25 Years Ago, Pulp Hit Pop-Meets-Social-Commentary Peak With Different Class

There’s this well-know story in the history of Pulp about the time they played Glastonbury as a replacement for The Stone Roses. It was June of 1995 and the band was still a few months away from the release of their landmark album Different Class. The album’s lead single, “Common People,” which had been a part of their sets for almost a year, had recently hit the second spot on the U.K. charts and that fueled one of those iconic moments in live music history. “That’s when success seemed real. Undeniable. Concrete evidence,” singer Jarvis Cocker would later recount in an NME interview

Even if there weren’t evidence of the concert in the form of a BBC video where scores of fans are audibly singing along with the band, a Pulp fan would understand this as more than just Britpop legend. You have probably seen that reaction to “Common People” yourself, maybe because you’ve seen Pulp in concert, and you know how fans react to the hits. Or, maybe, that’s because you’ve been to enough indie clubs to know that whenever the song is played – and that has been many, many times over the past 25 years – nearly the whole room will chime in with those first couple lines, “She came from Greece/She had a thirst for knowledge.” 

“Common People” was the single that catapulted Pulp, who had actually formed in the late 1970s when Cocker was a Sheffield teenager, into Britpop stardom, but it was the release of Different Class, on October 30, 1995, that cemented the singer as one of the strongest lyricists of his generation. 

The band’s fifth studio album opens with a manifesto in the form of “Mis-Shapes,” a song for the misfits and outcasts who run the risk of a beating on the street for the crime of not blending into the background. “Brothers, sisters, can’t you see? The future’s owned by you and me,” he declares, a rallying cry for the nerds and the artists who will rise. “We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs,” he sings, “We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of. That’s our minds.” 

On Different Class, Pulp presents twelve songs that play like mini-movies. They are stories about weekday dread and late night parties, romantic dry spells and awkward affairs that also explore, well… class. 

In a 2015 interview with Telerama, Cocker talks about being fascinated with ordinary people and real life. “I would be pleased if that remained of Pulp – the fact that it was pop music, but it took ordinary life as its subject matter and tried to elevate it into an epic thing,” he says, “because that was what we were always trying to do, I guess, and I think that’s a nice thing to do.” 

On Different Class, Cocker’s ability to make the ordinary compelling is at its peak. “Live Bed Show” uses the action a bed has seen (“It didn’t get much rest at first/The headboard banging in the night”) to talk about loneliness. “Bar Italia” captures the chaotic dizziness of a drunken night. And then there’s “Sorted for E’s & Wizz,” a raver’s tale that’s applicable to more than just underground parties of the 1990s. The narrator is just another person in the crowd, one of 20,000 people in a field somewhere in Hampshire, having conversations that consist of “nice one, geezer.” And even if you’ve never been anywhere near Hampshire, never lived in a place where a young guy would be called a geezer, the song still makes sense. At some point, wherever you live, you may have been the person in the crowd, arriving through some chain of events with your friends, who you lose by the middle of the night. 

Then there are the emotional details, not just what Cocker is singing, but how he’s singing it, that can make the song hit close to home. You understand that strange sensation of walking into a new environment (“Oh, is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?”), you know what it’s like to dance alone. Certainly, you don’t have to know what “e’s and wizz” are to recall a night or two where you got a little fucked up and wondered, with that same tone of regret that’s in Cocker’s voice at the end of the song, “What if you never come down?” 

In 2012, when he was interviewed by comedian Stephen Merchant on the BBC radio show “Chain Reaction,” Cocker explained why Pulp insisted that it was a pop group. He appreciated that pop music wasn’t intentionally deep. “It was just supposed to be entertainment,” he explained, “so I really loved it when, somehow, people would smuggle something a bit subversive or something extra into that.” 

That brings us back to “Common People,” which, aside from being one of the most popular songs of the Britpop era, was one of the most subversive. “Common People” is a song about unchecked privilege, about thinking it’s good fun to pretend you’re part of the proletariat for a bit, until things get a little too uncomfortable. It’s about a lack of self-awareness, the inability to notice that people who are struggling can see right through them. Cocker’s vivid details – the chip stains, the roaches climbing the wall – drag you so deeply into the story that, as it progresses, you might find yourself becoming as frustrated with the rich girl as he is. By the time he spits out the lines, “You will never understand/how it feels to live your life/with no meaning or control/and nowhere left to go,” you’re screaming along, maybe coming to a realization about the people surrounding you, or one about yourself. 

