Before artists had direct access to their fans through social media, the need for promotional press junkets was more prevalent and perhaps harsher than ever. They operated as gladiatorial pits of pure pop madness, allowing journalistic tigers to paw not so gently at those fighting for their lives in the middle of the crowd. Of course, sometimes, those gladiators were capable of delivering their own killer blow.
It was a situation that saw countless artists fall into the traps carefully laid by journalists and, in retaliation, saw those artists rally against their media-backed interrogators. While there are always frosty moments between any trading parties, friction is sometimes too hot to handle. It makes for some of the most notorious conversations in musical history.
Whether it’s a clever way to gain a few extra column inches or just a set of honest answers, some artists have made a career out of fine interviewing, while others have enjoyed a successful career in spite of it. Below, we’re looking back at 10 of the most notorious music interviews of all time and they read like absolute car crashes.
Using a platform to make a lot of promotional noise is always advisable, and while some will offer quiet confidence and subtle artistry, others will jump up on the sofa and scream from the rafters. Neither is a guaranteed way to success but one certainly guarantees some more exposure. It’s not just smaller acts who have craved the extra spotlight to share their message, bigger acts have also made their name on such iconic moments.
One thing that must be mentioned is that often, the stars’ reactions are completely reactionary. Brutalised by questioning or imposing narrative, it’s no wonder that sometimes artists can break.
10 of the most infamous interviews of all time:
Madonna goes blue on David Letterman
For a while, there was no star more scandalous than Madonna. The singer had caused an untold uproar when she offended Pope John Paull II with her ‘Like A Prayer’ video and, in 1994, she was keen to grab more attention with a scheduled appearance on Letterman.
Rather than the usual promotional patter, Madonna let loose with some of the most bizarre antics of her career. The scene was truly set when she arrived on to the stage holding a pair of trousers that she insisted, over and over again, the host David Letterman had to smell.
Madonna was equally one of the biggest stars in the world at the time and the need for salacious gossip was abundant. But as Letterman served up question after question about her personal life, the Queen of Pop volleyed every single one back with a double entendre. She also claimed Letterman had “gone soft” and asked if he was wearing a wig or had he ever smoked marijuana.
Somehow, it was so engrossing that the fact Madonna dropped the F-bomb fourteen times always gets forgotten.
“I wish I was dead already,” Lana Del Rey’s romantic view on suicide
In 2014, The Guardian met with Lana Del Rey to discuss a range of topics and in promotion of her album Ultraviolence. Del Rey was suddenly ascending from bright young thing to pop star, and the idea of idols was brought up in her chat with the British newspaper.
When talking about her own musical heroes, she noted artists like Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse and their tragic stories. She declared: “I wish I was dead already.” It provoked a heap of outrage as France Bean Cobain, Kurt’s daughter. She actively spoke out against the remarks, suggesting they romanticised the self-destruction of the people behind the icons, casting scorn on the singer.
Lana Del Rey rallied back against The Guardian claiming they had asked her “leading questions about death and persona”, later saying: “I don’t find that part of music glam either.” Del Rey later claimed that she didn’t want to speak with journalist Tim Jonze at all.
Jonze refuted the claim: “She may well have not wanted to do the interview but it certainly didn’t seem like it – she was delightful company for the 70 minutes we spent talking, and was happy to continue over the allotted time when the PR knocked on the door, an hour in, and asked how we were getting on,” he wrote in a blog post, sharing the below audio too.
Courtney Love and Vanity Fair clash on awards night
Courtney Love and the mainstream press have never been very cordial to one another. One is a putrid cesspit of morals whose values plunged to new depths in the ’90s as their fame peaked. The other is, of course, Courtney Love.
During one infamous meeting with Vanity Fair, the Hole lead singer and her husband, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, clashed with journalist Lynn Hirschberg. The writer alleged that Love had been using heroin while pregnant with their daughter Frances Bean Cobain.
