Primal Scream, Ms. Dynamite and The xx: A brief history of The Mercury Prize

Posted on 21 July 2011
By Richard Lewis
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Primal Scream, Ms. Dynamite and The xx don’t exactly appear to be a trio that fit musically.

But as the inaugural, 10th anniversary and most recent winners of The Mercury Prize, they encapsulate a lot about the award.

With Radiohead, Hurts and controversially, Wild Beasts missing from this year’s list, the rundown proves the adage that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

The Mercury’s holds form when it comes to surprise winners, some go on to lasting careers while others disappear as quickly as they rose to prominence.

The little-known Dizzee Rascal scooped the award for his debut LP in 2003 and hasn’t looked back.

On the other hand, Speech Debelle’s win and most infamous of all, M People’s victory over Parklife proves that the awards bash can be spectacularly wrong-headed in picking winners.

A concept coined by three-time nominees and winners Pulp also gives the prize an additional edge.

‘The Curse of the Mercury’s’, a concept devised by the band after their win in 1996, came about to describe the tendency of prize winners’ careers to go badly awry afterward the award.

Some cases can be fleeting, some can be permanent, some of course avoid the Curse altogether.

Pulp struggled to follow up their winning album Different Class, emerging with the stunning, uncompromising This is Hardcore three years later.

Winners since then have proven that Pulp’s ‘Curse’ has afflicted many more of the awards’ recipients since.

Although many of the recipients justifiably deserved the prize at the time, (Gomez, Badly Drawn Boy) many never seem to follow up on their initial promise.

Here is a rundown then of all the winners so far then in the awards ceremony that, if nothing else, always gets people talking.

1992: Primal Scream – Screamdelica

First time out for the award ceremony named after a now-defunct telecoms company and they picked a classic.

The Scream Team recently played the album in its entirety on tour, including a hugely acclaimed show headlining Glasto’s Other Stage. Curse of the Mercury in evidence in its first year as the band’s next album Give Out But Don’t give up is poorly received. They of course recovered hansomely with 1997’s Vanishing Point

1993: Suede – Suede

Another stone-cold classic winner, now slightly overlooked, having got lost somewhat in the Britpop avalanche.

Brett Anderson’s crew did much to start the movement, blending classic British rock a la David Bowie with the bedsit poet introspection of The Smiths. More of the Curse as guitarist Bernard Butler walks out during recording sessions for following album Dog Man Star, with him and Anderson not talking for the remainder of the decade.

They re-grouped with a new axeman for 1996’s superb Coming Up.

In an interesting side note, long-lost Britpop pioneers The Auteurs’ excellent New Wave came in second by a single point.

Lead singer Luke Haines (later of Black Box Recorder) was less than impressed, punching through a plate glass window in fury at the post-show drinks reception, leading to his hospitalistion.

1994: M People – Elegant Slumming

In what remains a notorious choice, the third year winners had the unique effect of uniting almost everyone in disagreement with the decision.

Pulp’s His N’ Hers’ narrowly lost out, while Blur’s masterpiece Parklife was dismissed by the judging panel as being ‘too laddish’. Other overlooked gems included Paul Weller’s Wild Wood and The Prodigy’s Music for the Jilted Generation. Some have yet to forgive the Mercury’s for this lapse in judgment, as comments on their Facebook wall this week proved.

1995: Portishead – Dummy

Up against ludicrously tough competition from Oasis’ Definitely Maybe, the Bristolian trip-hop group triumphed.

The Curse of the Mercury’s rears its head again as the band take three tortuous years to follow the album up with the critically acclaimed and deliberately uncommercial Portishead.

1996: Pulp – Different Class

Having suffered the ignominy of losing to M People two years previously, Jarvis, Candida et al were odds on favourite for the title in 1996.

They won, but despite giving the entire prize fund to the War Child appeal for Sarajevo, whose charity album was nominated, the band still fell prey to the Curse of the Mercury.

Steve Mackey, Pulp’s bass player later revealed it was due to him picking the award up briefly, during the acceptance speech.

1997: Roni Size and Reprazent – New Forms

A mildly controversial win, the drum and bass act scooped the award when Radiohead were considered dead-certs. Up against incredibly strong competition in the form of OK Computer, The Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land, Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point and The Chemical Brother’s Dig Your Own Hole, the Bristol crew won.

