With the horribly regressive debt-ceiling legislation passed by the U.S. Congress today, the West took yet another step toward making the neoliberal dream — gutting social programs, enshrining the market as the means and end of social well-being, idealizing upward mobility and the consumer good life, and leaving the lower classes to their own fate — the only game in town.  Do we even count these steps anymore?  Is there any point?  There is no alternative, Margaret Thatcher said of the amoral economic world she helped set in motion, and the liberal opposition seems only too eager to believe it.

It seems now might be an appropriate time to revisit the remarkable music of Pulp.

Luckily, we have an excellent gazetteer on this journey: Owen Hatherley’s slim little book, Uncommon: An Essay on Pulp (Zero Books, 2011).  An erudite and excitable writer, Hatherley has two useful qualifications for this task.  First, he was born in 1981, around the same time Pulp began recording.  This means that at the band’s artistic zenith up to and through the heyday of Britpop, he was at that impressionable age when a young personopens up emotionally and socially to the promise of music, discovering the performers they’ll likely deem their all-time favorites through much of their later lives and gearing up for fuller participation in pop culture in their coming years of autonomy.  The appearance of this book indicates Pulp was the group for Hatherley, notwithstanding that by the first time he saw them in concert, they “were as distant as any stadium rock act, a speck far, far away in the stratosphere; yet at the same time they were constantly in your living room” (pg. 88).  Evidently he’s spent the second half of life obsessing over Pulp, and his distance from the whole span of their career along with his general acuity as a cultural critic lend him a useful perspective which to assess the highs and lows, the singular achievements and unexpected failures, across Pulp’s 30 years as a pop group.

Second and perhaps uniquely, Hatherley is a prolific and insightful architectural critic.  He’s thus especially qualified to illuminate the physical landscapes and everyday objects that singer Jarvis Cocker recites and mythologizes in his sometimes hilarious, sometimes savage lyrics.  He specializes in the study of architectural modernism, especially the post-WWII Brutalist variation that Pulp’s hometown Sheffield is famously built in.  The urban environment provides the crucial supplemental text with which to interpreting the places, material goods, fashions, leisure activities and ways of killing time associated with Britain’s working classes that inhabit Cocker’s lyrics and even inform the musicians’ choices of instrumentation and genre (e.g., their 1991-94 run as a “rickety glam-disco band”).  The music of Pulp, Hatherley demonstrates, constitutes a historically concrete and aesthetically charged urbanism, the explication of which is Uncommon’s distinctive contribution.

It is no coincidence whatsoever that Pulp were from Sheffield, the provincial city that, perhaps more than any other in the UK, attempted to create a viable modernist landscape between the 1950s and 1970s, before the money ran out when the steel industry restructured itself and sacked most of its workforce, and a council attempting ‘Socialism in One City’ were squeezed of any funds. Its wildly overambitious Brutalist buildings, left in ruins or demolished altogether in the 1990s, provided — still provide — a landscape where there’s space to dream of what could have been, and to move from there to thinking of what could still be. From their earliest records in the early ’80s to the early 2000s, there’s a persistent, direct and occasionally too-close-to-the-bone attention to male-female relations in Pulp’s work, but it’s when they leave this town at the end of the decade – and return there, to write about it, suddenly seeing it anew – that their work transforms, that they become a band worth writing tortuous monographs about. From Separations (recorded mostly in 1989) to 2001’s ‘Wickerman’, 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. It’s arguable that their determined urbanism — as opposed to Britpop’s suburbanism — was informed by having been told, throughout their 1970s childhoods, that their city would be the site of the future, something that is far harder to believe if you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s. Alongside that is the collectivity of the city itself; as often as the protagonist of a Pulp song is a voyeur, he or she is also entirely of the crowd (pp. 12-3).

