Thursday, 23 June 2011

We live round here too (oh really?)

All of Pulp's contradictions are brought to the fore in the 1995 single, 'Mis-Shapes', where the relentless momentum of 'Common People' takes on a newly insurgent tone. If Pulp's mid-90s records are best understood as a South Yorkshire retooling of disco, then 'Mis-Shapes' is their 'Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now' – a statement of triumphant collectivity against the odds. It bottles the giddy feeling that 'we' were on the move that accompanied both Britpop and early Blairism, and the knowledge of what false dawns both were is bound to colour any listening today. Not incidentally, it's a song the group themselves quickly grew to hate, and they didn't play it again from 1996 onwards, although they made a couple of curious attempts to rewrite it. The motorik pulse is replaced by a peculiarly prancing, piano-driven glam-stomp, and like those sleevenote communiques, it's addressed at the Pulp People, at the constituency of outcasts they acquired after 1992. We're defined by being poor, weird misshapen waste products, 'raised on a diet of broken biscuits', so when facing the enemy, we have to use 'the one thing we've got more of – that's our minds'; but we're also defined by certain choices – 'we don't look the same as you, we don't do the things you do', 'we weren't supposed to be, we learnt too much at school'. If it ended there, then that would be one thing – but other, grander associations are courted.

What makes 'Mis-Shapes' so exciting, other than the feeling – lesser than in 'Common People', but still electric – of someone finally finding the right words to convey an age-old grievance – is the way it speaks unashamedly in the language of class war, with the threat aimed directly at property: 'we want your homes, we want your lives, we want the things you won't allow us'; you hear someone who has unexpectedly chanced their way into the unexpected position of spokesman, and seizing the role with alacrity – or rather, using it as the way of avenging the defeats of the past, that hissed 'you think that you've got us beat, but revenge is going to be so sweet' – and there's nothing else produced by Britpop which takes on so fully the role of punk-style upending of received values. Yet though it might present itself as being about class conflict, 'Mis-Shapes' encapsulates rather more a conflict which anyone who went to a comprehensive school or lived in a provincial town in the 1990s will be all too familiar with. That is, the one-sided fights between conformist, violent, sportswear-clad 'townies' and 'hippies'/'moshers'/'goths'/'indies' (otherwise competing tribes pushed into uneasy alliance by a shared and deeply relative nonconformism), fought out in corridors and precincts across the UK.

The phrase 'townie' itself – which Pulp used in interviews to describe 'Mis-Shapes'' adversaries - comes from the town vs gown conflicts of University cities. It's the students' derisive term for the inhabitants of the city that they're exploiting (or, more recently, that is exploiting them). It's also used by the teenagers that most probably will soon be students as a counter-insult to the usual 'poof', 'dyke' and suchlike directed at anyone who doesn't quite fit. So it's deeply double-edged. In the context of school, or at a weekend in the centre of town, it's an expression of weakness, a word you direct at those who directly act to make your life a misery; but by the time you're at university, it expresses a far loftier contempt. In that, for anyone who, like the present author, got given a black eye in the centre of town for wearing a 'Mis-Shapes' T-shirt, the song still elicits an intense feeling of belonging. Here is a record that appeared to dramatise our daily predicament in the plainest of terms.

(image via)

In class terms, though, it hardly mapped onto 'haves against haven'ts'. In the mid-90s, judging at least on personal experience, most (if not all) 'townies' were more-or-less working class, raised in an environment which is much more apt to violently enforce conformity, the duress of everyday life causing an all-too-often suspicious attitude to 'difference', towards getting funny ideas. Meanwhile, most (if not all) of 'us' were either middle class or raised at the intersection where the self-educated working class meets the bohemian lower-middle, where reading books were not something to be ashamed of (i.e, with backgrounds like Pulp themselves), and oh, how all of us loved 'Mis-Shapes'! - even the Green Day fans, so perfectly did it describe our literally embattled position. But why are those who torture the 'Mis-Shapes' every weekend so inclined to play the lottery when they're in so much more privileged a position than their prey? You can hear why Pulp were later so embarrassed by 'Mis-Shapes' when it reaches quasi-Albarn sneers like 'what's the point in being rich, when you can't think what to do with it – 'cause you're so bleeding thick'.

