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By Ben Thompson (27 September, 2003, Observer)
Pop music has always lived off hype and spin - and often no good has come of it. But certain stunts are so outrageous or strange that they deserve celebrating in their own right1. Elvis joins the army (1958)
The fabulous levels of hysteria surrounding this event have been reduced over time to a dry formula for creative decline. The fact was that Elvis had already succumbed to the Faustian embrace of former Hadacol patent medicine salesman 'Colonel' Tom Parker, as well as signing the fateful movie deal which would condemn him to almost a decade in the creative wilderness, before the celebrated day on 24 March, 1958 when he became US 53310761.
Negotiating his own path through the swirling chaos of his own desires; the letters of fans who wrote begging for clippings from the haircut for which The King had paid 65c out of his own pocket; and the frantic attempts of his manager, the media and the State Department to manipulate events, specialist fourth class Elvis Aaron Presley went on to lay the ground rules for the modern culture of celebrity. As the last line of Alan Levy's fine 1960 account Operation Elvis puts it: 'By pretending he was just like anybody else, the Army had demonstrated to the world The Importance of Being Elvis.'
2. The Sex Pistols mess about on the river (1977)
In the feverishly patriotic atmosphere of Jubilee Tuesday, June 1977, Malcolm McLaren's plan for a river-borne raid on the Mother of Parliaments was a stroke of subversive genius. The good ship Queen Elizabeth meandered piratically up and down the Thames for some hours before acting as a platform for the all-out aural assault that so many local councils had sought to ban.
3. Robert Johnson sells his soul to the devil (circa 1930)
The blues singer's mentor Son House was so dazzled by a dramatic improvement in the playing of his one-time acolyte that his only way of making sense of it was to insist that the younger man had 'sold his soul to the devil'. Johnson's willingness to cultivate this myth through his songs helped his legend endure long after his gruesome death (poisoned by one of many love rivals) in 1938.
4. Madonna publishes a dirty book (1992)
Sex might seem to have marked the nadir of Madonna's attention-seeking, but the book's real purpose would not became apparent till some years later. A repository for all that was cheesy and overdone in her career, the aluminium-and-cardboard soft-porn behemoth somehow cleared Madge's creative decks. A few years of embarrassing Bj└rk cover versions and Evita later, and voil└: Ray of Light.
5. The KLF leave the music business (1992)
After opening their show at the Brit Awards with a version of 'What Time is Love?' so cacophonous it caused Sir Georg Solti to abandon his front row seat and run for the exits, Bill Drummond announced his group's departure from the music business while firing blanks into the audience from a working machine gun. Their legend was sealed.
6. Snoop Doggy Dogg distributes Christmas presents (1993)
In a transparent bid to improve his image, criminal suspect Snoop's record company fixed it for him to distribute Christmas gifts at a community centre in South Central LA. This parody of the food parcel distributions that had been one of The Black Panthers' most effective political tactics was the start of a spectacular process of rehabilitation.
7. Michael Jackson's effigy is towed up the thames (1995)
On 15 June, 1995 - 18 years almost to the day after The Sex Pistols' boat-trip - a 10-metre-high effigy of Michael Jackson was placed on a launch and towed under Tower Bridge by a tug. Weighing over 2,000 kilos, the statue had taken 30 people 10 weeks to make and was one of nine commissioned to mark the launch of Jackson's HIStory album.
8. Jarvis Cocker waggles his bottom at the Brits (1996)
When Cocker protested at Michael Jackson's messianic stage show at the Brits by shaking his stringy rump at him, he could not have realised how serious the consequences would be. The night in the cells was one thing - alas, his own ascension to a level of celebrity at which it was impossible to function creatively he found quite another.
9. Super Furry Animals buy a tank (1996)
For the tidy sum of ten grand, SFA promoted their debut album Fuzzy Logic by buying a tank, painting it blue and taking it round festivals with a techno sound-system on board. The tank was sold on to Don Henley of the Eagles a few months - and a great deal of publicity - later for just two thousand pounds less than the band had paid for it.
10. Justin Timberlake's 'Cry Me a River' video (2003)
A girl who looks uncannily like Britney Spears (with whom Timberlake had recently broken up) returns to her house, takes her clothes off and gets in the shower. Meanwhile, Justin videos himself fooling around with a saucy brunette, then freeze-frames the most incriminating shot on a big screen for his ex to enjoy when her ablutions are at an end.
Making the law: Ben Thompson justifies the selection of this month's hype-chasing 10
The term 'publicity stunt' comes with so much disapproval built into it that it almost requires the prefix 'just a...' From Andrew Loog Oldham encouraging The Rolling Stones to steal the limelight at a reception for Petula Clark to Geri Halliwell embarking on a love affair with Chris Evans in the week prior to release of her single, the idea of imposing a hierarchy on this heritage of shameless grandstanding might seem somewhat gratuitous.
But the ascendancy of the PR huckster dates back to the very dawn of rock 'n' roll. Perhaps the time is right for a reassessment of the Svengali's stock in trade. There are good grounds for arguing that, with their astute manipulation of Will, Gareth et al, Pop Idol's Simon Cowell and manager Simon Fuller have actually brought the wheel of pop fortune full circle, five decades on. Just as in the golden days of Vince Eager, Billy Fury and the rest of Larry Parnes's stable of freshly minted Fifties UK pop idols, the management employs the performers, not vice versa.
If you take the definition of publicity stunt to be 'something which is done to get attention', and bear in mind that getting attention is the whole point of pop music, then it becomes impossible not to view brazen publicity strategies as an integral part of the creative process. This is no reason to kiss the jackboots of pop's master-manipulators; nor to indulge those who seek to elicit sympathy for the dilemmas of the artist by the making of dramatic gestures (Prince changing his name to a symbol; or The Beatles playing live on the roof of Apple to thumb their collective nose at the screaming crowds that had stopped them playing live).
The best publicity stunts are those that harness the kind of energy which cannot be orchestrated. Some achieve their goals, some the exact opposite; most effect a strange and compelling hybrid of something intended and of something else which wasn't.
Have your say
Outraged by our choice? We thought so. Write and tell us which stunts should have been there, along with a justification for your selection:
10 Greatest Publicity Stunts,
OMM, 119 Farringdon Rd,
London EC1R 3ER
or email us: email@example.com
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