If you traveled to various corners of the world, played word association with its far-flung inhabitants and said, “Britpop,” the majority would respond “Oasis.” You might get some competition from Blur and others on the continent or in Japan, but Oasis is the Britpop representative best-known in the USA, and the USA has nuclear-level marketing reach.
Note that the word “nuclear” was carefully chosen and is intended to convey all its meanings.
I’ve already reviewed all their studio albums, but I couldn’t do a Britpop series justice without including Oasis. Luckily, I had their concert album in my back pocket, where they cover nearly all their hits from the Britpop era.
My review of Familiar to Millions is somewhat colored by my experience: I have seen Oasis live four times in my brief existence:
- June 19, 1997, Oakland Coliseum, Oakland, California: I loathe outdoor stadium concerts and despised the Be Here Now album, but they were in town, I could get there on BART, I’d never seen them, so what the fuck. The sound wasn’t great and the thing I remember most was Liam wearing white tennis shoes that were terribly unsexy.
- August 6, 2000, Arlene Schnitzler Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon: A wealthy dermatologist I was dating took me for my nineteenth birthday. He really went all out—we flew first class, had Dom Perignon waiting for us at the Benson Hotel and sat in second-row seats for Oasis. I returned the favor with a couple of thank-you fucks, dated him for another couple of months but ended it before he could give me a Tiffany engagement ring for Christmas. Nice guy, good-looking, shallow as a rain puddle, entire identity wrapped around his wealth and status. As for Oasis, they put on a great performance despite the weak material from Standing on the Shoulder of Giants—the set list on this live album is pretty close to what I heard that night, minus the crowd size and energy of Wembley. At this stage in their career, Oasis was no longer considered a top-tier band in the States, and were generally booked for venues in the 3000 to 5000 seat range. I liked that.
- September 9, 2005, Everett Events Center, Everett, Washington: This was a flight on my own dime and worth every penny—this was the Don’t Believe the Truth concert and I consider that album to be their masterpiece. They were on fire from the get-go and never let up, with the presence of Zak Starkey on drums infinitely improving the band’s tightness and punch. The venue was hardly top-tier and I remember Noel asking the crowd, “We were told we’d be playing Seattle—where the fuck is this place?”
- August 26, 2008, WaMu Theatre, Seattle: This took place after I moved to Seattle. The venue sucked—it felt more like a school cafeteria than a theatre. Oasis management seriously fucked up on this one—the band prepared a setlist heavy on songs from Dig Out Your Soul and the geniuses who set up the tour scheduled several concerts before the album was released! Though I was hearing several of the songs for the first time, “Shock of the Lightning” left quite an impression.
I also saw Beady Eye at the Showbox in Seattle on November 30, 2011. I recall that a member of the audience almost lost his member after slapping me in the ass and that it took Liam about six songs to find the right key. Despite the presence of three Oasis alumni, Beady Eye did not play a single Oasis number, but their first album was energetic enough to make for a relatively satisfying experience.
Oasis has been called a working-class band, and they certainly lived up to that label in concert. Oasis concerts feature very little in the way of pyrotechnics and nothing in the way of choreography—they pretty much just fucking play. Liam’s singing stance rarely varies: he puts his hands behind his back, twists his torso a bit, leans forward into the mike and sings. Noel is usually stage left with his guitars at the ready. The only “additional entertainment” is found in the song introductions, which fall into three categories: perfunctory, unintelligible or insulting (the insults are directed at random people in the audience). They rarely invite crowd participation because they usually don’t need to—the crowd at an Oasis concert consider themselves one of the largest choruses ever assembled, and they join in from the get-go.
Familiar to Millions primarily consists from the performances at Wembley on June 21, 2000, with some vocal overdubs inserted from other concerts in spots where Liam fucked up the lyrics. He always fucked up the second verse of “Acquiesce,” insisting on the documentary DVD for Don’t Believe the Truth that he’d never heard that verse in his life, in defiance of recorded evidence to the contrary. I don’t think anyone has found the Rosetta Stone that holds the key to Liam’s brain; I’ve always thought of him as intuitive-emotional and rather “childlike,” with all the blessings and curses associated with that adjective. When he’s in the mood, though, he’s one of the best rock vocalists on record, and for most of Familiar to Millions, he’s in the mood.
