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Sing along with the common people: Pulp’s Different Class at 25

“Britpop? It’s just a shitty-sounding word,” Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker told Pitchfork in 2017. “I don’t like the nationalistic idea of it; it wasn’t a flag-waving music. It was really distasteful when it got called Britpop because that was like somebody trying to appropriate some kind of alternative culture, stick a Union Jack on it, and take the credit for it.”

Was his name Tony Blair, by any chance?

Actually, the credit (or blame) for the whole thing really goes to journalist Stuart Maconie, whose jingoistic ‘Yanks Go Home’ salvo in the April 1993 issue of Select magazine championed the “crimplene, glamour, wit, and irony” of five UK “indie” bands like Suede, Saint Etienne and the Auteurs (remember them?) as an antidote to the “bad grunge” flooding in from across the pond that was “killing British music.”

I suppose a press-driven crusade to champion domestic talent that represented our own customs and lifestyle in their music isn’t such a terrible thing. However, contrary to popular belief, Britpop was not a subgenre. It’s been emulsified as an occasion, but it was also not a catchall for every bit of culture being manufactured in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. (That would be Blair’s Cool Britannia, and like Britpop it almost exclusively applied to English entities.)

And like most crusades and movements, its days were always going to be numbered.

Having lived in London for most of the 1990s, by the middle of the decade that seemingly made Britain “cool” again, it wasn’t unusual to be questioned on an interminably regular basis, with almost everyone banging on with an oft-repeated pop culture query that became ever more tiresome by the day.

“So, Britpop then. Who do you prefer — Oasis or Blur?”

Ever the contrarian, I would always answer Pulp.

Select, April 1993

Though I wasn’t being disingenuous. Far from it. Not that I had anything against Blur. Even Oasis somehow managed to conjure up two or three half-decent tunes, although, by Noel Gallagher’s own admission, they were usually purloined from David Bowie’s All The Young Dudes. 

One of the most distinctive aspects of Britpop, both in its music and its perceived culture, was the curious combination of superficial amusement with quivering angst and apprehension. No album epitomises this trademark characteristic more than the one released the day before Hallowe’en 1995: Different Class, from the music world’s also-rans Pulp.

With their fifth studio album, the Yorkshire combo had expanded on past formulas and mastered their theatrical brand of satirical pop. With a revolving door line-up since 1978, once they signed to Island, Pulp finally had an audience for their tales of dreary, every day life in Sheffield. They had released strong records before, particularly 1994’s His ‘N’ Hers, but this was where everything fell into place. And how.

Then and now, Different Class has a gift for sounding like Britpop while also making most of its contemporaries sound pants in comparison. Thankfully, this doesn’t prevent Different Class from fulfilling its full potential. Britpop was built of fleeting moments, but with Different Class, Pulp captured the one moment that would stand the test of time.

Morning Glory gave the much-mocked Oasis Quo mammoth hits, but the album isn’t as consistently fantastic as this. And as good as Blur’s Parklife is, there’s a certain parochial novelty about it. Ultimately, this was Britpop’s finest hour. Actually, that’s still like being the most dignified person at a dog show. Even in pushing beyond the boundaries of its “genre”, Different Class betrays its own limitations.

Jangling pop-rock probably isn’t the natural bedfellow of spoken-word musings on bucket knickers and trust fund babies, but you wouldn’t know it listening to Different Class. The music is irresistibly catchy, chock-full of hooks and soaring choruses. Produced by Chris Thomas (Roxy Music, Sex Pistols, INXS), all the hallmarks are there: a snarky melange of future-age glam rock punctuated by Candida Doyle’s high energy laser synths, Russell Senior’s whooshing violin strokes, and the fluid rhythms of Mark Webber, Steve Mackey and Nick Banks.

All that is great, but the real clincher would be the wholly unorthodox delivery boy, the scrawny, lank-haired national treasure in thrift shop chic that is Jarvis Cocker. More than most, the uncommon pop star conspired in his own caricature, perhaps reasoning that after several years of frustration and anonymity, he wasn’t going to take any chances. 

His offbeat approach to lyricism is eccentric and carnal, his rendering vengeful and provocative, and to merely brand him a singer would be a disservice. Cocker’s as much a narrator, delving in full voyeuristic mode (cf the foul libertine in Underwear) into the thoroughly melodramatic stories of myriad characters, of which most revolve around sex or detailing the class acute British class stratification he witnessed in London through various outsiders.

The songs may appear kitschy and light-hearted on the surface, but make no mistake: this is a record wallowing in sleaze. Moreover, the confessional narratives of Monday Morning, Pencil Skirt, Live Bed Show and F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E are so superbly composed the lyrics are presented as complete sentences. In fact they’re so well written they could have easily been adapted into a daytime soap opera arc, transmitted on ITV somewhere between Supermarket Sweep and Richard and Judy.

