Bad As They Want To Be
Ugly truths about the rich and famous
by Matthew De Abaitua:
© 1999 The Guide (The Guardian, London), week of Saturday March 27-Friday April 2, 1999
When celebrities attack
Even the most squeaky-clean of stars let their guard down, but their fans rarely hear the tantrums. Matthew De Abaitua gets to listen
Elvis is burbling. It's the mid-seventies, it's Las Vegas, and the king is treating his audience to a rant denying rumours he is a junkie. "From three different sources I heard I was strung out on heroin . . . if I find or hear the individual who said that about me, I'm going to break your goddamn neck, you sonofabitch." Encouraged by a few whoops from the women in the audience, the King pushes the big red button marked Bravado. "I will pull your goddamn tongue out to the roots. Thangyouverymuch."
A recording of this tantrum is just one of dozens of celebrity faux pas that have circulated in the back room of rock 'n' roll folklore for decades. Now they have finally, conveniently, been gathered together on two volumes called Celebrities At Their Worst by underground film-maker and artist Nick Bougas.
Bougas established a grisly reputation through his association with now-deceased Satanist showman Anton LaVey, and the ultimate anti-celebrity ideologue, Charles Manson. An earlier compilation, the video Death Scenes, offers the last moments of a host of unfortunates, including photographs from the scene of the Tate murders. "I've always been attracted to things that are kind of forbidden," says Bougas, from his home in California. "Now that it has become permissible to share those kind of things, I've just been tossing the things out there."
Such a devil-may-care attitude prevents Celebrities At Their Worst from being hamstrung with lawyer-anxiety. We get foul-mouthed moments from such notoriously touchy figures as Barbra Streisand ("Uh, you are intruding on my privacy, and I would appreciate it very much if don't mind, if you would just fuck off!") and Elton John ("If you are the world's biggest faggot, or the world's biggest fucker . . . come to the Pink Pussy Cat Boutique.")
According to a copyright lawyer, Bougas isn't taking a considerable risk. "There is no copyright protection in general conversation. Copyright only applies to words which can be categorised as literary works, that is, if there has been skill practised in their composition. If a star wanted to take out an injunction against such material, they would be more likely to succeed claiming a breach of confidence in the circulation of the recording, rather than breach of copyright." And as Bougas is only compiling clips already circulated in the blooper underworld, he could argue that confidentiality had already been breached long before the recordings landed in his possession.
Clearly, the stars would have little to gain from dragging such collections through the courts, as Bougas explains: "Most of the stars are aware that these recordings exist. But they'd prefer not to draw attention to it by challenging it. A lot of these guys just grin and bear it and hope that no one who matters hears it."
So, relatively free of legal worries, we can enjoy the various pleasures these anthologies afford, pleasures not merely confined to the novelty of hearing well-known voices swearing. Some of the vignettes are filled with drama and pathos, such as the elderly Colonel Sanders stumbling over a simple voiceover, or the Beach Boys suffering the wrath of their domineering father in the studio. Others go for the more straightforward pleasure of hearing stars humiliate themselves, as in the notorious recording of Linda McCartney "singing" along to hubby's performance of Hey Jude. A mischievous technician isolated her tone-deaf warbling in the mix, so while the band churn through the interminable song, we can hear every one of Linda's failed attempts to hit the right key.
As the most excruciating vocal performance ever committed to tape, it has a strong claim to an acknowledged place in the history of pop music. A canon composed only of highs gives a false impression of the entertainment business -- we have a right to the lows too. Equally essential to such a history is the famous Troggs tape, also included in this compilation. It's recording so telling it became the inspiration for the legendary satire This Is Spinal Tap. You can learn more about the music business from 10 minutes of their studio-bound squabbling than from 10 years of reading vetted interviews in the music press. As Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty write in The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way, " All bands end in tantrums, tears and bitter acrimony." The Troggs were no exception.