His brother told The Daily Telegraph, “I like to think I keep it real. Liam keeps it surreal, and somewhere between the two we get on all right.” Noel’s feet are generally more firmly attached to terra firma, but he also has the tendency to say whatever is on his mind and you can go fuck yourself if you’ve got a problem with that, mate. He is eminently quotable, the master of the sound bite with bite, oscillating between self-deprecation and self-promotion. He has described his guitar-playing at “average at fucking best,” but sends modesty on holiday with observations like, “Look. I was a superhero in the ’90s. I said so at the time. McCartney, Weller, Townshend, Richards, my first album’s better than all their first albums. Even they’d admit that.” Putting aside his arrogance and aggressive defensiveness (adjectives that apply equally to both brothers), Noel Gallagher managed to write some of the greatest songs of the era and never wavered in his commitment to the sadly dying art of guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll.
People who don’t care for Oasis tell me it has more to do with the Gallagher Brothers being assholes than the music; some people won’t even listen to Oasis because of the assholity factor. Having struggled through a love-hate relationship with Oasis for twenty-odd years, I can appreciate those feelings, but what frustrates me is not so much their boorishness but their bipolar tendencies. That is not a clinical diagnosis, but an observation of a pattern of good boy/bad boy behavior present throughout their history—a pattern demonstrated on this particular album. The Wembley concert was part of the tour to promote the album Standing on the Shoulder of Giants—an album title that acknowledges the band’s debt to The Beatles and the other great British bands of the 60’s. Then again, who but Oasis would give their live album a title like Familiar to Millions? Even if it’s true, why the fuck do you want to go there?
Sigh. Enough psychologizing. All I know is this: whenever I’ve seen Oasis live, I forget all about that crap and sing along at the top of my lungs with everybody else.
Let’s get on with it! One last note: in addition to the album, you can get a DVD with the entire gig and various “special features.” The sound on the DVD isn’t as good as the CD or the vinyl (which Discogs currently priced at $397.33), but the review includes references to what’s happening on stage when I think it’s helpful.
A tape of “Fucking in the Bushes” would become the standard call to arms opening Oasis concerts, the pounding drums and ripping guitar a signal to those off taking a piss that they’ve got three minutes to get their asses back to where the action is. During the intro, the cameras pans the crowd, a rather scrawny looking bunch obviously thrilled to see their heroes. Displaying a complete lack of attention to the finer points of fashion, Liam struts on stage wearing hippie-style shades and a blue denim jacket over a hoodie while Noel appears in what looks like a thick brown shirt pulled from the back of his closet over a pinkish top. Liam warms up the crowd with typical ramblings, saying something about a “shithole” and “Hello, Manchester.” With everyone in place, Alan White dutifully plays the drum intro to “Go Let It Out,” the lead single from the album. Liam betrays his excitement through his off-kilter breathing rhythm, but the crowd of around 80,000 people don’t notice because they’re already singing at the tops of their lungs. When the bass is called on to join in, the audience goes nuts, as they should—Andy Bell is a hundred times the bass player Guigsy was. The highlight of the performance is when Liam sings the line, “Ordinary people that are like you and me,” pointing to self then audience to emphasize common roots. Second new band member Gem Archer joins in the fun by delivering the first guitar solo, handing it over to Noel on his Gibson Les Paul for the second passage. Although it’s far from my favorite Oasis song, “Go Let It Out” gets the job done, leaving the crowd in the early stages of ecstasy.
Noel switches to the Rickenbacker for the second track on the Standing album, the drone song, “Who Feels Love,” supported by non-member Zeben Jameson on synthesizer. I mentioned in my review of that album that the studio version is a pale imitation of the live version, and listening to this album confirms what I heard in Portland. Bass whore that I am, I thrill to the deep, filling sound of Andy Bell’s bass in the same way I thrill to the deep, filling feeling of a hard one stretching my vaginal walls. Oasis would become masters of the drone song as demonstrated on Dig Out Your Soul and their surprisingly strong cover of “Within You, Without You,” and in this context it serves to get the rhythm section in sync and ready to rock.
Our first trip down memory lane begins when Liam announces “Supersonic.” The crowd immediately begins to move their butts along with the opening drum beat, breaking out into an ecstatic cry of pleasure when Noel delivers the arpeggiated intro. EVERYONE is singing the quirky lyrics at the top of their lungs, as if they’ve been holding back the orgasm for just the right moment. The band immediately launches into “Shakermaker,” a song I’ve always loathed, but I have to admit they play it very well here, rocking hard enough to make me temporarily forget that the song is based on a fucking Coke commercial.
