There’s something decidedly strange about the Brit Awards. While it certainly ticks off a lot of the classic award ceremony tropes: a red carpet, an elaborate stage production, an increasingly intoxicated audience of fans and stars and the odd moment of truly brilliant performance —on the whole, the show has decided to wane. Drastically.
Ok, so hands up, I grew up in an era of the Brit Awards that is likely never to be topped. The mid-1990s provided a sincere hope that football was coming home, a brief respite in the greying trajectory of British social structures and, of course, Britpop. The genre flourished in the TV-centric world, and as Oasis and Blur battled it out for top spot of the charts, fighting across newspaper headlines, television appearances and any other opportunity they could open their traps — the reality of rock and roll being the sound of the entire nation was lost on me. I assumed that this was simply the way of the world and the Brit Awards, packed with artists like Pulp, Suede, Bjork, Radiohead et al, was another alternative awards ceremony that championed the most daring artists around. How wrong I was.
Since that moment, the awards show has dwindled in appeal for anyone with an outlook on music that wasn’t submerged in the mainstream. While seemingly moving toward a more pop-orientated ceremony, the show’s ratings have hugely declined too. In 1999, with Britpop at the end of its tether and a new wave of American rock dominating the radio, the show was still pulling in 9.9 million viewers. Cut to 20 years later and, in 2019, that viewership had more than halved to 3.8 million. The Brit Awards may be bidding to capture every single listener of BBC Radio 1, but they seem to be failing.
This year’s event will see the show try to recapture that magic and sees a new reem of artists put up for nomination. Of course, the actual ceremony will go ahead under Covid-related restrictions but there’s no reason that the artists scheduled to perform – especially shining star Arlo Parks – can’t make it a memorable moment and perhaps begin the Brit Awards regenerated ascendency to the top.
The truth is, that’s all these kinds of awards ceremonies are good for anyhow: moments. That’s why we sit down to watch the stars come out in their finery, it is not to recognise their achievements within the industry, after all, the greatest achievement one could bestow upon an artist is by sharing their work with your friends and family, but to await a performance, a speech or a spectacle that resonates with us.
We don’t want to watch a host of musicians gleefully accept their awards while drinking champagne and arguing over who says thank you first. We want Jarvis Cocker mooning Michael Jackson, Oasis offering anyone who will listen out for a fight or Alex Turner making quite possibly the most cringe-inducing speech of all time.
So, in preparation for tonight’s events, we’re taking a look back at some of the most iconic moments in BRITs history.
Iconic Brit Award moments:
Jarvis Cocker moons Michael Jackson (1996)
First thing’s first, we’re taking a look back at one of the most notable moments of the event’s history as Jarvis Cocker mooned Michael Jackson on this day back in 1996. Although not the most shocking thing by today’s standards, when Pulp’s frontman Cocker took to the stage to crash the righteous party for the holier-than-thou Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards, he shocked the world.
During MJ’s now-infamous set, one thing became very apparent, this was the Michael Jackson show, and we had to watch, without comment, and get taught a lesson about compassion. The crescendo of this lesson came as Jackson was in the middle of his insanely over-produced performance of his 1996 hit ‘Earth Song’. When I say overproduced, I’m not just being flippant; I mean, this was the stuff of high-budget West End musicals. Villagers worshipping at the feet of the King of Pop while the screen behind the multi-millionaire shows images of starving children, wartime atrocities and more award show delights.
In the middle of one of the largest performances that the Brit Awards had ever seen, by one of the world’s biggest artists, pounds and pence vanishing with every extra light flicker, Cocker took to the stage pulled down his trousers and bent over to waft away the stench of what he perceived as absolute shite. Following the incident, Cocker took to the popular ’90s TV show TFI Friday to share his thoughts. “I was just sat there and watching it and feeling a bit ill, ’cause he’s there doing his Jesus act”—an assessment that’s hard to counter on the evidence. It’s there in the crucifix position Jackson takes up at every opportunity.
“And I could kind of see – It seemed to me there was a lot of other people who kind of found it distasteful as well, and I just thought: ‘The stage is there, I’m here and you can actually just do something about it and say this is a load of rubbish if you wanted.’”
Gorillaz bring 2D to life (2002)
Damon Albarn was a dab-hand at Brit Awards shows by the time he took his troop of animated characters, Gorillaz, to the big stage in 2002. The former Blur singer had graced the stage many times, but nobody was quite sure how he would bring a 2D animated band to life.
What transpired was one of the most ingenious performances in Brit Awards history and saw the characters perform on giant life-size screens, operating as an early version of a hologram. Albarn, in fact, wouldn’t even make an appearance.
Playing ‘Clint Eastwood’ with help from the UK rap group Phi Life Cypher, the performance was unlike anything the show had seen before and was met with resounding applause.
Bjork and PJ Harvey destroy The Rolling Stones (1994)
At the 1994 edition of the annual Brit Awards, the crowd may not have known it, but they were in for a unique treat. As two icons of the alternative music scene came together to give an unstoppable cover of one of Britain’s favourite songs — The Rolling Stones anthem ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’. It was an opportune moment for PJ Harvey and Björk to subvert the song’s very nature, and all it represented, and deliver one of the most stunning performances in BRITs history.
The footage below shows off two artists in the midst of their growing careers, finding their creative feet alongside one another, and moving forward with every gigantic step. What better place to throw down the gauntlet than one of Britain’s most prestigious music awards show?
