Rock: No Jarvis, no Verve, Nobacon

WHAT, wondered Ben Elton, would be "the Jarvis Cocker" at this year's Brit Awards? What would be the defining, heroic moment that matched Cocker's conquering the north face of Michael Jackson's ego in 1996? Two hours later, and our compere still didn't have an answer. Little did he know that "the Jarvis Cocker" had occurred offstage, in the audience; and it was, as he might say, a little bit of politics. While disgruntled Polygram employees lobbed eggs and waved placards outside the Docklands Arena on Monday, inside, Chumbawamba's Danbert Nobacon (he chose that name himself, believe it or not) gave John Prescott an early bath, possibly just because it was something to do while Fleetwood Mac were onstage. In a year when a pop star-ice bucket-MP interface means Noel accepting a cold beer from Tony at Number 10, this sort of disrespect can only be healthy. But it was nowhere near as daring or as fun as Cocker vs Jackson.

The snag was that a proper JC is the work of an individual, a mighty personality. It requires someone with the character (and drunkenness) of Oasis or Cocker, and this year there just weren't enough of those people present. The Verve, who won three awards, had better places to be, as did four other winners, the Prodigy, U2, Elton John and Eels - hence the elevation of All Saints, who were treated as if they were the most fantastic band of the decade on account of one catchy revamp of "Amazing Grace" with a talking introduction that doesn't scan.

The absenteeism was not the only clue that this year's Brits were more of a local gala than the international occasion they would have liked to be. Another giveaway came at the start of the evening, when the video screens showed a digest of 1997's news stories. One segment illustrated the triumph of electronic music with a shot of the Prodigy on two American magazine covers. That said a lot. However cool Britannia professes to be, our record industry's definition of success is to be recognised on the other side of the Atlantic.

And look at the reverence with which we were encouraged to treat the Hollywood celebs who deigned to attend: never mind that the actors made little effort to disguise their own contempt for the ceremony. "Claudia [Schiffer] and I are in England promoting our new movie, The Blackout," grinned Matthew Modine, just in case we imagined it was his respect for British music that had drawn him to our shores, while Samuel L Jackson recited a whole sales pitch for his new film, Jackie Brown. Joining him in his promotion was Pam Grier, his co-star, a blaxploitation heroine resurrected by Tarantino. And we were meant to be flattered? I doubt you'd get Shirley Bassey being invited to present an Oscar and then using the opportunity to plug the Propellerheads' album.

Most of the night had this relatively small-scale feel. Not even the Brits' specialism of exclusive, unusual duets - the yoking together of heterogeneous artists - lived up to the standard set in previous years. The coupling of the Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man and Texas may have seemed weird and wonderful, but their team-up had already been recorded as a single. And what a farrago it was, too. The song and the rap were Sellotaped to each other so clumsily that one wondered whether Method Man was actually a heckler on a Cocker-inspired guerrilla mission.

Later, Shola Ama sang one of her hits, with the pointless Dave Stewart strumming an acoustic guitar: a has-been accompanying a hasn't-been. The only glimmer of interest came from Stewart's wearing giant conker-shell earphones. I was hoping he'd nod his head to the music and impale his shoulder. Thank heavens, then, for Robbie Williams, a camp, hip-swivelling star in a PVC suit and high-heeled boots. Not only did he salvage the Brits' reputation for duets, he also did an exquisite job of intimidating Tom Jones.

The supposed climax of the show was a set by Fleetwood Mac ("You're never gonna get a gig like this!" crowed Elton, but, of course, you do get a gig like that every time you go to a Fleetwood Mac concert). Without wishing to belittle their record sales over the decades, picking the band for an Outstanding Achievement Award did smack of barrel-scraping, what with a desperate introduction which protested they were "no less substantial than any of the previous recipients", and the omission of half the band's set from the TV broadcast (which brings me back to the gallant Elton. He stayed onstage and danced through all four of Fleetwood Mac's songs, which was, I thought, several miles above and beyond the call of duty). What made their slot particularly painful was the canned clapping and cheering that was pumped through the PA. Presumably it was intended to fool TV viewers, but poor old Fleetwood Mac must have noticed that what they could hear from the crowd didn't match what they could see of it. The irony was that Elton had boasted several times that all the music on the show was live. Shame the audience wasn't.

Maybe the Brits organisers shouldn't be judged too harshly for this year's humdrum ceremony; maybe it was a symptom of British pop's not having the feverishly competitive creativity it had a couple of years ago. But the spectacle would have benefited from bigger stars, and more of the grand production numbers of previous years. The televisation would have benefited from being broadcast live, before all the results had been in the newspapers. And from having a camera trained on the Deputy MP's table. If the organisers had done all that, maybe the fake applause might not have been necessary.