Category Archives: Britpop

Pulp – Different Class – Classic Music Review (Britpop Series)

 

“There must be classes—there must be rich and poor,” Dives says, smacking his claret (it is well if he even sends the broken meat out to Lazarus sitting under the window). Very true; but think how mysterious and often unaccountable it is—that lottery of life which gives to this man the purple and fine linen and sends to the other rags for garments and dogs for comforters.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair

I’m convinced we all are voyeurs. It’s part of the detective thing. We want to know secrets and we want to know what goes on behind those windows . . . There’s an entertainment value to it, but at the same time we want to know: What do humans do? Do they do the same things as I do? It’s a gaining of some sort of knowledge, I think.

David Lynch

*****

If you would have set odds at the beginning of the Britpop phenomenon as to which band would be most likely to produce the crown jewel of the era, the odds on Pulp would have been 1000-1 or worse. Pulp had existed on the fringes of listener consciousness for over a decade as an indie group, struggling though all the associated challenges of independence that have buried many a promising new band. The most accurate adjective you can apply to their pre-fame style is “eclectic,” a curious mix of electronic new wave, experimental, post-disco, post-punk, folk, romance, house, acid, glam and a touch of Serge Gainsbourg. While they did get some buzz in the music mags for a couple of early singles, it would have been a huge leap of faith to predict anything close to stardom in 1993.

Their fortunes changed when Island rescued them from indie oblivion and gave them big label support. The result was the album His ‘n’ Hers, which blasted into the Top 10 the following year and earned a Mercury Prize nomination. What I find most interesting about this transition is that after castrating Robert Palmer and turning him into a cheesy lounge singer, Island pretty much let Pulp be Pulp. By this time, all those diverse influences had converged to create a unique sound and presentation that managed to catch the public fancy.

His ‘n’ Hers certainly contained more pop-friendly tunes than their earlier efforts, and is a pretty solid album overall. It does suffer from inconsistent production; on some songs the space allotted to the band squeezes Jarvis Cocker’s vocals into a very narrow range in the sound field, making it difficult to hear the lyrics clearly. It is impossible to appreciate Pulp without paying close attention to Jarvis Cocker’s every word and vocalization, so this flaw served to dampen the listening experience. Then again, it’s equally apparent that at this stage, Jarvis was still sharpening his acting skills and phrasing, leading to a few moments of scenery-chewing and vocal inflections that didn’t quite work in the context of song and lyrics. Live versions of the hits from His ‘n’ Hers performed after the release of Different Class resolved both problems, providing supporting evidence that during the recording of Different Class, Jarvis Cocker was in complete command of his voice while displaying extraordinary sensitivity to narrative and subtext.

If Different Class had been a full-length film, Jarvis Cocker would have won Best Actor at the 68th Academy Awards and the Academy could have avoided the everlasting embarrassment of handing the statue to Nicolas Cage.

Even the best actors can’t do much with a bad script, but Cocker took care of that aspect of the work by penning some of the finest lyrics ever written for popular music. The lyrics for a Different Class are exceptionally vivid, filled with memorable, meaningful lines expressing a wide range of attitudes, emotions and psychological states. Often salted with wit, occasionally marked by justifiable outrage and sometimes outrageous in and of themselves, the imagery often gives the listener a you-are-there feeling that is intensely captivating. I would love to be able to tell my readers how Jarvis Cocker spent years agonizing over the lyrics, risking his eyesight as he scribbled away in a garret to the dying light of a candle stub, spending many a sleepless night searching assiduously for le mot juste in every turn of a phrase. Sadly for the romantics and English majors in the audience, Mr. Cocker opted for a different approach:

We went into Axis recording studios and recorded 12 songs. Next problem—I hadn’t written any words for them. The only solution was to sit in my sister’s kitchen with a bottle of cheap Spanish brandy and write until I lost consciousness—in the morning I had completed 10 and I finished the other 2 on the way to the studio (I have tried this method of working since with no result other than a hangover).

—Liner notes, 2006 Deluxe Edition

Well, fuck it. That works, too.

The tight timeline did come with certain advantages. It forced Jarvis Cocker to write about what he knew best—his life experience, from his youth in Sheffield to the dawn of pop stardom. The deadline also helped rein in the censor that exists in everyone’s brain, the nagging parent that warns you “don’t say this” or “don’t do this” and “don’t even think about this!” This allowed him to explore taboo topics and speak to those unspeakable urges that all of us have but share only with therapists and (maybe) life partners. Along the way, he cuts through the bullshit and says what he really means instead of giving us polite approximations, achieving that state that all poets yearn for but rarely achieve—the moment when the listener (or reader) realizes that what has been expressed is what the listener has felt all along but could never find the right words to express the thought or feeling. Some of the narratives in Different Class may seem bizarre and exotic at first listen, but that’s only because our own censors are in constant operation. Once we tell mom or dad to get the fuck out of our heads, we realize that the stories told in Different Class encompass a much broader range of the human experience than we’re accustomed to hearing in pop—and once you get used to that, the listening experience becomes exceptionally rewarding and curiously validating.

That’s because none of us are truly normal and we’re all at least a little bit “different.”

While I’ve spent a lot of space talking about Jarvis Cocker’s contributions, it would be a serious mistake to ignore the band. Pulp was one of the tightest, most disciplined bands of the era, exceptionally proficient with arrangement and equally strong in managing the varying dynamics demanded by the lyrics. Music creation was a collaborative effort, and arrangements made the most of each member’s unique skill set. Pulp music largely eschews the grand solo and the virtuoso moment, so you may not immediately notice the high level of musicianship at work. In that sense, Pulp operated on the symphonic model, focusing on the wholeness of the composition and the blend of disparate voices. That approach is perfectly suited to support a vocal soloist who varies his attack from full-throated passion to evocative whispers.

