Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Why? Because I still believe in the pop single as a public event, and “Common People” was on every station, every channel, every show in Summer 1995, and because it was wonderful each time you heard it, the one glorious, undeniable surprise of that year, of Britpop. The only unpredictable things about Britpop were the scale of it all, and Pulp – Lord knows all the other records had been made before. Actually, you could easily have seen Britpop coming. Once the Americans had shown people how to market college music to everybody else, once the industry realised how stubbornly difficult it was to sell dance to people who weren’t dancers, once British indie had given up all that silly cutting-edge nonsense, well then, something big was inevitable.

So we got Britpop, and everything you read about it was true – almost. It was a ridiculous, exciting time; it did turn up a lot of wonderful characters and made the tabloid pop pages a better place; it did give British guitar pop a distinctive identity; it did help change the country, or at least the prosperous metropolitan bits of it. Britpop also called my kind of people’s bluff – this was what we’d all wanted, wasn’t it? Our music in the charts, even battling it out for Number One on News At Ten – fantastic! Except, of course, for the fact that the records that were suddenly exploding all over the country weren’t all that interesting, and some of them were plain horrible.

Yes, we were elitists, and bitter elitists at that. We’d grown up on indie, we’d flown the flag for Morrissey and Brett and Saint Etienne, we’d fooled ourselves that what the charts needed was ‘glamour’ or ‘style’ (albeit hackneyed ideas of both) when what the charts wanted were beery music-hall romps and teary guitar ballads. But when “Common People” burnt a hole in the countdown at No.2 and stuck there it redeemed us and Britpop both at once – all it took was that one sainted record to make all the hype and bluster worth it.

At the tail end of that summer, I went to a wedding, and the DJ, being not unfamiliar with the Top 40, played Pulp’s big hit. The first two verses of “Common People” are a fuse, too slow for dancing unless you know what’s coming, and everyone shuffled for a while and then crept off the dancefloor. When the song ignited, we were the only people left, and it was beautiful. Halfway through the DJ shoved “Roll With It” on instead and the floor filled up quickly enough.

The point? That raging, clever songs like “Common People” don’t fit anywhere easily, even after they’ve conquered the radios and shops. The moment you heard the record you knew it was going to be stupefyingly huge, but you also knew that it would not be a music for other people to rip off. I can’t think – even after Pulp have sold millions of records – of more than one band who’ve tried to sound like them in the slightest degree. Was it simply that “Common People”, inevitable anthem though it was, is too radical, too far away in mood from Britpop’s good-time shenanigans and in music from its blocky. tried-and-true guitar moves?

(A sidenote: the band “Common People” feels most like isn’t even Roxy Music, it’s Carter USM in overdriven agit-pop mode. That’s not meant to put you off, just to underline how astonishing the creative and commercial success of the song is.)

But of course on one level isn’t “Common People” completely bogus? It’s a song of disgust about a girl who romanticises the working class which proceeds to go on about how they “burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why”. Right. Saying the poor are innately noble is just the other side of the coin from saying the poor are innately stupid. So that gnawed at me for a while – except I was wrong, and that’s not what Cocker’s singing about. All the overtly romantic stuff in “Common People” – a song which plays with perspective more cleverly than any No.2 hit can be expected to – is, directly or indirectly, the girl’s point of view. Jarvis never even says that he’s one of the ‘Common People’. What he’s singing about ultimately is the irreducibility of personal experience, the impossibility of understanding – let alone packaging – what you haven’t lived: “Everybody hates a tourist”. Which is just as arguable but somehow more sympathetic in a decade where selling pop has more than ever been about niche marketing, a decade which made tourists of us all.

(I might just be thinking this because I’m a middle class parasite who feels guilty for wanting to jump like a fool every time “Common People” comes on. But that after five years this song makes some part of me wriggle and make excuses is in itself testimony that some deep, difficult note is being struck by the track.)

Britpop, of course, was all about class anyway: not any real class system, nothing that related to how people actually lived, but the pantomime version of class that keeps British culture holed somewhere below its psychic waterline. Bluff northern lads against pretentious southern toffs, the forever ‘down-to-earth’ working class versus the inevitably ‘arty’ bourgeois. “Common People”, whatever its flaws, was the only Britpop song exciting enough not to be dragged down by that tiresome, endless discourse, and the only one intelligent enough to say something direct and new about it too.

Listened to in the context of Different Class-era Pulp, “Common People” takes its place as part of a general, misanthropic counterblast against the whole mess of British life. Jarvis’ sympathies may broadly lie with the common people, but any notion that he’d play kitchen-sink romantic would be disabused by a quick listen to “Mile End”‘s horrifying, mordant portrait of tower-block living. All he hates is stupidity, which sadly seems to be institutional. “It’s the angriest song of the decade”, said one Freaky Trigger writer when I told him “Common People” would be heading my list.

It is, it really is, but I also picked it to end on a positive note. And that’s where the music comes in: “Common People” is Pulp’s masterpiece, not just Jarvis’. The music – new-wave keyboards, steamroller drumming, fuzzed-up glam licks – builds from wry kit-built pop, which we knew Pulp could do, to a righteous tower of noisy colour, which we didn’t. Layer after layer of singleminded instrumentation, the tempo shifting gradually up, and Jarvis preaching over the top. And then, in that worldbeating moment when the metronome drum pattern finally breaks into a series of machine-gun fills, it turns into the best party British music ever heard. When Cocker yells, “You will NEVER understand!”, fury and euphoria turn out to be one and the same – which has been pop’s lesson for fifty years, but can stand the repetition.

I haven’t talked about Jarvis’ delivery, or the casually perfect opening couplet, or the Glastonbury performance, or most of the little musical touches that keep me coming back to “Common People” when I’m not in a Cocker mood. I haven’t even done the big personal context thing, which might well be a relief. I haven’t because I don’t need to: there’s no longer any contest. “Common People”, the kind of untouchable record that only comes along once in a generation, is the single of the 90s.