Right on cue, Liam fucks up the lyrics to “Acquiesce,” but fortunately his part is relegated to the verses while his brother sings the far more important chorus. You can hear the difference in the crowd vocals—the sing-along isn’t quite as strong as it was on the previous two songs, but when Noel steps up to the mike and delivers his lines in an exceptionally clear voice, the accompanying chorus rises to a new dynamic peak:
Because we need each other
We believe in one another
I know we’re gonna discover
What’s sleeping in our soul
Noel literally saves the day here, leaving the crowd in a state of post-orgasmic delight.
Liam heads off for a smoke and a piss while Noel takes the lead on the Stevie Wonder imitation song, “Step Out.” While I appreciate the way he and Gem kick ass on the guitar parts, I always get distracted in the chorus, which is a musical duplication of “Uptight.” Liam finds his way back to the stage for the third song from Standing, the meh piece “Gas Panic.” Unlike me, the crowd seems to enjoy itself, but this is the part of the concert where I follow Liam’s example and head to the wings for physiological relief. I return to the sound of Noel telling a guy in the audience, “If she starts getting out of line, slap her,” followed by an energetic rendition of “Roll With It.” Neither Noel’s sentiments nor the song bring a smile to my face, but I get over it when I see a woman with exposed DD-cup bubs displaying her assets while perched on the shoulders of strapping young lad. There had been some unintelligible stage banter about tits earlier in the program, perhaps inspiring the young lady to liberate her fabulous knockers from bondage and share them with the world—and for that, we can all be grateful.
“Stand By Me” gets the crowd back in focus, with the slowly spinning hypnotic lights serving to soften and sweeten the accompanying vocals. Liam gives one of his best performances of the night, and as the camera zooms in, you can see the sweat on his neck and lengthy mane. Noel slaps a capo on the second fret (funny, I always thought it was supposed to be the third fret) for “Wonderwall,” with the audience response meter hitting the red zone. I think the response here has to do with their love of the song itself and nothing to do with Liam’s rather sloppy delivery. The song is so iconic that it could stand the mangling, but really, Liam should have risen to the moment and treated this song with due respect.
Once again, Noel rescues his brother with a long low-string tease on the Les Paul that ends when he climbs atop the monitors and delivers the equally iconic opening riff to “Cigarettes and Alcohol.” Apparently panicked that his brother has taken him out of the limelight, Liam responds to the challenge with a strong and playful vocal accompanied by his energetic tambourine, earning himself full forgiveness. I respond enthusiastically to the editorial aside he inserts after “But all I found is cigarettes and alcohol,” where, with unusually precise diction he observes, “Which isn’t a bad thing!” “Fuck yeah!” I respond in unladylike fashion. The crowd sings with guilt-free delight to a great performance of one of the great rock songs of all time.
Noel introduces the next song by visually demonstrating the size of his johnson by holding his outstretched hands far beyond his shoulders, dedicating the piece to “everyone with a little dick.” That might seem like a rather crass way to introduce one of the most beautiful and enduring works of the Britpop era, but there you have it. Once Jameson enters with the instantly-recognized piano introduction to “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” the audience responds in a unified voice tempered with affection and get themselves ready for their greatest performance of the night.
While Noel is in exceptionally fine voice, your attention is immediately drawn to the responding intensity of the collective vocals from the audience. What’s truly stunning is that they’re not just singing at the top of their lungs but varying their dynamics with each line, lowering and raising their voices in all the right places. They start out strong on the opening lines, back off during the pre-chorus transition, then take deep, justifiable pleasure in belting out one of the great belt-out lines of all time—“You ain’t ever going to burn my heart out.” What happens next is absolutely magical—Noel, sensing that the crowd’s got this one, drops out of the picture entirely and lets the audience take the entire chorus. Stimulated by the sounds of their collective voices, they raise their volume even higher to indicate their acceptance of the challenge. It is a thrilling moment that never fails to bring tears to my eyes, as does the stop-time closing passage where the audience solos on the coda (“Don’t look back in anger/Don’t look back in anger/I heard you say”), then Noel repeats the coda to light guitar accompaniment. While the applause rolls across the stadium, he ends the song gently on that sweet line, “At least not today.” Even for the brash and often bombastic Noel Gallagher, that kind of validation for songwriter and song had to be a deeply satisfying experience.
