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Back in 1979, Jarvis Cocker had a plan for world domination by his pop group Pulp. Quite literally. As a nerdy, bespectacled pupil of The City School, Sheffield, he filled a lined exercise book with drawings, diagrams, album cover designs, song lyrics, fashion guides and manifestos under the heading THE PULP MASTER PLAN, written in blue biro and underlined twice with a ruler.
“The group shall work its way into the public eye by producing fairly conventional, yet slightly off-beat, pop songs,” wrote young Cocker. “After gaining commercially successful status the group can then begin to subvert and restructure both the music-business and music itself.” To press the point of his ambitions, he drew a meat cleaver bearing the word PULP INC severing an arm labelled MAJOR RECORD CO to free a tiny figure clutched in its fist, that an arrow helpfully identifies as a “Repressed Artist.”
“I’m touched by the sentiment,” notes an older Cocker, contemplating the yellowing pages. “Bravo the 15-year-old me. From the very start I didn’t see music purely as a form of entertainment – it could also be a way of changing the world.”
While Cocker may not have achieved quite the epochal success he once dreamed of, the notebook he refers to as “my Dead Sea Scrolls” does seem remarkably prescient. After scoring an early success with a John Peel radio session in 1981, it took a lost decade of line-up changes, commercial and artistic disappointments, poverty, unemployment and life-threatening accidents, but eventually a version of Pulp rose to become one of the big bands of “Br*tp*p” (as Cocker himself asterisks the nineties genre he evidently still feels conflicted about).
They broke through in 1994 with their fourth album His N Hers, before 1995’s acerbic working-class anthem Common People established an enduring reputation for their frontman as one of the sharpest pop observers of British life. Although Pulp haven’t released an album since 2001, Cocker has enjoyed an offbeat solo career with a sideline as a genial and thoughtful broadcaster with BBC radio, making occasional erudite forays into culture journalism, TV documentaries and lecture tours.
Now, at 58, he might just have invented a whole new style of celebrity memoir. Good Pop, Bad Pop is described in its subhead as An Inventory, which is a polite way of describing a glorified attic clearance. Cocker confesses to being an inveterate hoarder of tat and ephemera, compulsively squirrelling away all kinds of apparently random objects. Over an itinerant musical life, these were transported from property to property in black bin liner bags, before being stuffed into the cramped loft space of a Victorian London house for over 20 years whilst the now celebrated pop star went off to live in Paris, marry and start a family.
Cocker seems to have struck upon the idea to write a book as an excuse to finally sort out this lifelong accumulation, effectively dragging his hoard into the light, photographing it and ruminating on its meaning, before deciding whether each item is worth keeping or discarding. We are not necessarily speaking about objects of any intrinsic value at all, with Cocker excavating ancient chewing gum packets, stickers, plastic novelty toys, Marmite jars, used soaps, packets of mints, a vast trove of second-hand loudly patterned shirts, a “collection” of branded supermarket carrier bags and numerous pairs of broken spectacles, alongside more obviously intriguing tatty song manuscripts, old posters and decaying master tapes. What Cocker has struck upon is the notion that a pile of rubbish that would be meaningless to anyone else actually forms “a pretty accurate representation of the contents of my brain”.
“No, don’t laugh,” Cocker writes in an intimate, chatty style that immediately evokes his soft Sheffield tones. “Think of these objects as not just the accumulated debris of a lifetime but as thoughts & memories.”
Ruminating on the surprising significance of a beer can ring pull (that turns out to be a keeper) or the profound formative influence of the Sexy Laughs Fantastic Dirty Joke Book that he found discarded on the back seat of a bus, Cocker delivers his autobiography in disguise, flipping backwards and forwards through his life, with witty and often genuinely profound digressions on ’60s science fiction, ’70s British television, ’80s indie poster design, jumble sales, high street nightclubs and how his life was transformed by “the Disco button!” on a cheap second-hand 1982 Yamaha Portasound PS:400 keyboard. “It’s almost like having a band at your fingertips. With the added bonus that they don’t complain if you ask them to play the same riff for 10 minutes.”
Good Pop, for Cocker, injects art, imagination and emotion into the mainstream of life, whereas Bad Pop uses “the same tropes & techniques in order to manipulate the public’s behaviour”. In a rare moment of proselytising inspired by a cardboard facsimile of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag (not a keeper), he decries the way politicians have increasingly come to use “the tools and gimmicks of Pop to get their message across… a Pop that now stands for Populism rather than Popular.”
Pulp (which his schoolbooks reveal was the chosen name of his band before he even had a band) is a word Cocker considers synonymous with Good Pop. On such terms his first venture into publishing is really the best kind of pulp: accessible, pithy, lurid, entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny in places and delivering its insights with the lightest of touches.
It helps enormously that it has been sharply and wittily designed by Julian House, deftly incorporating pictures, graphics and typography to enliven and illuminate the text. Crammed with insights into songwriting, performance and a life lived in a constant impulse of creativity, it leaves Cocker aged 25 heading off to Saint Martin’s college, ending before he has caught the eye of a Greek textile magnate’s daughter and written the song that propelled him to the status of national treasure. Whilst there are plenty of intriguing glimpses of his subsequent Br*tp*p life, we can only hope that Cocker has enough tat left uncovered to inspire a second volume of his loft story.
Good Pop, Bad Pop is published by Jonathan Cape at £20. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk