17 years after This is Hardcore hit number 1 in the album charts, it is time for a reappraisal.
A lot of people credit Pulp’s penultimate 1998 masterpiece as the end of Britpop. A bleak and frightening death knoll that isn’t even the comedown after the party but the empty nothingness afterwards. That horrifying question, what the fuck happens next?
In truth though, the opinion that This is Hardcore killed Britpop fits too neatly into a convenient narrative to really ring true.
Blur had already released their self titled fifth album a year earlier which was a conscious step out of 60’s Britain and into lo fi Americana. Damon Albarn’s cheeky cockney persona (hard to believe that was ever a thing now) was long gone, replaced by collaborations with Brian Eno, songs about heroin (Beetlebum) and an album full of feedback and hushed vocals.
Elsewhere in 1997 Oasis had released Be Here Now, another album people have cited as the death of Britpop, again this falls wide of the mark. Be Here Now was definitely (maybe?) the sound of the bubble bursting but it was still a huge critical success and is still adored by legions of Oasis fans the world over.
The truth is there was no one moment or album that killed Britpop. It was an astonishing time for music in Britain that was never going to last. By the time This is Hardcore came out Oasis, Blur, Suede… they all sounded fed up. New Labour had been a lie. The trappings of fame (Blur), the continued weight of expectation and the first chink in the armour (Oasis) and the various addictions (Suede, Blur, Pulp, Oasis… pretty much every Britpop band come to think of it) had taken a huge toll, and some could sense that we were entering a terrible period in British history not just for music but in most aspects of life.
This was captured most memorably on Radiohead’s masterpiece OK Computer but we’ll come back to that later…
Back to Sheffield’s finest – Pulp’s 1995 classic Different Class was a monster hit and beloved by people in all walks of life. You will still hear ‘Disco 2000’ or ‘Common People’ at wedding disco’s and indie clubs probably forever. It’s safe to say you won’t see your uncle dancing to anything off This is Hardcore with wedding cake stains on his suit jacket however…
Album opener ‘The Fear’ is a paranoid and disturbing slice of mental illness. It is a jarring panic attack in song. “This is our music from a bachelors den, the sound of loneliness turned up to ten” Jarvis gasps. Different Class opened with call to arms and single ‘Mis-Shapes’, it is difficult to think of two more contrasting songs by one band. Guitarist Mark Webber squeezes every trembling note out of his instrument in ‘The Fear’, much in the same way as Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood plays on OK Computer. That is not the only link between the two albums. The paranoia, despair, and alienation of This is Hardcore make it an easy bedfellow to the dark and challenging OK Computer. The difference being that OK Computer sounds like a man falling apart but a band becoming stronger, This is Hardcore has no such redemption.
Even in the more upbeat sounding second half of the album there is no break from the emptiness and ennui:
“Well I learned to drink and I learned to smoke and I learned to tell a dirty joke. If that’s all there is then there’s no point for me” – ‘I’m a Man’
“Oh, he don’t care about your problems. He just wants to show his friends. I guess I’m just the same as him” – ‘Sylvia’
“My face is unappealing and my thoughts are unoriginal” – ‘Glory Days’
It is difficult to think of a more bleak album in modern music. Even Weezer’s Pinkerton, an album that shows a man disgusted and embarrassed by himself, has hints of a willingness to change amidst the frustration.
The truth is that Different Class (deservedly) receives all the plaudits but This is Hardcore is much more affecting and personal. ‘Dishes’ tells the story of a man who is bored and jaded with his life. ‘TV movie’ compares the longing and suffering Cocker feels with grim, made for TV movie:
‘A movie made for TV: bad dialogue, bad acting, no interest.’
‘A Little Soul’ finds the Sheffield singer stepping into his father’s shoes for a brutally honest look at how Cocker shares most of his negative traits.
Even the three singles are all very odd choices for a commercial release (with the possible exception of ‘Help the Aged’ which was actually written a good two years before anything else on This is Hardcore). The title track is a sleazy and unhinged 6 and half minute opus. If you thought Cocker was dirty on Different Class he lets himself run wild here. ‘This is Hardcore’ drips with lust and danger and again is so far removed from the catchier singles from Different Class it shocked listeners on release. ‘Party Hard’ is the odd song out, a throwaway glam stomp that is by far the weakest song on the album.
This is Hardcore was more the death rattle of an already moribund genre rather than the final nail in the coffin. It deserves to be remembered for so much more than being the end of Britpop.