Love was so outraged that three years later as she came across Hirschberg at the Oscars after-party in 1995, she threatened to impale the journalist with Quentin Tarantino’s recently won Oscar for Best Picture. It would have been a scene befitting the award-winning Pulp Fiction.
Lou Reed v Lester Bangs
Lou Reed’s double induction into the rock and roll hall of interview shame is proof of just how much he despised music journalism. The singer and enigmatic leader of the Velvet Underground faced a fair few adversaries in his time, but there is only one Joker to Reed’s Batman; Lester Bangs.
The two share a caustic wit and a quick tongue, which makes for some brilliant exchanges in their time. Bangs called Reed a “vaguely uncomfortable fat man” in a 1973 profile he wrote for Let It Rock magazine, an interview in which he also insulted David Bowie to try and provoke the singer.
It was their meeting in 1975 for the magazine Creem called Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, or How I Slugged It Out with Lou Reed and Stayed Awake, Bangs and Reed are back at it again.
Reed: “You used to be able to write… You’re getting very egocentric.”Creem, 1975
Bangs: “One thing I like about you, is that you’re not afraid to lower yourself.”
But the piece is more pertinently known for Reed’s classic journalist putdown: “You really are an asshole. You went past assholism into some kind of urinary tract.” Ah, what a gent!
The Filth and The Fury: the Sex Pistols end Bill Grundy’s reign
In 1976 the band at the tip of everyone’s tongue was the Sex Pistols. The group had released their single ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ to a hungry London crowd and to critical acclaim.
Malcolm McClaren, the band’s manager and husband of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, found a spot for them on TV show Today with the host Bill Grundy in the place of Queen.
The band had been drinking all day and arrived on the show with a devilish glint in their eye, Steve Jones said of the day: “I remember downing about four bottles of Blue Nun and I was fucking just having a fucking good old time, pissed… by the time we went out there. And that’s all I remember.”
Steve Jones: “You dirty sod. You dirty old man.”
Bill Grundy: “Well keep going, chief, keep going. Go on. You’ve got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.”
Jones: “You dirty bastard.”
Grundy: “Go on, again.”
Jones: “You dirty fucker.”
Grundy: “What a clever boy.”
Jones: “What a fucking rotter”
– Today TV show, December 1, 1976
The band’s unruly antics were splashed across every single paper in the nation as the fury for those fateful four-letter words grew to a fever pitch. It would see the Sex Pistols banned across all of their channels and their infamy grow to unfathomable heights, providing them a pretty tasty career in the meantime.
Keith Richards calls The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper “a mishmash of rubbish” and “a load of shit”
Until recently, the idea of reigniting the feud between The Rolling Stones and The Beatles seemed preposterous. But following a run of jibes aimed at one another, perhaps there was truth in all the sixties’ rumoured rifts.
If the bands weren’t warring, nobody had seemingly told Keith Richards. The guitarist has never been one to mince his words but in promotion of his album Crosseyed Heart he let a rip after interviewer Scott Rabb compared the two bands and their mid-sixties output.
“The Beatles sounded great when they were the Beatles,” Richards said. “But there’s not a lot of roots in that music. I think they got carried away. Why not? If you’re the Beatles in the ’60s, you just get carried away — you forget what it is you wanted to do. You’re starting to do Sgt. Pepper. Some people think it’s a genius album, but I think it’s a mishmash of rubbish, kind of like Satanic Majesties — ‘Oh, if you can make a load of s—, so can we.’”
John Lennon ‘claims’ The Beatles are “more popular than Jesus now”
The interview Lennon conducted with Maureen Cleave on March 4, 1966, was no different to the hundreds he had done prior to this moment. The interview fell part of Cleave’s weekly series titled “How Does a Beatle Live?” in which she would speak to each member of the band and publish a two-page piece in the Evening Standard.
