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Amazed That They Exist: Hatherley on Pulp

By Max Dunbar.

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Uncommon, Owen Hatherley, Zero 2011

I don’t have much time for indie music right now. Turn on XFM and you’ll hear pedestrian landfill songs of provincial lust and self-pity, plus twee, complacent nonentities like Vampire Weekend, imported from US suburbs. It’s worse up here where there are entire creative industries based on Manc late eighties nostalgia. As I write, there is a ‘Manchester Day’ parade in the city centre, featuring a twelve-foot model of Morrissey, made by local teenagers. It’ll be a visible reminder that our future is in our past and the time when Manchester had any cultural relevance is long gone.

So I was sceptical about the appeal of a book on some Sheffield pop-rock group that split up nine years ago. But Owen Hatherley is one of those writers that can make just about anything seem interesting. Here he is on the silliest moment of the nineties, when the predator and fantasist Michael Jackson, having ‘floated neo-Stalinist statues of himself up the Thames’ made an appearance at the ’96 Brit Awards:

Michael Jackson, in town for a Lifetime Achievement award, then at the height of his madness and fresh from some bought-off accusations of institutionalised pederasty in Neverland, was performing ‘Earth Song’, in which he saves the world from sundry ecological threats. On the stage, he was surrounded with children of all conceivable races, who are saved from the catastrophe under his embrace. At a climactic point, Cocker ran onto the stage, bent over, made some derisive hand-movements and then scuttled off. It happened in a matter of seconds, and none of us watching actually noticed it – it had to be picked out later on during the news, because Jarvis Cocker had been arrested, and spent a night in the cells under suspicion, amusingly enough, of assaulting some of the children, though he was exonerated almost as quickly.

Despite all this the stuff that came out in the mid nineties was more funky, intelligent and inventive than anything on XFM’s wailing wall of sound today. Blur, Lush, Elastica and even the first two Oasis albums are still worth listening to. Britpop is associated with elitism, but it was in fact more inclusive than the music industry in the 2010s. In Lucky Kunst, his memoir of Young British Art, Gregor Muir writes of the late eighties as a time when ‘the last working-class blip was working its way through higher education before the tide would be stemmed with student loans and other charges.’

It was the same with indie music. Younger generations will struggle to imagine a time when the creative world was not more or less closed up with patronage and connection internship auctions. These days, Hatherley points out, indie is like politics, dominated by Old Etonians (when Keane’s lead singer went into rehab, it was rumoured that he was addicted to port.) There are a few big working class bands but they don’t rise above the level of the moronic, nasty Arctic Monkeys: Jarvis Cocker’s social commentary is no more.

I loved Pulp and the Manics as much as any small town outsider, but the music that really liberated was dance, and it’s the great craftsmen of electronica – Blue States, Aim, Air, DJ Shadow, Nightmares on Wax, David Holmes – that still transport me today. (iTunes has just thrown up Air’s ‘Don’t Be Light’ and its sweep and soar still tingles my arms, as I write this.) Pulp has not aged as well as many nineties bands. It feels creepy listening to a song about some striving, painful late-teen conquest. It feels creepier still to know these songs are written by a guy in his thirties. Cocker’s song ‘Do You Remember The First Time’ was accompanied by a film, featuring contributions from comics and musicians who explain how they lost their virginities, accompanied by shots of unromantic outdoor locations where these encounters took place. This, ultimately, is indie’s problem – the relentless focus on the personal, the inward and the past. It is all townie beatings and crushes never forgotten and last buses home. You want to shout Don Draper’s classic line: ‘Get out of here and move forward! This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.’

Hatherley made his name writing about architecture, and is a compelling chronicler of English cities. The book engages most when he writes about Pulp’s home city of steel. Sheffield probably felt like a bad patch of nowhere when Jarvis Cocker grew up there in the 1970s, but it was a fantastic place with loads going on by the time I arrived in the autumn of 2000 – the bars, the clubs, the out-of-town Crasher kids wandering the squares on Sunday morning, pilled to fuck and waiting on the first train home. You can live a full creative life without leaving the North, and the great cities of Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester always rang with posh accents, belonging to young people who had fled the South’s soulless commuter towns. When he first fell in love with Pulp, Hatherley says he ‘didn’t even visit Sheffield until over a decade later’ but instead ‘found analogies for Stanhope Road, Lyndhurst Grove, Park Hill, Pitsmoor, in the districts, streets and estates of a blitzed south coast port’. Cocker always said that he didn’t feel working class until he got down to London and St Martin’s.

His sensitivity to place lets Hatherley capture the feel of Sheffield as well as Cocker did himself in ‘Sheffield: Sex City’. The narrator of that song wakes up his girlfriend for a pre-dawn walk through the seven hills: ‘we went walking through the sleeping town… down deserted streets… Frozen gardens grey in the moonlight… fences… down to the canal… Creeping slowly past cooling towers… Deserted factories… looking for an adventure… I wandered the streets calling your name…’ The city is a woman and you’re making love to the city.

Hatherley makes a big deal out of Cocker’s class rage, but it’s not always something that worked for the band. Along with Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher, Cocker was invited to Downing Street shortly after Tony Blair got his landslide off the back of D-Ream’s ecstasy anthem. This prompted the song ‘Cocaine Socialism’, where Cocker impersonates the whisper of a coked-up special adviser at a party: ‘I just want to tell you, that I love all of your albums… could you sign this for my daughter – she’s in hospital, her name is… Miriam. Now I’ll get down to the gist. Do you want a line of this, are you a – sniff – Socialist.’ It doesn’t quite feel true. Everything we know about the governing elite suggests that they are miserable puritans.

The sexual revenge fantasies of songs like ‘I-Spy’, in retrospect, are just seedy and embarrassing. ‘You see you should take me seriously. Very seriously indeed. Because I’ve been sleeping with your wife for the past sixteen weeks.’ Really? The song is about what so many early songs are about, young men in HMOs and small towns banging away in the belief that your talent will let you escape – and with escape will come everything else, money and love and fulfillment. Sometimes, there’s real greatness here, as with the gorgeous Wildhearts line ‘If I stand on top of the world maybe I’ll find somebody I know.’ But the weight of male frustration holds Cocker down. ‘The crowd gasp at Cocker’s masterful control of the bicycle…imagining a blue plaque over the place I ever touched a girl’s chest’. As Hatherley says it’s not about celebrating working class communities so much as escaping working class communities (and who can blame you?) ‘with the concomitant knowledge that your ability, your looks, or your ego mark you out, something which was once a curse and is now a blessing. You might get out, but most are still stuck here.’

Friends in Sheffield tell me that the music scene up there is now incredibly druggy with MDMA occupations of woods and buildings that go on for days. At their best Pulp produced excellent songs with a real urgency and vision. Ultimately though, it was their counterparts in dance and not indie that was genuinely transformative of the country.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, June 19th, 2011.