Ah, the Mercury Music Prize – so often the butt of jokes it has nonetheless wormed its way into the British consciousness to become one of the most important events on the musical calendar.
Founded in 1992, it takes it name from initial sponsor Mercury Telecom. Sadly, that company has now gone bankrupt (the first to fall victim to the Mercury curse?) but the name remains. Set up as an alternative to the industry dominated Brits, it has flung previously unknown acts into the sharp light of public attention raising the ire of music fans along the way.
...the band picked up and promptly lost the winner’s cheque
With more shocks than the average episode of Jeremy Kyle, the Mercury nominations list can make for both grim and inspiring reading – sometimes in the same year. Clashmusic.com counts down ten of the biggest surprises from the history of the prize…
10. Primal Scream – Screamadelica
An era defining, life-changing album maybe but in 1992 a shortlist that contained industry figures such as U2 and Simply Red meant that many simply didn’t give the Primals a chance. How wrong they were though, as the band picked up and promptly lost the winner’s cheque. An example of the Mercury sticking to its guns and backing the right album, against the concerns of a moral majority out raged that these acid house wastrels should be given the trophy.
9. M People
Oh dear. Even if they did contain Mike Pickering, M People created some inexcusable music (top of the list is their mauling of Small Faces’ sublime “Itchycoo Park”). Worse than that, 1994’s list was dominated by stunning talent as British music dragged itself out of the doledrums. Blur, Pulp, The Prodigy and a resurgent Paul Weller? No thanks mate, Mercury went for this bunch of Mancunian chancers. A crime so unforgivable that it almost single handedly ruined the awards credibility.
8. Oasis passed over
Back in the mid 90s, when Britain still had a real summer and we all wore Adidas, the entire world agreed on just one thing: Oasis were the best band on the planet. No ifs, buts, or maybes the mouthy Mancs were the new Beatles, come to save us all from a life of 9-5 drudgery, crap TV and Blur albums. The Mercury judges didn’t agree however, and overlooked both of their first two era defining albums. Their only saving grace is that those who did win the prize – Portishead and Pulp – were more than deserving.
7. Radiohead / Roni Size
Critically reviled after disastrous debut “Pablo Honey”, Radiohead took a good long look in the mirror and re-emerged as one of the pivotal rock bands of the decade. Their 1997 album “OK Computer” perfectly captured millennial ennui, as critics rampaged through dictionaries to lavish praise on the album. A shame then, that the emergent drum and bass scene had captured the judges attention, with the Mercury award ending up perched on the mantelpiece of Mr Roni Size. The Radiohead curse begins here!
The Verve represent something of a paradigm for a British band in the 90s. Their earlier, groove led psychedelia drove them to the brink of drug induced madness before they learned how to write anthems and conquer charts. Third album “Urban Hymns” looked a shoe-in for the Mercury, with its everyman qualities mixing with a lingering love for out-there rock sounds. Yet the award went to Gomez for their home produced album “Bring It On”. Sure, a generation bought it and the band recently completed an anniversary tour for their breakthrough LP – its just a shame that it was never very good in the first place.
7. Gorillaz resign from list
For all the criticism aimed at the awards, few expected a band to take as drastic a measure as Gorillaz did. Terrified of being known as “Mercury Award Winners" the band did the logical thing – they resigned from the list. Since that year (2001) no Damon Albarn affiliated album has been allowed to appear on the list, with Gorillaz bassist Murdoc claiming that winning the award would be “like carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity”. Quite.
...now THERE is a band who know their bangers from their mash
6. Ms Dynamite
The smart money was on Roots Manuva, the emotional currency was on The Streets yet the 2002 award went to Ms Dynamite. A brave move, or yet another mistake? Combined with PJ Harvey’s win the year before, the Mercury became the possession of female artists as no award before or since. Given the British music industry’s tendency to overlook the contribution of female artists, this made for headline grabbing stuff as the Mercury’s became a talking point across the land.
5. Radiohead / Dizzee Rascal
They just can’t catch a break. Entering with “Hail To The Thief” no one really expected them to win since it wasn’t a particularly good album. Indeed it is easily their worst since “Pablo Honey” so why was it nominated over the groundbreaking one-two of “Kid A” and “Amnesiac”? Probably to give the rhymin’ Rascal a chance to completely humiliate the Oxford band, that’s why.
4. Robert Wyatt
Nominated for “Cuckooland” in 2004, the mention of his name brought with it no amount of shock. The one time member of the Communist Party had existed on the periphery of British music for longer than mot of the rest of the acts had been alive. His nomination, and subsequent rise in both profile and sales, is one of the more joyful examples of how the Mercury Prize can help those most in need of some exposure.
3. Antony & The Jonsons
The curious voice of Antony Hegarty is one of life’s more enduring treasures, but his nomination in 2005 brought with it no amount of controversy. Surely he was American? As Antony was coaxed out of obscurity it emerged that he did, indeed, hold a British passport but had lived in America for a number of years. Imagine the controversy, though, when he actually went on to win the thing! Kaiser Chiefs were outraged, and indulged themselves in an ill-thought out rant, which the tabloids gleefully spread all over the gossip pages.
2. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
Having set a precedent with Antony & The Jonsons the year before, the 2006 list brought with it more Kaiser-baiting. Not only was Mark Lanegan American but fellow nominees Guillemots had members from all over the shop! Even bleedin’ Brazil! Letters were written, banners were painted and slogans chanted in an attempt to keep the Mercury Prize racially pure. Just as well Arctic Monkeys won the thing – now THERE is a band who know their bangers from their mash.
1. Elbow aka Radiohead denied again
Those subtle architects of language the Germans have a word for taking delight in someone else’s downfall. At Clash however, we call it like it is: a bloody great laugh! Elbow scooped the 2008 award amid emotional scenes, namely the tears of disgust from Thom Yorke whose 2006 solo album was equally shunned. Delight, however, for Guy Garvey and co. who labelled the success the best thing that’s ever happened to them, a reminder of the power the award can have on a band’s career.