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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