What is an icon? An artistic representation of a holy figure? A paragon of some aspect of existence? Or just someone who’s, like, really great? In the Brits’ case an Icon is a smart new name for the Outstanding Contribution to British Music award, with showbiz bells on. The final act to pick up the Outstanding Contribution accolade was Blur in 2012, before this year’s Special Recognition for the War Child charity. Last night (2 September) at the London Palladium normal service was resumed with the inaugural Brits Icon going to Sir Elton John. Elton has a new album out in a couple of weeks. What serendipity!
Tacked on at the end of the Brits each year, the Outstanding Contribution has always been troublesome. The usually creaky old recipient is forced to barrel through a couple of songs before the credits end, or they end up shoving Adele off stage just so they can fit something in. For such a supposed honour, it’s been treated as a painful obligation. So, with its own extended show, raft of songs and probing interview, the Brits Icon scratches an itch. It affords proper time to an act who presumably deserves the attention.
That time’s given over to an album’s worth of performances, a set of video sections featuring talking heads from starry pals and a live interview intended to delve deeply into the icon’s career. It stands or falls by the pedigree and willingness of the winner, the insights of the talking heads and the abilities of the presenter.
The BPI obviously wants to give this some heft – an entertaining but heavyweight examination of a great artist – but it bumps up against ITV’s demands. This is a commercial, essentially lightweight network and it’s entirely natural choice of presenter, Dermot O’Leary, brings smooth professionalism and undoubted enthusiasm but perhaps not the serious rigour the award demands. That’s not his fault. O’Leary knows his stuff and the job inside-out but he’s a glitzy Saturday night man, not, say, Melvyn Bragg.
Elton John is a candid interviewee though and even the most benign question can uncover some pretty frank revelations about drug use, spark the odd outrageous one-liner, and lead the ever-savvy old stager to namecheck James Blake, John Grant, Disclosure and The Strypes. Good value then, and clearly the right man for this curtain-raiser. The talking heads are excellent too – of Sky Arts calibre – with long-serving band members lining up to stick a loving boot in, Charlie Watts hailing him “the Liberace of rock” and Josh Homme telling us Elton once called him a “turd”. And the performances are solid, with stirring renditions of old classics like ‘Your Song’, ‘Bennie And The Jets’ and ‘Rocket Man’, and incendiary takes on ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ and ‘The Bitch Is Back’. His trusty band are on great form – right up until new track ‘Mexican Vacation’ needs five goes to sound vaguely in time. Still, if it’s all about the music, the Brits Icon is a hit.
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On the other hand, the audience is packed with superfans who cheer Elton’s drummer on the VT, and pop stars and celebrities here for the beer. It’s ITV’s An Audience With… without the scripted questions. Apart from O’Leary’s. You can’t imagine Damon Albarn, Noel Gallagher or even Paul Weller submitting to this – and they might be asked. This is a clean slate; Elton John has already won the Outstanding Contribution, in 1995.
The evening ends with Rod Stewart stumbling through the autocue to present the statuette, then stumbling through the autocue to join Elton on ‘Sad Songs (Say So Much)’. You’d have to be churlish not to enjoy it, but these grizzled legends mugging away at each other speak volumes about the new award. It’s for the old guard, the showbiz vets who have the best stories but say little about today’s music scene, whatever their influence. You can see future awards going to Stewart himself, Paul McCartney, Barry Gibb, The Who, Kate Bush if you’re uncommonly lucky. Johnny Marr, Jarvis Cocker, even Alex Turner cosying up to Dermot? Don’t hold your breath.
Does it sound like a winner to you? Who can you imagine – or would you like to imagine – being named the next Brits Icon?