Pop: Novel acts carry off the prizes

The Technics-Mercury Awards were an open book - but what did it all mean?

John O'Reilly
Friday 18 September 1998 00:02
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IN CASE we were embarrassed about liking pop music just for itself, Simon Frith, Professor of English at Strathclyde and chairman of the judging panel for the Technics-Mercury Awards, had offered some reassuring words. When the shortlist was announced, he declared that the pop album was, in fact, like a novel. As the narrative unfolded at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, the analogy occasionally made sense.

First up on stage was Pulp, fronted by Jarvis Cocker, whose decentred, erratic, dislocated body movements - all twitches and spasms - read like James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. Cocker convulsed his way through two songs, "Party Hard" and "A Little Soul". Many of the shortlisted bands were on tour when the awards took place, and so Robbie Williams appeared on videotape. Williams's life is a trashy airport novel of scarcely credible plot development in which the boy makes good, makes bad, and then makes good again. So now he was in Sri Lanka with UNICEF.

Though sober as a reformed Ozzy Osbourne and packed with industry and press quaffing unlimited Chablis and scoffing quail's eggs, the evening began to metamorphose into a Jilly Cooper novel as written by Kafka. Gomez appeared on stage and, if you had not seen them before, you would have mistaken them for young, well-mannered A-level students who had lost their way on a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

4-Hero performed their jazzy, drum 'n' bass soul, then thanked Jock and JR Ewing. Catatonia took the stage to receive their memento for being short-listed: they are not like a novel at all, more a quality soap. Cerys is a Welsh barmaid with an active, imaginative fantasy life and whose love for jewellery is only matched by Coronation Street's Bet Lynch. Which, of course, is a major reason why we love her.

After the Asian Dub Foundation performed their punky drum 'n' bass, it was time for more booze, feta and sun-dried tomatoes while waiting for the panel's decision.

I asked one middle-aged industry insider, whose liver appeared to be swimming in Chablis, who he thought would win and found myself in a Martin Amis story. "It's all marketing, really," he said. "The Verve are a class act, but what's the point? And who the hell are half these bands anyway? They should give it to someone who can appeal to the 25-40 year olds who actually buy albums. I'm going to see Depeche Mode on tour and they'd be a good choice next year."

He did have a point, though. Matters of taste aside, does the award really go to the best album? Or is it the most innovative? Or the best debut album? I retired to the bar and, for the first time, genuinely wondered on what basis the panel would choose. So I casually asked the bar-girl who might win. "Oh, I know whose going to win," she instantly replied. "This morning we knew who were the last band on." Of course, the encore. It all made sense. This is a novel. It's Mario Puzo's The Godfather. It's like the fix in the 1919 World Series, but this time The Verve would throw the match and the 33/1 outsider, the folkie Eliza Carthy, would snatch the prize.

But as we know, Gomez won with Bring It On and there was no encore. The novel? Jerzy Kosinski's Being There.

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