For a long time, the Mercury Prize was seen as little more than a bloated, champagne swilling, self-congratulatory record label money pit with little value or any connection to the real world or popular culture.
The Prize was created in 1992 by the British Phonographic Industry as an alternative to the Brit Awards, also created by the British Phonographic Industry, though it should be noted that the BRITs fell into a dark pit many years ago, around the time Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood were involved, and never really recovered.
The idea that the Mercury was the bloated, champagne swilling, self-congratulatory record label money pit mentioned above is backed up by its nomination process, which is perhaps a little questionable, a tad morally ambiguous.
Any British or Irish album released in the year concerned can be nominated, those nominations being submitted by the artists’ record label. Yes, their record label, whose entire reason for being is ensuring their artists’ success.
By way of contrast, I am a shortlist panel member for the Northern Ireland Music Awards this year, we were literally sent a list of every single album that was released and asked to pick three.
Just three, from every album released from an artist that has a bloodline in Northern Ireland, it’s quite a list and a system that is devoid of managers, marketers, publishers, promoters… Or money – I have yet to be bribed.
It is probably a monstrous pain in the arse to collate, but nonetheless.
The Mercury Prize shortlist, the one made up of nominations from record labels, is whittled down by a panel consisting of musicians, producers, journalists, media folk, a few festival organisers and others whose lives depend on the success of bloated, champagne swilling, self-congratulatory record label money pits.
For a while it became a disappointment, like a drunk uncle making a fool of himself at a family wedding, we were all there for the bride but dear God, the uncle found the free wine, is now pissed and is hitting on a bridesmaid.
Many music writers turned away in disgust, wrote hit pieces, others ordered a cab and left the building. For a while, we all turned away from the sight of our uncle randomly grabbing peoples arses, and who can blame us.
It seems though, in recent years, that our dear old uncle has been through some form of rehab; we’re all back at another family wedding, he’s here, he’s scrubbed up, suited and booted, on the still water and behaving himself.
More or less. This year’s Mercury Prize shortlist was quite something. Just to recap, the shortlist included Anna Calvi, black midi, Cate Le Bon, Dave, Foals, Fontaines D.C., Idles, Little Simz, Nao, Seed Ensemble, slowthai, and The 1975.
For my money, there are at least six records in there that could have easily walked away with the award tonight, there is a lot of anger, a lot of politics and a lot of youthful verve and energy. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
The thing that most interests me is how many of these artists are brand new to us, there are debut albums from Slowthai, black midi, Dave, Fontaines D.C. and SEED Ensemble, everything else on there is more or less worthy of its place on the list, though personally I’d question the inclusion of The 1975.
The shortlist suggests there has been some work going on in a dark room somewhere amidst a fog of cigar smoke and whiskey, or the panel has changed to be something more reflective of popular culture, to make the award something more that it has been for a while.
A bloated, champagne swilling, self-congratulatory record label money pit.
In these pages, there has been a lot of love for Fontaines D.C., not that you’d have noticed, obviously. But among the team, we’ve been blown away by Little Simz, slowthai, black midi, and Idles, they’ve collectively rattled our skulls, emptied our wallets and moved our feet.
There is a lot of money in this awards game, winning can catapult acts into the stratosphere, it can mean a jump in sales and the kind of media coverage money can’t buy, that’s not to say there hasn’t been any money thrown at it to date, because you can guess there probably has.
Production, promotion, advertising, touring, it’s all money, say nothing of the hundreds of albums that need to be sent to the panel, the time spent chasing people and bothering them for their thoughts and opinions. And God only knows what other favours and fancy goods are being shuttled around ahead of the awards.
But there are huge differences already in who has done what to date with the albums nominated, if you take this list from Music Week, posted in July, there are some remarkable points of interest, namely, Seed Ensembles‘ 374 sales and the 138,397 fools who paid good money for the 1975 record, I mean, what were they thinking?
- Seed Ensemble, 374
- Cate Le Bon, 2,957
- black midi, 3,400
- Little Simz, 7,584
- Anna Calvi, 9,823
- Nao, 11,832
- Slowthai, 15,252
- Fontaines D.C., 17,915
- Idles, 48,554
- Foals, 51,712
- Dave, 112,976
- The 1975, 138,397
The inclusion of some of those with lower sales figures tells me that these days at least, there is an interest in new music, that there can be a wild card in the mix and that sometimes the little guy gets a nod, no bad thing.
And the show?
The show is still hidden away on BBC Four, the lesser-known BBC, for fear that someone pulls a stunt, or a drunk uncle falls off the wagon perhaps, it’s presented by Lauren Laverne who’s been down this road before. Foals open proceedings with a joyous, celebratory rendition of On The Luna, it’s full of heart, vibrant and beautifully produced.
Anna Calvi follows with a stunner version of Don’t Beat The Girl Outta my Boy, a song about gender, happiness and control, it is a bassy, deep groove of a track carried along by Calvi‘s voice that is wildly appropriate given the times we live in, and she gives it every ounce of her soul she can muster.
But this early on, the live winner is Little Simz with a version of Selfish, it’s a remarkable track, beautifully lyrical, and beautifully delivered, how many times have you seen someone rap while they sit behind a grand piano?
