Luke Turner , September 21st, 2015
Luke Turner looks back 20 years to a singular album and a nation standing at a cultural crossroads
September 25, 1995. After school, the walk into town to Our Price. I might have been wearing my grey silver sixth form suit three chest sizes too big, black charity shop silk shirt and orange and brown spotted tie. I did five walks into town for Pulp around that time, to buy 'Common People', 'Disco 2000', 'Sorted For Es & Whizz' the Different Class album itself, and 'Mis-Shapes'. I'd have taken the CD home, eagerly looking forward to whatever slogan Pulp might have put inside it. 'Mis-Shapes' ran thus, and I can still remember it, even without the sleeve to hand: "There is a war in progress. Don't be a casual(ty). Stay alive in '95." Then the song itself, with lyrics that seemed to be about my early trips to pubs in St. Albans town centre of a Friday and Saturday night: "Mis-Shapes, mistakes, misfits... We'd like to go town but we can't risk it / oh 'cos they just want to keep us out / you could end up with a smack in the mouth / just for standing out."
Yet this is St. Albans, for heaven's sake, a prosperous commuter town 20 minutes by train on the newly electrified line down to Kings Cross, not some no hope place out in the sticks. It was a deeply unpleasant, violent place. The town's history as a stop on Watling Street, the old Roman Road out of London, had left it with umpteen former coaching inns clustered around the town centre. At 11:20 pm on the dot, they'd disgorge thousands of Ben Sherman-clad blokes with lager working in alchemy with doltish hormones, spoiling for a fight, or more accurately, some willowy, gay-looking teenagers in daft silver suits three chest sizes too big to kick the shit out of. My friends and I got good at running.
In the autumn of 1995, Tony Blair had only been leader of the Labour Party for just over a year. There was an air of optimism, but nothing yet approaching the heady euphoria that started to build towards 1997, when I remember hearing cheers from surrounding streets at 3:30am when Tory after Tory was decapitated. By 1995, 'Mis-Shapes' felt like psychic armour against the small minds and narrow horizons of the Middle England, quintessentially Tory seat, that St. Albans was. The shuffle to the station, nascent chain shop ubiquity, the Daily Mail, the dogs that'd run out from behind the detached houses and snarl as, panicking, I tried to deliver the unwanted local free paper. There was the casual, snide racism that flew in all directions at my ethnically mixed secondary school. Lonny Donnegan and Argent were from St. Albans, but nothing decent had happened since, and nobody seemed to care about anything apart from work and a holiday to somewhere hot. All there was was shopping, fighting, the accumulation of wealth to put a decent car on your decent drive. If you could put up with all that, then I am sure St. Albans is a perfectly lovely place to live.
Back in 1995, the Home Counties did petty violence and they did tedium, but they didn't do sex. I can't write that that homophobia was rife in an overt way, because it was just part of the culture, ever-present, lurking, terrifying. Sex was something that one of the hot boys in form 5J might have had in the Abbey rose gardens, or what Tory MPs did with satsumas in their mouths and a pair of tights round their necks, hanging from doors of hotel wardrobes. Sex certainly happened in the Europe seen on furtive, light-night viewings of Channel 4's Eurotrash, but not here. Sex with girls was certainly something beyond my imagination. It was high concept, way out of reach. Sex was clearly not going to happen to this awkward, shy, appallingly badly dressed 16-year-old any time soon.
But then there was Jarvis Cocker. Then there was Pulp. Then there was Different Class. I already had Suede, but despite Brett Anderson's by now much derided comments about being a bisexual who'd never had a homosexual experience, they were the band who spoke to my more active homosexual wing. Not quite sure why I had to separate them, but there you go, I did. Jarvis Cocker was weirder than me, but there he was, with all these utterly filthy songs - 'Underwear', 'I Spy', 'Live Bed Show', 'Pencil Skirt' - that all suggested he was getting some. And not only that, these were songs about sex that felt like a direct assault on the mundanity that made the air thick and hard to breathe around me. 1994'sHis & Hers and the recordings later collected on the Intro LP, felt like very Northern records, not too concerned with what was going in in London. Up there, sex happened bent over the kitchen sink. Different Class, by contrast, was a record that had Jarvis heading down the M1 with a pocket full of Durex and a wicked glint in his eye. This was a record where seedy sex was a weapon of class war: as Jarvis sings of the bored middle class woman who's the target of his affections in 'I Spy' - "I spy a boy and I spy a girl, I spy a chance to change the world, to change your world". This is the orgasm as brick through a plate glass window.
I don't think this is Pulp's best record, to be honest. As an album, His & Hers holds up far better. There are weak moments on Different Class, though to be fair to 'Disco 2000' it was one of those tracks tarred by indie disco ubiquity, and can't help but sounding a little weak after 'I Spy'. There's little more to say about 'Common People' is there, one of the greatest songs of the 1990s and the best dissection of the British class system ever to (nearly) reach number one. It shouldn't need to be pointed out that Different Class was never a snobby record however. A "Casual(ty)" was a state of mind not a social class, as was a "mis-shape". This was inclusive, so long as you got it, so long as you believed. 'Es & Whizz' is obviously a hymn to the joy of the communal experience of the rave, and arguably one that put it better than any of the crossover dance hits of the time. The louche 'Bar Italia' spoke of Soho conviviality that sounded so exotic from just outside the Capital. It is a louche Soho conviviality that's now gone. 'Underwear' made the models in my family's Kays catalogue come alive and wiggle just as it spoke of my frustrated teenage lust for dark haired Catherine who worked on the tills with me at Argos. I thought "If fashion is your trade/ then when you're naked you must be unemployed" was one of the most amusing lines I'd ever heard, and would practice flouncing it out in front of the mirror. Some of these songs, like 'Something Changed' are just lovely pieces of melodic pop and well, the record's 20-years-old isn't it? You know it.
