Claire Fisher reviews Owen Hatherly’s Pulp Biography Uncommon, Zero Books, (2011)
‘Each new generation must pass through a stage of apprenticeship. It appropriates existing culture and transforms it in its own way, making it more or less different from that of the older generation. But this appropriation is not, as yet, a creation of new cultural values, but only a premise for them.
Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetics
‘What is above all striking is the ambiguity with which sex is treated in pop music. […] Pop songs are astonishingly chaste. […] This avoidance of realism suggests the desire of writers of pop songs not to shock or upset and audience that is basically insecure’
Ian Birchall, writing in 1965
A friend of mine recently confessed that, after hearing of Pulp’s revival early this year, she had an intensely erotic dream solely involving Jarvis Cocker. We were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen when we first had sex, and the soundtrack to these experiences was His ‘N’ Hers and Different Class. It was easy to slip into a completely different world under the shimmering synths of keyboardist Candida Doyle. The lyrics were those of fantasists, sex became a portal through which the whole world could be transformed. The city would become your ‘jewellery box’ where you could ‘reach out and take what you want.’ It was an underclass phenomenon.
Owen Hatherly’s book Uncommon goes a long way into unpicking Pulp’s interior texts, and showing us how transgressive this transformation was. Sex, after all, is never just sex. Unlike your standard biography, Hatherly pays no attention to personal trivia. The book is not even laid out as a narrative, rather it is a series of short essays on the individual songs, from which the reader follows the journey of the band through its music alone. In this way the text is an analysis, not a story. And yet, Uncommon remains as one of the most intimate music biographies I have ever read.
There is a sentimentality and a deep nostalgic impulse which drives the memory of Pulp, which my generation will find very hard to shake. Most people, when growing up, consider their generation’s music to be the last of the greats, with anything new seeming pointless and unappealing. However, Hatherly reveals why Pulp were definitely one of the last of a British lineage of dispossessed lower-middle/working class suburban youth-turned-rockstars whose influence dates back to the early 70’s, a cannon which included Bowie, Roxy Music and the Smiths. He remarks, ‘In a telling statistic, in October 2010, 60% of British artists in the UK top 10 had been to public school, compared with 1% in October 1990.’ He attributes this shift to a systematic overhaul of the economic and social status of the working classes by the government – in that pressures on those with little economic power became increasingly more brutal, meaning dedicating one’s life to music became impossible with out some form of benefactor.
Pulp were also one of the last of the Peelites – having recorded a Peel Session in 1981, Jarvis gained national exposure as a teenager, which helped keep the band optimistic through the next decade of relative anonynimity. The notion that slavishly developing a sound over decades bolstered by the personal, non-corporate attention of a radio DJ, then exploding into the mainstream charts and defining a generation is now, after the death of John Peel and the increasing corporatisation of the industry, all but impossible. Hatherly is all too aware of this tragedy, and it helps to add a desperate pathos to Uncommon, which could be read as an essay on the death of a working class with a genuine mainstream cultural signifier.
Pulp’s effect on Hatherly’s childhood is explored; and whilst some may consider this a rather self-indulgent diversion, the commonness of Hatherly’s experience, and the personal transformation he experienced is not something that can could or should be disregarded as irrelevant. Commenting on Shklovsky’s notion of ‘Ostranienie’ to describe the effects of Pulp’s music on the mind, he expands: ‘a technique that makes the most mundane daily acts into extraordinary rituals, including like a revelation the feeling that, in fact, these things which purported to be entirely normal, entirely regular and entirely unremarkable were in fact extremely ‘unnatural’. In doing so, they enable the reader to see the world anew.’
Hatherly describes his ramblings around his own, urban childhood environment, as he explored the city with new eyes, girlfriend by his side, imagining the ‘thousand fake orgasms’ emanating from behind the bri-nylon curtains every night. ‘When we stared doing so,’ he amusingly muses, ‘‘Do You Remember The First Time’ was anticipatory, not retrospective.’ It is clear that, in stark contrast to Oasis’ hugely escapist champagne supernova Blairite fantasies, Pulp never aspired to rise through the ranks (officially at least) – their fascination with their own, dirty/beautiful northern English city, Sheffield, and beyond that, London, the (sexual) vibrancy of the cities inhabitants, contrasted with their helplessness and inability to escape their economic situation, which came to be the subject of Pulp’s era-defining anthem, ‘Common People’.
Through transforming their own environment using various devices, for example the sexualisation of architecture in ‘Sheffield: Sex-City’, they bucked the trend; under Thatcher’s anti-working class ideology and later under Blair, they despised the individualistic aspirational Cool Britannia crap which castrated music and made a mockery of its creators.
