Counterbalance No. 156: Pulp's 'Different Class'
You'll never live like common people. You'll never do what common people do. You'll never fail like common people. You'll never watch your life slide out of view and then dance and drink and screw, because there's nothing else to do. You can listen to the 156th most acclaimed album of all time.
Klinger: Do you realize that when Pulp's Different Class came out in 1995, the group had been toiling away as an underground band in various incarnations for over 15 years? Were you aware that prior to being embraced by the emerging Britpop explosion, Jarvis Cocker and company had far more in common with the Sheffield sound of the 1980s? Or that Different Class actually debuted at No. 1 on the UK album chart?
Of course you didn't, because you and I are Americans, and almost none of the proper nouns in the preceding paragraph have any meaning to us. To the extent that Americans were aware of Britpop, our knowledge extended about as far as Oasis' What's the Story (Morning Glory) and that "woo-hoo" song that Blur did. Pulp had virtually no impact here that I recall, and Jarvis Cocker could bum-rush the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and throw shapes right next to Santa Claus and it wouldn't register with us. Once again, though, the Great List has forced us ugly Americans to consider music beyond our borders. And you know what? I now very much wish it had been Different Class that had been ubiquitous back in 1995 instead of those yobbo Gallaghers. Think how much more pleasant that would have been, Mendelsohn! "Common People" instead of "Wonderwall"! "Sorted for E's and Wizz" instead of Champagne Supanover"! Can you even imagine?
Mendelsohn: Throwing shapes? Yobbo? Speak proper English, Klinger; I have no idea what you are talking about. I also have no idea when it comes to Pulp, but, as you noted, that has a lot to do with me being an ugly American. Had I been given the choice to swap Oasis for Pulp, I would have jumped at the chance. Hell, I would have taken Adam Sandler farting on a snare drum over Oasis. The problem was, in 1995, the two main purveyors of new music were alternative radio and MTV, pretty much the epitome of ugly America. Thus, I know more about Oasis' dumbed-down, mediocre brand of monkey strumming than I care to and not nearly enough about Pulp's different, defiant but unfailingly likable brand of off-beat pop tunes. Listening to Different Class, I finding myself wanting to know more. Like how did Pulp finally break out of the underground to achieve mainstream success? Why isn't Jarvis Cocker related to Joe Cocker? Joe Cocker is English. Jarvis Cocker is English. How many Cockers can there be in Sheffield? And why are we so ugly? Is it because we have a tendency to be completely and willfully ignorant of anything that sounds slightly foreign?
Klinger: Erm, apart from the bit about two nations separated by a common language and all that, I'd say the main thing that we're accused of (and what helps perpetuate that stereotype even when we're not over there calling things Ley-cest-er-shire Square and whatnot) is not getting two things: irony and class structure. So when Cocker (Jarvis) comes over all creepy and dad-kissy on "Pencil Skirt", we tend to have trouble getting that he's writing from a character's perspective (see also: Newman, Randy, although he is American). I know I did a few double takes when I first listened to that number.
And on "Common People", which is in many ways the centerpiece of the record, we get an incisive look at the Brits' relationship with class structure, which is complete anathema to our bootstrap American views of social mobility. The sense of resignation that you feel as Cocker lays out the realities of being not just broke, not just poor, but stuck in a caste that's set to be your lot in life is real, and you feel it. The fact that it's accompanied by a clever video and a nice dance routine was the icing on the cake, which explains how they crashed the mainstream seemingly out of nowhere.
Mendelsohn: If there is one thing I love about the British (aside from the way tea seems to dictate the way they live their lives) it is their complete distrust of anyone famous or rich. I like the suspicious way they view the upper class, as if those folks did something scummy to get into that position. As opposed the Americans, who are all temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and therefore much more like to go along with the notion that what must be good for the billionaire gander is good for the poor, exploited goose. I'm butchering John Steinbeck, but it serves to illustrate the point and goes to the heart of why I found this album so perplexing from the get-go. Looking at Different Class from this angle really starts to illustrate just how on point Cocker's songwriting is compared to his fellow Britpop compatriots. Cocker's jabs aren't directed solely at the upper class -- it seems that no part of society of even his own life is safe from his acerbic wit. "Sorted for E's and Wizz", is a great send-up of the festival culture, a tongue-in-cheek portrayal that simultaneously ridicules and winks at most concert goers.
But even as he's taking broad swipes all large sections of British society or working out a character study, it's Cocker's more personal numbers that I find really engaging. "Disco 2000" is a tale of young love that never came to fruition, and I still can't decide whether the song should make me sad or make me smile.
Klinger: You can do both—the ability to smile sadly is what separates us from the animals. As I've been listening to Different Class, I've found myself thinking about glam a good amount, and for a while there I wasn't quite sure why. Then I started to figure it out. Not only does the group—and they do give each band member composing credit—employ certain epic, highly Bowiesque chord progressions (most notably on tracks like "Mis-Shapes" and "Something Changed") and expressive synth washes from keyboardist Candida Doyle, but they also dig into the seamier side of life ("Live Bed Show", "Underwear"), which puts me in the mind of Roxy Music's "In Every Dream Home a Heartache".
The big difference (sparkly unitards aside) seems to lie in their ability to simultaneously connect with and distance themselves from those influences. It seems to me that the group understands that even if their music comes across as a larger-than-life sound, their audience by now has to know that it's coming from fairly regular humans. I think that's why they come across as the more relatable, third-way option in the ginned-up Britpop battles of the 1990s. The Gallaghers were more than willing to be rock stars; Cocker and company seem to recognize it for the farce that it is. Maybe it's because they had been at it longer (and were a few years older), but they seem to have a perspective that was (and still is) all too rare. Am I making sense, Mendelsohn?
Mendelsohn: More sense than you know. That connection between Pulp and the glam-rock forebears is actually really illuminating. After a couple of spins through Different Class I found myself pulling Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure off the shelf. About half-way through that album I began to wonder why I had felt the need to get it out and promptly put it away feeling slightly confused. Strictly speaking, Roxy Music's dark art rock doesn't quite match up with Pulp's brightly colored pop because Pulp isn't really a direct descendant of Roxy Music, but they both inhabit very important points in the glam rock spectrum. Roxy Music was a step or two to the left of Bowie, picking up the avant-garde cues while Pulp is further down the right side toward the pop end by way of Marc Bolan and T. Rex.
I also like the idea that Pulp represented the third choice in the Britpop invasion, much the same way that Bowie had previously represented the third choice. Glam rock, the all-encompassing term that it is, offered an umbrella to artists looking beyond mere pop convention to turn rock music into an expressive art form, a sort of hallowed middle ground where art and commerce came together.
Klinger: Yes, and apparently that's what happened over there in the UK when Pulp crossed over into the mainstream. But then, they seem to get a few more opportunities to have smart, literate songwriting take over the pop charts, in a line that extends from Ray Davies through Bowie and toward Jarvis Cocker. Of course, they pay for that by having to endure Crazy Frog ringtones topping the charts (not to mention whatever that whole Cliff Richard thing is about over there). Still and all, more's the pity that we ugly Americans had to miss out on this whole Pulp thing. I suspect we may have gained a great deal from it.