This was a long time ago. Half a lifetime ago, in fact. Back when the world was somewhat different, but, in many ways, exactly the same. It was in the run up to the end of school. Not just the end of a school year, but GCSEs and the moment we’d walk out of the school doors for the very, very last time. The time of being isolated and miserable by puberty had passed. It was the point at which life could start properly.
On Radio 1, which still mattered then, Chris Evans was kicking the establishment away. We hadn’t quite figured out what a nob he was, but compared to the traditional Smashie and Nicie DJs he was a rebel. He was cool. No less than when he extolled us, the young and empowered, to buy a record, to buy a single that was new and exciting and dynamic about us and them and life and the perils of vanity. We had to buy this record to prevent the housewife’s favourites, TV actors Robson and Jerome, from sitting pretty at number one with their bland cover of Unchained Melody.
It seemed as though music that was something more vibrant than Australian soap stars or novelty pop records that reeked so vilely was gate-crashing its way into the mainstream. Bands with guitars and drums who sang about the things that mattered rather than death cults or Nazi memorabilia had arrived. Or returned. Or, to be strictly accurate, simply drifted onto our cultural radar, previously blinkered by childhood. Anyway, they were bands for whom it was cool to part with our hard-earned cash. Money we’d gained stacking shelves in supermarkets, swiping credit cards in petrol stations and humping sacks of compost around garden centres. And so we bought the record, but it still only made it to number two. The nice chaps, with the big smiles and the chiselled chins and the safe, unchallenging material, who were managed by Simon Cowell, had triumphed.
See, things change. And then again, they don’t.
The song? Pulp’s Common People and that record along with its parent album, Different Class, was the sound of coming of age.
Britpop was a media phrase, something to sum up what it meant for Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit to appear sprawling on the cover of Time Magazine endorsing Cool Britannia. It was a handy way to clunk together bands from the UK who played guitar, but it was ineffectively narrow. Pulp were never Britpop. They were never Menswear or Cast or Sleeper or the Bluetones or fucking Shed ‘we’re so cool we can piss on the floor of the Cardiff Student Union Bar’ Seven. Which isn’t to say I didn’t, at the time, like those bands. I did, for I was young and they were a genre that I could associate with. Something cool I actually liked, that made me part of a socially acceptable herd.
Sorry, but I was sixteen.
Yet, it was a fleeting thing. The majority of Britpop bands have faded. Their music was of that moment at the end of the century when for the first time in twenty-five years it seemed that youth might be worth living after all. In 2011, Blur’s Damon Alban seems to have turned himself into some sort of twenty-first century Renaissance man dabbling in everything from pop-hip-hop to dub and Chinese opera, keeping each new release interesting at least. The Manic Street Preachers are in some sort of late-period revival, Radiohead continue to hide in their own little bubble and Oasis have finally realised that they’re never going to write a song as good as Don’t Look Back in Anger and have, thankfully, gone away. And that’s it. All the others, the one-time new generation, have become the past and either given up or are hawking records on their own labels and playing gigs to nostalgic thirty-somethings.
But, Pulp? Pulp were always too smart to be real Britpop. Their music was informed by disco and the need to dance rather than to give surly nods of the head. They were from the North yet not blokish; they were a little bit cheeky but not from Essex. They had been together over ten years and were already in their thirties. They defied all the metrics that should have placed them in the Britpop camp, but still lazy journalists dumped them in there all the same.
Despite tunes that now feel irresistible, at sixteen I was still too morbidly self-conscious, still too concerned what anyone else thought about me, to swing my hips without serious inebriation greasing the way along. So whilst the music did have that physically buoyant lift to it, the real reason I feel hopelessly in love with this album was – oh, how delightfully teenage, how typically Holden Caulfield of me – the lyrics. Jarvis Cocker’s wry observations of mid-nineties Britain’s with all its shams and hidden perversions and delighted oblivions of sex and hedonism were eye-opening and, instantly, it was as though I’d been waiting for someone to explain so succulently how the world worked.
The belter of an opening song, Mis-shapes, summed up the teenager suburban experience perfectly: “Oh, we don’t look the same as you/We don’t do the thing you do/But we live round here too…/…the future’s owned by you and me…/…we want your homes/We want your lives/We want the things you won’t allow us/We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs/We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of/And that’s our minds.”