The overriding theme of Different Class is captured in the motto on the back of the album (We don’t want no trouble, we just want the right to be different. That’s all.) and in the opening number, “Mis-Shapes.” The sigh-infused half-mumbled opening line (“Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits”) gives you no hint of the anthemic explosiveness that lies ahead, but it beautifully expresses the “Why do we have to deal with this silly shit?” question that comes up every time an oppressed group has to fight once again for rights and privileges that should be a given. Cocker then gives a tongue-in-cheek apology for the existence of these unpleasant outsiders, latching on to the faddish health studies of the day that attempted to pin the problems of the lower classes on poor childhood nutrition:

Raised on a diet of broken biscuits, oh
We don’t look the same as you
And we don’t do the things you do
But we live around here too, oh really

Broken biscuits are manufacturing deformities sold in British stores in the holy name of profit margins; here Cocker adopts the image as an icon for those who look and behave in ways that the perfectly-shaped (shaped by culture, that is) normals find inexplicable and unacceptable. The dangers of being different are described in the second verse, a sad retelling of what happens to gays, blacks, bohemians, the homeless, transgenders or any “different” person who happens to wind up on the wrong side of town:

Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits
We’d like to go to town but we can’t risk it, oh
‘Cause they just want to keep us out
You could end up with a smack in the mouth
Just for standing out, now, really

The dry-and-droll “oh really” in the first verse is a theatrical aside where Cocker slips into the role of normal resident who can’t accept that “those people” dare to exist in their exclusive environment; the “now, really” is a reinforcement of the “having to go over this again is fucking ridiculous” subtext. Up to this point, the band has been somewhat restrained, providing sharp rhythmic punctuation in the verses before returning to background. Now the band holds to that insistent punctuation as Cocker addresses the mis-shapes directly, assuring them that “the future’s owned by you and me.” Cued by an introductory drum roll, the band explodes in a shift to double-time as Cocker delivers a confident message of imminent revolution:

We’re making a move, we’re making it now
We’re coming out of the side-lines
Just put your hands up, it’s a raid yeah
We want your homes, we want your lives
We want the things you won’t allow us
We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs
We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of, that’s our minds

I’ve thought of those lines as I try to play out how the Americans can get rid of the fascist-fundamentalist Trump criminal organization and . . . while I hope non-violence and intellectual superiority can triumph over the deplorables, those fanatics have lots of guns and believe that killing liberals is a god-sanctioned act . . . I just don’t know.

The differences in play in “Mis-Shapes” are partly generational, echoing the cries of the early British punks (“We learnt too much at school now we can’t help but see/That the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about”), but to interpret “Mis-Shapes” through such a narrow lens is a mistake. Human beings have an instinctual fear of anything different, and with increasing intercultural interaction, emerging sexual diversity and the burgeoning number of communities based on lifestyle choices, the message of “Mis-Shapes” is that the resolution lies in resorting to our intelligence rather than our instincts to guide us through. The dramatic impact of that message is enhanced by the use of half step rises on the fifth note of the root chord scale (three steps up in the G-major segment and two steps up in the E-minor segment), a simple technique that results in a series of terribly exciting builds.

“Pencil Skirt” seems to pick up on a monologue that’s already in progress with its clever fade-in. It seems Jarvis and his neighbor are engaged in (gasp) illicit sex!

Oh, well, I know that you’re engaged to him
Oh, but I know you want something to play with, baby
I’ll be around when he’s not in town, oh
Yeah, I’ll show you how you’re doing it wrong, oh
I really love it when you tell me to stop, oh
Oh, it’s turning me on

We can infer that she’s engaged to someone she’s “supposed to” marry, someone mum and dad think is a good match. Her body is telling her otherwise, and despite her weak protests, she engages in cuckoldry with explosive passion. As for his ambitions, we know he gets off at the naughtiness of it all, but we soon find out that he’s trying to secure the wench for himself (“But I’ve kissed your mother twice/And now I’m working on your dad”). As the story reaches the climax, his intentions become more ambiguous, leaving us wondering if the passion he feels now might disappear once the relationship is sanctioned:

I only come here cause I know it makes you sad
I only do it ‘cos I know you know it’s bad
Oh, don’t you know that it’s ugly and it shouldn’t be like that?
Oh but, oh, it’s turning me on

“Pencil Skirt” isn’t simply a story about two cheaters who delight in dirt, but a mini-story that paints a clear picture of a cultural norm of repression that forces people into sexual dark alleys instead of being open and honest about their desires and motivations. Earlier in the song, the narrator encourages the woman to “watch my conscience disappear,” and while he seems to recover that conscience in this final verse, he can’t deny that “Oh but, oh, it’s turning me on.” We leave the song quite unsure that any long-term relationship will have the same sense of thrill for either of them, which is just fucking sad. Cocker’s performance mingles sotto voce with occasional bursts of plain-speaking that perfectly fit the narrative while enriching the subtext, and as usual, the band is tight, unintrusive and there at all the right moments.

Incredible as it may seem, “Common People” almost died at birth. When Jarvis Cocker let the band hear the nifty little tune he’d come up with on his brand-new Casiotone 500, the reaction was less-than-enthusiastic  . . . with one exception. “I just thought it was great straight away. It must have been the simplicity of it, and you could just tell it was a really powerful song then,” opined Candida Doyle.

Lesson #1: Always trust the keyboard player, said the pianist.

Lesson #2: Always trust the broad, said the broad.

In researching the song, I learned that most of the journalistic and critical efforts devoted to “Common People” have nothing to do with the memorable music or the powerful, searing lyrics, but with the search for the true identity of the oblivious Greek chick who serves as the foil. Oh, for fuck’s sake, people! By the mid-90’s the rising income inequality initiated by the ReaganThatcher regimes had already resulted in a virtual population explosion of common people who were ruthlessly kicked out of the middle class and ALL YOU CARE ABOUT IS SOME EMPTY-HEADED ENTITLED BROAD?

The second-most common reference defines the subject matter of the song as “slumming.” That’s like saying that “Mis-Shapes” is about broken biscuits. I would quote from the lyrics to that song if I had the opportunity to speak to those scions of superficiality and tell them “You’re so bleeding thick!” Jarvis Cocker used slumming as a departure point, an example of behavior and mindset that indicates the existence of a far more dangerous threat to society. “Common People” is about how we have abandoned empathy for entrepreneurship and compassion for selfishness, condemning millions to lives devoid of “meaning and control.”