It sounds amazing, Simz is brimming with confidence, the fact that Simz has managed to appear in not just one of the finest cut suits I’ve ever seen in some time, but two, well, that’s a winner in anyone’s book.
To be brutally honest, Seed Ensemble are a new one to me, but their rendition of Interplanetary Migration is a gloriously jazzy few minutes, layered horns, a pacy drum and a lot of happy faces on stage, my guess, even at this stage, is that their online sales have just gone through the roof.
I tried a few times to count just how many there were on stage and failed, miserably, if anyone has any idea please do send it through on a postcard to the usual address.
Fontaines D.C. flew over from the States to play all four minutes and twenty six seconds of Boys In The Better Land, a brave choice, given that it slags everyone off, having delivered the finest line in a song this year;
“Driver’s got names to fill two double barrels
He spits out “Brits out” only smokes Carrolls
And he’s refreshing the world in mind body and spirit
Mind body and spirit
You better hear it and fear it”
It is a glorious slice of a Dubliner’s life, of living in a city where there is literally a culture war on with developers pulling every cultural institution down to replace it with flats and offices, hence the Boys In The Better Land, and they play an absolute blinder, though how they’re upright is a mystery. God bless them for Vancouver.
Cate Le Bon follows Fontaines D.C. and it couldn’t be a bigger contrast, it’s light, dreamy, the kind of thing you want to hear at this time of the night, the xylophone isn’t something you see on many stages, is it? It’s at this point where Lauren Laverne highlights something that is slightly odd. The prize money.
Now, you could guess not many of them would miss it, apart from Seed Ensemble, maybe, but £25,000 seems like a paltry sum, given the money between the labels and the sponsor, Hyundai still sell a few motors, right?
Dave performs a snappy version of his track Psycho, though he seems to want to make a liar of me, in appearing with a piano, though in fairness to Simz he isn’t playing it. He’s a clever lyricist, he clearly pours his heart into these words, they all carry huge weight, light this is not, though its offset a little by his luminous yellow tracksuit.
black midi didn’t have far to travel too far, though that seems to have set them up nicely to sort all that gear out to deliver a genre-hopping, mind-altering, reality-twisting, planetary-bending version of bmbmbm.
They seem like they’re not really working together, but this level of madness has to be rehearsed to within an inch of its life, another act that will certainly be open to new audiences by their performance alone, there was skuzz and feedback in that room tonight and they brought all of it.
The 1975 appeared via video from Australia, they’re due to play Melbourne Friday night, though in their absence Matt Healy gave a very heartfelt but short speech, they were there for the music and while cancellation was considered it was only considered for a brief moment.
Do they know how far away Vancouver is?
Nao was in the room, she delivered an angelic version of Another Lifetime, there was stunning choreography, stunning lighting a lot of heart and a whole lot of soul, which is alright by me.
Slowthai followed Nao with an entirely different approach, it’s angry, he danced on tables, threw himself around the room with utter abandon and as a highlight for me, managed a few ‘Fuck Boris’ hollers as he ran around the room. His rendition of Doorman is fantastically gritty, bathed in fuzz and feedback its perfectly fuck you.
Or Boris, at any rate.
Idles album Joy As An Act Of Resistance is about heartache, anger, rage, compassion, change and vulnerability, they say people wear their hearts on their sleeves, Idles do, alongside those of their mortal enemies.
A screamy, furious version of Never Fight A Man With A Perm follows and for the first time we see a few people on their feet, it’s either the booze or the sight of a man in his underwear on a stage, it’s hard to know.
What we can say with some authority is that they love Slowthai, and who doesn’t
Idles do their anger and their lyricism beautifully, take the following line;
“A heathen from Eton
On a bag of Michael Keaton
He thinks he’s suave
You’re not suave ’cause you watched Get Carter
You are a catalogue, plastic Sinatra”
There’s a lot going on there, and that’s before we get to the pink hair. Honestly, at this stage I have no idea who’s going to win, given the performances and the heart on stage, it’s absolutely anyone’s guess.
My heart was set on Fontaines D.C. to win but to see Annie Mac walk on stage and announce Dave as the winner was a shock, but a hugely welcome one.
In its airing it is a near-perfect choice, something so off the beaten track, something that barely got a nod on social media in the run-up to the show, something so far away from everyone’s predictions yet so utterly compelling, so absolutely infectious and wholly worthy of the prize?
A debut album by a young black man with a lot to say and a beautiful way of saying it? It’s hard to beat that. And he brought his mum on stage, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, that he had to be called back on to perform he was so lost in the moment, was a joy to behold.
And for the Mercury Award itself, maybe now they’ve shaken off the bloated, champagne swilling, self-congratulatory record label money pit image and done something remarkable, more power to them. They certainly shocked pretty much all of the pundits, and that can only be a good thing.
Thrilled for Dave, Psychodrama is exquisite #mercuryprize
— Roisin O’Connor (@Roisin_OConnor) September 19, 2019
— Andrew Trendell (@AndrewTrendell) September 19, 2019
— Pete Paphides (@petepaphides) September 19, 2019