Note: this post is part of the Britpop Album Showdown series.
If you were a reader of the music press in the early 90s, you probably already knew the name of Pulp or had absorbed it by osmosis. Long before Britpop was conceived, they’d been a staple of the indie scene. In fact, they’d been hanging around the place since 1978 without ever causing too many waves – their first three albums failing to gain them anything more than sympathetic coverage in the alternative press.
1994’s His ‘n’ Hers was their breakout record – with ‘Babies’ becoming an early Britpop classic single – but it was with Different Class that Pulp really hit the big leagues, supplanting Suede as one of the big three of the scene, along with Oasis and Blur. This album spawned three or four singles that still help to define the era, and made frontman Jarvis Cocker an awkward, gangly (and much parodied) icon.
Hailing from Sheffield – with its long tradition of being fashionably unfashionable – Cocker and Pulp added some earthy spice to the sometimes bland stew of Britpop.
In 1996 it was Cocker who invaded the stage during Michael Jackson’s messianic, overwrought performance of ‘Earth Song’ at the Brit Awards and mooned the audience. Those few seconds became the perfect distillation of the times, and reflected Pulp themselves – who even at the peak of their phenomenal success seemed to retain outsider status. If Blur could be adopted by the art crowd, and Oasis by football hooligans, then Pulp were harder to pigeonhole. Cocker’s appearance – artfully nerdy, wilfully cobbled together from second-hand boutiques from ironic fabrics – were the ne plus ultra of a certain brand of indie chic that eventually birthed the adoption of ‘nerd’ as a badge of honour rather than an unhappy epithet.
But enough! We’re not here to talk about Pulp’s long and storied career, we’re hear from the music. So let’s hop in.
“Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits – raised on a diet of broken biscuits…”
To anyone raised in the North – or possibly anywhere poor enough – during the 80s, broken biscuits were a staple feature of life (in fact, you can still get them now if you know where to look in the markets). The various local biscuit factories would bundle their broken products and wastage up into largish, unbranded bags and you could buy the equivalent of 4-5 packets of biscuits for a few pence. A perfect metaphor for the themes of the album to come is harder to imagine.
With these opening lines, Cocker makes it clear who this album is for and about: those who don’t easily fit into society, for whatever reason. His own concern – intimated in the album title, and writ large throughout the songs therein – is with social class, but the triumphant, revengeful chorus could stand for anything: gender. Sexuality. Race. Political affiliation.
The world is run by people “too bleeding thick” to know what to do with their own success and money, and one day the outsiders will come. The world is changing – the old tools of violence and physical strength being supplanted by intellect.
“We want your homes, we want your lives
We want the things you won’t allow us
We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs
We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of, that’s our minds”
Musically, it deploys a few tricks that will run through this album. While the chords sequences are fairly classic, it is the arrangement and production that elevates the material. Chords stab. Guitars blare. Quiet verses contrast with loud, triumphant choruses.
By no means the strongest song on the album, it is a great appetiser for what’s to come.
2. Pencil Skirt
Class and outsider status is one of two themes seared into the heart of Different Class. The other?
Wanting it. Having it. Not having it. Those who fuck, and those who do not.
Or, in this case, using it as a kind of vicarious revenge. If Mis-shapes sold the idea of an intellectual overthrow of bland normality, Pencil Skirt paints of a scene of something older, more sordid. Sex as power. In hushed tones, Cocker paints the scene and invites us in.
Initially, the lifting of a skirt ‘like a veil’ suggests that the female has the upper hand in terms of agency, but the mood quickly turns darker. She’s engaged, but the protagonist promises to come around whenever her fiance is out of town to show her how she’s “doing it wrong.” Not only that, he’s turned on when she tells him to stop.
In the context of today’s moral panic about sexual licence, that probably reads as very problematic (to use the argot of the times) and in all honesty it’s hard not to read the song through that lens when looking at the last verse.
“I only come here cause I know it makes you sad yeah.
I only do it cause I know you know it’s bad.
Oh yes I know that it’s ugly and it shouldn’t be like that.
Oh but oh it’s turning me on.”
