Say what you like about the Britpop phenomenon during the 1990s, but there is one simple fact about it that you cannot escape. It made and broke its stars, and it more than made sure it took them with it during its rough death. Think about where everyone started; young, eager to break through into the public eye, to combat the wave of grunge, make music British again and of course, gain a bit of fame and fortune on the side. Fast forward to the end of the 90s and they’re all more or less in bad shape. Damon went through a breakup, Brett descended into crack addiction, Oasis fell apart to the point where the only original members left were Noel and Liam, Justine was nowhere to be found, Richard had split away from his mates yet again, and Thom had almost singlehandedly killed the genre at the cost of his own sanity.
But what about the one remaining icon not mentioned in the above list? Jarvis Cocker. Different Class was exactly what the title suggests. It was on another level, one of the quintessential records of the 1990s. People lapped it up, they lapped Pulp up and gave them the fame and recognition that they had spent nearly two decades searching for. And it was good. For a little while.
Then there’s the comedown. Legend has it that it all started when Jarvis mooned Michael Jackson at the ’96 BRITS (And with good reason). Good and bad publicity + cocaine addiction + breakup of a longtime relationship + the grand old age of 33 = Breakdown.
And that’s how we got their next album in 1998. That’s how we got an album that dissected Pulp’s image with the sole intent of shitting on it, taking the knowledge you’re in the middle of a mid-life crisis and wearing it tight. This is the album that, in my opinion, definitively put Britpop six feet under. This is the anti-record.
This is Hardcore.
Track #1: The Fear
Something’s wrong. Those are the first words you think when you hear the opening seconds of this first track, as we jump from the final chords of Bar Italia and sink into a nightmarish mesh of strained wailings from the guitar. Right then and there you know that this is very much going to be something Different Class wasn’t. Then Jarvis’ opening verses confirm it, with lyrics such as ‘This is the sound of someone losing the plot/Making out that they’re okay when they’re not’. This is one spooky, unsettling opener and in an artistic sense it’s the best out of Pulp’s opening tracks. Not my favourite, but definitely an impressive way to kick things off.
Track #2: Dishes
‘I am not Jesus, though I have the same initials/I am the man who stays home and does the dishes’. Based off a theory Jarvis heard from another guy that 33 is the age where a person has a mid-life crisis, because that was how old Jesus Christ was when he was crucified, and if men reach that age then they realise they’re not going to be the new messiah (Probably makes the 27 Club feel a lot better). Jarvis wrote this song in retaliation, in an effort to combat his fast approaching birthday present of a mid life crisis. And I don’t think he won the battle. Gave us a heart wrenchingly intimate song though so there’s that.
Track #3: Party Hard
Britpop, exit stage left. I got some Nick Cave vibes from Jarvis’ performance on this one; contemplative and utterly exhausted. The tune in turn gives some Bad Seeds vibes, erratic and hard hitting cluttering of instruments to create the sound of a party spinning wildly out of control. Uncle Psychosis certainly left his mark.
Track #4: Help the Aged
I’m pretty sure that this is my favourite Pulp song of all time, and no it’s not because of Ali G before you ask. While dealing with the subject of the midlife crisis yet again, it’s got that standard wit and sarcasm from Pulp whilst still incorporating the dark and more resigned sound of This is Hardcore. Another reason I like it is because of how high Jarvis goes as he sings ‘Funny how it all falls away’, he hits it just right. Also, stick around for the b-side Tomorrow Never Lies if you want to hear what could have been for Pierce Brosnan’s second film as James Bond (Whose musical history is a whole other can of worms that needs opening one day).
Track #5: This is Hardcore
So I think it goes without saying that the title track is the best on the album and possibly the best song that Pulp have ever done. This is the embodiment of all the grievances the band had at the time melded into 6 minutes of orchestra and thinly veiled innuendo, which doubles for the fame that they had craved for so long. You wait so long, you’re ready now, you know the parts to play and by the end you’ve done it to death, to the point where you’ve ‘seen the storyline/played out so many times before’. The only reason I don’t listen to this as often as Help the Aged is because this is more than a song. It’s an event.
Track #6: TV Movie
Less hard-hitting than the previous song, but the opening seconds of atmospheric static made me think this was going to be even darker than before. Thankfully not, in fact this is the lightest track so far. Not quite as minimalist as Dishes seeing as this one incorporates strings, but not far off.
Track #7: A Little Soul
One last single to cover and a bit of a change of pace as we deal with the strained relationship between a divorced father and his estranged son, the former narrating the song and basically deeming himself an irredeemable failure as he begs the latter ‘Please don’t turn into me’. He wishes he could ‘show a little soul’ but that’s gone. Wasted, in fact. Christ, that’s depressing.
