Common People catapulted Pulp into the big time. Photo: Pulp/YouTube
After decades plugging away in the musical wilderness, Pulp got two weeks’ notice for their biggest ever gig.
It was summer 1995 and John Squire had broken his collarbone, so the Sheffield misshapes suddenly found themselves as last-minute replacements, taking The Stone Roses’ headline slot at Glastonbury. The set would go down as one of the best in the festival’s history, their thrilling performance of Common People cementing Jarvis Cocker and co in the public consciousness as a totemic band of the ’90s.
“I think it just galvanised a whole new way of presenting Pulp to the general populace,” says drummer Nick Banks. “Jarvis standing on stage saying, if a lanky git like me can do it, so can you. It was so life-affirming to know, even though Pulp had been going 17 years – and very few years of success – it can be done. That was a massive, massive turning point.”
The underdogs had triumphed. Everyone who’d ever had a “smack in the mouth just for standing out, now really” rejoiced. Pulp were heroes to strange, bespectacled kids like me all over the UK.
“Compared to the normal person in the street, I suppose we did look a bit like a bunch of weirdos,” Banks admits. “But look at the Fantastic Four or the Marvel comics – they’re all different, individual… but then again, all kind of the same as well. Wearing brown cord in the early ’90s was weird. And we all wore brown cord.”
When you’re in a band with Jarvis, there isn’t a huge amount of spotlight left over, and Banks – much like his famous World Cup-winning goalie uncle Gordon – has mostly been happy with his role bringing up the rear. “I see goalkeepers similar to drummers in a way. You’re at the back, you’re doing a unique job. And if you cock it up, everybody knows about it.” This month, though, he’s stepping to the front (“coming out of the side-lines”, if you will) with his new book So It Started There: From Punk to Pulp.
Scholars of the band will note this is the third memoir to be published by a member of Pulp. Former guitarist and violinist Russell Senior’s Freak Out The Squares came first, to be followed just last year by Cocker’s Good Pop, Bad Pop – in which the singer tells his life story through the medium of the junk (and not-so-much-junk) accumulated in his attic. What does Banks think is his USP?
“Mine is almost the complete story – from my joining to almost the present day,” he says. “Russell’s story, entertaining though it is – and I did raise my eyebrows at some of his artistic licence – ends when he leaves the band. [Senior left Pulp in 1997, briefly rejoining in 2011.]
“Jarvis’s book, I thought was brilliant. A really interesting, original way to present your history, using found objects. I mean he’s such a hoarder. He just can’t give anything away, or get rid of anything. But that book only goes to 1984. So we await part two when I illuminate the scene. Or something like that.”
Banks joined Pulp in late 1986. He’d seen a sign on the wall of legendary Sheffield music venue the Leadmill – ‘Pulp Want Drummer’ – and knew his moment had arrived. “I basically joined my favourite band,” he smiles. “If you were wanting to be a professional musician or a rock’n’roller, joining your favourite band as a drummer is kind of the best you can possibly do.”
Of course, the thing that makes the Pulp story so special – and that Glastonbury moment such a cathartic triumph – is that for the next few years precious little happened. Banks’s autobiography takes us through the nearly moments, the various dissolutions, the record company screw-ups, the times when they could barely get everyone in the same city, never mind the same room. On so many occasions, it must’ve seemed impossible that Pulp would ever become anything – so why did they keep going?
“We could see that we’d got something interesting to present to the world,” he says. “And we’d got the undiscovered Pelé of music frontmen to present to the world. He was an absolute nutcase, and funny with it, and really interesting. And we thought that if people got a chance to actually see that and listen to our music, then they can make their own mind up, I suppose. And if they think it’s rubbish, then we’ll slither back under a stone and get on with something else. We were motivated by that.”
The first clue that Pulp might one day play to the kind of ecstatic crowds they saw at Glastonbury – and earlier this year at their latest set of encore shows – came in 1991, in a leisure centre in Halifax. Up until then, Banks says, they’d played mostly to “the semicircle of indifference” but that night was different.
“There was a group of probably about 25, 30 young teenagers going absolutely bonkers to everything we did. And that was the first time that had happened,” he remembers. “We finished the gig, came off, and all looked at each other: ‘What was that all about?’ Because it was just so new. This was the first time kids went apeshit to Pulp’s music and it was an amazing moment.”
