s, is one of the last remaining truly great songwriters of our century. His propensity for capturing kitchen sink dramas and creating vignettes of the ‘messy parts of relationships’ while living on the dole, is second to no one. Outside of his work with Pulp, Cocker has become somewhat of a household name in the industry at large, having written songs for big names such as Nancy Sinatra, and for his collaboration with Charlotte Gainsbourg; known as somewhat of a renaissance man, Cocker also had his own DJ spot on BBC, he is a TV writer, editor, and a video director. Most recently, Jarvis has released a new record, called Beyond the Pale with his new group, ‘Jarv is…’.
A few years back, Jarvis Cocker went on the highly successful BBC programme Island Desert Discs and spoke with the host, Sue Lawley, as her featured castaway. While on the show, Jarvis Cocker took us on a detailed journey throughout his life and described his childhood and early years in Pulp as slightly awkward, neurotic and shy. Even his songwriting reflects the timid observer within Cocker. He has remained on the outskirts of society, peering inside and taking notes on how we are supposed ‘to do things’. His songs that he wrote with Pulp have incredible pop hooks and reveals a keen eye that could only belong to a highly trained voyeur of the mysterious and forbidden but also painfully obvious.
Pulp officially started in the late 1970s, they released their first album It in 1983 and compared to their later more successful mid-1990s, sounds like a different band. Their earlier albums could be described as The Velvet Underground meets Leonard Cohen. Their commercial breakthrough came with their 1995 album Different Class, a project which spawned their greatest hit and arguably one of the greatest pop hits of all time, ‘Common People’.
Jarvis Cocker was raised in Sheffield and, as he grew older, saw many of his friends leave, while he chose to remain in familiar surroundings. “I tend to like people who don’t really have any ambition,” he said. “You asked me how I could spend so long in Sheffield? I don’t know, it doesn’t really matter to me where things happen.” Cocker, instead, believes the real work takes place within your imagination. “Its kind of what’s going in your head, really, that makes life interesting.”
Jarvis Cocker’s selections for the Desert Island Discs are somewhat surprising and would not be what you would expect from a ‘pop-star’ such as him. The songs he chose confirms that Cocker has somewhat of a nerdy side to him, and his taste in music is also somewhat nostalgic. Some of the additions are older and more of the ‘middle of the road’ variety, either having appeared in television programmes or remained cult classics in small dive-bars in northern England. While he did enjoy some commercial success as northern England’s pop star, he has always maintained an intelligent and witty side to his personality as well as songwriting. The majority of Pulp’s material is about young relationships gone awry in places like Sheffield in which he found himself writing about a lot and with more clarity, ironically more so, when he moved away to London.
“When I hit puberty with a bang and started being interested in girls and stuff like that, my main kind of education if you like about those matters had been from listening to songs, and I felt like the information that I had been given from pop songs really didn’t prepare me for the world of trying to go out with girls and relationships and stuff,” he explained. “And so I consciously wanted to write pop songs that had the messy bits in and the kind of awkward fumbling bit, because I felt like I had been sold short in some way and I wanted to provide a public service or something.”
Cocker’s first song choice is the theme song to The Adventures of Robert Crusoe. “Well, my first record is the theme from the TV series, which always seemed to be on in the school holidays when I was a kid,” he explained. While a strange pick for the iconic Pulp singer, one can still hear the vague similarities within the orchestrations of this piece of music as Jarvis and the rest of Pulp put a lot of emphasis on string arrangements and in general, in their songs.
Sue Lawley, the host of the BBC programme, asks Jarvis Cocker about the shameless moment he jumped on stage at the Brit Awards while Michael Jackson was performing, and wiggled his backside at the crowd. “I suppose it’s one of those things that aren’t supposed to happen, I mean I didn’t think it would happen,” he said. “We were at the Brit Awards and they were very pleased that year that they got Michael Jackson to perform. And I just thought the hypocrisy of the whole thing was really getting me down. And I was just arguing with our keyboard player. And she said, why don’t you do something about it then? Next thing I know, I’m on stage and didn’t really know what to do. When in doubt, wiggle your bum about. It’s a thing that did me in for a while because it made me instantly recognisable.”
For a musician like Jarvis Cocker, this kind of thing separates him from an artist like Michael Jackson who, in many ways, used his stardom to elevate his position and musical philosophy. On the other hand, Cocker was an observer more than the ‘celebrity’ — a writer who lived on the brink of society. This stunt definitely catapulted him into the centre focus of tabloids. It seemed that this merely magnified Cocker’s destructive behaviour he had found himself participating near the apex of Pulp’s stardom.
Jarvis Cocker chooses Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’ as record number two. “It’s post-punk. It happened a few years after punk,” he explains. “Punk was a very important thing for me because I was around 13 and I felt rather conscious about how I looked. Then punk came along and said, hey it’s alright to be different.”
