27.8.16

Pulp's "Common People"



To my mind Pulp were merely "OK". They were a bit like a vaudeville act - that's to say how their music, lyrics and visuals were poised in relation to one another. I have always preferred music strictly on its own terms, stripped of everything but artwork - as sound as opposed to theatre. One could place Pulp and Jarvis Cocker firmly in the theatric tradition of Anthony Newley, Scott Walker and David Bowie. Although perhaps Bowie and Walker kept firmer faith in recorded music? Pulp's medium was the live performance and the pop video. That certainly doesn't make them uninteresting but simply not my cup of tea.

In the suffocating left-wing critical consensus that has grown up around pop music in the past decade Pulp's "Common People" has again and again been touted as some kind of urtext. Critic after critic swoon over its supposedly indelible encoding of internecine class hatred and the alleged bright light the song shines on inequality. What do I say? Hang on half a darned second... You only need to reflect honestly for a moment to know that this is nonsense.

I don't especially endorse them, but there are reasons why Global Capitalism is ripe for criticism. Chief amongst these is the way its mechanisms ravage life at its peripheries. I've come across no better example of this than the story of Michael Birch and the Devon village of Woolsery. Tycoon Birch visited the Devon village he knew as a child and was shocked to find its hotel, pub and chippy shut down. He set about to rectify the situation.

The strength and poignancy of the fable being that it foregrounds the condition of capitalism and is not some paranoid, bilious theory about a shadowy "establishment". Birch is, like most people, a decent and reasonable individual. In stumbling into the ravages of this town from his childhood he had the, I don't know if it could be called, "good luck" to witness in an entirely objective way the worst current in society. Imagine how differently he, or anyone for that matter, would have reacted if an organised committee of Woolsery residents picketed his home in San Francisco? Perhaps he'd have the stoicism to see them right - but most likely he'd call the cops. Because, after all, it's not exactly his fault is it?

Not only is there reason to be be disgusted the extremes of capitalism, there are also good ways of going about expressing this. What Birch did, quietly took action and gave his time and money at a grassroots level, is exemplary. That's praxis. And there are bad ways. Pop music is a particularly bad way. From the outset, and I'm surprised the left needs this pointed out, Pop music is about making money. If you're preaching financial equality in a Pop song you're a hypocrite. More and more, with disgusting stunts like Corbyn's act of pretending a Virgin train is full and sitting on the floor, I think Politics is a bad way of expressing it too.

If you actually examine "Common People" and not take it as read, it's considerably more nuanced. To my mind these nuances actually add to Cocker's humanity - rather than detract from them.
She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge
She studied sculpture at Saint Martin's College
That's where I
Caught her eye
She told me that her Dad was loaded
I said "In that case I'll have a rum and coca-cola"
She said "Fine"
In the first instance, what heterosexual man in the world, rich or poor, black or white would object to a beautiful, rich, young woman hitting on them? It's hilarious that this even needs to be pointed out. It's not tanks on the lawn; it's a dream situation! And make no mistake, this is supposed to be a gorgeous girl. In the video played by the delightful Sadie Frost. And Cocker is in control the situation and, it seems, her. She buys him the drink he wants which isn't a bad start. He's not pleading! He's loving every second of it.

And then she says something truly stupid and obnoxious:
And in thirty seconds time she said
I want to live like common people
I want to do whatever common people do
I want to sleep with common people
I want to sleep with common people
Like you
She's slumming it. Yeah, it's kinda offensive. But she's a bit naive and wanting to open herself up to more experiences - and frankly thank god. I wish to goodness there was more of that. I doubt Bernie Ecclestone's daughters have ever slummed it. They will spend their whole lives in a gilded cage. The Queen slummed it for one night only and I'm sure it did her a lot of good. More social mobility has happened as a result of people slumming it that was ever created by grammar schools. So what does Jarvis do? Is he so outraged by this that he slams his drink on the bar. The song literally stops right there. The video director shouts: "It's a wrap!" No. He fucks her. Well what else could he do?
Well what else could I do
I said "I'll see what I can do"
I took her to a supermarket
I don't know why
But I had to start it somewhere
So it started there
I said pretend you've got no money
She just laughed and said
"Oh you're so funny"
I said "Yeah?
Well I can't see anyone else smiling in here
Is he really the commodity he is depicted in the video? Being pushed around in her shopping market trolley? Poor, feeble Jarvis the victim? I don't buy it at all. Again, it sounds like he is control.
But she didn't understand
She just smiled and held my hand
Rent a flat above a shop
Cut your hair and get a job
Smoke some fags and play some pool
Pretend you never went to school
But still you'll never get it right
'Cause when you're laid in bed at night
Watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your Dad he could stop it all
Certainly he is cynical of her motives, contemptuous of her background just as he finds it fascinating and alluring - but this is a sexual relationship, a transaction. Is he tossed aside by her like, ah, a cheap plaything? The song doesn't say that. It doesn't really imply it either. He might have got fed up with her and found a new shag which, knowing men, is the more likely situation.

For me the key to understanding the song is the wider biographical context. Make no mistake, the protagonist is Jarvis Cocker. Jarvis Cocker global celebrity, rock star, erstwhile Radio One DJ, video director, all-round international man of glamour and intrigue - not an invented character. Twice I've encountered Cocker in the wild - once on a bike, him with Chloe Sevigny on an empty Lisson Street at the foot of the Euston Road - and once more recently at the sadly defunkt On The Beat record store on Hanway Street. He seems at once groovy, charming and humble. I don't think it's irrelevant to point out that he's not a social worker in Sheffield.

And who is the woman? Well actually now we know. She's Danae Stratou and to quote from Wikipedia:
"...her father is Phaidron Stratos from the family Stratos who founded the Peiraiki-Patraiki textile industry in the Peloponnese, Greece’s largest textile industry in the past."
The Independent elaborates:
Danae Stratou studied at St. Martins College of Art and Design between 1983 and 1988, the same year Cocker enrolled in a film studies course there during a break from the band. He told NME in 2013 that he met the Greek girl in the song during ‘Crossover Fortnight’, when St Martins students switched into another discipline for two weeks. 
In a later interview Cocker remembered a conversation with the Greek woman who "wanted to move to Hackney and live like 'the common people'". He used this as the basis for the song. But the identity of the woman has never been discovered, despite a search launched by BBC3.
The quite hilarious punchline, and frankly a thousand million monkeys couldn't make it up, I couldn't find a more apposite way of puncturing the nonsense of contemporary socialism and its craven quest for victimhood, is that now she's married to Yanis Varoufakis the poster-boy of the radical left.