In preparation for the interview, Cleave arrived at Lennon’s house when The Beatles were taking a rare break from their worldwide tour and, perhaps more pertinently, battling the challenges of international fame. Lennon had spent a considerable amount of time during this period reading challenging books by the likes of Timothy Leary and Hugh J. Schonfield and began to open his mind to an alternative opinion on key subjects like religion.
In his conversation with Cleave, Lennon made the following statement: “Christianity will go,” he began almost flippantly. “It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
When American teen magazine Datebook picked up the quote and published it as a headline without context a huge furore upended The Beatles in the US. Of course, it wouldn’t really affect the band in becoming a religion of their own.
Elton John comes out to Rolling Stone (1976)
1976 was a very different time. Long before same-sex marriages and considerable leaps forward made in regards to LGBTQ+ rights, the atmosphere for acknowledging your homosexuality in public was a cold one. If you were famous it was like an icy tundra.
When Elton John opened up to the Rolling Stone in 1976, some of those aforementioned advancements began in earnest as the Rocketman aimed to normalise being gay. “There’s nothing wrong with going to bed with somebody of your own sex,” John told interviewer Cliff Jahr.
“I think everybody’s bisexual to a certain degree. I don’t think it’s just me. It’s not a bad thing to be. I think you’re bisexual. I think everybody is.”
When Jahr pointed out that John hadn’t shared the information “in print before,” Elton responded: “Probably not. [Laughs] It’s going to be terrible with my football club. It’s so hetero, it’s unbelievable. But I mean, who cares! I just think people should be very free with sex – they should draw the line at goats. Shirley MacLaine said the right thing to Tom Snyder on TV. She said, ‘Oh c’mon, Tom. Let’s stop all this stupid macho business. It really is a bit passé now.’ And he didn’t know what to say to that. Shirley’s got the right approach.” We think so too.
Its notoriety and bravery were sadly met with some uneducated opinions at the time, with many pointing to this interview for the reason Elton’s run of seven number one albums came to an end.
“We ain’t no band, we’re a company” John Lydon defends Public Image Ltd.
Here he is yet again, John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. Lydon was desperately trying to shake the shadow of his old band when he arrived with his new band at The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder.
The Tomorrow Show was another step on the promotional tour of Public Image Ltd. as they aimed to break America using their trusty frontman pickaxe, John Lydon. The singer was at his confrontational best when he ventured on to the Tom Snyder-hosted show. After Snyder enjoyed the wordplay of the band’s name, he asked: “What is that? Is it a band? Is it a public relations firm? What does it do and what is it?”
Lydon, looking disinterested replied, “We ain’t no band. We’re a company. Simple. Nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll. Doo-dah.”
When Snyder asked, “Why do you dislike rock & roll so much?” Lydon replied: “It’s dead. It’s a disease. It’s a plague. It’s been going on for too long. It’s history. It’s vile. It’s not achieving anything, it’s just regression. They play rock and roll at airports.”
Snyder ended the conversation by saying: “It’s unfortunate that we are all out of step except for you… Interesting having you on tonight. One of the most interesting moments in my life.”
“I don’t have anything to say” – Lou Reed’s infamous interview at Sydney airport
In 1974, Reed arrived in Australia with a big tour lined up and a rock and roll scene desperate to see a new hero. Reed got off a long plane ride from America and was confronted by a press conference. Not a great start.
If you’re an up and coming musician in today’s world, you better be media trained. With today’s glut of information and entertainment, you need to make sure you expertly traverse the range of cascading platforms or risk plummeting to the death of your career. In 1974, this was certainly not the case.
In fact, when Reed arrived at Sydney airport, the possibility that he would sit down and pleasantly answer a series of monotonous questions with a smiling face was not only unlikely but wholly unwanted. In the seventies, following the carefree love and peace of the sixties, the kids wanted danger.
It is this danger, this affronted no-nonsense approach that endeared Lou Reed to yet another generation of kids.