Pulp: Common People
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
It wasn't meant to happen.
And it sure as hell wasn't going to last.
Pulp were always a heady proposition, drawing on the epic tropes of glam rock, pastoral pop, and disco to frame Jarvis Cocker's oft-seedy narratives of the personal and sexual politics of working class Britain. The perpetual outsider peeking in, Cocker was trapped in the closet ("Babies") long before R. Kelly, took the piss out of rave culture ("Sorted for E's and Whizz") while other groups were leafing through Pulp's dance-pop book, and compared his inability to get laid to the sufferings of Christ ("Death II") the same year Mel Gibson was still making Lethal Weapon 3.
The group has a signature sound, but it's Cocker's lyrics that are truly peerless in the pop idiom. Oh, there are the oft-repeated touchstones (the Kinks, Roxy Music, Leonard Cohen, Bowie, JC's beloved Scott Walker), but Cocker's membership in this canon of arch lyricists is won by a moxie all his own. Sure, he could deflate the workaday life ("Monday Morning") or the antics of young punx ("Joyriders") like any other caustic wit, but when Cocker's steely gaze comes to light on the inner workings of love and its lovers, he's an unstoppable force of nature.
"Common People" was the song that made Pulp, and Different Class was the album that unmade them. Coming from a band with consistently great but lopsided albums, it was the one time they would get it absolutely right, setting a benchmark almost impossible to live up to. The single would stall at #2 on the UK Top 40 (kept from the top slot by the Outhere Brothers' "Boom Boom Boom," no less) and its follow-up, the freak solidarity anthem "Mis-shapes" would do the same. But the album was considered an instant classic, won a Mercury Prize, and still sounds unnervingly great this very moment.
"Common People" is quite deliberately a pub sing-along, a set of lyrics quite basic and brash by the Cocker standard, and one could imagine that it's for these reasons that it was a successful summer anthem. It's one of the rare times his narrative would be so easy to relate to, reductive enough to rope in both the usual weirdoes and perverts that share the Cocker mindset, along with, well, the "common people." Combining disdain in the particular and the futility of working class life in general, and set against an expansive backdrop of 40 separate tracks mixed into a widescreen 1 A.M. bar song, it seems almost an obvious hit once deconstructed.
Searching the dense production of "Common People" for clues to its musical success would seem a difficult and thankless task. Luckily, one doesn't have to look too far to locate the instrument that pushes the song over the top—it’s the drums. Nick Banks is one of Britrock's unsung heroes. His drumming has long been the anchor of the band's trebly sound, and his legacy is hewn all over the ragged timing and thunderous change-ups of "Common People," keeping the various permutations of that "CtA" riff in check. And there’s that magnificent single-finger synth "whuuur" that kicks in incongruously amongst the soaring keyboard pads. All the rest is gravy heaped on top, a paint-by-numbers Pulp showstopper.
Is "Common People" Pulp's finest hour? Hell no. It's not even the best tune on Different Class. All the same, it remains a litmus test; if you like "Common People," you'll probably like Pulp. If you don't, you won't. People on my side of the world, for the most part, don't. As for myself, I am unashamed to say it was the first Pulp song I heard, and I heard it long after it had been released, but I instantly recognized the band to be a rare creature of class and distinction.
Please understand. We don't want no trouble. We just want the right to be different. That's all.
Akin to the union of the narrator and the mysterious moneyed lass, that of Pulp and the world of mainstream pop was never meant to be. Their follow-up album, This Is Hardcore, would take the band on an incredibly dark tangent (sounding flipped-out rather than just flip) and would effectively consign them back to cult status. Which, even to this most ardent fan, is where they belonged—too popular to be underground heroes and too subterranean for the pop charts. In a perfect world, "Common People" would have been followed by #1's across the board for "Mis-shapes," "Sorted...," "Help the Aged," "A Little Soul," and "Bad Cover Version." But in a perfect world, "Common People" would never have been written, much less a hit.