Observing a quarter century of the pulpiest Pulp LP
Britpop was the light, frothy aftertaste that came in the wake of grunge’s storming of the charts, occurring just as that movement lost its main spokesman in Kurt Cobain.
It also reveled in the excesses of a United Kingdom that was coming out of the dour Thatcher years. Oasis were the lads you drank with, Blur were the students you debated with, and Radiohead was kind of there, slowly sneaking up from behind to burst the bubble.
But in 1995, amid a lot of great music from England and parts adjacent, there came a sound out of Sheffield, not as well-known perhaps as other music cities like Liverpool, Manchester, and of course London, but thriving nonetheless. And the sound was on par with the best of punk, but with the bonus of being easier on the ears.
Different Class, the fifth studio album by the band Pulp, wouldn’t come into my life until a few years later, when I borrowed a cousin’s copy of it and played “Disco 2000” on repeat. But much, much later on I have the album a fuller listen, and realized something: this was a fucking amazing album, from top to bottom. I am about to undercut everything I propose to do in this essay by coming clean about something: Different Class is the only album I’ve ever owned by Pulp, and I’m okay with that. I’m not going to pretend to be a Pulp scholar, or to regale you with descriptions of how each subsequent line-up didn’t measure up to the one before or transcended the poor duffers who just happened to come along first. Sometimes you love a band for their entire body of work, and sometimes you love them for just the one thing. For me, Pulp is a “just the one thing” band.
Jarvis Cocker, the band’s frontman, was something of an outlier in the Britpop scene; growing up in a family where women outnumbered men, he had a softer, more sensitive way to him than either of the Gallagher brothers or the boys in Blur. Pulp formed in the late Seventies but didn’t really get going until the Nineties, when America (in what can likely be called the “third British Invasion”) rediscovered British pop and rock after the initial love affair with the Beatles, Stones, and Led Zeppelin, and then embraced some of the punk/New Wave vibes thrown out by the Sex Pistols, Clash, and Elvis Costello (not to mention the New Romantics like Duran Duran or old hands like Bowie). In many ways, Britpop was a combination of punk snootiness with New Romantic video-consciousness. And while Pulp came into the moment, they never really were of it.
Different Class, make no mistake about it, bangs from the very first song on, the hyperkinetic “Mis-Shapes,” and that sets the tone for most of what follows. The best tracks, to my way of thinking, range from the aforementioned “Disco 2000” (the real-life inspiration for that song’s “Deborah” sadly passing away in 2014) to the lilting Sliding Doors-like “Something Changed” and druggy “Sorted Out for E’s & Wizz.” The penultimate song “Monday Morning” is fantastic as well, and there are days when I like “Pencil Skirt.”
But for me, the best song on the album, and the reason to love it, is “Common People.” From the minute it kicks in, you know you’re hearing something special. This song is nothing less than a “Street Fighting Man” for the Nineties, a protest anthem against the “slumming” that well-born people often did (and do) in living among the “common people” like Cocker and his bandmates. In his acidic takedown of an upper-class girl who thinks it’s funny when he suggests to “pretend you’ve got no money” at a grocery store, Cocker spells out the bitterness that many poor people or folks who don’t have the same advantages as everyone else experience on a daily basis.
VIDEO: Pulp “Common People”
Common people dance, and drink, and screw, because there’s nothing else to do; there’s nothing “noble” about their poverty or desperation. The classic liberal notion of “common people” being primed for such ideals as socialism is, of course, often a pipe dream; it’s likely that “common people” voted for Trump and Boris “Brexit” Johnson, despite both being bad for their economic interest, because both men pandered to the sense of unease with change and fear of “others” that are common traits among the economically disadvantaged. Cocker just puts a kick-ass guitar riff over it.
Like Johnny Rotten or Pete Townshend before him, Jarvis Cocker knew how to speak for the common man without speaking down to him: “Common People” is as much a middle finger in the eye of the establishment as “God Save the Queen” or “My Generation.” But he’s also got more than a hint of Ray Davies’ concern for English ways, too; “Something Changed” owes a lot to “Waterloo Sunset” sonically. There’s even a hint of Squeeze’s kitchen-sink drama in “Live bed Show.” In a year that saw (What’s the Story) Morning Glory and The Bends, Pulp spoke up for a subset not often represented by Britpop’s leading lights.
Different Class is just a beautiful record from a beautiful period that was over before its time.