The duo arrived ready and raring to go. PJ Harvey had released Rid of Me and was the darling of the alt-rock world in Britain, captivating audiences with her visceral musings. She represented a move away from the grunge which had left so much of England bereft of their twinkling eye. Meanwhile, Björk was only one album out of her punk band The Sugarcubes and was finding life as a solo artist incredibly fruitful, she had quickly transcended from curiosity to cult favourite and was only going to rise further. All of which can be seen, heard and even felt in the below footage.
Is it the best cover of The Rolling Stones ever? No. Is it still brilliant? Yes.
Rihanna goes nu-rave with The Klaxons
We bet you’d forgotten about this one, hadn’t you? Well, there’s not a chance I could ever forget the moment Rihanna, the newly anointed queen of R&B, would join the nu-rave heroes Klaxons as part of a mash-up performance.
The indie darlings, Klaxons, were the talk of the town, having successfully established a brand new genre within a few short weeks. In fact, in 2008, the band were arguably more famous than Rihanna herself. But this performance saw to combine the mass effect of the Klaxons song ‘Golden Skans’ and Rihanna’s astonishing hit ‘Umbrella’ in the most 2008 thing of all; a mash-up.
The result may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly remains imprinted on my brain forevermore, but that may just be the lasers.
David Bowie joins Plaecbo to sing T. Rex (1999)
’20th Century Boy’ was perhaps the most fitting song to be played at the 1999 edition of the BRITs. With Y2K seemingly about to end the world, there was a genuine apprehension for the new era, and it was represented by inviting one of the previous century’s shining stars, David Bowie, to share the stage with Placebo for a special rendition of the aforementioned Marc Bolan and T. Rex anthem.
The two acts had been linked for some time, with Placebo opening up Bowie’s Outside Tour and the Starman championing the band for many years. A more intimate collaboration came in the form of the special Brit Awards performance that saw Placebo supported by Bowie, covering another glam-rock icon and longtime friend of Bowie’s biggest hit, Marc Bolan and the unforgettable song ’20th Century Boy’. Released in 1971, the song marked one of the last triumphant moments of Bolan’s sadly short career.
On one side of the stage stands the present of rock and roll, Brian Molko and his sparkling charcoaled eyes, full of the kind of sneering misunderstanding that can drive so many to mania. On the other stood an original of the glam-rock era passing the goth-glittered baton across with every word he sang. It’s a joy.
Oasis take on Blur: “Shitelife” (1996)
It’s probably rather redundant for us to speak about the intense rivalry sparked between Oasis and Blur. Pitched as two opposing ends of the Britpop spectrum as well as inhabiting two halves of the country (Oasis in Manchester and Blur London), the two groups were never shy about throwing a few insults out here and there. The pair of bands had been fighting each other on the charts and in the tabloids for a year or two, and things took another turn at the 1996 Brit Awards show.
It was at the height of their feud and, following being pipped to the post in the charts, Oasis were more than happy to get one up on Damon Albarn and Co. As such, taking to the stage after winning the Best British Band award, Liam and Noel Gallagher made fun of their contemporaries with a karaoke version of the hit song ‘Parklife’ as part of their acceptance speech.
While “Shitelife” and “Marmite” feel like perfect accompaniments to the song, it didn’t go down too well with the audience and Oasis made a somewhat hasty exit.
Alex Turner’s mic drop (2014)
Some of the moments on our list have a habit of grabbing you by the heartstrings and not letting go or stoking the internal fires to ensure a hot temper, but Alex Turner made us all collectively cringe when accepting the award for Best Album in 2014. He picked up the award for the Arctic Monkeys who handed the lead singer the mic and slowly backed away, perhaps knowing what was coming next.
“That rock and roll, eh?” began the singer, seemingly wielding an axe he had ready to grind. Though many claimed Turner was under the influence of drugs, the singer has always denied this. Still, there are certainly some similarities to be drawn between the ‘Scummy Man’ singer and the man with the swinging jaw at the after-party. Throughout the speech, Turner referred to the “cyclical nature of the universe” before claiming that rock and roll “will never die“. With his speech complete, he uttered, “invoice me for the mic,” and left with a casual mic drop.
Certainly not as cool as he had intended, but an iconic moment nevertheless. Turner told Mojo of the incident: “I maintain that I didn’t really have another way around it. Another way of justifying getting up in that room. What else was I supposed to do? To go up there and pretend that I’d been dreaming about that moment since I was a kid would have been dishonest.”
Stormzy’s poignant freestyle (2018)
One thing that the BRITs have, seemingly, made moves to correct is the lack of diversity in their winners. More recently, the awards show has chosen to pick some of the hip-hop world’s brightest British talents for their top prizes. Stormzy is one star who has benefitted from such a change of perspective. One of grime’s kings, the rapper, appeared on the 2018 edition of the show to close out the event. Performing ‘Blinded by Your Grace’ and ‘Big For Your Boots’, the performer delivered a powerhouse show.
But it was between these songs with Stormzy delivering a scything freestyle that left the biggest impression. In the light of the devastating fire of Grenfell Tower, a dark day for British history, Stormzy aimed his words with a renewed vigour: “Yo, Theresa May where’s that money for Grenfell? What you thought we just forgot about Grenfell?
“You criminals, and you got the cheek to call us savages. You should do some jail time you should pay some damages, we should burn your house down and see if you can manage this.” It’s a message that rang out more loudly than the BRITs had in a very long time.