Pulp’s ‘Different Class’ at 20: Marxism, Romanticism, and Revolution

The clue’s in the name: Different Class. For all that rock ‘n’ roll has generally had a left-wing bent, albums that are flat-out Marxist are thin on the ground, and none of them ever sounded this… alluring. Pulp’s Different Class is 20 years old today, and it remains a historical oddity: an album that openly calls for class revolution, and one that does so in a way that propelled Pulp to the top of the charts in their native UK and made Jarvis Cocker the unlikeliest — and yet most perfect — of rock stars.

“We want your homes/ We want your lives/ We want the things you won’t allow us.”

Twenty years on, the first thing you notice on revisiting Different Class is how vital it still sounds. In one respect, it’s very much a product of its place and time, born of the lasting damage of Thatcherism and a burgeoning cynicism about Blair’s “Cool Brittania” (and the class system that remained unchanged, no matter how many musicians got invited to Downing Street).

There’s also a very British air of desperate, thrift-shop glamor — looking at Cocker’s aesthetic on this album, and in general, I’m reminded of something James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers once said about how slumming it and dressing down are very much a middle-class conceit; the working-class men of his childhood in Wales would take pride in scrubbing the coal dust from themselves when they came home from the pits, and pride themselves on being the sharpest-dressed in the room despite being the poorest.

But it’s also a record full of themes that continue to resonate in 2015: the deleterious effects of capitalism, the feeling of being on the outside looking in, the desire for something more. The opening song, “Misshapes,” is a call for revolution: “Brothers, sisters, can’t you see/ The future’s owned by you and me.” It’s full of the feeling of, as Suede’s Mat Osman, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, once put it, “being in the gutter, looking at the stars.” But, crucially, the revolution here is a revolution of the mind: “There won’t be fighting in the street/ They think they’ve got us beat/ But revenge is gonna be so sweet.”

And indeed, revenge is a theme that appears again and again throughout the record. It’s not so much a case of smashing the system as it is subverting it, undermining it, changing it from within. The working class that Cocker evokes is smarter, hungrier, motivated by a curiously romantic combination of bitterness and optimism. It’s a force that the 1% have to oppress, because otherwise they’ll be eaten alive. And maybe they’ll be eaten alive anyway: as Cocker sings in “Common People,” “Like a dog lying in the corner/ They will bite you and never warn you/ Look out/ They’ll tear your insides out.”

“It’s dirty/ And it shouldn’t be like that/ But it’s turning me on.”

The political has rarely been more personal than it is on Different Class, and it’s the expression of class-based contempt through nasty sex that provides the album with its most sordid moments. If the only thing Cocker, et al. have more of is their minds, then at least part of that mental acuity is devoted to sex appeal. In the world of Different Class, sex is a weapon, one to be wielded against rich suburban housewives (and, by extension, their husbands and their entire milieu): “It’s not chocolate boxes and roses,” Cocker sings on “F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E.,” “it’s dirtier than that/ Like a small animal that only comes out at night.”

The animal comes out a lot on this album. In “I Spy,” the most straight-up nasty song on the album, sex is a way of “taking the things I know will cause you pain” — in that song, Cocker is sneaking around with the wife of some unnamed rival, all the whole hoping his nemesis would “come home unexpectedly one afternoon/ And catch us at it in the front room.” All’s fair in love and war, eh? A similar scenario plays out in “Pencil Skirt” (“I know that you’re engaged to him/ But I know you want something to play with, baby”), while “Underwear” is the flip side, Cocker imagining a former lover with some new man, wondering, “Why is it so hard/ To give yourself to him?” There’s nothing nice about any of this. As The Quietus’ Luke Turner wrote in his excellent piece on the album’s anniversary, it’s easy to forget, now that Jarvis hosts a show on BBC Radio and the celebratory Pulp reunion has been and gone, that “at their best Pulp were deadly.” He’s right, and Cocker never sounded more venomous than he does here.

But there’s also tenderness. Take “Common People,” Pulp’s biggest hit and the song that perhaps best defines this album’s aesthetic. Because as cynical as Cocker’s tale of a cultural tourist is, it’s also unashamedly romantic. “You are amazed that they exist,” he sings of the working-class people that the girl from St. Martin’s College so desperately wants to mingle with, “And they burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why.” Beneath the aspirationalism and bitterness, there’s a sort of perverse compassion for those who will never burn like that, who will never experience being alive as viscerally as you do when all you have to look forward to is your next weekend.

Even “I Spy” contains, at the last, a promise that “I will take you from this sickness/ Dinner parties and champagne/ I’ll hold your body and make it sing again.” The song concludes with a subtly clever couplet: “I spy the chance to change the world/ I spy the chance to change your world.” Just as, say, patriarchy oppresses even those it’s designed to benefit, so capitalism drains life from everyone, even those at the top of its pyramid.

“It meant nothing to you/ ‘Cause you were so popular”

It’s the romanticism of Different Class that gives it emotional weight. Compare and contrast Pulp’s music to that of bands with similar political concerns — McCarthy, say, or Gang of Four — and you notice is that Pulp’s songs are a) more grounded in personal experience and less in universalist rhetoric, and b) as a consequence, they’re more human. If Different Class was all weaponized sex and Marxist bitterness, it’d get old fast — but instead, its darkest moments exist in counterpoint to the fleeting moments of levity.

These moments come in the most unexpected places, just as they do in real life: the fleeting clarity of “Bar Italia,” the rush of first love in “F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E.” and “Something Changed,” the desperate party-going of “Monday Morning,” even the memory of the night before in “Sorted for E’s and Wizz.” These are ephemeral moments, certainly, but that’s what makes them beautiful — they’re like catching the first light of dawn as you stumble home from a party, still gurning a bit from the bad trucker speed that someone gave you, or the feeling of waking up with a belting hangover and realizing that somehow, miraculously, there’s someone beside you.

This is romanticism in its purest form: finding beauty in the mundane. Hope is an overplayed concept in our society and our culture, a consolation of defeat, a lottery ticket offered to one in a million. Pulp don’t do hope — instead, they do a sort of bruised realism, an understanding that sparks of something more are all the more precious for their rarity. If you have nothing, you appreciate everything you do have. If you have everything, you appreciate nothing.

“The future’s owned by you and me.”

Not yet, it isn’t — as Cocker himself would observe a decade later, “Cunts are still running the world.” Perhaps they always will. But if Different Class teaches us anything, it’s that even under the boot-heel of capitalism, there are moments of fleeting beauty to find, and that while freedom of the mind is scant reward for a dead-end job and a life that goes nowhere, it’s still a feeling that some people will never, ever have. Two decades on, it’s a peerless manifesto for misshapes, mistakes, misfits.