The Great British Songbook #8: ‘Common People’
I don’t know much about the personal circumstances into which William Shatner was born. I’m not aware if he was raised on a dirt-poor farm or carried around by servants in a penthouse suite at the top of the only invisible skyscraper in Manhattan. I’m fairly sure he didn’t study sculpture and St Martin’s College in London, and while there, I’m equally sure that he wasn’t approached by a rich girl with aspirations to slum it with the downtrodden masses. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the tale.
“Common People” by Pulp can lay serious claim to being the best song to come out of the Britpop era, and has very few serious contenders to rival its claim to be the best song of the ’90s. As a hit single, it has everything, memorable hooks, a compelling and funny lyric, drama. passion, and a flinty sense of ethics; all delivered by a spindly man with sharp, probing fingers who appeared to be uncommonly angry and yet resolutely un-macho or grunty in his rage.
Jarvis Cocker had indeed made the acquaintance of the rich girl in the story, while taking a break from his band to study film-making at St Martin’s School of Art. Her claim that “common” people lived passionate, vivid lives – more valid than those of, say, rich art students – contrasted strongly with his own experiences of growing up in working class Sheffield, in which his bookish demeanour was the subject of open derision. The emotional root of “Common People” lies partly in a sense of anger that the people who’d made his life unpleasant (see the Pulp song “Mis-Shapes” if you don’t believe me), the people he’d tried to get away from by forming a band, were now being held up as role models. It’s all there in that last verse:
“Like a dog lying in the corner, they will bite you and never warn you, look out!
They’ll tear your insides out.”
And then of course there’s the anger and suspicion that comes when any self-entitled rich person wanders into a working class neighborhood and condescendingly attempts to join in.
Which begs the question: what on EARTH is William Shatner’s cover version about? And why is Ben Folds enabling him? And why does new wave star Joe Jackson take over halfway through?
And the biggest question of all: why, why, WHY is it actually rather good?