Pulp - Different Class (1995)

Set your Discman to X-treme as we take a look back at the decade that brought us Kurt Cobain and Kurt Loder. Shagadelic baby!

When John Peel offered Pulp a recording session in 1981, Jarvis Cocker must have thought fame would follow immediately. A teenager at the time, he might’ve given up on the band altogether if told they would not return to Peel’s studio until 1993, and not crack the U.K. top 40 for another year after that. Pulp took the better part of a decade to deliver on their early potential. Debut album It (1983) was too cute by half, while the murkily mixed Freaks (1987) luxuriated in its own gloom and presumably makes more sense under the persuasion of absinthe. Having grown weary of Sheffield, Cocker moved to London to study a film course.

Separations was a turning point. Farcically given a 1992 release by Fire Records three years after recording finished, this album was the first to feature the lineup in place through the peak of Pulp’s commercial success. The songs were becoming more upbeat, with a melodic spark to go with their unsettling violin parts and portraits of dysfunctional misfits. 1993 brought a contract with Island Records, vindicating the band’s hunch that the compass of pop was turning in their direction. Major label debut His ‘n’ Hers contained three minor hits, including the classic “Babies”, which snuck into the U.K. top 20 for a week in May 1994. A larger budget allowed the new songs to be fleshed out; their fixations on glam, disco and sex enriched by production from Ed Buller that glistened without windexing away the necessary seediness. At last, Pulp were in the right place at the right time.

There’s no more fitting place to begin exploring Different Class than its famous first single. The only Pulp song widely recognised beyond Europe, “Common People” ridicules the folly of vicariously living a difficult life when the comforts of one’s familiar habitat are merely a phone call away. The title has two puns for the price of one. Calling someone in Sheffield “common” is an insult (Cocker: “you’re saying they’re vulgar, rough-arsed”), while bassist Steve Mackey joked of a resemblance to Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s adaptation of “Fanfare for the Common Man”.

Aside from keyboardist Candida Doyle, no one in the band was overly impressed when Cocker played an early demo. The melody is nursery rhyme simple – most of it can be played on piano with a still hand. The chords are your standard I, IV and V, never changing more frequently than once per four bars. But this harmonically unremarkable bedrock supports the clever lyrics, which could have been overwhelmed by a more elaborate composition. Drummer Nick Banks drives the song forward with a gradual tempo acceleration starting from the second verse. Mackey’s octave slides add further urgency, as does the swelling passion of the vocal. When Cocker exclaims “You will NEVER understand / how it FEELS to live your life / with no MEANING or control”, he’s no longer addressing the rich girl from Greece, but rather any affluent liberal who exoticises the bottom of society.

Though it took the song several months to evolve (a Peel session recording from September 1994 sounds tame and hesitant compared to the final version), the band suspected they’d hit on something special, and contacted veteran producer Chris Thomas, who took the reins for Different Class. Sensing a unique opportunity to make their mark, Pulp asked to have the release of “Common People” brought forward. Island initially declined the request, citing a lack of finished songs and concerns about a long gap between single and album. It’s just as well they acquiesced, because its May 1995 release was perfectly timed amongst public anticipation of Oasis and Blur’s new albums, and all the clashes of class implied by that rivalry. Edited from six minutes down to four, the single entered the U.K. charts at #2, held off the top by Robson & Jerome’s insipid rendition of “Unchained Melody” (something else to thank Simon Cowell for). Nonetheless, Pulp now had a place near the centre of Britpop, confirmed one month later by a memorable set on Glastonbury’s main stage.

The confidence gained from this success led to a fertile period of creativity; eight songs from Different Class were written after “Common People” stormed the radio. Fanclub president-come-touring guitarist Mark Webber became an official member in time to have a creative role; the breezy solo in “Something Changed” belongs to him. With the bulk of the music already on tape, Cocker remarkably wrote all eight lyrics in a 48-hour stay at his sister’s house. Among the new arrivals was “Mis-Shapes”, named for the defectively manufactured chocolates sold by supermarkets at discounted prices, and a metaphor for the young outcasts of England who were, it then seemed, on the verge of reinvigorating society. It kicks off the record on a dizzily joyous note. “We’re making a move / we’re making it now / we’re coming out of the sidelines”, the chorus announces, and Doyle’s chromatically ascending synth line underscores the triumphant atmosphere.

