The biggest cliché of Britpop is that the correct answer to the question, “who’s better, Blur or Oasis?” is Pulp. And, indeed, it’s true. Clichés tend to become clichés because they have a grain of truth in them, so while Blur and Oasis were battling it out at the top of the charts with “Country House” and “Roll With It” respectively – a chart battle largely invented by and for the music press, subsequently fuelled by members of both bands – Pulp had already won the war with “Common People”. In the end Blur won the battle of the singles, with “Country House” (an unremarkable but entertaining slab of Kinks-derived pop) beating Oasis’s “Roll With It” (an unremarkable but entertaining slab of Beatles-derived pop) to the Number 1 spot.
(What’s The Story) Morning Glory? won the battle of the albums over The Great Escape but the “battle”, such as it was, never really troubled the albums anyway. Meanwhile, Different Class by Pulp is better than either of them, and the fact that “Common People” only got to Number 2 in a way helps give a sense of definition to the third pillar of Britpop being better than the other two. They may not have topped the singles charts with “Common People” but by not doing so it gives Pulp a slight remove, a distance away from the childish Britpop chart squabbles that defined that movement’s two leading lights. “Roll With It” only got to Number 2 as well, but it was in contention for the prize fight – “Common People” came along and was simply better. Their single doesn’t need to get to Number 1 – it’s self-evidently a better song than the other two.
It’s more caustic and politically literate than Blur’s “satire” of a big city roller retiring to the country, and it’s catchier, better constructed and more meaningful that Oasis’s slurred drawl. It also bridges the difference in class between the two bands. Oasis and Blur were often seen as “working class” vs “middle class” – a trite dichotomy at best – but Pulp supersede either crude definition. Their aesthetic is very clearly rooted in the experience of the working class, but they have the intelligence and understanding to hold their own against the middle class and the song is, after all, rooted in an experience in higher education (and a fine arts college, at that), more traditionally the abode of the middle classes. It’s what makes Jarvis Cocker such a great lyricist – he’s able to use his background and circumstances but not be beholden to them.
And if you are looking for an aesthetic peak, then “Common People” is about as perfect a representation of that as one could hope for. There’s plenty of other songs on Different Class which perform similar feats, and some – “Live Bed Show”, for example – are arguably even better than an already magnificent song but no song will ever define Pulp more than “Common People”. It really is a perfect summation of what the band do. The driving, pulsing keyboard line that opens the first few seconds of the song pulls the listener in, and that pulse is unrelenting – it runs through the whole of the song and is the anchor to which everything else is tied. It’s deeply effective, just a simple little riff, given life by everything layered on top of it.
And instrumentation-wise this song is an absolute triumph of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to production. The arrangement here is dense, a pile-up wall of sound that is an enveloping as it is energetic. There’s a stylophone in here. A violin scratching away. You name it. It’s just all so gloriously over the top and yet it never feels over-produced. The song is produced, in fact, by Chris Thomas, who has an amazing track record. He’s produced The Beatles (a couple of White Album songs while George Martin was off doing something presumably less frustrating). And he’s one of the two producers of Never Mind The Bollocks (it’s complicated). He’s produced albums for artists as diverse as U2, Tom Robinson, Procol Harum and Roxy Music. Suffice to say, if you wanted a sure hand behind the production desk you couldn’t really ask for anyone better and right enough he does an astounding job. The single still sounds fresh and engaging, full of exactly the life and energy the song needs to be brought to life. All the musicians in the band are delivering their best work, and it’s important to remember that “Common People” really is a joint effort, not just Jarvis Cocker on his own, and everyone deserves credit for just how well it all turned out.
But it’s not exactly a revelation to point out that it’s Cocker that embodies the song. Between his often hilariously melodramatic lead vocal, weird random dancing in the video and his overall media presence, nothing quite embodies “Common People” like he does. And fair enough. It’s tough to overstate just how good his performance is here. The song starts narratively (“she came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge”) and Jarvis’s delivery reflects that – he’s almost neutral but a few lines later he’s already slid into sarcasm (“in that case I’ll have a rum and coca-cola”). The first chorus is notably restrained but the restraint doesn’t last and the more the song barrels forward the less restrained he becomes. It’s part of the joy of the song – the ever-escalating whirl of Cocker’s vocal just never seems to hit any kind of upper limit and becomes more intense and impassioned as the song winds on. Just when you think his snarling, viciously condemnatory delivery of “you will never understand how it feels to live your life…” is going to be the peak it turns out he has even more to give and the final, hollered “wanna live with common people like you” refrain at the end of the song shows just what a great vocalist Cocker is. It’s an astoundingly good performance given by someone who has committed 110% to the song and is throwing everything at it.
Yet the conclusion never feels cathartic as such, nor is there exhaustion there. The song ends, the statement has been made, the points have been articulated and that’s it. We don’t gasp across the finish line, exhausted and wrung out – we stop. That’s important because this isn’t a cathartic exercise, as such – there are plenty of strong emotions to be wrung out of the song for sure but this isn’t about getting some kind of psychological relief from the expression of those emotions. Rather, it’s about drawing attention to them, making the listener aware of what’s going on, and the power of the song is derived from the anger which is kept close rather than relief at that anger being expressed. The song, to put it another way, locks its anger in, and in holding that anger tight to itself (rather than releasing it) “Common People” is able to retain its potency all these years later. This song is furious, and it will not let that go.
