How ‘Different Class’ helped Pulp infiltrate the mainstream and define a generation of outsiders
“We don’t want no trouble, we just want the right to be different. That’s all.” – Pulp
Seventeen years is a long time. It also happens to be the exact amount of time between when Jarvis Cocker, still a Sheffield-born schoolboy, formed Pulp in its first incarnation and they made their breakthrough with the 1995 album Different Class. The record not only became one of the biggest in their chart history, and not only provided the band with the opportunity to dip their arty toes in the rushing Britpop mainstream, but it helped to define a generation of outsiders.
That’s not to say that this is an arthouse record a la Björk or The Knife, something so dedicated to the avant-garde expression that it is almost indecipherable. No, this was high-art of the common tongue, something more closely akin to Andy Warhol and Lichenstein’s power-mad pop art. The album was laden with big pop anthems, including the four singles ‘Common People’, ‘Mis-Shapes’, ‘Disco 2000’ and ‘Something Changed’, all of which helped to cement the record its 3x platinum award within the year.
You probably couldn’t even really argue that Cocker and his band were truly outsiders anymore, at least on the face of things. Though the band had been struggling to make a big impact on indieland during their eighties and early nineties, they had managed to get signed by Island Records, so their trajectory was looking skyward. What’s more, their prior album His N Hers had already laid the foundations of a new more effeminate sound, especially when laid next to the machismo beer-smashers Oasis and Blur. Cocker had even begun to become a ‘face’ at parties, seeing him holiday with the aforementioned Icelandic pop queen and attend Versace parties and the like. But what we all may have missed is that, despite his inclusion in the party, Cocker still felt like an outsider looking in.
The same could be said for the triumphant boom of British culture that was engulfing the island in the mid-90s. With economical advances, Britain had seemingly recovered from the rough ride of the previous decade and was once again pushing itself creatively and was damn good at shouting about it. It was seemingly something that Cocker couldn’t stand and he chose to use this record to not only highlight the fallibility of the British class system, something which still reeks as potently today as it did then, but to protect those in need too.
Aside from the call-to-arms opener, ‘Mis Shapes’ which instead acts as a battle cry for the art world to show the real beauty of Britain, the album is littered with personas and characters which have been excluded in some way. ‘Disco 2000’ laments a friendship that should’ve been more, ‘Sorted For E’s and Whizz’ puts our narrator on the peripheries of the party, as conversations are kept short and sweet: “Now it’s nice on, geezer/ That’s as far as the conversation went.” Of course, this image of the outsider looking turns nasty or potentially nasty, at least on two occasions, showing that Cocker is aware of the issues the position presents.
The most obvious is the semi-creepy track ‘I Spy’ which deals with the sexually imposing idea of voyeurism. But the most vehement and anger can be heard, ironically, on the album’s most beloved tune, ‘Common People’. The track reached number two in the charts and, if you’ve been to a wedding, office party or general gathering in Britain, you will know that the song provokes a reaction from those dancing that simply can’t be matched. This time, it’s the outsider who is the target as an unnamed posh girl from St Martin’s art college desperately tries to step down and traverse the class divide to fit in with what she deemed to be ‘cool’.
“You’ll never understand,” screams Cocker, “how it feels 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 whilst you can only wonder why.” It’s one of the few times that such a politically charged song has infiltrated the pop charts so effectively. A glossy finish to a sixties pop classic sound means the song went by undetected by the masses for what it truly was—a working-class anthem. Across the entire album, we are presented with a repeating theme, the beauty of Britain is most certainly in its most ordinary people.
Jarvis Cocker, with his androgynous theatrical performances, velvet shirts and eyeliner eyes, may not seem the ultimate champion of the working-class but the singer represented a new culture in Britain. A group of kids who had been provided educations outside of the usual fodder and now were determined to level the playing field.
The album cover is also a testament to Cocker’s determination to root the record in ordinary people. The inspiration was simple, capture ‘normal’ people (cardboard cut-outs) in extra special moments. However, the grandiose idea started and ended with a special wedding photoshoot. “My little brother Ben went to art college in Edinburgh and he made friends with a guy who subsequently became a photographer and had done a lot of work with the Britpop bands,” recalled the groom in a conversation with Chris Hawkins.
“So we asked him about a couple of months before whether he would be prepared to do some photos for us, and he couldn’t actually do it because he said he was busy working on some Pulp stuff. But he phoned us about a week before and said Pulp were thinking about using some photos with real people in them, including a wedding photo, and if we would do some joke shots where he’d bring some life-size cutouts of the band down, he would do some proper wedding shots for us as well. And that’s basically what happened. They rocked up on the wedding day with the life-size cutouts of the band and took the photos, and I suppose the rest is history.”
Of course, it isn’t all about class. There’s a lot of sex to be had too. Different Class carries on Cocker’s fascination with fornication and falling in love which he so expertly demonstrated in His N Hers. Everything from the super-sultry ‘Underwear’ to the filthier side of seedy on ‘Pencil Skirt’, sex is never too far from the lips of the band. But perhaps the best moment of the bunch within this theme is ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E’ which bursts through the airwaves on the record and became a triumphant moment of any Pulp gig that followed.
Another two great albums would follow this one, This Is Hardcore in 1998 and 2001’s finale We Love Life but Pulp would never quite hit the heights of Different Class again. The record, so deeply entrenched in a new sound and so welcoming of the pop sensibilities that underpinned it, provided all those kids who were not swayed by the abrasive Mancunian drawl of Oasis or the Mockney swagger of Blur to feel energised and connected to something. They provided a generation of outsiders with a brand new bible and a reminder that someone had their back. Simply put, Pulp’s Different Class is in a class of its own.