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Common People Redux

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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.

Comments on “Common People Redux”

  1. klhoughton says:

    Always thought that “Common People” was originally by Ben Folds, who produced Shatner’s version.

  2. Paul Taylor says:

    When I listen to Common People now, I feel it has lost all of its bite because I don’t believe that people still act that way. I don’t really know, but the song and the behaviour it describes seem to me to be from another time. Do middle class kids feel an impulse, even one that is misguided, superficial and insincere, to identify with working class culture?

    • Phil Edwards says:

      I never thought the slumming aspect of it was central. The single version cuts the third verse – ’cause everybody hates a poseur, etc – and the song evidently works without it. I don’t think snobbery and contempt for people from a “common” background have gone away – and neither have the anger and pride of Jarvis’s response. “I want to live with common people” means something completely different by the end of the song.

      • outofdate says:

        It’s not a political tract, though, is it? It’s a song. There’s a long, slightly parochial English tradition of silly sentiments rousingly expressed, going back via A.E. Housman all the way to ‘Scarborough Fair’. It’s best not to set too much store by the prose sense there.

        All it really means, I think, is that for the duration we can all feel warm and as it were ‘common’ together. ‘She came from Greece,’ you notice, to say nothing of the rarefied subject she studied, so really it just sets up a flimsy straw woman for us to knock down together, but because it’s done kind of wrily you don’t mind that the sentiment’s as dubious as her alleged slumming. It’s a good anthem, but I wouldn’t look for elucidation of yon histomat in its verses.

        • rpmcmurphy says:

          It’s not a ‘silly sentiment’ (and neither is Scarborough Fair btw). It’s not supposed to make you feel warm, it’s supposed to make you feel angry.

          Jarvis Cocker has always claimed that it was inspired by a real conversation he had with a Greek student in the Central St Martin’s bar (where he studied film). She said to him that she wanted to go and live in Hackney ‘with the common people’.

          In the late 80s/early 90s creative types were in the forefront of the rediscovery by the younger middle classes of East London, and we all know where that adventure ended up. Hordes of students/ex-students parading around kingland road and london fields, feeling they are a bit edgy for living somewhere with a large working class and multi-racial population, without actually interacting with that population. They’ve pushed rental prices up and created a mini-economy that is only of use for the 20 somethings with a disposable income. It is a kind of ‘slumming it’.

    • alex says:

      “Do middle class kids feel an impulse, even one that is misguided, superficial and insincere, to identify with working class culture?” Apparently not: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVmmYMwFj1I (with an impressive 6.2 million views on YouTube, this struck a chord)

  3. Surely any comment on Pulp and New Labour has to include their late 90s song ‘Cocaine Socialism’, in which Mr C is tempted by a politican to support their cause… in return for a line of the titular white stuff. I’m sure it can’t possibly be based on fact, obviously.

  4. Here’s Pulp’s ‘Cocaine Socialism’ (1998) with lyrics. Highly enjoyable.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7b7DgOeMnW4

  5. Niall Anderson says:

    I accept that I may be in a substantial minority here, but I found Pulp at Glastonbury rather a depressing experience. A nostalgic singalong to some of the best and most vicious English pop songs of the last twenty years, it reminded of exactly the kind of emptily celebratory Britpop atmosphere that Pulp always stood to one side of. I can think of no band that has become a nostalgia act so quickly.

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