The song was inspired by a girl Cocker had met while attending St. Martin’s College in the late 1980s and it delves into what Cocker described in an NME interview as “patronizing social voyeurism,” something that he had noticed in the pop culture ether of the time. But, the situation he describes is as relevant today as it was in 1995. In fact, in the midst of a global pandemic that’s left many without work while billionaires got richer, after years of gentrification in major cities and ever-widening wealth disparities, “Common People” is, arguably, even more relevant today, at the very least, for the American listener. 

There are albums that remain beloved decades later because they are so much a product of the time in which they’re made. They become nostalgic for the people who lived them and for those who wish they were there. Then there are the albums so prescient that their legacy becomes greater than the initial impact. Nearly three decades on, Different Class is a mix of both. It was a Mercury Prize-winning hit in the U.K. and a large cult success in the U.S., but the observations of late 20th century life on the album are so keen that they might matter more today than they ever have. 

ONLY NOISE: Real(istic) Love

 

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Erin Lyndal Martin shares a selection of songs that jar her out of a sardonic mindset when it comes to romance.

There’s nothing wrong with sugary love songs. But I don’t trust them because they tend to be completely non-specific. The poet in me cries out for more details. The realist in me wonders how the people in these songs ever get their laundry done if they’re always high on love. And the cynic in me thinks of all the bad dates, all the times I’ve swiped left, all the lore about how undesirable women are after 30, all the fat shaming, all the dick pics. But I feel hopeful when I hear songs about smart, jaded people who’ve found love, often unexpectedly.

These are some of the songs that give me hope.

“Miss You Till I Meet You” by Dar Williams (from My Better Self)
Dar Williams is a talented singer-songwriter who frequently tackles real-life situations in songs that address coming of age, going to therapy, and finding one’s place among gentrification.

Bad dates are not all alike. Sometimes I’ve come home from a date feeling down because my date and I had nothing in common, or maybe it just didn’t seem like the right time, or my date asked me weird questions like if I wrote “human interest fiction” or “technical fiction.” Afterwards, it helps to think about telling these stories to someone I do want to hang around. Someone I want to hang around me.

“Papa Was a Rodeo” by The Magnetic Fields (from 69 Love Songs – Disc 2)
Helmed by Stephin Merritt, the Magnetic Fields bring an irreverent sensibility to matters of love, usually with a twist of magical realism, as on their 69 Love Songs trilogy.

At first, labeling this song as “realistic” is a tough sell. What are the chances that two people could bond over their childhoods spent roping steers, only to spend decades wrestling alligators together? But, like a lot of Magnetic Field’s 69 Love Songs, there’s a grain of truth here. At a certain point, you stop hoping you’ll meet someone who has zero baggage. Not only is it impractical, but it has ceased to even be appealing; instead, you daydream about meeting someone who understands your baggage, who sees you and sees your baggage and says “yeah, me too.”

“Something Changed” by Pulp (from Different Class)
Pulp is a Britpop band known for songs about perversion and classism (not usually at the same time).

I got the Different Class CD in high school and remember flipping through the booklet and seeing the request not to read the lyrics while listening to the music. I listened for the snotty Britpop protest songs and lurid perversions, and then this song came on – a love song written for acoustic guitar. I was surprised, but I trusted Pulp not to mess with me too much, and I thought about this as being a love song for the sort of people who trust sneering Britpop bands with love songs. I love that it retroactively assigns importance to all the little things done on a day that ends up coincidentally being the day one falls in love.

“I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” by Tom Waits (from Closing Time)
Tom Waits is an iconic songwriter and musician known for his gravelly voice, rich lyrical imagery, and jarring songcraft.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a bar alone with just a novel and a notebook, nursing a drink and scribbling down ideas while watching people around me. This song always reminds me of those nights. I’ve had many nights where that’s all that happens. If I’m lucky I write a few good lines or draw a cute picture of a cat. But those nights tend to blur together and I mostly remember the outlier nights, when a conversation with a stranger just happened, and I was excited and terrified to see where it went next.

“Yellow Brick Road” by Kris Delmhorst (on Five Stories)
Kris Delmhorst is a singer-songwriter-fiddler from Massachusetts known for her pithy lyrics and lovely melodies.

Once I was at a wedding where the best man’s toast included the line “now your real life can begin.” Wow. Just wow. As if there are any parts of our lives that aren’t real and everything we do before we have an official, government-sanctioned bond just doesn’t count. This song celebrates who we are as individuals within a couple. “I’m not on a yellow brick road/Got a mind and a heart and guts of my own/Not looking for someone to set me free,” Delmhorst sings. “I’m not on a yellow brick road/I’ll find my own way home/I just want someone to walk with me.”

“Kathleen” by Josh Ritter (from Hello Starling)
Josh Ritter is an acclaimed and prolific singer-songwriter once voted among Paste Magazine’s Top 50 living songwriters.

