Up and up Michael Jackson went, his voice soaring from a squeak to a shriek as a gilded cherry-picker conveyed him high above a seemingly ecstatic Earls Court audience. But just as pops biggest, brightest, weirdest star reached the galumphing What about us? chorus to Earth Song, a commotion was breaking out on the stage far below. 
Running a gauntlet of child and adult extras dressed as stylised beggars, Jarvis Cocker of indie band Pulp had just gatecrashed Jacksons 1996 Brit Awards performance. In a display of irreverence, Cocker waggled his rear at the crowd, pretending to break wind. Shortly afterwards he was gone while Jackson sang on. Nobody in the room fully appreciated that they had just witnessed one of Britpops defining moments.
In any countdown of Cool Britannia talking points, Jarvis v Jacko, which marks its 25th anniversary on Friday (19 February), has to be right up there. In terms of headlines generated it ranks alongside Blur v Oasis, Supergrass singing from their motorised bed in the Alright video and Noel Gallagher popping round to 10 Downing Street in 1997 for champagne-fuelled banter with universally popular new prime minister Tony Blair. If anything, it was even more significant as Jacksons involvement guaranteed international coverage. 
But what had possessed the thoughtful and often tortured Cocker to rush the stage so cheekily? His answer was that he was protesting against Jacksons messiah complex.
My actions were a form of protest at the way Michael Jackson sees himself as some kind of Christ-like figure with the power of healing, Cocker would say in a statement shortly after the incident. The music industry allows him to indulge his fantasies because of his wealth and power. People go along with it even though they know its a bit sick. I just couldnt go along with it any more. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision brought on by boredom and frustration.
Messiah complex: Michael Jackson during his 1996 Brit Awards performance
Nobody could deny Jacksons bit at the Brits was over the top. But that was the point of Earth Song, wasnt it? Originally titled What About Us?, the track had come to him, essentially fully formed, several years earlier while he was staying at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna. 
I was feeling so much pain and so much suffering of the plight of the planet Earth, Jackson explained in a 1995 interview. This [was] my chance to pretty much let people hear the voice of the planet. And this is Earth Song. And thats what inspired it. And it just suddenly dropped into my lap when I was on tour in Austria.
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At the Brits, Jackson, then 37, seemed to be taking inspiration from Jesuss Sermon on the Mount. Having emerged on his own, he was soon joined by starving masses of extras. They streamed onto the stage and gazed at him in awe. 
Also gazing on, though not quite in awe, was Cocker, seated up front with the rest of Pulp. Keyboardist Candida Doyle was amused by how disgusted Jarvis was, and ventured that hed never dare doing anything about it. Cocker took the bait and darted up.
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It was an innocuous and fun thing really, to go on and wave your buttocks while youve still got your trousers on, says Daniel Rachel, author of Dont Look Back in Anger: The Rise and Fall of Cool Britannia, Told by Those Who Were There. It was to do something and to stand by your principles. 
Its all well and good being an armchair critic, even if you are at an awards ceremony. Just whingeing about it. He made a stand, just in his own mind. You wouldnt have the foresight, in a split second, [that] this was going to become a national story and become a pinnacle point of the decade. Thats beyond what his actions were for or why he did them.
A quarter century on, in light of the many abuse accusations made against Jackson, its obviously unnerving to see the self-proclaimed King of Pop flanked by adoring children. But in the immediate aftermath of the Brits sympathies were with the American. Though he finished Earth Song and humbly accepted his award for Artist of a Generation, the next morning Jackson put out a statement condemning Cocker: Im sickened, saddened, shocked, upset, cheated and angry, but immensely proud that the cast remained professional and the show went on. Jacksons camp also accused Cocker of harming three children. 
Cocker would quickly clear his name. David Bowie, at the Brits to receive a Lifetime Achievement award from Tony Blair, had recorded his own footage of Earth Song: it clearly showed the Pulp frontman walking across the stage without coming into contact with any children. And yet, even with his innocence confirmed, the blitz of publicity that ensued was hugely unsettling for the sensitive and introspective Cocker.
In the UK, suddenly, I was crazily recognised, and I couldnt go out any more. It tipped me into a level of celebrity I couldnt ever have known existed and wasnt equipped for. It had a massive, generally detrimental effect on my mental health, he told The New York Times last July. 
Even without Jarvis and Jacko, the 1996 Brits were always destined to go down in history. They followed on from the summer of Britpop, in which Blur and Oasis had staged their ding-dong chart battle. Tony Blair, the 42-year-old leader of the opposition, was to attend the ceremony, where he would proclaim his devotion to David Bowie. Footballers Stan Collymore and Robbie Fowler were in the room, as were actors and comedians such as Martin Clunes, Neil Morrissey and Bob Mortimer. For a few hours, Earls Court was the beating heart of British celebrity. 
Jarvis is innocent Cocker was saved by footage recorded by David Bowies team
If anything, Cockers stage invasion was regarded by eyewitnesses as low in the pecking order of controversies. Pride of place, it was felt, went to Noel Gallagher of Oasis who, upon receiving the gong for Best British Group from Pete Townshend, plunged into an impromptu party political broadcast. There are seven people in this room who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country… That is [sic] me, our kid, [Oasis members] Bonehead, Guigs, Alan White, [Creation Records boss] Alan McGee and Tony Blair.
