POP MUSIC / It was, quite literally, a split decision. Almost: They said they didn't really want it, and in the end they didn't get it. Ryan Gilbey on how Blur were pipped to the 'almost-coveted' Mercury Music Prize

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The Independent Online
Two years ago they were bankrupt. Two weeks ago their number one album Parklife was 11-8 odds-on favourite to bag the almost-coveted Mercury Music Prize. But on Tuesday night, Blur were beaten by dance band M People, who stole the award with their snappy, infuriatingly catchy album Elegant Slumming.

Considering that the previous winners were indie groovers Primal Scream (for Screamadelica) and glam rockers Suede (for Suede), it was clear that the prize couldn't fall to another bunch of young white boys with guitars. Were the judges aware of this?

'So much has been written about this element that, of course, it was in everyone's head,' says Simon Frith, who chaired the panel of 10 judges which featured MTV Europe's Director of Programming Brent Hansen, Isabel Appio, editor of Weekly Journal, and Virgin 1215's Dave Fanning. 'But once you get in that room and start fighting it out, you forget everything that's gone on outside and you become wrapped in this internal world.'

Karen Johnson, publicity officer at EMI, maintains that M People's win was in the name of democracy. 'They're not controversial, they carry no baggage with them, whereas Blur would have been seen as arrogant young upstarts.' Despite being favourites, Blur didn't even figure in the final backstage showdown. That was down to M People and Pulp's magnificent His'n'Hers. It's a treasurable image - smooth, seductive dance battling it out with the bungled sexual exploits of Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, pop's own Alan Bennett. 'It was literally a clean split', says Frith, 'with half rooting for M People and half for Pulp. Ultimately, some sort of compromise is called for and M People came out of it in the end because that was an album which we felt we could take home and get genuinely excited about.'

This year's submissions totalled 130, 10 up on last year, and were whittled down to 20. 'Any record which a judge is prepared to argue positively and passionately about goes on the list. The type of music is a deciding factor. If we've got 10 heavy metal albums, they can't all go on, so Troublegum by Therapy? made the list for being an album that you could keep returning to, whereas Laid by James lost out because we already had other indie-type albums in there.'

Also left in the cold were Paul Weller, Shara Nelson, Ian McNabb, Michael Nyman, Take That and the Prodigy. But what good does the prize actually do? 'I think musicians are deeply appreciative of it,' Frith says. 'When Suede collected it last year, they were being congratulated for something other than good marketing. It's an award for musicians, not the industry. And musicians value it, Blur and Pulp cancelled first nights of tours to attend.'

Then there's the nagging question of the pounds 25,000 prize. Since Suede donated their money to cancer research last year, successive winners are going to be more or less obliged to put the cheque in the collection tin. And, predictably enough, RCA have confirmed that M People are surrendering the money to an unnamed cause. Which all makes Primal Scream, who trousered their prize in 1992, the biggest winners of all.

(Photograph omitted)