Whatever people say, Arctic Monkeys are Mercury winners

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They produced the fastest-selling debut in British pop history, stormed the Brits and NME Awards and last night confirmed their status as the bookies' favourite to take the prestigious Nationwide Mercury Prize.

In a move calculated to silence critics who have condemned the prize for failing to honour true British music successes, the Arctic Monkeys scooped the £20,000 cheque from a strong list of rivals including Thom Yorke, the Radiohead frontman, with his solo album debut, and Devon rock band Muse.

Accepting the prize at a ceremony at the Grosvenor Hotel in London last night, Alex Turner, the lead vocalist, paid tribute to another Sheffield act, Richard Hawley, a 39-year-old singer-songwriter who had been also hotly favoured by critics.

"Somebody call 999. Richard Hawley has been robbed," he said. Turner thanked everyone who had helped, before observing with characteristic cheek: "Normally it [the prize] doesn't go to a band that's sold as many records as we have. But we're still very pleased with it. It's good tunes really, that's what we tried to do and no tricks really, because there's too many people trying to do too many tricks."

The Arctic Monkeys were the sensation of the pop year when fans generated enormous interest in their music through the internet even before they hit the record stores. Their first two singles, "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor", last October, followed by "When the Sun Goes Down", both went straight to number one and their first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, sold more copies in its first week than any debut in UK history.

Quickly capitalising on the interest while taking an ironic swipe at the hype now attending them, they followed up the album with a five-track EP entitled Who the Fuck are Arctic Monkeys.

However, the success has already taken its toll on original bass guitarist Andy Nicholson. Soon after the EP's release, the other members - Turner, Jamie Cook and Matt Helders - announced Nicholson would not take part in its North American tour because of "fatigue". They subsequently confirmed he had left the band.

The Arctic Monkeys have resolutely refused to play the conventional public relations game. They did not attend the Brit awards and refused to speak at the NME awards. Although other Mercury nominees, including Thom Yorke, Guillemots and Scritti Politti, performed last night, the Arctic Monkeys did not. Their utter faith in their work was epitomised in Alex Turner's brief explanation of why they thought they had won. "Because we had the best record," he said after last night's ceremony. And during a press conference following their win, they complained about the questions they were being asked.

Their decision to attend may have been because the Mercury is acknowledged as being independent of industry politics, designed simply to recognise what the judges - who include critics and musicians - decide is the best album of the year. However, as they have already sold around 1 million copies of the album they are unlikely to see the uplift in sales enjoyed by some previous winners. Last year's winner, Antony and the Johnsons enjoyed a six-fold increase in sales of the album I Am a Bird Now in the weeks after winning.

The biggest beneficiary from the pre-ceremony publicity this year was Richard Hawley, whose album Coles Corner was released a year ago but registered a three-fold increase in sales after it was nominated on 18 July, according to HMV record stores.

Gennaro Castaldo of HMV said the awards had clearly developed into a major showcase for British and Irish music and introduced more esoteric albums to a mainstream audience.

"Nominated artists stand to gain significantly from the halo effect of being in the Mercury's spotlight, which will not only boost sales of their albums but act as a catalyst to further their careers. This year we're expecting an even bigger sales lift, as more people arenow also downloading and buying online."