When he encounters the empty space of the Ivanka-like persona—a scene set to a light, cheerful music background—Jarvis responds in an offhand manner, playing along with joke:

She told me that her Dad was loaded,
I said “In that case I’ll have a rum and coca-cola.”
She said “Fine.”
And in thirty seconds time she said,
I want to live like common people,
I want to do whatever common people do,
I want to sleep with common people,
I want to sleep with common people,
Like you.
Well what else could I do?
I said “I’ll see what I can do.”

He escorts his apprentice to a supermarket, where she finds his suggestion to “pretend you’ve got no money” laughably cute. The depth of her obliviousness finally hits him, a realization dramatized in the whispered line, “Are you sure?” That brilliant piece of voice acting always gives me the chills, and after he questions her again about her commitment to trading places, you can “hear” him throw his hands in the air in frustration as he raises his voice to deliver the lines, “But she just didn’t understand/She just smiled and held my hand.”

Jarvis has now had it with this silly bitch and responds to his shock at her insensitivity with an unflinching picture of reality, delivered in a voice marked by intense astonishment and righteous anger supported by disciplined, steady band power:

Rent a flat above a shop,
Cut your hair and get a job.
Smoke some fags and play some pool,
Pretend you never went to school.
But still you’ll never get it right,
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night,
Watching roaches climb the wall,
If you called your Dad he could stop it all.
You’ll never live like common people,
You’ll never do whatever common people do,
You’ll never fail like common people,
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view,
And dance and drink and screw,
Because there’s nothing else to do.

I can’t think of another passage in popular music that moves me as much as this one, and I always reach the point of tears when I hear the lines, “You’ll never fail like common people/You’ll never watch your life slide out of view.” A lower-class existence means you are forced into scripted lives with limited options, ignorant about how the game is played and lacking the financial resources to ante up, set up to fail through poor education and the absence of potentially useful connections. The lives of the lower classes represent one of the ugliest aspects of life under the kill-or-be-killed nature of untempered capitalism, but rather than face the problem, the rich and even large segments of the middle class blame the poor, because it’s their own damned fault, you know . . . those lazy bastards.

The intensely exciting instrumental passage with its breathtakingly emphatic one-chord coda (ba-ba-ba! ba-ba-ba! ba-ba-ba! ba-ba-ba! BA-BA-BA-BA/BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA!) stands by itself as a great musical moment, but I’m absolutely knocked out when they repeat the pattern towards the end of the second-go-round of the “Rent a flat above the shop” passage and Jarvis inserts a brief pause between “watching” and “roaches climb the wall.” While the whisper cited above gave me the chills, that glorious bit of phrasing sends those chills up and down my spine and back again. Prior to that amazing bit of collaborative creation, Jarvis gives us his final take on the lives of the common people, moving me to frustrated tears once again:

You will never understand
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.

If “Common People” fails to move you, I suggest you may want to read up on emotional intelligence or try to figure out what happened in your life to render you so callous to the problems faced by your fellow human beings (with or without the aid of a therapist). It’s not only a great song, but a vitally important song that is as relevant today as it was almost twenty-five years ago.

The only way to follow an epic song like “Common People” is to completely shift mood and perspective, and Pulp accomplishes this with the gypsy-esque, orchestra-enhanced revenge fantasy “I Spy.” Cocker told Melody Maker that he wrote the song about his experience living on the dole in Sheffield, describing it as “one of the most savage songs that I’ve ever written . . . it’s definitely the most vindictive.” I’ll say! As he wanders the streets of his hometown, feeling that “everyone thinks you’re just this useless, jobless piece of crap,” he fantasizes about revenge on all the self-satisfied bastards around him. Those fantasies are oddly empowering, compensating for the loss of self-worth engendered by the judgments of the smug. But while he seems inert to the lazy observer, he is a man with a plan: “It may look to the untrained eye/I’m sitting on my ass all day/I’m biding time until I take you all on.” At first his imagination merges with happier moments from the past (“The crowd gasp at Cocker’s masterful control of the bicycle/Skillfully avoiding the dog turd next to the corner shop”) and the first time he grabbed a tit (for which act he believes he deserves a plaque), but soon warns the listener that “You’ve got to wait for the best.” We don’t have to wait long—the music dims and Cocker shifts to a loaded whisper, barely able to contain his vengeful delight:

You see, you should take me seriously
Very seriously indeed.
Cause I’ve been sleeping with your wife for the past sixteen weeks
Smoking your cigarettes
Drinking your brandy
Messing up the bed that you chose together
And in all that time I just wanted you to come home unexpectedly one afternoon
And catch us at it in the front room

Forgive me for indulging in Schadenfreude, but that sequence finds me bursting into hysterical laughter. Jarvis offered the opinion that “it’s important to acknowledge that you’ve got these feelings inside you,” so I’ll defend myself by insisting that my reaction is legitimately therapeutic. In any case, “I Spy” is a remarkable piece of theatre, a penetrating look at human psychology and a courageous admission of the author’s very human flaws. And though it seems a significant departure from “Common People” in terms of mood and music, “I Spy” actually enriches the class narrative by shining a light on the deep bitterness of the working classes engendered by circumstances that forever seem out of one’s control.

Now we need a pick-me-up, and we get a much-needed boost with the distorted rock guitar, pounding drums and disco-tinged synth of “Disco 2000.” Cocker’s delivery of the opening verse reinforces the notion that the man had his acting skills down pat:

Oh we were born within one hour of each other
Our mothers said we could be sister and brother
Your name is Deborah, Deborah

The second “Deborah” is half-whispered, as if he’s deifying the name of a fondly remembered squeeze of yesteryear.

Nah.