This song makes me happy. Very happy. It’s about a guy who drives a beautiful girl home from a party. He knows they’ll never fall in love, but he’s so excited to be the one who has that time alone with her, that “only both of us know about.” When you don’t have the love life you want, you learn to make the best of these little moments of connection: driving someone home; smiling knowingly at a stranger on the bus when a passenger shows the bus driver her groceries; standing next to someone while you look at a painting in a museum.

“Reservations” by Wilco (from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)
Wilco is a highly regarded alt-country band, and their 2002 album is already considered a classic.

Recently, a romantic partner I hadn’t seen in years came to visit and I was really stressed out, which was funny because I realized I had zero anxieties about this particular person. We know each other well and have a great time together. But the thought of sharing my living space with anyone, even for a few days, was terrifying. I wanted everything to be perfect. In the end, he was an amazing houseguest who did my dishes and bought me good bourbon and let me play him videos of goats and magicians. And I did get sick towards the end of his visit, something I feared, but that won’t be what I remember. What I will remember is that even the worst anxieties can disappear with someone who really sees me.

“Unison” by Björk (from Vespertine)
Björk is an Icelandic musician known for her conceptual albums, creative collaborations, and quirky individuality.

Unsurprisingly, Björk is wonderful at writing songs that balance realism and reverie. She has a number of them, but “Unison” is my favorite. “I will grow my own private branch of this tree,” she sings, celebrating her individuality. But trees — and people — can bend, and the refrain continues, “I never thought I would compromise.” When you’re single, it’s so easy to get lost in thought loops about who you want to be with and if you’d even want to make room in your life for another person. Björk reminds us that we don’t have to choose between ourselves and being with another person.

ONLY NOISE: Goodbye Sunday

In the two brief periods I lived in London, I developed a new relationship with Sundays. For 15 plus years of my life, Sunday was directly associated with Monday, and therefore brought about a rash of panic as the unfinished homework piled up and the unknown week stretched like a canyon before me. In college, there was no Sunday freedom. The sewing studios at FIT were open seven days a week until 2am. I would work on my projects incessantly, catching the train back to Brooklyn in the wee hours and sometimes heading straight to the Pratt campus, where the studios were open 24/7 and I had a handful of pals to work alongside. New York Sundays was never a time of leisure.

When I moved to London to study abroad at Central Saint Martins, I was shocked to find that despite the fashion department’s reputation for maniacal workloads, their studios were only opened Monday through Saturday until 10pm. This was a frightening realization, as my routine 85-hour workweek was about to be sliced in half. At first I was reluctant, but in time I learned to relax. Powerless to sew sleeves on the jacket I was making at school, I was obligated to go outside, I guess. A routine was born. Every Sunday I would pull myself out of my twin dorm bed, throw on a raincoat, and walk 15 minutes to East London’s Brick Lane market. The market could be hectic, and was clogged with overpriced vintage booths, but since I wasn’t there to shop it didn’t matter. I was simply there to wander.

Before I got to hip Brick Lane I would take a detour through cheaper junk markets that were sprinkled around town. These were proper flea markets with heaps of scrap and isolated parts only pack rats would find valuable. Fortunately, I am a pack rat, and I appreciated that these markets were meritocracies, paying off for the patient and diligent diggers who took the time to rummage through an entire bin of garden hose valves to find one silver pendant studded with semi precious stones. After the junk market I’d wind through the Sunday crowds and procure the spiciest curry I could find along with a cup of tea. Then I would sit on the street, roll a cigarette, and watch the people, who were as diverse in age and dress as they were in nationality. I’d position myself across the street from the resident group of drunken old geezers, who sat playing mahjong for hours.

This Sunday ritual became invaluable during my three months in London. When it was gray and cold (which, let’s face it, was most of the time) the tingling curry spices would radiate throughout my gut and warm me. The fact that I could sit on the street and eat without falling victim to judgmental glances for doing so was an added bonus. This was the kind of Sunday I’d always heard existed, but I never believed that they did. Morrissey’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday” used to propose a frightening alternate reality, but ever since I made my market stroll the highlight of my week, I welcomed the possibility of every day being Sunday with open arms.

My relaxed attitude toward Sundays shattered like tempered glass when I returned to New York, where peace and leisure seem like auction items for the rich. The Sunday fear came back. There was no junk market, no budget curry, and certainly no allowance to plop on the street and drink tea without getting scowled at, or trampled by a swarm of rats. Sunday again meant Monday. Sunday night ushered in short breaths and rapid fire concerns. Sundays didn’t return until I returned to England, and though they took a different shape, it was like they’d been waiting for me to come back. These Sundays were tethered to Clapton Pond in London’s northeast reaches of Hackney. It was summer, which doesn’t mean all that much for temperate England, but it was warm and sunny enough to spend all day in the nearby park. This was 2013, the summer I learned to ride a bike in Hackney Marsh at age 23. It was a glorious time, when I had no idea where life would take me.

