Different Class Turns 20
A quick vignette: It’s a Sunday morning, summer 1995, and I’m up way too early. My memory is hazy, but I’m pretty sure I’d accidentally set my alarm to my ungodly-early high-school wakeup time the night before, as a reflex. So at like 5:45 on a Sunday, I’m up, listening to tinny music blaring from the box at the side of my bed. This would normally be a catastrophe. This time, it’s a godsend. Because this time, I’m hearing something special. My local alt-rock radio station is playing some sort of syndicated special about Glastonbury, the enormous British festival that happens once a year. I know about Glastonbury. I’ve seen pictures. It looks incredible, all these people collected together, excited to see cool bands with songs that aren’t on American radio. (Coachella and its various contemporaries won’t start showing up in America for a few years.) And the song that’s on when I wake up is fucking amazing. The music is great, full of complicated Stereolab-sounding synth-bloops and off-kilter violin screeches but somehow leading up to this enormous surging Bowie-esque chorus. The lyrics are something about a rich girl fucking a poor guy and being told off, but they’re done with this weird dour specificity, sung from the perspective of a guy who knows he’s part of a story. But the thing that really astonishes my 15-year-old self is the crowd. Because of the pictures I’ve seen, I have some idea how big this crowd is: Tens of thousands deep, stretching back as far as you can see. And they’re singing along, loudly, with every word. They know this thing, this amazing song I’ve never heard, back to front. And the idea that a song like this could exist, that it could move this many people, stuck with me. It would be months before I heard the song again. It was “Common People” by Pulp.
A lot of things had to happen for that Glastonbury moment to go down the way it did. For one thing, the Stone Roses, the planned headliner for that night, had to break up suddenly, leaving Glastonbury’s organizers scrambling to find a replacement. And Pulp were right there in plain sight. In any other circumstance, they wouldn’t have been booked as headliners. They’d been around for forever, forming in 1978 and releasing four albums in the years leading up to Different Class and Glastonbury. Most of those albums, it has to be said, are pretty bad — gloomy and self-absorbed and lacking in the lyrical bite and melodic sweep that would come to define the band. But with 1994’s His ‘N’ Hers, they’d finally started to put it together, doubling down on glam-influenced, disco-addled chiffon arrangements and on Cocker’s insouciant wit. They’d finally found an audience, too, scoring their first three UK hits, one of which, “Do You Remember The First Time?,” was an actual anthem that made the top 10. Still, before “Common People,” Pulp were pretty much also-rans in the grand Oasis/Blur/Suede Britpop arms race. But “Common People” was an impossible song to ignore. It’s the sort of track that scans as a masterpiece the first time you hear it, even though you have to keep listening for all the layers to reveal themselves. It hit some sort of collective nerve in the UK, where people still think about class divisions even more than they think about money. Cocker has talked about the song as a reaction to, among other things, Blur’s album Parklife, which he heard as a bunch of rich kids tittering over working-class culture. And it came out at the exact right time for that Glastonbury moment — a couple of months before the show, giving those tens of thousands plenty of time to learn the lyrics.
If that Glastonbury singalong was a cresting wave, so was Different Class, the album that came after “Common People.” (It turns 20 today.) Different Class represents the weird sort of magic that can happen when a band takes nearly two decades to find its voice. The Pulp of Different Class weren’t musically bright and brash, the way their Britpop peers were. Instead, they were slick and intricate and gauzy and atmospheric, picking up tricks from Serge Gainsbourg and Angelo Badalamenti and Lodger-era Bowie rather than Slade and Madness and Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie. Cocker might’ve been gawky and professorial in person, but he’s built up the confidence needed to sound like absolute sex on record. On Different Class, he manages to be flirty and creepy and charming and just slightly dangerous, often all at once, and it does it all while telling these grand and considered stories. The lyric sheets of Pulp’s records famously included a request: “Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings.” Different Class is the moment that Cocker earned our compliance.
