Pulp's infectiously catchy commentary on the joys of class tourism helped propel the group to fame after nearly two decades of obscurity. Engineer David Nicholas tells us how 'Common People' was recorded.
Are you sure you want to live like common people,
You want to see whatever common people see,
You want to sleep with common people,
You want to sleep with common people like me...”
A working-class English guy is seduced by a posh Greek student of sculpture who, taken by the romanticism and experimentation of 'slumming it', views him as a decent enough piece of rough with whom to jump in the sack. Still, even though she wants to live like the masses, he warns her that she'll never belong or be accepted by them:
"Laugh along even though they're laughing at you,
And the stupid things that you do,
Because you think that poor is cool.”
Laden with acute social commentary, 'Common People' was the Britpop anthem that, at the height of the media-fuelled feud between Oasis and Blur, became synonymous with the summer of 1995. Before this, Pulp had struggled ever since their 1978 formation in Sheffield. Indeed, during the past 35 years the band have boasted no fewer than 30 members, yet it was the line-up of singer/guitarist Jarvis Cocker, guitarist/violinist Russell Senior, bass player Steve Mackey, keyboardist Candida Doyle and drummer Nick Banks that, in 1994, enjoyed their breakthrough via the Top 40 UK single 'Do You Remember The First Time?' and Top 10 UK album His 'n' Hers.
Buoyed by this success, Pulp now pursued a more mainstream pop direction with veteran producer Chris Thomas at the helm, and the first fruit of this collaboration was their biggest hit, 'Common People', which climbed to number two in the UK and is now widely regarded as a '90s classic. Not that all of the group members initially shared this opinion.
Back in September 1988, when Pulp appeared to be going nowhere, Jarvis Cocker had headed south to study film at London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. And it was there that, during a lunchtime drink in a nearby pub, a wealthy fellow student announced she was going to move to Hackney in London's East End and "live like the common people”. Thus she served as the inspiration for Cocker to write a new song:
"She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge,
She studied sculpture at Saint Martin's College...”
Familiar with the working-class environs of Sheffield, Cocker didn't comprehend why or how the well-to-do young woman would derive any sense of pleasure from stepping down the social ladder. Yet, at the time, this didn't annoy or concern him. For, as he explained in a 2006 BBC TV documentary, "I didn't want to kill her, I wanted to shag her.” This is why sexual attraction would become an important component of the song, even though, as Jarvis Cocker himself has admitted, the idea that the song's real-life inspiration might have wanted to sleep with him was "absolutely, totally a lie”.
While at the college, Cocker acquired a part-time job cataloguing cassettes at the Record & Tape Exchange in Notting Hill... for a day. Fired for not showing up while tripping on LSD, he nevertheless returned to the shop after completing his film course and bought the Casiotone MT500 keyboard on which he came up with a straightforward melodic riff that would serve as the basis for 'Common People'.
When he first heard this, Steve Mackey — a regular at Pulp's gigs who, after studying art in London, would soon become the band's bassist — thought "it sounded pretty rubbish”. The tune's anthemic undertone reminded him of Emerson, Lake & Palmer's grandiose prog-rock version of Aaron Copland's 'Fanfare For The Common Man'. Then, when Pulp eventually reconvened back in Sheffield following the Cocker-instigated hiatus, Russell Senior dismissed the riff as "Toy Town” and Nick Banks said it was "overly long. Nothing much seemed to happen.” Still, Candida Doyle "thought it was great straight away. It must have been the simplicity of it. You could just tell it was a really powerful song.”
Now fast forward to 1994, by which time Cocker had added the lyrics inspired by the slumming ambitions of his Greek muse. Rehearsals for 'Common People' took place in an attic above a pottery shop run by Nick Banks's family, and thereafter the number was afforded two weeks of sessions at London's Townhouse Studios.
"It was a very challenging song to actually put together,” says David Nicholas, who engineered the record. "However, it was a great song to begin with and we just had to figure out how to stitch it together so that it came across as intended and was the hit it promised to be.”
Growing up in Canberra, Australia, Nicholas played in school bands, "starting on guitar and ending up on bass, like most producers I've come across. Bass playing is a good mix of melody and structure.” At the age of 20, he then relocated to Sydney and, together with Andrew Scott — who had been the lighting engineer for his most recent band's concert tours — built the Rhinoceros Recordings facility with Scott's inheritance from his grandmother.
"There were five of us doing that work, and aside from laying the carpet and installing the glass, we did everything ourselves,” David Nicholas says. "We didn't really know what we were doing. We just wanted to build something that felt right for us, and we got a bit carried away. It took us a year to finish, and afterwards it was much better than we realised. In fact, once we realised we were actually onto something good, we managed to raise the funds to bring the first Solid State Logic console into the country, and from then on we pretty much stayed ahead of the game.
"Once we brought in the SSL, we were booked six months in advance, 365 days a year, and that went on for about 10 years right through the 1980s. At that time, the Australian music business was totally booming and Rhinoceros was its number one studio. Midnight Oil, INXS, Noiseworks, Models, Cold Chisel — they all recorded there.”
So, did Nicholas have any production or engineering credits under his belt prior to opening Rhinoceros?
