I wrote something marginally more serious about the Mercury Prize on the BBC Music Blog…

September 7, 2011

It’s over here. Why the Mercury Prize matters. I think it does. It’s not all about the final 12, you know. Everyone and anything can benefit, if they play their cards right. Ultimately, great music will out.


Notes from the Mercury Prize

September 7, 2011

By now, you’ll know that PJ Harvey has become the first artist to win the Mercury Prize for a second time, her Let England Shake the pick of the shortlisted 12 at last night’s awards do in London. (Read a review of the album on the BBC, here.) I was at the awards – here’s how it went down, from where I was standing. (Times are estimates only – these are my observations and opinions only, not those of the BBC!)

19.00 – In. No fizz yet. Sort it out, Mercurys.

19.04 – Jools is saying something. Presumably about music. It’s hard to tell as the suits clink their glasses across the tables below us – us being the press scumbags and hangers-on assembled on the balcony. I could really do with a drink.

19.05 – Ghostpoet’s in the building. He’s wearing his trademark pork pie hat indoors. My mum, she wouldn’t like that. Thinks it’s rude to wear a hat indoors.

19.07 – Tinie Tempah is the first performer of the night. “The one and only Tinie Tempah,” announces Jools, ramming his face between the cheeks of a nominated artist for the first time tonight. Thank fuck he’s the one and only, think several of the assembled onlookers. (Okay, perhaps just me.) Mr Tempah plays a medley of his chart hits. Few in the room seem to care. This man is not going home with the Mercury.

19.11 – Anna Calvi now. Like Tempah (and, later, Katy B) she’s dressed in black and red. Danger colours, those. Perhaps we’re in for a fiery performance. Or, perhaps, she’ll just shout for a bit while that friend of hers manhandles a squeezy wheezy box. I’ve never got the fuss surrounding Calvi – an adequate guitarist with some okay songs, but nothing more to these ears. And it must be weird for her tonight, performing in the shadow of PJ Harvey – an artist who’s done what Calvi’s doing for the past 20 years or so, and much better. Calvi’s album has no chance of winning.

19.15 – Jools runs us through all of the nominated albums. Everything is “fantastic” or “wonderful”, of course – this is the way of Jools. Still, he’s a national treasure, the sole televisual window onto the wider musical world for a large percentage of the British public, so I can forgive the sycophancy (and besides, if he’s not going to say these albums and artists are great, who is?). The biggest cheers seem to be for Katy B and Ghostpoet. But that might just be because of where I’m stood.

19.16 – Gwilym Simcock plays. His jazz face, to borrow from a credit card provider that isn’t sponsoring tonight’s proceedings, is priceless. He’s a very talented pianist, but really: his album’s never had a chance of winning, which begs the question of why it’s in the running. There have been better jazz albums in the last 12 months. If you must pick a ‘token’ jazz entry, at least make it one by an outfit with rather more fire in its collective belly. Honestly, this is like riding in a lift…

19.18 – …Until Simcock climbs inside his piano and starts beating it. That makes the room go up. But it might just be sympathy applause – thanks for coming, chap; see you… well, never.

19.28 – After a pause, PJ plays. She’s good, this girl. She’ll do well. A no-frills performance, but she’s an artist with nothing to prove at this stage of her career.

19.34 – King Creosote – who, later, will apparently fall into a swimming pool fully suited – plays, alongside Jon Hopkins on piano. It’s a beautiful moment; the room falls still. That pair had their odds slashed earlier in the day. A sign of success to come? Perhaps – but remember this thing isn’t decided until after these performances, when the judging panel retires to shout at each other until they reach a verdict. I wonder if all of them are ever really happy with the outcome?

19.40 – Metronomy now, with The Bay. Good choice. Good performance. Nice to see a band put a little heart into their live showing tonight. Joseph Mount encourages us to visit Devon. I have done, sir, several times. Paignton Zoo and I, we get along fine. He makes the audience laugh, which is nice. It’s be nicer still if the band’s album, The English Riviera, was to win… but a hunch says it won’t.

19.44 – When does the England match kick off?

19.45 – Oh, about now. Thanks.

19.47 – Nice chat with Gbenga from Metronomy. Apparently Lauren Laverne, who’s here tonight presenting for the BBC, fought for their album to be in the shortlist. Zane Lowe didn’t like it, he tells me. Zane, Zane… Bad form.

19.50 – Katy B. She’s good. Great performance of On a Mission. Beside me, the live-blogger fellow from The Quietus announces that she’s his pick for tonight; later, when we’re surrounded by guys and gals from Rinse (who ‘comically’ threaten to mug us), we’ll both say we’re rooting for her. She seems genuinely pleased to be part of this – as a young artist with her first album just released, I guess everything’s still an adventure for her. She’ll learn, in time. Someone tweets that Polly Jean has the best nose in rock; I counter with Katy B has the best dimples in pop. She does though. Treasures, those.

19.57 – James Blake is on. Somewhere in this noise there’s a song, I’m sure of it.

19.59 – I’m not so sure. He’s a tall lad, Mr Blake. I guess when your head’s all the way up there it’s hard to hear your mates, who are telling you: “James, put some songs on the album… James…? JAMES?! Oh, whatever… make a record that sounds like a Bon Iver remix LP.” Mr The Quietus loved his older stuff – might sound like a muso thing to say, but it’s true: Blake’s pre-album fare was much, much better than what makes up his eponymous debut. He won’t win.

20.00 – The audience seems to be in agreement. They might be quiet out of respect, like they were for King Kenny earlier. More likely they’re asleep, though.

