Mercury’s gold (doesn’t always shimmer)

Award ceremonies present quite the uncertain prospect for most observers; the general population either adore or ignore, tabloids subject the most meaningless to disproportionate hyperbole, broadsheets offer disproportionate analysis. It’s not just the self-promoting ridiculousness of them all (although, to paraphrase Sideshow Bob, there is not yet a trinket out there for attempted physics).

If ever there’s a gong show with contentious decisions written all the way across its history like a hipster’s arm, it’s the Mercury Prize for….well….best album? Greatest? Most beloved Alexis Petridis?

This year’s shortlist is the usual eclectic, eccentric muddle of commercial and deliberately obtuse leftfield choices (oooh, jazz, mmmm), makes the already difficult task of comparing different artists collections of work almost laughably impossible. There’s a reason why “What kind of music you into, then?” stops attracting meaningful responses after the age of 15. Unless you’re talking to your gran (Choice quote from my gran, now sadly deceased. “I like that ‘soul music’, but not his face”, she said of the Prodigy album “The Jilted Generation” upon seeing the album art and the words “sole CD” on the price sticker).

Mercury Prizes are subject to more chin-stroking than most because they have always posited the reputation as being above, higher, and somehow plainly more than commercially minded rivals. They are not the brash Brits, they are not the sell-out NME awards. In truth, natch, their position accurately moves around with the whim of the audience they court, one eye on a mature, world-wise audience (Jesus and Mary Chain nominated in 1992, Radiohead in 1997, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in 1996), and another on promotion and advertising kudos (Spice Girls in 1997, Mark Morrison in 1996, Sting in 1993, arguably every time post-1997 that Radiohead have ever been nominated.)

Famously, now, the judges considered M People’s “Elegant Slumming” over Blur (“Parklife”), the aforementioned Prodigy, and Paul Weller’s “Wild Wood”. Plainly bonkers – it’s not worth saying, really, that track-for-track, Blur kinda just sorta do beat Heather Small into a mush of smug self-help sludge, even accounting for “Trouble in the Message Centre”, which is awful.

Nobody explicitly awarded the Mercury’s with a high pedestal from which to sprinkle “indie” stardust on the chart albums below. Partly the responsibility of the panel itself, mostly due to the journalists it feeds so well, the value of its currency is somewhat euro like in its widely unsustainable level. It has blatantly turned to an unwritten rota from which awards are seen to be fairly handed out, such as occurred in right-on trendy comprehensives at sports days. One year, it’s an obscure winner (Talvin Singh’s “OK” in 1999, which I bought, incidentally), and then follow that up with something a bit more mainstream (2000 was Badly Drawn Boy, beating Leftfield themselves, ironically enough).

“Obscure, mainstream, obscure, mainstream” has turned out to be more of an obvious seating pattern than Tony Blair’s “gay, straight, gay, straight” Cabinet seating arrangements. Bloc Party or KT Tunstall count not win in 2005, for that was an obscure year. The xx triumphed last year, the year of the mainstream, which may seem like a rule proving exception were it not for Speech Debelle triumphing 12 months previously.

Assumption and half-remembered memory has not helped the Mercury’s laudable attempt to move away from being an unofficial badge of approval from ‘proper’ critics. It’s “indie” credentials only grew on the back of its inaugural winners and subsequent follow-up – had Primal Scream (worthy) and Suede (worthy) not succeeded, its value today would be less than a Greek stocktrader.

This year – the year of the Obscure Winner, betting folks – the commentariat have clucked their collective tongues at a somewhat uneven shortlist, from Adele and Elbow to Anna Calvi (and no, I was unable to whistle anything by Gwilym Simcock until I hit YouTube ). Betting money might be going on Adele (she’s no chance). I would suggest Katy B is where the money should be going (she’s the Speech Debelle voting option without the chance of a post-award strop two months later).

To leave, not a Mercury performance but from a nominee which still gets me giddy. Who needs a band? And, yes, Antony and the Johnsons beat her in 2005.

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Pablo Honey

It’s February 1993. The indie chart holds itself in an awkward position, between new takes on punk by American start-ups and characteristically wry British bands without a single umbrella term to hang over them. The top ten indie chart for February 1993 runs from Sugar and Tad and Huggy Bear – all unknowns even outside the few remaining true “record shops” by the winter of that year, never mind today – to Suede and Cornershop and Belly. Also in that month, Oxford’s Radiohead released their début “Pablo Honey”. For British music, for them, for the charts, corners were turned. Things never quite sounded the same again.

What is “Pablo Honey” today? For whom was Thom Yorke positing “What the hell m’a doin’ here?” Foreshadowing Beck and Weezer, both of whom could have passed ‘Creep’ off as their own, the first album from Radiohead could easily challenge or be challenged by the teenage angst it seemed initially to encapsulate. There are modern day fans of the Manic Street Preachers for whom “Generation Terrorists” is a youthful joke, a throwaway compilation of decent songs with too much naivety, too much eagerness for the title of the next enfants terribles. Who were Radiohead at the time? What label was attached by contemporary critics: indie, grunge, alt.rock, was any of that created yet? Was this the start of shoegazing or the continuation of something else, something older?

“Pablo Honey” begins with “You”, a sarcastic, sardonic love song, with a sneer in vocals and thwacka-thwacka guitars which could have come across the Atlantic. At the time, both US and UK teens had their own brand of educated anti-establishment soundtracks, both of whom documented the end of their own respective worlds. “You” sounds like the linear successor to Morrisey’s forlorn hope from the middle of the previous decade, an update, an extension. Of course, “Creep” would be too mawkish even for The Smiths; as Kurt Cobain would find, such cryptic self-referential anthems would be both albatross and accolade. “Creep”, like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, both celebrates and derides teenage listlessness, balances the delight and despair of introspection. Did Michael Stipe feel the same, hearing “Losing My Religion” adopted as soundtrack? This unholy triptych, this unlikely period piece of youthful diary-writing, hailed as something so fucking special…

This week, Radiohead released “King of Limbs”. That is, in the language of the 90s, they “released” their new album, for in the 21st Century, they did nothing more than allow fans to pre-book for downloading. Nobody in 1993 could have foreseen the advances in technology, nor could anyone have assumed the indie boys with a sneer and complex lyrics turn away from melody and rhymes and instruments to the Wonderland world of “Kid A”, “Amnesiac”. Listen to “Ripcoard”, the highlight nobody remembers today, and you might as well be comparing Catatonia with Katatonia.

Is “Pablo Honey” any good? Yes. The NME of the time said “…flawed…but satisfying”. Rolling Stone considered it “grungy” before that term was coined. (Well, okay, the Oxford English Dictionary has Vanity Fair using it in 1991 and the Guardian in 1992, but only referring to Nirvana and Hole. I can only suspect that Britain held out against using the term for home-grown bands.)

There are more highs than (artistic) lows on “Pablo Honey”. There is muddle, there is clear teenage shoe-scuffing, there is nothing exactly original (“Prove Yourself” could well be There Might Be Giants.) By “The Bends”, their career advancing classic, Radiohead had moved on as quickly and assuredly as a train moves from station to station. In the context of the new, obscure, unusual release, its dubstep and ambient elements utterly unknown in the early 90s, “Pablo Honey” is the postcard from a past we cannot bring ourselves to entirely forget. It sounds honest even if the content was not entirely true to themselves.

From our vantage point, older and wiser and more knowledgeable, we can understand the exuberance of youthful excitement, of expression and of intent. “Pablo Honey” is not the record of where Radiohead wanted to be; it’s a vital piece of evidence of how much further they were than their peers even then.