I do wonder if Pulp would have got away with some of these lyrics in these more sensitive, call-out culture times: "I really love it when you tell me to stop/ oh it's turning me on," for example. But the brilliance of Pulp was always to embrace the darkness of sex, the ooze and the horror, the guilt and the shame, the power and submission. They were a bizarre pop band beamed in from another world who, somehow, had managed to top the charts with lust, anger and humour: "I've kissed your mother twice/ now I'm working on your dad".
I had assumed I wouldn't be allowed to go to Glastonbury in the summer of 1995, so I never asked. Instead I sat rapt watching and taping the TV as Pulp replaced The Stone Roses. It still gives me goosebumps to think of it now, Jarvis going on about camping in gold lame tents, mincing, twirling, prancing, hissing out 'I Spy', Russell Senior with cliff overhang cheekbones and tweed jacket sawing away on his violin, the sound of the audience clearly losing their minds. It felt like a victory. It felt like our victory.
And then it all went wrong.
My dad worked abroad for the summer of 1995, and we as a family went with him. When I returned for school in September, the tabloid newspapers and even the BBC were stuck into the hoary battle of Blur vs Oasis. All the politics, the sex, the smartness seemed to suddenly have vanished in favour of grim, Loaded boorishness and musical conservatism.
Saturday 2nd March, 1996. Wembley Arena. This is only my second ever concert, I get there early, head down the front. It's brilliant, of course, Jarvis our hero up there and wiggling his hips and pointing like he does and all that, but something seems not quite right. I make my first foolish decision to pay too much attention to the crowd. I look around during the singalongs, and especially 'Mis-Shapes' and wonder who all these men are, in their pale blue shirts and jeans slightly worn at the back looking suspiciously like the sort I'd be turning tail from in St. Albans of a Friday night. You're supposed to come to our side, to join us. Pulp are here to change everything, not be mere entertainment. I'd shout at you for that elbowing if you didn't look like a vengeful side of pork.
Now I can look back at that as the naive snootiness of youth, but it was hard not to feel that Pulp's message was getting lost amidst the fame, especially following the Michael Jackson Brit Awards incident a few weeks before. After that, things got very, very dark for Pulp. Last year at Rough Trade I interviewed Jarvis Cocker and Candida Doyle, accidentally grilling them for 90 minutes. Cocker was as ever engaging and funny, Doyle gently mocking, pointing out her bandmate's foibles. It was only when it got to discussing the late 90s that a bit of a cloud drifted over the conversation. Who knows exactly what happened, though ego, drugs and more selfish sex, as explored on 1998's This Is Hardcore, were clearly a lot to do with it. I remember television interviews with Jarvis in the period after Pulp blew up and finding them rather hard to bear - things had all gone a bit Chris Evans. By the year 2000 that Pulp sang of so optimistically the hope of New Labour would be on the wane, and sex departed from British indie as Coldplay and Travis' asinine whinnying took over.
Who knows if something like Pulp will ever happen again. Just as in politics the agenda has shifted to the right, so it has an increasingly conservative pop milieu. Who would let a Jarvis Cocker get away with it in 2015? Sleaford Mods occupy a similar lyrical ground, but there's no sex and it's an even more cynical take, reflecting the times.
Yet the way things are going, Different Class sounds and feels more relevant now under David Cameron's second government than perhaps it did in the summer of 1995. A Labour government was just around the corner then, after all. It felt like Pulp were singing of an age of inequality that might, just might, be about to end. In a time when the creative industries and insane London rental market seem to be dominated by the sort of people whose dads could indeed stop it all, the lyrics to 'Common People' sound far from dated. Would Jarvis Cocker ever have made it to art school now? I doubt it. Much as it grieves me to write this, I can't really see anyone coming up to take his place, to "burn so bright while you can only wonder 'why'", as 'Common People''s triumphant final chorus had it. Have we had the stuffing knocked out of us? After all, Jarvis' best contribution to music since the millennium has to sing, with weary resignation, that "cunts are still running the world".
Perhaps all we have now is imaginary revenge, a cold echo. Go on, do it, put 'I Spy' on, imagine singing it to Cameron or Osbourne or Blair or Hunt or Clegg, "I've been sleeping with your wife for the past sixteen weeks/ I've been smoking your cigarettes/ drinking your brandy/ messing up the bed that you chose together/ and all that time I just wanted you to come over unexpectedly one afternoon/ and catch us at it in the front room." But it's not enough, is it? Think of the end of that song: "I will take you from this sickness/ Dinner parties and champagne/ I'll hold your body and make it sing again"... Alas, Britannia's knickers remained dry.
Where Different Class suggested a coming triumph (pun intended), it's hard not to feel that its optimism, anger and fervour have been relegated to a side note to the awful honking narrative of both Britpop and the disappointment of New Labour. Pulp's fiery return at Primavera in 2011 proved, as Tim Burrows wrote so brilliantly here, that their politics could travel and touched the universal. Yet they vanished again just as, perhaps, we needed them most. I'm hopefully not alone in being slightly saddened by the "yay 6Music cuddly Uncle Jarv" thing that, unbidden, attached itself to the band. That shouldn't have happened, for at their best Pulp were deadly.
I dearly wish that Different Class was a monument that pointed to a changing tide, or that we could bring back that spirit, that the funny man in strange clothes saving us from all this hideousness was a Cocker, not a Corbyn. ("I am not Jesus though I have the same initials" - perhaps Jeremy could borrow that later Pulp lyric). "Live on", Jarvis told us from the stage at Glastonbury in the hot June of 1995. "Stay alive in '95". We did. We hoped that something would change. It wasn't Pulp's fault, of course, but unfortunately, nothing did.