Good Pop, Bad Pop is Jarvis Cocker’s first book of prose. It’s quite surprising when you look back at his varied output over the years, and not just in the music industry, with some recent moves into radio and screenwriting.
Jarvis is perhaps Sheffield’s most famous musical son, having formed the band Pulp while at secondary school in 1978; most of us recall the band from their high-achieving successes in the 90s, particularly their 1995 LP, Different Class.
Good Pop, Bad Pop is a bright and enjoyable collection of items and anecdotes that catalogue a lifetime; these items leading Jarvis to reflect on some of the pivotal moments in his career, and their impact on his ‘Toblerone packet’ loft space. It’s a book that breaks down the conceptual side to Pulp, finding art within the everyday items that are thrown away.
Jarvis spoke with SNACK about how he hit on this premise for the memoir, Andy Warhol being responsible for more than his hoarding, and his desire for finding meaning in pop songs.
Where did the idea come from, to tell your tale through your hoard of items to ‘keep or cob’?
It was like most good ideas; it was a bit accidental. That loft is real and it has been a real kind of issue for me, and I guess everybody has some cupboard somewhere that things just get thrown into. And then I just decided to do it. Originally it was going to be just like one little strand in a book. Then one of my editors at Jonathan Cape, Anna Fletcher, said, ‘that’s the best bit, you should make the whole book about that.’ She was really insistent about it. You know what it’s like – at first when someone tells you what to do, you think how dare you?!. Then I thought about it for a few days, and I thought, actually she’s right, because it’s a real thing. It’s always better when it’s based on something that actually exists rather than just climbing into thoughts inside your head.
And I’m guessing there was more in that attic than the relics that made it into the book. How did you find the filtering process for this – are there any items that you regret cutting from the final edit?
Well, yeah. There were some things that I threw out – because I did really play this game of ‘keep or cob’ and now we’re having a bit of an exhibition, you see. There’s a bit of a pop-up exhibition down in London starting next Sunday [22nd May]. I’d made this pact with myself that I was going to photograph everything before I decided to throw it away. And then I suppose it was whether things triggered a memory or not. Then, early on, I realised that if I kind of did a bit of stage managing and put the objects in a certain order that they would tell their own life story, in some way. I’ve written loads of songs but it’s the first time I’ve written a book, and the easiest thing to start off with is your own life story because you kind of know that bit already.
It’s a memoir as much about your love for pop culture and punk as it is about these tangible items that recall the memories: the Imperial Leather soap bar, the green plastic apple, that inspiring constellation shirt, the dirty joke book. It’s clear that pop infiltrated your life through more than the music. Was this reflection an intentional approach, with the book?
Sometimes I thought: Why the hell have I got that? The soap I remember, because when Imperial Leather changed their label design, what I was so bothered about was change. But the things, you know, for instance that whole Pulp master plan and stuff that was in the exercise book, I’d kind of forgotten about that, and that’s kind of weird. I obviously took a long time overdoing it – I’m doing proper joined-up writing – and everything’s underlined very carefully. So at the time I took trouble with it and for some reason that had gone, but for me that’s what makes the book interesting. It’s a mixture of things that are significant to me, like the ticket to the John Peel radio show that really marks the beginning of my musical career. And then there’s just rubbish, you know, like out-of-date chewing gum.
The pages of your science jotter you just mentioned, the ‘Pulp Master Plan’, and the illustrated wardrobe – there’s something intimate there. You were consistent, sticking to these aspirations of a 15-year-old. The notes on how you were going to make it with Pulp Inc, the large label and then turning things on their heads – those were unusually brilliant for a teenager’s consideration. Looking back, do you feel loyal to many of your plans you had set out for yourself when you were still at school?
Like you say, I was kind of pleasantly surprised that I didn’t write, ‘we’ll get famous and have fifteen Porsches and a really massive house’. I had these kind of slightly megalomaniac ideas about a media empire, but with it helping to free repressed artists. I guess those ideas had partly come from liking The Beatles, and they had Apple [Records], so that was part of it. And then also there was a big part of trying to wrest control from The Man.
Looking specifically at Popism [Andy Warhol’s 1980 memoir] – as well as The Velvet Underground, your entry into the world of Warhol – these are a real influence and inspiration, it seems, on your approach to life and the meaning that you attach to everyday common items, or art.
