The first time I ever heard Pulp‘s “Common People” was sometime in the autumn of 1995. Over the previous two years, I had started to gravitate more and more from American indie rock to the smarter, more brash music coming out of the UK at the time. There was Blur’s classic Parklife, Oasis’ surprisingly confident Definitely Maybe, Elastica’s scorching debut, PJ Harvey’s best album in To Bring You My Love, Mad Professor’s spectacular remix of Massive Attack’s Protection, and Tricky’s dark, murky Maxinquaye. It was truly a thrilling time for new music, but it was the vibrant, dryly humorous video for “Common People” that stopped me dead in my tracks. The video, so cheeky, the lyrics, so cutting, the tune … so unbelievably catchy.
Pulp’s 1995 masterpiece Different Class would not be released in America until late February of 1996, but those of us in Canada were lucky enough to be able to get our hands on it a few months earlier. After an extended period of hemming and hawing (something I’d regret soon enough), I bought the album in early January 1996, and I must have played that album every single day that year; it truly defined my year, and no new album since has had such a profound effect on yours truly as that one did.
So what was it about Different Class that has so much appeal? At first glance, there’s the brilliant pop art of the album cover, featuring cardboard cutouts of the band placed in urban, suburban, and rural settings (on vinyl versions, each photo could be used as the album’s cover, resembling a slide show). There are the snarky little slogans that pepper the record sleeve and CD booklet: “Please understand. We don’t want no trouble.” Once you put the music on, you’d be hit by a big, grand, epic style sound, produced by Chris Thomas, a confident melange of British rock, new romantic keyboards, and David Bowie-esque glam rock. All that is great, but the real clincher would be that tall, scrawny fop in a scruffy suit named Jarvis Cocker.
Several years older than his Britpop peers, Cocker became the unlikeliest pop icons. An emaciated, lanky, thrift shop version of Brian Ferry, he exuded charm, fashion, sexuality, and most importantly, a wicked sense of humor. The most gifted pop lyricist of the last 15 or 20 years, his songs were superbly composed narratives (so well written, the lyrics were always presented as complete sentences) of everyday life in Britain at the time. On Different Class, much like Mike Leigh, director of such great films as High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Naked, and Secrets and Lies, Cocker displayed an uncanny ability to skewer bourgeois culture, lionize working class folk, and find transcendence and love amidst the mundane, drab life of lower class Britannia.
“Oh we weren’t supposed to be, we learnt too much at school now we can’t help but see that the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about,” sings Cocker on “Mis-Shapes”, the album’s fiery opening track, an unflinching swipe at the phony, baseless optimism that twentysomethings refused to be duped by. Despite that generational rallying cry, he’s no spokesman, as he turns his attention to rave culture on the hilarious “Sorted for E’s & Wizz”, climaxing with Cocker’s tongue-in-cheek denouement: “This hollow feeling grows and grows and grows and grows, and you want to phone your mother and say ‘Mother, I can never come home again ‘cos I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere, somewhere in a field in Hampshire.'”
Then there’s “Common People”, Pulp’s best loved song. A flawless marriage of dance pop and glam rock, Cocker lambastes rich people who enjoy “slumming” in shabbier neighborhoods, singing, “Still you’ll never get it right ‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall, if you called your dad he could stop it all.” Meanwhile, the lush pop arrangement is relentless, building and building to euphoric heights, driven by the propulsive drumming of Nick Banks. This glorious anthem climaxes with the impassioned declaration, “You will never understand how it feels to live your life with no meaning or control and with nowhere left to go. You are amazed that they exist and they burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why.”
Cocker’s views on love vary; they take on a tragicomic quality on songs like “Pencil Skirt” (“I’ve kissed your mother twice and now I’m working on your Dad”), “Live Bed Show” (“Now every night she plays a sad game. Called pretending nothing’s going wrong”), and “Underwear” (“If fashion is your trade then when you’re naked you must be unemployed yeah”). The fabulous single “Disco 2000” has the narrator arranging a meeting with a childhood crush over a guitar riff blatantly stolen from Laura Branigan’s “Gloria”, while the sweet “Something Changed” has Cocker musing about fate and chance, very similar to what Krzysztof Kieslowski did in his 1995 film Red: “When we woke up that morning we had no way of knowing that in a matter of hours we’d change the way we were going. Where would I be now if we’d never met? Would I be singing this song to someone else instead?” On the other side of the coin, there’s the dark, passionate “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.”, where Cocker paints one of the most perfect portraits of lovesickness you’ll ever hear, narrating, “All the stuff they tell you about in the movies, but this isn’t chocolate boxes and roses — it’s dirtier than that, like some small animal that only comes out at night.”
The dark, paranoid “I Spy” ranks as Cocker’s greatest achievement as a songwriter, as he shows a cunning, ugly side that is both disarming and enthralling. Over a gloomy, orchestral, Nick Cave style arrangement, Cocker broods and seethes, much like the anti-hero Johnny from Mike Leigh’s Naked, as he sneers, “Can’t you see a giant walks among you seeing through your petty lives? Do you think I do these things for real? I do these things just so I survive … It may look to the untrained eye, I’m sitting on my arse all day, I’m biding time until I take you all on.” He then addresses a more specific subject, almost whispering, as if goading a bloke into a fight, “I’ve been sleeping with your wife for the past 16 weeks, smoking your cigarettes, drinking your brandy, messing up the bed that you chose together.” 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.” Still, the shallow, upper class life appeals to him deep down (“Your Ladbroke Grove looks turn me on”), despite the fact that he can see the emptiness underneath all the gloss: “With roach burns in designer dresses, skin stretched tight over high cheek-bones, and thousands of tiny dryness lines beating a path to the corners of your eyes.” The song tries to end on a positive note, as Cocker pledges to take the object of his desire away from all the phoniness (“I will take you from this sickness, dinner parties and champagne. I’ll hold your body and make it sing again.”), but as it fades out, you feel it’s nothing more than another empty promise, Cocker seeming to prefer misanthropy to happiness, as you envision him walking away alone, shoulders hunched, down a rainy street at night.
Nearly nine years after its release, Different Class has aged very well, possessing that timeless quality that is present in all classic albums, but is still obviously a product of its time, a snapshot of mid-’90s life in the UK. Along with Blur’s Parklife, it remains the high point of the Britpop era; music, lyrics, production, artwork, it’s as perfect as it gets, one that I, personally, will never, ever tire of hearing.
The album concludes with “Bar Italia”, as it depicts a couple staggering home on a Monday morning after a weekend of nonstop clubbing, as people race in the opposite direction to work, as Cocker muses dryly, “You’re looking so confused, what did you lose? Oh, it’s OK — it’s just your mind.” Cocker’s ultimate message in Different Class is, don’t just sit there, go live a little. Go nuts once in a while. In essence, be yourself, think for yourself. Life is too short. As Charles Bukowski once said, “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”