From PJ Harvey to Keith Richards: who deserves an award?


Are there just too many award ceremonies?

There were two in London last night, with some guests apparently bustling between both red carpets.

In the Grosvenor Hotel Ballroom, PJ Harvey was the deserving winner of the Barclaycard Mercury Music Prize, an edgy yet esteemed artist being justifiably celebrated for creating a substantial career best work of poetry and power. Meanwhile over at the Royal Opera House, Model Lara Stone was being hailed as Woman Of The Year by GQ magazine for (as far as I can see) getting her kit off in fashion shoots for glossy magazines.

Musician of the Year went to a TV actor who dabbles in the blues (Hugh Laurie), Writer of the Year went to a musician who dictated his unreliable memoirs (Keith Richards) and a Lifetime Achievement Award was given to a bunch of middle aged men whose principal achievement appears to be looking good in a suit and hanging on for three decades in the young man’s game of poseur pop (Duran Duran). Perusing a list of the winners at the GQ Awards, it is hard not to conclude that the magazine has set a new standard for spurious self-congratulatory gong fests.

I won’t dwell too long on PJ’s success. Like many critics, I predicted her victory. Indeed, I couldn’t see how anyone could beat her. Adele’s album has clearly been the people’s choice this year (and it’s a fine, dramatic, emotional piece of work) and Tinie Tempah, Katy B and James Blake may all be pushing further into futuristic sonic frontiers but its hard to argue against a masterpiece.

The Mercury Award doesn’t always get it right but at least it has a purpose, trying to draw public attention to contemporary popular music being made with high artistic values. Indeed, Let England Shake may be the ideal album for a prize that has to balance artistry and accessibility.

The lyrics read as elegantly as poetry in their own right: spare, imagistic powerful meditations on war and Empire. This is deep, rich stuff, made not just more accessible by the loveliness of the melodies and textures of arrangements, but more meaningful too. Sound, tone, context and delivery all add weight and substance, a kind of conversation between words and music, the perfect marriage when it comes to songwriting as art. If you still haven’t heard it, I strongly urge you to catch up.

As for the GQ Awards, well, I’m not really sure what that is for, other than promoting the magazines own brand with a mass celeb photoshoot. Editor Dylan Jones has to be congratulate for his three line whip of A List stars. Back in the days when I worked at GQ, the best we could manage was getting Sylvester Stallone to come to a party, where he sat surrounded by bodyguards who wouldn’t let anyone from GQ approach him. Jones has done much better. Tinie Tempah may have failed to triumph against PJ Harvey in an actual music competition, but he managed to dash across town to collect GQ’s Solo Artist Award. These awards are like buses. If you miss one, there will be another along in a minute. I wonder if the boundary pushing sci-fi rapper found it all galling watching tv actor Hugh Laurie being acclaimed Musician of the Year for his loving but in no way original or particularly brilliant recreations of old time blues? To get Laurie’s old comedy partner Stephen Fry to hand over the gong was a PR master-stroke. Which, after all, is what this is all about.

Giving Keith Richards an Award for his popular million selling autobiography was obviously a smart move, since it gets the legendary Rolling Stone on the carpet in front of your magazine logo, and superfan Johnny Depp to hand it over. But calling the award Writer of the Year might be deemed a bit of an insult to anyone who actually writes for a living – which presumably includes some of the magazine’s staff. The giveaway on the book’s cover is “with James Fox”, a professional journalist and author of the excellent White Mischief, who actually did all the writing and research (which included interviews with other participants to shore up Keith’s more loosely recollected anecdotes). Of course, nobody buys a celebrity autobiography for the ghost writer. I know it appears to be blasphemy to suggest that Keith’s book is anything other than a rock and roll masterpiece, but precious few reviews dwelled on the turgid finale in which one of the highlights of Keith’s life is recalled by model Kate Moss as chasing someone around a party with a frying pan for burning his sausages (or some equally mundane incident. I would check but I gave my copy to a charity bookshop). As amusing as it is, Keith’s book is pretty much like the Stone’s career: the first half is great but it goes rapidly downhill after 1975. Somehow, I don’t expect to see him at the Booker.

And did I mention GQ’s Band of the Year? Or to give it its full title (secretly engraved in small print at the bottom of the gong) Band Who Happened to be Passing Through London and Agreed to Turn Up.

Everyone knows I am a friend and admirer of U2, but they spent the past 6 months on the second leg of a world tour, played one gig in the UK and released no new records, which would make it difficult for even their most ardent fan to claim that they bestrode 2011 like a rock colossus. But the band happened to be in London last night before heading out to the Toronto Film Festival to premiere a documentary about the making of Achtung Baby (which will included as part of a 20th Anniversary remastered box set in October, retailing at £79.99). And what better way to kill time between flights by quaffing champagne with fellow celebs and collecting a shiny prize from the author of a forthcoming book about U2 (who also happens to be the editor of GQ)?

Some people call that good marketing. Some people call it an awards ceremony.

U2’s manager, Paul McGuinness, however, wasn’t present to see his band being so royally feted. He had legitimate business across town with another of his clients: PJ Harvey.

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