Good Pop, Bad Pop: An Inventory by Jarvis Cocker

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Review by Annabel

Since he first came into the public eye, Jarvis Cocker has always presented a delightful, non-conformist approach to life – droll and at times laconic, at other times spikily animated, a bit anti-establishment, a bit young fogey and certainly a scholar of popular media but also a lover of the slightly left field. You may attribute some of this to the art school culture he experienced at Saint Martin’s, but his desire to be a pop icon was nurtured for years before he moved to London. There’s a Yorkshire sensibility to him, a solidity that made him resistant to new things that had to be overcome, before he could let fly and give us Pulp’s most famous anthem, ‘Common People’.

This memoir takes us up to his acceptance letter for Saint Martin’s but no further – so those wonderful opening lyrics must remain in Cocker’s future,

She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge,
She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College.
That’s where I,
Caught her eye.

Enough of that. Let’s go back to the book. Cocker has come up with a wonderful and unconventional approach for his memoir, as he clears out twenty years of collected and dumped ephemera and stuff from his attic.

This is not a life story. It’s a loft story.

He will consider each object, and decide whether to keep or cull (or ‘cob’, as Sheffield dialect would say). The first is a packet of chewing gum – an easy one to chuck away, but not without a discussion of the packet, stick vs tablet, and flavours.

Soon he comes across an exercise book, (well, he admits, he admits to stage-managing the order of disclosure), which contains his 15-year-old Pulp Manifesto which begins with his ideas on fashion – duffle-coats, trainers and ‘rancid ties’. He returns to the exercise book throughout the memoir, we’ll see all the pages.

The name ‘Pulp’ came early on. I’ve often told the story that I was in an economics lesson at school when we were given a copy of the Financial Times & my eye was caught by ‘Arabicus Pulp’ in the Commodities section of the paper. (I think it’s something to do with coffee.) That’s a true story—but ‘Pulp’ was the important bit for me.

Because the idea that a culture could reveal more of itself through its throwaway items than through its supposedly revered artefacts was fascinating to me. Still is.

We ramble on through the findings in the loft – from broken spectacles, to ties, key rings, cassettes, badges, tickets, more pages from that so influential exercise book, an assortment of photos – and examples from his prized carrier bag collection! Each item is contemplated and discussed with many an aside – all told with his trademark wry humour style.

A guitar given to him by his mum’s German boyfriend was a jumping off point to really get the band started, and soon he and his pals were rehearsing every Friday evening at his house, his sister Saskia agreeing to stay out of the way. John Peel was a primary influence, as was Mark E Smith and The Fall, whom he dragged Saskia along to see. She wasn’t convinced, but Jarvis was smitten—from their anti-music playing and Smith’s characteristic delivery to their subversive anti-fashion style.

When one of the first live reviews of Pulp said that we sounded like ‘a cross between Abba & The Fall’ I was beyond proud.

The book is also beautifully produced, designed by Julian House. It is full of wonderful colour photographs of the items, graphics, collages and sections of coloured pages for inserts on longer digressions, all printed on thicker than normal, pure white stock – a lovely thing to look at and hold as well as read.

A particularly interesting item is titled ‘The Magic Circle’ and discusses at length why he won’t discuss the mechanics behind his songwriting. In the way that showing how a trick is performed spoils the stage magic, he worries that analysing songwriting and sharing it may stifle his own creativity – something that Leonard Cohen also said when Cocker interviewed him in 2012.

Eventually, they make a cassette which gains John Peel’s attention, when Cocker manages to give him a copy at Peel’s Roadshow which was visiting Sheffield University; Peel played it and invited Pulp to do a ‘Peel Session’, and Cocker was still a week away from being eighteen. A breakthrough of sorts but moving on from there wasn’t straight-forward.  He left home and shared a factory loft with his friend Tim, while signing on the dole, and trying to write songs. By late 1985, the band is just beginning to take off with a new line-up, and then Jarvis managed to fall out of a window, trying to impress a girl, injuring his right wrist, pelvis and foot, ending up in hospital and then a convalescent home for weeks. It gives him an epiphany:

I’m the luckiest man alive.

My fall from grace has shaken something loose. I have fallen to earth with a bump. But in a good way. & I guess that’s why I’ve mentioned this incident so many times in the past. Because I credit this as the moment my world view changed profoundly. […]

Now that I was back down at ground level & staring life fully in the face I found myself eyeball to eyeball with what I’d always been searching for: something to write about.

I loved Cocker’s style of writing. I edit a school magazine, and our style sheet doesn’t allow ampersands, so I loved his free use of them – there are no ‘ands’ in this book, always a ‘&’ even at the beginning of sentences as in the above quote. He’s such a rebel! 

Cocker is such great fun to be with on the page. He narrated five episodes from it for Radio 4’s Book of the Week, which you can listen to on BBC Sounds here if you can receive it, he is such a natural.  

I adored this ‘inventory’ of Cocker’s early life, taking me back to the 1980s in particular: his teenage years, my twenties—so much so that I bought the signed edition which I will treasure.

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Annabel is Co-Founder of Shiny, and one of its Editors. She also finds it hard to throw away childhood ephemera.

Jarvis Cocker, Good Pop, Bad Pop (Jonathan Cape, 2022). 978-1787330566, 355 pp., hardback.

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    1. It was super. He comes across on the page just as he appears, and the Book at Bedtime readings are super.

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