I pledged my karaoke virginity to Jarvis Cocker. We got Different Class late here in the States, some four months after its UK release. I got to Pulp even later than most. In high school, I was an Orthodox Punk, and my creed would tolerate no false idols. But while on a class-skipping joyride with my girlfriend, I heard Jarvis Cocker’s inimitable, breathy croon on “Common People” and the scales fell from my eyes.
I fought years of pressure from friends to give myself to lesser songs, but whenever I flipped through the laminated songbook pages of shitty bars, I would simply heave a deep and regretful sigh. After years of searching, I finally found my heart’s desire, mounted the stage, and enacted a slinking, long-rehearsed Jarvis impersonation. True love waits. I’m not alone in my fandom. Their official documentary, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, & Supermarkets, features an aged pensioner in Sheffield articulating her preference for Pulp over Blur. A friend who owns a record store uses a picture of herself and Cocker as the image for her credit card. I counted twelve books written about them. There are academic presentations on class representations in their music. They have a PulpWiki, updated by their most devoted fans. There was a Jarvis Cocker impersonation contest, which was won by a nine year old. Whence the dedication?
Different Class turned twenty on October 30th, and it’s still probably the most important Britpop album of the 90s. Pulp languished in relative obscurity after their formation in Sheffield in 1978, though 1994’s His ‘n’ Hers (magnificent in its own right) broke them into the mainstream and the UK charts. Even after headlining at Glastonbury, the band was often relegated to the second tier of the mid-nineties Britpop pantheon, behind luminaries like Oasis and Blur. Different Class would secure their placement at the top of that Olympus.
The album is an incisive critique of British class anxiety, youth culture, sex, and their assorted intersections, delivered in the form of set piece vignettes ranging from Hampshire fields to supermarkets. The lyrics display an Oscar Wilde-like wit, coupled with an unvarnished working class honesty and empathy. The message on the back of the album, “We don’t want no trouble, we just want the right to be different. That’s all.” served as clarion call to disaffected kids everywhere and shorthand for the record’s themes of alienation. The songs fuse disco, synthpop, and glam in a fashion that further distinguished them from their more brazen ladrock contemporaries. Cocker’s debonair charm and nonchalant wit are captured not only in the lyrics, but in the original album art itself, which contained a dozen different variations and an invitation for listeners to “Choose your own front cover.”
It kicks off with “Mis-Shapes,” the album’s thesis. I’m tempted to reproduce the barbed lyrics in their entirety, but I’ll let you peruse them on your own. The song is a battlecry for weirdos to reclaim their lives from their oppressors. The liner notes announced: “We shall fight them in “The Beeches” – and “The Stag” and “The King’s Head” if it comes to that. You know the score – ten blokes with ‘taches in short-sleeved white shirts telling you that you’re the weirdo. Fear not brothers and sisters – we shall prevail. Live on.” The rebellion is as much in the local pub as in the streets. We’re then tossed into “Pencil Skirt,” where Cocker weaponizes his Gainsbourg/Dutronc charms. This song, and others like “I Spy,” translate how sex appeal might be achieved by the ungainly and isolated, inspiring hope in untold teens who aspired so one day overcome their own awkwardness and get laid. It even becomes a form of class warfare, enabling revenge against those who dismissed them.Cocker himself became a sort of oddball romantic symbol, making academically-inclined youngsters feel momentarily cool. This is a guy who once fell out of a window trying to impress a girl, and subsequently played shows in a wheelchair.
No song has come to epitomize Pulp more than “Common People,” a track worthy of an article of its own. It’s one of the defining tracks of Britpop, and has even inspired a search for the girl featured in the song, who may or may not be the Greek finance minister’s wife. The reproach of patronizing voyeurism embodied in “slumming it” is deployed with anthemic intensity, culminating in a whispered crescendo that builds like a synthed-up version of the Isley Brother’s immortal “Shout.” The lyrics border on perfection, by turns insouciant and cynical, angry and amorous. It’s been covered beautifully by Tori Amos, execrably by My Chemical Romance, and strangely by William Shatner (I love Shatner’s version! – ed). It was easily the band’s most popular song, and one of the best singles of the 90s.
But what makes Different Class so delectable is that it contains another danceable working class anthem: “Disco 2000,” a mere two tracks away from “Common People.” The guitar riff is an unabashed rip-off of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” albeit a playful one. Lyrically, the song is a kind of nostalgia for the future – a reflection on a crush on a popular girl and a meditation on what it would be like to meet her in the future. It was based on the real life affection Cocker had for a childhood friend, inspiring a cherchez la femme comparable to the object of “Common People.” (Alas, she died last year.) For all its sex and class, longing is the other major theme of Different Class. “Live Bed Show,” “Something Changed,” F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.,” and “Underwear” are all about that perennial rock and roll leitmotif of not getting what you want.
Then there’s the uncertain euphoria of “Sorted for E’s & Wizz” and the exhaustion of closing track “Bar Italia.” Drug scandals aside, “Sorted” makes great fun of 90s rave culture and false sense of community that attends large musical gatherings that put heavy emphasis on the use of psychotropes. “Bar” extends the premise, imagining a couple exiting a club at dawn while the working world begins its day. It’s slow and gentle, like one moves during a hangover.
Sex, self-consciousness, drugs, alienation, class, nostalgia, longing. Different Class has it all, hitting pretty much every youthful nerve in the rock canon. Plus, you can dance to it. Which goes a long way to explaining why it has endured these past twenty years. (I still listen to it regularly, and about 70% of my dance moves are directly stolen from Cocker.) Now pop the record on. Sing along, and it might just get you through. Then go out, dance, and drink and screw. Because there’s nothing else to do.
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