Despite a love for fish and chips and a nostalgic fondness for my punk and goth phases, I don’t claim to know much more than a little about the way class systems work in the United Kingdom. What I do understand is that it’s something that pervades the culture there, maybe a bit like race does in the U.S. — a topic with a long and complex history, further complicated by the tumult of the post-Industrial age. I mean, that would make sense looking back at the way counter culture movements seemed to flourish there. Punk, as an example, is an original concoction of the grimy underbelly of New York City, but it never really took off until it hit British shores, where it went global and remains, to this day, a defining characteristic of that generation.
Of course, in 1995, when Pulp’s Different Class was released, I knew nothing of the above, much less who Pulp was. In fact, I wouldn’t even discover the band/album until almost 10 years later. Even then, well into high school, I wasn’t aware of any of the topical undercurrents on the album. (Well, aside from the smarmy swagger of Jarvis Cocker, which reach near-predatory levels here.)
But now, much later, it clicks. With a name like Different Class, a track titled “Common People” and lyrics like, “Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits / raised on a diet of broken biscuits / We don’t look the same as you / We don’t do the things you do / but we live around here too,” there’s no question that this is an album about class. The artwork, a cheekily doctored wedding photo, confirms the tone of the record. It’s as cocky and garish as a raucous story told at the local pub, which is to say that the people Pulp are hoping to give voice to are the type that don’t come across as winners on paper, but rely on street savvy and unrefined wit to pull through. In a word, underdogs.
If the lead-off track “Mis-Shapes” (the opening lines of which are excerpted above) is the call-to-arms for the working classes, “Common People” would be the battle hymn, charging ahead and armed with equal parts humiliation and cheap synthesizers. This is the track that has come to define Pulp because of it, and it’s also one of the songs crowds go crazy for during live shows. At the end of the final chorus, as Cocker mockingly repeats the socialite’s plea of “want[ing] to live like common people like you,” it’s pretty clear who the victor is in this battle.
Immediately after the fiddle/synth extravaganza of “Common People” is “I Spy”, which is a track that slithers along like new wave snake. At first, the instrumentation sounds unbelievably corny, as does most things that try to combine synthesizers and string sections, but the melodrama grows on you. Now, after more than a few listens, I can’t imagine it sounding any other way, since it’s pretty much soundtracking the lurid fantasies of a less-than-lovable loser. There are delusions of grandeur left and right, stories of romance and espionage, and even a seething monologue by Cocker that details his cuckolding of another man, which is, of course, one way for a loser to turn the odds in his favor.
To call the album a meditation on class, sex and revenge would be a vast understatement. It’s more of a beer hall shout-along, though the topics are exactly the same. It’s a record that’s more than a little rough around the edges, but benefits from having a band and frontman that can voice a firm vision without taking itself too seriously. Perhaps just like punk, it’s the kind of work that can make you wish you were an underdog even if you aren’t.
Album: Different Class
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)