The album that buried Britpop – and told Tony Blair to get stuffed

Pulp: Mark Webber, Nick Banks, Jarvis Cocker, Steve Mackey, Candida Doyle
Pulp: Mark Webber, Nick Banks, Jarvis Cocker, Steve Mackey, Candida Doyle - Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

All pop culture movements have a defining moment when the magic disappears and the zeitgeist evaporates. The hippy dream of the Sixties ended when concertgoer Meredith Hunter was killed by a Hell’s Angel at a Rolling Stones concert at California’s Altamont Speedway in 1969. And punk died in its pure form when Magazine’s Howard Devoto turned up on stage in Manchester in 1977 with a keyboard.

But what about Britpop, the mid-Nineties guitar band scene characterised by cheery anthems and retro leanings? In 1997 we were Cool Britannia, with Vanity Fair proclaiming in a cover feature that London Swings! Again!. But within a year, Britpop’s fizz had gone flat and we were crippled by pre-Millennium angst.

Numerous albums are credited with killing Britpop. Blur’s self-titled LP of February 1997 turned its back on the mockney knees-up of hits Parklife and Country House and was the Essex band’s version of a scuzzy grunge album. Radiohead’s OK Computer, released three months later, sounded like a UFO crashlanding into our CD players. And Oasis’s Be Here Now, released in August 1997, was a bloated folly recorded under the influence of vast quantities of cocaine that lacked the sharpness, tunes and wit of previous albums.

But a new book argues that it was a different album that really buried Britpop. This is Hardcore by Pulp is one of the bleakest albums by a mainstream band in the history of pop music. Released in March 1998 by Jarvis Cocker’s Sheffield indie misfits, it included no discernible hit singles and was preoccupied with themes of paranoia, growing old, fame, drugs and pornography. It opened with a song called The Fear and ended with a 15-minute track called The Day After the Revolution.

This is Hardcore is a seedily brilliant album, like a musical dark night of the soul. But coming after Pulp’s Britpop smash hits of Common People and Disco 2000, it was a commercial disaster, with first-week sales of around 50,000 compared to predecessor Different Class’s 133,000 sales. The Fear was “a suicide note to the listener” while the “whole record was a cry for help”, says Jane Savidge, the band’s PR representative at the time and author of the book on the album. “Britpop might have been tailing off anyway but this was the final nail in the coffin,” she says. Cool Britannia had become Cruel Britannia, with Pulp providing the fatal blow.

Reading Savidge’s book, it’s clear that This is Hardcore was a deliberate attempt by Cocker and Pulp to torch any association with the scene through which they made their name. “I think this was Jarvis trying to destroy his career. And in doing so, Pulp accidentally destroyed Britpop,” she says. This is Hardcore’s lead single was a slow song about pensioners called Help the Aged, hardly a rallying cry to get the youth moshing in the aisles (it still reached number eight in the singles chart). “Who else would have possibly smuggled a song about becoming elderly into the top ten? It was a record almost designed to fail. The musical equivalent of Reggie Perrin’s Grot shops. Everyone was expecting Common People Mark II,” says Savidge.

Another Britpop band, and members of the so-called Camden Scene, were Menswear. Former drummer and current BBC 6 Music presenter Matt Everitt tells me that Pulp were “constantly one step ahead”. While other Britpoppers blithely partied on, the band were calling time. “While everyone else was pulling the curtains shut, scouring the kitchen for dusty bottles of holiday liqueur and refusing to call it a night, This is Hardcore was the sound of indie music’s morning after approaching with awful inevitability,” he says. “It also made the cheery ‘Hey anyone can do this!’ Britpop mindset look pretty naïve in the cold light of day.”