Nothing can possibly top that collective performance, but Liam gives it a shot with “Live Forever,” one of Oasis’ contributions to the youth movement sub-theme of Britpop. The song is well-played and Liam is excellent voice, but I’m still feeling the after-effects of “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and can’t process it. Liam has already initiated the bullshit ritual associated with encores by announcing “Live Forever” as “the last song,” but I think the ruse would have been more effective had the band walked off after “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and left the audience begging frantically and sincerely for more.
As it is, Oasis doesn’t take the audience to higher levels of excitement during the three-song encore, making it something of a disappointment. The cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” was an odd choice that inspired only obligatory applause. Liam’s rendition of “Champagne Supernova” is excellent, but it’s a song designed to evoke nostalgic regret rather than raise one’s spirits. The concert ends with the first song on their first album, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” where Oasis leaves it all on the stage in one last solid rock ‘n’ roll thrust before strolling off the stage.
For reasons both unknown and incomprehensible, the album compilers added an 18th track from a concert that took place on the other side of the world (in Florida, of all places) two months before Wembley—their cover of “Helter Skelter.” What the fuck, people? Not only does this unattached appendage interfere with the experience of closure we all want to feel at the end of a concert, but the Oasis version of “Helter Skelter” certainly isn’t going to make anyone forget about Paul McCartney’s last foray into manic rock.
Familiar to Millions came out a few years after the Britpop obituaries started coming out, so one has to wonder if the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd to the old favorites was a manifestation of nostalgia, a word defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” While that may have been operating on some level for some people, I don’t think nostalgia had much to do with the audience response. I’ve noticed that songs that bring up memories of my wayward teens are clearly period pieces with no enduring value whatsoever, rather like the colorful iMacs and retro fashions of the mid-to-late 90’s. I ran this theory by my parents, and both agreed that listening to the Beatles, Kinks or Stones doesn’t trigger any longing for black lights, granny glasses or sit-ins, but hearing one-hit wonders like Barry McGuire and the Strawberry Alarm Clock does.
No, the people singing the hosannas you hear on Familiar to Millions aren’t indulging in sweet memories of exuberant youth, but expressing deep appreciation for great songs that inspire full-throated listener accompaniment. That’s as true for Oasis as it is for Pulp, Blur, Supergrass, Suede and other Britpop artists who rose above the era’s hype to create compelling music that will live forever.
While you could make the case that both Blur’s shift to a distinctively American sound on Blur and the much-anticipated but ultimately horrid Oasis production Be Here Now should earn serious consideration as “the album that killed Britpop,” I have to go with Pulp’s This Is Hardcore as the coup de grâce.
To be fair, Britpop had pretty much run its course anyway. If you define the Beatlemania era as the period between “Please Please Me” and the last concert at Candlestick Park (The Beatles had already moved on, but the fans hadn’t), you’re talking about a little more than three-and-a-half years. Assuming Britpop covered the period between the first Suede album and the second Supergrass album, the phenomenon endured for about four years (and no, I don’t consider The Verve a Britpop band). Britpop had lasted longer than the psychedelic era and the original British punk movement, so it really was time for a change.
My selection of This Is Hardcore for this symbolic honor-of-sorts is based on a combination of factors. While Britpop was full of trenchant social criticism and black humor, it rarely crossed the line into dark and depressing. This Is Hardcore was described by its lyricist as “Songs about panic attacks, pornography, fear of death and getting old.” The music feels more like a film noir soundtrack, and Jarvis Cocker’s self-portrayal echoes the seedy loser archetype of noir films, someone like the hapless, hopeless Walter Neff in Double Indemnity.
I never thought I’d compare Jarvis Cocker to Fred MacMurray, but the shoe fits.
As he did in Different Class, Cocker wrote about what he knew: his own life. The difference is that he wasn’t a Britpop superstar when he crafted the lyrics to Different Class, and the experience he writes about in This Is Hardcore is of a man traumatized by fame, addicted to coke and desperately trying to find a piece of solid ground somewhere in the universe. If The Cure hadn’t already used the title, Pulp could have titled the album Disintegration and no one would have thought it inappropriate.
It didn’t help matters that Russell Senior had left the band, taking his first-class musicianship and artistic discipline with him. While This Is Hardcore has its moments, the album is marked by some very poor arrangements, some really bad ideas and occasionally sloppy execution that makes one miss the tightness of the band on His & Hers and Different Class. Senior’s absence is most strongly felt when Pulp attempts to compensate for his violin by increasing the use of electric guitar. Not only does the shift compromise Pulp’s signature sound, but the guitar tones on the album are frequently annoying.