It never suited ya

The rest of the song is a delightfully uncensored recollection of memories and regrets. The mothers in question dreamt of the day when the two would “marry and never split up.” Cocker’s rejoinder is “Oh, we never did it, although I often thought of it,” and his clipping of the words “did it” indicates he wasn’t thinking about exchanging vows. Sadly, he winds up on the losing end of the competition, resigned to a youth drenched in cold showers:

You were the first girl at school to get breasts
And Martyn said that you were the best
Oh the boys all loved you, but I was a mess
I had to watch them trying to get you undressed
We were friends, that was as far as it went
I used to walk you home sometimes but it meant
Oh, it meant nothing to you
‘Cause you were so popular

Reinforcing the fascination-with-the-millenium theme of Britpop, he suggests they meet up in the year 2000 by the fountain in Sheffield, the classic hometown meeting place. The proposed meet-up serves the purpose of resolving one of the dozens of loose ends created in the confusing world of the teenager, and while it may seem as unpleasantly nostalgic as a high school reunion, in this case I think it’s a valid desire for closure and shared understanding . . . life as a teenager is full of unresolved questions with answers found only when you’re mature enough to hear them.

Human artifacts tell stories about their owners, and there is hardly a piece of furniture in anyone’s house that contains more stories than the bed. It’s my favorite place in the whole world! I like to spend at least half of every day there! And yes, I change the sheets frequently! I may be a pervert, but I’m a very clean pervert!

As far as beds go, I’m a very lucky girl, but the lady in “Live Bed Show” is not.

She doesn’t have to go to work
But she doesn’t want to stay in bed
‘Cause it’s changed from something comfortable
To something else instead

The story is built around that verse, which appears at the beginning and at the close. We learn that at one time you could hear “the headboard banging in the night,” but “something beautiful left town/and she doesn’t even know its name.” While this could be a commentary on the fading beauty of womankind, Jarvis Cocker has always shown an empathetic affinity for women (more about that later), so I think that a loveless marriage is the culprit (backed up by the fact she doesn’t have to work). The music is slightly melodramatic, rather like a slower version of Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” but the narrative is sparse, lean and free of over-dramatization. It’s just a sad song about another sad life in Jolly Olde England.

We shift from sad to sweet with “Something Changed,” a story about how kismet or a roll of the dice plays a major role in lovers coming together. While I personally don’t believe that “there’s someone up above” with “a timetable directing acts of love,” I do believe that something must be behind the often strange set of choices each party makes that eventually lead to them coming together in a way that feels like magic. The song opens with big, crisp acoustic guitar, eventually supported by romantically-geared strings providing melodic counterpoint. This is as close that Pulp gets to sounding like a classic guitar-drums-bass band on Different Class, and they’re pretty damned good at it! Jarvis Cocker came out as a devotee of random chance, saying “Something Changed” is “not really about fate, it’s more about the randomness of things . . . The worst thing about having a schedule and a timetable is that there’s less chance for unexpected things to happen.” I agree, and I love how this lightly reflective moment adds to the thematic diversity of the album.

We head out to the Santa Pod Raceway in Podington, Bedfordshire, England to hang with twenty thousand people high on E’s (ecstasy) or Wizz (speed), all nicely sorted out into separate cliques. I never bothered with raves during my wayward youth, though I thought ravers were rather nice, harmless people somewhat intimidated by the real world surrounding them. Cocker’s reminiscences capture the Woodstock-like belief that because all of us young folks came together “this has just got to mean something-ing.” Since Cocker notes that “no-one seems to know exactly where it is,” I suppose there is something miraculous about them coming together, given how fucked-up they were. The dominant melody is light and dreamy, reflecting the spaciness of the participants, shifting to something a bit darker when reality enters the picture:

Oh, in the middle of the night
It feels alright, but then tomorrow morning
Then you come down

The initial excitement fades long before the crash, however, as all those apparently nice people prove become quite unfriendly when a chap asks them for a lift:

Everybody asks your name, they say we’re all the same and now it’s “Nice one, ” “geezer”
But that’s as far as the conversation went
I lost my friends, I dance alone
It’s six o’clock, I want to go home
But it’s “no way, ” “not today”
Makes you wonder what it meant
(shift to spoken word) And this hollow feeling grows and grows and grows and grows
And you want to call your mother
And say “Mother, I can never come home again
‘Cause I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere
Somewhere in a field in Hampshire.”

There was a silly controversy concerning the cover of the single version of “Sorted Out for E’s & Wizz” where the Daily Mirror “journalist” Kate Thornton accused Pulp facilitating and encouraging drug use. Harrumph! If the anti-drug fanatics would exert one-tenth of the energy they waste with their knee-jerk paranoid reactions towards addressing the problem of the existential pain of modern life (caused by meaningless jobs, limited options and the obsession with conformity)—you know, the problem that leads people to use drugs in the first place—the world would be a happier, more rational place. People use drugs to escape from reality because reality often sucks. Why not try to make it better? Jarvis Cocker’s message was much stronger and more to the point, and it’s too bad he forgot about it when he developed a passion for cocaine in the years that followed.

“F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.” has earned Jarvis Cocker deserved enmity from music critics everywhere who have to break their stride to T.Y.P.E.O.U.T.T.H.E.I.N.I.T.I.A.L.S.O.F.T.H.E.F.U.C.K.I.N.G.T.I.T.L.E. Once I get the peevishness out of my system, I find myself treated to an opening passage with tremendous sex appeal, with Nick Banks offering a sweet syncopated beat enhanced with electronics, Steve Mackey providing a nice rhythmic counterpoint, Candida Doyle adorning the spaces and Russell Senior demonstrating remarkable bow command with dissonant, edgy fills. The effect is dark, eerie and dangerously erotic. Jarvis enters in spoken word mode, negating the erotic flavor through his tale of forced isolation in an icy room. The furniture is desperate need of repair, as is the room’s inhabitant:

The room is cold
And has been like this for several months
If I close my eyes, I can visualise everything in it
Right down
Right down to the broken handle
On the third drawer down of the dressing table
And the world outside this room
Has also assumed a familiar shape
The same events shuffled
In a slightly different order each day
Just like a modern shopping centre
And it’s so cold
Yeah, it’s so cold

Suddenly, in a move I’ll describe as Pixies squared, we get LOUD and the reason for the man’s paralysis. He’s in love! The fucking idiot is in love and can’t handle it!

