Barcelona was an incongruous setting for Pulp’s return last month, the first of a batch of summer gigs after a decade’s hiatus. The Sheffield group belong so firmly in the tradition of Grim Up North social realism that it’s hard to square their pasty, charity-shop image with the Mediterranean backdrop of the Primavera Festival. But Jarvis Cocker showed no signs of awkwardness, and the Primavera crowd of mostly twentysomething indie fans might as well have been designed for the band.
Never as musically innovative as some of their Britpop contemporaries, Pulp have been remembered chiefly for Cocker’s songwriting, his remarkable knack for delivering material that was both anthemic and cerebral. The albums that showcased that talent to most effect – His’n’Hers and Different Class – supplied the bulk of the set, from the charmingly seedy opener ‘Do You Remember the First Time’ to the inevitable rendition of Pulp’s best-known – and best – song, ‘Common People’. At one point Cocker invited a member of the audience towards the stage so he could propose to his girlfriend: she asked for time to think about it. Cocker, not missing a beat, launched straight into one of the band’s innumerable accounts of erotic misfortune.
Although Pulp’s resurrection has generally been hailed as a Very Good Thing (earlier this year the Guardian even described Cocker as a ‘national treasure’), few commentators seem to remember the context that made the band’s success in the mid-1990s so delightful and unsettling.
The Britpop groups that dominated the charts at the time more or less formed a musical wing of New Labour. The union of pop and politics unsurprisingly didn’t last long, but not because the rock stars couldn’t sustain a long-term political commitment. In fact it was the exact opposite: the Britpop musicians were soon disenchanted as they realised how superficial Blair’s ideological grounding was. When Noel Gallagher of Oasis was invited to Downing Street, he cornered Blair to ask what he would do to help sacked Liverpool dockers: ‘We’ll look into it,’ Blair said. Blur’s Damon Albarn declined the same invitation and went on to support Ken Livingstone’s mayoral campaign.
But Pulp had already cut through Blair’s foggy rhetoric when they released ‘Common People’ in 1995. The song not only supplied a definitive rebuke to social tourism and poverty chic that has lost none of its bite; it also clobbered beyond repair the myth of a classless Britain united by Tesco and the Premier League which Blair had worked so hard to propagate.
Like many of the best popculture documents of working-class Britain in recent times, from Trainspotting to Shameless, the song doesn’t conjure up images of picket lines, banners and chanting crowds: class is something you are, not something you do. Yet the energy and passion of Cocker’s delivery have an implicit agenda, which he has stated plainly elsewhere: the performance of ‘Common People’ in Barcelona was dedicated to the protest camp at Plaza de Catalunya whose occupants had been battered by riot police earlier in the day.