What 'Mis-Shapes' does beautifully – and, irrespective of the group's own disdain, this is a thrilling, totally convincing pop single, one of their best - is lay claim to working-class intelligence against the notion of class as mere identity and ethnicity, sportswear and accents, thuggery and racism. Instead it says we, 'coming out of the sidelines', are the true misfits, those who won't fit either into the tastefully arranged world of the middle-classes or the enforced stupidity of a defeated proletariat. It's enormously exciting as an idea, a call to arms where we will rise up and take over from M People on one side and Oasis on the other, and it's hard not be carried away with its insurgent pride in awkwardness. But it's a fantasy, however wonderful that fantasy might be. We're wrenched out of class-as-essentialism, but where to? A solidarity of clothes and records, of freely-chosen identities as indie kids in charity shop threads?

Pedro Romhanyi's video dramatises it in terms as horribly dated and Britpop-ridden as his video to 'Common People', although this one is significantly funnier. We're in a nightclub again, where a townies vs 'us' fight is brewing; 'we' again look like the members of Menswear and Cast, while 'they' are casuals. Yet of a weirdly dated sort – rather than the Ben Sherman shirts and Puffa jackets of the genuine mid-90s thug, they're dressed as the likely late-70s tormentors of Pulp themselves, dressed in Fred Perrys, skinny ties, short skirts, sequins and wedges. 15 years later, it's all completely reversed, as the vintage tracksuit jackets and overgrown Liam Gallagher shagcuts worn by 'us' in the video are much more likely to be the uniform of someone kicking your head in outside Wetherspoons, while the circa-1980 thug-wear worn by 'them' fits perfectly with the never-ending 1980s revival favoured by vaguely bohemian or indie youth. What saves the video is the fact that Jarvis Cocker plays the leader of both gangs, once as 'himself' in brown velvet jacket, once as the evil angry prole alterego in skinny tie and pencil moustache. It's a welcome pointer that the divide is not nearly as clear as the song – and us – wanted it to be. The them and us in 'Mis-Shapes' is wishful thinking, an urge to take the moral force of class warfare and apply it to a rather less righteous fight between the wearers of different jackets. Any real battle between haves and haven'ts would involve some common cause between bullied, intellectual dole youth such as Pulp once were, and the lads and ladies who chased them around town every Saturday. The song still carries, though, the urge to reimagine the divides of class, to produce some sort of alternative collectivity. As a single, it was double-A-side with a song which remembered another moment of failed communalism, a genuine and brief attempt to live in common – rave.

This is an extract from Uncommon - An Essay on Pulp, published tomorrow.


W. Kasper said...

"Any real battle between haves and haven'ts would involve some common cause between bullied, intellectual dole youth such as Pulp once were, and the lads and ladies who chased them around town every Saturday"

A relatively minor tragedy* of Blarism is how both groups became even more splintered and divided in the 00s. A cursory look at our press and election results bears this out. Has 'chav' replaced 'townie'? I never hear the latter anymore.

I wasn't aware that Pulp disowned the song - I reckon it was one of their best. The 'mis-shapes' they addressed seemed to have vanished as a significant audience by the time of Blair's 3rd victory. It certainly felt that way. There's a sense of a 'lost world' (and hope?) listening to Pulp now. Something that I never get from other Britpop, which was a lot more blandly hegemonic. Maybe their age brought added 80s resonances. They're a band surprisingly hard to classify once you get past the surface aspects. They had more in common with Tricky or Stereolab (even Goldie) than Elastica or Oasis, I reckon.

(*a word that applies to EVERY aspect of Blairism)

Phil Knight said...

