20 years ago Pulp unleashed their seminal album Different Class onto the music world, Getintothis’ Del Pike takes a trip back to 1995 to see what all the fuss was about.
Britain, 1995: a country in cultural transition. The Conservative government had been in power sixteen years too long. A new housewives’ favourite was stood in the eaves, awaiting landslide victory for Labour in just two short years time. Those in their early twenties may have had sallow eyes due to too many years of partying hard in moonlit fields, while others had worshipped a “fairy-tale princess of hearts”, soon to meet her demise in a Paris road tunnel.
Musically, Britain was clinging to more American tastes. Still reeling from the shock suicide of Kurt Cobain the previous year, grunge remained popular with the nation’s long-hairs still buying into the cult of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains.
The 80s indie phenomenon had shifted dramatically with the acid house explosion at the turn of the decade; bands such as Primal Scream, The Soup Dragons and New Order had exchanged their traditional jangly pop for Balearic beats and excursions into psychedelia, and given up their indie status to the majors. Purveyors of more mainstream indie produce were catered for with the media-constructed Britpop movement spearheaded by Oasis and Blur who by 1995 had been party to a staged head-to-head, what Metro’s Adam Boult refers to this month as “When both bands went rubbish”.
Britpop of course was merely an ideal, created by NME, resurrected from the 1960s to shift copy. The better bands corralled into the movement did not welcome the tag, and would have dominated the indie landscape without being shamelessly pigeonholed.
What the apparent Britpop movement did bring was a new wave of art school bands that included Blur but also encompassed Suede and Menswear, bands that embraced the 70s imagery and exotica of Roxy Music and followed their tradition of sleazy bedroom tales and glam-androgyny. The most enigmatic of this new breed came in the form of Sheffield’s Pulp, fronted by instant icon Jarvis Cocker. The twist of Pulp, was that despite their fresh assault on the charts, they had actually been around since 1983, which surely made the Britpop label stick in their throats even more.
Originally Arabicus Pulp (for a thankfully short period), they had recorded briefly on Cherry Red Records before releasing their Freaks album on the Fire label and Separations on Gift Records. These musical nomads had not only drifted from label to label but also from one musical style to the next. Like R.E.M. before them, the move to a major label proved a turning point and Island Records worked wonders with the release of His ‘n’ Hers in 1994. Singles Babies, Do You Remember the First Time? and Lipgloss found steady radio play and Jarvis Cocker was gradually becoming a household name. His video performances displayed a stick insect-like figure, moving jerkily barefoot and bare-chested in charity shop suits, his face flickering between matinee idol and geek.
The vacancy for a new hero for back-bedroom dreamers was filled in 1995 when Pulp returned and Jarvis appeared to have finally found his look. The black-framed specs and dour Northern musings drew obvious comparisons with Morrissey but it stopped there; here was a true original with a set of songs in his own right that would buy him and his band cult status for generations to come.
Different Class, released 20 years ago this month still sounds as fresh and vital as it did then. The Pulp line-up, with a Fall-threatening 20-plus turnaround since their inception, now felt familiar; in part due to the iconic portrait on the sleeve of His ‘n’ Hers, an appealing rogues gallery of misfits, but this time round presented as a set of inspired monochrome cardboard cut-outs in a choice of 12 different sleeves.
Jarvis was not the only member of Pulp who would fascinate aesthetically. Guitarist, and perhaps more noticeably, violinist, Russell Senior cut an intriguing figure with his almost balletic dexterity with an elongated bow dancing across the strings. Candida Doyle fitted the Pulp profile perfectly; she remained static at the keyboards with pan-stick cosmetics and ragdoll clothes, asexual against Cocker’s perverted sexual bombast. Her steady key-jabbing would form the bedrock of many a Pulp hit.
Different Class followed on from where The Queen is Dead and Modern Life is Rubbish left off with its snapshots of Working Class British life. Jarvis’s lyrics were more carnally aware than the bedroom-bound Mozzer and the Ray Davies-obsessed Albarn; despite his choice of Oxfam-chic suits and NHS bins, there was a sense that this lothario in corduroy had actually been to bed with a girl. The sleaze that Pulp brought to the party placed the listeners behind the closed doors of houses they probably wouldn’t have cared to enter otherwise.
The lead single Common People is of course the song that Pulp will be forever remembered for, and rightly so. Lyrically outstanding, name-checking St Martins College early on, establishing immediately their status as an art-school outfit, this song had it all. Humour, pathos, glam-dramatic flourishes and a killer chorus; hell, it even got its own documentary on BBC4. This was a prime example of Jarvis Cocker placing himself at one with the “common people” while a million miles apart.
