It was the first weekend of the Second Summer of Britpop, and the reviews were in. On the stage of Finsbury Park, “a 59-year-old man from Sheffield in glasses and a dark green velvet suit with all the energy and elasticity of an eel” (Mojo) beguiled 45,000 giddy Saturday night believers. He “threw shapes like Robert Peston at a karaoke party during a Blair-era Labour Party conference” (The Telegraph). The 17-song set was stuffed with generational anthems, so much so that “by the time they played the intro to Common People, the show had escalated into a full-blown karaoke session, with crowds holding their hands aloft in the air singing every word” (Radio X).
This was July’s triumphant return of Pulp, which came seven days before peers Blur played their own comeback gigs at Wembley Stadium. Twenty-one years after splitting, and 12 years since their last revival, the Sheffield band were as tight as their singer’s tailoring.
The man at the back, holding it all together, agrees. “All of them have been absolutely amazing,” says Pulp drummer Nick Banks of the band’s summer run of shows (which, unlike Blur’s, hasn’t come accompanied by a new album). “I didn’t have any qualms that the whole set of gigs would be anything but fantastic.”
That said, “you’re never quite sure how the audience is going to be. Because they’re 25 years older than they were in their prime. Are they just going to be sentient beings enjoying it in a watchful way? But it was amazing to see lots of young kids there, as well as people who had grown up with Pulp. The idea that they’d listened to their mum and dad’s records, or we’d still kept relevant to them, as they started discovering music...”
Why does he think Cocker – 60 this week – wanted to get the band back together again? “Dunno, really, to be honest,” shrugs the stoutly affable 58-year-old over an afternoon Diet Coke in a pub next to Sheffield train station. “Maybe because it was 10 years, roughly, since the last one. He likes things like that. But you don’t really want to probe too much. ‘What we doing this for?’ ‘Yeah, why are doing it? Ah, f___ it, I can’t be arsed!’ So you just go: ‘Yeah, right, what time we rehearsing?’”
Hiatuses aside, Banks has been staring at Jarvis’s skinny backside for the best part of 40 years. Even before joining Pulp, though, he had some sense of what it’s like to be both famous and stuck at the back, keeping a weather eye on things: his uncle was Gordon Banks, goalkeeper in England’s World Cup-winning squad in 1966.
In 1972, Uncle Gordon appeared on This Is Your Life. Host Eamonn Andrews asked team captain Bobby Moore what it was like playing with Banks. “Apart from all his wonderful skill and ability, it’s the assurance of the way he goes about the job,” said Moore. “He’s assured in life as a whole, he’s very easy to get on with, very easygoing. And when he gets on the field, his confidence spreads throughout the whole team.” Without it being too much of a stretch, I ask his nephew: could most of that be applied to his role in Pulp?
“I would like to think so,” says Banks, squirming slightly “I know drummers are seen as a little bit crazy, a bit off-the-wall. But I ain’t no Keith Moon. And I’d like to think that if you’re playing in a band, you know that when you go to that bit [in a song], everyone in the band’s following you. Pulp had been playing for so long to so few people, we developed a pack mentality. We all knew what’s needed to happen, or what’s going to happen. So you do develop a sort of telepathic sense. If Jarvis does that arm twitch – yeah, he does it every night, but we know that means we’re going into this next bit. And everyone’s gonna go there – usually. Woe betide if you’re not there and you get The Look!”
Now the musician has applied that unique perspective, his drummer’s-eye view of Cocker’s coccyx, to a memoir. So It Started There takes its title from a lyric in Common People, the 1995 smash that powered Pulp’s career – finally. Because, as the name of Banks’ book intimates, the band’s story is, to put it mildly, a precarious picaresque, one spanning four decades and some two-dozen members.
When Pulp eventually took off, they took off like a rocket – So It Started There opens backstage at that epochal Glastonbury main-stage headline performance, only a month after Common People’s release, when they were last-minute replacements for the out-through-injury Stone Roses. Actually, no, it opens with a foreword from good pal Richard Hawley, Mercury-nominated “Sheff” troubadour and occasional touring member of Pulp – said foreword notable for his crack joke about Banks’ drumming skills: “In and out of time like Dr Who.”
“Well, the drummer always gets poked with a sharp stick,” Banks says gamely. “Keep time! Too fast! Too slow! It’s never quite right for someone. And obviously, Common People does speed up quite a bit through its five minutes – 130 beats per minutes to or 155bpm by the end. It’s a real runaway train.”
But certainly, theirs was far, far away from the straight-out-of-the-box success of their other Britpop rivals, Oasis. It wasn’t even on a par with Blur’s, who hit the ground sprinting with their third album, 1994’s Parklife. Banks joined Pulp in 1986, almost a decade before Common People and Glastonbury. Even in 1986, Pulp had been going, serially unsuccessfully, since 1978, when they were formed by 15-year-old schoolboy Jarvis Branson Cocker.