Funnily enough I was a student in Sheffield in the early 90's, and after the first year, spent most of my time in the company of non-student locals in the Abbeydale area.

I should do a memoir post about it one day, but a large portion of the working class in the city had basically gone to seed - living on the dole, smoking dope, ostensibly living "student" lifestyles, which is why there was such an easy crossover. It would probably make a good film script, thinking about it.

And what band was most popular with the locals?

Green On Red. I shit you all not.

owen hatherley said...

Phil - that explains a lot of things about Sheffield...yes, you should write that memoir, to either confirm/upend my vague speculation about the place.

Yeah, I think chav has totally supplanted townie, which always sounded a bit odd when you were actually from a town. In fact, the youtube clip for Mis-Shapes has a bit of chav-hate as the most recent comment, or did the last time I looked.

And definitely Pulp seem more alike to Stereolab than Elastica - in fact, you could construct a sort of pre-Britpop canon of vaguely alike bands that would go something like Pulp, Stereolab, St Etienne, Denim, World of Twist, Disco Inferno, most of whom either combined more outre 70s sonics or had obvious rave/hip hop influences...while Britpop people often came either out of shoegazing (Blur) or baggy (Oasis being Inspiral Carpets roadies, Ocean Colour Scene's previous life etc), and continued those already pretty uninteresting scenes in even more retrograde form.

Phil Knight said...

It's funny in hindsight though how certain music is classified as the "key" music of the era. In Sheffield almost nobody seemed to listen to the likes of The Orb or The Stone Roses (except the obvious fashion victims) - the (voluntary and involuntary) background music to the era for me was a melange of the aforementioned Green On Red as well as Ozric Tentacles, Gong, Hawkwind, Wishbone Ash, Lenny Kravitz etc. None of the "significant" bands were significant in the real world.

Some of the stuff that went on was unbelievable. All the working class locals I knew, who had given up the hope of work years before (they still lived adjacent to the demolished factories where their parents had worked) lived in communal houses that were even more dysfunctional than the student ones. One group of guys I knew had a Nigerian heroin addict living in their airing cupboard for a month before they discovered him.

W. Kasper said...

I recall the Ozrics being huge in other cities too, as well as the Steve Hillage cult and Spacemen 3/Spritualized. Real 'baggies' did the pills and the raves, but I remember their rock tastes being quite prog (Zappa for chill out music! Yuck!). They may have bought Stone Roses but didn't listen to it much. The Happy Mondays tended to have quite a posh audience, I recall.

Phil Knight said...

Gong and Hawkwind were still touring at the time (probably still are) and I went to (was dragged along to) quite a few of their gigs in Sheffield - they were far more popular than say Loop or Mercury Rev at The Leadmill.

It reminds me that much of the way that cultural history is written is a Big Lie, that there are "crucial" bands like the Roses that talk to their particular generation. The reality is that the Roses and Mondays didn't really mean much to anyone beyond their marketing team and a few tame scribes.

Phil Knight said...

I remember at the time, being quite puritanical and all, listening to Santana in a dense fug of marijuana smoke and thinking "you know, we should really be listening to The House Of Love, not all this embarrassing Seventies stuff."

I was amazingly naive, really.

Culla said...

Apols, it's long so read here if easier:

A fine evocation of the liminal world and ‘alternative collectivity’ of the Mis-Shapes, with the suggestion of a false and over-stated divide engendered by these cultural signifiers.

Undoubtedly, the mis-shapes of indie could come from the poorest backgrounds (often the most willing converts as they're desperate for culture they never had around them), as well as those upper-working, lower-middle liminal strata who were doing their best to avoid the corporate world their parents wanted for them. Important to remember a 90s ‘townie’, too, could cut across class lines. Schooled on the surrey-hants border, I know many a public school type who dumbed down (a very 90s phrase) to that boorish Ben Sherman, lager-swilling, casual look. It was a very aspirational move back then.

