Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 20)
On April 18th, 1994 Pulp released His ‘n’ Hers
. Due to the decent top 40 showing of the album’s single “Do You Remember the First Time?” the album debuted at number 9 on the UK Album charts. This wasn’t just Pulp’s best albums chart showing ever, it was their first. Jarvis Cocker formed Pulp in 1978 and spent the next decade in almost total obscurity, releasing albums that were ignored by the pop market at large. On July 2nd, 1994 Jarvis Cocker appeared on the BBC game show Pop Quiz in which celebrities answer questions about pop music history. Jarvis was the oddball of the show, the barely famous indie weirdo relegated to a corner of the studio. The host barely paid him much attention.
Jarvis proceeded to turn in a star performance. Not only did he nail almost every question thrown his way with barely a pause for thought, he was blazingly confident and enigmatically witty. The crowning moment comes towards the end when, during the games lightning round; Jarvis proceeds to answer a flurry of questions with such accuracy that the bewildered host starts chanting “Jarvis! Jarvis! Jarvis!” as the crowd goes wild.
For the first time Pulp were in the right place at exactly the right time. Britpop was propelling weird indie bands into the spotlight and Pulp had been pounding on the ceiling for over a decade. They were primed for a massive breakthrough.
On May 22nd 1995, Pulp released “Common People”.
And everything changed.
”She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge.”
“Common People” is a 5 minute and 52 second rocket ship. It ignites and goes only in one direction, straight up. Even during the subdued opening verse theirs a palpable sense of tension, like a runner crouched on the starting block vibrating with the amount of energy he is about to expel to go forward the song just hums with the explosion waiting around the corner. The song was recorded on a 48 track mixer and Jarvis filled every single track. In the BBC documentary The Story of “Common People
(And if you need an idea of how monumental this song is know that it has its own documentary) Jarvis, producer Steve Thomas, and bassist Seve Mackey pick through each individual track on the original mixing board with constant surprise and wonder at how many different sounds are in there. It constantly sounds on the edge of bursting at the seams but it’s held in place by Jarvis’ exhausting vocal take.
Lyrically, the song is a devastating takedown of the working class romanticism that was the flavor of the month among Britpop’s kings. It begins as a story of Jarvis meeting a woman at a bar. She comes from immaculate wealth, a life she grows weary of and she now desires to live “like common people” and “see whatever common people see” and, the bit that gets Jarvis’ attention, “sleep with common people, common people, like you.” Now, with the possibility of sex, Jarvis takes her to a supermarket and instructs her “pretend like you got no money/She just laughted and said, ‘You’re so funny.’” I said, ‘Yeah? I can’t see anyone else smiling here.” But as the song takes off this Jarvis details just how far she would have to go to live like the common people (“Rent a flat above the shop/Cut your hair and get a job/Smoke some fags and play some pool/Pretend you never went to school”) and yet her family airs would hold her from ever truly living being one of them (“Cause when you’re laying in bed at night/Watching roaches climb the walls/If you called your dad he could stop it all.”) But then, during the 3rd verse, just when things look like they cant get any bigger, there’s a drum break, and another
explosion exists as Jarvis delivers a final blow to anyone who thinks being dead broke is romantic and why those without will always be stronger than those with. “You are amazed that they exist/And they burn so bright while you can only wonder why.”
It’s a absolute tour de force. It is hilarious, ecstatic, and heartbreaking all at once. It is not just the greatest song Pulp ever made; it is one of the greatest songs of all time. A song of such might that it bulldozed straight to number two on the UK Charts.
The bulk of Different Class
was written after the song took off and one can imagine opener “Mis-Shapes” was among the first songs penned. It is very blatently about Pulp, and indie rock at large, charging the pop market and taking over. “We’re making a move/we’re making it now/we’re coming out of the side lines,” Jarvis plots his attack with careful strategy, “We wont use guns/We wont use bombs/We’ll use the one thing we have more of, that’s our minds.”
