Different Class by Pulp was released twenty years ago today, on October 30, 1995. I first heard some of the music on it a few months earlier.
Summer 1995 was in many respects the point at which I developed my own taste in music, rather than having only a subset of my parents’. I was sixteen years old, and out of school (going to sixth form college from September, which felt far more grown up). I’d been to a couple of gigs, and was buying all the music magazines I could — I’d buy NME, Mojo, and Q regularly, Melody Maker, Vox, and Select when they had a tape on the cover. That was the summer I discovered Pet Sounds, and the song that spoke so much to my lonely adolescent self that my life became shaped around the Beach Boys — I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.
But there was *new* music, too, that spoke to me almost as much, and I remember exactly where I was when I heard it for the first time.
My dad took me to Glastonbury that year, partly as a reward for me doing well on my GCSEs, but mostly so he’d have an excuse to go himself. There were a lot of great moments that festival, things I knew were special — Page & Plant’s first UK gig since Led Zeppelin broke up — and things I didn’t — Jeff Buckley’s last ever UK gig. There were the first stirrings of Britpop around — and Oasis headlined (and I lost the enthusiasm I’d had for them from their records after seeing their utterly awful live set) — but this was right before it became massive, and a lot of the bill was stuff that a few months later would seem of another era. The Black Crowes, Sinead O’Connor, the Cure, Soul Asylum, Tanita Tikaram…
I absorbed it all, more or less uncritically. I’d been to three proper gigs in my life to that point. The Boo Radleys or the Bootleg Beatles, it didn’t matter to me. I wanted to see it all.
And on the Saturday, I spent a big chunk of the day in the cabaret tent, mostly to see Mark Thomas, who I’d loved in his spots on Jonathan Ross’ Saturday Zoo, and I was mooching back to my tent at the end of the night.
I knew that the Stone Roses had been meant to headline, and that they’d pulled out the week before (as I recall, Mani had broken his arm in a bike crash or something). They’d been replaced as headliners by Pulp, who I’d seen on Naked City on the TV a few times, and who I’d dismissed as ironic electropop pasticheurs. But then the Stone Roses were one of those bands that the bullies at my school liked, so it was much of a muchness to me. I’d somehow managed not to hear Pulp’s new single, their first really big hit…
And so I walked towards the Pyramid Stage not thinking of much except getting an early night, and then my jaw dropped and I saw this:
That gig made Q Magazine’s “100 Greatest Gigs of the Century” list a few years later, and I can believe it. I got there maybe two songs in — the first one I definitely remember is Underwear, but I may have heard one song before that — and while the video is great, what it doesn’t show you, what it *can’t* show you, is the sheer charisma of Jarvis Cocker that night. I have never seen anything like it before or since. I’ve seen better bands in terms of musicianship, or the setlist, or whatever, but the sheer *presence* of the man was something that no-one could duplicate, not even Cocker himself. I’ve seen him or Pulp live three more times since, and every show was well worth seeing, but nothing approached that one, the precise moment that Pulp went from perennial indie second-stringers to one of the biggest bands in Britain — and the best.
Much of the set was from their previous album, His & Hers, but the new songs they played… Underwear, sounding like Gene Pitney as a voyeur; Disco 2000, with its ubiquitous childhood memory attached to a T-Rex crunch; Sorted For Es And Wizz, with the crowd roaring at “I seem to have left an important part of my brain, somewhere in a field in Wiltshire”; and the one that spoke to me more than any others, Mis-Shapes, the one about not fitting in, and being bullied, but how the misfits are the clever ones. It can sound like geek exceptionalism now, like the sort of thing a Redditor or 4chan denizen might say, but for a 16-year-old fat kid with Asperger’s, someone who was regularly queerbashed in his home town because having long hair was too much gender ambiguity for the bullies (who all looked like the kind of people I’d see hanging round the Village in Manchester a couple of years later, all cropped hair and singlets), it was an absolute lifeline. “We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of, that’s our minds.” Yeah.
And then, at the end of the set, Com. Mon. Peo. Ple.
The greatest political single of my lifetime, greater even than Ghost Town by the Specials. Maybe the greatest political record ever. The combination of the unbelievably catchy chorus with Cocker’s voice — one of the most underrated in popular music, half way between Scott Walker and Jake Thackray — but the sheer, visceral, anger and contempt in the lyrics. “You will never understand what it means to live your life with no meaning or control, and with nowhere left to go. You are amazed that they exist, and they burn so bright while you can only wonder why”.
I’d been to private school, on a scholarship. My dad used to drive me there in a Reliant Robin with holes in the floor, which had cost him sixty pounds. You can bet that that one resonated. It still does.
