Pop and the art of bad behaviour

Jarvis Cocker barged on stage at the Brits, Oasis spat expletives.

Andy Gill
Wednesday 21 February 1996 00:02 GMT

Whatever your opinion of his records, you have to admire Jarvis Cocker's astute judgement at the Brit Awards in finding perhaps the only three people in the entire vastness of Earls Court who would be unable to give him a fat lip. The fact that they were infant dancers for Michael Jackson only makes Cocker's publicity coup all the more impressive, even if it was just a bit of drunken mickey-taking. After all, which of us, having witnessed Jackson's constant public cavorting with juveniles has not been enraged to the point of apoplexy?

Jarvis Cocker, lead singer of Pulp, who dashed on to the stage while Michael Jackson was performing, denies assaulting the three children. But in upstaging this most offensive of modern pop's hideous tableaux, Cocker may simply have been showing that, true to the sentiments of his hit song, he truly does speak and act for the Common People, even though, unlike most of us, he has backstage access to assist his efforts.

It worked, too. The morning after the Brit Awards, Teletext did eventually get round to mentioning that Manchester band Oasis had indeed won three awards at the event, but only after two lead paragraphs covering the exploits of Cocker, whose band won nothing. It wasn't as if Oasis hadn't tried their hardest, either - their awards were accompanied by the full complement of effing and blinding, threats and insults. Liam Gallagher demonstrated his contempt for the occasion by miming the insertion of a trophy up his nether regions; INXS singer Michael Hutchence, presenting Oasis with an award, was derided as a has-been; media ubiquity Chris Evans was referred to as "ginger bollocks"; Blur's Park Life was gracelessly parodied as "Shite Life"; and Liam did indeed invite anyone who fancied having a go to try and get them off the stage. All to minimal avail.

The affair demonstrated the way in which, to be truly effective in publicity terms, rock'n'roll bad behaviour has become a matter more of quality than quantity: one well-judged interruption is worth any number of the kind of callow mischiefs that once outraged parents and tabloid editors. In the earlier stages of their career, the Rolling Stones had only to urinate behind an East End garage to find themselves pilloried as louts. Nowadays, that much at least is taken for granted of rock bands, so much so that it is only the more genteel strains of star - such as the epicene Cocker and, indeed, Jackson himself - who can arouse outrage. These days, a band like Black Grape (one of whose songs, indeed, features the terrace chant, "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough") can perform a song about the drug temazepam in front of a giant pop-art triptych celebrating bad-lads George Best, Carlos the Jackal and cocaine baron Pablo Escobar, and no one raises an eyebrow.

In the Fifties, rock'n'roll defined bad behaviour, as the concept applied in the post-war years of Eisenhower and Macmillan. Its very name was widely understood to refer not to some kind of dance, as gullible parents were told, but to sex. Accordingly, performers needed to do nothing beyond swivelling their hips lasciviously and applying copious quantities of pomade to absurdly cantilevered quiffs, to excite furious generation- gap reaction.

It was only with the rapid expansion of audio-visual media in the Sixties that rock'n'roll emerged from the underground to become one of the world's major industries, and behaviour, or "attitude", became central to the popularity of pop stars. New twists had to be applied to make it more effective in the new liberal era: PJ Proby, for instance, was just a creepy crooner until he developed a penchant for splitting his trousers, whereupon he became a true pop legend.

Some managers recognised the potency of rebellion, and steered their artists accordingly: Tony Secunda made huge publicity mileage for the Move when they were sued by Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, for using a nude caricature of him on a promotional postcard, while Andrew Loog Oldham's sleeve-note for the Rolling Stones' first album, which encouraged young people to mug the blind in order to raise the money to buy the record, succeeded in its aim of arousing widespread indignation. But the thin line between career-enhancement and professional suicide became more difficult to judge, and easier to transgress accidentally: a chance remark about Jesus almost obliterated the Beatles' career, and turned them overnight from loveable moptops to demonic agents of the horned one, doubtless much to Loog Oldham's fury.

As the decade proceeded, so attitude grew more complex and difficult to define. The pep-pills that had spurred bands such as The Who to spectacular displays of onstage violence were gradually supplanted by the more peaceable marijuana and LSD, and rebellion became more introverted, concerned with criticising society rather than allowing society to criticise it. And though society may still have frowned upon long-hair behaviour, there was little doubt that it, or at least the sector of it that came from the Asian sub-continent, was in greater danger physically from the skinheads who listened to the double-entendres of rude-boy reggae.

The Seventies, in retrospect, was a time of confusion among both rock musicians and their audiences. Thanks to the tireless work of promoters and managers who had a more secure estimation of their product's value than previous operators, bands such as The Who and Led Zeppelin became multi-million dollar concerns, developing the kind of excessive on-the- road cabin fever that has since become routinely associated with touring bands. Televisions would plummet from fifth-floor hotel windows, Rolls- Royces would be driven into swimming pools, and the apres-gig sexual menu was expanded to include such arcane delights as whips and, in one notorious case involving Led Zeppelin, fish.

Rock-star excess was brutally arrested by the advent of punk in 1976. The laddish loutishness of Rod Stewart and the Faces suddenly seemed symptomatic of a more general decline in rock standards, and was instantly overtaken by more basic strains of bad behaviour. It's hard to believe, two decades on, that the tabloids were quite so outraged by the Sex Pistols' televised swearing, but outraged they were. No behaviour, it seemed, was bad publicity: spitting on audiences, puking in airports, assaulting record company workers, onstage self-mutilation - it was all grist to the band's manager, Malcolm McLaren's, publicity mill, even when it led eventually to the sordid Sid and Nancy murder/suicide debacle.

In the wake of punk, the behavioural pendulum swung back to its mid- Seventies point, with cross-dressing and gender ambiguity once more the main source of public outrage. The rise of grunge in the later Eighties suggested a return to the values and spirit of punk, but it proved to be a genre enervated by its own whining nihilism and ultimately killed by its affection for heroin. There were few more pathetic sights than that of Kurt Cobain, collecting an MTV award a few years ago, threatening to drop his trousers in front of the audience. At least PJ Proby had introduced an element of dashing violence into such personal exposure.

In the Nineties, nothing shocks us any more. Having lived through punk, we are inured to swearing and petty violence, even on the Oasean scale. This, of course, is very much an Anglocentric view, for the last 10 years have seen an enormous racial gulf develop between black and white standards of musical misbehaviour, particularly in America, where legions of gangsta- rappers hymn the violent "gang-banger" lifestyle, and several carry through from preaching to practice. Besides the pending case of Snoop Doggy Dogg, the East Coast rapper Slick Rick and two members of Ice Cube's crew Da Lench Mob are currently in jail for murder or attempted murder, while the actor/rapper Tupac Shakur is but one of many others involved in the cases of affray, wounding or sexual assault that are now routine in the genre. Alongside such serious bad behaviour, one could be excused for regarding Oasis's bad attitude as almost ironical, and Jarvis Cocker's parodic interruption of Jackson's self-serving spectacle as something of a public service.

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