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The night when Jarvis shook his arse in front of Jacko: an extract from Jane Savidge’s ‘This Is Hardcore’

In this exclusive extract from Jane Savidge's book on Pulp’s This is Hardcore, the band's former publicist discusses the infamous night at the Brit Awards when Jarvis Cocker decided to bare all...

By Jane Savidge

Jarvis Cocker and Michael Jackson at the 1996 Brits (Picture: Getty)

In June 1995, when Pulp stood in for the Stone Roses at Glastonbury, they may have blown the roof off the place, but they still looked and felt like outsiders. Three months later, on September 25, the band released their ‘Sorted For E’s & Wizz’ single and the British tabloids had a field day, accusing the Sheffield five-piece of encouraging drug abuse, since the pre-release single had an inlay which, the Daily Mirror alleged, showed buyers how to make an origami coke wrap. The release coincided with the death of seventeen-year-old schoolboy, Daniel Ashton, who became the fifty-first person in Britain to die as a result of taking ecstasy. The Mirror ran a poll, their readers subsequently voting 2,112 to 770 that the record should be banned. Then, on February 19, 1996, when Cocker invaded the stage whilst Michael Jackson was performing ‘Earth Song’ at the Brit Awards, all hell broke loose.

That evening at Earls Court Exhibition Centre – and it’s my contention that the night marked the Year Zero for what would one day become This Is Hardcore – Pulp had been nominated for four Brit Awards – Best Album, Best Group, Best Single, and Best Video – losing out to Oasis in the Album, Group, and Video categories, and to pop group Take That in the Single category. The band had also been booked that night to perform ‘Sorted for E’s & Wizz’. And on the same bill, making his first British TV appearance in twenty years, was Michael Jackson.

The Brits laid out the red carpet for the King of Pop, who was thirty-seven years old at the time, inventing the Artist of a Generation award so that he would agree to perform his recent Christmas number one hit, ‘Earth Song’, then allowing him to perform the song surrounded by groups of pre-pubescent girls and boys, just two years after he had settled out of court on a sexual abuse case brought against him by the father of thirteen- year-old Jordan Chandler. As a fellow broadcast performer, Jarvis was one of the few allowed to watch the run-through of Jackson’s ‘act’ in rehearsals. “I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing”, he told Smash Hits magazine two months later. “I found it extremely distasteful and crap”.

Once Jackson started performing on the air that night, Jarvis became incensed. “Something in me just snapped”, he said. “It really irked me that there were all these people with rags on, and him healing them all. He was obviously trying to exonerate himself from the child abuse allegations. Candida, our keyboard player, egged me on. I said, ‘Look, we could do something here, we’re really near!’ And she said, ‘Oh, you’d never do it.'”

But Jarvis did do it, or more specifically, he leapt on stage, and waggled his arse to the crowd, making a strange kind of wafting gesture with his hands behind his back whilst doing so. It was pretty tame stuff when you think about it, and when Jarvis was ushered off stage by one of Jackson’s henchmen, cleverly disguised as a dancer, he returned to his seat and thought nothing more of it. Well, apart from the fact that, according to Pulp drummer Nick Banks, all the audience were stamping and cheering: “people kept coming up to him, slapping him on the back, giving him the thumbs-up and going,’Good move Jarvis!’”

Much later, as Jarvis was trying to leave the venue, he was invited by a policeman and the Brits organisers to discuss the incident in his dressing room, whereupon he was arrested on suspicion of assaulting the children on the stage, which was news to him. “I couldn’t believe they were saying that at first”, said Jarvis. “Then, they carted me off to the police station, so it wasn’t much of a joke.” Jarvis was questioned for two hours before being taken to Kensington Police Station, accompanied by comedian Bob Mortimer, who’d been in attendance at the Brits that night and offered to act as his legal counsel – Mortimer used to work in the legal department at Peckham Council – although he very nearly reneged on the offer when he realised Jackson had three heavyweight LA lawyers on his team. For his part, Mortimer remembers entering the room where Jarvis was being kept, enquiring what had happened, and receiving the reply, “I showed my bottom to Michael.”