There is little here that is wholesome or uplifting. There are creepy hints that the woman in question is merely part of a power play (after all he’s also kissed her mother and is ‘working’ on her dad) but it also reads as real. Is she enjoying it despite herself? Is he genuinely coercing into something she doesn’t want? We never know. There is a creepy ambiguity behind those questions that the song never addresses. This is the viewpoint of the protagonist, and he is getting exactly what he wants, and she is merely the subject of his whims.
3. Common People
It would be impossible to talk about either Britpop or Pulp without this – one of the totemic musical outputs of the decade. As ‘Wonderwall’ was to Oasis and ‘Parklife’ to Blur, so Common People is the song for which Pulp will always be known. And with good justification, for this is a rare example of a ‘perfect’ pop song: lyrics that are both cute and clever, somehow brimming with depth while remaining accessible enough for people to shout in unison at parties. Behind it all, a narrative storyline delivered via an indelible melody. Put simply, if you don’t like this song you should be rounded up and sent to be worked to death in the salt mines.
It almost seems redundant to review, such is the ubiquity of the song, but a quick recap for those at the back.
It takes the form of a semi-autobiographical story in which Cocker is a working class lad who falls in with a rich girl at college who romanticises working class life and longs to break away from her indulgent lifestyle to experience things like shopping in a supermarket, smoking fags, getting a job. But of course, she never really can know what that is like. It is a sort of social safari for her.
Protected by the aura of privilege, she will never really understand what it is like to see her life spiral out of control. There will always be a backstop. A rescue only ever a phone call away. She can enjoy the thrill of living with cockroaches for a week, but could
Of course, there is huge amounts to enjoy in the trashing of this girl’s worldview. Who doesn’t want to see a pampered Princess get her comeuppance from a solid, working lad?
But, peel away the corner and there’s a hint again of moral ambiguity. He may well be ‘poor’ in the context of the story, but he is still attending St. Martin’s College. And there is nothing in her behaviour that is actually worthy of condemnation. Yes, she is slumming it while at college, but is that worthy of such vitriol? Should she be laughed at for the ‘stupid things’ she does because she is the fish out of water in this tale?
Imagine the reverse – a rich girl singing about how hilarious it is to see a working class lad trying to act properly at a fancy society ball – and the vicious, mean spirit of the song is laid bare. And yet? You sing along triumphantly, swept along by that chorus and the gradual acceleration of tempo (which I’ve never timed). Cocker goads us into hating this girl who has done nothing more than be born wealthy and tried to mix in with the people on her course.
The theme of revenge is now three songs old, and if you thought Pulp were fluffy and lightweight hopefully you’re becoming disabused of that idea. These are resentful, troubling topics.
If there is a criticim in context of this review, it’s that the single version is far superior to the album cut. The final verse is too on-the-nose (“everybody hates a tourist,
Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh”), largely extraneous and deprives the song of its relentless push towards its climax by pausing for a needless breath.
Nonetheless a triumph of misanthropy, richly deserving its place in the pantheon of Great British Pop Singles.
4. I Spy
Were we just talking about the theme of revenge? Well… about that.
“I’ve been sleeping with your wife for the past sixteen weeks
Smoking your cigarettes
Drinking your brandy
Messing up the bed that you chose together
And in all that time I just wanted you to come home unexpectedly one afternoon
And catch us at it in the front room
You see I spy for a living
And I specialize in revenge”
It doesn’t come much more explicit and vicious than that. It is the fantasy of a man done down by the world – imagining scenarios in which he is the victor over those that have done him down. Sleeping with their wives as a final, contemptuous flourish and…
…remember me mentioning ‘problematical’ a thousand words or so ago? What do you think now? Is Jarvis Cocker the friendly nerd as presented in his videos – merely playing a role, or is there actually a genuine undercurrent to all this? When I was reviewing Parklife, I started to feel that Damon Albarn was almost snide in his mockery of the ordinary lives he depicted in his songs. Is Cocker above that criticism because he mooned Michael Jackson?
