To me, as big an influence as the grunge scene was, the early 1990s for me means Britpop. Specifically, it means the mighty trifecta of Blur, Oasis, and Pulp. Sure, I’ll take arguments for Suede or Sleeper or whatever, but those three were the big three. Of those three, though, I found Oasis derivative of classic rock ( a good derivative, but still). Blur and Pulp were fresher and rawer. They both show up on this list, so let me start with Pulp.
I think Pulp is my favourite Britpop band, mostly because I am a little (whole) bit in love with Jarvis Cocker, the Sheffield raised auteur of Pulp. A biting look at the class system in the U.K. circa 1990-1995, it remains one of the best albums of the era.
Part of Pulp’s charm is Cocker’s humour. On a song like “Sorted for E’s and Wizz”, where rave/festival culture is succinctly and hilariously mocked only to crash down at the end like the day after regret of a raver on massive amounts of E. Whether one takes it as an anti-drug song or just a memory of a great moment in Cocker’s life ( story is the song is about seeing a Stone Roses fest show- trust me, there would have been E), it’s a powerful statement with its feet planted firmly in cheekyland.
But Jarvis wasn’t just snark, as the dark and ominous “I Spy” intro leads into a tale of infidelity that ends with confession. Dangerous sounding, even with the “la la las” that are more of a taunt than vocal filler, the song barrels on to its end, exhausted but satisfied.
Strong primal beats form the basis of “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.”, “Underwear” is wonderfully lustful and lyrically fun, and album closer “Bar Italia” is a gorgeous song about the dead hours between the party and the comedown, with the quiet resignation that this lifestyle is flawed.
But the two best known songs, the massive single “Common People” and my personal favourite “Disco 2000”, are worth the price of admission.
“Common People”, the band’s best known and best-loved track, famously recounts the tale of a girl whom Cocker knew who would say outlandish things like “I want to sleep with common people”. Back in the early nineties, working class lifestyles were being fetishized by the British media. Real working class kids like Cocker were annoyed with the concept of “Poor is Cool”. Poor is only cool if you have money, after all. There is nothing cool about the day-to-day struggle of feeding yourself. Cocker told the story with such style and panache you ended up agreeing that rich kids with the idea that poverty is somehow fun should rightly be ridiculed.
Every single time I watch the Glastonbury clip above, I am filled with envy.
But there is a sweetness in “Disco 2000”, the Branigan-cribbing melody and childhood memories mixed with sadness of adult realization. The dreams of the adolescent lingers even as you stand somewhere alone while chatting with your married first love about mundane idiocy. “Common People” is the immediacy of class and lust, “Disco 2000” is the memory of it. The amount of detail Cocker puts into the lyrics, down to the wood chip walls of the basement, is romanticized a bit. But the overall tone of the song is sad, even as it layers bright pop over and over.
At turns delightful and disturbing, it is always emotionally honest. Cocker is a clever songwriter, and it is this that keeps the album from becoming to mundane. With an eye for detail and an ear for a brilliant melody, Cocker managed to create the one thing needed in 1995. The antidote for the darkness and greyness that grunge and Britpop would ultimately level on music.
It would win the Mercury Music Prize in 1996. It is simply that good.