Rock & roll has always gone hand in hand with criminality. From Jailhouse Rock to Gangsta Rap, the lure of breakin’ the law has been overwhelming for countless tunesmiths. Recently, the siren call of the prison bars has become even louder in the pop universe. World-munching sex diva Lady Gaga’s glorious Jonas Åkerlund-directed ‘Telephone’ video squeezes as much fetishism as possible from the jail environment, while the commercial hip-hop/R&B dominion has taken its overarching obsession with lawlessness further towards mainstream acceptance. For hip-hop gangstas like 50 Cent, an inglorious past as a street-dwelling hood is indispensable in terms of credibility, while similarly shock-rockers like Mötley Crüe and Marilyn Manson get off on the integrity that a mugshot will bring to their bad-boy images. But pop crime isn’t always as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be. Criminal infamy seems to be a double-edged sword; you might get away from it with some mystery and danger added to your reputation, but more often than not you’re going to be the laughing stock of the world. Even back in rock & roll’s early days dancing with crime wasn’t always beneficial to your image; for example Chuck Berry was arrested for ferrying underage girls across state borders to shag them legally. Not cool. The modern music world doesn’t seem to learn from its forbears’ embarrassing mishaps, sadly. Some of the most famous musicians in the world today are also its most famous criminals, and not in an attractive or alluring way, as these jailbirds will testify:
We can’t discuss the various strains of pop prison-dwelling without good old Michael Jackson (God rest his soul). Jackson wasn’t the first pop paedo – that title could be handed to the aforementioned Chuck ‘What the Fuck?’ Berry or Daily Mail favourite Gary Glitter. He was, however, the highest profile. Though never convicted, much of Jackson’s fame after releasing several scintillating records in the late Eighties was derived from his troubles with the law over molestation charges. There’s not much I can add to the subject really – either you think he was a fallen angel whose childlike, innocent friendships with kids were twisted by evil lawyers, or you think he was a pasty-faced pill-popping psycho with a penchant for pyjama parties who peddled Richie Rich sex fantasies that Macaulay Culkin bore the brunt of.
Another high profile Hollywood case was that of the legendary ‘Wall of Sound’ producer Phil Spector. I’m an undying fan of his work with The Ronettes and The Crystals, but even I was embarrassed to be spinning his records after he was jailed for shooting Lana Clarkson. Mainly because of her starring role in one of my favourite B-Movies, hack & slash epic ‘Barbarian Queen’. What a waste of talent. We all, including poor Lana, should have seen it coming though, with Spector having threatened everyone from The Ramones to Leonard Cohen with his impressive collection of firearms. I just hope the cops checked that hair for hidden guns before he went to the pen.
Ozzy Osbourne’s career was built on being a giant nobhead. Half his fame stems from his antics rather than his music. Having morphed from being the charismatic singer of Black Sabbath into a bloated cartoon by the Eighties, the Brummie nutcase set about becoming the court jester of rock & roll, beating other clowns such as drum-wielding Pammy-humper Tommy Lee and rootin’ tootin’ Pammy-humper Kid Rock to the title. Among his many legendary arrests he can count pissing on the Alamo in a dress and shooting the family cats with a shotgun, amongst other celebrated party pieces such as snorting ants and decapitating doves and bats with his teeth. Ozzy’s most notable criminal charge was not as hilarious or surreal, however. He was arrested in 1989 for drunkenly attempting to strangle his wife Sharon. To be honest, who can blame him – I’d probably be forced to violence fifteen minutes into living with her.
Taking punk rock to its illogical extreme, GG Allin is one of rock & roll’s great failures. He couldn’t sing, couldn’t write, and couldn’t play. Judging by his lyrics, he could barely even think. Beloved by mentally slow teen rebels as well as (probably) jazz professors, Allin carved a niche for himself as he ‘brilliantly’ merged Jeremy Kyle subject matter with punk. Performing naked and attempting to fight, rape, and shit on anyone who came near him at gigs, he basically ended up looking like a fat guy with a bad moustache having a serious seizure caused by A.D.H.D. He even sucked at dying – rather than follow up on his claim that he’d expire onstage, he perished ignobly after a massive drug binge all alone. Rather than drugs, I think he might have needed a prescription of hugs.
Does anyone actually care about Peter Doherty any more? The Libertines reformed for Reading/Leeds this year to a chorus of ‘Whatever’. But my teens were blighted by this one-man fauxhemian Byronic cabaret. Graciously giving the world crack ‘n roll acolytes The View, The Others, and horse-faced horse-tranquilizer lover Amy Winehouse (along with her jockey Blake Fielder-Civil), he conquered London in the mid-Noughties. The odious hipness of the Camden set is thankfully fading, thanks in part to Doherty’s precocious attendance of court hearings balanced by his distinct lack of tunes. Perhaps this re-union will yield yet more half-arsed, vaguely criminal self-mythologizing. Or even better, someone will pop a cap in his ass and give him what he’s always wanted – rock & roll immortality.
Akon’s crimes, including somehow turning domestic abuse into sexy floor-filling material with ‘Smack That’, are more extensive than just the jail time that inspired his hit ‘Locked Up’. Akon, full name Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam, has, among other mishaps, simulated sex onstage with a preacher’s daughter who was aged 15 at the time. Cool. He’s also claimed to be part of an auto-theft ring back in the day. Aside from music he has many business ventures, his most unpleasant being his diamond mine in Sierra Leone. As he has stated, ‘I don’t believe in conflict diamonds. That’s just a movie.’ Much of his criminal past seems to have been embellished, however; his claim to have spent three years in prison was challenged with court records and detectives involved in his case. There’s nothing cooler than a rampant misogynist trying to look street and badass with a fictionalised lowlife criminal past whilst enslaving people from his impoverished homeland to collect diamonds for him. Think about that next time you’re making out to his slick tunes at SNG.
Another smoother-than-silk hip-hopper who somehow remains ‘cool’ despite clearly being a gaping asshole is Chris Brown. While Akon merely sang about how awesome domestic abuse is, ol’ Chrissy went and did it for real. What’s worse, it wasn’t as if he was beating up someone who had it coming, like Lil’ Kim or Pink – it was the gorgeous and talented Rihanna. This was no push or shove either, it was proper down-the-stairs aggravated assault. Maybe he chose Rihanna because she’s quite an easy takedown; smacking up Queen Latifah or Miss E. Elliott would have been a more impressive feat. Still, how the little shit’s managed to bounce back from that incident and remains a club staple is beyond me.
To finish with, someone who knows just how to pull off rock & roll criminal style. If you’re going to get in trouble, at least look good while you’re at it. David Bowie’s arrest on a drug charge was pretty standard, but observe the ice-cool mugshot. No-one looks that good in prison, not even Gaga. History has taught us that there are a couple of ways to get away with being a real rock & roll criminal. It’s obvious that drugs busts and troubled pasts are all well and good, and committing homicide and burning churches worked great for the Norwegian Black Metal scene’s international reputation. Suicide did wonders for Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley’s legacy, while puking to death thanks to drink and narcotics was the key to Keith Moon, Jim Morrison and Billie Holiday’s immortalisation. There’s nothing like a bit of darkness to enhance a rock & roll image. Just don’t get in trouble via molestation, child enslavement, audience raping, animal abuse, or wife beating like the crazy cats above. For some reason it just doesn’t go down as well.