Track #8: I’m A Man
Back to reflecting on life now, as Jarv covers the things he’s done to appear to be a man; drinking, smoking, dirty jokes, driving fast, fancy restaurants, fine wine. And then he asks the question; what’s the f*cking point? Very biting satire here that harks back to Different Class as it deals with those cliches of what makes you cool in society according to those adverts you’d see while out and about. Pulp tried them, became cool. ‘So please can I ask just why we’re alive?/’Cos all that you do seems such a waste of time’. Definitely a song that has aged well over time, especially with the rise of social media and its influencers teaching the young and impressionable how to look cool.
Track #9: Seductive Barry
Guest starring Neneh Cherry, this is officially only the second longest track on the album at eight and a half minutes. This feels like the little sister to the title track, with talk of love scenes as the titular Barry carries out his long awaited seduction of someone he has long fantasised over, and the music guides us as to which part of the action we are at. Nothing much happening for about six minutes, and then the swirling strings inform us that the action has begun. It’s a little uncomfortable to listen to, with a hint of sleaze under the romance (‘if this is a dream then I’m going to sleep for the rest of my life’) and I think that’s sort of the point. I wouldn’t have minded if this was a single honestly.
Track #10: Sylvia
Is it me or does the opening guitarwork from Mark Webber sound eerily similar to the tune found in the first half of Like a Friend? Anyway, Jarvis’ own words; “Some people get off on people who they think are a bit screwed up…I think that’s a bit pervy to be honest”. Hear, hear. Once again, Jarv really goes for the high notes and it sounds really effective, giving the aura of desperation of the man who wants Sylvia all to himself.
Track #11: Glory Days
You can’t talk about Glory Days without talking about the song that could have and should have been in its place: Cocaine Socialism. Originally, that was going to be one of, if not the most biting statement that This is Hardcore had to say in repulsed response to one of the factors behind Britpop’s death; New Labour’s hijacking of the Cool Britannia movement to make themselves look cool and electable. Ok, it worked, but everyone saw through the façade. I wish that had been on the album instead of Glory Days.
While this is a decent enough song, it is much the same of what we’ve heard so far, only less inspired and with less sugarcoating. Aging into irrelevance is the topic of discussion once again with glimpses into the things that had made Jarvis so cynical (‘Oh, my face is unappealing/and my thoughts are unoriginal/I did experiments with substances/but all it did was make me ill’). But as the man himself says, it is “about nothing really”.
Track #12: The Day After The Revolution
A radio station closed down to this track. True story. If This is Hardcore and Help the Aged are my picks for the top tracks on this album then this song definitely takes the bronze medal. It concludes affairs just how they should be concluded; simply saying ‘it’s over’. Pulp are now over the hill and they make it known with the most hard hitting track on the album since number five. Bleak as it sounds to defiantly state it’s all over, it signifies that Jarvis and the band are now free from their shackles, free in the knowledge that they have just said ‘bye bye’ to what made them famous. If they had stopped here, then this would have been one hell of an exit.
This is Hardcore is a beautifully sinister suicide pact from a band looking to wash themselves clean of a dirty movement that muddied their lives. There’s barely a glimmer of light to be found and at times it makes for a difficult listen, defiantly daring the audience to stay with them as they go deeper and deeper through the rabbithole of despair. It’s depression put to tape and artistically it is the best album the band ever put together. I would argue that at times it does feel more like a Jarvis Cocker album than a Pulp album (Which is partially why Russell Senior left the band), but that doesn’t really matter in the end given the subject matter of midlife crises and consequent cynicism to sex.
A shame then that it wasn’t their last, and this is coming from a guy who genuinely likes We Love Life (And hopes that there is a 20th anniversary release with all those unreleased tracks in 2021). This is Hardcore was the finale to Pulp, but the following album ended up erasing that perfect ending, kind of like what season nine was for Scrubs. If it had led to another era for the band then fair enough but let’s not forget they were dealing with aging here in their early to mid 30’s. By the time WLL rolled around they were pushing 40. Time wasn’t really on their side unfortunately.
So that’s This is Hardcore. One of Britpop’s main killers, and a damned fine album. While I may prefer Different Class seeing as it is quintessential Pulp, I’ll always respect This is Hardcore. And as the title suggests, this is only part one of Fame’s A Bitch here on the blog. What’s that one album that overshadowed TIH as the album that sent Britpop to the grave?
As it turned out, fame in bulk didn’t really agree with Radiohead either. The end result was the next album I’m going to cover in the new year.
Kid A is next.