The performance issues extend to Jarvis Cocker’s meandering vocal performances. Sometimes he finds the right tone, but every now and then he sounds like he’s suffering from a very bad cold (or maybe too much snow up the nose), and on a couple of occasions you’d think David Bowie had popped into the studio to do a guest turn at the mike. Oddly enough, the instability of his voice adds to the general pathos of the album, so in a curious way it successfully reinforces the disintegrative mood.
The lyrics also fall well short of the standards established by Different Class. There isn’t much in the way of wit on This Is Hardcore, nor are there many memorable lines. As for those who might excuse the lyricist on the basis that Cocker’s dark mood hampered his facility with the English language, I would point out that the best lines in Shakespeare come from the tragedies—especially Macbeth, the darkest of the lot. Somewhere in the midst of his wild ride through stardom, Jarvis Cocker lost his negative capability—the perspective of detachment Keats accurately identified as an essential factor in the creation of high-quality poetry. When Cocker wrote about his life experience on Different Class, he wrote with self-deprecating detachment. On This Is Hardcore, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that he is still too immersed in the experience and trappings of sudden fame to make any sense of it, often crossing the line into self-confessional melodrama that would have been more appropriately shared with his therapist.
This Is Hardcore doesn’t entirely lack value. If you listen to it through a film noir lens, the experience becomes more engaging and (for the most part) tolerable. A more informative angle is to view the album as a documentary detailing the impact of fame on the artist and the art. Through that perspective (and by considering the narratives of most of the other Britpop bands), we realize that Britpop died out for the same reasons that caused nearly every rock era to meet its demise: the unreality of celebrity, the disconnection from everyday life and the people who live that life, and the hopeless attempt to cope with the surrounding madness by turning to drugs.
I will give Pulp credit for making a clear statement of intent with the opening passage of “The Fear,” an ominous, funereal segment that represents a clean break from the energetic presentation of Different Class. Jarvis takes the stage as the character of man-falling-apart, alternating between short bursts of self-awareness and an apology to fans hoping for Different Class II:
This is our “Music from A Bachelor’s Den”
The sound of loneliness turned up to ten
A horror soundtrack from a stagnant waterbed
And it sounds just like this.
This is the sound of someone losing the plot
Making out that they’re okay when they’re not
You’re gonna like it but not a lot
The exposure of pretense (“making out that they’re okay when they’re not) is the most powerful message, an enduring indictment of the stigma attached to mental health and addiction problems—a stigma that makes it difficult to address those problems with any reasonable possibility of success. I cringe at the first two lines, though, which send a signal to the listener to expect a whole lot of self-pity to come into play.
Up to this point, Pulp is appropriately working in a minor key (A minor), a reliable means of communicating unpleasant emotions. After introducing the chorus with pure lyrical filler (“and the chorus goes like this”), they manage to ruin both mood and continuity by shifting to a major key, as if to say, “Hooray! We’re scared, lonely and temporarily celibate!” They make it even worse by adding a trio of female background vocalists singing their hearts out as if the heavens have burst open and the angelic hosts are proclaiming their asses off in the blinding light and ecstatic joy of The Resurrection. Let me correct Mr. Cocker here: THIS is the sound of someone losing the plot. I lose all interest at this point, easily tuning out the embarrassingly uninteresting lyrics, waking up only to feel quite annoyed at the superfluous introduction of weird electronic noises that must have seemed okay to the band but they’re not.
Jarvis then goes full nasal and seriously off-key in the male-as-masochist-in-a-dying-relationship tune, “Dishes.” Though he doesn’t exactly compare himself to Jesus, he uses the fact that “I have the same initials” as a basis for the Christ-related metaphor of the miraculous transformation of turning water into wine. It’s a torturous connection at best, and the mention of the crucifixion in the last verse is a serious stretch:
And I’m, I’m not worried that I will never touch the stars
‘Cause stars belong up in heaven
And the earth is where we are
And aren’t you happy just to be alive?
You’ve got no cross to bear tonight
It’s really difficult to believe that the man who wrote “Common People” could have come up with such empty lines, but there’s the evidence, right there, in plain view.