Twenty minutes later, it was the turn of Blair himself to shine as he presented the Lifetime Achievement award to Bowie, who was sporting his Outside-era ginger beard and an earring that declared SEX. In the wings, Blairs press advisor Alastair Campbell was biting his knuckles, praying he and his boss got through the evening without any rock stars taking a swipe at New Labour from the podium. 
The devastating pot shot when it came, however, was directed not at Tony Blair but at poor Michael Hutchence of INXS. He was looking characteristically dapper as he strode out to present Oasis with yet another award, this time for Best Video. Then Noel Gallagher grabbed the mic and said Has-beens shouldnt be presenting awards to gonna-bes.
Hutchence, who died by suicide 18 months later, was reportedly crestfallen. Still he would seemingly have his revenge recording the single Elegantly Wasted. Doing backing vocals, he apparently sang the line I am Elegantly Wasted as I am Better than Oasis.
Noel Gallagher making that great statement: the seven most important people in the room and Tony Blairs the man. That would have been the headline news, and less Jarvis, says Daniel Rachel.
He suggests that but for those two moments, the Brits that year would have been just another chapter in everyday Nineties music biz hedonism. Indeed, many of the journalists sent to cover the awards missed the Jarvis stage invasion because they were too busy making a beeline for the bar.
In terms of all the revelry, that was the Brits, wasnt it? says Rachel. A cocaine festival.
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But if few in the room grasped the significance of Jarviss stage invasion, backstage the Pulp singer was soon made aware he was in hot water. With Jacksons lawyers claiming Cocker had assaulted several of the children, police corralled the indie star in his dressing room and questioned him for two hours. 
He was next led to a police station, where Jacksons legal team had already assembled. Bob Mortimer, a qualified solicitor who had worked at Southwark Council, had dashed from Earls Court to plead on Cockers behalf and offer moral support to the bruised Pulp star. Cocker was finally released, without charge, at 3am. 
A blink-and-youve-missed-it incident had now taken on a life of its own. Hes Off His Cocker went The Sun. Jackos Pulp Friction proclaimed the Daily Express.
Suddenly everyone in Britain knew the name Jarvis Cocker. The NME was selling Jarvis Is Innocent T-shirts. That Thursday, it sent a reporter to Pulps Birmingham NEC gig to canvass the opinion of his bandmates and of the public. It ran as a cover story headlined, Wanna Be Startin Something: Jarvis, Jacko and the True Story of the Brits. 
I actually like Michael Jackson, I like some of his songs and I thought the last album was alright, Pulp bassist Steve Mackey told the paper. But Monday night was a case of the emperors new clothes; someone had to stick a pin into the balloon and burst it, so everyone could say that he was s**t. And thats what Jarvis did.
I was encouraging him added keyboardist Candida Doyle. But you cant make Jarvis do anything; he only ever does what he wants to do. The truth will come out the papers get closer to the truth every day, youll all find out soon enough.
Jarviss unlikely saviour: the late David Bowie
By the time her remarks made it to print, the Bowie footage had been released, confirming Cocker had not assaulted any children. Charges were dropped. And yet the following evening the singer came across shaken and defensive when appearing on Chris Evanss TFI Friday. Evans, never more punchable than at that moment, clearly found the entire affair hilarious. Not so the Pulp man, who batted away the cheeky banter with a pronounced solemnity. 
The horrible bit of it [was when] they arrested me. Oh, you ran onto that stage and assaulted some kids. I couldnt believe they were saying that at first, he told Evans, who had actually hosted the Brits that fateful Monday. They carted me off to the police station. It wasnt so much of a joke then.
In Britain at least, sympathies had swung definitively towards Jarvis. Still, not everyone accepted his argument that Jacksons messiah routine merited intervention. 
He [Jackson] was expecting to be the new King and kind of expecting his bigness to be interpreted as holiness. But, as I will never tire of saying, this is the fundamental point and purpose of art; to exceed oneself, to make claims towards God, opined music writer Marcello Carlin in an essay in the 2009 collection of think-pieces about Jackson, The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson. 
What was the more egocentric his 1996 Brit awards performance of Earth Song or Jarvis Cockers interruption of it? Its a complex and passionate protest song. Cockers bum, in contrast, was reductionist, petty And it is significant that Cockers career began to parachute slowly towards nothingness from this point.
Pulps popularity indeed waned, though Cocker seemed at peace with the spotlight turning elsewhere. He exorcised his A-lister demons on Pulps next album, 1998s This Is Hardcore. The record was interpreted as a shriek into the void by an artist held captive by fame and desperate to break free. 
Pulp were always the outsiders, says Daniel Rachel. Jarvis would talk about people on the sides of society who arent normally given a voice. Hes a representative of these people. In terms of Jarvis Cocker as national hero or having national status, its this moment [the Jackson stage invasion] that changes the perception of Jarvis Cocker in the eye of the great British public. I dont think he revelled with delight. I think he revelled quietly in upsetting the mainstream.
The paperback edition of Daniel Rachels Dont Look Back in Anger: The Rise and Fall of Cool Britannia, Told by Those Who Were There is published on 18 March