ARTS / Cries & Whispers: At the Mercury Music Prize

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The Independent Culture
IN MAY the music business launched a prize designed to reward the album of the year, trump the embarrassing Brits Awards, and drum up sales at a slow time of year. In July the judges, mostly journalists, issued a 10-strong shortlist of unexpected breadth. So it was that on Tuesday I sidled into the Savoy to rub dinner jackets with the stars. They were somewhat thin on the deep-pile. Either pop stars dress soberly these days, or they all have prior engagements. Eventually, I spy someone who is clearly the real thing: tanned, gangling, open- necked, with a curtain of blond hair and an air of glazed calm. It is John Tavener, the only nominee from the classical world.

We take our seats. Perhaps fearful that I will burst on stage waving a Campaign for Cheaper CDs placard, the organisers have put me at the back of the room. I find myself surrounded by people from Music Week, the trade mag that misses few opportunities to rubbish our campaign. I introduce myself to the editor, Steve Redmond, who refers to me in print as a 'bore'. We find we have both backed Primal Scream to win the prize, well before they became 7-4 favourites. We agree that it is the only thing we will ever agree on. One of Redmond's colleagues holds a sweepstake. I draw Primal Scream.

During dinner, something happens that almost makes me feel for the Music Week gang. A woman who looks vaguely like Julie Christie gets up from the next table and storms over to ours. 'Are you the person who wrote that article about my husband?' she asks Redmond. Her husband turns out to be Richard Handover, boss of Our Price Music, the well-known purveyor of the pounds 14 CD - not, to my knowledge, a regular target of Music Week. Redmond's deputy, Selina Webb, owns up. In return she gets a volley of protest which becomes audible only in its final breath: '. . . unforgivable]' Whereupon Mrs Handover returns to base, Webb goes into a state of shock, and Redmond jumps up to confer with Mr Handover, who puts a pacific arm round him. Really, these music types.

Richard Jobson, of Men Talk fame, takes the podium, and the show begins. There are musical interludes: not the dismal miming of the Brits, but real singing and playing, on acoustic instruments. This means most of the players are not nominees. The only ones who feel able to do justice to their music are the token classical musician (Steven Isserlis, the cellist on Tavener's Protecting Veil) and the token jazzman (Bheki Mseleku). Mseleku stuns the throng by playing piano with his right hand and tenor sax with his left. Isserlis, with pianist Maggie Hope, gives a lyrical rendition of the Beatles' 'Here, There and Everywhere'. Carried away, he rocks into a hilariously bad 'Got to Get You into My Life', complete with flying hair.

Every nominee gets a gong, handed over by George Martin, and the air is thick with gratitude. Tavener says 'thank you most of all the Holy Mother of God', and looks forward to 'the birth of the Feminine', which inspires a few of the Masculine to heckle him. Jobson asks Martin what he thought of the nominees. He singles out the bass-playing of Yah. He means Jah Wobble, whose name is usually pronounced with a hard J.

The prize, worth pounds 20,000, went to Primal Scream, because their album 'reflects what 1992 is about'. To my ear, it reflects what 1967 was about, but to my pocket, it sounds terrific.

On the way out I asked John Tavener what he made of it. 'Well,' he said, and paused pregnantly. 'It wasn't a farce.'

Readers' ideas for an anthem for Europe (C&W, 6 Sept) will appear next week. Late entries can be faxed on 071-956 1469.