(#540: 11 November 1995, 1 week)
Track listing: Mis-Shapes/Pencil Skirt/Common People/I Spy/Disco 2000/Live Bed Show/Something Changed/Sorted For E's & Wizz/F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E/Underwear/Monday Morning/Bar Italia
Had I begun this tale twenty years earlier than I did, then I might have had a very different story to tell about this record. Perhaps this current story will not be too different; I won't know until I've finished writing it.
However, while Then Play Long centres upon how we feel about particular records now, as opposed to a chimerical "then," to deny my own past would represent a dreary and decimating dereliction of duty. The first piece of music writing that I published online - getting on for twenty years ago now - was about Pulp. Laura and I loved Pulp. I'm not going to kid on to you that we didn't. They were, by some considerable degree, our favourite band. We saw them at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on 19 October 1995 - the Thursday before this album came out - when they were supported by the long-forgotten art-pop collective Minty (which had previously involved the late Leigh Bowery) and performed a fifteen-song set, including two encores and eight of Different Class' twelve songs. The record wasn't even available yet, but everybody sang along, word-perfect, even to things like "Pencil Skirt" and "Live Bed Show." We emerged from the theatre, jubilant, and at Jarvis Cocker's personal request helped restart his stalled car.
It was a glorious evening - and it was, for us, a moment, perhaps the apex of this curious phenomenon called "Britpop"; that is, if you don't count their performance at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on Sunday 18 December 1994, where we heard "Common People" and "Underwear" for the first time, although the evening's biggest hit - inspiring so much dancing that the theatre's ancient balconies were in danger of imminent collapse - was "We Can Dance Again," surely a number one to come (as it turned out, the song didn't make the final cut for the album, presumably because it was thought too similar in structure and approach to "Disco 2000," and it was eventually recorded by the London indie band Spearmint, although Pulp's own demo of the song can be heard on the second CD of the deluxe edition of the album which appeared in 2006).
But we had known about Pulp since their first John Peel session in November 1981 (the song "Wishful Thinking" seems to emanate from an entirely different musical universe). They had been the perennial, stalwart underachievers on the British indie scene right through the eighties. As late as October 1991, when "My Legendary Girlfriend" had come out and people were beginning to take serious notice of the band, I saw them third on the bill one Friday at the Town and Country Club, dutifully supporting Slowdive and Catherine Wheel.
And when they became famous - it was, I think, a foregone conclusion in Cocker's mind that when he came up with the idea for "Common People," this was destined to be his moment - it felt euphorically good. Here, at long last, were a band who spoke for us; the disenfranchised autodidactic intelligentsia. laughed at and openly scorned by people in the street or the supermarket (and by some people in Drury Lane that Sunday evening - no, I haven't forgotten or forgiven you c*nts; why were you even there?), those who were already being denied the lives permitted to boorish others. Oh, I empathised all right, and if Laura were still here she'd tell you the same thing.
A moment from one of the emails Laura sent to a friend some 2-3 weeks before she died - she talked about Jarvis Cocker being funny, down to earth and genuinely intelligent, as opposed to what she perceived as the schoolboy antics of Oasis; oh look, we're swearing and being loudly controversial, aren't we big and clever?
That about sums Cocker and Pulp's wider appeal up. Equally, however, I see with dismay repeated references in the writing of now about that golden age of "Common People," invariably accompanied by stock photos of Cocker as he was over quarter of a century ago, and despair at some people's evident inability just to let go. Really, it is like Lester Bangs encountering the teddy boys of 1977, forever scanning and reliving the old days when they and their culture mattered. As he said about the Lennon mourners in late 1980; it's not him you're mourning, it's your own past.
With the benefit of our old "friend" Captain Hindsight, I can also glimpse what might be rather patronising views of the working class from the grammar school-educated son of a Conservative councillor. Do "common people" really do nothing but dance and drink and screw? Are the others really "so bleeding thick" (and this is not a new complaint; the previous album's "Joyriders" referred to the protagonists' inability to do anything other than "eat, shit and drink")? And as for "Mis-Shapes"' masterplan to win the war using "our minds," one can view the present carnage and sardonically observe: well, that way of thinking worked out successfully, didn't it, Jarvis (the white-shirted beer-drinkers were always going to have the police, army and media on their side - that is if the whole stance isn't recognised as the chimera it is, engineered by cynical, monied scavengers, most of whom went to Oxford or Cambridge)?
