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The curse of the Mercury Prize

Added on 19th September 2004

Feature courtesy of 'The Rope Technique', Written by Graeme

Well, it's that time of year again - when the "panel of experts" representing the Mercury Music committee choose the best album of the last 12 months. Whether you see it as a great showcase for British music talent or a cynical "indie" take on the Brit Awards, it's undeniable that it's the biggest and most widely respected annual award in British Music. Every year when the nominees are announced the sales of all concerned shoot up, and of course the winner is practically guaranteed a strong promotional push for the rest of the year.

But while on the surface winning the Mercury Prize is an ideal springboard to fame and fortune for any young band, the reality appears to be different. In fact, looking back through history it appears that the award often spells nothing but doom and gloom for the winners. Is the Mercury Prize really cursed, or is it all just a co-incidence? As always, lets take a look:

(Due to the award traditionally taking place in September, albums from the previous September onwards are eligible. Hence several artists listed here win the award for an album actually released the year before.)

1992 Award

Primal Scream - Screamadelica

Mercury Prize Winners - Primal Scream (Screamadelica)

Notable Contenders - U2 (Achtung Baby), Jesus & Mary Chain (Honey's Dead), St Etienne (Foxbase Alpha)

The Story - Primal Scream were widely tipped to take the inaugural prize on the back of the revolutionary Screamadelica, which had blown everyone away and swept just about every award going in 1991. Sure enough, come the big night they took the award (which they famously lost, along with the £20'000 prize cheque, following a night on the tiles afterwards), and for one brief moment truly were the most important band in British Music.

What Happened Next - A critical mauling for the much anticipated follow up Give Out But Don't Give Up. A year long attempt to crack America which very nearly finished them off. Heroin addictions all round. It took The Scream years to turn it all around, and they would never have the commercial success again.

1993 Award

Suede - Suede

Mercury Prize Winners - Suede (Suede)

Notable Contenders - New Order (Republic), Stereo MC's (Connected), PJ Harvey (Rid Of Me)

The Story - The hottest young guitar band around, with a rapidly growing fanbase, Suede were a very promising prospect in 1993. A prototype Britpop scene was springing up, and the London based band were at the centre of it. In truth, however, they weren't a shoe-in for the Mercury Prize - all eyes were on pioneering dance act Stereo MCs (particularly after the success of Primal Scream the previous year). Still, with the general tide of British music slowly turning towards guitars once more, Suede were now in the perfect position to conquer all.

What Happened Next - Utterly losing the plot and making the bewildering Dog Man Star album. Losing guitarist (and the band's primary musical force) Bernard Butler following a bust-up. Arriving two years late to the Britpop party. Generally making a mess of a golden opportunity.

1994 Award

M People - Elegant Slumming

Mercury Prize Winners - M People (Elegant Slumming)

Notable Contenders - Blur (Parklife), The Prodigy (Music For The Jilted Generation), Pulp (His 'n' Hers)

The Story - M People had toiled in the lower regions of the charts for several years before suddenly hitting it big with a stream of high profile singles such as One Night In Heaven and Moving On Up. Subsequent album Elegant Slumming combined them with several other pop gems, and peaked at number 2 in the album charts. No-one, however, was expecting them to lift the Mercury Prize. Almost everyone saw Blur as the only possibly winners, on the back of the Britpop defining Parklife. The future looked bright, then, but what lay ahead?

What Happened Next - Increasingly uninspired retreads of past successes. The addition of keyboard player Shovell (a cult hero of your writer). A surprise comeback in 1998 with Angel St. Then nothing. Heather Small released a solo album in 2000, but the band never officially split.

1995 Award

Portishead - Dummy

Mercury Prize Winners - Portishead (Dummy)

Notable Contenders - Tricky (Maxinquaye), Oasis (Definitely Maybe), Leftfield (Leftism)

The Story - It was wide open, there were at least six acts that could conceivably lift the prize (in addition to those listed above, the nominees included Supergrass, PJ Harvey and Elastica). No-one considered Portishead amongst them. Still, Dummy had been a critical success and sales had been fair. Would they capitalize upon it?

What Happened Next - No new material until late 1997. A strong follow up album, but their time had passed. Total obscurity soon followed.

1996 Award

Pulp - Different Class

Mercury Prize Winners - Pulp (Different Class)

Notable Contenders - Manic Street Preachers (Everything Must Go), Oasis (What's The Story Morning Glory), Black Grape (It's Great When You're Straight . . . Yeah!)

