One For Keeps is a features series in which musicOMH writers wax lyrical on albums they’d just not be able to cope without. Here, in the 25th anniversary year of its release, and on the day Common People went on sale, Ross Horton remembers one of the finest British albums of all time.
In 1994, Pulp released His ‘n’ Hers – an absolute masterpiece that would be the jewel in the crown of most bands. But for this group of Sheffield art-school oddjobs, it’s not even their second-best record. It might not even be their third-best, depending on how you feel about their last album.
However, what it did for the band was invaluable: it made them contenders. Before His ‘n’ Hers, they were an electro-pop dance band (apparently – I’ve never listened to their early albums for fear of hearing something I didn’t want to hear). After His ‘n’ Hers, they made Different Class, which is (for lack of a better way of putting it) just so fucking incredible I can’t believe people exist in the world that haven’t heard it.
I was born in 1992, and this album was released in 1995, so by my logic, I would have heard Disco 2000 for the first time when I was about three years old. Its ubiquitous position on radio playlists for the next few years never let me forget that this was the first song that I remember hearing. In particular, the line “Your house was very small/With woodchip on the wall” has been with me for nearly 25 years. It felt as though Jarvis was singing to me, about me and with me, accurately predicting a future adulthood that I couldn’t have dreamed of, could not have possibly conceived of in 2005, let alone 1995. Jarvis Cocker, Nick Banks, Steve Mackey, Russell Senior, Candida Doyle and Mark Webber, I salute you all.
But it doesn’t matter if you were born in 1995 or 1905, Disco 2000 is about you. It’s a song about gossip, about youth, about sex, about impotent male rage, the objectification of women, but most of all, it’s about the never-ending fear of denial and betrayal and disappointment that is so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that we feel it as soon as we leave the womb. Disco 2000 is a song about humanity, and that alone sets Different Class apart from the rest of what rock music was doing in 1995. Apparently, the song has some autobiographical moments that Jarvis lived, but I don’t care. I’ve lived the song, in my imagination and in my life, and the moments he’s describing are utterly and completely mine. They can be yours too, if you want.
The rest of the album – he says, flippantly – is also pretty good. Common People is probably, on the balance of things, an even better song than Disco 2000. It’s sexier, rougher around the edges and has certainly been more successful. It’s a song about the objectification of the working class, it’s a song about the awkward human interactions surrounding love and sex, and it’s also a song about how good it feels to finally have something going your way. Sonically, it’s an aggressive art-rocker (the drums are mixed to sound enormous), drawing on early Roxy Music and later Stooges, but doing so with a sense of finesse and detachment that it sounds like it could be a descendant of either prog-rock or punk, or neither. Again, it apparently contains some autobiographical details from Jarvis’ life, but you shouldn’t let that get to you.
Mis-Shapes, which opens the album with a sense of early Scott Walker/prime Kinks grandeur, lays down the gauntlet early. It’s a call to arms, a plea for unity amongst the poor, deluded and disappointed working classes from West Bromwich to Burnley, Glasgow to Wigan, Skegness to Minehead. We are all the same, Jarvis says, let’s enjoy it.
Sorted For E’s And Whizz is a wistful, solemn look back at Jarvis’ younger days, when raves were the rule rather than the exception. But it is not a celebratory drug anthem, as much as it is a paean to the power of nostalgia and the disappointment of reality.
Sex is also dealt with in stark terms. Live Bed Show – as misleading a title as any – is about how empty beds feels when it sees no bodies, sees no love, sees no action. Pencil Skirt deals with the grotesque nature of the male gaze, especially how men are desirous and covetous of things they know they can never have. Jarvis’ breathy, Serge Gainsbourg-ian panting only serves to further the sense of horror. Underwear has peculiarly youthful and female view of sex, particularly the anxiety and terror of finding yourself pursuing someone that needs to be convinced into pursuing you. Jarvis’ sensitive and empathetic lyrics are surprisingly heartfelt and (I’d imagine) authentic.
I Spy and Something Changed are two of the most intriguing songs in the Pulp canon. The former is a John Le Carré spy drama about a man who subverts the social order by corrupting an upper-class woman with his working class sex. By disrupting the social order, he demolishes the entire notion of class. It’s also a hell of a tune. The latter, Something’s Changed, is a rather touching and sincere song about making decisions that can change your life.
The album closes with Monday Morning (a frenetic, nervous rocker), and Bar Italia (a dramatic, grandiose swooner in the style of early ’70s David Bowie). They’re unnecessary, and totally superfluous, but they are utterly irreplaceable now that the album has sat out in the world for 25 years. To think of them as anything less than essential is criminal.
The true bleeding heart of the album is the epic F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E. Over its six-minute runtime, it deals with the corrupting influence of love and lust can have on a carefully planned life. It’s an ode to taking chances, and seeking opportunities, no matter how deeply those truths are hidden.
That’s not all: the sessions for the album resulted in around 35 songs, which can be found spread across the different editions of the albums there’ve been down the years. But nothing beats the original 12 tracks, and nothing else should be considered as being the true version of Different Class.
It’s an album that spits at gentrification, doesn’t care if London falls into the channel, presents working class life with sincerity and romance, and does it all with an elemental power that seems to be drawn directly from the heavens. In 1995, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain and Freddie Mercury were dead; ABBA, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles were defunct; David Bowie was arsing around with industrial music; Blur and Oasis were fuelling each other’s creative fires with schoolboy antics; Michael Jackson was desperately trying to improve his public standing, and Prince was… still doing alright, actually. What I’m getting at is the very simple fact that in 1995, Pulp were the best musical act in the world. It’s an undoubtable, unarguable, unassailable fact and, if you’re still not convinced, then there’s no helping you.