In 1988, Jarvis Cocker turned 25, but he had already been toiling with his Sheffield band Pulp for a decade. As bandmates came and went, Cocker recorded dark post-punk songs in obscurity. That year, he decided on a new course: he left Sheffield and enrolled in a film programme at Central St Martins College in London.
One evening, Cocker went with his classmates to a pub. In the group was a Greek-born student. “[S]he suddenly piped up with this idea that she was going to move to Hackney and live like ‘the common people’,” Cocker later recalled. “It turned out that she was from quite a well-to-do background and somehow she thought it would be interesting to go and live in a kind of scummy area and she found that exotic.”
The incident inspired Pulp’s breakthrough hit, 1995’s “Common People”, which railed against class tourism, the naive desire of bohemian sons and daughters of fortune to blend into the underclass as some sort of cultural experience. After his stint at St Martins, Cocker reformed Pulp with a sleeker pop sound that nevertheless still reflected his self-doubt and cynicism.
He wrote the riff that became “Common People” on a Casio keyboard. The composition caught fire when he added inspiration from his classmate’s clueless comments. He invented a storyline, an attraction between the narrator and a rich girl, who blithely whispers, “I want to do whatever common people do . . . I want to sleep with common people, like you.” After a visit to a supermarket, the storyline builds to a climax. Cocker assails her with the basic truth: “You’ll never live like common people. You’ll never do whatever common people do.” It was as biting as Dylan’s “How does it feel?” for a generation that held authenticity above prestige. Cocker revealed a bleak assessment of working-class life, wasting away at jobs and pool halls, “with no meaning or control”, their desolation unfathomable from the outside. It was his first foray into politics. He attributed it to his move to London, where he first encountered “people with money”.
Producer Chris Thomas amplified the keyboard riff with 48 overlapping audio tracks, including several organs and a violin. The single reached number two in the UK and vaulted Pulp to acclaim.
American singer-songwriter Ben Folds was attracted to its narrative element while producing William Shatner’s second album. While coming to fame on Star Trek, the actor recorded The Transformed Man, his 1968 album featuring his unique spoken-word takes on songs such as “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. It became a curiosity among Trekkies, but Shatner put his recording career on hold for several decades.
For Shatner’s 2004 album Has Been, Folds wanted to avoid cycling new hits through Shatner’s trademark melodramatic, pause-laden style. Most compositions were originals. Still, he couldn’t resist giving “Common People”the Shatner treatment.
The 73-year-old actor fired off the verses while Joe Jackson shouted the chorus. Shatner replaced Cocker’s righteous indignation with sneering. For him, the underlining issue was gender, not class. “The guy’s a misogynist,” Shatner said of the character.
Choreographer Margo Sappington even found inspiration for a ballet in Shatner’s Has Been album. The resulting work, Common People, debuted in 2007 with the Milwaukee Ballet, a company in an appropriately hardscrabble American city.
Music-backed spoken word is an odd genre for dance. “The phrases have no target, no peak, and momentum neither builds nor recedes,” critic Tom Strini wrote in a review in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The costumes were mixes of brown, orange and green, which Strini called “sweatsuit-pajama things”. For the segment performed to the title song, it sounds perfect: what better ballet representation of proletarian routine than repetitive motions done in dowdy utilitarian uniforms?
As the song became a classic, journalists searched for the woman who inspired it. Clues are in the lyrics: Greece, St Martins, sculpture, “her dad was loaded”. Cocker has said his memory is foggy and those details might be incorrect.
A BBC Three documentary crew went through enrolment records and found artist Klitsa Antoniou. After seeing a video interview of her, Cocker said, “No way.”
Cypriot artist Katerina Kana says she might be the woman. In 2015, Greek newspaper The Athens Voice identified Danae Stratou, a prominent sculptor, late-1980s St Martins alumna and daughter of a textile magnate. She has never directly commented. Stratou went on to marry a Greek finance minister and certainly does not live like common people.
Is the original version of ‘Common People’ the best? Let us know in the comments below.
‘The Life of a Song: The fascinating stories behind 50 of the world’s best-loved songs’, edited by David Cheal and Jan Dalley, is published by Brewer’s
Music credits: Universal-Island Records Ltd., Shout! Factory
Picture credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images