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Not Fade Away 1992: Babies, by Pulp

Twenty one random thoughts about class, sex, success and Britpop (some of them by me).

1 Context

1992 was the worst year. I was close to the end of my twenties but no closer to knowing what I wanted to do with my life. Thatcher was gone but the Tories were still in power. They even snuck in again in that year's election - the morning after that polling day was much more depressing than the morning after in 1987 had been. The result was five years of shabby, incompetent and malicious governance. (Who else remembers Peter Lilley's 1992 "I have a little list" conference speech?) I get a little annoyed when the media keeps telling us that John Major is a nice guy. He didn't seem so back then.

There was still music, I suppose. My mate Neil went raving every Saturday but I felt too old to join him. For a while everything else seemed grunge-flavoured and I didn't much like the taste.

And people were moving on, moving away. To tell the truth maybe I was a bit lost.

Somewhere in there I first discovered Sheffield's best band, Pulp.

2 Grunge

"I don't mind Nirvana but I've never liked music like that. It's lads' music. When I was going to clubs it would be The Cult and everybody would do the Chicken War Dance and push each other about. Noise is an easy thing to hide behind. If you make a lot of noise and shout behind that, nobody can tell what you're singing. It is showbusiness after all. I think you have a duty to perform, you have to entertain people. But just 'cos someone might wear a sequinned jacket onstage does not mean they are instantly interesting to watch." Jarvis Cocker, Pulp

3 Lineage

"From the early 1970s onwards, a series of groups or individuals, from working or lower-middle class backgrounds, educated at art schools, claiming state benefits and living in bedsits or council flats months before they found themselves staying at five-star hotels, were thrown up in the UK. The Kinks, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Japan, Associates, Soft Cell, Kate Bush, The Fall, Pet Shop Boys, The Smiths amongst others - all balanced some unstable combination of sexuality and literacy, ostentatious performance and austere rectitude, raging ambition and class resentment, translated into sonic documents balancing experimentation with populist cohesion ... At some point in the 1990s this literary-experimental pop tradition, completely inadequately subsumed into the rubric 'indie', disappears seemingly at its moment of greatest triumph." from Uncommon, by Owen Hatherley, Zero Books, 2011

4 Nostalgia

There is a strain in British pop - one that can be traced back to The Kinks at the very least - that seeks solace in the past. It posits the idea that the present - and by implication - the future are suspect. And while all our yesterdays may not have been necessarily better, they were at least familiar or had an honesty to them.

Such ideas were nuanced to a greater or lesser extent depending on who was extolling them of course. In the sixties Ray Davies spoke out for what he saw as a disappearing England as pop culture transformed us Brits into Americans. In the eighties Morrissey and Marr argued for a past as an alternative to the Thatcherite present. In the nineties Oasis would use the sonic model of the Beatles as a blueprint for a form of British pop triumphalism that was intrinsically conservative in its outlook and in its application.

In 1992 Pulp - and Suede too, to an extent - were celebrating very seventies signifiers; Council estates, acrylics, suburbia, Milk Tray, special brew and cigarettes. But where Davies, Morrissey and Noel Gallagher approached the past with an essentially Romantic vision, Jarvis and his band mates were more ambivalent. Maybe because by 1992 they'd seen the past - their past - consigned to the scrapheap. Working class solidarity had been smashed to bits, the promises of the space age future they - we - had grown up with had not come to fruition. More than that, had failed. The past was nowhere to escape to. But it had still left its mark.

5 Architectural modernism

"Sheffield's full of half-arsed visions of cities of the future that turn into a pile of rubbish. We grew up reading the local paper and seeing 'Sheffield, city of the future', with a map of how it's going to be and pictures of everyone walking around in spacesuits, smiling. But we're the only ones who took it seriously..." Russell Senior, Pulp

6 What does that leave to look forward to?

Well, there was still sex, I suppose.

7 Consolation

"A double bed and a stalwart lover for sure/

These are the riches of the poor" I Want The One I Can't Have, The Smiths

8 Live Floor Show

I first saw Pulp live in Sauchiehall Street in either 1992 or 1993 supporting Saint Etienne. I must have heard Babies by then but seeing the band live cemented my affection for them. They were everything I wanted a band to be at that time. Smart, a touch sleazy, amused and amusing. Jarvis was already a star even if no one knew it at the time.

And they had a kick to them. Where Saint Etienne sounded dreamy and even shy (nothing wrong with that), Pulp sounded street-smart and a little bit dirty. For all the plastic sheen of their image there was grit and grease in there too.

