The rage of Common People

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So, Pulp are back and with them comes Common People: arguably the defining British single of the 90s (“a song that was in the right place at the right time,” reflected Jarvis Cocker), and probably the most oversimplified. One critic recently described it, in passing, as “a freak call-to-arms”, but that’s true of Mis-Shapes, not Common People. It sounds like an anthem to be sure, with its krautrock/Roxy rush and mounting intensity, but anthems are meant to unite, and Common People, on every level, is about division. It is desperate, vengeful, bitter, and brutal. The vast majority of Pulp fans planning to sing along to it at Hyde Park next year are excluded from a song which speaks for such a specific stratum of the class system that, if it is a call-to-arms, then the only person it’s calling to arms is Jarvis himself, and even he’s not entirely sure.

It starts as an old-fashioned Kinksian character study of the kind that Damon Albarn was producing at the time (Albarn, of course, being the songwriter most often accused of class tourism), but one that’s clearly about specific individuals rather than archetypes. Why “She came from Greece”? If Jarvis simply wanted to skewer what he called a mood of “patronising social voyeurism” he would have constructed a type: posh, English and instantly recognisable. Instead, he based it on fellow St Martin’s College student (who didn’t actually study sculpture) who aspired to live in down-at-heel Hackney “like the common people”. She’s a slumming hipster, belonging to a line which runs from Norman Mailer’s “white negro” to trucker-cap-wearers in Williamsburg. She’s a little gauche and condescending but Jarvis’s initial response is amusement: the rinky-dink keyboard line, the rakish wink in his voice. “I said I’ll… I’ll see what I can do.”

Who’s getting hurt in these first two verses? He’s happy to exploit her taste for a bit of rough (a milder version of I Spy’s sex-as-class-war theme, which directly follows Common People on Different Class; in reality, Jarvis hardly knew the girl) and he’s the one who tricks her into looking foolish in the supermarket (“I said pretend you’ve got no money”). In this scenario, Jarvis has the power and if the song continued in this vein it would be just a wittier, less misogynistic version of “silly little rich girl” Stones songs like Stupid Girl and Out of Time. But then she smiles and holds his hand and the whole song shockingly, brilliantly snaps in half.

Suddenly we’ve left the supermarket and the Greek girl behind, along with any sense of social comedy. It’s as if a trap door has opened up under Jarvis and his sudden sense of big-picture powerlessness wipes the smirk from his face. The rage that consumes the rest of the song is way out of proportion to anything the girl said: she’s the trigger, not the cause. His voice becomes ever more ragged and desperate, and his anger shreds his coherence. His hysteria reminds me of Ian Curtis in Transmission, his contempt of Jello Biafra in Holiday in Cambodia and his careening violence of John Lydon (Common People’s producer, Chris Thomas, also produced the Sex Pistols album).

So where does this rage come from? In a word: failure. Jarvis, in this song, has no safety net, no plan B. He’s done OK for now, getting to St Martin’s, but if he flunks it then he’s back where he started. She can call her dad to rescue her if it all goes pear-shaped, but he can’t (and couldn’t even if his dad hadn’t walked out when he was seven). Jarvis was already 25 when he enrolled at St Martin’s in 1988, by which time Pulp had been unsuccessful for so long that they were on hiatus. The band’s career didn’t begin to turn around until 1990’s My Legendary Girlfriend single. So within the song he’s between worlds, riddled with anxiety. “I didn’t believe in the concept of class at all when I was in Sheffield,” he told Q in 1996. “Then when I moved to London, I couldn’t deny it existed. That’s where the class obsession on this album started.” (In 80s Sheffield, Jarvis studiously avoided politics; guitarist/Russell Senior was the one who wanted Pulp to be “more political” and less “frivolous”. Jarvis told BBC3: “It was a shock to me to find myself writing a song like this.”)