In fact, it seems Hatherley’s very career as architectural historian and cultural critic owes a significant debt to Pulp, as strange as that might seem.  One of the book’s best passages recalls his trip north to Sheffield, home of famous modernist edifices like the Park Hill council housing estate, to take in the setting for Pulp’s notorious 1992 b-side, “Sheffield: Sex City”.  I quote this section at length because it conveys the texture of Hatherly’s criticism and because, well, this is what blogs are good for, right?

When I was 16, I and my girlfriend were completely obsessed with this song, and we walked around willing ourselves to see the teeming, simmering, carnal city described, peering up into the L-shaped windows of the tower blocks, past the twitching curtains of the semis, imagining the couplings and perversions inside. It also soundtracked something fairly momentous between us. It is, more than anything else, the reason why this book was written.

Jarvis intones a series of Sheffield place names, with luridly sensual relish – from ‘Intake’ onwards, each one of them emphasised for any possible double-meanings. Frechville, Hackenthorpe, Shalesmoor, Wombwell. The next voice you hear is Candida Doyle, deadpan and Yorkshire, reading — of all things — from one of the sexual fantasies in a Nancy Friday book. Here, as in ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’ (to which it is, according to the sleevenotes, ‘the morning after’) the city itself is the focus for all libidinal energies. ‘We were living in a big block of flats…within  minutes the whole building was fucking. I mean, have you ever heard other people fucking, and really enjoying it? Not like in the movies, but when it’s real…’. Then, the ‘sun rose from behind the gasometers at 6.30am’, and we’re on a tour of the carnal possibilities in a post-industrial city.

 The most important sounds in it (aside from Jarvis’ own increasingly astonishing groans, howls, gasps and ecstatic squeals) are hers, too — the banks of synths, taken from the same jumble sale ransacked at the same time by Stereolab, interspersed with some more recent artificial instruments. It’s these smears of indistinct, tinny keyboard atmospheres, the arpeggiated stutters, the repetitious house vamps and Russell Senior’s queasily treated violin, which simulate the vertiginous feeling of nervousness, anticipation and mania which underpin the ridiculous, magnificent lyric, an obsessive, clammily sexual ambience. Underneath, a metronomic kick drum pounds, and deep, relentless low-end throbs, which the group got Warp’s in-house engineer to lower to sub-bass levels. As it pulses, the whole city is ‘getting stiff in the building heat’, and Jarvis walks through its entire extent trying to find his lover. So overwhelmed is he by the sheer sexuality of Sheffield that he finds himself ‘rubbing up against lamp-posts, trying to get rid of it’. The places made sexual are exemplars of non-utopian everyday life, as we traverse the semis, the gardens, and hear ‘groans from a T-reg Chevette — you bet…you bet…’, and in a particularly memorable moment stop to penetrate ‘a crack in the pavement’. This transfigured space is cut with moments of frustrating mundanity; ‘crumbling concrete bus shelters‘, and tedious nights indoors watching television. The pursuit is interrupted, because ‘the fares went up at seven’, our protagonist loses his lover while ‘sentenced to three years in the housing benefit waiting room’. The frustration and fascination builds and builds and builds to the point of explosion, leaving the city’s topographical extremes as location for the final consummation, with the city abstracted below them. ‘We finally made it, on a hilltop at 4am. A million twinkling yellow street lights. The whole city is your jewellery box. Reach out, and take what you want…’ The city has not survived its orgy, and our lovers survey the wreckage left over. ‘Everyone on Park Hill came in unison at 4.13AM, and the whole block fell down. A tobacconist caught fire, and everyone in the street died of lung cancer.’

This tumultuous collapse was our favourite moment in the song, and we always imagined it taking place in the vast slab block which loomed over this particular courtship (did they have similar fantasies, looking down on us?). It was a bit of a revelation a few years later when, developing what was then a part-time interest in architecture, I found out just how famous and important Park Hill was, and saw photographs of this enormous, snaking collective housing estate, with its wide streets in the sky, its interconnecting decks thrusting out of each block, its form rising to different storeys depending on its place on the hill; the longest walkway has for the last few years had the graffito ‘I LOVE YOU, MARRY ME’, as if in tribute to ‘Sheffield: Sex City’ itself. It was absolutely perfect, a visual emblem of the familiar 1960s-built city turned into a utopian, libidinal megastructure (pp. 43-5).