9 Sonics

What I loved about Pulp was their Tomorrow's World sonic template, a kind of future past at work in their use of synths and sometimes atonal strings (there's lots of lovely squelches in the soundbed of Babies, even though it's one of Pulp's more conventional sounding records), allied to the lugubrious northern vocals of Jarvis.

10 Babies

"Essentially an episode of Grange Hill scripted by David Lynch." Ben Thompson, Seven Years of Plenty, 1998

11 Plot

What's it about? I'm not sure I know even 21 years later if I'm honest. Clearly there's a Carry On Blue Velvet thing going on. A boy - let's call him Jarvis - is in a friend's house, listening in when the friend's sister brings boys back to her room. Jarvis progresses to hiding in the sister's wardrobe. It becomes a recurring pattern. When he falls asleep inside he is discovered. By whom? By the sister presumably?

And then? Well, you work it out.

12 Lyrics

"We were on the bed when you came home/

I heard you stop outside the door/

I know you won't believe it's true/

I only went with her 'cos she looks like you."

13 Perversity

Now we assume that Jarvis's friend is a girl.? But that's never actually explicit. She could be he.

14 Lineage redux

"It is a rare songwriter who dares to claim the middle ground between Alan Bennett and Barry White. Pulp's Jarvis Cocker is that man." Ben Thompson, ibid

15 Sex

... in Pulp songs rarely takes place in five-star hotels. At least not in 1992. Sex in Jarvis's world means bri-nylon sheets. It also means frustration, adultery, neediness, emptiness, loneliness and fear. And in Babies it's a pretence of adulthood. "I want to give you children/And you can be my girlfriend".

16 Class war

The great thing about Common People - Pulp's best known single - is the eloquence of its anger. It nails class tourism (where Blur listening do you think?). But more importantly it reminds us that in Britain that some people have it harder. Because they are trapped in their straitened circumstances and for some there is no escape. All they can do is, as the song says, watch their lives slide out of view. And watch on as pop culture and politicians demonise them.

17 Class traitors

Pulp, then, are a political band. Often - mostly - they sing from the point of view of the dispossessed. They are in that sense a working class band.

But is it as simple as that? Because Jarvis is not Noel or Liam. He's not a lad. He is a self-proclaimed misfit. Has he not been educated out of his class? Have you? Have I?

18 A reductionist definition of the working class

"Oasis were the band all my mates were into. 'At last somebody out there who's representing us', and I kind of felt that's the band I should have been supporting. But I hated Oasis because they were everything I was trying to get away from, the idea that if you're a working-class man you define yourself through that idea of getting pissed, shagging birds, football, getting into fights. That seemed so reductionist. That was everything I'd left Falkirk to get away from." novelist Alan Bissett, as told to the author, 2009

19 And anyway ...

... Can you still call yourself working class if you are number two in the charts and selling a lot of records?

20 Success

"The thing that can be really demoralising about getting some kind of success is that people, and I certainly did this, start a group because they're marginalized and it gives them something they're in control of, their little fantasy world to escape into. Then, if you do make some kind of breakthrough, it's suddenly taken away from you, it becomes something that's marketed and sold and you feel like you don't own it anymore, you feel like a bit of a caricature of yourself, a karaoke version." Jarvis Cocker as told to Jim Irvin,Mojo, November 2001

21 Rewind

In 1992 we haven't got to that point. Pulp - after years and years of trying and getting nowhere - are only just starting to get somewhere. And Babies is the track that kick-started their engine.

I love Common People, but I love Lipgloss more. And I still love Babies most of all.

Other Contenders

Would I Lie to You, Charles and Eddie

Metal Mickey, Suede

Tennessee, Arrested Development

Success Has Made A Failure of our Home, Sinead O'Connor

Motorcycle Emptiness, Manic Street Preachers

Out of Space, The Prodigy

Constant Craving, kd lang

My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It), En Vogue

Alison's Starting to Happen, The Lemonheads

Nightswimming, R.E.M.

Gradually Learning, The Rockingbirds

Seasick, Yet Still Docked, Morrissey

Only Living Boy in New Cross, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine

The Drowners, Suede

Jump Around, House Of Pain

Television - The Drug Of The Nation, Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy

Deeply Dippy, Right Said Fred

NME Single of the Year: The Drowners, Suede

John Peel's Festive 50 Winner: Geek Love, Bang Bang Machine

And the best-selling single of the year: I Will Always Love You, Whitney Houston

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