One concludes through the fact he writes for Socialist Worker that Hatherly’s own political stance is on the hard left. Cocker also falls into this bracket – and though, like all good pop-stars is not too clued-up on the ins and outs, shows obvious open defiance towards the state and its cultural manifestations. For example in the song ‘Cocaine Socialism’ he mocks New Labour’s attempt to woo the Britpop artists[*]. As Trotsky commented ‘it is impossible to create a class culture behind the backs of a class’, and Jarvis knows this all too well, as he mocks Tony Blair’s imagined refrain ‘Well you sing about common people / and the mis-shapes and the misfits / so can you bring them to my party / And get them all to sniff this’. Jarvis’ criticisms are even more direct in the post-Pulp lyric ‘Cunts are Still Running the World’ – a lyric designed as an attack on the pretentions of the Live 8 concert, in which he addresses what he called the ‘fundamental problem’ in society, as opposed to the nauseating and insulting liberal whitewash of Geldof, Bono and their ilk.
So Uncommon is in fact a rare occurrence – in nearly all other literature that surrounds Pulp, their many interviews in the liberal and tabloid media, and their other biographies, too often are written without a clear understanding of Jarvis’ agenda. It is therefore, throughout, a powerful document of a band who’s extreme fame has had, in retrospect, a castrating effect on their message. Hatherly reopens the argument.
Accordingly, although Pulp were uncommon amongst their peers, and although they transformed the inner lives of thousands of alienated people, they did not, in fact, transform the world. On the contrary; as Hatherly notes, ‘Jarvis Cocker endured as a National Treasure, although nobody seemed to quite remember what he was famous for’. Frederic Jameson’s comment ‘pop-music serves as the bewildered heart-cry of an age in suspended transition’ provides us with some form of explanation behind their failed legacy, namely: the time was not right.
Recently, the Guardian commented on their come-back performances: ‘They play oddball anthems for an already vanished time, songs that still sound off-kilter, dark, as strange and emphatically English as the pale, thin geeky guy who wrote their lyrics’. In fact, Pulp’s cultural references were always nostalgic[†], so the Guardian, in suggesting that Pulp’s themes were innately Britpop-esqe is rather missing the point here. Crucially, Pulp’s nostalgia was not of the rose-tinted variety (unlike Blur’s ‘Parklife’). The landscapes their music stalks are those of an imagined past, yes, but one full of failure – they mirror a generation that had once dreamed of an architecturally ‘space-age’ Sheffield of the future, one of abundance, leisure, and socialism. In reality, the band grew up amongst a decaying post-industrial series of architectural failures. When we listen to the songs, we are nominally looking through the eyes of the (now sidelined) post-war generation, who saw the architectural constructions of futuristic public spaces, and with them their dreams of prosperity, come to a shuddering halt once the recession of the 70s hit. What many listeners unconsciously understand is how Pulp incorporated this undercurrent of disappointment and failure which surrounded them as children into their songs.[‡]
Hatherly’s academic specialism is architecture, especially the failed architectural impositions of the post-60s. In Uncommon, therefore, Pulp’s songs represent a doomed city-scape, with His ‘N’ Hers extending it’s speculative, sleazy eye to the suburbs. Pervading Jarvis’ fantasies this theme became representative of a larger, class-based current – the ritual destruction of hope and its dissolving into apathy (a fate which befalls a few of Jarvis’s protagonists, such as Susan), or into anger – and this, rather than an ‘off-kilter, dark’ ethos, is the emotion that defines Pulp.
And when sex and class-based anger meet, it is distilled in songs such as ‘I Spy’ – a lyric which, so autobiographical (one presumes), the band dropped it from their live set as fast as possible. Hatherly writes ‘‘I Spy’ is where the mask is torn off. […] A parodic dance of increasingly monstrous malice.’ Jarvis, the self-acknowledged protagonist of this sordidly liberating tale, is using sex as mediated and guerrilla-style class warfare. He is fucking up the privileged class. For many fans, Pulp just don’t get any better than this, especially with the lyric:
‘I do the things I know will cause you pain.
I can’t help it, I was dragged up:
My favourite parks are car parks.
Grass is something you smoke.
Birds are something you shag.
Take a year in Provence and shove it up your ass.’
Through returning to the stage in 2011, it is clear that nothing has changed in mainstream culture to make Pulp more relevant in anyway to the mainstream youth. Although austerity has brought notions of class to the fore again, it seems the band will always be reduced to their Brit-pop label, which will forever deaden their music, and straight-jacket it into a small, now seemingly irrelevant period of history. If only Hathely’s insight into the universal truths the band explore were better-known and understood, they could have gone down in history as a group who challenged the widely reported ‘decline’ of the working class, and brought its sheer life force, hidden worlds and daily battles into view. Instead, it would appear that they will for ever be known as ‘the ones who waved their arse at Michael Jackson’.
[*] Amusingly, Labour’s press representative Julie Crowley’s response to the song was ‘I don’t even understand half of it, to be honest’
[†] Not, as Hatherly points out in Britpop’s ‘mod revival revival’ sense
[‡] Listen to, for example, ‘Someone like the Moon’