”I spy/A boy”
Cocker’s lyrics are cutting without being vicious, they’re simply too accurate. Cocker also made for one of the strangest sex symbols in pop history. His lyrics are quite enticing, much of his wittiest lines sound like the should be followed by a scandalous “Oh, Jarvis!” “You can tell me some lies about the good times that you’ve had/But I’ve kissed your mother twice,” he croons to his engaged conquest on “Pencil Skirt”, “And now I’m working on your dad.” On “I Spy” sex is a weapon and Jarvis wields it to assassinate a member of the middle upper class by bedding his woman. “It’s more a case of haves against havents/And I just happen to have exactly what you need.” His plotting sounds deliciously evil, its hard to listen to it and not imagine Jarvis as a chin stroking James Bond villain. “My favorite parks are car parks/Grass is something you smoke,” he seethes, “Take your “Year in Province”/And shove it up your ass
The highlights can hardly be called “highlights” because that implys there are lowlights, which there are not. “Disco 2000” takes the very sad idea of meeting up with a school crush after the two of you are all grown up set to an epic chorus more suited to fist pumping glee. “Underwear” zeroes in on the few moments before a girl sleeps with a suitor who is less desirable than she originally thought. “If you close your eyes and just remember/That this is what you wanted last night/So why is it so hard, for you to touch him/For you to, go and give yourself to him? Oh Jesus!” Closing number “Bar Italia” finds her dragging herself up the street in a hung-over daze to a nearby café, fully aware that she’s going to be doing the same *** next weekend. “That’s what you get from clubbing it/You cant go home and go to bed/Because it hasn’t worn off yet.”
All of this is laid over a lush bed of Mark Webber’s sharp spy guitar lines, Russell Senior’s Jazzmaster riffage and shrieking violin, and Candida Doyle’s disco inflected keyboard parts. In particular, Nick Banks’ drum parts have been recorded with stunning clarity. The snare alone seems to have its own track, each rimshot is rendered with the perfect amount of reverb. His drum parts boom but are never overbearing, adding just the right amount of oomph when necessary before slinking off to the background with a roomy rimshot.
But this is no ordinary album. Not even an ordinarily great one. This album has 3 stone cold classic songs on it. And, aside from the aforementioned “Common People” are the immaculate “Something Changed” and “Sorted for E’s and Wiz”, back to back in the center of the record. The first is a swooning ballad which, at first, scans as a love song. “I wrote this song, two hours before we met,” sings Jarvis, “I didn’t know your name/Or what you looked like yet.” It comes off as a tribute to the very moment Jarivs met his lover and it would be if Jarvis mentioned any detail about her whatsoever. Instead Jarvis is so intensely focused on the moment of when they met and how each other’s lives would be so different that the song becomes almost unnerving. Even after his lover smiles and says “Stop asking questions that don’t matter anyway” he continues to beg the question. “Where would I be now?” he cries, “Where would I be now if we never met?” Because the song avoids any kind of answer to that question it becomes enigmatically fascinating. Not to mention all of this over the most hands down gorgeous
melody Jarvis ever wrote.
The later song is a bracingly funny dismantling of festival and club culture. “Oh is this the way the future’s meant to feel?/Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?” The drugs aren’t working and the bands aren’t properly mic’d up, the slowly creeps up on Jarvis as he finds himself unhappy at a festival that’s supposed to be all about happiness. “Just tell me when the spaceship lands cause all this has just got to mean something.” It’s an emotion shared by anyone who’s found themselves melting away in the midst of a crowd of festival goers, everyone blending into a homogenous mass with similar tastes and clothes. It’s so relevant that I often find myself accidently changing the line “I lost my friends
/I dance alone/Its six o’clock/I wanna go home” to “I lost my phone
” when I sing along.
June 1995, The Stone Roses were primed to headline the final day of Glastonbury when they suddenly pulled. Pulp was tapped to pinch hit. The show they put on was nothing short of legendary, capped by a thrilling performance of the recent smash hit “Common People” that whipped the crowd into a frenzy so huge that in video of the performance you can see security guards reeling from the force of the crowd. The scene was set for Pulp to make their official breakthrough.
“Mis-Shapes/Sorted for E’s and Wiz” was primed to be the album’s second single as a double A-Side. The pre-release single contained an insert that demonstrated how to make a little pouch to hide drugs in out of the album. Before the single’s release The Daily Mirror responded in uproar with a front-page story declaring “BAN THIS SICK STUNT”. Controversy has proven time and time again to be the best form of marketing and this was no exception. The single debuted at number 2 on the UK single charts. When Different Class
was released on October 30th it went straight to number one on the album charts and ended up selling over a million copies. At the 1996 BRIT Awards, during a bombastically over the top performance by Michael Jackson in which he cast himself (metaphorically, that is) as Jesus Christ sent to save the world via “Earth Song”, Jarvis, in protest, strolled on stage, flipped his shirt to the camera, and ran around until security nicked him. He was celebrating as a hero for it, Noel Gallagher called him a star,” Melody Maker claimed he should be knighted. Jarvis Cocker had finally done it. He had taken Pulp from indie nobodies to national heroes. But, like so many before him, he would quickly discover it wasn’t quite what he imagined it would be.