ROBERT SANDALL defends M-People’s victory in the Mercury music prize
When M-People won this year’s £25,000 Mercury music prize for their album Elegant Slumming they were, they say, “really, really surprised”. That surprise soon gave way to something less gratifying, though, as the British rock media set about discrediting the judges’ verdict. Amid a welter of recrimination, which thoroughly justified the Mercury’s claim to beong “the Booker prize of the music industry”, the charge sheet against the victorious M-People read as follows. First, they, or their record company, had somehow rigged the competition. Second, Elegant Slumming, one of the most commercially successful albums of the year, was, in fact, a ghastly, trivial record and completely unrepresentative of the best of British and Irish music. Third, it only won because the previous two Mercury winners had been white, all-male rock bands, and political correctness demanded that a disco-ish sounding group with a black female singer be given some encouragement this time around.
M-People were, in the words of their leader, Mike Pickering, “Totally gobsmacked”. The jury-rigging theory, enthusiastically promoted in the weekly rock press, was patently absurd: the Mercury judges’ chairman, the incorruptible Simon Frith, is a former rock critic of The Sunday times. But the intemperate rubbishing of Elegant Slumming — angrily dismissed as “handbag techno” by a columnist in The Times — suggested something more sinister. Unlike the more abstract, electronic forms of dance music (which can claim European ancestry), the American derivative of disco known as house has never really appealed so much to pundits in this country. Annoyingly for them though, ordinary listeners seem to love it — just as they have loved every variant of R&B since the mod infatuation with soul in the 1960s. In the case of Elegant Slumming, they loved it so much that they bought it in twice the quantity of the rock-crit fraternity’s hot tip for the Mercury, Parklife by Blur. The award of the gong to Elegant Slumming thus effectively added insult to injury, incomprehension and a degree of blind ignorance.
Pickering, a genial Mancunian with a long and winding CV which stretched back 15 years in the music business, puts the brouhaha down to matters of geography. “In the north, rock culture has been based on rhythm and blues and black dance music for the past 25 years. You can even hear that in punk bands such as the Buzzcocks. Most people I know now are as likely to buy an album by Soundgarden [a grunge band from Seattle] as they are to buy something by M-People. This idea that dance and rock are like two seprate tribes is a media thing, it’s basically a southern invention.”
Collectively, M-People are impressive ambassadors of the view that mixed mixed musical marriages work. Their singer and front person, Heather Small, is a petit soul diva with an enormous , smoky voice which, in its lower register, reminds you of Grace Jones and Joan Armatrading; she grew up in west London, listening to Aretha Franklin and her father’s ska and calypso records, and she can also claim familiarity with the Abba songbook: “My dad loved Abba.” After a brief spell in a group called Hot House, Small joined forces with Pickering, a jack of all tradesand a few more besides, who had humped amplifiers for Dire Straits, worked as a talent scout for the Factory label, produced the Happy Mondays’ first single, formed his own band, T-Poy, and while all this was going on, earned a regular part-time living deejaying in clubs. They then recruited a bass player, Paul Heard, who had studied jazz and electronic music at the Guildhall School in London, and who had played briefly with Edwyn Collins, the Scottish singer-songwriter.
That was five years and three albums ago, the latest of which, Bizarre Fruit (deconstruction/BMG 74371 24081 2) is released tomorrow. There are now four of them, with the permanent addition of of a percussionist called simply Shovel. One of the reasons M People have been so successful — and so widely misunderstood — is their refusal to conform the industry standard for co-called “dance” acts. In a genre where sampling, miming, and various other types of studio confection are the norm. Pickering’s crew hold fast to old-fashioned rock values: songs must be written rather than mapped out on computers; live performance is more important than the recording process. Small recalls, in horrified tones, how, in the early days, everybody assumed that it wasn’t actually her voice that featured on M-People’s club hits: “I used to get so mad. I’d say , just come to the shows and watch.”
Heard and Pickering , who originate the group’s material before handing it over to Small to interpret, complain bitterly about the lack of melodic structure in most modern disco music. Their aim, they say, is always “to take what we do in the studio out on the road”. Flown over to San Francisco recently to appear at Billboard magazine’s Dance Convention, M-People were the only artists to insist on performing live with their 10-piece band, rather than simply miming to backing tapes. “At the end, everybody was saying, uh, brave, man, brave.”
None of this presentational integrity would matter much if it weren’t for the stylistic colour and emotional clout of M-People’s music. The new album shows, more clearly than Elegant Slumming, just how far this group is from the bunch of stereotypical high-street beat merchants who allegedly stole the Mercury. This is the dance music, if you want it to be, but the unobtrusive blending of latin rhythms, slinky string arrangements and even country slide guitar reveals a subtler purpose. It also provides a superb platform for a series of performances which establish Small as one of our finest and most versatile female vocalists. She, like the rest of the group, is getting a bit tired of accolades, though. “I just do what I do. If people like it, that’s great. If they don’t, tough.”