The Moments that Shocked the Music World!
Published on 01 July 2022
They say art is like a mirror to reality: if you want to really know what’s going on at any particular moment in culture, go and find the artists and musicians.
Well, that may well be true, but if this lot are anything to go by, we have lived through some terrifyingly turbulent times!
Today, we are shining a light on some of the music world’s most shocking scandals. The world does love a bit of controversial gossip, and such stories have been rife in the music world since the beginning. With that in mind, we thought we’d lightly skip through some of music’s darker and more abrasive moments, seeing for ourselves whether such behaviour has been neutered somewhat by the passage of time, or whether the power to shock remains!
We made a longlist of potential subjects for this blog but quickly found that it was never-ending, so we’ve had to cut down this list quite severely in order to make it manageable. Now, don’t get us wrong: there’s still plenty of bad bevahour and dodgy madness going on here, but we’ve deliberately kept away from doing things like listing murder after murder (that subject alone could easily have been its own blog, to be honest) and just selected one or two. We also made the decision to keep away from certain areas, too (think ‘R Kelly’ and ‘Jimmy Savile’), though even that will rear its ugly head in one of our otherwise more light-hearted stories.
So, get the kettle on, find a comfy seat and join us as we stare into the face of some of the most shocking moments in music history…
Elvis Censored for Being Sexy
We’ll start with one that’s almost quaint by today’s comparatively depraved standards. Back in the 1950s, even though the world was not long over the horrors of World War II, Elvis ‘The King’ Presley earned himself another nickname - Elvis the Pelvis - for his shocking TV performances.
Appearing on programmes like the Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis would routinely gyrate his hips in a manner that made large segments of the home audience lose their minds in a rapture of lust. Not everybody liked it, though. Indeed, some 70,000 complaint letters were sent, and subsequent performances by Elvis the Pelvis were deliberately censored. Camera crews were initially told to obscure Elvis’ ‘enthusiasms’ by shooting the drum kit in front of his jerking lower half, and then to film him from the waist up only! They banned Elvis’ hips and legs! Shocked? No, frankly, but it does show how far culture has gone in that particular direction since then.
Janet Jackson’s Superbowl Nipplegate
Superbowl: the biggest single game of that unfathomably complex sport that Americans like to call ‘football’. It’s like the World Cup final in terms of its relative significance, and landing the coveted half-time performance slot is the jewel in the crown for any performer lucky enough to be chosen.
With the world’s eyes upon them (well, 150 million viewers), Janet Jackson and guest performer Justin Timberlake wanted to make a statement and leave an impression. Whilst we can’t really comment on the statement part, the pair certainly left an impression when, during the last few seconds of their ‘fine’ performance of Rock Your Body, Timberlake sang the amazing lyric ‘gonna have you naked before the end of this song’, before reaching across and freeing Janet’s right breast from her outfit. It was still partially covered, and the TV audience saw it for (apparently) half a second before a sharp-eyed camera director changed the view for a stage-wide shot, minimising the view of this ‘wardrobe malfunction’.
What’s worse: dozens of huge, muscular men brutalising each other like modern day gladiators, or a girl showing off one half-naked boob? We’ll let you know decide for yourself, but Jackson was blacklisted from MTV and hit with tear-inducing fines for her efforts.
More shocking than Elvis in the fifties? Maybe a little bit, but not much!
Ozzy Bites the Head off a Bat
It says so much that we can write a headline such as the one above and have absolutely nobody today being surprised by it. It’s part of rock’s extended mythology nowadays, of course, but we’ve now heard so many mad stories about Ozzy Osbourne, we just shrug our shoulders and accept them.
Because of that, we invite you to think about this one for a second. Osbourne has been very upfront about his substance abuse problems over the years, and this event occurred in the early 80s, when his drug-influenced behaviour had grown to radical levels of madness. Even so, imagine seeing a bat on stage, walking over to it, picking it up in your hands, sticking it in your mouth and biting down until its head comes off.
It’s a bit much, isn’t it?
Ozzy stated that he believed it to be a toy bat. Others say it was ‘unconscious’. We aren’t about to argue with the Prince of Darkness, but 40 years on, this takes some beating for crazy behaviour, if it really happened as described. Watch the video below (it’s okay, you won’t see the event itself) and let us know if you think this is legit or just another piece of apocryphal rock ‘n’ roll mythmaking.
The KLF Burn a Million Quid for No Real Reason
One legend that is most definitely not fake is the bizarre, dada-esque fable of The KLF. The duo, made up of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, saw the whole project of The KLF (nobody ever agrees on what that stands for, incidentally) as a confrontational art project, based as much on Robert Anton Wilson’s Discordianism philosophy as it was in noising up a boring and flaccid early 90s British music scene.