"No, and I avoided that question as much as possible for the first couple of records. Then again, being that Andrew and I had built the studio and installed the first Solid State Logic, no one else knew how to drive it anyway. The thing about production and engineering is that, if you have a clear understanding of what the end result should be, then the technology's just a tool. A lot of people can get over-obsessed with the technology and forget what the end goal is.
"Playing live and doing front-of-house, I'd been around miking and engineering since the age of 13, so I knew how to record specific instruments. Then, when we got the SSL, a really good guy called Chris Jenkins — who'd done the installation — showed us a lot of cool techniques. Still, we played it mostly by ear, and in the beginning I and another guy called Al Wright were essentially assisting other people who came in from overseas. One of them was Chris Thomas, who produced [INXS's 1985 album] Listen Like Thieves alongside his own engineer from the UK. So, while Al and I were on every project because we were the only ones who knew how to run the SSL, we just absorbed everything like a couple of sponges and eventually began engineering.”
Having worked in that capacity on INXS's Shabooh Shoobah back in 1982, David Nicholas was teamed with Chris Thomas for the band's Kick album five years later, and this led to a late-1988 collaboration on Elton John's Sleeping With The Past at Puk Studios in Denmark. Then, after a hostile takeover resulted in Nicholas losing control of Rhinoceros, Nicholas moved to the UK and once again worked with Thomas on records by Elton, Shakespeare's Sister, Marcella Detroit... and Pulp.
"I was Chris's engineer for about eight years and Pulp was one of those projects,” says Nicholas.
At the time of the 'Common People' sessions, Townhouse's Studio 2 was equipped with a brand new 72-channel SSL G+, two Sony PCM3348 digital multitrack machines, TAD main monitors and NS10 nearfields.
"SSL got everything right with that G+ desk,” Nicholas remarks. "The G automation was really good, the sound of the console was really good, and with the G+ they went back to the original EQs, combining all of the new stuff that was good with all of the old stuff that was good. We used one of the 48-tracks as the master machine, the other as an editing tool, and we had a very cool guy named Ollo Romo — who went on to produce the Corrs — as our programmer and sync'd him up to the 48-track.”
The band cut the rhythm track live. While Nick Banks played his Yamaha kit in the big room and Russell Senior was in a booth with his Fender Jazzmaster and violin, David Nicholas recalls the other band members being in the control room. Steve Mackey played a Musicman Sabre bass, while Jarvis Cocker employed Vox Marauder, Ovation 12-string and Sigma acoustic guitars, as well as his Roland Vocoder Plus VP330, Roland SH09, Micromoog, Mellotron and Synare electronic drums. Candida Doyle switched between Minimoog, Farfisa Compact Professional II organ, Fender Rhodes, Roland Juno 6, Ensoniq ASR10 and Korg Trident II.
"I miked Nick's drums in the usual way,” Nicholas recalls. "There were Sennheiser MD421s on the toms and the kick drum, AKG C414s in X-Y stereo for overheads, Shure SM57s top and bottom on the snare, an AKG C451 with the 20dB pad on the hi-hats and, for room mics, a crusty mono ribbon with a pair of Neumann 67s up against the wall.
"For the guitars, I again would have used what I always use: a Beyer M201 and Neuman FET 47 pointing towards each other, between four to six inches in front of a speaker and put through a Urei 1176 compressor. No EQ — it always sounds fine. Then, for the bass, I tended to use valve DIs and the preamp out of the head; never straight out of the guitar.
"I remember Candida playing a basic part on 'Common People' with the Farfisa — which produced her big kind of signature sound — but a lot of that was redone. Sitting with his Micromoog, Jarvis was constantly going, 'Just give me that for a second.' So, we'd run the part through the Moog, he'd fiddle with it and we'd put it back down on tape. Candida's keyboards all had push-button presets, and Jarvis modifed everything so they didn't sound like push-button presets but had a certain Jarvis-ness about them.
"The thing with 'Common People' is that it starts at 90bpm and finishes at 160bpm, with each verse cranking it up. We recorded four or five takes of the band track and, as they weren't recorded to a click, some of them didn't end up at 160; they ended up at different tempos. It was totally freeform, with everyone following Jarvis's guide vocal which just got faster and faster and faster, and therefore stitching together those different band tracks really was a head trip; a case of 'The third verse in this take actually fits better with the second verse of this take,' and so on. Since we had the magic front take and the magic end take, we just had to figure out how to get from one to the other while keeping it plausible.
"Because of the kind of song it is, Chris wanted 'Common People' to have an extremely solid bottom end, and this resulted in us replacing the kick drum all the way through. Well, that had to be tempo-mapped from 90 to 160 bpm, and Ollo stayed up all night, until about five in the morning, using his Windows-based sequencing program to do that after I'd been up until five in the morning the previous day, stitching the band tracks together. It was all about trying to make the tempo shifts work so that the song sounded smooth. The group had recorded it on a Friday, we worked on it all weekend, and when those guys returned to the studio on the Monday they went, 'Oh, it sounds great!' Little did they realise what a challenge it had been, but I love challenges like that.”