Anyone in doubt of Pulp’s abilities needed to look no further than their performance of the song during their career-defining appearance at Glastonbury, following a frantic bid to fill in for the absent Stone Roses. The Saturday night headline spot on the Main Stage saw Jarvis holding the crowd in the palm of his hand and suddenly Pulp were officially the coolest band in the country. Bearing in mind that this was nearly five months prior to Different Class’s release, this was a massive achievement.
Jarvis has never been afraid to blossom onstage, overcoming his bookish persona; much like Morrissey in fact. Who can forget his surprise appearance onstage during the 1996 Brit awards. When appalled by the figure of Michael Jackson surrounded by children singing Earthsong, so soon after MJ’s child abuse allegations, he leapt forward and wriggled his bum at the atrocities on display. Equally impressive was his impersonation of Rolf Harris singing Two Little Boys on ITV’s Stars in Their Eyes, a moment Jarvis may now want to file away.
Common People was indeed a ground-breaking song that would prove life-changing for the band but there was so much more to hear on Different Class.
Disco 2000, now sharing its 20th birthday with Easyjet on their funfair TV ad, originally held loftier status as a dreamy paean to lost teenage love. Almost a sequel to Babies from the previous year, with its suburban imagery of wood-chipped walls and poky houses, there are lyrics here that are downright poetic, drenched in astounding honesty.
“You were the first girl at school to get breasts; Martyn said that you were the best. The boys all loved you, but I was a mess, I had to watch them trying to get you undressed.”
Jarvis spends the bulk of the song regretting what could have been, but his wit shines through on the closing line:
“What are you doing Sunday baby? Would you like to come and meet me, maybe? You can even bring your baby.” Love it.
Equally worthy is Sorted for E’s & Wizz, a comical homage to rave culture that finds Jarvis in a field with two thousand people, properly equipped after meeting a “fucked up bloke in Camden Town”. It’s not just the wry lyrics that make these songs so special but the arrangement; also, Chris Thomas’s production is particularly on the button. Sci-fi interludes and irresistible passages make Sorted… an instant classic which showcases Jarvis Cocker’s warm Yorkshire tones brilliantly when he sighs “Mother, I can never come home again, ’cause I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere in a field in Hampshire“. Anyone who can remember the experience of an all-night rave will identify with this and it reflects yet another chapter of working class culture from Pulp’s pallate.
Singles aside, there are enough album tracks to ensure this record’s status as a classic. Live Bed Show and Underwear further established Pulp as weavers of sleaze that would continue in full force through their next album, This is Hardcore, but it is the relentless drive of tracks such as F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.AL.L.E.D.L.O.V.E that set Pulp aside from their contemporaries, bringing forward a dark brooding throb that would later be heard on Elbow’s finer tracks. It was songs like this that enabled Jarvis to craft his art as an electric live performer, when this writer saw Pulp on their comeback tour in 2011, I was in awe of the lesser bearded Cocker climbing atop the amps and using the stage of the Brixton Academy as a jungle gym. So much more than a talented singer songwriter – a true legend.
While This is Hardcore is arguably a much more accomplished album on almost every level, it is the zeitgeist appeal and diversity of Different Class that has kept it in the greatest album polls for so long. It is a triumph in design and subject matter that compliments the tunes and wit that the band supplies. For any Pulp fans who fell in love or were at uni in 1995 (and I tick both boxes) it will forever hold a special place in their hearts. It has its faults, probably the most obvious being that it is a couple of tracks too long: Monday Morning and Bar Italia would have been perfectly serviceable B-sides, but I’m sure they have their fans. The anthemic quality of the album’s highpoints will ensure further sales and revisits for the foreseeable future and it is plain to see why Easyjet chose Disco 2000 to highlight their anniversary. Echoes of the famous Jarvis persona and attitude can be detected in artists as varied as Guy Garvey, Spector’s Fred MacPherson and East India Youth’s William Doyle.
Since Different Class, Pulp have only released two studio albums, due to their split in 2003. Their Hits album prior to the split performed surprisingly poorly which felt very much like a curse on the band. Cocker’s excellent solo albums and many side-projects, his presence on 6 Music as a presenter and his cameo in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox have kept him in the public eye, but it is Different Class and the single, Common People, that will cement Pulp in history. Dust off your copy, select a sleeve, get sorted for E’s and Wizz and relieve the Autumn of 1995 all over again.