In the afternoons I’d linger in the kitchen of my friend Alice’s flat, where I was staying for free. After flipping on the electric kettle switch I’d twist on Alice’s radio, which was permanently dialed to BBC 6 Music. The radio was something I turned on everyday. At 6 or 7am Monday through Friday, and at 10am on Saturday. But on Sunday, the afternoon airwaves were for Jarvis Cocker.

Since January 2010, Pulp’s illustrious frontman has hypnotized listeners with his Sunday Service, an afternoon program on BBC 6. While DJs only have one job to fulfill – playing music – Cocker took his title to the next level, acquiring the mantle of a seasoned storyteller. His sets are filled not only with odd and obscure music, but swatches of found sound from the BBC archives, Cocker’s own field recordings, and the joyful noises summoned from the studio switchboard. Jarvis’ playfulness at the mixer accompanied his rich storytelling. It was not uncommon for a classical opus to follow a punk number, or a piece of poetry to precede one of Cocker’s philosophical ramblings. His deep, hushed voice seemed built for the radio, or perhaps a bedtime story.

I am thinking of all of this – of Sunday rituals and this fabulous radio show, because after seven years it is again time for a new tradition. On Sunday, December 31st, Jarvis Cocker will deliver his final Sunday Service. This news came to me earlier this month, when a cheeky Guardian headline decreed: “Jarvis Cocker Pulps his BBC radio show.” The information cut deep. Even though Cocker is known for taking breaks from the program (and getting killer fill-in hosts such as Cillian Murphy and Russell Crowe), his northern whisper and eclectic programming had become integral to my Sunday listening. Cocker has calmed my pre-Monday nerves for so long that I shudder to think what could take the place of Sunday Service.

It’s not solely my Sunday at stake here. Of the many friends I’ve recommended 6 Music to, most of them have admitted that the Sunday Service was their favorite program. One 6 Music convert was merely an acquaintance who took my recommendation to heart. The next time I saw him he looked stupefied. “I’ve been listening to 6 Music!” he exclaimed. When he spoke of Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service, he did so as if he’d struck gold.

That’s probably the most accurate descriptor I can find for Sunday Service: a goldmine of songs and sounds and interviews. On his most recent episode, which aired on Christmas Eve, Cocker dug into his own program archives to play bits of conversation with the likes of John Hurt, David Attenborough, and Monty Python’s Michael Palin, among a wealth of fantastic music. His first track for the set was the suspenseful “Snowed In” by Tim Rose, which happens to be the first song ever that Cocker ever played on the Sunday Service. Looking out the window at my parent’s home in Washington this morning, I listened to Cocker’s set and noted that there was indeed snow on the ground.

There may only be one official Sunday Service left, but so long as I can reach into the BBC 6 Music Archives for a bit of Jarvis Cocker’s wisdom and wit, everyday will be like Sunday. And as Cocker recently assured us, “It’s not goodbye, it’s just farewell.”

TRACK OF THE WEEK 01/13: “Falling From the Sun” off Everything Is New

MARRAM 3

There are multiple layers in which to delve with this track.  First, “Falling From The Sun” is a product of Edinburgh band Marram, however it features Margaret Bennett and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker.  The song will be part of a collection of collaborative tracks on Sun Choir, which is half of a two-album compilation entitled Everything Is NewThe compilation will be released by the Scottish art cooperative known as Transgressive North.  Are you with me so far?

Transgressive North has fused a pack of contemporary artists featuring the likes of Dan Deacon, Owen Pallet, Four Tet, and numerous others, with the voices of the Light of Love Children’s Choir to create a generous collaboration.  Proceeds from the record sales will go directly to the Scottish Love in Action Charity and will benefit destitute children in South East India, particularly those within the Light of Love Home and School.

The first installment of Everything Is New drops January 20th.  Here is a peek at “Falling From The Sun.”

The track suits the intention of this entire project with its brightness and sonic optimism. It opens with minimal synth chirps before building up with nasal-heavy vocals and flitting major chords.  Around 1:46 the Light of Love Children’s Choir pipes in and the song becomes a sweeping rapture; part dance track, part playground sing-a-long.

Jarvis Cocker comes in around 3:40 with his signature talk-signing that trails to the end of the song, when all of its elements fuse into a unified anthem.

Here is a video outlining the mission of Transgressive North’s Everything Is New Project:

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