Jarvis Cocker: How I learned to stop worrying and love Sheffield’s industrial past

Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker reminisces about growing up in a Sheffield haunted by memories of the steel industry – a background he’s now drawn upon for his stirring soundtrack to the archive compilation film The Big Melt, a passionate elegy to Britain’s proud industrial past.

Jarvis Cocker

Jarvis Cocker performing the score for The Big Melt at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013

Jarvis Cocker performing the score for The Big Melt at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013
Credit: Jacqui Bellamy and David Grant - Sheffield Doc/Fest

I was born in Steel City.

When I was growing up you could drink in The Steel Melter’s Arms, stroll through Steel City Plaza, dance in Steely’s nightclub to ‘Wheels of Steel’ by local band Saxon (or maybe a track from Joe Cocker’s Sheffield Steel album) and then go home and read a chapter of Geoffrey Beattie’s Survivors of Steel City before turning in for the night. Steel was everywhere.

Except in the steelworks themselves. The Sheffield I grew up in was a city haunted by the ghost of an industry only very recently deceased. (Maybe people thought that they could bring it back to life if they named everything after it). The Sheffield I grew up in was a city in denial.

Me too – but my own denial took a more contrary form. A more ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ form: as a young adult I might not have found out exactly who I was yet but I was damn sure it had NOTHING to do with steel. No way.

Turns out I was wrong.

The Big Melt (2013) trailer

A clue as to why I was wrong can be found in the quote featured in the previous paragraph. Yes, it’s the title of the first Arctic Monkeys album – but it’s also a quote from Alan Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. I was familiar with it from the film version of the novel which came out in 1960 and has been shown many times since on British TV. Another memorable line from the same film is “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”.

When Pulp first started playing concerts at the start of the 1980s there was a band on the local scene that had a song called ‘Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down’. I was impressed. This was more like it: rather than the craven worship of a dead industry, here was a belligerent protest against the very system that had both spawned and destroyed that industry. Plus it had a catchy chorus.

A sensibility was born.

This Sporting Life (1963), A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) – there are a host of other 1960s ‘kitchen-sink dramas’ that were inspirational touchstones for people like me in indie bands in the 1980s. But of course, the Daddy of them all is Kes (1969). There isn’t the space here to go into why Kes is the best film ever made – it just is, ok? And the most enduring image of that entire film, the one that’s now on the cover of its DVD edition, is the one in which Billy Casper ‘flicks the V’s’ at the movie camera. It’s the ultimate act of defiance. An absolute refusal to conform to society’s expectations.

The Big Melt (2013)

The Big Melt (2013)

When I saw that same hand gesture, this time coming from a kid in some archive footage from 1901 showing workers queuing up to enter a Rotherham steelworks, I knew that I had to get involved in this project. At that moment the scales fell from my eyes and I suddenly realised that my love of films and characters with that contrary, insolent attitude had EVERYTHING to do with steel. That without the arduous, dirty, dangerous nature of life and work in the ‘Industrial North’ that attitude would never have arisen in the first place.

Jarvis Cocker performing the score for The Big Melt at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013

Jarvis Cocker performing the score for The Big Melt at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013
Credit: David Chang

[The music for The Big Melt] is not a ‘Requiem for the Steel Industry’ – it is more a celebration of a particular kind of attitude and worldview that was a by-product of that industry. It formed the character of the people who lived and died in the places where that industry was based. And that character still lives on today.

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