It’s about knowing you’re cleverer, more grounded to the masses than those in power with wealth. It’s about resentment. It’s about none of those things. It mocks anyone who thinks it might be.
Cocker sneered at society’s divisions and, in particular, the Britpop trend of slumming it in a safe way, of pretending to be down and out when the reality of a council estate would probably have terrified the members of Space. And in-between he took the album’s brain and gave it a heart, albeit a disturbed one. He mixed in hefty doses of confused sex. In Pencil Skirt, I Spy, Live Bed Show and Underwear he doesn’t sing about making love or wooing a girl, but about the sordidness of affairs, how to wield control in relationships and the way sex fades from love over time. At sixteen, I don’t think I really understood any of this, but was content to snigger then scowl when he warned “I’ve had your mother twice and now I’m working on your Dad” or “take your year in Provence and shove it up your arse.”
Indeed even the more conventional narratives are anything but: Disco 2000 is a tale of teenage romance unfulfilled and the lingering obsession preventing future relationships from being successful setting to a thrusting guitar that guarantees the dancer going airborne at the final “Oh let’s meet up…”. Something Changed is about two people ending together by chance and then being, possibly, too idle to change again; people smothered by the easy option.
Leaving aside Cocker’s particular perversions, the charting of society’s hypocrisies is the staple of much great music. Disillusionment with the norm, as we’ve previously discussed, pushes people into bands, but it also appears in the writings of great novelists. Sometimes they are young and sometimes they are looking back across life with the experience of years, but the scope of the novel allows deeper and broader examination of the world’s ills than a three minute pop song.
I think that when I first wanted to write this was the sort of thing that passed through my tiny brain. I wanted to change the world with words. I wanted to draw people’s attention to the flaws in society that only I could see.
Sorry, but I was sixteen.
Instead, I am, I think, on more solid ground with the twisted complexities of relationships. Of course, being currently unpublished, I am far from the great novelist I once daydreamed of being, rather than revise for my exams.
Charles Dickens, however, probably was a great novelist. I remain hesitant since I’ve always struggled slightly with Dickens' tomes, but it isn’t arguable that he carved an immensely successful career out of informing society of its forgotten children and the peril of the wealth divide. The myths he painted still hang over London. Dickens’ reportage, or his invented archetypes, have dug their way into the city’s fabric.
Evelyn Waugh played it more for laughs, but his humour was bitterly sharp and double-edged. Those lampooning were as fallible as the lampooned. George Orwell kept it straight, but even he corrupted his work by deliberately seeking out the scummiest, seediest elements to report upon. The scandalous misery he found amongst Wigan life was highlighted by the big authorial finger pointing down from the heavens.
Kingsley Amis kicked the class system in the nuts until it puked, but in Cocker’s lyrics little has changed since the days of Lucky Jim. It’s just been rebranded; people born to positions still sit at the top of the pile. And again, little changes sixteen years later.
In the twenty-first century writers such as JM Coetzze, Aleksander Hemon and Caryl Philips address similar issues. They offer less all-encompassing visions than, for example, Leo Tolstoy who tried to map the entirety of Imperial Russia’s inequities. Instead, they spike their target and take a piercing outsider’s view as they drift through life; seeing with clarity the puppet master’s strings of society that those on the inside can all too easily ignore. Their texts are elegant framings of the world, less trying to force change, but content to shine a great big searchlight on it and let the gaps speak for themselves.
Similarly, Different Class’s finest moment is in the gap between songs. At the frantic futility of the penultimate track’s “Now, now that you’re free, what are you going to be?...Is this the light of a new day dawning? A future bright that you can walk in? No, it’s just another Monday morning, you got to do it all over again” when the song’s energy collapse in on itself and from the burnt out ashes of dreams torn down by reality, Cocker turns and says: “Hey, you made it.” The world is crap. To borrow a phrase from another band, Modern Life is Rubbish, but once you realise that and once you find people who feel the same then you can start to rebuild. You can find the fights that are worth winning and change, at least, yourself for the better.
You can grow up.
Or just waggle your bottom at Michael Jackson.