Nonetheless, to press that point now would taste like the sourest of grapes. How does Different Class stand up as an entity? Cocker took the band into the studio with only two songs ready - "Common People" and "Underwear." He felt it vitally important that the former be released, at least as a single ("Underwear" initially appeared as the B-side), and when it broke as big as it did, Island Records politely asked when the rest of the album would be arriving. In a frenzy of activity, Cocker and the band came up with another dozen or so songs in relatively quick time - possibly reminiscent of What's Going On?
The album came decorated by pictures of various idealised suburban middle-class scenarios into which lifesized monochrome cardboard cutouts of the band members were inserted. The analogy was clear; they wanted to break into that complacent and otherwise inaccessible world and shake it up a bit. The opening "Mis-Shapes" - coming on like a Broadway musical overture, as I am sure was the intention - makes their mission, and Cocker's immense personal anger, clear. Chris Thomas' production is trebly and compressed but not muddy.
As for "Common People" - and it has to be listened to in its full-length five minutes and fifty seconds, in context - this song seems increasingly like an Exocet aimed at the rest of mid-nineties mainstream society, let alone its pop. He begins by humouring the Greek student (who appears to have been based on Danae Stratou, the future wife of the former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis) but becomes increasingly impatient and angry with what he sees as a fatally condescending attitude towards "the lower orders"; in the song's final verse, routinely excised from oldies radio spins, his is a terrifying rage, backed by what sounds like a vacuum cleaner being switched between two speeds. I have caused raised eyebrows in the past by comparing Cocker's singing to that of Bob Geldof (it's there - listen to "Pink Glove") but "Common People" seems like the end stage which the Boomtown Rats could never quite reach - the stagey, practised furrowed brow of "Rat Trap" explodes into a kaleidoscope of, "oh, but you don't know the HALF of it!"
Many still regard "Common People" as the apex of Britpop and Different Class the album which justified the entire movement (if it could so be termed). Yet what seemed so funny at the time - oh, look at daft, geeky Jarvis on "I Spy" making out like he's Intake's Serge Gainsbourg - now sounds positively scary. What the fuck is going on in the pensive, shoegazey (it had to be said) "Pencil Skirt"? Her and both of her parents?
And when we reach the big setpiece "I Spy," one has to wonder what he is fighting against. He seems to loathe both his fancy bit on the side and her unseen, unheard husband with equal intensity. All that matters to him, as he indeed mutters ("It's not a case of woman v. man, it's more a case of haves against haven'ts"). Sidestepping his subtle nod to Morrissey ("except that you're clever swines" - but he is a month older than Johnny Marr), the Anne Dudley orchestration, the Sheffield setting and especially the song title and its setting, can all be regarded as an extreme development of what Martin Fry had suggested on Lexicon a lifetime earlier.
Perhaps the icily forlorn couple of "Live Bed Show" - the record's greatest song, up, or down, there with "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and especially "Always Coming Back To You"; never in pop has so much sorrow been poured into the words "seven years ago" - are the same couple being targeted by the protagonist of "I Spy." Is Cocker singing about himself, or does the plaintive voyeurism of "F.E.E.L.I.N.G." and "Underwear" stem from what, of all unlikely forebears, Momus had proposed back in the eighties ("Closer To You," "A Complete History of Sexual Jealousy [Parts 17-24]")?
Pulp were about sex in ways which the rest of Britpop never quite addressed - with the pronounced exceptions of Elastica and Blur (Cocker's subjects here are the same as on "Stereotypes," but not spoken about at one remove). And yet they were also about - if not exactly celebrating failure, then making it a mainstay of their approach. Perhaps the saddest thing about "Disco 2000" is that it's still being played twenty-one years after its time has passed, but its dance gallop barely conceals a bitter self-realisation of the singer's unutterable, premature failure as a functioning human being. He never gets to be with Deborah and, decades later, she has become a wife and mother and he seems to have progressed nowhere. The concluding asides ("What are you doing Sunday," etc.) are ineffably tragic (the real Deborah, who was actually Deborah Bone MBE, became a distinguished NHS worker in the field of mental health, and was amused by the song but said that her house was bigger than Cocker claimed and that it most definitely did not contain woodchip on the wall! Sadly, she died of multiple myeloma aged just fifty-one in December 2014, the day on which her MBE nomination was announced).