At three in the morning, after being informed that he would have to attend court to answer any charges laid against him on 11 March, Jarvis was released on bail. Later that day, he would make his way down to Brighton with the rest of Pulp to perform at Brighton Centre for the first night of the band’s ten-date arena tour, a tour that would culminate with two shows at Wembley Arena on 1 and 2 March.

Michael Jackson decided to issue a statement. “I’m sickened, saddened, shocked, upset, cheated and angry, but immensely proud that the cast remained professional and the show went on,” it said. Jackson’s people also accused Jarvis of ‘harming’ three children. “Jacko’s Pulp Friction,” gasped the Daily Express. “He’s Off His Cocker,” screamed The Sun.

The NME started selling ‘Jarvis is Innocent’ T-shirts, and then, on Thursday, three days after the incident, they sent a writer to Pulp’s show at Birmingham NEC Arena to canvass opinion of the public and Jarvis’s bandmates. The NME ran a cover story with the headline, ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something: Jarvis, Jacko and the True Story of the Brits.’

Jarvis released his own statement. “My actions were a form of protest at the way Michael Jackson sees himself as some Christ-like figure with the power of healing”, it said. “The music industry allows him to indulge his fantasies because of his wealth and power. People go along with it even though they know it’s a bit sick. I just couldn’t go along with it any more. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision brought about by boredom and frustration. I just ran on the stage and showed off. I didn’t make any physical contact with anyone as far as I recall. I certainly didn’t push anybody off stage. I find it very insulting to be accused of attacking children. All I was trying to do was make a point and do something lots of other people would have done if only they’d dared.” The next day, a very charming, but slightly contrite Jarvis Cocker was interviewed by Chris Evans – Evans had actually presented the Brits earlier that week – on TFI Friday. Jarvis appeared live via a video link set up in the dressing room of the NYNEX Arena in Manchester, where Pulp was due to appear live later that evening. “The police have got until March 11, which is when I‘ve got to go back to the police station”, he was keen to point out, “and then, if they’ve thought of anything, then I’ll get charged with it”.

By this point in proceedings, the tide had most definitely turned, with the cavalcade of approval for Jarvis’s actions – there were even calls for him to be knighted – coinciding with the release of footage shot by David Bowie’s camera crew – Bowie had received a Lifetime Achievement award at the Brits, presented to him on the night by (New) Labour leader Tony Blair – who’d filmed the whole evening, including Jackson’s rendition of ‘Earth Song’ and Jarvis’s stage invasion. The footage showed that Jarvis didn’t knock any children off the stage, and all charges were dropped immediately. “Among many other things I’m grateful to David Bowie for”, said Jarvis, “that was amazing”. Suddenly, even the Daily Mirror, who’d attacked the band for their origami wrap the previous year, came on board to back Jarvis, and by the following Thursday, they’d tracked the band down to Sheffield Arena – oh, those intrepid reporters, what will they think of next? – where they handed out free ‘Justice For Jarvis’ T-shirts.

Many years later, in 2020, Cocker spoke to The New York Times about the events of that evening, admitting that it had “changed my life forever” and affected him deeply. “In the UK, suddenly I was crazily recognised and I couldn’t go out anymore”, he said. “It tipped me into a level of celebrity I couldn’t ever have known existed, and wasn’t equipped for. It had a massive, generally detrimental effect on my mental health”. “Maybe I was too acquiescent”, Cocker reflected to Time Out when asked about his period as a tabloid mainstay. “I just did everything that I was asked to do. This has been a fundamental change in my views. What I’ve realised is that the mainstream has an emasculating or castrating effect. You invent this thing, this shield with which you protect yourself against the world, and you lose control of it. Suddenly the tabloids, whose moral values I don’t subscribe to, have an opinion on what you do”.

This is an extract taken from Jane Savidge’s book on Pulp’s This is Hardcore, published in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series.