Get Phil's point about our cities not necessarily toeing the marketing/media line and having their own musical and cultural preferences. Areas of Burley and Headingley in Leeds had strong local contingents who also would have been largely indifferent to the approved groups. But my impression was that in the more desperate provinces the Roses and the Mondays (and Inspirals, and James! …) were very much the chosen ones of the non-indie working and middle class tribes – not at the time of Bummed/Squirrel or the release of the Roses LP, of course, but a year later after all the Roses singles had been re-released, Fool’s Gold kept being played and Shaun had Paul Oakenfold twist his melons, man. We forget how pop had been so sorely lacking in identity for groups of young men by the tail-end of the 80s. The chimera of good vibes and unity within baggy never filtered down to those. It’s almost a cliché to say it but it was only in actually dancing rave up to 91/92 that I saw an anti-aspirational mixing of the classes, and the rich kids fell away as the music became more hardcore.

Before it became grimly clear they stood for nothing so much as social nihilism and the music wasn’t going anywhere, early Oasis seemed to muddy the stereotyping further, as the indie-kids, ravers and townies all seemed to give their seal of approval, maybe in collective hallucination that this ‘swinging Britain’ redux thing was really happening. [It had become clear I was in a liminal world of my own, where I wanted access to the ‘solidarity of records and clothes’ of indie, the sonic advances of rave and, with football, the regular night out on the export juice in the shittiest of venues our chosen town for the night could muster. This way bred confusion and self-loathing (an indie trait?) and I wouldnt recommend it].

These were times of extended class mobility, extended HE access, etc. Now ‘we’ just sneer at the chavs and have little left to steal from their culture, while the casual look is a Mod-type Britcult curio, at best. Sportswear and logos reign, and so successful is their penetration that they are no longer seen as just for the working classes. The provincial Mis-Shapes still obviously exist but not as filtered through indie as they used to be: that world is a very stylized, commodified thing now; ‘getting the look’ can still involve thrift shops/retro gear but is more likely to involve boutique wear. And it might involve very expensive trainers or shoes, and weekends away at resorts listening to a hero curate the line-up of your dreams. Being indie now is an expensive habit which takes it away from the ghetto it used to imprison itself in.

W. Kasper said...

Interesting comments on approved media narratives (what I regard as 'The Spectacle') vs. lived memory. I've mentioned this elsewhere, but the gulf between both is becoming more severe and dangerously divisive. It's just not conducive to the Spectacle's narrative, and its marketing agenda.

Oasis were very much a New Labour phenomenon in so many ways - a tidy plastic 'tradition' very much at odds with the complicated realities of the real story. As soon as it became the 'consensus' to hate Blair with a passion, Oasis rapidly became a bad joke - a soma for idiots. The 'indie kid' rapidly became a reactionary force too - hence the numbing landfill/Carling type that clogged the 00's charts, appearing at overpriced festivals, and professionalised in various 'performance arts' schools. Carl's discussed this with regards to Irvine Welsh, lad mags etc. - the neoliberal colonisation of working-class imagery, that now has its waste product in the EDL and reality TV pieties. Coke-fuelled 'aspiration' descending into lynchmobs and celebrations of ignorance.

With regards to pop, I wonder why late-80s metal has been written out of the story so much. It was huge, and definitely with working/lower-middle class males (it was the original 'industrial music' since Black Sabbath). Hiphop had a reciprocal relationship with it more than it did any other (white) music genre then. Grunge may not have been so much a break from it as a gentrification of sorts. Which itself led to the hipster freikorps currently draining pop culture - and urban space - of its creativity or vitality.

Perhaps the 'mis-shapes' used their property/educational advantages for a much less 'progressive' agenda than they promised? After all, David Cameron's a Smiths fan...

Culla said...

ur right on metal's relevance and leading role before the landfill began to open. the maiden and co were huge. just wasnt on my radar in the 80s for anti-rockist/anti-style reasons (in my head it was dead 70s music for self-proclaimed 'edgy' people), and it was mudhoney/nirvana who showed me, er, 'how to rock'. but its support across the board was clear for a fair wedge of time.

