Holy Hell!: Different Class Turns 20!

Holy Hell!: Different Class Turns 20!

Different Class is still fresh today, offering “a place around the corner where the other broken people go” to those who need it most.

There’s a moment in Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s landmark comic series Phonogram when the protagonist travels back in time to the mid-‘90s by performing a magical ritual. He dresses in his angriest clothes, dons his dark eye makeup, does a lot of blow, places his well-worn Plath volume in his back pocket and aims for the old London club where he once danced in the halcyon days of Britpop. It’s now the den of the mid-ought’s chav, and a bouncer asks him if he’s got the right place. “Don’t mind me,” he says. “Harmless freak, coming through.” He slides a tape into his Walkman labeled “Common People,” and dances his way back into the past.

This might be a perfect metaphor for how we listen to a record like Different Class today. The album turns 20 on October 30th (though Americans had to wait five or six months for it to come over to our shores, if you really want to be a stickler about it. The true faithful had their imports ordered at the local record store months before you even knew the name Jarvis Cocker). It’s a primary source, its epigraph an epitaph for Britpop itself: “We don’t want no trouble, just the right to be different. That’s all.” Despite the passage of time and all its sickening crimes, there’s no reason to be sad; it’s still relevant, still biting and sweet, still the record you thought it was. And it may have become better with age.

Listening to Different Class again, it feels like Pulp had one foot planted in their present and one planted in our future. It’s remarkable that a weird little song like “Sorted for E’s & Wizz” caused such an uproar over its depictions of rave culture in mid-‘90s Britain, especially considering how ubiquitous EDM culture has become. Kaleidoscopic keyboards seem to play in duet with Cocker in what may have been the best example of British psychedelia since “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and used to more profound thematic purpose than Lennon’s narcissism allowed. Cocker is at his absolute lyrical best on the record, though it’s hard now to read a lyric like “Why live in the world when you can live in your head?” from “Monday Morning” and not think of a thousand abandoned MySpace selfies that it captioned.

Cocker is known for his fierce wit, but there’s tenderness to his lyrics as well. The sweet “Something Changed” is a particularly English take on a song like “Simple Twist of Fate,” dry and slightly funny but totally genuine, with luscious, soaring strings competing with stellar guitar work from Russell Senior and Mark Webber. If the record takes a misstep, it’s when Cocker goes Gainsbourg and speaks or whispers lyrics, as on “Pencil Skirt,” whose Hunky Dory instrumentation doesn’t save it from being a cut below everything else on the record.

The album’s celebrated singles still hold up. It’s too bad “Mis-Shapes” had to be on the same album as the band’s signature anthem, “Common People.” The former is an almost perfect song, thanks to fantastic drumming from Nick Banks, the song builds to a sing-a-long climax, accompanied by Bond strings and organ all the way to the fade-out. Lyrically, it’s the best musical mission statement ever served up by a Britpop band, urging the listener to take over, to change the landscape, to revolt. It’s storming the Bastille, but instead of decapitating guards, Cocker wants them to dance.

“Disco 2000” may be the album track that’s grown most in stature over the years. Cocker was 31 when the album hit shelves, older than rivals like Damon Albarn and the Gallagher brothers, and this track seems to reflect his maturity. It’s nostalgic and lovelorn, and buried underneath the “Gloria” riff is a sad tale of loneliness, and how the best laid romantic plans can go tits up as time passes. The song is autobiographical; Cocker knew a woman named Deborah who married someone else even though their parents thought she and Cocker were fated to be together. I don’t know how Deborah managed to stay with her husband, because when Cocker croons “Ah Deborah do you recall,” I just melt, and would run towards the sound of that voice no matter what commitments or mortgages I had.

Finally, the song that became a time machine, the one that Shatner covered, the one the Daily Mail still writes about when someone claims to be the girl in the song, the one that’s still screamed along to at dance nights and at bars all over the world. It still works, youthful, vibrant, angry and cutting. Its class-based anger still resonates heavily in a world dominated by oligarchs and corporations, in a United Kingdom still under the control of the Conservatives. “Common People,” as Barbara Ellen wrote, is still a perfect expression of the frustration at the heart of the “long-term disenfranchised and perma-skint.” Different Class is still fresh today, offering “a place around the corner where the other broken people go” to those who need it most.

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