Thereafter, Jarvis Cocker re-recorded his increasingly manic, ultimately compelling lead vocal, paving the way for overdubs that — ranging from Russell Senior's violin to a Rolf Harris Stylophone — filled the 48-track tape and created a multi-layered sound.
"Jarvis then performed a guitar part with his Sigma acoustic that completely glued the whole song together,” Nicholas recalls. "Up to that point we were still struggling with it sounding a bit lumpy when I was doing the speed-ups, and he just said, 'I know how to fix it!' and nailed the acoustic guitar in one take. It made the track sound totally believable. When you've been working on it for 24 hours, you hear every edit and you can't get them out of your brain. But that guitar part, reproduced in mono right in the middle of the track, made all of the speed changes sound perfect. It was one of those truly amazing moments.
"Jarvis is an incredible guitarist and I recorded him with the same mic that I used to record his vocal: normally the best valve mic they had in the place, such as a Neumann U67, running to tape through an 1176. For me, it's about getting good sounds at source and not doing too much other stuff. I've had two people use the same mic setup and heard one sound awful and the other sound amazing, and that's because it all comes from the fingers; it comes from the players. If they're on their game and they've got the touch, it doesn't matter what they're playing: it'll sound like them and it'll sound fantastic without you having to do anything. That's why I try to keep the engineering side as simple as possible.
"While the members of Pulp were all good musicians, Jarvis was a standout; on another level altogether. He's one of those people who's got a great overall vision. In addition to playing a lot of the guitar parts on the Different Class record, he also messed with a lot of the other sounds through his synth and just had a great feel for what did and didn't work. In that respect, he reminded me of Michael Hutchence, who'd have a vision of where a particular song should go.
"That being said, Jarvis was also a tremendous singer. He might have recorded his vocals for simpler songs like 'Disco 2000' and 'Sorted For E's & Wizz' in three or four takes, but for ones such as 'Common People' and 'I Spy' — which required storytelling as much as singing — he'd get into the right head space and nail them in a couple of takes. For his part, Chris Thomas is very meticulous when it comes to comping vocals, and after mapping out which parts he wanted to use, he'd do a live comp, go back and fix things, and complete the job in about half a day. It was a lot of fun.”
Described by Pedro Romhanyi, who directed the song's iconic video, as "a Mike Leigh script... in a three-minute format with a soundtrack by Phil Spector”, 'Common People' actually runs to just under six minutes on the Different Class album and just over four minutes on the seven-inch single. This required the deletion of the final verses, including what Jarvis Cocker has asserted is "the punch line”:
"You will never understand,
How it feels to live your life,
With no meaning or control,
And with nowhere else to go.”
"In its full form, it's a story from start to finish, so it was a pain in the arse when the record company wanted it shortened,” David Nicholas comments. "It was really difficult to make cuts and have it still make sense. Jarvis, Chris and I sat around, having long philosophical discussions about how to do this. After all, chopping a bit out wouldn't only affect the story; it would have to somehow fit in with the shifting tempo. As the label demanded the cut after the record had been finished, we had to cut the two-track, not the multitrack. That meant there could be no fixing the tempo shifts, which is why cutting the last part was pretty much the only option.
"Chris didn't want to do it, I didn't want to do it and Jarvis certainly didn't want to do it. Still, people mainly ended up listening to the album version, so it was a classic case of fighting the label and then winning by default.”
In the UK, 'Common People' was issued as a single in May 1995 and the following month it was the climax of Pulp's landmark appearance at the Glastonbury Festival, headlining on the Saturday night when a mountain-biking accident suffered by the Stone Roses' lead guitarist John Squire forced them to pull out at the last minute. Pulp's fame peaked with that performance, leading to the inevitable backlash in the British press when, a month before the late-October release of Different Class — featuring the guitar contributions of new band member Mark Webber, who'd previously been the group's fan club president — 'Sorted For E's & Wizz' was issued as the next single.
"Ban This Sick Stunt” cried a front-page headline in the Daily Mirror, attached to a report about the record's inlay instructing buyers how to hide amphetamines in a DIY 'wrap'. A couple of days later, Jarvis Cocker issued a statement refuting the notion that 'Sorted' was a pro-drugs song, and the single subsequently matched the achievement of 'Common People' by peaking at number two in the UK chart. Two more Top 10 hits would follow in the form of 'Disco 2000' and 'Something Changed', yet it is 'Common People' that today stands as Pulp's most enduring piece of music.
"When I hear it on the radio today, it sounds flawless,” says David Nicholas whose production/engineering credits have also included Sting, Rod Stewart, the Pretenders, Soul Asylum and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. "It's one of the most pleasurable records I've ever worked on, a cornerstone moment of my career that I'm extremely proud of, and it wasn't until this interview that I remembered all of the work that went into it over that weekend before Jarvis added the finishing touch.”
Having moved back to Sydney in December 1999, David Nicholas is currently a partner with producer/engineer Paula Hanson in the Live/Work project. This aims to convert an old Philadelphia warehouse into bi-level apartments connected to an acoustically designed studio space, thus creating an affordable residential/recording/networking environment. For more information, go to: www.liveworkrecording.com