W. Kasper said...

Well Soundgarden taught me to stop worrying and love the Sabbath!

That's the other thing as well - I knew a fair few yoofs in the late 80s/early 90s who mainly listened to hiphop, funk or ragga, but went for metal (however cheesy) when they were giving 'white' music a listen. Indie was regarded as something for pseud/posh kids. The Smiths were The Enemy in my neck of the woods - or something you pretended to like to meet girls! And I knew loads of rave/pillheads who grew up on metal. There were rare exceptions like the Pixies bridging the gap, but maybe that was just where I was living at the time.

Then there's the whole other story about Cobain's death and how it affected rock marketing, and the subcultures around it. The 'story' of pop and rock was never that clear cut.

Phil Knight said...

Well, I left the biting chill of Sheffield to return to the moist dampness of Peterborough in 1994, just as the Oasis phenomenon broke out. Oasis were only the second "indie" act who appeared at the Leadmill where I remember there being a real buzz, and ticket touts being involved (the first being PJ Harvey, who was very briefly a sensation)

The "Definately Maybe" record seemed to appear and lie around peoples' flats at the time. Again it was just sort of "bought" but never listened to. Coming back to Culla's point about the desperate provinces, I do wonder though if those of us who were music "fans" were ironically the kind of people who were actually really out of the loop. i.e. anyone who was genuinely doing something interesting tended not to be a music fan in the sense of being "tasteful" and "knowledgeable".

I remember going to raves at the time, and, during the later ones, towards the end of the evening they would play "Fool's Gold" almost apologetically, as if to say "party's over folks, but here's something we're all supposed to approve of and gather around."

To be honest, I look back at the whole thing, and wish I'd been listening to AC/DC instead - and I could have done, because there was a huge rock scene still active in Sheffield that was incredibly friendly, and where you got to meet people of all ages, but not "hip" enough for the likes of me.

Of course, I've more than made up for this error in recent years.....

Culla said...

it's clear that the overbearing Zane Lowe has taken on the role of the Approver/Canoniser, doing the PR and labels' job for them. just watch the nauseous spectacle every year of the little lady presenters bowing to his authoritative opinion. and it's just so convenient he worships at a relatively broad church - well, er, rock and dance, indie and soul. Zane would not see any worth in a puritanical outlook, although his approach seems fundamentally joyless. Dont joke, music is a serious business, you know.

despite the retromaniacal/anything goes trends, the relative decline of tribal identity and the bottomless iPod pit which obliges us to shuffle genre, it will be interesting to divine where the faultlines lie among youthful musical taste now. I would hate to think it's just class/region-based. You know, let the northwest scrotes have their Donking bounce music while I listen to the 'Altered Zones' in my metropolitan eyrie. Is there any unifying or indeed genuinely divisive music out there to which large numbers swear their allegiance? do none of the old signifiers carry any resonance, and has music lost the lead role?

W. Kasper said...

towards the end of the evening they would play "Fool's Gold" almost apologetically, as if to say "party's over folks, but here's something we're all supposed to approve of and gather around."

LOL - Sounds like there wasn't much regional variation with that one. It was the 'piss off home' song for years, in all kinds of venues. Can't remember anyone dancing to it, anyway.

Culla - I reckon music lost its lead role years ago. I find young people are very 'take it or leave it' on a tune-by-tune basis, whatever their social circles. Except maybe those in bands. The non-muso ones who take it more seriously seem hung up about what the media requires of them (very conscious of 'consensus' about films and TV shows too). But I suppose that was one of my teenage mistakes too. My 'tribal identity' was a virtual ghost twenty years ago. Or not really reflected in the music press, anyway.

Phil Knight said...

I don't think there's been a real youth culture since the trail-off of punk (Ska, New Romantic etc.)