20.07 – Ghostpoet is fantastic – loud, and loving every second of being here. Performance of the night (Cash and Carry Me Home, since you asked).

20.11 – News reaching us that Adele is not going to perform. She’s here, though.

20.15 – Grab a word with Ghostpoet. He seems thrilled to be part of this, and is drinking it in. I wish him the best – it’d be bloody fantastic if his LP, Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam, won this thing. As someone who has only just quit his nine-to-five to focus on his music, that £20,000 will go a long way. He calls me ‘Mr Diver’ too, which I like. (It’s my name, but still.)

20.19 – We’re watching a performance of Rolling in the Deep on the screens. She can sing, this Adele girl. Watch out for her. Bright future, etc.

20.20 – Adele takes to the stage to make a thank-you speech and pick up her one-of-the-final-12 trophies/toilet brushes. She makes people laugh, and snorts a little herself. She’s great, just like one of us. Only absolutely loaded.

20.24 – Everything Everything are dressed like Ghostbusters but aren’t even as entertaining as the second Ghostbusters movie – and that really sagged in places.

20.30 – And now it’s Elbow. Somehow I’ve forgotten about Elbow being here – probably because Build a Rocket Boys! is so utterly underwhelming. Why’s it in the final 12? Because Guy Garvey is a Really Nice Man, that’s why. Can’t be on the strength of the LP in question – if so, clearly the panel has listened to 10 albums all year and then picked two acts on the strength of previous collections. (I might be referring to Adele here – 21 is decent, no doubt, but 6/10 decent rather than 9/10 amazing.)

20.34 – Lippy Kids is the most boring song of 2011.

20.36 – Jools arrives on stage to bury himself up Garvey’s arse. Says something about how we all love Elbow. No, Jools, we don’t. Some of us can’t work out why they’re here in the place of many other more worthy outfits. But, hell, that Guy fella is a smashing chap. Struggles to stand up straight while performing, though. He might want to see someone about that.

20.45 – In the pub. Second half of the England vs Wales match is as dull as Everything Everything were a few minutes ago.

22.02 – Back in the building. Lauren’s over there, speaking to camera. She’s with the chap who presents the 6 Music breakfast show, Sean Keaveny. That’s the same Sean Keaveny who’s failed to get the name of this award correct on his show for the past few weeks/months. An expert, then.

22.05 – Realise how weird it must be for the artists tonight, playing to a room where the majority of people assembled don’t want them to do well. They might like their records, and go to their shows elsewhere – but tonight they’re rooting for a rival.

22.09 – Another music journalist tweets simply: “Fuck Off Elbow.” To the point.

22.26 – And the winner is…

22.26.08 – PJ Harvey! Unprecedented second win for Peej. I’d love to say I’m happy with her win, but… Well, it’s a bit safe, isn’t it? An established artist triumphs again. Might have been nice to see the Mercury celebrate emerging talent a little more – but all of the shortlisted 12 benefit from this exposure, so there are no losers in the room tonight. Plus, PJ is an awesome artist whose catalogue is immense. Let England Shake is an LP I’ve not personally clicked with, but I recognise the love for it from other quarters. Many a friend has told me that it’s the best album of 2011, so…

22.32 – Right, I’m off to the pub for last orders. See ya, the #mercuryprize.

– – –

Watch performances from the night, and interviews and the like, on the BBC Music Showcase pages.

Read reviews of all the nominated albums via the BBC Music Blog.

Paul Connolly’s article on Nirvana and them not being particularly good.

September 1, 2011

You know, this one. Maybe you read it already.

Needless to say, I don’t agree with it. But, then, everyone is entitled to their opinions.

But as the lead (?) music journalist at the (hate)Mail, surely Connolly is better than this – better than an article written purely to provoke inevitable reactions from Cobain acolytes and the wider critical community alike. To reduce a band like Nirvana – an act splintered apart before their time, who I am sure had their greatest album still in them – to three songs of note is amazing. And that two of them aren’t exactly standouts in their catalogue for the ‘average’ fan – Frances Farmer… being an album cut from In Utero, and Oh, the Guilt their side of a split 7″ shared with The Jesus Lizard (yes, I have it; no, I won’t sell it to you) – is peculiar indeed: here’s a piece criticising Cobain for his attitude, praising pop hits over angst-riddled rock, yet the writer selects two seemingly arbitrary cuts rather than the far more ‘instant’ fare – All Apologies, Drain You, About a Girl, Lithium etc.

I exchanged a couple of emails with Connolly after he wrote these kind words about me: “If you’re going to accuse me of hitting fresh lows have a good, hard look at yourself, young man and the one-eyed balderdash you’re coming out with.” Ultimately, we agree to disagree (and we like a lot of the same music, it should be noted). I don’t have a problem with writing to quite deliberately cause a kerfuffle, but it seems dramatically imbalanced in this instance – Nirvana wrote pop-rock that sparkled just as easily as they did dirges for the disaffected. Just seems a bit desperate, a cry for hits amongst so many articles on Nirvana and Nevermind – the album, of course, is 20 years old this month.

Anyway, I’m just fuelling the fire here. So I’ll stop. But remember Nirvana for their great music – don’t (like you were) be swayed by one man’s remarkably reductive words. I can’t think of an album of my generation to have had the impact Nevermind did when I got a taped copy of it from a mate’s older sister when I was in the first year of senior school. Teenage dreams might well be so hard to beat – but those you have before hitting 13 can last so much longer.