What is this feeling called love?
Why me, why you?
Why here, why now?
It doesn’t make no sense, no
It’s not convenient, no
It doesn’t fit my plans, no
It’s something I don’t understand, oh
F-E-E-L-I-N-G-C-A-double-L-E-D
L-O-V-E, what is this thing that is happening to me?
So what do I do?

Well, sonny, you’re equipped with a protruding member that can produce serious discomfort when unused, so why the fuck don’t you use it? Ah! I see—another case of the weight of cultural expectations concerning romantic behavior crushing your libido and leaving you with erectile dysfunction! Sigh. Poor bastard.

I’ve got a slightly sick feeling in my stomach
Like I’m standing on top of a very high building, oh, yeah
All the stuff they tell you about in the movies
But this isn’t chocolate boxes and roses
It’s dirtier than that
Like some small animal that only comes out at night
And I see flashes of the shape of your breasts
And the curve of your belly
And they make me have to sit down and catch my breath
And it’s so cold
And it’s so cold

Hey! I heard that lecherous tone on “it’s dirtier than that,” sonny. Go with that! Explode!

We’re not sure if the narrator gets his rocks off, but the band certainly explodes with an extended, thumping rendition of the LOUD. Perfectly designed for live performance, “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.” is an exciting experience in the erotic Twilight Zone where too many people remain in culturally-induced paralysis.

Sexual tension of a different sort awaits us in the marvelous dramatic monologue “Underwear.” Jarvis slips into the role of a woman with surprising ease, a feature of his personality likely developed through his largely fatherless youth. The classic and trite expectation about boys who grow up without fathers is that they become “mama’s boys,” but my experience says otherwise—my interest level in a man goes way up if I learn that he was raised primarily by his mother, because mama is likely to have taught him the missing skill he probably would never have learned from a man: emotional intelligence. It’s an extra bit of insurance that tells me I’m not going to get stuck with a macho jerk driven by he-man fantasies.

The basic problem facing the young woman is that she has set the wheels in motion to have sex with a relatively recent acquaintance:

Why don’t you shut the door
And close the curtains?
‘Cause you’re not going anywhere
He’s coming up the stairs
And in a moment he’ll want to see your underwear

Aside: Jarvis Cocker wrote some of the most brilliant opening verses in history.

She explains her dilemma in the chorus, where Jarvis delivers a beautiful, passionate and agonized vocal, mirroring the emotional stew inside:

I couldn’t stop it now
There’s no way to get out
He’s standing far too near
And how the hell did you get in here
Semi-naked in somebody else’s room?
I’d give my whole life to see it
Just you
Stood there
Only in your underwear

Many readers will listen to those words and think, “What the fuck! Why can’t she stop it? Tell the guy she changed her mind and move on!” It may be true that you have to be a woman to understand this, but sometimes we find ourselves in a pickle where we’ve essentially enticed the guy into the promise of poontang and it . . . it feels awkward and somewhat rude to back out and leave him with purple balls. Call it “misplaced empathy,” but the phenomenon is quite common . . . and I have supporting evidence to back that claim!

The last contact I had with American TV was the Stormy Daniels interview on 60 Minutes. Naturally, the only thing interviewer Anderson Cooper was interested in was why in the hell she fucked Donald Trump, and her experience was exactly the experience described in “Underwear.”

Stormy: I asked him if I could use his restroom and he said, “Yes, you know, it’s through those– through the bedroom, you’ll see it.” So I—I excused myself and I went to the—the restroom . . . You know, I was in there for a little bit and came out and he was sitting, you know, on the edge of the bed when I walked out . . . perched.

Anderson Cooper: And when you saw that, what went through your mind?

Stormy: I realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into. And I was like, “Ugh, here we go.” (laugh) And I just felt like maybe– (laugh) it was sort of– I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, “Well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.”

Anderson Cooper: And you had sex with him.

Stormy: Yes.

Anderson Cooper: You were 27, he was 60. Were you physically attracted to him?

Stormy: No.

Anderson Cooper: Not at all?

Stormy: No.

Anderson Cooper: Did you want to have sex with him?

Stormy: No. But I didn’t—I didn’t say no. I’m not a victim, I’m not—

Anderson Cooper: It was entirely consensual.

Stormy: Oh, yes, yes.

Early in my sexual development I found myself in this situation a few times, and reached out to my mother for advice (yes, we’re that close). After talking it through, I decided that the problem had to do with the indirect communication of traditional seduction, and that to avoid “pity fucks” I would have to learn how to clarify my feelings and express them directly and immediately to my prospective partner. “I have a sense that I might want to fuck you but I’m not sure. Let’s just hang out together and see if that feeling gets any clearer. How do you feel about it?” Usually, the answer to that question is stammering bullshit, which causes me to immediately lose interest, allowing me to say, “Thank you for helping my clarify my feelings. You’re very attractive but this isn’t going to work for me. Friends?”

I’m definitely an exception, and my heart reaches out to the woman in “Underwear” because I’ve been there. Our heroine tries to laugh at herself and her situation (“If fashion is your trade/Then when you’re naked/I guess you must be unemployed”), then attempts to make the best out of an awkward situation. After all, beneath the doubt, hints of the initial urge still exist, so she could at least get a little physiological release in a kinda sorta win-win situation:

If you close your eyes and just remember
That this is what you wanted last night
So why is it so hard for you to touch him
For you to go and give yourself to him, oh, Jesus!

Cocker’s delivery of “oh, Jesus” is a lusciously ambiguous moment—we don’t know if it means, “Oh, Jesus, I can’t do this” or “Oh, Jesus” then jumped into his waiting arms, overcome with lust. “Underwear” is a poetic gem, supported by exceptionally strong performances from Nick Banks and Russell Senior, whose violin fills mirror the woman’s inner tensions.

“Monday Morning,” a song about growing up and trying to get your shit together by trading one weekly routine (partying) for another (the weekly grind), isn’t as lyrically interesting as the other songs on Different Class, but is certainly one of the most musically fascinating pieces. Grounded in Steve Mackey’s fluid bass rhythm, the song is full of tempo shifts, key changes and unexpected starts and stops. I’d love to hear an all-instrumental version, for what I hear is the music for a potentially thrilling modern dance piece.

