Pulp's legendary Different Class album is 25 today: Here's the story behind it

Exactly 25 years ago today, Sheffield band Pulp released the album that would go on to become a global best seller and catapult the band into pop’s stratsophere.

Friday, 30th October 2020, 9:37 am

The date was October 30, 1995 and with the band’s signature single Common People having already ruled the airwaves all summer, the album’s release was eagerly anticipated.

Here’s the story behind that iconic album – and why Different Class is still different class a quarter of a century on.

The path for the band's fifth album had been trailblazed as far back as May the same year.

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Pulp's Different Class album is 25 today.

On May 22, 1995, Common People was released, becoming Pulp's biggest hit, selling 70,000 copies in its first week in the shops and launched at the height of Britpop.

In 2014 the track was voted as the best anthem to emerge from the era – 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. 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.

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."

"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.

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.

"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."

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.”

The band’s fifth album was a critical and commercial success, entering the UK Albums Chart at number one and winning the 1996 Mercury Music Prize. It has been certified four times platinum, and had sold 1.33 million copies in the United Kingdom as of 2020.

In 2013, NME ranked the album at number six in its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

The inspiration for the title came to frontman Jarvis Cocker in Smashing, a club night that ran during the early 1990s in Eve's Club on Regent Street in London. Cocker had a friend who used the phrase "different class" to describe something that was "in a class of its own". Cocker liked the double meaning, with its allusions to the British social class system, which was a theme of some of the songs on the album.

A message on the back of the record also references this idea: "We don't want no trouble, we just want the right to be different. That's all."

The full details of the wedding photograph used on the front cover of the standard sleeve editions were described on 2011 tour posters:

LOCATION: St Barnabas Church, East Molesey

TIME: 12pm, Saturday 12 August 1995

EVENT: Sharon & Dominic's Wedding

PHOTOGRAPHER: Donald Milne

CAMERA: 1979 Hasselblad 500CM with 80mm lens

FILM STOCK: Fuji Super G-400

DESIGN: Blue Source

In an interview with BBC Radio 6 Music presenter Chris Hawkins in 2014, Dom O'Connor, the groom featured in the wedding photograph, recalled how the album cover had come about.

"When we got married we were putting the wedding together ourselves, we pulled a lot of favours from people we knew.

"My little brother Ben went to art college in Edinburgh and he made friends with a guy who subsequently became a photographer and had done a lot of work with the Britpop bands – I think he worked with Blur, and Elastica, and of course Pulp.

"So we asked him about a couple of months before whether he would be prepared to do some photos for us, and he couldn't actually do it because he said he was busy working on some Pulp stuff.

"But he phoned us about a week before and said Pulp were thinking about using some photos with real people in them, including a wedding photo, and if we would do some joke shots where he'd bring some life-size cutouts of the band down, he would do some proper wedding shots for us as well. And that's basically what happened. They rocked up on the wedding day with the life-size cutouts of the band and took the photos, and I suppose the rest is history."

Apart from the bride and groom, the photograph features the parents of both the bride and the groom, O'Connor's two brothers, his two best friends and his wife's best friend. O'Connor also told Hawkins that he and his family had no further contact with the photographer after the day of the wedding, and had no idea that the photographs would be used for the album cover until his mother saw a poster advertising the album in an HMV record store. He later saw a billboard poster of the album cover while he was out shopping. Pulp's record company at the time did not pay the family for the use of their picture, but when Pulp reformed in 2011 Rough Trade paid for the family members to see Pulp play live.

O'Connor said, "Rough Trade very kindly sent us a signed copy of the photo that Jarvis had signed last year, just saying 'Thank you very much Dom and Sharon for letting us crash your wedding', which I thought was a really nice touch actually".

The album received widespread acclaim from music critics in the UK.

In the NME, John Mulvey summarised the record as "funny, phenomenonally nasty, genuinely subversive, and, of course, hugely, flamingly POP!... Different Class is a deft, atmospheric, occasionally stealthy and frequently booming, confident record."

Melody Maker awarded the album its star rating of "bloody essential", and its critic Simon Reynolds observed that "the album's title alone announces that Cocker's broadened his scope, has another axe to grind: social antagonism", and stated that Pulp was "not so much the jewel in Britpop's crown, more like the single solitary band who validate the whole sorry enterprise".

Vox’s Keith Cameron awarded the album eight out of ten and wrote that "no other Pulp album of recent years froths around the mouth so unselfconsciously... Pulp have managed to elevate their grandiose, popoid vision-thing to new and greater heights, without crashing into the realms of extreme fantasy."

In Mojo Bob Stanley stated, "You'd have to be a fool or a low-fi obsessive not to concede that it's easily the closest that Pulp have come to realising their potential... Different Class is curiously sparse yet lush enough in all the right places, warm and soulful where unnecessary electro-clutter used to be", and concluded, "Arguments about Blur versus Oasis are irrelevant. Pulp are in a different class."

Select ranked the album at number one in its end-of-year list of the 50 best albums of 1995.

It was ranked at number 34 out of 100 in a "Music of the Millennium" poll conducted by HMV, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. In 1998 Q readers voted Different Class the 37th greatest album of all time and a repeat poll in 2006 put it at number 85.

In 2005 it was voted number 70 in Channel 4's The 100 Greatest Albums and in 2006 British Hit Singles & Albums and NME organised a poll in which 40,000 people worldwide voted for the 100 best albums ever and Different Class was placed at number 54 on the list.

Track listing

Mis-Shapes

Pencil Skirt

Common People

I Spy

Disco 2000

Live Bed Show

Something Changed

Sorted for E's & Wizz

F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E

Underwear

Monday Morning

Bar Italia

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."