It’s 20 years since Pulp released This is Hardcore, the band’s sixth studio album.
This was Jarvis Cocker’s dark time. Gone was the pointing pretty boy in nylon shirts, not yet was the beardy 6 Music dad playing Gainsbourg while you boil the pasta. This is Hardcore (Island), with its not so cryptic title, marked the hard, spiralling, post-“we’ve made it!” demon days for Britpop’s most serious entertainers.
By 1998 Jarvis was sick of saying funny things about his mum’s mantelpiece. His comically arched eyebrow had given way to a furrow of bewilderment at a world he first craved and then created; one of neon lights, sex, power, drugs and fame. Later, he revealed the album’s title track was, in part, the result of “watching a lot of porn” in hotel rooms. He described seeing the same actors repeatedly and noting “there’s something gone in their eyes”. “You can see it, that they’ve done it all and there’s nowhere else to go.”
My sister was a crazy Pulp follower and a member of the band’s fan club, Pulp People, at that time still run from a Sheffield PO Box. In March 1998, she found herself in a select group of fans invited to the album’s launch party at the Windows on the World suite in the Hilton Hotel on London’s Park Lane. Dress code: pink and black. Mood: glamorous menace. And free cocktails called “Seductive Barry” in sleazy honour of one of the new songs. She came back thrilled, of course, but with news of a heavier, doomier sound. Cocker had opened the set with warning words: “Are you well? Well you won’t be in a minute…”
We should have guessed from the artwork’s Roxy Music glamour gone wrong; a dead-eyed femme fatale, air-brushed and anguished. Then the LP’s opening track, The Fear, all dystopia and dread, declaring “this is the sound of someone losing the plot”. The title track’s opening horns came on like an air raid siren, those dissonant piano loops whiffing strongly of troubled times.
Party Hard offered up hope of indie euphoria’s survival, but turned out to be the older, sicker brother of Disco 2000. The dancefloor once billed as a safe space for misfits in hair slides was now an agitated, damaging and addictive place: “Why do we have to half kill ourselves just to prove we’re alive?” Help the Aged was funny, with its Stannah stairlift video, but hinted at a washed up feeling in Cocker’s heart. A Little Soul, raw and simple, suggested a man and band in need of some fresh air.
This is Hardcore came three years after Different Class, the mainstream success story that had turned Cocker, with his anthem for the Common People, into a very definite Pop Star. The weird skinny bloke listening to Scott Walker on massive headphones down the fish market was basically now Tom Jones fending off airborne knickers. Pulp had seemed more grown-up and cerebral than the parka brats around them in the late 1990s, having plotted their glory days in pub back rooms for decades. But This is Hardcore revealed that they were nursing the biggest disco hangovers of ‘em all. It’s an enduringly epic and still revealingly screwed-up album exactly because of that.
This piece was originally written for BBC 6 Music