No one has entered the realm of international celebrity in quite the same way as Jarvis Cocker. The frontman of Pulp, Cocker made a string of era-defining indie-rock hits in the mid-1990s, but they aren’t what propelled him to global fame and made him a subject of discussion on Good Morning America. No, 25 years ago this week, Cocker did it differently, unleashing a slice of classic British slapstick that’s now written into music folklore: he invaded Michael Jackson’s performance at the Brit awards in 1996 and wiggled his bum for a bit.
Jackson was mid-song when Cocker bowled on to the stage, surveyed the scene for a moment and then bent over, arse-to-crowd, and made a wafting gesture around his backside. It was followed by a thrilling finale in which he exited the stage chased by Jacko’s dancers-come-bodyguards, running off in a manner that can only be described as “geography teacher cutting through the assembly hall”.
Today, Cocker is a left-of-centre national treasure and cultural don. He has hosted his own show on BBC 6 Music, made documentaries for Radio 4, worked as an editor for Faber & Faber and also found time to release more excellent records (last year’s Beyond the Pale was a post-Pulp best). But since that act of petulant brilliance there’s been the feeling that Cocker is only ever momentarily dangling a foot in the limelight, rather than seeking it out.
At the time of his stage invasion, the task of organising the Brit awards was handed from major label to major label – one year would be the turn of Universal, then Warner, then Polygram, and so on. In 1996, the duty fell to Sony and the label spotted an opportunity to give their pop superstar Michael Jackson and his ninth album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, a re-up. Pulp were sitting at one of three tables commandeered by their label Island and, as the evening wore on, there was growing concern that this was a Jacko event masquerading as an awards show.
“Everybody in the room felt it had been hijacked completely,” says Marc Marot, Island’s managing director at the time, who was sitting on Pulp’s table with head of talent Nick Angel and label chairman Roger Ames. “Everybody felt Sony were using it as a promotional vehicle for Michael Jackson, including creating the fake award that was being given to him, the artist of a generation award.”
As Jackson took to the stage to perform his ponderous eco-ballad Earth Song, Marot noticed that Jarvis Cocker was getting worked up. The Pulp frontman had already spent a few days in rehearsals and was well acquainted with Jackson’s messianic performance, whereby he was lofted into the air by a cherry-picker to anoint and save the poor people in rags below who weren’t Michael Jackson. Watching it live, being beamed out to the world, seemed to heighten Cocker’s irritation. All he required was a little push. Enter Pulp keyboardist Candida Doyle. “Candida goaded him on and said, ‘if you’re that pissed off, do something about it’,” recalls Marot. “Before I knew it, Jarvis was up and gone.”
And then it happened. Marot says that Cocker would have been joined by other Island artists if security hadn’t headed them off. “Tricky got up and followed him, and then he was followed by Mushroom from Massive Attack, but they got stopped by bouncers.” Cocker made enough of a splash on his own, though. “It was a perfect moment of rock’n’roll bedlam,” declares Marot. When Marot looked across the table, the head of Polygram UK was stood on his chair, cheering Jarvis on.
Their jubilation was short-lived. Lisa Anderson, executive producer of the awards, arrived at Island’s table to advise Marot that Cocker had been arrested. There was an allegation he had injured one of the child dancers as he fled the stage. “Jarvis, his manager and one not very burly security guy were trying to leave the building,” says Anderson, “and the collective security force for Michael Jackson were bearing down on them. I set off at extremely fast pace after Jarvis and said, ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to leave at the moment, so let’s go backstage.’ Trying to locate a safe space for Cocker, Anderson bundled him into a dressing room and then had to face Jacko’s army. “I’m trying to negotiate with a tower of a security guy who’s going, ‘where’s the guy?!’ I’m looking up at this six-foot giant going, ‘Shall we just find out what happened before we get ahead of ourselves?’ Then the police turned up.”