“Mis-Shapes” was released as a double A-side single with “Sorted for E’s and Wizz”, a disillusioned reflection on late-1980s rave culture. While its verses shift between C and G major in much the same way as those of “Common People”, this is a significantly different song; slower, looser and less direct. An eight bar chorus is destabilised by its division into three phrases, symbolising the high (bars 1-3), the comedown (bars 4-6), and the next upswing of the chemical pendulum (7-8). Even though their music and words were seldom written at the same time, Pulp gave consideration to how the two could complement each other. The cautionary tale of unmoderated substance use would gain poignancy when the Britpop hangover struck, to varyingly severe degrees, most of the scene’s major members across 1997 and 1998. But there’s no condescension here. Cocker tempers the weary tone of his words with a lively, wry vocal, at one point delivering a deadly accurate Bowie impersonation. The sleeve of the single’s first run contained instructions on how to make origami for the discreet storage of drugs. A witty if ill-advised joke, it predictably triggered a Daily Mirror campaign to have the record banned, which just as predictably boosted its sales on the way to becoming Pulp’s second consecutive entry at #2.

Whoever said there’s nothing more English than bad sex inadvertently shed light on why the nation’s pop music so rarely explores the topic in detail. Part of Pulp’s legacy is to have treated matters of the bedroom (or bus stop) with a depth matched by few before or since. It’s clear that Cocker had it on the brain during His ‘n’ Hers, and it continued to be a prominent subject on Different Class. Characters in these songs slowly raise their skirts, cheat and wish to be caught in the act, imagine English Heritage plaques commemorating their first contact with breasts, and feel churning nerves just before the fulfilment of fantasies.

“I Spy” is where the album’s themes of sex and social class most explicitly overlap. Here, a woman marries up to a man who offers security if not passion, as our less well-off narrator promises both, alternately seducing her and mocking him. “It’s not a case of woman vs man / it’s more a case of haves… against… haven’ts”, he sneers, twisting a cliché around until it values virility above status. Channelling half a lifetime of material and sexual scarcity, Cocker vivisects the genteel affectations of this couple’s world; working up his anger to the point where he’s literally hissing in the song’s climax. Anne Dudley’s orchestral arrangement heightens the drama – she worked extensively on Pulp’s next album, This Is Hardcore – and like he did so often, guitarist/violinist Russell Senior provides a touch of dissonance with astute timing. In this case it’s a highly-fretted C major chord (at 1:41 and 4:31), which is, given the song’s C minor key and dark narrative, a savagely sarcastic gesture.

20 years on, Different Class is aging gracefully. It sounds less confined to its time than (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and The Great Escape, in part because those albums were made under enormous pressure to follow up the breakthroughs that preceded them in 1994. (Future audiences might wonder what all the fuss was about with that Battle of Britpop; neither “Roll With It” nor “Country House” warrant much more than a curiosity listen). Blur and Oasis enjoyed their finest hours elsewhere, but this one belonged to Pulp. There’s a warmth to them which some of their contemporaries lacked. Apart from their openness to musical influences from outside England, here’s the key: the characters who populate these songs are people. Not sketches doodled from a cool distance, but people, with yearnings and regrets, quirks and flaws. Cocker’s relationship with the working-class is complex – while he scraped by on the dole for much of his 20s, his childhood was never desperately poor – but his depictions of those on the margins are genuinely affectionate. Though the band’s lineage is less straightforward than the Wonderwall-Robbie Williams-Coldplay sequence of diminishing returns, it’s there if you’re willing to look. Traces of Pulp are present in the conversational monologues of Spearmint, the dancefloor-focused rock (and the shirts) of Franz Ferdinand, the unromantic realism of fellow Sheffielders Arctic Monkeys, and Mike Skinner’s knack of finding humour and profundity in what most lyricists would dismiss as too mundane.

The British music press pundits who excitably declared victory in 1994 were made to look daft when the Spice Girls began to restore standard business procedure by mid-1996, while Pulp’s vision of a mainstream conquered by outsiders grows harder to imagine each year. But Different Class had the guts to surge forward when many were content to march in the other direction, and it did this with a dozen cracking songs that still make the heart race, even if you’re not old enough to remember the first time.

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