The Story - Not the strongest year in British music (other contenders included Mark Morrison and a War Child compilation), it was always going to be either Pulp or Oasis. With Britpop at it's zenith, both bands were being tipped as the future of British music (along with Blur, naturally), and it's hard to see how the good times could ever end.

What Happened Next - The fate of Pulp post Different class has been covered more than once before on this site. Let's just say they made a bit of a mess of it. Then split up.

1997 Award

Roni Size and Reprazent - New Forms

Mercury Prize Winners - Roni Size and Reprazent (New Forms)

Notable Contenders - Radiohead (OK Computer), Primal Scream (Vanishing Point), Prodigy (Fat Of The Land)

The Story - Your writer is of the opinion that 1997 remains the best year for British music ever (let's also throw in all-time classic albums from Spiritualized, Mogwai, Chemical Brothers and The Verve), with an incredibly diverse range of great music coming from all over the country. It was also the peak era of Drum and Bass, thanks to artists like Goldie. So perhaps it's no surprise that the cult underground band of that scene were chosen as the 1997 winners. Would Drum and Bass be the new scene British music was looking for with Britpop on the decline, and would Roni Size and Reprazent be the act to propel it there?

What Happened Next - Goldie killed the entire genre of Drum and Bass stone dead with 1998 album Saturnzreturn. No, really - that's what happened. Oh alright, Roni Size and Reprazent also made a new album, but it sank largely without trace.

1998 Award

Gomez - Bring It On

Mercury Prize Winners - Gomez (Bring It On)

Notable Contenders - Massive Attack (Mezzanine), Asian Dub Foundation (Rafi's Revenge), The Verve (Urban Hymns)

The Story - The award was Massive Attack's. They were the coolest band on the planet at the time and had just made the coolest album on the planet. Everyone knew it. Except the Mercury panel it would seem. Instead a virtually unheard of (even within the specialist media) group of students stole it with an album of whimsical indie tunes based around life in their native* Sheffield. Massive Attack didn't see that one coming.

What Happened Next - A brief period in the limelight. Second album Liquid Skin was a bit of a stinker. It was downhill from there. Deemed deeply unfashionable by pretty much everyone in the media.

1999 Award

Talvin Singh - OK

Mercury Prize Winners - Talvin Singh (OK)

Notable Contenders - Blur (13), Faithless (Sunday 8pm), Manic Street Preachers (This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours)

The Story - A wide open field, the majority of bands in contention had a genuine chance of scooping the prize. Talvin Singh wasn't a complete outsider, but it was still something of a surprise to see him lift the prize for such willfully uncommercial music (anyone up for some bhangra/drum'n'bass fusion?). The media automatically assumed this would be the start of a mainstream Asian music boom (on top of the mild success of both Asian Dub Foundation and Cornershop, despite the fact all three acts made completely different music . . .). It wasn't.

What Happened Next - Follow up albums in 2000 and 2002 made zero impact in the charts or the column inches. Continues to work as a producer in London, as well as working on his own material.

2000 Award

Badly Drawn Boy - The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast

Mercury Prize Winners - Badly Drawn Boy (The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast)

Notable Contenders - Death In Vegas (The Contino Sessions), Doves (Lost Souls), Coldplay (Parachutes)

The Story - As soon as the 2000 nominees were announced, everyone was up in arms about the amount of great albums that didn't make the shortlist - including a memorable Alan McGee interview where, furious at the exclusion of Primal Scream's terrific XTRMNTR album, he branded Coldplay "bedwetters" in comparison. Still, in the end everyone was appeased when Badly Drawn Boy picked up the prize for his eclectic The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast, which had been warmly received by everyone.

What Happened Next - Steady commercial and critical success. Soundtrack album to About A Boy was arguable better than second album proper Have You Fed The Fish. 2004 album One Plus One Is One has got off to a shaky start on the sales front.

2001 Award

PJ Harvey - Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea

Mercury Prize Winners - PJ Harvey (Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea)

Notable Contenders - Super Furry Animals (Rings Around The World), Goldfrapp (Felt Mountain), Radiohead (Amnesiac)

The Story - In the run-up to the 2001 award, the smart money was on the Super Furry Animals to take it for their staggering Rings Around The World. The award itself however, took place the day after September 11th, and was (understandably) largely ignored in the media. At the muted ceremony itself, the award went to PJ Harvey's well received Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea album.

What Happened Next - Took three years to emerge with the follow up, Uh Huh Her, which finally came out earlier this year. Critical and commercial results have not been good.

