The Working-Class Meaning Behind “Common People” by Pulp

Most music fans know Oasis and Blur, but a band called Pulp wrote what some consider the best song of the Britpop era—maybe the best song of the 1990s. Britpop was a celebration of Englishness. Traditionally, English bands wanted to sound American. The Rolling Stones wanted to sound like Muddy Waters. The Beatles wanted to sound like Little Richard or the Everly Brothers. 

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The Sex Pistols reacted against the trend. Johnny Rotten let loose with his English accent in a defiant snarl. In 1980s Manchester, The Smiths wrote about life in England and sounded … British. The lyrics detailed specific places about everyday life in England. 

Class consciousness was the beating heart of Britpop. Oasis were beloved—apart from the albums full of bangers—because they sang about the working class and they were working class. Blur, on the other hand, were thought to be suspiciously inauthentic. 

“Common People” was the first single from Pulp’s 1995 album Different Class. The song is infectiously catchy. It’s here, where group founder and frontman Jarvis Cocker becomes an icon. But “Common People” is a class anthem. It is the soul of Britpop. 

Sheffield’s Pulp formed in 1978. They struggled for many years to find success. At one point, Cocker folded the band and left to study film at St. Martin’s College. 

Cocker—influenced by vocalists Serge Gainsbourg and Scott Walker— returned to the band. By the late ’80s, they were inspired by house music and rave culture. In 1991, “My Legendary Girlfriend” was NME’s single of the week—a pivotal moment in Pulp’s career.

What is Cocker talking about?

Jarvis Cocker, while studying at St. Martin’s College, met a wealthy girl who said she “wanted to move to Hackney and live like the common people.” Class tourism, or slumming, was popular at the time. People in upper classes found something noble in the lower classes, yet they had the privilege of leaving when they wanted.

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 rum and Coca-Cola
She said fine

Blur, at the time, were taking heat from critics for being a middle-class band writing songs about the working class. Their Parklife was a No. 1 album and was, according to a Q interview with Cocker, a “kind of patronizing social voyeurism.”  

You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do whatever common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view
And you dance and drink and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do

Britpop made a lot of money glamourizing the working class. Finally, Cocker has had enough. He exposes the tourist:

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, yeah

Cocker wrote the song on a Casio keyboard. When he brought it to the band, they were not impressed. But keyboardist Candida Doyle thought it was great. Pulp booked a session at The Town House in London and recorded the single in two weeks. 

It was produced by Chris Thomas, whose credits include The Sex Pistols, Pretenders, and INXS. “Common People” sounds very similar to “Los Amantes” by ’80s Spanish pop band Mecano. 

The best Britpop song, ever 

Pulp was coming off their breakthrough album His ’n’ Hers in 1994. The Mercury Prize-nominated album reached No. 9 on the UK Albums chart. 

Different Class, the band’s fifth album, was released at the height of Britpop in 1995. It was Pulp’s first No. 1 album and won the Mercury Prize. Pulp headlined the Glastonbury Festival in 1995. 

“Common People” was an anthem. It sounded like a synthesized version of The Sex Pistols’ Chris Thomas-produced “Anarchy in the UK.” It’s Pulp’s signature song and, at the time, topped many year-end lists. Pitchfork placed “Common People” at No. 2 on their Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s.  

The song endures like the stubborn reality of class struggle. It speaks to any generation. Many art forms, including film and music, have a fascination with struggle. In some instances, the work is well-intentioned. In other cases, it exploits the powerless. 

With “Common People,” Cocker exposed the façade of Britpop’s working-class chic. He wrote an anthem about the condescending way the privileged go sightseeing in the slums.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella

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