Though it would be years before that promise came to fruition, Banks cites that gig, played to an audience standing on the badminton courts of a provincial town, alongside Glastonbury as one of the highlights of his many years in Pulp. Rounding out his top three moments is a more notorious moment, the band’s most controversial hour – featuring the Brits, Michael Jackson’s messiah complex, Bob Mortimer’s legal ‘expertise’, David Bowie’s camcorder and Jarvis’s arse.
It was 1996 and Pulp were at the peak of their popularity following Different Class. They were toasting their success at the Brit Awards – then at the peak of its pomp. Seeing the opportunity to have Michael Jackson play the event, the organisers had hastily invented a gong for the global megastar and (Banks reveals) rented him a private Portaloo. The King of Pop proceeded to put on one of the most eye-wateringly over-the-top performances ever committed. Pulp, having partaken of the complimentary refreshment, decided an intervention was in order. Egged on by keyboardist Candida Doyle, Cocker stormed the stage, wafted an imaginary fart, and was swiftly tackled by Jacko’s security.
Later that night, Jarvis would be arrested, accused of pushing one of the kids who’d been on stage and one Bob Mortimer (a former solicitor, though better known for hitting Vic Reeves in the face with a frying pan) would offer his help. The comedian reconsidered when he saw Jackson’s legal phalanx. Incredibly, it would actually be the Thin White Duke himself who’d prove Jarv’s innocence – Bowie had recorded the whole thing and could show it was actually Michael’s security guys who’d toppled the children.
Relief. But not before the tabloids had gone nuts – first vilifying the “Pulp lout”, then shamelessly U-turning when they realised the public wasn’t with them. Jarvis had found global notoriety.
“It propelled Jarvis into this higher level of national consciousness. He wasn’t just known by music fans, he was on the front page of national newspapers,” Banks recalls. “So it changed how people reacted to Jarvis. And I think how he reacted to the world. Perhaps a bit of a spell was broken. Because he seemed to enjoy observing the oddities of life before that, and once everyone’s looking at you, it’s hard to look at the strange things going off around you without affecting those things. And so something changed in that moment for Pulp.”
The follow up to Different Class, This Is Hardcore, suffered from “difficult second album” despite being the band’s sixth. “You have that hit record and everyone wants the next one, like tomorrow, please,” says Banks. “I think we lost some confidence of where to go next. The Michael Jackson thing perhaps was a symptom of that, or maybe it was the start of that loss of a bit of confidence.”
Neither This Is Hardcore nor their final studio album, We Love Life, achieved the world-straddling success of Different Class (which is a shame because both are spectacularly good records). “We could almost feel the spotlight of relevance moving away from us during this time,” writes Banks. The band never officially split up, but went on indefinite hiatus in 2002.
Banks was philosophical about the end of the whirlwind, going back to – among other things – run his mother’s pottery business. “You’ve just got to think, this is the new reality,” he shrugs. But when the reunion shows came around, first in 2011-12 and then again this year, he was delighted to pick up his sticks again. Each time, it’s been a case of absence making the heart grow fonder for band and audience – every massive show sold out, the reviews glowing, the crowds begging for more.
But the latest tour, including dates at London’s Finsbury Park, Glasgow’s TRNSMT festival and a pair of homecoming shows at Sheffield’s Utilita Arena, have been bittersweet. The band were forced to go on without bass player Steve Mackey, who sadly died in March this year.
“It was a massive, massive shock when we heard the news about Steve’s illness,” says Banks. “It just rams home the thought that we are all but hanging by a thread. It’s such a shame [to lose] someone so vibrant, full of life, so eager to do stuff and create and work with all kinds of arty type people. But yet still being kind of grounded. To have such a catastrophic thing happen is awful. Steve did bring so much to Pulp. His legacy lives on with those records.”
The band coped by pulling together to play the shows in Mackey’s honour. “I suppose we saw these gigs as a way of making a tribute to Steve. That we wouldn’t be there without his input. It was a collective force.”
Looking ahead, Pulp are about to play shows in Mexico, Uruguay and Chile. They’ll close out the year headlining Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations (let’s all meet up in the year 2024). So far, there’s nothing more planned, but Banks has learned that you should never say never when it comes to Pulp.
“If people clamour for it, I hope we can come back and do some more stuff. Who knows?” he says. “I certainly hope so. I’d go to the opening of a fridge door as long as the light comes on.”
So It Started There: From Punk to Pulp by Nick Banks is out now (Omnibus).
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