The KLF used sampling - in ways that would now be considered quite illegal - to make a string of huge hit pop/rock/techno/house songs, and then they promptly deleted all of their back catalogue from being available. They came to conquer the music scene, and after they did so, they grew contemptuous of it.
Deleting their own music (it remained so until very, very recently) was only the beginning of their epic huff. Booked to play at the 1992 Brit Awards - which back then was a huge deal - the band elected to bring Extreme Noise Terror on stage with them as their backing band. A ferocious performance assaulted the unsuspecting audience, followed by Drummond bringing out a full-on machine gun and firing off a volley of blanks above the speechless punters.
Extreme? That’s not all.
Determined to rid themselves of their industry attachments once and for all, the pair took a million pounds in cash (in a classic suitcase full of money, naturally), decamped to the semi-remote Scottish isle of Jura and proceeded to burn the lot, filming it all in the process for proof and posterity.
This raises all kinds of questions, from the fair to the inflamed (sorry), but ask Drummond or Cauty today why they burned their legitimately earned fortune and they’ll stare off into the middle distance like Vietnam veterans, still quite unable to reconcile their deeds with rational thought or reason.
Still, good story!
Hell Hath No Fury Like Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes Scorned
The late TLC singer Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes was evidently not someone to be trifled with. In 1994, her band was riding at the top of the charts and she was in a relationship with Atlanta Falcons football star Andre Rison. Their relationship seems to have been tempestuous to say the least, though, with charges of abuses and stories of firearms being discharged appearing all too frequently.
After yet another quarrel with her partner after a boozy night out, Lopes elected to fill a bathtub with his favourite shoes (allegedly, he’d bought himself a ton of new sneakers and didn’t get her any, according to reports), doused them in lighter fuel, and turned them into kebabs.
Unfortunately, the resulting fire had ideas of its own, setting about the structure of the couple’s exquisite Atlanta mansion and quickly burning it to the ground. Oops!
Lopes was charged with arson, went to rehab and had to pay a large fine. The couple, however, stayed together and planned to be married until Lopes’ untimely death in a car crash in 2002.
Judas Priest’s Satanic Subliminal Messages
It sounds like a very made-up story these days, but this all actually happened just over 30 years ago.
Classic British metal band Judas Priest - hardly the most terrifying band, even back then - found themselves in court in the US, defending themselves against allegations of supposedly subliminal messages being included in their records.
What’s the problem there? Well, according to the court case, the messages actually prompted two young men to form a suicide pact, which they then followed through on. One of the pair died, the other survived and Judas Priest were blamed for somehow inciting the troubled young men to such violence by including veiled messages like ‘try suicide’ and ‘let’s be dead’ in their cover version of Spooky Tooth’s ‘Better by You, Better than Me’.
Lawyers played the song in court, sped it up, played it backwards, but couldn’t find any such messages in the music. Judas Priest were found not guilty of any wrongdoing, as you’d probably expect.
So, how did this even come to court? It’s hard to say, but in the US during the 1980s, a sensation dubbed ‘the Satanic Panic’ had taken hold. Outraged parents and local committees were sure that Satan was somehow working his twisted ways through the forms of evil rock music and even worse video games. Possessions and exorcisms were worryingly commonplace in the midwest, where every example of aberrant behaviour was instantly attributed to Beelzebub’s interference.
It all blew over, as these things do, when the media moved onto other topics like gangsta rap and the first Gulf war, but the Satanic Panic may well have been a catalyst for many court cases just like this one.
Jarvis Cocker Protests at the Brits
In 1996, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker was British rock royalty. Along with Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn, he was the most recognisable face in Britpop, so it was a given that he would be at that year’s Brit awards show.
In 1996, pop superstar Michael Jackson’s career was in a particularly dodgy place. Accused of a number of very sensitive crimes against children, Jackson’s public image was tarnished, to say the least. His appearance at the Brit awards was an attempt to re-engage with his audience, but Jarvis had other ideas…
The problem, in Cocker's point of view, was that Jackson was posing in a particularly messiah-like manner whilst being surrounded by children. In his own words: "I was just sat there watching it and feeling a bit ill, 'cause he's there doing his Jesus act. 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.'"
Jarvis’s response was to jump up on stage, ‘moon’ at the audience and then jog around dodging people on stage. It wasn’t exactly an epic rebellion, but it was enough to get Cocker arrested and thrown into jail for the night!
In a further dramatic twist, Cocker was charged with allegedly knocking some kids off the stage, until an unlikely saviour appeared in the guise of David Bowie! Bowie, who was at the show to receive a Lifetime Achievement award, had brought his own camera crew along. They happened to have a clear view of the whole episode, and could easily prove that Jarvis had not in fact collided with any kids. The charges were instantly dropped, and the story became one of the most famous and controversial in 90s music history.