This helps to explain the song’s problematic view of working-class culture. Unlike the Manic Street Preachers in A Design for Life, the other great class-based single of the Britpop era, Jarvis doesn’t contradict the Greek girl’s reductive view — he actually makes it even more reductive. She meets him at St Martin’s, not at the dog track, so obviously she doesn’t think all he can do is “dance and drink and screw”. And we know from songs like Mis-Shapes that he’s done his damnedest to escape mainstream working-class culture: “You could end up with a smash in the mouth just for standing out.” And yet, goaded by the Greek girl, he finds himself lionising (“they burn so bright”) a culture he never really liked. Stuck between worlds, he enjoys neither working-class community nor middle-class financial security, so when she says “I want to sleep with common people like you”, she both wounds him (I’m not like them at all) and worries him (what if, despite every effort, I am?).

Insecurity breeds viciousness. The pathos of “watch[ing] your life slide out of view” and having “nothing else to do” gives way to blistering fury at those who “think that poor is cool” and that, in turn, to violence. In a verse cut from the single edit, Jarvis compares the “common people” to a dog lying in the corner who, without warning, will “tear your insides out”, a line so savage that it seems impossible that just two minutes ago we were still smirking in the supermarket. In the BBC3 documentary, Jarvis calls another section missing from the single edit (“You will never understand…”) the “punchline” to the whole song, and winces at the intensity of his own vocal. Did he intend the song to contain so much discomfiting ambiguity, or did it get away from him, as great songs often do?

Common People offers a voice that was prevalent in punk (John Lydon) and post-punk (Mark E. Smith), survived into the 90s (Nicky Wire), and is now almost inaudible in an age when pop seems as dominated by a single class as television or publishing: that of the spiky working-class intellectual. And because of its musical power, and its cute video, and its moment in time, and Jarvis’s peculiar charm, it managed to fool people into taking its rage and pain for something simple and stirring. Common People is like that dog lying in the corner. You think it’s cuddly but it will tear your insides out.

Note: Wikipedia identifies the Greek girl as Greek Cypriot St Martin’s student Ambrosia Sakkadas but supplies no evidence to support this. Jarvis himself says he can’t remember the girl’s name.

Note 2: Some of the ideas in this blog were prompted by a fascinating discussion on the I Love Music messageboard, which made me think afresh about a song I thought I knew inside out. One contributor suggested that Jarvis’s choice of drink was a reference to Rum and Coca Cola, a 1940s Trinidadian calypso about cultural imperialism, which adds an interesting wrinkle. Or maybe Jarvis just really likes rum and coke. I wholeheartedly recommend the BBC3 documentary linked above.

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31 Comments

  1. but you can’t get any more middle class than being at St Martins art college whether you are a rich Greek girl of Jarvis Cocker playing music in an indie band…

    • That’s what I mean by being stuck between worlds. A working class person doesn’t magically become middle class the minute he gets a place on a college course.

    • I go to Central Saint Martins and I grew up on a council estate! Poor kids can draw too.

  2. Always thought the song hinged on lines like ‘cos everybody hates a tourist’…this blog’s made me reflect on whether in a sense Jarvis, as well as the Greek girl, is a tourist both in the middle class and the working class world – you’re right that the song’s about attempts to move between classes in both directions, and whether those attempts are doomed to failure.

  3. The truly heart-rending bit for me is the cut line ‘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.”
    He identifies the fear of failure, the desperation to escape from your background; I can never hear tthis without feeling the same sense of anger, resentment and yes, reverse-pride.
    Anyone who has jumped over the fence to middle-classdom has a fear of always being ‘found out’ and exposed as the council house scum that they feel they still are inside. The people I knew when I was growing up had no money, they had to be more resourceful, tougher and were definitely funnier than the ever-so nice people I live amongst now.
    Much more in touch with the raw of human emotion.
    ‘We burn so bright’ because we (the under-class) are bent on squeezing the joy out of every situation, from pub to girl to club, because we know our light will not last.
    ‘You can only wonder why’ because you will never feel the same violent desperation to feel alive in a life worth living.