It’s not just about gangly, scruffy-suited ol’ Jarv, of course. It’s a great testament to the brand as a whole that Different Class still sounds so ridiculously good in 2020. The majority of records released by Pulp’s peers haven’t aged anything like as well. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why, but it’s ultimately because the songwriting, production, and sequencing is just not as good as this.

A flawless marriage of dance pop and glam rock, the one-two punch of Disco 2000 (over a guitar riff blatantly stolen from Laura Branigan’s Gloria) and Common People is immense, the latter’s iconic standing as the quintessential Britpop anthem that it even gave itself up as the title of the album in Japan. It’s a song in which cute social comedy escalates into seething insecurity and omnidirectional rage.

All together now, “She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge…”*

The radio edit snipped the most vicious lines, in which Cocker is a dog who will “tear your insides out” because “everyone hates a tourist.”

A word on its brash, playful video too, where Jarvis looks and acts very much like the progenitor of his future Harry Potter co-star David Tennant’s incarnation of Doctor Who, while reducing the whole shimmering shebang to Carry On Class War. That’s this album’s Trojan horse strategy in a nutshell: Come for the fun, stay for the psychodrama.

There’s so much more to Different Class than its big hitted pair though, and I’m quietly confident that almost every song here could have been a hit single. Three others were: the tasty triumvirate of the fiery camp Mis-Shapes, ambivalent rave memoir (and one that incurred the wrath of the hysterical tabloids) Sorted for E’s & Wizz and the seductively sweet Something Changed certainly were, the latter’s gorgeous combination of high-stringed romanticism and sombre promotional film always reminding me a little of Bowie’s moody Wild Is The Wind clip colourised for a post-black and white generation.

I Spy—a torrid mind-meld of Serge Gainsbourg, Leonard Cohen, and Mike Leigh’s Naked—makes for a paranoid, darkly dramatic almost Bond-esque excursion: the thwarted interloper becomes the vengeful seducer, despoiling the privileged milieu that enthrals and disgusts him. His different class is a class of one, and it gets lonely there. 

The song climaxes with arguably Cocker’s greatest ever line, as his loathing reaches a boiling point: “I can’t help it, I was dragged up. My favourite parks are car parks, grass is something you smoke, birds are something you shag. Take your Year In Provence and shove it up your ass!” 

Pulp pushed the limits of just how Chardonnay dry music pop could be. Even at the best of times it’s hard to tell if you’re in on the joke or being strung along for the highly entertaining ride. By the time it’s over I’m just about burnt out by the spectacle put on. It’s wicked fun, though its themes aren’t necessarily cheerful — in fact they’re mostly very cynical — yet the album sounds like a celebration from beginning to end.

Well, almost the end. My sole criticism is that the record gets into such a rollicking flow that it’s a smidge deflating when it loses momentum towards the conclusion. The set deserves a epic show closer on the level of Champagne Supernova, a eulogy for good times that can’t last. As prettily the percolating as it is, Bar Italia, depicting a couple staggering home on a Monday morning after a weekend of nonstop clubbing, largely fails to come to a head. 

That said, there’s no denying this is essential pop listening, a testament to the unbridled power of weird with a good mix. It’s a wry, saucy lynchpin of ‘90s culture. While Modern Life Is Rubbish was British in a way that made me want to apologise to non-Brits and our friends in the North, Different Class owes no apologies to anyone. Pulp got their right to be different and used it.

It’s true high common art.

Britpop had no clear end date, but the party started to fizzle toward the end of 1996, not long after Cocker’s infamous performance at the Brits that involved gatecrashing Michael Jackson‘s vomit inducing I Am Jesus routine.

With Different Class bringing on the last call, Britpop began its descent. Pulp themselves lost interest and retreated into a dark place for their next LP, 1998’s challenging but rewarding This Is Hardcore. Whatever your view of subsects and tribal gatherings, even now Cocker runs the show, the band run riot, and I’ve run out of things to say.

Now there’s a thing.

Steve Pafford, France (about 400 miles from Provence)

*Well, maybe not quite. It only occurred to me in the writing of this piece how many of the lyrics to Common People mirror my maternal grandmother’s story, but flipped with added pathos: she came from Greece and certainly had a thirst for knowledge, a bright, cultured teenager who loved the beach and listened to Mantovani; who met and married an English naval officer (my disingenuous grandpa Briggs) who brought her to his native England promising the earth. In fact, what she was given was a council house (not quite the flat above a shop) in Nottingham, in a gloomy post-war country riddled with damp and depression, given a ration book and told to live like common people. Naturally, she was far from impressed, and fled Britain twice while mum was at school, only to be brought back kicking and screaming for the sake of ‘the children.’ Families, eh?

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