Illustration by Ben Beechener
Perhaps one of the funniest things about Britain is its common refusal to accept the pop culture of our American cousins. The music of the 1990s is a great example of this. Contrasting the angsty, depressing tone of the American Grunge movement, Britain enjoyed the rise of Britpop. This was a more optimistic alternative rock-pop fusion that emphasised Britishness and celebrated the guitars and Beatles-ness of the 1960s. While Oasis and Blur, the two-bands most synonymous with the movement, fought the now-famous ‘Battle of Britpop’ for chart supremacy – presumably to fund copious amounts of anoraks and bucket hats – there was another heavyweight band that were perfectly happy doing their own thing. No rivalries, no contesting for the limelight, just good music. The band in question: Pulp.
And I suppose Suede as well. But I’d rather talk about Pulp.
Founded in 1978 by frontman and only permanent member Jarvis Cocker, Pulp saw limited success in their early years. It wasn’t until 1994, after the release of their breakout album His ‘n’ Hers that they saw any real attention. This record would be met with critical acclaim, and Cocker and co. would finally be in the mainstream. For good reason too; featured tracks like “Do You Remember The First Time?” and “Babies” are pure pop joy, and still considered some of the band’s finest. Their next album, however, would blow this initial success out of the water.
1995 would see the release of the album Different Class, an album many consider to be the crown jewel of Britpop; music magazine NME ranked Different Class at number 6 in their ‘Top 500 Albums of All Time’, placing Pulp ahead of fellow Britpop big shots Oasis, who snuck into number 10 with the incredibly successful Definitely, Maybe. Personally, I love every song on Different Class, and it manages to offer some great variety without sounding mismatched; “Monday Morning” and “Mis-shapes” have a more classic indie-rock feel, “Something Changed” and “Pencil Skirt” are slower and notably more chilled, and the magnificent lyricism of “Bar Italia” manages to paint a post-rave comedown as a romantic adventure.
Of course, you cannot mention Different Class without discussing two tracks in particular: “Disco 2000” and “Common People”. What absolute icons. Pulp knows how to produce an outstanding chorus better than most and these are the songs that prove it, sporting two of the catchiest hooks in the history of history. “Disco 2000” jumps right in with the – you guessed it – disco feel, that I’m pretty certain has been scientifically proven to be impossible to dislike. “Common People” has a similar energy, but starts just ever so slightly more subdued, and perfectly crescendos throughout – something that is done all the better in the 1995 Live at Glastonbury version, which is my personal vote for the greatest ever live performance (sorry “Sultans of Swing” Alchemy Live).
Apart from just sounding really bloody good, there’s another reason I think these songs are so special, and that’s how genuine they are. “Disco 2000” tells the tale of the singer falling for his childhood friend Deborah – in real-life, the mental health nurse Deborah Bone, a close friend of Cocker – but knowing that this interest was not returned. By Cocker’s own admission, almost everything in the song is accurate, with even the “fountain down the road”, sung about in the chorus, referring to the Goodwin Fountain. Doing away with metaphors and vague situations makes the song feel incredibly personal, which truly elevates the song. On the other hand, “Common People” does not tell a true story throughout, but begins with one in order to introduce the theme of class tourism. Cocker truly did meet a girl from Greece during a sculpture course at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, just as the opening lyrics say. From there though, the song focuses on the feeling of contempt for those in the upper classes that see living as ‘the common people’ as fashionable and fun. This truly makes the song timeless – as long as class divides exist, “Common People” will be relevant, and a fantastic listen at that.
But as magnificent as Different Class is, there’s another album that in my own (correct) opinion is just as good, if not better.
This Is Hardcore released in 1998 with a much darker tone than the rest of Pulp’s discography. Consequently, it is considered by many to mark the end of Britpop as a whole, and a shift into a new music era that would see massive success for bands like Radiohead, The Verve and Coldplay. The general mood of this album is best characterised by the titular track. Opening with a slow progression of drums, strings and piano, “This Is Hardcore” immediately establishes a sound that would seem right at home in the sleaziest lounge bar you could imagine. This almost dirty sound is reflected in the lyrics, telling the story of an addiction to pornography and how this warps the narrator’s perception of the world. The real thing is not what is shown in videos, and the narrator is left wondering what happens when the film stops rolling as Cocker sings, “What exactly do you do for an encore?” This pornographic outlook on life is also, according to Cocker, about fame, and the realisation that success is not what it is often promised to be. The structure of the song reflects this beautifully, reaching its climax about two-thirds in, and then just kind of carrying on for a bit before slowly dying out – resulting in a haunting yet beautiful listen.
The album isn’t all doom and gloom though, and offers a strange sense of hope in this dark worldview. The song “Dishes” optimises optimistic nihilism, with Cocker singing, “I am not Jesus, though I have the same initials / I am the man who stays home and does the dishes.” He knows that he’s just some guy, not special and no different to anyone else, but that this is by no means a bad thing. In his own words:
“I’m not worried that I will never touch the stars /
‘Cause stars belong up in heaven /
And the earth /
Is where we are /
And aren’t you happy just to be alive?”
Normally, I would think these were just some nice lyrics – in the context of such a bleak album though, they offer a strange sense of hope that I think could be easily lost otherwise. This really does make “Dishes” tremendous.
Unfortunately, I can’t spend ages talking in depth about every song on This Is Hardcore, so please do give it a listen. I also wholeheartedly recommend “Like A Friend” and “Cocaine Socialism” from the album’s deluxe edition. I promise you’ll love them. If not, we can’t be friends.
Mostly, this article came about because I love talking about Pulp. Partly though, I wanted to write this because I feel like they’re underappreciated in the mainstream for how fantastic their work is. Obviously, “Common People” is massive and Different Class as a whole is well-known, but Pulp has so much more to offer that I don’t think gets the attention it deserves. Wonderfully witty, biting, satirical and occasionally poignant lyrics matched with addictive instrumentals make Pulp amongst the very best Britain has to offer.