Historically, I wouldn’t be seen dead at the Mercury Prize ceremony. This has everything to do with my moral objections to the tokenistic, box-ticking nature of the shortlist, the elitist attitude of only considering records that the label is prepared to stump up an entrance fee for and the general air of quinoa-served-on-a-Laura-Mvula-CD about the whole thing. And nothing, of course, to do with the fact that I’ve never been invited.
Until this year. The instant an invite dropped in my inbox, I physically flung all of my long-held reservations out of the nearest window and RSVP-ed faster than Theresa May snaps under pressure. Then I checked the ticket, realised that I’d be sat in the cheap seats with all the flower-crowned Florence fans rather than at the golden circle VIP tables within easy grab of Wolf Alice’s booze – which they’d be getting through pretty sharpish, safe in the assumption that they were never going to win – and decided to go and watch 1993’s Mercury winners Suede play in a church in Kingston instead. From my devoutly indie rock perspective, I saw it as a tiny personal protest at how rarely the Mercurys get it right. And that I’ve been offered wilder nights out by Hasbro. Which didn’t involve having to watch Florence + The Machine.
On the train home, though, the result came in. Wolf Alice only went and bloody won it, as much of a shock to them, no doubt, as it was to whoever had to pay for their rider to be swiftly restocked. It felt, right then, like a triumph of hard slog, determination and gritty authenticity, as if Tom Watson had won Naked Attraction. Wolf Alice weren’t there because they were anybody’s priority act, sold a shit-ton of records, reflected any cultural movement, were the Arctic Monkeys or were a jazz band. They were there because they’re a brilliant band with a brilliant album. No agendas, no zeitgeist-chasing, no second-guessing or scoring of cool points – the best record won.
For 10 minutes I kicked myself for missing the chance of recreating the masterful piece of broadcasting that resulted from my erstwhile NME colleague Alex Miller going on BBC Breakfast straight from Klaxons’ all-night Mercury winners party in 2008 – the wired, must-hold-this-together gaze, the subliminal slurring, the bizarre trading of haircut jibes with Natasha Kaplinski. For three legendary minutes Miller was the NME’s very own Ant McPartlin. I consoled myself by diving into social media where, considering the fact that my online echo chamber is essentially a digital Lexington, you’d have thought Wolf Alice had simultaneously stopped Brexit, reversed climate change and rigged Carpool Karaoke to explode if it goes above 1.4 decibels.
Amongst the torrent of celebratory plaudits, though, the dissenters were out in force. Isn’t the Mercury Prize supposed to reward cutting-edge innovation? And if so, why the hell are they giving it to an (un-typed splat of spittle on keyboard) indie rock band? Often these were the same commentators who’d written off guitar music back in 2010 and repeatedly since, as if affronted that the rockers weren’t just as much list-padding table-fillers as the jazzbos. Wolf Alice’s win was a sign of the Mercury’s irrelevance, they argued – in fact, it was a sign of rock’s uncrushable relevance. Music’s Hugh Grant, if you like.
Wolf Alice have spent two albums proving that indie rock can be repurposed, rewired and reimagined into a collage of its finest hours. When Blur headlined Alexandra palace on the ‘Parklife’ tour it was hailed as a cultural paradigm shift. Wolf Alice and select peers are doing it in an age when the raised bar of alt-rock success means it barely bats the critical eyelid, and when streaming rules and Radio One myopia mean that they’re denied the mainstream breakthrough significance of getting into the singles chart, about as easy for a rock band these days as it is for Harvey Weinstein to get into a day spa.
To whit: guitar music is faring far better than those plugging the tiresome ‘rock is dead’ narrative would have you believe, and Wolf Alice’s Mercury prize is a rare acknowledgement that one of the dominant genres of the past 60 years of musical history doesn’t just lay down and die because some critics got bored of The Kooks. I’m not going to predict an all-out, pancultural rock revival as a result of the win – that sort of thing is in the hands of whoever’s controlling Greg James’s strings, and I don’t remember a tsunami of people singing like Benjamin Clementine since he won in 2015 – but it does mark a line being drawn in the conversation. Rock might not dominate the way it once did, but the 2018 Mercury judges have assured its place at the table. Never thought I’d find myself writing this, but good job Marcus Mumford.