By the time Different Class, the album itself, came out, it could almost have been an anticlimax. I’d watched the VHS of Channel Four’s coverage of Glastonbury to death, I’d bought the CD single of Misfits and Sorted for Es and Wizz (with the live Common People from Glastonbury as one of the B-sides), and I’d gone through what was at the time the hottest summer in history listening to them, along with Blur, and Supergrass, and Dodgy, and all the other big Britpop bands, but with almost no connection to the culture that was producing these things — I had literally no friends in my home town, and my school friends lived thirty miles away. But by the time Different Class came out, I’d made a new group of friends at sixth form college. I was a different person. It should have been a let-down.
But it wasn’t. The songs I *hadn’t* already heard on the album were just as good. The glorious Spectropop of Something Changed (possibly a little too raised-eyebrow for its own good, but what a beautiful song nonetheless), I Spy, which still sends shivers down my spine with its viciousness (it is in many ways the flip side of Misfits, its 4channish id made explicit), the gorgeous but heartbreaking Live Bed Show… Different Class is one of the very, very small number of albums that have no truly bad tracks. Even the weakest things on it, Monday Morning and Bar Italia, are better than the best things on the contemporaneous albums by Blur and Oasis that sold so much better at the time.
It wouldn’t last, of course. Within two years Britpop was dead, replaced by “anthemic” indie music that replicated the worst of the dull bands before it. Pulp’s follow-up album, This Is Hardcore, was a great album, but didn’t capture the imagination the same way. The hope that something might change, that New Labour might be better than the 18 years of awful Tory government that preceded it, was dashed as well.
How much of the greatness I see in Different Class is the greatness of being sixteen, and free to define my own identity for the first time, and discovering the tiny overlap between “things I like” and “things that are currently popular”? How much of what I see as the decline in indie music since then is based on my own less-than-wonderful adult life and the fact that I completely failed to live up to my potential? Some, no doubt. Maybe even most of it.
But that’s true for everyone. 1995 also saw the Beatles’ reunion, and Free As A Bird being propelled up the charts, one place higher than Common People was, based on no qualities in the record itself, but people nostalgic for their own youth a quarter of a century earlier. That doesn’t take anything away from Revolver and Rubber Soul — they really *are* that great. And no matter what Different Class means to me, now that I’m the age that Paul Weller was when those magazines I was reading were mocking him for daring to still make new music (and, indeed, the age my dad was when he took me to Glastonbury), I defy anyone to listen to the best stuff off it, especially Common People, and not respond.
NB: Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings
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I’m 100% on board with you for this one. I came to Different Class three or four years after it came out, so the shininess had worn off in the eyes of the media — I got to hear it on its own terms. Although I was at a very different stage of my life than you where when you heard it (happily married, enjoying my job, our first child about to be born) it gripped me just as hard. It’s a very rare record that combines that level of craftsmanship with apparent effortlessness, and throws in some real socio-political insight as well. Ultimately, a bit part of what made it work was that they meant it. I don’t buy the idea that they used a cheap Casio keyboard for the laffs — I think it was just the sounds that they wanted. They weren’t being all clever and ironic, they were taking the music they heard in their heads and making it real.
Storming album. Makes me feel old to think it’s 20 years old itself.
(I might try to figure out a folk-club-friendly acoustic guitar version of Something Changed now.)
To have heard Common People for the first time live from the stage at Glastonbury is something I am profoundly envious of.
I can think of only one personal experience that any of my friends or family have had that trumps it, and that was before either of us were born (April 4, 1967. Riverside Church in New York. Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. Both my parents were in the audience, a few months before they married that August. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC1Ru2p8OfU – I think it may be a greater speech than even I Have a Dream; it’s certainly a much more challenging one)
That is impressive.
One that a lot of my friends had, but I didn’t, was to be present when Brian Wilson first performed Smile live. An album that had never been completed, that had become *the* “lost album” of all time, and that was his greatest work, but which had never been released and no-one knew how it was meant to hang together. I couldn’t afford to go to that show, but even seeing later shows on that tour was a profoundly moving experience, when I already knew what was going to be played. I don’t know if seeing it would have topped the MLK speech, but it would definitely have beaten Common People, and I don’t say that lightly.
Lovely post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading that and feeling a lot of my similar memories stimulated by reading it. Although I had to wait til 2011 to see Pulp at Glastonbury.
You might be amused to realise that one of your memories is a little incorrect. Free As a Bird only reached the same chart position as Common People. Ironically enough – given your post – it missed the top spot thanks to Michael Jackson’s Earth Song.
Could have sworn Common People only made number three… ah well. The memory cheats.