So many great albums fail to deliver truly satisfying endings, but I don’t think there could have been a better closer for Different Class than “Bar Italia.” If you’ve been to London, you’ve probably been there or at least passed by on your way to the theatre; if you haven’t, Bar Italia is a 22-hour a day café (15 hours on Sunday) where different social groups hang out at different hours (soccer fans in the afternoons and evenings, theatre-goers before and after, all-night celebrants taking up space to the crack of dawn). Jarvis and his friend belong to the latter clique, and have stumbled into Bar Italia after a night of clubbing spiced with ecstasy. The scene is set through a trio of flute, bass and arpeggiated guitar, a combination that blends exceptionally well with the night-weary vocal. When we meet the couple of interest, they’re not in the best of shape:

Now, if you can stand
I would like to take you by the hand, yeah
And go for a walk
Past people as they go to work
Let’s get out of this place before they tell us that we’ve just died
Oh, move, move quick, you’ve gotta move
Come on it’s through, come on it’s time
Oh, look at you, you, looking so confused
Just what did you lose?

One interpretation has Jarvis singing this song while staring into a bar mirror, but that interpretation is rendered invalid by a request he makes of his partner and by his spoken observation regarding how fucking awful that person looks:

If you can make
An order
Could you get me one?
Two sugars would be great
‘Cause I’m fading fast
And it’s nearly dawn
If they knocked down this place, this place
It’d still look much better than you

The irony of the situation comes at the end of the second chorus, where Jarvis remarks, “If we get through this alive/I’ll meet you next week, same place, same time.” What? You want a repeat of this miserable experience? Well, yes and no . . . one can be addicted to excitement, to thrills, to possibilities . . . and one could be caught on a treadmill of one’s own devising. Jarvis explains it all in the fade:

That’s what you get from clubbing it
You can’t go home and go to bed
Because it hasn’t worn off yet
And now it’s morning
There’s only one place we can go
It’s around the corner in Soho
Where other broken people go
Let’s go

Candida Doyle makes a marvelous contribution in the choruses with a whirling circus-like organ sound that mirrors the spinning heads trying to make it through another late night in Bar Italia. These are people whose lives are spinning with no direction, no purpose, but they’ll repeat the routine next week, conclusively proving the definition of insanity as doing the same thing that put you in the shithole in the first place. “Bar Italia” is a more-than-suitable ending to an album immersed in the human experience . . . the good, the bad, the ugly and the fantasized.

*****

While the reviews of Different Class were uniformly enthusiastic, I found it disappointing that no one evaluated the album through the lens of aesthetic experience.

Aesthetic experiences are highly personal; what one person experiences as aesthetic may be a colossal bore to another. Whether or not you have an aesthetic experience depends as much on your personal tastes, values and general impressions as it does on the quality of work itself. This often correlates to stage of life—sometimes we’re too young or too old to bother to open our minds and hearts to certain artists and their works. Our education also has a significant influence on our aesthetic openness. For years I studiously avoided Shakespeare because my first experience was in the half-assed public high school I attended where the tenured teacher was just holding on long enough to retire with a pension. My attitude towards Old Willie completely flipped when I saw a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when I was in college.

Most definitions of aesthetic experience are dry and scholarly, a series of attempts to grasp the concept from a purely technical-intellectual perspective. Go ahead and Google “aesthetic experience” and prepare yourself to be less than thrilled with the results. I’ve only found one definition that truly encompasses the existential nature of the phenomenon:

An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak; when you’re present in the current moment; when you’re resonating with the excitement of this thing that you’re experiencing; when you are fully alive.

Sir Ken Robinson

When listening to Different Class, I find myself completely engaged from beginning to end, undistracted by outer stimuli or inner thoughts, concentrating entirely on the stories and the music—and when the music stops, I find it impossible and undesirable to move from my chair. My senses are operating at their peak and I want the feeling to last forever. During that phase I reflect on the myriad emotions I experienced—delight, laughter, tears, empathy, outrage, surprise. I spend time appreciating the nuance in Jarvis Cocker’s delivery, the connections between musical arrangements and storylines, the discipline and tightness of the band. I try to make sense as to why this particular piece of music moved me so, and I arrive at the obvious answer: it expressed thoughts, beliefs and feelings that I had always held but could never quite articulate.

The experience of a Different Class is a completely satisfying and enriching aesthetic experience.

Supergrass – I Should Coco – Classic Music Review (Britpop Series)

Sometime after my fourteenth birthday, a girlfriend of mine came over to hang out and show me pictures of her recent trip to England. The pictures were yawners (she was chaperoned by her parents), consisting of London classics and Canterbury Cathedral, but she did bring one artifact that piqued my curiosity.

“You’re into punk, right? Well, this band is the hottest thing in England right now. They’re kinda punky, so I thought you’d might like it.” She handed me a CD with the cover pictured above.

“Eeew! Creepy! They all look like they’re on meth!”

“No, they’re really cute. I saw them on the telly.” I’ve always found it irritating when Americans return from a trip to the mother country and drop Britishisms to show how cultured they have become. I wisely resisted the urge to slam her ass, remembered my manners, thanked her for the gift and accompanied her to the Mission to satisfy her hankering for a burrito.

Later that evening I remembered the CD and decided to give it a spin. I was just about to place the disc in the machine when Dad walked in.

“What’s on tap?”

“Audrey just got back from London and brought me a CD of the hottest band in England,” I explained.

“I’m all ears,” he replied, stretching himself out on the couch.

“She says it’s kind of punky, so you may not like it.”

“Try me. Who’s the band?”

The cover photo had so distracted me that I hadn’t noticed. “Supergrass. The name of the album is I Should Coco, whatever that means.”

“Give it a whirl.”

We sat and listened to the CD without comment. To me it seemed to be a mixed bag: some songs tickled my libido, some songs left me flat and some songs were fucking irritating. When the disc stopped spinning, Dad asked me what I thought.