 Is it far-fetched to imagine that the program for Hatherley’s two prior books, his 2009 architectural treatise Militant Modernism (which the Guardian praised as “an intelligent and passionately argued attempt to ‘excavate utopia’ from the ruins of modernism” and an “exhilarating manifesto for a reborn socialist modernism”) and his 2010 Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, was born in some part from this romp through “Sheffield: Sex City”?

Of course, the backdrop for Pulp’s potent mix of lust, ennui, perversity, solidarity, and bitterness wrapped up in a retro-70s aesthetic is hardly confined to Sheffield landscapes or even the cities of Northern England.  Hatherley recognized the same urbanism in his Southern coastal hometown of Southampton, where the juxtaposition of building scales and architectural eras meant different classes lived next to each other, charging daily interactions with class consciousness and status competitions.  More to the point, Pulp’s subject matter was never exclusively urban in a topical sense, and Hatherley is a fine interpreter of their domestic vignettes (where the suburban protagonists are often from higher if still anxious strata) and ambivalent generational anthems (a genre the group especially took up during the Britpop era, e.g., 1995’s double A-side single “Mis-Shapes”/”Sorted for E’s and Wizz”).  Still, Hatherley deftly and consistently ties together their lyrical references, musical strategies/accidents, thematic developments and (less so here — this isn’t a typical band bio) career arc into a concrete, coherent worldview that the reader can discern and appreciate as urbanism.  Even if the reader won’t recognize the specific cultural references and social codes as well as a British native (or well-versed Anglophile — I’m neither), Uncommon is an inspired, often exemplary work of documenting and criticizing a musical urbanism.

Beyond this architectural/urban analysis, Uncommon seeks to articulate the utopian project that Pulp both aestheticized and embodied.  For anyone with a modest familiarity with the group’s biggest hits like “Common People” (much less song titles that give it away, like “Cocaine Socialism”), Pulp’s politics — an old-school socialism of universal entitlements and public education; a defense of the arty, the intellectual, and other embattled outsiders in British society; their disdain for the sheepish masses and uncritical solidarities celebrated by Britpop and New Labour — aren’t exactly a mystery.  Yet Hatherley is too smart a critic to dwell at the surface levels of Cocker’s lyrics, and he insightfully engages the peculiarly British retro aesthetics that the group exhibited in their music, self-display, video and performance.  Pulp’s project was never the nostalgia of Britpop, a self-conscious resurrection of the country’s 1960s Swinging London-era hegemony in pop culture that by the 90s stood in for older imperialist, “Britain for the British” impulses.  Instead, the group’s aesthetic focused on the 1970s, in all its qualities good, bad and ugly.  Its tawdry materialism, artificial fabrics, and discotheque hangovers didn’t age well, of course; here the 70s offers veins of desperation and disdain mined by some of Cocker’s more loathsome protagonists.  But the 1970s, coming as they did before Thatcherism’s neoliberal project, also provided the group a vision of things that that could have been.

For Pulp, the imaginary 1970s were a portal, a transforming force, not a real remembered thing. Pulp were the first major carriers in Pop of what has since been called Nostalgia for the Future, a Futurism that is dated to the 1970s as the last time that viable political, urban and stylistic alternatives really existed; and which has since been codified as ‘Hauntology’, via a landscape of BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Pelican Books, public information films and Municipal Modernism bent awry through the gaps and aporias of memory, with half-remembered horror films shaking the stiltedness of BBC English into uncanny incantations. Almost all of the above were present and correct in Pulp’s work, but the persistent sexual and personal urgency of their music – not to mention the lack of ‘ghostly’ signifiers – sets them apart from its snugly contemplative warmth. If much hauntological music can sound like a means of filling the time while we wait for the future to start up again, then Pulp’s persistent desperation, their sense of time running out, demands that the future-past resume itself immediately (pg. 11).

