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In 1997 designer Peter Saville received a call from Jarvis Cocker. “They needed to reposition Pulp” he recalls, “They wanted to present Pulp more as a rock band. The music was a lot deeper, darker and moodier and they called it This Is Hardcore.”

The result was one of the most controversial album covers of the nineties.

This was probably assured the moment they invited American painter John Currin to direct it. Currin is known for his technically skillful paintings, which typically depict the intensely sexualized female form with heavily pornographic overtones. This meeting of high and low art has found a ready audience and Currin’s work routinely sells in the high six-figures.

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The artist flew to the UK and worked closely with Saville to develop a concept for the shoot. In briefing the pair, Cocker explained that the title didn’t refer to pornography, but rather the “new, hard, resolute spirit of the band” says Saville, “Jarvis talked to us about fame and how it changes the world around you.” He was admirably blunt is admitting that the band “wanted to be taken more seriously.”

The eventual plan was to take photos of the band next to models. These models were carefully chosen for their “super-real characteristics”.

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The final choice for the cover was shot on the last day in Saville’s apartment, after the original photos were deemed to be “not hardcore enough”. The woman is a Russian glamour model known only as Ksenia, who later told FHM: “The shoot was fun. Jarvis is very nice, very shy.”

While its an image that disturbed many, to dismiss the cover as empty provocation would be unfair. As Hugh Aldersey-Williams writes in New Statesman Magazine, pornography “is simply the most familiar visual language through which we appreciate the disparity between the intensity of imagined experienced and the disappointment or disgust of its realisation.”

The impact of the cover is heightened by it’s striking aesthetic, which manages to be at once grainy and high-gloss. Currin chose fashion photographer Horst Diekgerdes to take the images, before Saville used a Photoshop feature called Smart Blur to create a more painterly finish.

The final touch is the typography, with the album’s title stamped over the model in Helvetica Bold to resemble a message from the censorship board.

This is Hardcore might have flown under the radar as cover art but when the label released posters all over London they caused a scandal. Was the woman a sex doll? Had she just been raped? Was she dead? The strong opinion of many women was that she was certainly offensive.

Vandals took to the images, defacing them with statements that included “This Offends Women”, “This is Sexist” and “This is Demeaning”. Saville was unrepentant. “For the whole thing just to have passed without a murmur would have been a great disappointment.”

But is it even more disappointing if Pulp lost a potential audience that judged the book by its cover? This is Hardcore is in reality an at-times tender album with a mature detachment from misogynism. In the standout track ‘A Little Soul’, dedicated to Cocker’s absent father, a man begs his son not to repeat his mistakes:

“But everybody’s telling me
you look like me
But please don’t turn out like me.”

“Yeah, I wish I could be an example.
Wish I could say I stood up for you
and fought for what was right.
But I never did.
I just wore my trenchcoat and stayed out every single night.”

It’s an intensely sad portrait of a man that has made all the wrong, seedy choices and thrown away his opportunities for happiness. I imagine this now sentimental old geezer checking out at the cover of This is Hardcore, simultaneously fighting back both tears and an erection.

For more information on this cover, visit the excellent Pulp fan site Acrylic Afternoon.