Banks gives us a ringside seat as Cocker marks Pulp’s 1994 Top of the Pops debut by taking the mickey out of Wet Wet Wet live on air, and as he moons Michael Jackson at the 1996 Brit Awards. We’re at the Mercury Music Prize in ’94 when fourth studio album His ‘n’ Hers loses to M People, and there again in ’96 when Different Class triumphs over (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and Manic Street Preachers’ Everything Must Go.
We’re there, too, as Pulp slog through the indie-music trenches of the early- and mid- Eighties. Teenage Banks watches, agog, from spartan pub audiences as proto-Pulp light up a none-more-grey Sheffield pub-band scene.
“I’ve got bird’s-nest hair, leather jacket, leather trousers, jackboots,” remembers the Rotherham-born father-of-two. Music then “was a bit gothy, industrial, lots of heavy guitars. But this band’s got tinkling piano, trombone, backing singers, very quiet, mallet drumsticks with soft ends… And this singer you can’t take your eyes off. Utterly magnetic. Fey, acoustic, no abrasiveness whatsoever, the complete opposite of what you’re listening to [elsewhere].”
Catching Pulp for the first time in October 1982, at The Crucible (in the space next door to the hall that is snooker’s spiritual home), Banks marvels at these local troupers’ determination to do things differently, even if it’s more Blue Peter than Black Sabbath.
“They were trying to put on a show: toilet rolls, tinfoil, Jarvis in a wheelchair – but walking off at the end. At that concert they had little orange cardboard fish, sellotaped to bits of string hanging down from the ceiling, loads of them. I presume they were thinking: make the stage look like we’re underwater. The bands I knew could barely put some coloured lights together, let alone think orange cardboard fish on string would look great.”
As for their frontman: “Jarvis was one of those people you’d see down the pub, dressed a bit strange. We’d be in those [West] German army Bundeswehr vests. He’d be in a suit and tie. In places where it’s all punks in leather jackets, a suit and tie was revolutionary. We’d all go to The Limit, which was the only club in town, and he’d do his little shoulder shuffle-y dance. He was just odd. Just really, really odd. But in a nice way.”
Just as Slits’ guitarist Viv Albertine’s tremendous 2014 autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys gave us, for the first time, a female view on punk from the inside, so Banks offers a unique, clear-eyed take on the Britpop boom and bust: that of a participant standing just outside the spotlight glare. One from a musician who enjoyed the rollercoaster ride but who wasn’t spun upside down and nauseous by the experience. Not fully, anyway.
Yes, Banks was not-untouched by 1990s pop’s blizzard of excess. A darkly funny interlude finds him and a roadie on the Pulp tour bus, en route to a European tour, determinedly hoovering their way through a consignment of cocaine before they reach customs at Dover (“Well, we all love a challenge…”). But generally he kept his head while some Britpoppers were losing theirs. Cocker once told me that he knew he’d been enjoying the ride a bit too much when he found himself at a launch event for a new Action Man. Not quite the opening of an envelope, but not far off.
“Yes! I went to that party as well!” laughs Banks. “It was some swanky place in London. They had one of those metal spheres with three motorbikes flying around inside. It was 12-foot across and your nose was up against the side of it, these motorbikes flying by with some stupid model bloke playing Action Man [riding it]. But you just think: ‘Great, someone’s giving me free beer. I’ll have some of that.’ But, yeah, if you’re doing it every night, it would get a bit wearing.”
The book freewheels through Pulp’s first national TV performance, in November 1993, playing Lipgloss on Channel 4’s The Word. “That was a big deal,” he acknowledges, and not just because it was the scene of one of the first dates with his wife of 27 years, Sarah. “It was good, after-the-pub TV. We always thought: if we could get in front of people, then they would see [our talent] and they can make their mind up whether we were a bunch of shysters or the best thing since sliced bread.”
We accompany Banks to Pulp’s debut Top of the Pops, in June 1994, playing Babies – an appearance notable for Cocker opening his jacket to reveal a sign saying “I Hate Wet Wet Wet”, a nod to the Scottish popsters have been lodged at Number One for several aeons with their insipid cover of Love Is All Around. That flash of prime-time infamy, though, would pale into insignificance next to another moment beamed into the nation’s living room.
At the 1996 Brit Awards, Pulp, riding high on the success of Different Class, were nominated in four categories: British Group, British Video, British Single, British Album. Larky to the last, they chose to perform Sorted for E’s & Wizz, the single whose origami record sleeve – in the style of a drug “wrap” – had got them on the cover of the Mirror the previous summer (with the immortal tabloid headline “Ban This Sick Stunt”). Also on the bill: Michael Jackson, there to accept the specially fabricated Artist of a Generation bauble.