I love this album – probably more than any other album of the time – and I’ve always enjoyed the misanthropy that’s apparent throughout – but really thinking about these lyrics as part of an extended exercise, do I feel a little unease about them? Yes? Maybe? I guess. The woman here is presented as another challenge for Cocker to overcome as part of his hatred of those who ‘made it out’ of the ‘worst place in the world’ – where he is still trapped.
Not to overstate things, but is there undercurrent of the ‘incel’ running through this? Just a thought.
5. Disco 2000
Probably the second most popular of Pulp’s hits, Disco 2000 is a narrative tale, building on much the same theme as I Spy (“I never knew that you’d get married… I would be living down here on my own”). Cocker’s character’s love for a girl from his childhood never abated. She has moved away, got married. Had kids. And he? Still living in the same area, obsessing about their shared adolescence – apparently unable to move on from his feelings for her.
You see, this song on the surface is very relatable: who doesn’t have a person from school that they always wanted and never got, and who even now creeps into their thoughts from time to time? Our first passions are often the strongest – and linger long in the memory. In a sense, we are all still able to slip back to our first kiss. Our first sex. The first face that made our hearts thump in that way.
But again, dig a little deeper into those lyrics. Obviously now the year 2000 is long behind us, but it’s clear that Cocker grew up in a time where the year 2000 was the distant future. And even as a lovelorn teenager, he was envisioning a time when he and his muse would meet there. If he never managed to win her heart at 14, perhaps things will be different when they meet up in their 30s.
So, underneath the nostalgic imagery of ‘woodchip on the walls’ and being ‘the first girl at school to get breasts’ there is deep, unsettling sickness. Unlike the preceding songs, however, Cocker gets it: it is he who is sad. She has gone on from the streets they used to walk together and found purpose and fulfillment, while he is trapped by himself, longing for somone who no longer exists.
Underneath that chipper, blandly nostalgic disco riffing is a bewildered sadness. That it is only truly apparent when you stop to really think about the lyrics is testament to the way Cocker is constantly blindsiding you. Clever – if unsettling – stuff.
A brilliant song.
6. Live Bed Show
In this dark, dramatic-sounding slice of realism is buried a thoughtful lyric, full of the power that regret and loss can exert over our lives.
The songs to date have all been from the first person – with Cocker acting as narrator of his own story – but here he steps outside a woman’s life to examine her story with a tenderness and empathy that was barely hinted at in the album so far.
The bed is a brilliant extended metaphor for her life. At first, it saw action every night – the headboard banging on the wall as she and her lover had passionate sex. But now – 7 years later – it bears witness to the ‘silences of now’. She doesn’t have to leave bed for any reason, but she can’t bear to be in it – as it is haunted by the presence of someone who is no longer there, and the memories that were made between its sheets.
Perhaps the most brilliant of lines in the song is Cocker’s observation that:
“If this show was televised
No one would watch it”
Unlike the other songs to press, there is no triumphant chorus to lend an upbeat air. It’s still a beautiful melody, but feel of sighing, descending notes. A perfect match for the lyrics, and songwriting of the first order.
7. Something Changed
Hard to be objective about this. It’s a song so close to musical perfection, yet crouched in a lyrical conceit that is almost beyond rationality – but that rings true all the more for it. The closest analogy for it I can think of is the line “what do you see when you turn out the light? I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine” from The Beatles’ With a Little Help from my Friends. It makes perfect sense, but also defies easy explanation.
Back to the song then. It is the most beautifully delivered song on the album, with none of the archness with which some of the other words are sung elsewhere. No histrionics – just a carefully sung, beautiful phrase paean to the power of love that has lasted (again a dramatic change in tone from the opening few numbers). Deceptively simple, it achieves a graceful ‘lift’ in the chorus with a slightly unusual progression (C – D – Bm – E) that is swept along by strings towards a climax that never quite arrives, but instead is undercut with the bathetic observation that ‘something changed‘.
The lyric itself defies easy categorisation, and is structured like an M.C. Esher painting. The opening line alone should tell you why that is. “I wrote this song two hours before we met.” He is addressing someone in the present tense, yet in a song that was written before they’d ever met. It is almost impossible to make rational sense of it, but it is this uncertainty that so brilliantly informs the rest of the lyric.