    • Yes. I don’t interpret the song as being a political analysis, but rather it perfectly conveys the emotions that someone transitioning from working class to a higher socioeconomic class experiences, which does include many contradictory emotions. I like the song for mostly emotional reasons too: it’s not far off from situations that I’ve found myself in once or twice, and that aspect of my life experience is so rarely portrayed in pop culture.

      Despite not being a political analysis, I think Jarvis is right on, though, when he identifies the lack of a safety net as a defining feature of the working class (and increasing stratas of the middle class nowadays; the threat that if anything goes wrong – injury, economic fluctuations beyond one’s control, etc. – they could end up in the even worse situation of the seriously poor, who have to contend with day-to-day survival).

  4. There is also the reverse snobbery that middle class people ‘don’t understand’.
    There is also this assumption that Jarvis at art college in his art rock band can still be working class- he’s already in the playground!
    Also there is this arrogance that the girl is just a ‘class tourist’- a very lightweight observation.

  5. “…a voice that was prevalent in punk (John Lydon) and post-punk (Mark E. Smith), survived into the 90s (Nicky Wire), and is now almost inaudible in an age when pop seems as dominated by a single class as television or publishing: that of the spiky working-class intellectual.”

    Yes. Alex Turner is probably the nearest thing we have, but some of the spikier bits in his lyrics seem to be being smoothed over recently.

    The worst consequence of Oasis’s success was that it entrenched the idea that working class = stupid. Now they’ve split up and Pulp are back together, which suits me fine.

  6. Great blog, and spot on. While the girl gets to be a tourist, poor old Jarvis is a class refugee – no wonder he’s angry.

  7. Bizarre that you should read the first line ‘She came from Greece’ as a character study, as this is a great set up line for ‘thirst for knowledge’ and in this sense, the character is an elemental archetype, not a specific individual (as you say). You state that Common People was produced by the Sex Pistols producer (Chris Thomas) and this is mind bogglingly irrelevant as he also produced Chicory Tip and Elton John. This is less a song about politics more a song about class rage – selfish and without ideological prudence

  8. Wonderful article. But no mention of William Shatner’s final elevation of the song to its ultimate heights? I think I mean heights.

  9. Great call, Dorian. For me the song was always about a working class bloke trying to punch above his weight in circles that might have been considered ‘too good’ for him, and winging it weighed down by the dread of being rumbled and exposed. The line “I wanna sleep with common peple like you” is his moment of exposure and the point at which she nominates him as her guide through the rough & ready working class world she thinks is exciting, but which he’s striven so hard to shove to the back of his mind (and disguise that he’s a part of). And the line “you can call your dad and he’ll stop it all” just drips with utter resentment.

    It’s a song of loathing, disappointment and the struggle twixt acceptance and bring true to yourself.

    Cheers.

  10. Brilliant dissection – but I can’t now help wondering the significance of the fact that the pivotal verse (the “tear your insides out” verse) is the verse that was cut from the single edit. Whose decision was it to cut it? Did someone at the record company feel it was just too vicious – or did the band themselves decide to make it all a little more radio-friendly? And either way, doesn’t the fact it was cut at all make Jarvis a little complicit in the class-deception/class-betrayal he’s so despairing of?

  11. My mate used to think it said ‘the Taylor Vincent Ad’ – he actually asked me who Taylor Vincent were and I had to explain that Jarvis was singing ‘tear your insides out’.

    Still one my favourite songs. The reason it appeals to so many is that you don’t have to be working class to hate middle / upper class people ‘slumming it’ in order to mask their privilege. It’s ultimately a song about solidarity vs tourism. I like your links to Albarn and awareness that Jarvis himself characatures the working class, but I’d argue it’s one of those great songs that’s comes through a person – like William Blake used to say of his poems – he didn’t write them, some lifeforce/God did (if that’s not too pretentious/middle class!)