Woodstock 1999 is Decadent and Depraved
We’re paraphrasing the late Hunter S Thompson with our title there, but it’s true to say that the 1999 iteration of the iconic Woodstock festival did not quite go down as the promoters had hoped…
The original Woodstock, back in 1969, was a triumph of peace and love, where hippy culture put a stamp forever into the collective psyche of the world. A new era was coming, and the Age of Aquarius would beckon a utopia for all mankind.
That was the dream, anyway, but something must’ve happened in the intervening 30 years, because Woodstock 1999 instead became a burning fiasco of crime.
What happened? Well, loads, to be honest. We’re talking violence, sexual assault, vandalism, looting, fire-raising, the whole bit. Too much, actually, to document here, but we’ll briefly jog through the madness in order to paint a picture.
First off, 400k people came to an airstrip in upstate New York, so the place was rammed and unsuitable for camping, so many people tried setting up tents on asphalt. The weather was exceptionally hot, and there was insufficient shade. There’s the start of the anger!
Then, the prices for food and water were sky-high, with official vendors hiking their prices to make a quick buck. This led disgruntled festival goers to attack the free water pipe (the queues were so long that people were furious at having to wait), bursting them mid-pipe and creating large mud pools in the ‘arena’. These mud pools were added to be the (too few) showers and toilets overflowing. Consider that!
Limp Bizkit’s infamous performance was reputed to have incited rioting and violent behaviour, particularly during their song Break Stuff, where audience members began attacking the plywood festival walls. Reports of physical and sexual assualts during Limp Bizkit’s set also occurred, with the band replying saying they were unable to either see nor act upon such activities due to the location and distance of the stage.
Anti-gun protestors PAX thought it would be a great idea to hand out candles during the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ performance, only to watch as huge fires broke out in the audience arena. Unwisely, the Chilis decided to play a cover version of Jimi Hendrix’s song Fire, just as the flames were taking hold. They later claimed that this was a tribute to Hendrix’s performance at the original Woodstock.
On top of that, ATM machines were uprooted and tipped over, merch tables were looted and destroyed, and fights broke out all over the festival. Peace and love? Not exactly. Six rapes were reported, one accidental death occured, and riot police had to be called in from New York to move the audience back to the camping area.
We’ll give the last word on this one to Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, whose band played (and burned the American flag) at the festival:
“Hey man, leave the kids alone. I've had enough of the frenzied demonization of young people surrounding Woodstock '99. Yes, Woodstock was filled with predators: the degenerate idiots who assaulted those women, the greedy promoters who wrung every cent out of thirsty concertgoers, and last but not least, the predator media that turned a blind eye to real violence and scapegoated the quarter of a million music fans at Woodstock '99, the vast majority of whom had the time of their lives.”
Phil Spector Commits Murder
A lot of people who knew record producer Phil Spector commented that it was only ever a matter of time before his increasingly worrying behaviour resulted in him doing something terrible.
One of the most successful producers during the golden age of 60s pop, Spector’s Wall of Sound production saw him working with the world’s biggest stars. Spector was also well known for his highly manipulative, paranoid personality, going as far as pulling a gun on John Lennon during one of their many collaborations. Whilst his volatility was often associated with his talent, people began to steer further away from Spector, leading to almost no production work between the early 80s and 2003, when the fateful incident occurred.
There’s plenty to read online about the trial and indeed retrial of Lana Clarkson’s murder (not to mention a bizarre TV-movie starring Al Pacino in a succession of outlandish wigs as Spector), but the short of it is that Spector was found guilty of fatally shooting Clarkson in the mouth at his palatial Californian home on February 3rd, 2003. He spent the rest of his days in jail, where he died in 2021, 3 years before being made eligible for parole.
The List of Madness Goes On…
There, then, is a very truncated shortlist of some of music’s most shocking moments. Yes, we missed out Charles Manson altogether, mainly because we found that too difficult a subject to summarise in a few paragraphs! Yes, we dodged a large number of violent deeds (the stabbing at Altamont, Sid ‘n’ Nancy etc) and we didn’t have room for the antics of Jim Morrison or GG Allin, but it’s all out there for you, if you want to descend into those particular rabbit holes!
We hope you enjoyed this trip through the darker, crazier side of the music business. Was there a glaring omission that you want to bring to our attention? It was probably on our list to begin with, but do let us know! And here’s a thought for you: was music generally better in the past, with all of this craziness going on? Is the music world a safer place today? And if so, is the music itself suffering as a result? You tell us!