Needless to say, this future never came to pass — at least it hasn’t yet, a fact provides the animus that fuels Pulp’s class-based criticism (see “Common People,” “Wickerman”) and vengeful scenarios (“I Spy,” “This is Hardcore”).

Another early 1990s NME interview makes it especially clear just how much of an effect this construction and destruction had on the future members of Pulp: ‘’Sheffield’s full of half-arsed visions of cities of the future that turn into a pile of rubbish,’ Russell Senior reflects, standing on the biggest traffic roundabout in Europe. ‘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…’ ‘When I was younger I definitely thought I’d live in space,” says Jarvis Cocker ruefully. ‘But when you realise you’re not going to, it colours your life; you can’t think, ‘It’s alright if I’m signing on because I’ll be on Mars soon’, you have to try and get it down here.’ What runs through all of this is the lament of true believers in modernism, holding the present to account for its failure to create a viable future, and the pinched vision of the possible that then instils in those born after the future; as Cocker would yelp in 1998, obliquely apropos New Labour’s workfare schemes, ‘we were brought up on the space race — now they expect you to clean toilets‘ (pp. 48-9).

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is embodied in the band’s very existence.  Uncommon extends an argument that Hatherley recently made in briefer form for the Guardian: After 30 years of neoliberal attacks on public education, the dole, subsidized housing and other collective entitlements, there may very well be no more British bands like Pulp.  For Hatherley, the group represents the last great art-school band, in which working and lower-middle class individuals could be trained and then, upon graduation, be economically supported and physically housed while honing their idiosyncratic craft free from the pressures of the market.  The demise of this lineage (represented by “The Kinks, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Japan, Associates, Soft Cell, Kate Bush, The Fall, Pet Shop Boys, The Smiths, amongst others”) is captured by a startling statistic: “in October 2010, 60% of British artists in the UK top 10 had been to public school, compared with 1% in October 1990” (pg. 2).

(Readers of this blog might recall I found comparable patterns of private-school educationat the college level for NYC’s indie-rock bands.  My data were much more DIY and impressionistic, and I’m envious of Hatherley’s source of data, if it’s as systematic as it’s presented to be.)

While the well-fed and well-educated dominate the pop charts, the working-class dreams that have replaced are equally troubling insofar as they offer no room for the odd, the intellectual, and other outsiders.  Presciently, Blur foretold the world of Simon Cowell, Simon Fuller, Pop/American Idol and in the music video for their final single, “Bad Cover Version”:

pop as reality TV… was one where the unexpected, fantastical, vivid and vehement things which Pulp had consistently found in the everyday were completely and conclusively sidelined. The main virtues were, first of all, a compelling ‘story’ (although with their decade and a half of failure before fame, Pulp certainly had that), and secondly, an ability to mimic the gestures and the melismatic acrobatics of more famous singers – which, taken together, created an all-pervasive culture of conformity in pop which made the likes of Oasis and Menswear look like paragons of originality by comparison. Rather than being changed or upended, the British pop charts after the 1990s had reached a pre-1960s level of conservatism which was previously inconceivable; and the ‘alternative’ world was hardly in better shape, with the album charts and the rump of the music press dominated by the grossly sentimental epic anthemic balladry of ‘landfill indie’. The ‘Bad Cover Version’ video was horribly prescient, in imagining a pop landscape made up solely of impersonators, other people’s gestures, and the death of the weirdo pop star as anything more than a heritage reminisce. That something so bitterly angry, so musically off-message as ‘Common People’ could have been an enormous hit as recently as six years ago seemed absurd. The lineage that Pulp inherited died with them (pp. 126-7).

This is a bleak thesis, but there are bleak times.  Where will the next Pulp come from?