  12. Was anyone ‘fooled into thinking’ Common People was simple and stirring? Did we all miss it’s rage, frustration, anger and pain? I don’t think so-the rage and pain and desperation was obvious the first time I heard it. That’s why it was and is so great. I don’t think many people were fooled into missing that…

  13. Very much enjoying the comments so far. Some great observations about the song – I especially like Jim’s idea of being “rumbled”.

    Dominho, the original song is almost 6 minutes long so, boringly, I think the main reason for the edit was simply length, and that but could be cut without destroying the overall arc of the song. But yes, it does lose a whole dimension in the process.

    Rosanna, I don’t think listeners missed the anger but I do think a lot of them saw it as less complicated than it is.

    • Dorian – a lovely article all in all – I only think it is too easy to underestimate people and assume most don’t get complicated lyrics/stories. Those lyrics/stories are a reflection of the complicated culture & society in which Jarvis was living at the time. We were all living in the same culture, witnessing the same class cross overs, struggles, hopes fears, contradictions etc that Jarvis was experiencing and writing about…so I reckon most got it totally as it resonated with most…whether you were posh and your dad could rescue you or grew up with woodchip on the wall and no safety net. Thanks for a lovely article.

  14. A problem for working class intellectuals to address is how to pursue intellectual or cultural pursuits which are associated with the middle classes without somehow betraying their working class roots. In a sense there is a “brain drain” from working class areas, a syphoning off of intellectuals who become “declassé”, which merely serves to reinforce the class divide. If you identify yourself as working class but have some aspiration to (let’s say) go to college, cultivate your intellect, become a doctor or lawyer or part of that intellectual class, it’s not enough to transcend the place you grow up in; to find yourself now in the midst of middle class life but somehow knowing “deep down” that you’re actually “working class”. The most commendable thing to do, if the notion of class is to have any political connotation rather than just being a sort of brand, would be to stay in the area you’re from and serve the local community. That’s my understanding of Antonio Gramsci’s term “organic intellectual”. So few working class intellectuals seem to do that. And I appreciate that it’s a difficult thing to do, and possibly even a thankless task.

    I bring this point up because it’s something I’ve spotted in Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics. At times – regardless of his class background – he sounds like a Young Conservative. In “Joyriders” the lyric sketches a sort of yob culture, the working class protagonists in the song portrayed as being “so thick we can’t think/ Can’t think of anything but shit sleep and drink”. In “Mis-shapes” the same group are mocked for their lack of sophistication and obsession with the Lottery (“What’s the point of being rich if you can’t think what to do with it? ‘Cause you’re so bleedin’ thick…”). And as you point out the narrator of the lyric seems determined to pull himself out of this circle. It has always sounded to me like, on the one hand, Jarvis is proud of his working class roots and locates his outsider status in finding himself suddenly in a glitzy middle-class showbiz, media world. And on the other, that he wants to shake off the actual trappings of working class life (as essayed in his lyrics at least); the mundane stuff, the violence, the thuggish contempt for the arts, the poverty, the drink and cheap drug culture, the social breakdown that goes with it. (I realise I’m using some crass and negative stereotypes but that’s what Jarvis often deals in.) He rarely seems to see the working class (and I suppose here we’re talking about what a Marxist might call the lumpenproletariat) predicament as being the result of class antagonism. It’s instead usually attributed to an innate lack of imagination, or intelligence. It’s THEIR fault. Even in Common People, again as you point out, it’s a very personal, individualistic narrative. Specific people, specific situations. Sure “Running The World” focuses more on the political world and takes a broader view. But on a song like “Fat Children”, he’ll throw in a lyric like “Oh the parents are the problem/ Giving birth to maggots without the sense to become flies…” So we’re back to the Joyriders/Mis-shapes view of the working class – they’re down in the squalor because they shun culture and education; unlike Jarvis’ narrators they don’t choose to drag themselves out of it and they are to be scoffed at. Their shortcomings are innate (in “Fat Children” possibly even GENETIC, which is very rum) and they get what they deserve.