The rough start continues with “Party Hard,” where Jarvis does a second-rate disco-era Bowie imitation accompanied by intensely grating guitar tones. He makes a bad vocal even worse by applying a vodocoder to his voice to the randomly-appearing line, “Baby, you’re driving me crazy,” which also describes the way I feel when listening to this piece of crap. The only couplet that hints at a possible method behind the madness is “I was having a whale of a time until your uncle Psychosis arrived/Why do we have to half-kill ourselves just to prove we’re alive,” the poetic equivalent of using a sledgehammer to drive home the obvious.
Things do get better on the next track, but in the interests of balancing my evaluation, I’ll share a divergent opinion. Here’s Russell Senior’s recollection of what led to his departure:
For years, we spent a lot of time in Transit vans. But suddenly it was all gold discs, condos, famous mates and people whose reality comes from cocaine, telling you you’re great, night after night. I felt a revulsion for it. We were doing songs about common people and it was, “Jarvis, Prada’s on the phone, they’ve got your outfit.”
The last concert I did with Pulp was a corporate gig for a lager company in Barcelona. We were put up in a fantastic hotel, there were supermodels hanging around, but we were playing for bored executives. I felt myself backing away.
There were other things, such as awards ceremonies where somebody’s coke dealer has nicked your limo and you have to walk home because the record company are looking after Jarvis. We had become his backing band. Previously, the music always came collectively, from creative clashes, but I think Jarvis believed his own press and suddenly he was coming in with his own tunes. I didn’t think “Help the Aged” was worthy of following “Common People,” so I sabotaged it by playing blues guitar in the studio.
The Guardian, “The Ones that Got Away,” June 1, 2009
I agree that “Help the Aged” falls short of the standard set by “Common People,” but that song was the ultimate impossible act to follow. One of Jarvis Cocker’s most admirable qualities is the willingness to write songs about taboo topics, and in our youth-obsessed culture, getting old is one of the worst crimes a person can commit. Though sometimes the lyrics drift into Public Service Announcement territory, the empathy he expresses on behalf of these often-forgotten people is admirable:
Help the aged
‘Cause one day you’ll be older too
You might need someone who can pull you through
And if you look very hard
Behind those lines upon their face
You may see where you are headed
And it’s such a lonely place
I also whole-heartedly endorse the lines, “It’s time you took an older lover, baby/Teach you stuff, although he’s looking rough.” The couple who trained me in BDSM were twice my age (in their late 40’s at the time), and one of my favorite fucks is a guy in his 60’s.
Now that is a Public Service Announcement!
This is the one song on the album that demands I heap praise on Mark Webber’s guitar work, which alternates between sweet-and-lovely on the quiet verses and kicking ass on the Pixie-esque choruses. Though I wish they’d completely dispensed with the sore thumb bridge with Jarvis’ superfluous stutter, I consider “Help the Aged” one of the stronger arrangements on the album.
The title track is an even stronger musical composition, though credit for that goes to Peter Thomas, whose 1966 composition “Bolero on the Moon Rocks” was used as the central theme. Thomas is still with us at the age of 93, and while the bulk of his work involved sci-fi and horror soundtracks for television and film, this piece has a late-noir feel that would have been a good fit for 60’s noir films like Shoot the Piano Player or The Naked Kiss (most apt in this context, as the film is about a traumatized prostitute). Borrowing this remarkable piece of music could be considered a Pulp masterstroke; on the flip side, it shows that the band was running out of ideas and inspiration (or, as noted by Mr. Senior above, the band was no longer a collaborative enterprise).
The mood of the piece is smoky, reeking of debauched sexuality. As it turns out, Jarvis Cocker was watching a lot of porn in hotel rooms during Pulp’s commercial peak—oh, the glamorous life of a pop star!
‘This Is Hardcore’ is a bit about fame, actually… I ended up watching a lot of porn – hah! – on tour. If you get back to the hotel and you’ve got nothing to do, you put the adult channel on and have a look… It’s the way that people get used up in it. You’d see the same people in films, and they’d seem to be quite alive, and then you’d see a film from a year later and there’s something gone in their eyes. You can see it, that they’ve done it all and there’s nowhere else to go. There seemed to be something really poignant about that to me. (Q magazine 2012 interview)
Nice spin, but there’s scarcely a whiff of poignancy in the lyrics. There is an emphasis on the mechanical, impersonal production of porn (“then that goes in there/then that goes in there/then that goes in there/and then it’s over”), but really very little about what is “gone in their eyes.” Truth be told, Cocker sounds like your typically lonely lecher who watches these badly-acted, phony sex shows and fantasizes about someday directing a porn film himself:
You are hardcore, you make me hard
You name the drama and I’ll play the part
It seems I saw you in some teenage wet dream
I like your get-up, if you know what I mean . . .