Arriving at London’s Earls Court for the awards bash, the band were already in playful mood.
“The best memory of our walk to stage was seeing a bog-standard (sorry) Portaloo,” writes Banks, “the kind you see at festivals and building sites, sited backstage with a sign affixed: ‘For the sole use of Mr Michael Jackson’. This had us in fits of laughter, imagining Mick was sat in there as we trudged past with his kecks round his ankles, sorting through some pre-show ‘nerves’. Should have knocked it over.”
The rest, course, is hysteria. During Jackson’s messiah-like performance of Earth Song with a bunch of kids, a heartily refreshed Cocker rushed the stage and waggled his bottom – or, as Banks puts it, “mim[ed] s______ on the Jacko acolytes in the front row”. Cut to: Cocker besieged in Pulp’s dressing room by Jackson’s “people”, police and, offering to dust off his long dormant legal skills to help Cocker, the equally refreshed solicitor-turned-comedian Bob Mortimer.
Cue a trip to Kensington nick, a night in the cells (for Jarvis, not Jackson), a storm of front-page headlines, and Cocker emerging, blinking, into a newfound, very much unwanted status – a national hero or disgrace, depending on your feelings about the self-styled King of Pop. At least Cocker faced no criminal charges, his case sealed by the presentation of a video of Jackson’s performance, proving he hadn’t bumped into any of Jackson’s press-ganged children – said video filmed by David Bowie.
All of which seems a bit of a laugh now. But on the BBC 6 Music’s recent podcast The Rise and Fall of Britpop, co-host Steve Lamacq quotes Cocker at the time: “In the UK, suddenly I was totally recognised and I couldn’t go out any more. It took me into a level of celebrity I couldn’t ever have known existed, and wasn’t equipped for. It had a massive, generally detrimental effect on my mental health.”
Banks absolutely noticed that “onerous” burden on his friend and bandmate. “And certainly, it affected Jarvis’s outlook on songwriting and lyric writing. He always thought of himself as the unseen observer looking at the minutiae of life. But when the observer becomes the observed, everything you look at becomes tainted by you looking at it.”
After the BRITs ’96, the Pulp party was by no means over, but the Britpop hangover started to descend. Their final two albums, This is Hardcore (1998) and We Love Life (2001) both took ruinously long to make. Then, on December 14 2002, they played the Magna Centre in Rotherham. “This’ll be the last time you see us for a while,” said Cocker. “But we may meet again, who knows?” It would be almost a decade before we did.
How did Banks feel that night, back in his home town, as the last chord faded away? “A bit melancholic, really. There was no clinking of champagne and big hugs and ‘look at the journey we’ve been on…’ It was a bit glum, really.
“But once the dust settled and you got back home and into your standard life, you always thought: the time may come with something else happening.”
In the ensuing decade, back in Sheffield, Banks took over the family pottery business (it was eventually killed by Covid) and watched Cocker embark on a solo career, “which is all good. But never say never, because it’s always left hanging with Jarvis. So you always held onto hope that maybe he’d want to do some stuff again. But you don’t build your life around waiting for it.”
Hence, then, two (so far) fun and, it seems, highly functional reunions – even if this year’s model was tinged with the unbearable sadness of the death earlier this year of longstanding guitarist Steve Mackey, reportedly after a brain haemorrhage. He was 56.
“We’re trying to do something that is a tribute to Steve Mackey’s memory,” said Cocker at Finsbury Park. “I tend to talk about him before this song, because this song’s called Something Changed. It’s about how somebody can enter your life and really change it all.”
I ask Banks how challenging it was doing the shows, looking out at the place where Mackey would have been. “Yeah, It was difficult. Steve was such a presence within the group, driving stuff and setting agendas. And obviously, with no Steve on stage, even more of the focus is on Jarvis. Which obviously it was mostly anyway. But without that kind of fellow traveller up there onstage, it changed the dynamic of it. It’s such a tragedy that someone so vibrant would pass away so young.”
While he seems relatively confident Pulp will ride again, Nick Banks isn’t holding his breath. Nor does he need to. When I ask whether being in Pulp made him rich, he replies with a grin: “Ah, richer because I moved back to Sheffield! Yeah, I’ve got a nice house, a comfortable life. But I haven’t got a boat in Monte Carlo, I tell you!”
The end of the pottery business was a blow, but now he has time to walk the dog, cut the grass. “Just got a new mower this morning, actually!” he says cheerfully. And, crucially, all those years keeping time – and biding his time – in Pulp means Nick Banks doesn’t have to work.
“So, yeah, it all worked out alright in the end!”
So It Started There: From Punk To Pulp by Nick Banks is published on September 28 by Omnibus Press. See Banks live in conversation across the UK, info here