Pulp’s Common People was released 25 years ago – this is how the hit song was written and why it has endured

It is a song about frustration, the trap of poverty, the perils of inauthenticity and above all social class – a weighty mix for the upper reaches of the singles chart.

By Richard Blackledge
Friday, 22nd May 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Friday, 22nd May 2020, 4:55 pm

But, following its release as a single 25 years ago on May 22, 1995, Common People became the Sheffield band Pulp's biggest hit, selling 70,000 copies in its first week in the shops – and it has had a lasting impact.

In 2014 the track was voted as the best anthem to emerge from the Britpop movement – beating songs by contemporaries Blur, Oasis and Suede – while its perceptive lyrics, written by the group's frontman Jarvis Cocker, have been the subject of curious debate and even academic study over the past quarter of a century. It has inspired a ballet, and was even covered by Star Trek actor William Shatner in his own unique way.

And it all started with the purchase of a second-hand Casio keyboard in summer 1994.

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Cocker, who grew up in Intake but had moved to London by this point as Pulp finally began to achieve real success after years of obscurity, bought the instrument from the Notting Hill Record & Tape Exchange, took it home and began experimenting. One of the first things he hammered out on the keys was the tune that would accompany the chorus line 'I want to live like Common People'.

The idea gathered momentum, and the seed of a title, when Cocker then played the tinny riff to Pulp's bassist Steve Mackey.

"When we'd stopped laughing he says 'Oh yeah, that sounds like Fanfare For The Common Man,', or something like that, and I thought, 'Oh, that's quite good'," Cocker told BBC Radio 1 in 1999. "And that gave me the idea for what the song was going to be about."

The band – Cocker, Mackey, keyboard player Candida Doyle, guitarist and violinist Russell Senior, and drummer Nick Banks – collaborated on the music together, composing an 'epic but not bombastic' number that built to a massive, crowd-pleasing crescendo. The words, meanwhile, were influenced by a student Cocker met during his second year on a film course at St Martins College in London, hence the opening line: "She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge – she studied sculpture at St Martins College."

Jarvis Cocker with Pulp at Sheffield Arena in 1996. Picture: Paul Chappells.

"She did believe in common people, having come from quite a rich background," Cocker told journalist Martin Aston in 1996. "She thought of the lower classes as something quite exotic and something she could go and see as a tourist... I never got to know her very well. I didn't even know her name!"

In 2015 it was speculated that the student in question was actually Danae Stratou, the wife of former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who responded by saying: “She was the only Greek student of sculpture at Saint Martins College at that time.”

Cocker subsequently told Aston that the experience made him realise for the first time that 'class did exist'. "Most people in Sheffield are kind of in the same boat, though of course there are posher and rougher areas."

The song's potential was clear when Pulp supported Oasis at Sheffield Arena in April 1995. Common People was already in the live set and Noel Gallagher told the BBC the audience 'went berserk' when they heard it.

The single artwork for Common People, released on May 22, 1995.

Given its impressive first-week sales, and the impact of its memorable video featuring Sadie Frost pushing Cocker in a shopping trolley, there was even a chance Pulp could score a number one single – but it wasn't to be, as Robson and Jerome held the top spot with their syrupy version of Unchained Melody.

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Read more: 9 facts you never knew about Sheffield's Jarvis Cocker

"I knew Common People would be a hit because when it came on the radio my seven-year-old daughter started jumping up and down," Russell Senior recalled in his 2015 memoir Freak Out The Squares.

"We'd have happily taken top 10 before the run-down but still felt the sickening stomach drop of being called into the dentist when it was number two."

Pulp in the 1990s - Nick Banks, Candida Doyle, Jarvis Cocker, Steve Mackey and Russell Senior.

The triumph they wanted was still to come, though. Common People was an advance taster for Pulp's 1995 LP Different Class, which went straight to number one in the albums chart when it came out that October.

In the intervening period the band headlined Glastonbury as a last-minute replacement for The Stone Roses. Common People had an electrifying effect on the audience who, by then, knew every verse.

"As Jarvis started singing, you could hear the crowd louder than you could hear him. It was just amazing," Nick Banks told Mark Sturdy who wrote 2003's definitive Pulp biography, Truth and Beauty.

On stage, Cocker also took a moment to reflect on how far Pulp had come from their days as indie underdogs. "If you want something to happen enough then it actually will happen," he said. "That's why we're stood on this stage after 15 years."

For essayist Owen Hatherley, who in 2011 penned a book-length text called Uncommon, it was 'no coincidence whatsoever that Pulp were from Sheffield'.

"Pulp excelled at the evocation of a devastated but still very much alive post-industrial city and the lives, loves and explorations that go on inside it," Hatherley said, arguing: "Common People is one of the most breathtaking moments of entryism in popular music, the moment of truth in Britpop’s ‘we’ve taken over!’ lie.”

Common People was the centrepiece of the set when Pulp reunited for concerts in 2011 - the band are pictured playing a secret show at the Glastonbury Festival in 2011. Picture: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images.

Pulp went on hiatus in 2002, having produced two more albums after Different Class. This Is Hardcore, released in 1998, explored the dark side of fame, as Cocker became a target for the tabloids when he famously gatecrashed Michael Jackson’s Brit Awards performance in 1996, while 2001’s We Love Life had a pastoral flavour. Both were noticeably less pop-oriented than before, the band having sensed that the zeitgeist had shifted.

When the line-up that recorded Common People reunited for gigs in 2011, they knew their best-known song had to be the centrepiece of the set, and Cocker didn't mind admitting it.

"If Pulp are only ever remembered for this song, I don't care," he told the crowd at the Reading Festival. "Black Lace are only ever remembered for Agadoo."

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