Well, yeah. Also, on a really basic level, it led to me nearly getting pneumonia because of this idea I’d just read in this Popism book, people talking about their ‘downtown loft ’and things like that. And so, I just decided that I was going to live in a loft. And, because we were living in this old factory building, you could see through the slates, we could see the sky outside. I just really caught loads of colds and was told by a doctor that I couldn’t move back there because it was dangerous for my health. So there you go. Andy Warhol’s to blame for that.
How did it feel when suddenly, with your route into the music scene and pop, you then became someone to watch and observe, and to be regarded as either good or bad pop?
Well, it’s what I wanted. There was this idea when I was a kid that if I got famous then I could live in TV land. Again, a really illogical thought that went in when I was a kid, so I kind of believed it. And I think that’s partly why I had issues with it; when I didn’t become famous because I wasn’t living in the telly.
Of course. You depict a time, throughout so much of your music and memoir, when the class struggle felt heightened: Sheffield during the Thatcher years, at the height of the miner’s strikes. That realisation that it wasn’t just them and us, but just very different versions of us. It feels profoundly embedded [in your work], these years. This thread of creativity being within us all, and culture being accessible despite your class, is something that seems to sit with you strongly.
I do believe that’s something that everybody’s got within them; whether they choose to develop it or not is another thing. I do feel that. I mean, if I end up writing another book, it will probably deal with my time down in London. That’s one thing I realised: the luck. That I was really fortunate to be born at a certain time when there were options for people from my kind of background to do things and to explore the world a bit. I got to go to art college in London, for instance.
My sister’s kids haven’t done that because there’s not the money – it’s harder to live in London. And even the fact that John Peel was on the radio at the time when I was a kid, so I got this crazily varied musical education from listening to his show. Punk happened at a time when I wanted to be in a band but didn’t have any musical ability and probably would have given up, thinking it was too complicated. Then punk came and said, ‘you don’t have to have musical capability; learn this chord.’ So, all these things. The thing that’s crazy is when you go back and look at the past and realise how often it’s just really a random coincidence whilst standing on a certain corner, when something happened and it changed the direction in your life. It’s kind of scary when you realise how random it is.
And you mention in your book, several times, the lack of a fatherly presence in your life, inevitably affecting your opinions and perspective on the world. Do you think that fashion and your desire for societal change would have been as prevalent in the grand plan of Pulp, otherwise?
I didn’t think it when I came up with the title of the book, but Pop is another term for father, isn’t it? I mean, with the absence of a father figure, I looked for other things to tell me things about the world. As you say, a lot of it came from pop culture and that was kind of lucky at that time. I don’t know whether it would be the same now. The BBC is currently in decline, and we were only allowed to watch the BBC in our house, because my mum was paying for the license. We weren’t allowed to watch ITV because that was free. So we grew up without adverts. And that’s a massive thing. You know, most of the time, most culture now will have advertising, so you kind of get brought up with this idea that the culture part is not the important message. And that’s a fundamentally different approach to life. It really is the bottom line: that you’re supposed to be the consumer. And I would say that the bottom line is that you are supposed to be a creator.
And expanding a little bit on that, it’s interesting as well that when it came to your lyrics, particularly the lyrics that bring to the fore the mundane, less glamorised and sometimes the reprehensible, there’s a political astuteness there that’s admirable from someone working within the music industry, particularly in the 80s. Were there any jarring moments, when life no longer began to reflect what your songs were about?
I felt cut off a bit from what I was writing, I suppose. But that was part of my mission statement from day one, really – I loved pop music, I was brought up on pop music, I was listening to the radio whilst my mum was brushing my hair to get me ready to go to school. I think, in the absence of a father figure, I wanted pop songs to teach me something – but they’re not really designed for that. They’re designed for entertainment. So when I got a chance to write my own songs, I wanted the words to kind of say the bits that I wished someone had said to me when I was younger.
And does your attic look any more organised as a result of this cathartic exercise?
I still keep losing things – like I say, we have this pop-up exhibition next Sunday – and there are a couple of objects that have just disappeared. I wouldn’t say it’s super tidy. It’s not, like, filed alphabetically, but it’s better than it was. It’s still a work in progress.
Good Pop, Bad Pop is published by Vintage and is now available