If he’d stayed at home, or she’d changed her mind, the pair would never have met. But they did. Cocker muses about the chance that ‘someone up above’ could be directing affairs – that, in effect, they were fated to be together. A more stark contrast the vindictiveness of the first couple of songs is harder to imagine.
Cocker wonders about other fates. Perhaps if things had panned out differently, he would be singing this song to another person. That again suggests that the song pre-existed the love it describes. If you were going to be boring about it, you might think that perhaps the melody existed before the words, and it is only now that the full song comes together. This could be allegorical of the way we imagine love before we ever experience it.
However you choose to approach the song, nothing can detract from it. To me, this is simply unimpeachable songwriting at a level that very few artists ever attain, and one of the crowning moments in British pop writing.
8. Sorted For E’s and Wizz
Given the last song’s bewildering and bewildered construction, it is apt that this song deals with the discombobulation associated with drugs. Briefly excoriated by the tabloids for glorifying drug use, it is in fact an almost finger-wagging excoriation of the rave culture (ask your mum) that still permeated the British music scene into the 90s following the ‘Second Summer of Love (ask your grandma).
At the time, the celebratory aspect of Britpop was already spilling over into the scene in general. Oasis revelled in their drug consumption, and paraded it as part of their identity as hedonists. The likes of the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers clearly sprang from a dance scene that had always been closely associated with drugs. Meanwhile, Blur and Suede alike were dabbling with cocaine and even heroin, either for artistic exploration or wilful self-indulgence depending on your viewpoint.
Cocker clearly looked askance at this and asked the question that many people have asked: are those drug-fuelled experiences ‘real’?
Of course, that begs a question in turn first asked by the psychedelic bands of the 60s and 70s which, boiled down is: “who knows – or cares?”
For a band normally considered subversive on other grounds, it’s perhaps surprising to find Cocker quietly aligning himself against this particular branch of hedonism. Whether through genuine fear of the potential side effects (“what if you never come down?”) or just the general milieu of the drugs scene (“I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere…. Somewhere in a field in Hampshire”) it’s clear that Cocker sees artifice in drug taking that minimises actual human emotion.
All of this quiet moralising is, however, delivered with a gentle touch and a humourous eye for detail (buying tickets from some fucked up bloke and only then realising you don’t even know where the event is). Despite this preaching, the song was taken to heart by a whole generation of festival goers. They either didn’t see the irony, or simply enjoyed its tune.
9. F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E.
At this point, Different Class makes a sudden leftward turn from the natural ‘warmth’ of to a sonic landscape of icy, dramatic synths that has more in common with the abstract cool of David Bowie’s Berlin than the sprightly pop that most people probably associate with Pulp. In fact, Sheffield has a long tradition of electronic synth music – and it is little wonder that this seeped through into Pulp’s music throughout their career: it’s just a lot more explicit here than anywhere else on the album.
If the musical setting is very different to Something Changed, it should be no surprise that the lyric too is almost diametrically opposed to that song’s swooping, irrational romanticism. Here, ‘love’ is viewed sceptically. It’s an inconvenience. A man trapped in a room, beyond which everything suddenly feels distant, unfamiliar. As if he’s groping to connect with a world that no longer makes sense, because love – it transpires – is all consuming and painful. It is something he physically feels: cold. Slightly sick in the stomach.
There is a creeping claustrophobic helplessness near. And this is a very different exploration of what love can be. It can lift, but it can also destroy. This song’s tonal and lyrical ambiguity is beguiling strange – especially set against its predecessor, which as we have seen is concerned with the dehumanising aspect of drug use.
It’s a point I’ve made before in these pages, but this really serves to highlight how the death of the album as a format affects the way you hear a song. On ‘shuffle’, or randomly stumbled upon, this could be enjoyed or not just at random. But in the context of this album, in this running order it makes sense. A narrative theme has emerged – an overarching sense of time and place that is lost entirely when not played in order.
That’s an aside to the main theme of this write up, which is: this is album is fucking great, and should be listened to as its makers intended.