Marot got backstage in time to see Cocker being put into a police van and carted off. “We went back into the auditorium to try and find a sober lawyer, which was really difficult by that point,” he says. They managed to locate John Statham, a lawyer who volunteered to help. They also procured some surprising backup. Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer had been on one of Island’s tables that year, too, and with the caveat that he was a qualified conveyancing lawyer, Mortimer said he’d come along and try to help. “The four of us went to Kensington police station,” explains Marot. “Nick Angel was a bit pissed and Bob Mortimer was a bit pissed, too. At one point, the duty officer said to me, ‘If your friends don’t back off, I’m gonna put them in the fucking cell, too.’” Outside the station, Vic Reeves held up a sign saying, “Free the Jarvis 1”.
Back at the Brits, Sony’s head of corporate press Gary Farrow was getting the tabloids on the side of Michael Jackson. He was hosting journalists including Piers Morgan, then editor of the Daily Mirror, the Sun’s Bizarre editor Andy Coulson and Matthew Wright, then working as a celebrities correspondent for the Daily Mirror. Farrow had cracked open a crate of champagne for his guests and, says Marot, set to work convincing them Cocker was in the wrong. “He used the rest of the evening to get them all to say how unspeakable and disgusting it was,” states Marot.
“We had a very good table, so I could actually see the crack of Jarvis’s arse, make no mistake!” proclaims Farrow. “I was looking after [Sony] chairman Paul Berger’s interests,” he says, “and plus the fact we had Michael Jackson. The unfortunate saying ‘I had to cover his arse’ comes to mind.” For his part, Wright says he missed the whole thing. “I’d spent all my time yabbering,” he says. ‘When Gary said, “So what are you doing about the Jarvis Cocker thing?’, I was thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Farrow’s PR spin worked. The following day, Marot arrived at Island’s HQ in Chiswick to face a crisis. Cocker had been freed while the police investigated the allegation of assault, but the press had made their minds up. “Jacko Rages at Yob Rocker”, the Daily Mirror declared. “The night our dreams were Pulped,” read the headline in the Daily Mail, referring to the crushed hopes of Jackson’s child choir. Marot brought in prominent defence lawyer Anthony Burton to help clear Cocker’s name. “As far as the case [was] concerned, the reaction was completely over the top,” recollects Burton. “The allegation of assault was a complete nonsense.”
Partridge advised Cocker to go to ground and, by the end of the week, the tide was turning in Jarvis’s favour. Cocker was given a rousing reception as he was interviewed by Chris Evans for his chat show TFI Friday. The Mirror had changed its tune, too. “The initial default reaction was naughty, naughty Pulp versus Michael Jackson, incredibly popular with the kids,” says Wright. “But Michael Jackson’s people would always deal with the Sun before they dealt with the Mirror, so we thought, ‘Well, if we’re not going to get anything from the Jackson side, let’s give Jarvis a hug’.”
Crucially, a video supplied by a mystery source at the Brits showed it was Jackson’s man who had barged into the children, not Cocker. A few weeks later the charges were dropped. “I think it would be good for Michael Jackson to get a bit of reality in his life,” Cocker told a press conference heaving with the world’s media. “The hoo-hah was enormous,” remembers Burton. “The reaction was disproportionate to what happened. Jarvis having to go through all that was unnecessary.”
Cocker’s name was cleared but Marot thinks the incident had lasting consequences. When Pulp handed over their next record, This Is Hardcore, the snappy anthems that had brought them chart success were gone, replaced by darker and more challenging music. “I believe he did that to help write himself out of the heat of the pop eye,” opines Marot. John Mulvey, who covered the story for NME, thinks the episode summed up the wider problems facing indie artists. “It was a critical point in how Britpop and British indie-rock in general was making this rapprochement with the mainstream as it got huge and what compromises it would have to make,” he says.
For Lisa Anderson, the incident remains the pinnacle of events during her time working on the Brits. “Top of the pile!” she proclaims. “But closely followed by Chumbawamba.” It ended up becoming more than just a bum wiggle for Jarvis Cocker, then, forcing the Pulp frontman to rethink the way he wanted his career to go.
He’s indie royalty in 2021 and, although his bum-wiggle 25 years ago is by no means his defining moment, it remains something to be proud of.