Returning to the Shepherd’s Bush Empire performance I mentioned at the beginning of this piece: Pulp have just played their then-current single, “Sorted For E's & Wizz” to a tumultuous reception. After the applause and cheers have died down, Jarvis reflects aloud to his group having been kept at number two for the second time that year, “this time by Mick Hucknall.” Cue loud boos. “He’s a decent bloke, though,” Cocker muses. “Sound politics.”
“Sorted” was issued as a double A-sided single with “Mis-Shapes” to pacify nervous radio programmers, but everyone bought the single for “Sorted” with its brilliant fusion of Ziggy Stardust and Unique 3, where Cocker dares to suggest that the rave culture might simply be the newest and most desperate of façades: his final, sobbed whisper of “What if you never come down?” is one of the most quietly terrifying endings of any pop song - and that ending's implications will reverberate dramatically in times to come ("Weak Become Heroes" by The Streets outlines exactly what happens to you when, or if, you never come down). "Mates" for a few overnight hours, and then it's "who the hell are you, pal, piss off" premature, greying sobriety. "The scene" is not a substitute for humanity.
"Something Changes," with its arch of a string figure from Anne Dudley which will go on to act as a sort of leitmotif on The Lexicon Of Love 2, represents the only time on the record when Cocker is happy and settled. Even here, he can't stop asking himself pointless "what if" questions, as though this weren't his romantic ideal, but the invisible "she" laughs softly, tells him to quit the pointless pondering and kisses him, and he's finally content with that.
The album's final two songs are linked. "Monday Morning" is a desperate study of untrammelled hedonism which culminates in unearthly shrieks and screams from Cocker, as though experiencing the same nightmare Bowie's brother had all those years ago watching Cream. Finally, its comedown sequel, "Bar Italia," a woozy singalong; it is actual Monday morning, everybody else in the "normal world" (still seeming "very, very far away"), and the Worried Man and his unnamed companion are staggering through the Soho streets, sleep-derived and hungover, attempting to continue living. Despite all of what he said before, he still ends up in trendy Soho. Is his doom sealed?
* * * * * *
Different Class is the final "Britpop" album of 1995 (and perhaps of ever) that I'll be writing about, and most people still regard it as Britpop's highest point. It topped that year's SELECT Magazine albums poll, came joint top (with Maxinquaye) in Melody Maker and won the Mercury Music Prize for 1996. It probably spawned as many poor imitations as Closer had done before it. Yet this was chiefly the work of a mind reared on the ethics (or non-ethics) of Closer. Cocker was, at the time, thirty-two years old - only three months younger, and in the long run perhaps somewhat less of a sex symbol, than George Michael - and only very slightly younger than Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley of the Human League.
Cocker was somebody who had waited an awfully long time to have his pent-up say. Perhaps that's why I identified with him so strongly; it was as if I had made a record in 1995. Where does it stand today, and who really cares? Were I a boxing commentator, I'd survey this year's Britpop albums and remark "I made Black Grape win that round" because, virtually alone, they are having uncomplicated fun and don't give a shit. Sometimes the prize goes to the player or team who need it least.
Had I the proper time and resources which this tale deserves, I would bring other significant Sheffield-based albums of 1995 into arenas of detailed comparison - Octopus by the Human League, I Was Born A Man by Baby Bird, Your Majesty, We Are Here by Earl Brutus, to name but three - and would also comment on how close the desired meeting point of "Disco 2000" is to the Coles Corner of which future Pulp aide (but, in 1995, still a Longpig) Richard Hawley would sing a decade later. But it does feel, in retrospect, that Different Class - the double meaning of that title need not be emphasised - marks the end of something. These days that we were so fortunate to have seen and lived through; Jarvis, the days that we have seen!