2002 Award

Ms Dynamite - A Little Deeper

Mercury Prize Winners - Ms Dynamite (A Little Deeper)

Notable Contenders - The Streets (Original Pirate Material), The Coral (The Coral), David Bowie (Heathen)

The Story - EVERYONE assumed that The Streets would take the 2002 award. Despite a lot of strong competition, the media felt it was almost a given that his startlingly fresh debut would be the chosen winner. When rising London based MC and singer Ms Dynamite took the award everyone was stunned - not least The Street's Mike Skinner himself, who famously stormed off.

What Happened Next - Sales of A Little Deeper barely changed. Rumours of record company wranglings. Recording of a follow up album halted indefinitely due to impending motherhood. Currently residing in the "where are they now" file.

2003 Award

Dizzee Rascal - Boy In Da Corner

Mercury Prize Winners - Dizzee Rascal (Boy In Da Corner)

Notable Contenders - Radiohead (Hail To The Thief), Coldplay (A Rush of Blood To The Head), Lemon Jelly (Lost Horizons)

The Story - A nominee list of questionable quality (The Darkness? Athlete?!?) it was also notable for Blur withdrawing their comeback album Think Tank from being nominated, saying they wanted nothing to do with the award. Following the success of Ms Dynamite the year previously, it seemed natural that another rising London based MC and singer would take it in 2003.

What Happened Next - Strong record sales. Recently released follow-up Showtime has garnered much critical acclaim, and the sales figures seem healthy.

2004 Award

Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand

Mercury Prize Winners - Franz Ferdinand (Franz Ferdinand)

Notable Contenders - The Streets (A Grand Don't Come For Free), Amy Winehouse (Frank), Belle & Sebastian (Dear Catastrophe Waitress)

The Story - Everyone thought the Streets had the best album out of the nominees. Everyone also knew he had no chance of winning after his behaviour in 2002. So it was down to Franz Ferdinand or Amy Winehouse, with Belle & Sebastian and The Zutons possible outsiders. Predictably, the sharply dressed Scots took it.

What Happened Next - Who knows? Current attempts to crack America are going surprisingly well, and their UK profile remains high. If they can avoid the near-inevitable media backlash, the sky's the limit.


Is the Mercury Prize cursed? Well, of the 12 winners up to and including Dizzee Rascal last year, 9 suffered a definite slump in their career in the ears that followed. Furthermore, 3 of those acts split up, 2 are in "indefinite hiatus", and another 2 (Roni Size/Reprazent and Talvin Singh) fell off the radar completely. For an award that is supposed to showcase the best of British music and act as a springboard for the careers of the winner, this has to be fairly worrying for all concerned. Franz Ferdinand, you have been warned!

Editor Notes: * Gomez are not from sheffield. Oops.


Gravatar David Pollock says:-

I was enjoying this article until you came to describe Gomez in such an-imaginative fashion. A band as far away from indie as your beloved Mogwai or the Chemical brothers (who I also enjoy). Gomez are an innovative and exciting band that continue to evolve.

13th May 2007 @ 14:57:55 GMT

Gravatar Zenchan Electric Mainline says:-

Dear David, I was enjoying your reply to this article until you came to describe Gomez as an innovative and exciting band that continue to evolve.

Some random musings:

1 - I wrote this article nearly three years ago.
2 - I have no recollection of actually writing this article, and some of it looks sub ed'd.
3 - Mogwai are indeed beloved by me.
4 - The Chemical Brothers are not.
5 - But they're still better than Gomez.
6 - I have shat blood down toilets with better songs than Liquid Skin.
7 - The Machismo EP was pretty good, though.
8 - Gomez ARE completely ignored by the press these days, and are considered by most to be stale late 90s relics.
9 - When EMI bought out Hut, around 20% of Hut artists were dropped. Including Gomez. The Music survived the cut.
10 - Gomez are only "continuing to evolve" in the same way that my dead cat does.

14th May 2007 @ 10:11:24 GMT

Gravatar Bob says:-

2 - The article is the exact same text you sent to me, the only difference is i added some pretty pictures :P

Gomez are awful though.

14th May 2007 @ 17:17:02 GMT

Gravatar Aejaz says:-

Interesting article. Back in the mid to late nineties there was huge buzz about the 'Asian Underground' scene. I had just moved to the UK and found the scene very exciting. There were so many artists who were producing a huge amount of music that was as prolific as it was diverse. The only common thread being that it was undoubtedly 'British' music with a strong sense of pride in our 'Asian' cultural roots. It appeared as if we had 'finally arrived' and the best was yet to come. Then came the fucking Mercury award for Talvin Singh and in hindsight it looks as if the curse actually affected the whole scene and not just Talvin Singh's career. I hope that ten years on the curse will finally wear off.

24th February 2008 @ 08:04:37 GMT

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