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.
All the noise surrounding Brexit triggered memories of a much healthier expression of cultural pride than that interminable shitshow.
Brett Anderson of Suede correctly labeled “Britpop” a “horrible term.” I would go even further and call it “offensive,” “misleading” and “demeaning.” The connotation of the word “pop” implies light entertainment for the masses, a consumer-friendly form of music manufactured to provide everyday people with simple songs they can whistle on their way to work. While that connotation is true for most music that has made it to the pop charts over the years, there have been at least two periods in popular musical history where artists chose to lead rather than follow, and raised the quality of popular music to an art form while losing little of their appeal to the common folk in the process. The first arose in the mid-60’s when the Beatles, Kinks, Stones and others followed Bob Dylan’s cue and moved beyond boy-girl tunes to explore human and social conditions; the second was the Britpop era in the mid-1990’s.
One notable difference between the two eras is that the golden age of the mid-60’s was a worldwide phenomenon; Britpop was primarily a British experience. Some Britpop bands enjoyed modest popularity in some of the Commonwealth countries and in parts of the European Union that Ms. May is so desperate to leave, but only Oasis made any significant inroads in the United States. Part of the energy fueling Britpop involved the rejection of the grunge music pouring out of the States at the time, but after being flooded with American music, movies and television shows for a few decades, many people in the UK had become, in the words of Joe Strummer, “so bored with the USA.” Britpop artists not only sang primarily of the British cultural experience, but unlike most of their pop forefathers, they sounded like Brits, refusing to Americanize their singing voices. Ethnocentric, self-absorbed Americans had a hard time relating to the stories and the accents, and albums that made it to the top of the charts in the UK failed miserably when crossing the Atlantic: Parklife never charted; Different Class peaked at #34; and The Great Escape died a regrettable death at #150.
It has been said that Ray Davies is the Godfather of Britpop, and there is plenty of evidence to back that up that claim. The American performance ban on The Kinks coincided nicely with Ray Davies’ blossoming as songwriter and astute observer of human activity. Since there was little point in writing songs that appealed to the American market, he focused on life in the mother country. Face to Face, Something Else, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur are all filled with songs about British life and British people. Ironically, those albums were generally ignored in both the UK and the US, but they provided a blueprint for future artists to integrate melodic rock and roll with lyrics featuring a unique blend of pointed satire and expressions of empathy for the poor souls in the queendom. I can hear The Kinks in all the Britpop bands, but most noticeably in Blur and Pulp. Britpop was not a patriotic celebration of all things British, but often an insightful and sometimes discomfiting look at British cultural dysfunction.
The humor and satire certainly helped endear the Britpop bands to the listening public, but they also produced some of the catchiest damned music of any era. Many of the best songs of the era practically demand you to sing along, a feature best demonstrated in live recordings of Oasis, where the fans threaten to drown out the band as they raise their voices in joyful unison. Beneath those catchy melodies are often surprisingly clever variations on musical norms, and similar to the songs on The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, prove much more challenging to play in the comfort of your home than might first appear. Britpop had a lot more musical and lyrical depth than the term would apply.
Britpop also celebrated youth and vitality, a theme best expressed through the works of Supergrass, Oasis and Suede. The celebration was not the rejection of oppressive conformity you hear in “My Generation,” but just about how damned good it feels to be young, hanging out with the gang, staying “young and invincible” with your testosterone flowing like a river in flood stage. The youthful energy of Britpop is quite palpable, but the reference to the male hormone reminds us that Britpop was largely a male phenomenon.
Unless you count The Spice Girls, and I don’t.
All this youthful energy and budding pride came together to allow the media to invent another term to describe the era: Cool Britannia. I’m 90% sure that people who embraced that term never heard the original song by The Bonzos, which in four brief lines ridiculed the idea that the British cognoscenti could impose coolness on a population. I can easily expose the faux nature of Cool Britannia by quoting a single sentence from the Wikipedia article on the subject: “The election of Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1997, seen by some as young, cool and very appealing, was a main driving force in giving Britain a feeling of euphoria and optimism.”
Oh, well. He looked pretty cute in his well-tailored suits. Who could have predicted he would be dumb enough to allow George W. Bush (not exactly the brightest bulb himself) to talk him into helping the Americans launch a crusade?
Conclusion: Cool Britannia was horseshit, but despite its horseshit name, Britpop was the real deal. Over the next few months, I’ll be exploring the music of the era through the following albums (please note that I’ve already reviewed all of Oasis’ studio albums):
- Suede: Suede March 1993
- Blur: Parklife, April 1994
- Supergrass: I Should Coco, May 1995
- Blur: The Great Escape, September 1995
- Pulp: Different Class, October 1995
- Supergrass: In It for the Money, April 1997
- Pulp: This Is Hardcore, March 1998
- Oasis: Familiar to Millions, November 2000
I reserve the right to throw in a few albums from the 60’s and 70’s during the series to keep my Baby Boomer readers happy.