28 November 2008

Everything's in tune and everything's in time

Jarvis Cocker
Shepherd’s Bush Empire
26 November 2008

It’s been ten years since I’ve seen Jarvis Cocker performing live.

The last time was at the Pulp In The Park concert: a mini-festival staged in Finsbury Park, with a host of other lively performers (Catatonia, Bentley Rhythm Ace, Bernard Butler) setting the scene during the long summer afternoon on 25 July 1998, leading up to the big finale, the headliners, Pulp.

The fame that had swamped Jarvis and the band in the wake of the seminal and hit-loaded Different Class album had been twisted into a darker, nervy cynicism on their follow-up album, This Is Hardcore, as Pulp struggled to cope with the notion of success and notoriety after many years of obscurity.

Back in 1998 the pop glories of Different Class were what most of the crowd had turned up to hear, and while there were some highlights from that album, the crowd were also treated to the brooding brilliance of new songs like the sexual paranoia of This Is Hardcore and the wry Dishes:

I am not Jesus though I have the same initials
I am the man who stays home and does the dishes

This was the first and perhaps only concert I’ve been to that has been released as a DVD (The Park Is Mine), and on the recording you can see the manic energy of the crowd in the encore when they finally get to hear the era-defining Common People. It was so energetic that the scaffolding rig in the centre of the audience that held the main cameras was physically shaking, so the video footage was jumping all over the place, just like the audience. Here's an object lesson in building song momentum:

While Pulp In The Park was a concert highlight of the year from my perspective, it also marked the end of Pulp’s broader popularity as the band consciously shunned the limelight. The band’s last studio album We Love Life (2001) was a quiet success, but no more was forthcoming (aside from a Best Of compilation) and the band that had been active since 1978 was finally put out to pasture.

After several years in which he got married, moved to Paris and had a son, Jarvis came back to prominence in 2006 with a self-titled solo album that was a real return to form, melding his sardonic attitude to life and the music business with a well-practised knack for catchy melodies with classic pop hooks.

He plans to return to the recording studio in January 2009 to work on his second solo album, but in the meantime he has staged a short UK tour to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Rough Trade Records, the seminal label that sprang forth from a tiny West London shop and grew to fame and (temporary) fortune by bringing The Smiths to the pop charts.

Aged 45, Jarvis looks older than his years, striding onto the Shepherd’s Bush Empire stage sporting a straggly beard and wearing what can only be described as the official uniform of middle-aged chemistry teachers: there’s a great deal of brown. He plays up to the stereotype, commencing the performance wielding a teacher’s cane and interspersing his songs with brief but rambling anecdotes and non sequiturs, including an explanation of his theory that men of his vintage should always wear long socks to avoid exposing their hideous waxy legs to an unsuspecting world.

After the opening number he also plays with the cliché of rockstar stage parlance when a Powerpoint projection behind the stage flashes up a series of the formulaic lines that crowds seem to expect at a gig:

Good evening London!

How’s everyone doing?


You’re looking great!

[Points to member of crowd]

Especially you…

Are you ready for the next song?


…I said, Are You Ready For The Next Song?

[Bigger cheers; laughter]

It encapsulated Jarvis’ gleefully cynical approach to the music business, saved him a tiresome chore, and had the bonus of being bloody funny too.

The songs he performed were all from his 2006 solo album plus a selection of new material that will form the basis of his upcoming second album. Standout tracks included the bitter, witty Fat Children (‘Last night I had a little altercation / They wobbled menacingly / Beneath the yellow street light it became a situation / Well, they wanted my brand-new phone with all the pictures of the kids and the wife / A struggle ensued and then fat children took my life’) and the optimistic Big Julie (‘And she can almost see the future shine / And everything's in tune and everything's in time / It will play until the day Big Julie rules the world / Big Julie rules the world’).

My personal favourite was the fantastic Black Magic from the first album, with its knowing descending harmonies updating Crimson And Clover and acting as a counterpoint to the immensely catchy Gloria pastiche that was Pulp’s Disco 2000. (That’s Laura Branigan’s Gloria, not Them’s (or Patti Smith’s) Gloria…) The Empire shook to the unalloyed glory of a thunderous and commanding performance as Jarvis threw his trademark shapes just like the mid-90s had never ended. Here's another top performance from a few months earlier in America:

As the Shepherd's Bush gig neared its conclusion, Jarvis discussed the looming monster on the horizon – the gigantic Westfield shopping mall that recently opened nearby, bringing 150,000 square metres of sanitised retail space to West London. (Nerdishly, I make this approximately equivalent to 5.8 Nimitz-class aircraft carrier decks). While not favourable, he didn’t dismiss the mall out of hand, but instead contrasted the mall-going experience to something closer to his heart – the theme of the evening’s performance. To Jarvis’ mind, the 30th anniversary of Rough Trade Records illustrated that capitalism can bring good things into the world. This was a timely introduction to one of his more recent songs, the refreshingly frank ‘C---s Are Still Running The World’, with its Beatlesque melody and pithy worldview:

Well did you hear, there’s a natural order
Those most deserving will end up with the most
That the cream cannot help but always rise up to the top
Well I say: Shit floats

If you thought things had changed
Friend you’d better think again
Bluntly put in the fewest of words
C---s are still running the world
C---s are still running the world

But at least while people like Jarvis Cocker are still capable of filling an auditorium with paying punters keen to listen to intelligent, pop-savvy songs with lyrical bite, there’s still hope for the music business, no matter what sort of people are running the planet.

Guardian interview with Jarvis
Sheffield gig report

[Photo credit: Eamonn McCabe, Guardian]
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