I’ve seen all the pictures, I’ve studied them forever
I want to make a movie, so let’s star in it together
Don’t make a move till I say “action”
Oh, here comes the hardcore life
Bottom line: wake me up when the instrumental-only soundtrack version comes out—I’d buy it in a heartbeat. As for the rest, it’s obvious that Jarvis Cocker learned nothing while watching adult entertainment, so I hope he at least got his rocks off.
The “we’re all in this video together” theme continues, with “TV Movie,” a lost-love song with lyrics summarized quite nicely within the song itself: “All I know is I can’t even think/I can’t even think of anything clever to say.” I’ll second that motion! The arrangement is quite odd, featuring an acoustic guitar with unpleasant electronic residue on both channels for intro and first verse, followed by a leisurely build that never quite reaches a climax. Once the song vanishes into no one’s memory (except for the guy on Stereogum who thought it was the best thing Pulp ever did), we get “A Little Soul,” where Jarvis Cocker calls up the father who abandoned him in childhood and has him deliver a dramatic monologue to his now-adult son. This song has been singled out for praise by some reviewers; what I hear are clichés (you look like me, don’t grow up like me) and a son’s understandable resentment about abandonment that unfortunately negates any effort to understand the father’s motivations or circumstances. As Cocker was way too close to the subject matter to provide anything in the way of insight (such as filling us in on what he learned from the experience of abandonment), the song falls short in terms of emotional impact (unless you were abandoned by a parent in your childhood and can fill in the gaps). The pleasantly dull music is an exceptionally poor fit for what should have been a more thoughtfully constructed composition.
One could say that the moral of the story in “A Little Soul” is actually played out in the following song, “I’m a Man.” While it’s not the most original title, the song does capture Cocker’s thorough disgust with the cultural definition of maleness:
With your advertising sliding past my eyes
Like cartoons from other people’s lives
I start to wonder
What it takes to be a man
Well, I learned to drink
And I learned to smoke
And I learned to tell
A dirty joke
Oh, if that’s all there is then there’s no point for me
All very well and understood, but as in so many songs on This Is Hardcore, Cocker doesn’t dig any deeper, listing these most superficial characteristics as if he were filling out the grocery list. The question he poses—“So please can we ask why we’re still alive?”—is a throwaway, broad-brush question that ignores the truth that despite cultural programming, many men pay little or no attention to the all-powerful he-man image propagated by myth and modern advertising. I have few problems with the music, and from a structural perspective, “I’m a Man” is a solid piece of work. But what the hell is that noise that appears initially in the first chorus—is that a badly-distorted guitar or an electric kazoo? Whatever it is, it makes the song feel like more of a joke than a credible statement on masculinity.
If you’ve got eight-and-a-half minutes to kill and want to experience what it’s like to truly piss away your time, have I got a song for you! “Seductive Barry” is as complete an embarrassment as one can imagine, with Cocker playing off singer/rapper Neneh Cherry’s stereotypically seductive vocalizations as he embraces the role of egomaniacal lecher. If this is supposed to be satire, it lacks the bite; if it’s supposed to be an attempt to set the sexual experience to music, it’s fucking pathetic. I hereby nominate “I will light your cigarette with a star that has fallen from the sky” for the most ridiculous line in history, and tell you that when I’m done listening to this song, I want to run away from Jarvis Cocker as speedily as possible and take a long shower to cleanse myself of his disgusting aroma. Worst. Pulp. Song. Ever.
Jarvis Cocker’s strongest vocal on the album can be heard on “Sylvia,” an intriguing story of latent yearning for the unattainable beauty of a young man’s adolescence. The image of that long-lost Helen causes the narrator to insult a prospective partner (“You look just like Sylvia/Well, you look like her to me”), add injury to insult by launching into an extensive monologue about Sylvia’s likely whereabouts, and wrap things up by engaging the invisible Sylvia in a conversation (by this time, the prospective partner has probably left the table to call the police). What’s intriguing about what seems a narrative disaster is the hint that Sylvia was the victim of sexual abuse on the part of her father, an interpretation based on this sequence:
Her father’s living with some girl
Who’s a year younger than her
She’s living in the country now
Oh, she’s trying to get better
Her beauty was her only crime
The narrator then reveals that it isn’t only the lingering attraction that draws him to Sylvia but also the guilt that comes from the awareness that he too had questionable motives in his pursuit of the girl (though not of the predatory kind):
Who’s this man you’re talking to?