I mean, I'd rather have my arse hair plucked than listen to The Smiths nowadays, but they were the last band I can remember where you could instantly make or break friends by confessing (as it really was in the early days) that you liked them. Although they were the epitome of the what-we-do-has-no-relationship-to-music-made-by-black-people meme which started in the mid-80's.

The idea that the vast body of youth went from indie to rave to grunge to Britpop over the 80's/90's/00's is really an invention, a pretence that there was any kind of collective youth culture in the period, the fiction that the likes of Primal Scream were vital to the rave scene. I think this all started with The Clash really - the need to invent a mythic narrative as the real culture drains away.

I'm reminded of maps of the Battle of Stalingrad, with arrows pointing out the major attacks, when the reality on the ground was just incoherent chaos.

Phil Knight said...

Because Ladies and Gentlemen, I was that soldier.....

W. Kasper said...

"what-we-do-has-no-relationship-to-music-made-by-black-people meme"

They/Morrisey were quite explicit about that too, I suppose: "Hang the DJ", "Reggae is vile", "National Front Disco", ranting about the Chinese etc. Despite the Thatcher-hating, I always took them as very right-wing on a 'walks like a duck basis'. Moz was such a 'working-class hero' he spent years in court making sure his former bandmates stayed on the dole. I know most people reading this would disagree (even violently), but having my arsehair plucked has some cheeky pleasure in comparison.

Sport and drugs perhaps had more claim to 'youth culture' since the early 80s. Maybe computers later on, but that's not exactly communal in a physical sense anyway.

Phil Knight said...

I remember when I used to walk home from school circa '81, and you could plainly see all the different tribes - the metallers with patched, sleeveless denim jackets, the Ska fans with the white socks and drainpipe trousers, the Northern Soulers with the donkey jackets and dockers' hats, the Mod revivalists in the parkas, the New Romantics (all girls) with the eye shadow, the Skinheads etc. etc.

It all seemed to disappear almost overnight circa '83-84. Then you just had a vague "alternative" scene whose two poles were goth and indie (which end you joined was basically down to your natural hair colour) which I suppose are what still exist today, to ever-diminishing effect. Apart from them you had the meat-and-two-veg "normal" types (into Simply Red, Simple Minds, U2, Robbie Vincent's Soul Hour), and the metallers survived of course.

I remember that most male Smiths fans were in complete denial that Morrissey was gay. The likes of Oasis were really an attempt at crossover - the rockier elements of The Smiths, but without the effeminacy which was ultimately what cost Morrissey the larger audience that he plainly craved.

But really, the 90's was about drugs, and whatever music was most suitable to what you were ingesting. The amusing thing being that the Nineties "druggy" bands like The Orb, FSOL, Orbital were quickly replaced by the likes of Gong, Steve Hillage etc. in the Darwinian environment of he chill-out room.

W. Kasper said...

Darwinian chill out room! LOL - like it! It had no musical 'loyalty' at all really - what works, goes. Brian Eno one minute, Dr Dre another, then a Thin Lizzy slowie. Whatever keeps the punters quiet. Very neoliberal for that.

I remember another odd Smiths thing - teenage male fans feigning 'gayness' (well their 'artschool' idea of it, anyway) to appeal to girls who liked the Smiths. An odd spectacle to behold - they still went off with the footy players at the end of the day.

owen hatherley said...

I remember another odd Smiths thing - teenage male fans feigning 'gayness' (well their 'artschool' idea of it, anyway) to appeal to girls who liked the Smiths. An odd spectacle to behold - they still went off with the footy players at the end of the day.

Ladies and gentlemen, I was that soldier...

W. Kasper said...

Ah, the wars we're doomed to never learn from...

Anonymous said...

I thought Jarvis hated this song so much that he banned it from the setlist along with Disco 2000. I've not been following their reunion spree but I've read somewhere they finally lifted the ban on the two songs.
I've listened to Jarvis's Musical Map of Sheffield where Jarvis said he never thought he was working class (they were the poshiest in their neighborhood) until he moved to London, where people mocked at his Northern accent.