Thursday, January 19, 2006

Behind the music

Now it's calmed down from its insistence on current affairs catch-alls and need to promote Eastenders all the time BBC3 is settling into a decent niche. Its Story Of... series documenting the genesis and impact of great songs started with Do They Know It's Christmas? the Yuletide before last and has since taken on I Will Survive, Fairytale Of New York and now Common People, a song we remember hearing Steve Lamacq in the days when it was him and Jo Whiley on the Evening Session giving it its first play from an otherwise unmarked white label (the first show after 1995 Glastonbury, says some crevice in our brain, which would make sense on a timeline but we're not certain about). It's not the most obvious to add to the catalogue, teeming with resonance for those of its generation but probably not yet of the same all time top grade, but in terms of sheer sociological impact you can see how it rang so many bells. Of course, it might well have been held back from last August's Britpop anniversary hosannahs for all we know.

Plus of course it's a much loved band, so loved we suspect there were quite a few viewers looking darkly at the idea of treating it with such reverence, and one that's bound to reform sooner or later. In fact they pretty much did for this as the band, minus Steve Mackey for an unexplained reason although he was interviewed seperately, got back together in a converted room above Nick Banks' parents' pottery shop where they rehearsed, Jarvis finding a bag of sugar with a best before date of November 1995. And there's the other USP - Jarvis Cocker, the 1990s' biggest British pop force of nature, seen here in junior camcorder clips and his current post-hippy Mike Reid look, unashamed about being made to walk through Notting Hill with a keyboard under his arm to recreate the act of his buying one in Notting Hill and taking it home to tap out the riff, and in perhaps the best archive clip of the lot getting early girly screams on the Tarrant version of Pop Quiz with team-mates Chesney Hawkes and Des'Ree against the eventually standing ovation giving all-star line-up of Shakespeare's Sister foghorn Marcella Detroit, Little Angels singer Toby Jepson and, um, Patric.

At this stage of their careers Pulp were a band teeming with internal contradictions, right down to the reference in the documentary to Jarvis and Russell Senior's conscientious differences over the miner's strike, and maybe this could have done with more discussion of such ideas and ideals - it's a song written by someone who admits he was more lower middle class than working from the perspective of an art student being come on to by a class tourist who thinks he's 'common', a state of affairs that surely requires some subtle elucidation, if not full explanation, from both viewpoints - instead of letting the production team drag others into his private hell by unsuccessfully attempting to find the very girl from Greece. There wasn't a great effort made to establish their position beyond ideas of them being a band who sang about Spangles, as one person commented, who suddenly broke big, perhaps forgiveable in the context of a programme about one song, although we wonder if there was a private note of pessimism struck when Jarvis commented that the Glastonbury headline slot would be the big finish to the Pulp film but "life doesn't happen that way", knowing full well with the benefit of being outside the Britpop maelstrom that the dream of pop stardom died when it became such a standout single of the kind that doesn't come along every day. That might explain Relaxed Muscle at least, if anything at all does. On the positive side, there's the usual vaguely fascinating bits for this strand - the producer taking the master tape to metaphorical shreds and explaining how it was built up, Chris Thomas here isolating the stylophone deep in the mix while Jarvis gets highly unnerved by hearing the vocals alone ("I was probably pissed, wasn't I?"), a composer attempting to work out the themes and a proper discussion of the lyrics with Ian McMillan, that Irish psychologist who appears on highbrow TV occasionally and one of those It girls you vaguely heard about eight years ago. There was lots of good live footage and some usual suspects popped by - Jarvis' mum touting nearly embarrassing photos, Sadie Frost admitting she didn't actually like them, Pedro Romanyhi looking like Wayne Coyne, Alex Kapranos, and yes, of course there was a clip of Shatner's version, one of those covers that takes the route one approach to reworking by just reading the lyrics as a selection of words to recite. Of course Americans get irony, unless we've missed crucial biographical details about Larry David and Garry Shandling, but you can see why the cliche remains.

Common People is a song that a lot of people still don't fully get - the Wikipedia entry claims "the song is a put down of all the bands around at the time, who wanted to be like "common people" and attributed poverty with glamour", which is an interesting reading, as well as one that needs some work putting into it just to see the join. Other would read it as internecine class warfare of a kind, which is fairly glib but doesn't entirely ring true with Cocker's intentions, as he never really riffed on the class divide idea as much as, say, the Gallaghers would in contemporary interviews. Did the phrase even exist by itself before this? As we say, contradictory stands are half the intrigue. The programme didn't amount to a hill of beans in the end on this front but it didn't make anyone look any less endearing, which in a funny way must have been the point.


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