In the past year, there have been a couple of news stories about Pulp that weren’t really about Pulp. Instead, they were about women that Jarvis Cocker was singing about on different songs from Different Class, the Pulp masterpiece that turns 20 today. First story: A pioneering mental health worker, the woman Cocker was singing to on the song “Disco 2000,” died of bone marrow cancer at the way-too-young age of 51. Her name really was Deborah, and we’ll have to take Cocker’s word that it never suited her. Second story: A Greek newspaper reported that it had figured out who Cocker was singing about on “Common People,” reporting that the only woman who’d come from Greece with a thirst for knowledge and studied sculpture at St. Martin’s College, at least when Cocker was also studying there, was actually the wife of the current Greek Minister of Finance. (She must have a thing for elegant fuckups.) Cocker had once said that “Common People” was about a real woman but admitted that she hadn’t pursued him but that he’d pursued her. Both of these stories resonated in odd ways, at least to me, mostly because it had never occurred to me that Cocker was singing about real people. Instead, Deborah and the woman from Greece were pure abstractions, rendered through Cocker’s point-of-view, made to stand for things like upper-class privilege and the longing that can come from a platonic friendship. But it should’ve always stood to reason. The Cocker of Different Class was such a pointed and specific observer of human nature that it only makes sense that he’s lived his stories. And so maybe every song on Different Class is about a different real person or a different real experience. Still, finding out that the woman from Greece was a real person was like learning that Larry David is the real George Costanza. It makes perfect sense at the same time that it annihilates a whole fictional universe.
“Sorted For E’s And Whizz” is, alongside, “Common People,” the album’s biggest hit (they both peaked at #2 UK), and you honestly couldn’t ask for a better anthem of generational alienation. Rave culture had swept into England and changed everything so quickly that people were still gasping to keep up by 1995. And here comes grown-ass Cocker, presumably speaking for experience, singing about learning about some vast illegal party off in a field somewhere, learning about it on a pirate radio station and getting the tickets “from some fucked-up bloke in Camden Town.” And for a while, Cocker is tasting that vast collective euphoria that the whole scene was, in its utopian theory, supposed to represent. He’s dissolving into this vast mob of strangers and good vibes, losing all frustration and sense of self, getting so jacked up on speed and MDMA that he’s living completely in the moment. But then those drugs wear off, and he’s forced to confront the question of what the fuck he’s even doing out there, whether any of it matters: “Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel / Or just 20,000 strangers standing in a field?” He ends up half-joking about wanting to call his mother, since that seems to be the quickest possible route to reconnecting with your actual self. Like so many of Cocker’s songs, it’s personal and specific, but it still resonates on a grand scale. He relates his feelings and ideas with such pinpoint accuracy, and delivers them with such detached cool, that you end up hearing bits and pieces of your own experiences in there. Best of all: Beyond some crowd noise and a few oscillating, textured synth-ripples, the band never makes any attempt to replicate any sort of rave aesthetic. They’re just doing what they do, providing this cinematic backdrop for Cocker’s stories. They’re so completely in their groove that they don’t have to resort to obvious tricks.
I have a deep reverence and love for the entire Britpop era, but I don’t think another band from that moment could’ve pulled off “Sorted For E’s And Whizz,” let alone “Common People.” Very few bands of any era could come close, really. For me and for people like me, that’s why Pulp will always be the answer to the “Blur Vs. Oasis” question. Both of those bands were great. Neither could touch Pulp. Blur and Oasis made anthems that connected with huge numbers of people and defined their own cultural moment. Pulp did the same thing, and they did it while writing Raymond Carver-level short stories. Listening to them now, in the context of that Britpop moment, they sound like adults in a room full of kids. And while Blur and Oasis both spawned hordes of imitators, Pulp never did — not because they weren’t as popular as the others (though they weren’t, not quite) but because who could possibly hope to recreate that?
Hearing that live “Common People” on the radio as a 15-year-old, I wondered what it would be like to be with all those strangers standing in a field, singing along to this six-minute song about the byzantine attractions and resentments of the British class system. I still haven’t had a chance. I saw Pulp once. They barely ever came to the U.S., but they did play the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington, D.C. This was a bill with the Beastie Boys and a Tribe Called Quest and OK Computer-era Radiohead, and I was more excited to see Pulp than I was to see anyone else. Nobody else in the stadium that day felt the way I did. Pulp played in the early afternoon, I think between Money Mark and Sonic Youth. They only did three songs — “Sorted For E’s And Whizz” and a couple of tracks from the Different Class follow-up This Is Hardcore. They didn’t play “Common People.” Nobody cared. Nobody sang along. And then they left after like 10 minutes. It was infuriating, even though they were great for that too-short bit of time. 10 years after that, I saw Cocker solo at the Pitchfork Music Festival. He was great, but he wasn’t singing Pulp songs. (A young Titus Andronicus, opening the same stage much earlier in the afternoon, covered “Common People” because they knew Cocker wasn’t going to play it, but I was still nursing a hangover, and I missed it.) But maybe it’s better this way. That “Common People” Glatonbury singalong has a weird personal power. It’s a legend in my own brain, a moment that might be more fun to imagine than to experience. That singalong a brief instant, long past, when Pulp felt like the smartest band in the world, and also the biggest. Pulp didn’t stick around for long after that — seven more years and two more albums, plus some reunion touring — but we’ll always have that.