April 26, 2012

Working Class Music: The US and the UK

When I published my liner notes here for the sampler CD I prepared for a session of Mark Naison’s class on the American Working Class at Fordham University a couple of weeks ago, I got several comments suggesting other tunes I ought to have included. All were good ideas.

At least two, though--John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and the Clash, “London Calling”--are pretty explicitly not American. Yeah, yeah, I know that the proletariat is an international class and all that, but it does have national particularities. And the difference between how class is perceived and acknowledged--and lived--is very different in the UK than it is here.

In fact, I'm gonna post two songs here with similar titles and let them give a give a pocket seminar. “Living In The Love Of The Common People” is a song first recorded by the slick, pre-rock-style vocal quartet the Four Preps, but is most associated with Waylon Jennings, who cut it in 1968.



 I like it. For all of its sentimentality, it gives give a sharp depiction of how bad poverty can be in this country, and even starts with a nod to food stamps. But when it gets to the common people, it can only summon up family love and solidarity as defenses against poverty. Nor is there even a hint that another class exists, let alone that the singer’s poverty is a function of their existence. And, in true American style, there’s a hint of better things to come: “Daddy’s gonna give you a dream to cling to.” 

An attractive young English fella name of Paul Young took the song higher into the charts in the UK--#2 in 1983--than Waylon Jennings or anybody else ever managed here. That may be where another guy, Jarvis Cocker, got the catch phrase “common people,” not a conventional English usage, His band Pulp had a breakthrough album in 1995. Its very title, Different Class, suggests the distinction I am carrying on about here. 



The song starts with a slumming young heiress propositioning the singer and telling him she wants to “live like common people.” Note two things in particular: 1. How aware the singer is about the class privilege inherent in this kind of slumming. 2. There’s no warm fuzzy assurance that we’ll “get by” or praise of dreams. 

 Instead, the upper class tourist is told: 

You'll never live like common people, 
You'll never do what common people do, 
You'll never fail like common people, 
You'll never watch your life slide out of view, 
And dance and drink and screw, 
Because there's nothing else to do. 

This is Pulp’s signature song. The video above shows tens of thousands of English kids pulsing to it at the first large festival the band ever played, Glastonbury in 1995. Today, more than a decade and a half later, they still get tens of thousands singing every word along with the band. 

 (In passing, let me note that what might be called "revenge hypergamy" (hypergamy being fucking someone higher on the class ladder) is not an uncommon theme in British pop. Check the early Stones, “Play With Fire.” In the US, you’re more likely to get the likes of the 1962 Dickey Lee weeper “Patches” in which the middle class protagonist falls for a poor girl and is forbidden to see her by his pops, who later tells him she has drowned herself.)

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