The Infinite Jukebox: Pulp’s ‘Common People’


Traditionally, the biggest crime in UK Chart History has always supposed to be Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ being denied a no. 1 by Joe Dolce Music Theatre’s ‘Shaddap Your Face’. Now, whilst I side with all right-thinking people in regarding ‘Shaddap Your Face’ as a musical abomination, it is a plain fact that have hated ‘Vienna’ and it’s air of super-serious self-importance ever since I first heard it, and thus I regard its frustration as less a case of High Crimes and Misdemeanours and more a splendidly ironic one of Poetic Justice.
But if such things are to be regarded as crimes, then to me there is a far more deserving example: ‘Common People’ by Pulp. A single – an absolute classic single – that crashed into the UK Chart at no 2, and which went no further,strangled out, in this case, by Robson and bloody Jerome and their awful of ‘Unchained Melody’. Come back, Joe Dolce!
Is it really twenty-two years ago? It is, and it isn’t. Great records, truly great records may be the product of a particular time, but they carry with them their own space and time, a pocket universe in which they are eternally new, eternally fresh, eternally as vivid and vital and alive as when you first heard them.
‘Common People’ may well be the Last Great Pop Single, I don’t know. I have gradually tuned my ears away from chart music over the years, and may have missed things of equal impact to this slice of fury and contempt, this picture of a knife none of us wants but far too many of us have to endure. But I doubt it.
Looking at it critically, ‘Common People’ doesn’t really have a tune, but that wasn’t Pulp’s style. What it has is a rhythm, a beat, a pulse that gathers momentum to match Jarvis Cocker’s growing disgust at the rich girl who wants to go slumming, who wants a taste of the experience, a bit of rough., an exciting glimpse of what it’s like to be poor, but who will never for a moment comprehend, because she can only mimic, not live, because she has a trap door, a back exit, out of which she can slip at any second. She’s not committed, and on behalf of everyone who lives this way because they’re condemned to it, for whom it isn’t an ‘experience’, Cocker lambastes the unaware girl, and by implication everyone else.
“Everybody hates a tourist,” he intones, and older ears flash back to a screeching sneer of “cheap holidays in other people’s misery”. And as the music is possessed, hurtling itself forward in a race towards light speed, we can sense that he’s not just excoriating an insensitive woman but, by implication, everyone who has made the Common People’s life what it is, who have squeezed and compressed and strangled and crushed it, who have left people with nothing else, literally nothing else, but to dance and drink and screw. It’s a condemnation of extraordinary power. The girl isn’t a tourist: we all are.
They don’t write songs like that any more, or if they do they play them in places I don’t hear them. They don’t write songs about things like this any more, or if they do they don’t hear them in places where Common People go. They don’t go in for having scales ripped from their eyes much these days.

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