Can’t you see what he wants to do?
He thinks if he stands near enough then he will look as good as you
Oh, he don’t care about your problems
He just wants to show his friends
I guess I’m just the same as him
Oh, I just didn’t know it then
With genuine passion, Cocker sings the words he wishes he could say to Sylvia if she really were there, attempting to alleviate her misplaced sense of guilt and validate her self-worth:
I can’t help you but I know things are gonna get better
And please stop asking what it’s got to do with you
Oh, keep believing ’cause you know that you deserve better
The arrangement features strong build, good old-fashioned Pulp tightness and a very effective guitar solo in just the right tone (hooray!). While I think the lyrics could have been a bit more explicit, “Sylvia” is a definite plus, allowing Jarvis Cocker to explore one of those taboo topics where he is at his best.
“Glory Days” is probably the song that captures how I feel about most of This Is Hardcore: there are off-putting moments, occasionally brilliant lyrics, and promising possibilities that end with a thud. Cocker gives us Bowie AND the snow nose guy on the first verse, making me want to leap from my seat and rip the needle from the disc . . . but the line “and learn the meaning of existence in fortnightly installments” gets stuck in my head . . . so I press on to discover the best lyrics on the album:
Oh, my face is unappealing and my thoughts are unoriginal
I did experiments with substances
But all it did was make me ill
I used to do the I Ching
But then I had to feed the meter
Now I can’t see into the future
But at least I can use the heater
Oh, it doesn’t get much better than this
‘Cause this is how we live our glory days
And I could be a genius if I just put my mind to it
And I—I could do anything if only I could get round to it
Oh, we were brought up on the space race
Now they expect you to clean toilets
When you’ve seen how big the world is
How can you make do with this?
If you want me, I’ll be sleeping in
Sleeping in throughout these glory days
That is an excellent exposition of how the generation in power fills youthful heads with the unlimited possibilities that await them, then offers little in the way of help or real-world education to make any of those possibilities real. When your life is pure drudgery, what’s the fucking point? This is great stuff!
Unfortunately, the great stuff morphs into gibberish in the closing verse:
Yeah we’d love to hear your story
Just as long as it tells us where we are
That where we are is where we’re meant to be
Oh, come on, make it up yourself
You don’t need anybody else
And I promise I won’t sell these days to anybody else in the world but you
No-one but you (4)
Geez. I count at least three detours from the main narrative in seven lines. Foreplay without the orgasm really, really sucks.
And speaking of sucks—and we’re talking Yoko Ono-level sucks here—Pulp ends the program with “The Day After the Revolution,” fourteen minutes and fifty-eight seconds of sheer torture that leave me in a state of frothing madness. The song proper is a bloody mess, featuring noisy guitar, a frantic vocal and a barrage of disconnected lines mingling utter meaninglessness (“the revolution begins and ends with you”) with pathetic attempts at establishing artistic cred (“Bergman is over, irony is over”). Then, at the 4:52 mark, the band noise vanishes into background and we’re treated to a shimmery, synthesized organ sound for ten fucking minutes and six fucking seconds, interrupted only by Jarvis Cocker intoning the words, “Bye, bye” at the 9:56 mark. To pass the time, I started counting the overtones, grew bored with that after about a minute, and spent the rest of my time gnashing my teeth, wishing desperately to be transported to a more pleasant environment—something like Siberia in January or the Sahara in the summer.
Look. I don’t mind dark. It’s half the yin-yang of life, a valid approach to exploring the human experience. What I resent is dark done badly. And I firmly believe that Pulp simply had to follow Different Class with something that bore little resemblance. Had they tried to reproduce that experience, they would have essentially committed themselves to an artistically-limited formula. I support the attempt but bemoan the execution.
Pulp would return in 2001 with the far more coherent and satisfying album We Love Life, ending their run on a positive note. From a historical perspective, Pulp’s contributions definitely qualify as significant impactful, and I find it oddly fitting and curiously satisfying that the band that gave us the masterpiece of the era should be the band that symbolically laid that era to rest.