The band later faced criticism for reissuing New Forms as a single disc for ‘marketing’ purposes, somewhat negating the point of the award by altering the winning album in question.

Curse of the Mercury in full effect as the band never returned to the same level of critical or commercial success.

1998: Gomez – Bring it On

A popular win at the time for the Southport bluesmen, Gomez have long since faded from view. Some at the time argued the gong should have gone to Massive Attack for the deliciously paranoid Mezzanine.

1999: Talvin Singh – OK

An unmemorable winner in what was frankly an unspectacular year. Best known for his contributions to a diverse range of musician’s albums, Supergrass, Bjork and later Madonna, Singh only made one more album before returning to session work.

2000: Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour of Bewilderbeast

In a slightly similar vein to Gomez, Damon Gough’s win was well-received, yet the Bolton troubadour’s subsequent output never equaled his debut disc’s promise.

2001: PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea

Third time nominee Polly Jean Harvey stormed the awards. Arguably her strongest work, although this year’s nomination Let England Shake may well be superior.

2002: Ms. Dynamite – A Little Deeper

The Curse of the Mercury stalks the ceremony again as Niomi McLean-Daley won, yet promptly vanished from the chart with subsequent efforts.

Second album 2005s Judgment Days failed to break the Top 40 and she was dropped by Polydor. Recently heard on Lights On, a hit last year for 2011 nominee Katy B.

2003: Dizzee Rascal – Boy in Da Corner

A prescient choice, the virtually unknown Dylan Mills won to the surprise of many and saw his debut album sell strongly following the result.

Follow-ups Showtime and Maths and English also did well, before Dizzee hit the pop jackpot with Tongue ‘N Cheek in 2009, which contained no less than three number one singles. Curse of the Mercury nowhere to be seen.

2004: Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand

The Scottish indie-rockers had bagged several Album of the Year accolades for their 2003 debut album and were odds-on favourites throughout.

Second album You Could Have it so Much Better did well but third disc Tonight comparatively stiffed following an extended layoff and the law of diminishing returns. The Curse very likely to have been at work again.

2005: Anthony and the Johnsons

A well-received win for obscure singer-songwriter Antony Hegarty, the album featured strongly in End of Year album lists. The Johnsons’ follow-up however, The Crying Light and last year’s Swanlights did poorly, although neither were commercial disasters.

Some mild controversy at the time as Hegarty is American in all but name having grown up in NYC, although he was born in Blighty.

2006: Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not

The Monkeys’ modern classic was a hugely deserved winner and the band have prospered ever since. The quartet also won praise for their humility in saying ‘Call the cops, Hawley’s been robbed!’ before their acceptance speech, referring to fellow Steel City resident and co-nominee Richard Hawley.

2007: The Klaxons – Myths of the Near Future

Harbingers of the much-trumpeted nu-rave movement (no, us neither) The Klaxons’ win was a shock to many who had Amy Winehouse’s name all but engraved on the trophy for Back to Black.

The Curse of the Mercury returned with a vengeance as The Klaxons’ second album Surfing the Void was rejected by their record label. It eventually surfaced in 2010 to a lukewarm reception.

2008: Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid

Bury’s most famous sons swept all before them in a strong field also featuring Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Burial’s critically hailed Untrue.

The quintet won however with an album that captured the public’s imagination so much it is still on the album charts at the time of writing. Nominated for this year with follow up Build a Rocket Boys!

2009: Speech Debelle- Speech Therapy

The Mercury judging panel appeared to lose their critical faculties somewhat with 2009’s win. A bewildering choice, considering the strong competition from Florence and the Machine’s debut and The Horrors’ second album Primary Colours.

The lowest selling of all the winners, Speech Therapy struggled to move even 10,000 copies, the usual chart ‘bounce’ after receiving the award not materialising. Debelle has yet to release a follow up having quit her record label. Arguably the worst victim of The Curse to date.

2010: The xx – Xx

Back on the case after 2009s debacle, favourites The xx saw their almost eponymous debut album selling strongly after the win, going on to feature at the summit of many End of Year album lists.

All the past winners profiled then. At present the bookies’ joint favourite is 2001 winner PJ Harvey and Adele. As the above list proves however, anything can happen…

The winner of this years’ Mercury Prize will be announced on September 6th by Jools Holland.