Cocker delves into this third choice with a kind of nostalgic confidence but still a choice from left field: Lieutenant Pigeon’s ‘Mouldy Old Dough’. “For some reason, I find it kind of moving. There’s something about it, even though it is silly. There’s something quite touching about it. Just before I left Sheffield to go to London, there was an all-night cafe and they had a jukebox there. This record was on there, and I used to amuse myself by playing it.” Jarvis muses, almost as if to himself, “If you did anything vaguely creative, you ended up on the dole.”
From the age of 18 to 24, Cocker remained an elusive figure roaming the streets of Sheffield, uncertain about his future. While members of Pulp came and went, Cocker, as the leader of the pop group, created underground pop records that had not really garnered much attention, although this was not exactly an indication of how good they were. Talking about these years, Jarvis notes, “I didn’t really do the band every minute of the day, and I didn’t really want to move to London. I always kind of had an affection for Sheffield and thought it was an interesting place. It’s not a beautiful town or anything but there’s something about it but there’s something to it.” While Sheffield didn’t exactly have the glitz and glamour and opportunities that London offered, Cocker derived a lot of influence from the place. He thought to himself that if someone does something really good regardless of where one is located, they will be discovered.
Moving on, his fourth choice is another unlikely one: Englebert Humperdinck’s ‘Ten Guitars’. “This record reminds me of there because there was this pub down the road from this factory I was living in and this song which I had never heard before was a big favourite there. On a desert island, this song would make me smile.”
Although Cocker does find himself living in his head a lot of the times and swimming in his own imagination, he found himself in yet another bizarre situation. One of those times was when he fell out of a window in Sheffield trying to impress a girl by swinging from window to another but grossly overestimated himself. This incident forced Jarvis into a wheelchair for a few months. “It was a life-changing experience, I decided I had to get out of Sheffield.” However, it would take him another three years to do so.
Speaking on his fifth choice, Jarvis recalls the story surrounding the first time he heard the song. “Somebody had made a tape for me. I’d the flu. I was laying in bed, and I was feeling very sorry for myself. I put this tape on and at first, I thought it was the fever that made me think this song was so good. But I’ve loved his music ever since.” Cocker is referring to Scott Walker’s ‘The War is Over’. Ever since hearing the Walker song, he has remained one of Jarvis’ musical heroes. Scott Walker would eventually go on to produce one of Pulp’s albums; We Love Life.
While Pulp was existing through all these formative years, Jarvis Cocker eventually realised he had to get up and do something else. He ended up in London, at St. Martins College which was referenced in one of their major hits, ‘Common People’. Brit-pop began exploding around this time and had found a place within the mainstream while shooting up to the top of the charts. It seemed as if Jarvis was at the right place at the right time.
His sixth choice is Dory Previn’s ‘Lady with the Braid’, which he remembers hearing for the first time on the radio when he was decorating his new flat in London. “I remember very vividly hearing this record,” he said. “I had moved to London. I was living in this squat and I was listening to the radio. It was one of those moments when you have to stop what you’re doing and fully pay attention to it.”
Jarvis Cocker’s seventh pick is Johnny Cash, ‘I See a Darkness’. “I think its a very powerful song. The first time I played it to a friend of mine, he just burst into tears. Whether that’s appropriate on a desert island, I don’t know. It’s one of those songs that when you hear it, it just grips you.” Jarvis describes living in Paris as living on a desert island as “I don’t know anyone there.” If he were to really live on a desert island, Cocker muses that he would probably become a vegetarian, as he would probably not be able to kill a living animal.
Jarvis Cocker’s final pick is his number one song he would choose if he could only bring one record. Ronald Binge’s ‘Sailing By’ is a crystal orchestration of ambience that would help Cocker keep his cool and lure him to sleep on what happens to be the one luxury item he would bring with him onto the island, a bed with a mosquito net surrounding it. “I have for many years used this as an aid for restful sleeping.” The song has been used for the shipping forecast. “This is something that could help me deal with that isolation.”
Sue Lawley then tells Jarvis that in addition to the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, Cocker can also bring his favourite book with him. Cocker chooses Richard Brautigan’s Sombrero Fallout. “It’s not a very long book. I reread it the other day, it only took me three hours. It’s funny and sad at the same time which is generally what I go for. And it’s in a lot of these songs I chose. There’s something about that mixture that gets to me in some way. I think life’s like that, innit? It’s always funny, but it always turns out to be a tragedy because the main character dies in the end, you know.”
See a playlist of the songs below, or view the BBC website to listen to Jarvis Cocker’s Desert Island Discs episode.
Jarvis Cocker’s 8 favourite songs:
- Robert Mellin – ‘Theme’
- Joy Division – ‘Transmission’
- Lieutenant Pigeon – ‘Mouldy Old Dough’
- Engelbert Humperdinck – ‘Ten Guitars’
- Scott Walker – ‘The War is Over’
- Dory Previn – ‘Lady with the Braid’
- Johnny Cash – ‘I see a Darkness’
- Ronald Binge – ‘Sailing By’