“I don’t know. It’s okay, I guess. I liked it when they let it rip but some of it was too . . . too . . . ”

“Teenybopper?” suggested my father, using typically passé Baby Boomer terminology.

“Yeah, I guess that’s it.” At that moment, my father made one of the most prescient, precise, economical and insightful comments on music that ever escaped his lips.

“Sounds to me like they can’t decide if they want to be the Stones or the Monkees.”

*****

The teenybopper tinge of I Should Coco is justified by the anonymous Wikipedia author who made a game attempt to place the album in the larger context of Britpop: “The whole genre was seen as the voice of youth, but Supergrass, still teens themselves when the album was made, addressed the subject with more insight than most.”

The only problem with that argument is not all the band members were teens when the album was made. The songs were recorded in the first half of 1994, so Danny Goffey would have just turned twenty, Mick Quinn was already an ancient twenty-four and unofficial band member Rob Coombes would turn twenty-three. Only front man Gaz Coombes had legitimate status as an adolescent, turning eighteen during the recording sessions. Supergrass wasn’t The Hansons, whose brother-members were 15, 13, and 12 when their maiden album hit the charts, a production clearly targeted at the teenage demographic.

Maturity and age really don’t correlate as well as people tend to believe, and maturity isn’t an all-or-nothing kind of thing. There are adults in their fifties who have the sexual maturity of an adolescent and there are adults in their twenties who exhibit far more emotional intelligence than their more “mature” elders. I Should Coco contains songs that celebrate youthful freedom and independence as well as songs designed to please their mums—a not unpleasant struggle between breaking with the dominant culture and finding comfort in its bourgeois norms. There are times when they move too far up the saccharine scale for my tastes, and there are times they kick ass with confident command. To place them correctly in the larger context of Britpop, Supergrass captured the youthful exuberance but compared to Blur and Pulp, did little in the area of socio-cultural reflection.

While my “mixed bag” label still feels comfortable, I will say I find I Should Coco a more engaging listening experience than the album to which it is most often compared: Please Please Me. The comparison comes from the fact that I Should Coco was the biggest selling album in the U. K. since Please Please Me AND just happened to be a Parlophone release. Filled with lame cover songs and immature McCartney-Lennon offerings to fill in the album space between three enduring classics (“I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me” and “Twist and Shout”), Please Please Me is an album of historical value without much in the way of musical value. I Should Coco is 100% original, and some of those original songs are not only musically delightful but graced with occasionally insightful lyrics. There are indeed some turkeys in the mix, but the band’s innate energy serves to overcome many of its flaws. While the album had a significant impact in reinforcing Britpop’s status as a youth movement, The Beatles were obviously far more successful in terms of historical impact because the youth movement they inspired turned into a worldwide phenomenon, whereas Supergrass’s success was largely confined to British Isles. The Beatles completely conquered America while Supergrass remained a virtual unknown in the States: their first four albums failed to make the Billboard charts.

As it turns out, Supergrass didn’t want to be The Beatles . . . or The Monkees for that matter. But we’re getting ahead of our story . . .

I Should Coco embraces an approach to music composition implied by the album’s title, a cockney rhyming phrase that literally translates to “I should think so,” but because its intent is sarcasm, the actual meaning is “I should think not!” The opening track, “I’d Like to Know,” appears to be a typical high-speed pop punk bash that sets up the listener to expect a fairly standard chord pattern. In the extended first verse (the only verse that has its own “bridge”), they tease the audience with an unusual break from the E-D chord pattern, moving to A (normal) but following it up with a roundabout path to the E major root: A, C, D, D#. The band returns to the E-D pattern for two verse lines, then makes a dramatic and exciting move to another key (A), also taking an unusual route to get there—instead of the expected E-D-A (5-4-1), we get F-C-A (6-3-1), one chord higher than expected, one chord lower. That particular chord pattern change makes the spot between my legs gush with excitement, but Supergrass isn’t done yet, bless their young, testosterone filled bodies! Breaking with the expectation communicated by some of their singles that they were a 60’s revival band, they follow the verses with an extended hard rock fade that spans a decades of styles where they change keys multiple times (including a shift to D minor), introduce a 50’s-style guitar solo and somehow manage to piece these disparate parts into a completely satisfying whole. I remember despising the opening verse when I first heard it because of the “la-la-la-la-la-la” vocal frills, but in context, it’s another act of deception that dampens the listener’s hope that they’re going to hear Supergrass kick serious rock ‘n’ roll ass. When they do get to the ass-kicking, the impact is positively orgasmic (well, at least in my case). I love Gaz Coombes’ take-no-prisoners approach to the guitar, and though he would add more subtlety to his style over the years, he would always serve as a reliable source of power. “I’d Like to Know” is a fabulous opening number that gives listeners more than they expect and reveals what will become a common but never boring feature of the band—Supergrass was exceptionally good at creating drama through unexpected chord changes.

“Caught by the Fuzz” relates Gaz Coombes’ real-life story of getting busted for grass at the tender age of fifteen. He captures the essentials in his well-constructed narrative: the shock of capture; the usual manipulative attempts by the police (they call him “son”) to get him to rat out the dealer; the appearance of his equally hysterical mother who makes him feel even worse by telling him, “You’ve blackened our name/Well you, you should be ashamed”; and the threat of the male parent looming in the background ready to dish out even more painful punishment. The aspect of random selection and just plain bad luck is reinforced by the last line of each chorus where he expresses regrets for not staying at home on that particular night. The vocal captures the emotional rollercoaster of the experience fairly well, but I found myself much more moved by the acoustic version that appears on the In It for the Money limited edition bonus CD. The removal of constant guitar distortion allows you to experience the emotional nuance in the vocal.

“Mansize Rooster” is a bouncy-to-bash arrangement that reveals the inner dialogue of a young stud who has come up dry in his search for pussy and has begun to express doubt concerning his another-notch-on-the-dick approach to lovemaking. The song was a Top 20 single (barely), probably due more to the ear-friendly harmonizing in the instrumental passages than the song itself. The video is instructive, for it shows how teenage-gorgeous Gaz Coombes was and briefly highlights his androgynous appeal to all gender variations.

