The politics of Pulp

April 28, 2009 at 9:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Music, Art, Etcetera, New Labour | 3 Comments

Jarvis 10

In the world of popular music, being called a Tory remains as hurtful as having your band compared to Ocean Colour Scene. Just leaving aside the number of songs strummed against Thatcher or pop’s role in movements against war and racism, the word ‘conservative’ isn’t just laden with assumptions about your politics, but about the music you make. For decades now, the word’s been used to infer that the art you produce is corporate, pro-establishment, staid, formulaic and conformist. In short, if you’re a Tory, you definitely don’t rock.

So when Jarvis Cocker gave an interview to GQ magazine where he seemed to say that a Conservative government wasn’t just inevitable but ‘necessary’, it wouldn’t be long before it was followed by a carefully-worded clarification. “In no way am I supporting or suggesting that a Conservative government is a good thing, far from it,” Cocker states. “Rather, what I intended to get across was that, in the absence of any real alternative, a Conservative government at this point unfortunately seems inevitable.” I think it’s safe to assume that he isn’t turning into Bryan Ferry.

This is comforting because, as Sunder notes, Cocker’s work with Pulp did much to keep class in the public consciousness at a time when it was being written-out of the rhetoric of New Labour and barely noticed by a Britpop crowd which was getting high off the hype of ‘Cool Britannia’. But what made the band’s records as interesting as they were cherished was that there was much more complexity to their themes than you’d find in the simplistic tubthumping of most political music.

There’s no denying that the social commentary in Pulp’s songs had its share of revolutionary sentiment. On Different Class’ ‘Mis-Shapes’, he conjures the image of a disadvantaged people rising up to claim what they feel is theirs (“Just put your hands up, it’s a raid! We want your homes. We want your lives. We want the things you won’t allow us”). Likewise, in ‘I Spy’ he voices a wronged working class man who seethes with contempt for his bourgeoisie ‘betters’ and plots his revenge (I can’t help it: / I was dragged up / My favourite parks are car parks / Grass is something you smoke / Birds are something you shag / Take your Year In Provence / and shove it / up your arse).

But there’s also the strong sense in Cocker’s lyrics that his isn’t a politics which relies on a state bestowing better lives on its people, but where the people sieze the means to achieve change for themselves. This comes across most strongly in This is Hardcore’s “The Day After The Revolution”, where he tramples on the old lie that “the meek shall inherit the Earth” by spitting “The meek shall inherit absolutely nothing at all / if you stopped being so feeble you could have so much more” and telling his listeners that “the revolution begins & ends with you”. His belief in the untapped potential of the working class is also striking in the preceding “Glory Days”, where he laments “Oh, we were brought up on the space race / now they expect you to clean toilets / when you’ve seen how big the world is / how can you make do with this?”. If he sometimes comes across as scornful of indolence & sloth (such as on this song and Different Class’ “Monday Morning”) it’s more out of frustration at this potential going to waste.

But if I could pick one song which I think best encapsulates Cocker’s worldview and his weary, remorseful outlook on British politics, it would be found on one of Pulp’s lesser known efforts. The last song the band ever released was a footnote to their Greatest Hits collection called “The Last Day of the Miner’s Strike“. Based on a reminiscence of industrial unrest in the 1980’s, it’s a song which could be read as either an anthem or a lament; a dream of what might’ve been possible “if we just stick together” or the reality of what was lost in the decades since their failure. “The last day of the miner’s strike was the Magna Carta in this part of town”, he sings, hinting that futures are now fixed, that possibilities are narrowed and alternatives reduced. Labour or Tory. Tory or Labour. Switching from one colour to the next without ever really expanding the palette.

No, Jarvis won’t be wearing a blue rosette any time soon, but Labour should still take the time to ponder why he, and many progressives like him, doesn’t feel at home in either party.


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  1. I saw Pulp doing their farewell show at Magma where they rounded off their performing career in the aestheticised shell of dead industry. They were incredible, obviously. Great post.

  2. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for the kind words, though I’m fizzing with envy that you went to that gig. Seems like a very cool place to stage a concert, though; I went there a few years back and such was the gushing enthusiasm of the Fred Dibnah-esque tour guides, I almost – almost – left with a passion for antique industrial machinery. In hindsight, I suppose I had a lucky escape…

  3. […] The Politics of Pulp […]

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