Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles of the 90s

It’s impossible to imagine any other band even attempting something like this. Nobody else, I think, has the right combination: a cabaret singer’s panache, an ear for pop hooks, a dramatist’s eye for character and a dash of experimentalism. It’s very easy to say you’re experimental, it’s not even too difficult to take sound and do magical and unexpected things with it, but it’s dreadfully rare to find a band as willing to push open the pop song like Pulp do on “This Is Hardcore”. That’s why they’re my favourite group, basically.

If this sounds like anyone, it’s Serge Gainsbourg. France’s greatest pop icon would have understood the slow, dark groove that carries “This Is Hardcore”, would have admired the low drag of the strings and the heady, theatrical flourishes, would have arched a brow at Jarvis Cocker’s throaty, desperate delivery, and would certainly have appreciated the porno metaphors. Musically the track is a collection of great moments, each of which follows gracefully and logically on from the last, building and building through loping seductiveness and smoky melodrama to the screaming, draining climax and its loathesome afterglow.

Most of all, though, Gainsbourg would have recognised the awful sexual self-immolation at the ugly centre of “This Is Hardcore”. But where a Gainsbourg hero tends to be doomed, mad or foolish, there’s something essentially sympathetic about them even when they’ve done their lover in with a fire extinguisher. Not so here: in this track, Jarvis sings like a molester, but the worst thing is, you can still hear yourself in it. It’s the ultimate Pulp song, in a way, the end-point of Jarvis’ obsession with the British Way Of Sex – prurient, shameful, obsessional, dirty. All the voyeurs, lechers, seducers and masturbators of Cocker lyrics past combine, and at last, they get what they want, they get to do it.

The results aren’t pretty. The worldview of “This Is Hardcore” is as stark as that of Swans – sex as power, sex as vengeance, sex as catharsis, with no satisfaction involved, just an ever-deepening disgust. The guitars flare around him and Jarvis Cocker sings from a private hell:“This is hardcore / There is no way back for you / This is hardcore / This is me on top of you.” And then, most terrible of all, “And I can’t believe that it took me so long” If you want honesty in pop, here it is, enjoy it: this is as brutal as the form has ever got.