At Earl’s Court tonight, a debacle was taking place. Centre stage for three lines, surrounded by children, was the troubled and increasingly freakish figure of Michael Jackson, making his “live return” to London. He was roundly booed. Ten years ago Jackson had faced protest of another kind when Jarvis Cocker, then front man of band-of-the-epoch Pulp, crashed the BRITs stage and mooned at him.
Coincidentally, at the other end of Travelcard Zone One tonight, Jarvis was also making his “live return” to the capital. There is no mention of Jackson and not a hint of a Pulp song as the gangly Yorkshireman flounces on to the stage and insists on welcoming his audience to the Camden Palace. “Why name a venue after a hot drink?” he asks of the name change to Koko. We immediately remember why we missed him.
Looking dapper to his right is Pulp bassist Steve Mackey, running A-Ha‘s Morten Harkett close for best-preserved fortysomething. Further over, puffing away on a ciggie like a builder, Richard Hawley reprises his Pulp role as guitarist. They are joined by a keyboardist, bassist and drummer.
Jarvis is here to showcase his rather fine eponymous debut solo album, and he begins with the caustic wit of Fat Children. It’s immediately obvious he’s relishing his return to the spotlight after lurking for too long in the shadows. All the uniquely Jarvisesque stage moves – from long pointy fingers to twitches of arms – are present and correct. This he follows with Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time, which sounds like a hit waiting to happen, chock full of hooks and delivered in deadpan style.
There’s space too for tracks that didn’t make the album, the first of these – My One Man Show – sounding as much like a theme tune to an artist as We Are The Pipettes does for three polka-dotted lasses from Brighton. It’s raw and compelling, and gets followed by the lilting melody of I Will Kill Again, which Jarvis is at pains to point out is written from the point of view of someone else who murdered, not himself. Glad that was cleared up.
The lyrical tone is kept sombre with From A To I (Auschwitz to Ipswich), but distinctive additional keyboarding is added by “none other than Candida Doyle,” erstwhile ivory tinkler of Pulp, looking petite to stage left. During the song, the incongruous sight of red balloons, printed in celebration of the 80th birthday of somebody called Cyril (really), float gently down from the ceiling to be nosebutted away by audience members suddenly doubling as seals. The sight, in this setting, amuses Jarvis no end.
This and the following number, Tonite, are demonstrably centred on the theme of ageing and what it means. Tonite sounds staid, but it seems purposefully so. And then comes a discourse on the top balcony.
Jarvis and Steve, the former tells us, DJ’d at the top balcony for a private bash. Until then he’d not realised how high up Koko goes. Truly, this is a venue of many layers. Who better than Jarvis to peel them all away, as Hawley settles himself behind pedal steel guitar for the poignant Big Julie. It comes across as something like a companion piece for Mis-shapes, about a girl formed as something larger than average but whose qualities far outstrip those of her perfect bodied contemporaries.
Another new one – Big Stuff – precedes Black Magic, the set’s most Velvet Underground moment and one that leads to an early exit from the stage for Aar Jaarv. The band play on and then, finally, follow him off as the encore whoops set in.
Running The World, live, is nothing less than sensational. Released as a download track ahead of the album’s launch (it appears as a secret track at the end of Jarvis), this incendiary rant against the ruling classes has the entire audience singing passionately in tune with the chorus – “Cunts are still running the world”. Ah, if only George Bush were present. And just when we think he’s given his all, he promises an old one. Expectations whetted for a Pulp track – Babies? Common People? – he drawls: “Not one of my old ones!” And then we’re listening to Space Oddity, sung by a Sheffield Oddity and a bona fide national treasure. Ten years ago, at the height of his success, Jarvis Cocker told Glastonbury to “live on”. Let the same now be said to him.
And it was. Heading into the bowls of Mornington Cresent Station the talk was not about Jacko, or even Pulp. “Mesmerising,” said one thirtysomething chap with thick-framed glasses. “Top notch,” said another without spectacles. “That was a GIG!,” enthused a younger-looking girl. It’s one thing to play to your fans; it’s another to keep them happy. But to recruit new fans 27 years after debuting with a band called Arabicus Pulp is surely something else again.