Pulp will have other moments in the spotlight. Three further singles from Different Class would all prove excellent and cemented the band’s reputation. There’s Jarvis Cocker upstaging Michael Jackson at the Brit awards with a quick bum shake. Tabloid exposure and “Justice For Jarvis”. The magnificence of their follow-up album, This Is Hardcore, a sleazy, filthy piece of work that remains one of the best albums of the 90’s. But none of it can nudge aside “Common People” as their defining moment, and quite right too. It’s a song that is the very definition of zeitgeist – it arrived exactly when it needed to and for exactly the right reasons – but which survives on beyond its own moment in the spotlight for one very good reason. It’s an excellent song.
In the video, Jarvis Cocker spends much of the run-time desolately reciting the lyrics in a shopping trolley while pushed around an intentionally-fake looking supermarket filled with endless boxes which simply say Pulp. Band as consumer product. But – and with no trace of irony – that’s not at all what either “Common People” is or Pulp are. And for one vivid, perfect moment “Common People” – a political song about class tourism and elitism – took centre stage for the whole world to see. The rest of the world might be caught up with ghastly fraud of Cool Britannia, the hollow conflicts of Britpop or the desperate mid-90’s attempts to convince us that Everything Is All Right. But not Pulp. This wasn’t the endlessly repeating void of consumerism seen in the video, nor one of false hope. It was a song with something to say which did it in the most powerful way possible.
“Common People” is an absolute treasure.
What Else Happened in 1995?
Big news from the world of boy bands – Robbie Williams quits Take That, and both go on to do perfectly fine afterwards (admittedly there’s something of a lag before Take That manage it). Of course there’s the whole rise of Britpop and the Blur and Oasis thing. Freddie Mercury is half a decade dead but it’s not slowing Queen down, who shuffle out the lacklustre, dreary Made In Heaven as a sad-trombone ending to their career in its original form. R.E.M.’s drummer Bill Berry suffers a brain aneurysm while on tour which will lead to his departure from the band. The sprawling but largely excellent Beatles Anthology project comes to fruition with a documentary series, three double-albums’ worth of unreleased material and, of all things, a new single (see below). The biggest single of the year is the hilariously overwrought “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio, with Shaggy positioned right behind him (help yourself) with “Boombastic”. Alanis Morissette makes an immediate impression with Jagged Little Pill, and Radiohead’s The Bends sees them almost immediately fulfil their potential. Bjork finds both single and album success with “It’s Oh So Quiet” and Post respectively, and Skunk Anansie debut with Paranoid and Sunburnt. Richie Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers goes missing, never to be found, and is assumed to have committed suicide. Both Foo Fighters and Ben Folds Five release their first albums, as do Sleater-Kinney. It’s Bob Dylan’s turn to be Unplugged this year, while the much under-appreciated Elasctica debut with their eponymous first album, and PJ Harvey releases the brilliant To Bring You My Love. George Michael and Sony finally part ways after Michael stated he’d never record again if he’s held to the contract he failed to break last time, and both Jerry Garcia and Ginger Rogers leave the world.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
The Beatles, unexpectedly! “Free As A Bird” gets to Number 2 in the UK. This is shocking because a) it’s a new Beatles single and didn’t get to Number 1 and b) it’s not that great of a song. Only the middle-eight and Harrison’s outright fantastic, stinging guitar solo have any real juice to them but otherwise this sounds exactly like what it is – three-quarters of the members acting as a backing band to a Lennon demo, produced by someone who very clearly isn’t George Martin (well, five someone’s in fact, the band plus Jeff Lynne). It’s not an embarrassment but it’s not exactly “Strawberry Fields Forever” either. Aside from that, in the UK it’s a pretty decent year actually – Pulp qualify a second time with “Mis-shapes / Sorted For E’s and Wizz”, and Supergrass’s “Alright” is definitely worth having a conversation about. Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love You’s” (the lone good song from the disappointing Diva follow-up, Meduda), Oasis’s “Roll With It” and “Wonderwall”, and U2’s “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me” all make it, and “Wonderwall” makes it a second time with a genuinely hilarious cover by Mike Flowers Pops. Allegedly the band hated it, so that makes it worthwhile on its own.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Kylie Minogue – “Confide In Me”
7. Ultravox – “Vienna”
8. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
9. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
10. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
11. Pulp – “Common People”
12. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
13. The Beautiful South – “Song For Whoever”
14. The B-52’s – “Love Shack”
15. Luciano Pavarotti – “Nessun Dorma”
16. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
17. The KLF with Tammy Wynette – “Justified And Ancient (Stand By The JAMs)”
18. James – “Sit Down”
19. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
20. Suzanne Vega-DNA – “Tom’s Diner”
21. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
22. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
23. 4 Non Blondes – “What’s Up?”
24. Queen, “Killer Queen”
25. Blondie, “Denis”
26. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
27. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
28. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
29. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
30. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
31. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
32. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
33. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
34. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
35. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
36. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
37. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”