Extreme Noise Terror and The KLF perform “3AM Eternal” at the BRIT Awards 1992

One of the most difficult things to do as a critic is try and work out whether something history records as shocking actually was. How representative was the shock? We know, for instance, that Elvis’ hips were scandalous and inspiring. But to empathise with that scandal – to try and feel it again -  we risk turning the audience for those hips into a bunch of repressed squares or hicks.

Shock works in three ways. There’s stuff you didn’t know was possible. There’s stuff you knew about perfectly well but weren’t expecting to be confronted with. And there’s stuff you knew about, were expecting, but which affects you anyway because you feel it’s aimed at you. An awful lot of famous pop shock – Elvis, the Pistols on Bill Grundy – seems to me to fall into the second bracket. People fuck; people swear – but people don’t swear on national teatime TV, and they don’t mime fucking on stage. And once they do, that context is the hardest part to recover.

And what about playing grindcore and machine-gunning the audience at an awards ceremony? How shocking was that? The KLF’s performance has become legendary but that isn’t at all how I remember it. What I remember is two things. Firstly that everyone knew the KLF were going to do something. And secondly that there was a lot of talk afterwards about what they didn’t do – the buckets of blood and so on. The actual performance got slightly lost – I remember my friends being a bit disappointed. Would anyone have noticed the machine-gun fire on TV unless they’d read about it the next day – it’s there at about 2.30, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment?

But surely it was shocking – the BRIT awards! The stuffy industry! The only problem is, the BRITs were desperately looking for a bit of theatrics – it was a couple of years on from the notoriously terrible Mick Fleetwood/Sam Fox awards ceremony and the show needed things to put it back on the map. If there was ever a time when the audience wanted to be terrorised, it was now. Compare Jarvis Cocker’s interruption of Michael Jackson’s performance four years later – the deliberate puncturing of spectacle caused more consternation than the most extreme performance could.

But still, it’s a great performance. Great performances were what they did. What’s really striking to me now is how good and coherent the music sounds – back in 1992 this really was “just noise” to me, I assumed it was part of the prank, barely recognisable as a song. But the markers for extreme, and noise, and terror have all shifted since then. “A grindcore cover version of [x]” – twenty years on, the reaction is just, “oh, OK, let’s hear it then.”