Book Review: “Uncommon: An Essay on Pulp” by Owen Hatherley

Christmas Day 1995, dinner done, presents unwrapped and now I was alone in my bedroom. There had been only one gift that I had been interested in: Pulp’s “Different Class” on cassette tape. I guess I had hoped for twelve “Disco 2000”s, but this wasn’t that, this was something very different. As “Common People” slid into the “I Spy” I was pitched into a world I really didn’t understand. It was angry, sexual and very adult, these were feelings and emotions my twelve year old self couldn’t and didn’t want to understand. It was far easier to stick with Oasis and their swaggeringly empty anthems than Jarvis Cocker’s uncomfortable whispers, groans and threats.

Uncommon by Owen Hatherley

Uncommon by Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley’s Uncommon: An Essay on Pulp seems like an attempt to bring these feelings back. His stated aim in the book is to reclaim Pulp from easy nostalgia, from greatest hits compilations, reunion tours and “I Love the ‘90s” shows. He wants people to remember, or perhaps realise, how weird, unnerving and angry they were. The bones of the argument developed in the book is made in this Guardian article. According to Hatherley Pulp were the last of a slightly ill-defined tradition that went from the likes of The Kinks and Bowie through Kate Bush to the Pet Shop Boys and The Smiths. It seems futile to argue against this as the tradition is one he alone has defined. If I was to suggest, I dunno, M.I.A. as carrying on that very lineage and that perhaps “Paper Planes” was a worthy, angry, British art-school successor to “Common People” or that Belle and Sebastian played a similar pop-outsider role as Pulp I imagine it would be curtly dismissed.

It occasionally appears, like Ian McDonald in Revolution in the Head and to a lesser extent Simon Reynolds in Retromania, that the author wants to enshrine the transformative music of his youth as a zenith, that everything after is somehow inferior, that no one will ever have the same intensity of experience that they had. On one hand, it’s true that there will probably never be another band quite like Pulp but then there will never be another band quite like The Beatles or B*witched. Nearly all pop groups – certainly the ones that capture the Zeitgeist – are products of their particular time and place.

I have not read much of Hatherley’s other work, indeed I didn’t really intend to read Uncommon – I found it abandoned on an East London pavement – but his regular beat appears to be polemical defences of British brutalist architecture. and it is this obsession which colours his insights and interpretations of Pulps work. He teases out the  precise specifics of Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics and places them not just into the wider political context of post-Thatcher Britain but also the architectural landscape of Sheffield which seeped into the bands’ sound. His refusal to deal in straight biography is useful, by pretty much ignoring who was shagging who or what drugs were being consumed he is able to get concentrate on the magic in the music and tease out the significance of neglected pre and post-Britpop tracks such as “Sheffield Sex City” and “The Wickerman”. Incidentally, Hatherley’s views on Britpop’s most withering dissection of brutalist architecture – Denim’s “Council Houses” – are unknown.

Sometimes it is hard to work out who the book was written for. On numerous occasions he pours scorn on Pulp’s Britpop contemporaries – Blur coming in for particular opprobrium – and maintains that the ‘90s jungle scene was the most exciting, most brilliantly futuristic music being made in Britain during the ‘90s. It sometimes feels like Hatherley has been called before a committee of Marxists and Wire subscribers and is being asked to explain his love for the band, that he is being to forced to justify his love for this band that are supposedly unworthy of serious appraisal.

Jarvis Cocker by @freyargh

Jarvis Cocker by @freyargh

The strongest section of the book comes in his discussion of “Mis-Shapes” where he explores the never ending battle between “moshers” and “chavs” in provincial towns all over the country and the underlying class dynamics. His analysis is much more nuanced than Owen Jones’ blunderbuss approach to cultural-criticism in “Chavs”. Whilst Hatherley does not mention the word explicitly, for many “chav” was a word first learned as a sneering riposte to catcalls of “mosher” or “grunger”. Whilst of course the class connotations of such words are dangerous it’s hard to take notions of solidarity seriously when your engaged in teenage turf wars. He gets deeper into the nuances and antagonisms of the grey areas where social classes blur and clash through the lens of pop music and personal experience than one finds in the supposed neutrality of newsprint.

Wonka Memes can also be used to explore class issues.

Wonka Memes can also be used to explore class issues.

Whilst it is refreshing to read music criticism that takes popular music so deadly seriously, Hatherley’s occasional reluctance to take Pulp’s pop skill as seriously as their sociological import actually does them a disservice. To hold them apart from Britpop and almost from pop itself is defeating. It is telling that he limits discussion of “Disco 2000” to a couple of lines compared to the acres of verbiage devoted to other lyrically richer but less catchy songs. Hatherley insists that Pulp’s doomy 1998 comeback “This Is Hardcore” was as strange and daring a chart hit as the likes of The Specials “Ghost Town” or Laurie Anderson’s “Oh Superman”. To me “Hardcore” still sounds like the dirge with slightly sinister lyrics I remember it being at the time – kinda like The Beautiful South’s “Don’t Marry Her” but less catchy. Pulp are worthy of the seriousness with which Hatherley treats them but it was because Pulp wrote catchy, tuneful songs that they were able to smuggle tales of class war and sexual obsession into the charts and adolescent bedrooms. It is because they wrote songs like “Disco 2000” that they were able to make Christmas Day 1995 so memorably disturbing for me. Sure, celebrate the cerebral but as Jarvis once sang sing-along…


One thought on “Book Review: “Uncommon: An Essay on Pulp” by Owen Hatherley

  1. Pingback: “It shouldn’t snow this time of year” – Blur and Disco Inferno’s Sad Psychedelia | The Empty Page

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