An oft-quoted line from this sticks in my head from the 90s: “if fashion is your trade, then when you’re naked I guess you must be unemployed.” It’s a great little throwaway line from a song that serves nicely to lighten the mood after Feeling Called Love (you see? Albums are designed).
Musically, this is almost parodic of Pulp’s own oeuvre: a rollicking step up for the chorus, and a return to the themes of the earliest songs on the album: slightly illicit sex in emotionally confusing circumstances. It’s sex that is both wanted but also unexpected.
There’s a subtle inversion of Pencil Skirt here, in that the protagonist literally couldn’t stop it now, even as they wonder how the hell they ended up in a stranger’s room. As Cocker observes here, sometimes our need for sex overcomes our common sense, and we are oftentimes at the mercy of our biological urges – even when we know or suspect we shouldn’t be doing what we are doing.
11. Monday Morning
A great number that dwells on a themes already touched on earlier, while changing up the musical style to incorporate dramatic rock flourishes, ska, and a grand, sweeping chorus. In a way, not only do the lyrics act as a kind of shorthand for the rest of the album, but the music itself is also a kind of summation.
“There’s nothing to do so you just stay in bed,
Oh poor thing,
Why live in the world when you can live in your head?”
Those words could easily apply to the characters inhabiting Sorted for E’s and Wizz or Live Bed Show, and throughout the song, we are almost taken on a whistle stop tour of what’s gone before.
Cocker self-knowingly references the lyrical themes from earlier songs, acknowledging that he is trapped by the past.
I just can’t seem to spend a night at home,
’cause my friends left town,
And I’m here all alone
Before exhorting himself to change and to move. The moment when Cocker practically shouts ‘go!’ in this moment is perhaps the most exciting musical segment on the album – something in the timing is always surprising – a little like when Ben Gardener’s severed head falls out of the hole in the boat in Jaws. Great stuff.
On your marks,
Get set, go.
Now, now that you’re free,
What are you going to be?
12. Bar Italia
Confession: I’ve never quite warmed to this song. I’ll try to explain why. Firstly, the lyrical theme seems to tread very closely on the heels of Monday Morning – which has only just finished. Like that song, the protagonist is urging someone to move on from a night out… and that’s actually a metophor for life… and which frankly seems kind of redundant given the content of the previous song.
Of course, lyrics are only one part of the story, but the song itself feels… slight to me. I mentioned earlier that Underwear is almost self-parodic of the Pulp sound, but Bar Italia practically taps its nose at you, and I’ve always thought it was a bit of a shame for the album to close in this way.
I can’t help but feel that both songs were in the running to close the album, the band were unable to decide, and almost flipped a coin to see which one would close proceedings. It’s an odd bum note on which to finish the album for me, given that Monday Morning is more musically alert and lyrically satisfying.
When I get around to reviewing Black Grape’s It’s Great When You’re Straight, Yeah you’ll find that I am similarly irrationally irritated by the closing song. I guess it’s because I feel so strongly about these albums that ending them on a slightly undercooked song seems to be a bit of a betrayal.
This isn’t to see this track is bad, or undermines the magnificence of the achievement of the album as a whole, just that it’s a little underwhelming and feels more of an afterthought than a triumphant exit.
It’s hard for me to judge this album objectively. I regularly dust it off and revisit it – more than any other album of the era really – so clearly by this stage I find it hard to put any distance between myself and it.
That being said, as an album it is a triumph. If Oasis relished their life as hedonistic working class lads, and Blur cocked a snook at the same, then Pulp occupied the complicated middle ground between. Jarvis Cocker’s writing is full of both darkness and light, misanthropy and hope. Sometimes, the misanthropy threatens to overwhelm all else, but you are never more than a couple of minutes away from some delightful couplet, hilarious line, or moment of self-mockery. It is this mix of archness and sincerity that makes Different Class such a deep and resilient work of art. But even putting the lyrics to one side, it is packed with musical adventure, and a rich sonic palette that is always at the service of the underlying song, rather than being a self-conscious display as you sometimes feel listening to Blur.