Pulp’s album encapsulated a creeping malaise for many Nineties music stars: burnout, the emptiness of celebrity and the vacuousness of the Swinging Britain tag. It’s worth remembering that most Britpop bands had always been outsiders on the fringes of the music scene, and they’d suddenly become royalty. There was an innate mismatch. This is Hardcore’s title track, therefore, was a crawling orchestral number that used hardcore pornography as a metaphor for the naked and exploitative brutality of fame. The song I’m A Man parodied the prevailing lad culture, while Party Hard took aim at mindless excess. One by one Cocker was slaying the era’s sacred cows. Savidge knew she had a PR job on her hands when the first magazine cover of the This is Hardcore campaign, in Select magazine, read: “Death, porn, heroin… what’s eating Jarvis Cocker?”

Vanity Fair celebrated Cool Britannia in its 1997 issue
Vanity Fair celebrated Cool Britannia in its 1997 issue - Vanity Fair/Liam and Patsy

The year zero for This is Hardcore occurred on the night of February 19 1996 at the Brit Awards at London’s Earls Court exhibition centre, Savidge explains. It was here, when Britpop was in its pomp, that Cocker famously jumped on the stage as Michael Jackson was performing the saccharine Earth Song and mooned at the crowd. The incident made Cocker a tabloid sensation and put rocket-boosters under his fame. He hated it. “Melody Maker said that Jarvis had become the fifth most recognisable man in Britain after [then-Prime Minister] John Major, Will Carling, Frank Bruno and Michael Barrymore,” says Savidge. The singer retreated and This is Hardcore was the result.

But it is perhaps a song that didn’t make it onto the original album that best explained the turning tide – and ultimately led to Britpop’s demise. Cocaine Socialism (which did make it onto a later deluxe re-release of This is Hardcore) was a Pulp track that took aim at politicians jumping on the Britpop bandwagon. New Labour leader Tony Blair actively wooed musicians when he was in opposition in the mid-Nineties. Blur’s Damon Albarn met Blair, John Prescott and Alastair Campbell in the Houses of Parliament in the spring of 1995, according to John Harris’s book The Last Party. Cocker was also courted, says Savidge, when he travelled to New York to stay incognito in the Paramount Hotel over Christmas 1996. He’d gone there to escape.

“Jarvis decamped to New York when Tony Blair’s office tracked him down to the Paramount to ask for his support for the forthcoming Labour campaign, which just annoyed him for being courted for all the wrong reasons,” says Savidge. Cocker, according to her book, “told them to p-ss off”.

Jarvis Cocker during his court appearance after crashing Michael Jackson's Brit Awards performance
Jarvis Cocker during his court appearance after crashing Michael Jackson's Brit Awards performance - Avalon/Getty Images

So hyped were all Britpoppers that Creation Records founder Alan McGee, who discovered Oasis, was even approached by actual royalty. “Charles invited me for supper three times at Buckingham Palace. Perhaps Blair had told him what fun I was,” he wrote in 2013. According to Mike Smith, the A&R veteran who signed Blur, the Labour party was “very aggressively” trying to get bands onside. “They were being used as aesthetic window dressing for the opportunity to make Labour seem more in touch with a younger audience,” he tells me.

Of course, all this was more palatable when New Labour was still the underdog opposition to Major’s governing Conservative Party. But after Blair swept to power in May 1997, he became the establishment. Although Oasis’s Noel Gallagher attended a Downing Street reception that July, the tide soon turned against Blair, particularly when his New Deal to get people into work seemed to initially overlook the needs of musicians. “Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?” ran an NME cover in March 1998 next to a picture of Blair. The love-in was over.

Cocker was in many ways the lightning rod for everything that brought Britpop and Cool Britannia to an end. There were other complicating factors, of course, but This is Hardcore sounded the era’s death knell. It exemplified what happens when a scene which was once underground becomes mainstream – and is exploited for all it’s worth. What’s interesting is how Britpop’s major players still detest the language of the time. A few years ago I interviewed artist Stanley Donwood, a key member of Radiohead’s camp who designs all their album sleeves and was there at the time. He remained utterly scathing about the movement. “Cool Britannia,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “That went well, didn’t it?”

Pulp’s This is Hardcore by Jane Savidge is published on March 7 by Bloomsbury