    I’m not having a go at Jarvis by the way. He’s a brilliant lyricist. His lyrics do exhibit this anguished love-hate relationship with the working class. They’re very interesting but sometime they do pull me up short and make me go “Ooof, I don’t know about that lyric – that’s a bit politically suspect”.

    • Love this analysis. One thing that surprised me in the BBC3 documentary was that Russell Senior was the political one, very active during the miners strike, while Jarvis didn’t think about class in a political way at all.

  15. Wonderful blogpost. Bravo Dorian!

  16. Interesting. I haven’t watched these videos about the history of the song yet. I had always interpreted the first few lyrics with a twist:

    she studied sculpture at St. Martin’s College / that’s where I / caught her eye

    I assumed he was so poor he was working as a nude male model, where he—naked, exposed—caught her eye. This further heightening the tension between them, reenforcing his role as Object.

  17. [...] had seen mention made of this essay about Pulp’s song “Common People” made on Twitter today. On Twitter, Tim Carmody wrote: The anger and honesty in Pulp’s [...]

  18. [...] the best news I’ve heard in ages – i.e. that Pulp are reforming. Go and read this essay dissecting Common People, and come back when you’re done. Or, er, don’t. Sorry, that [...]

  19. [...] Se ne parlava proprio qualche giorno fa, di quanto Common People dei Pulp sia una gran canzone, e di quanto il suo testo, dietro una storia apparentemente semplice, abbia sfumature assai complesse e in qualche modo persino fastidiose. La reunion appena annunciata per la prossima primavera (anzi, Primavera) è un'ottima scusa per mettere di nuovo sul piatto un anthem che abbiamo ballato un milione di volte ma che raramente abbiamo ascoltato con l'attenzione dovuta, come sottolinea anche Cabal che in un bel post segnala lo spettacolare documentario The story of Common People e la bellissima analisi della canzone fatta da 33 revolutions per minute: [...]

  20. [...] is a brilliant piece of writing, by Dorian Lynskey about Pulp’s Common People. (Bad writing about music is the dullest thing ever, brilliant writing about music is, well, [...]

  21. That song is now used towards the hipster subculture. Funny, but Jarvis is viewed in the States as a hipster icon. He’s known to hang out with hipster overlords like Terry Richardson, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and is idolized by hipster bands like Vampire Weekend. The popular dj trio in the hipster scene, Misshapes, was named after his song.
    Someone pointed out that the author (Jarvis) should have vented his ire on the rich girl’s dad, instead of the girl. It’s not her fault, is it? She’s just naive, I think. Oh well, “Oh the parents are the problem/ Giving birth to maggots without the sense to become flies…”
    Dorian, what do you think is the reason why Jarvis decided to reform Pulp? He’s giving cheeky answers like, ” I need to pay the bills”…etc. Money should be the easiest suspect, but could it be something else?

    • I don’t know but I do know he attended the Blur reunion shows and must have been affected by seeing the rapturous response. I guess it’s just the appeal of playing big stages (for, yes, big money) again and revelling in being a pop star after a few years of being a low-selling cult figure. But it does seem weird that just eight years ago they split up more out of lack of public interest than band politics – you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.

  22. Excellent analysis. I was just pointed here from The Quietus. Damn my eyes, but this was the most rewarding and powerful song of the misbegotten 90s. It stands towering above all other songs I had heard then. It’s certainly one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s certainly better than anything I’ve heard in the last 25 years or so, and it’s so blistering in its power I now sob every time that I hear it. That started about 10 years after listening to it, actually. Now I just can’t help it. I’m getting misty-eyed just reading about it.

  23. Nice Blog with Excellent information

  24. [...] had seen mention made of this essay about Pulp’s song “Common People” made on Twitter today.Tim Carmody responded to the original blog post: The anger and honesty in [...]

  25. [...] a great 90s Britpop hit said to be “arguably the defining British single of the 90s” (33revolutionsperminute).  Comments [...]


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