Now we come to the song that made Supergrass a musical staple throughout the Isles, the perfectly-crafted pop song, “Alright.” I don’t find the song as irritating as some other pop standards, and I think the chord changes in the bridge are absolutely brilliant, I do tire of listening to it pretty quickly, and I really had to force myself not to skip it on my third time around. The song relates the classic fun-and-exciting things teenagers do (hang out with friends, take up smoking, sample penises and pussies, drive cars with reckless abandon) and the joys that follow from a complete absence of responsibility. The song became a teenage anthem, and though Supergrass denied that was their intent, the denials were absolutely useless–no artist has control over how the populace chooses to interpret a particular work, especially when the critics are trying to stir up the crowds and increase circulation. Supergrass certainly doesn’t look like they’re in denial in the music video, which features them in various wacky settings doing typically wacky teenage things—a video so mass-market that none other than Stephen Spielberg, the king of cinematic sanitization, approached Supergrass about doing what would have essentially been a Monkees remake.

Oh, oh, oh for fuck’s sake.

We exit Disneyland for the edgier sounds of “Lose It,” where Supergrass (and this critic) feel much more comfortable. It’s not the best song on the album by a long shot but serves to clean the Clorox out of the ears left over by “Alright.” It’s followed by their first Top 10 hit, “Lenny,” a limited dramatic monologue (the single verse is repeated three times) about a guy so full of himself that he assures the broad he’s about to dump that she will die of lack-of-Lenny as soon as he exits the scene. Obviously, the lyrics had little to do with making this song a hit, so we look to the music and hear a spirited vocal and solid guitar work from Gaz, acceleration-provoking rhythmic changes, fast-moving bass runs from Mick Quinn and a stunning display of power and finesse from Danny Goffey on the drums. “Lenny” is a great mosh pit number, with plenty of opportunities for slamming and bruising as the tension rises, falls and rises again.

If there’s a theme to I Should Coco, it’s a comparatively modest version of the our-generation-is-different-than-the-old-fart-generation that rises from the grave every ten years or so like clockwork. The Supergrass take on generational differences isn’t direct rebellion (Britpop in general isn’t particularly rebellious), but about fascination with the “strange” (i. e., people who determinedly ignore standard cultural norms and live their lives in a sub-cultural pocket). This fascination with the strange was mentioned in “I’d Like to Know” (what they’d like to know is “where the strange ones go”) and even in “Alright” (“we are strange in our worlds”). The theme gets full treatment in the unshockingly titled song, “Strange Ones.” The strange ones are identified as those who inhabit the underground and who “look down from below,” superior and admirable beings that they are. That’s all very nice, but I found the most compelling part of the song in the tempo-shifting bridge where I could swear that Mick Jagger stepped in to handle the vocal for Gaz Coombes. The phrasing and pronunciation are pure Jagger, which is probably where my dad caught hints of a Stones influence. While I couldn’t find any documentary evidence to support the notion that the Stones shaped the Supergrass sound in any way, the aural evidence is pretty compelling.

The Jagger scent is definitely present in the next song, “Sitting Up Straight,” which opens with non-member but loyal brother Rob Coombes providing a piano intro that’s rather refreshing in context. The first verse is definitely sung in the Jagger style, particularly noticeable on the “oh yeahs,” but disappears in the more pop-oriented chorus. Gaz avoids Mick altogether in the next piece, displaying his remarkable vocal range over the Latin-flavored chords of “She’s So Loose.” It’s one of the more complex compositions on the album but not particularly well-supported by a vague story line.

“We’re Not Supposed To” features the boys playing with the tape speed to produce higher vocal pitch. They don’t quite cross the line into Alvin and the Chipmunks, but get pretty close. Without the silly trappings, the song is a pretty standard acoustic pop number that touches on the theme of strangeness in a curious and nonsensical matter, introducing a sort of competition about who’s stranger than whom. I chalk this one up to the old saying, “Kids will be kids,” which is why I never fucking want to have any.

Gaz goes full Jagger on “Time,” a song with a sexy mid-tempo rhythm that would have fit nicely anywhere in the Stones’ catalog, a notion reinforced by the touch of harmonica. This was the flip side to the “Alright” single, and despite the echoes of mid-period Stones, turns out to be a well-executed piece with delightfully heavy bass from Mick Quinn. It’s followed by one of the more interesting experiments on the album, the long-form “Sofa of My Lethargy,” with its psychedelically-filtered vocal and “She’s a Rainbow” harmonic touches supported by piano and Hammond organ. The lyrics are as opaque as most songs from the Psychedelic Era, shifting between fuzzy imagery and a cry to be recognized as different in the bridge/chorus. There’s even a long quiet jam that further tightens the links to the mid-60’s. I find the song refreshing in reinforcing the band’s desire to expand their sonic range.

Unfortunately it fades into the unbelievably sappy goodbye song, “Time to Go,” and whenever it comes up, I mutter “Yes, I completely agree” and remove the needle from the disc.

I Should Coco owes its stunning success to the band’s infectious energy and to perfect timing, coming out right when summer was about to begin and British teenagers were hungry for new music to support their warm weather escapades. The mania surrounding the band and the Spielberg offer left this very young band with an existential choice: to continue to explore musical possibilities or to go for the gold.

It is to their everlasting credit that Supergrass decided to reject the offer. Gaz Coombes also rejected offers to model with Calvin Klein and Italian Vogue. “It felt like cheating. Too easy. Short cut. Y’know? If you have to do all that to be the biggest band in the world . . . then what does that say about your music? And all that… [the publicity offers] would have just got in the way of the music. It would have taken so long to get to grips with. We’d have lost years.”

A wise person once said, “Maturity and age really don’t correlate as well as people tend to believe.” Oh wait, that was me! Right up there in the third paragraph of the review segment! Way to foreshadow, altrockchick!

We’ll see if they were able to pull it off when I review the hopefully ironically titled In It for the Money . . . right after another round with Blur and our first encounter with Pulp.

%d bloggers like this: