Judging the Mercury Prize, David Bowie, and Eminem’s mother

Having previously turned down a Kit Kat ad campaign, David Bowie is now fronting one for Louis Vuitton. But how does one get him out the house?

The pop quote of the month comes from Eminem, who, asked which part of his new album he was most “excited about”, said none of it: he was just glad it was over. I tried to get an advance listen of The Marshall Mathers LP 2 without resorting to illegal downloads but the label refused to send any review copies out, presumably because he’d already given it such a massive kicking himself.

Sometimes I think we’re due a return to the music writing of the 1960s, when the first pop critics, sitting on a record company sofa in Hush Puppies, simply listened to a record and narrated what was on it, instead of providing comment. The Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!” is “fairground music brought up to date and quite fascinating to hear,” according to Allen Evans in the New Musical Express in 1967. A year earlier, the Kinks’ Ray Davies had said, of “Eleanor Rigby”, “I bought a Haydn LP the other day and this sounds just like it.” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” he observed, “will be popular in the discotheques.”

Ground control to Major Vuitton

Anyway, I thought of the recalcitrant Eminem when, red-carpeted at the Mercury Awards, the 19-year-old Jake Bugg was asked about how he felt being nominated for the gong and said he wasn’t that bothered. To be fair, through Bugg’s eyes there is no need for industry recognition – his debut album sold 450,000 copies and life for him is a vast, flapping duvet of 14-year old girls, stretched out across a festival field.

I was a Mercury judge for the first time this year: the task of getting 200 records down to one may have been enormous but the 90- minute ceremony passed smoothly apart from Lauren Laverne’s much-celebrated Blunt/Blake spoonerism. James Blake, this year’s winner, is the son of the one-time Colosseum guitarist James Litherland, though you don’t hear much jazz rock in his strain of pastoral dubstep. Way back in the summer before voting began, I wondered if David Bowie would win the award because people wanted to force him to come out of the house and collect it, but no. On the night, he is beamed in via a new video (a remix of his song “Love Is Lost” by James “LCD Soundsystem” Murphy), featuring props from his archives: a few years back someone had been charged with the task of carving the face of the dame on to a piece of wood and turning him into a marionette. On our table someone trawls their phone for visual proof that Bowie is appearing in a Louis Vuitton ad campaign, having previously turned down one for Kit Kat. As it turns out, he is.

1001 lists to read before you die

The workers of Britain were provided with a 375-hour Spotify soundtrack for their offices last week when the NME unveiled its megapoll, “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. The Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead” (1986) was No 1. I thought the music press had got the listings thing out of its system about five years ago, around the time of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” (I can’t think of 100 singers) and coffee-table publications such as 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, but just this morning, a new book came through the door that took the music/death/planning equation to a cosmic new level: 1001 Guitars to Dream of Playing Before You Die (Octopus Books, £20).

NME should have had a country-wide poll open only to the public vote. Robbie Williams and One Direction would be at the top followed closely by the guy off The X Factor who sings gospel music; INXS and Dire Straits would be in the top 20. Most of what ordinary people listen to behind closed doors is seldom talked about by music journalists. They’ve started to acknowledge this on Radio 2’s Jo Whiley show, in which I participate once a month or so. I am made to review albums that have already been in the public domain for a week, so that the guy driving the van down the A47 can tweet the programme and tell us that what I’m saying about Alison Moyet is completely untrue. It’s a challenge and quite exhilarating.

The even realer Slim Shady

And so to the Eminem album, for which, as we go to press, there is sadly no time for anything more than a narration review. In the opening track, “Bad Guy”, Eminem sounds very angry and frustrated with his female friend and says he has been driving around her neighbourhood for nine hours and 45 minutes now with his mouth full of saliva. He appears to be breaking and entering her house. This song is a slower pace than Eminem’s usual jog-beat and his voice is quite manly and robust. In the album’s third song, “Rhyme or Reason”, the rapper explains that he has no father but that this is OK because his mother reproduced like a komodo dragon.

James Blake poses with the 2013 Mercury Prize winners trophy for his second album Overgrown during the awards ceremony in central London. Image: Getty

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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