The Sheffield act’s commercial breakthrough is one of the 90s’ smartest LPs.
Mike Diver 2011-03-18
For some bands, success comes after years of hard work, playing tiny venues and selling meagre amounts of merchandise to put enough fuel in the tank to reach whatever hellhole’s next on a never-ending tour. For others, it arrives practically overnight – they ride the crest of a hype wave and either crash onto rocks or enjoy smooth surf all the way to platinum discs and MTV Cribs. Uniquely, Pulp are experienced in both routes to household name status.
Formed in Sheffield in 1978, and with enough ex-members to form several more outfits, Pulp had released four albums by the summer of 1995. Their latest, 94’s His ‘n’ Hers, had been nominated for the Mercury Prize but lost to M People’s Elegant Slumming (to this day: huh?). A couple of singles from it cracked the UK top 40, but to most people Pulp were just another band of Britpoppers to file beside Cast and Ocean Colour Scene as lower-league attractions operating in the shadow of Oasis and Blur. But the summer of 1995 would change everything.
And it started early: in May, Jarvis Cocker and company achieved the previously unthinkable and scored a Genuine Hit Record. Common People rocketed to number two, helped by a colourful video starring Sadie Frost and moves from Cocker that would go down in the history of improvisational interpretive dance. Then, the next month, they headlined the biggest music festival on the planet, filling in for The Stone Roses – whose John Squire had fractured his collarbone – at Glastonbury. These two major turns in fortune provided all the momentum necessary to ensure the band’s fifth album, Different Class, would be, commercially, their definitive release.
Number seven on NME’s best albums of 95, 11 on Mojo’s, and taking top spot on Melody Maker’s countdown, it was clear that Different Class was another critical hit. Crucially though it also clicked with a public now truly savvy with Britpop, and looking for the next Morning Glory or Parklife – especially as Blur’s own album of 95, The Great Escape, lacked the instant-fix everyman tunes of its predecessor. Different Class came crammed with cuts that seemed to connect with the Loaded generation. Disco 2000, Sorted For E’s & Wizz, Something Changed: all three were top ten singles. Pulp had, rather belatedly, arrived.
This being Pulp, though, there was plenty for lasses, too. Clever songwriting isn’t biased to any gender, and while several of his peers were content to play up their laddishness, Cocker’s peculiar disposition had him turning heads of both sexes. He was the new Bowie, the new Lennon, the new Bolan, a pale-face Grace Jones, in one. Though he, like his band, wasn’t new at all – how very queer by today’s make-‘em-and-break-‘em standards.
Different Class scooped the Mercury Prize in 1996 – triumphing from a field that featured Oasis’ all-conquering Morning Glory and the Manics’ phenomenal comeback LP Everything Must Go. The award was the cherry atop a most morish cake of a record, which over 15 years since its release continues to reward the listener with some of the smartest, slinkiest, sauciest, spectacular pop songs of a decade that was, looking back, not that brilliant once the bucket hats and ironic anoraks are whipped away.