For 25 years the Mercury Prize has sought to celebrate the breadth and depth of contemporary British music. A bold and noble pursuit, which, perhaps inevitably, often leads to think-pieces and op-eds centring on who is missing from its annual shortlist, as much as who has made it.
This year the twelve nominees span a broad spectrum, from the seemingly ubiquitous Ed Sheeran to the decidedly less mainstream bashment and afrobeat fusion of J Hus, and, in spoken-word artist Kate Tempest, a performer who’s no stranger to us. Since appearing at Meltdown way back in 2010, Tempest has played our iconic venues several times, and should she lift this year’s prize, then she’ll be in good company, joining this impressive list of Mercury winners to have played at Southbank Centre.
A soundtrack to the life of anyone coming of age in Brit Pop Britain, Pulp’s Different Class lifted the Mercury Prize in 1996. Since then, the unmistakable figure of band frontman Jarvis Cocker has often been sighted at Southbank Centre, most notably curating Meltdown in 2007. His genre-defying line-up swung from the Jesus and Mary Chain to John Barry conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and even featured Grace Jones and Pete Doherty performing songs from Disney. In 2010 Cocker returned to Royal Festival Hall to narrate the Philharmonia Orchestra’s performance of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
Beating big-name favourites Manic Street Preachers and The Chemical Brothers to the 1999 Mercury Prize was the comparatively obscure Talvin Singh, with his fusion of classical Indian tabla music with drum and bass, Ok. Singh came to Southbank Centre twice in 2013, appearing both at Alchemy and Meltdown. For the former he showcased his tabla skills by improvising new scores to two Bollywood classics, Raja Harishchandra and Devi (Goddess), and for the latter he joined Siouxsie, Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono on stage for the festival’s closing performance.
Damon Gough ensured Mercury Prize infamy in 2000 when he tossed away his cheque after winning the award with The Hour of Bewilderbeast in a gesture he has since suggested sat somewhere between protest at the remunerating of art and drunkenness. He had thankfully managed to retrieve it before he appeared at Southbank Centre in 2002, playing an intimate gig in our Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of David Bowie’s Meltdown.
Young Fathers are the Mercury Prize winners to have played Southbank Centre most recently, rocking our Royal Festival Hall earlier this summer as they launched M.I.A.’s Meltdown. Now on their second album, it was for their debut Dead that the Edinburgh-based hip-hop three-piece lifted the Mercury Prize in 2014.
Such was the meteoric rise of Speech Debelle in 2009, that just a few short months before lifting that year’s Mercury Prize the ‘Terrific young, soulful London rhymesayer’ as Time Out described her, was performing for free at one of our Friday Tonic shows in The Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall. Post Mercury victory Speech Debelle returned to the Southbank Centre in 2013 as curator of the Strength & Vulnerability Bunker within the Koestler Trust’s annual exhibition of art by prisoners and detainees.
The only two-time winner of the Mercury Prize, having lifted it in 2001 for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and again in 2011 for Let England Shake, PJ Harvey is similarly no stranger to Southbank Centre. In September 2007, Harvey took to the Royal Festival Hall stage to give a performance of her stripped-back and haunting atmospheric White Chalk album. And just last year the artist returned in a different light to launch The Hollow of The Hand, a book which paired her first published poems with the photography of Seamus Murphy.
Artist, poet, composer and musician Benjamin Clementine had already appeared at Southbank Centre not once, but twice by the time he won the 2015 Mercury Prize with his debut album At Least for Now. ‘He was incredible’ said Evening Standard reviewer David Smyth of Clementine’s first appearance here, a 2013 gig in the Purcell Room. In 2015 Clementine was back and on a bigger stage, taking a seat at the piano in Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of David Byrne’s Meltdown.
Antony and the Johnsons’ 2005 Mercury Prize win for I Am a Bird Now, was one of the more contentious in the Award’s history; owing to lead singer Anohni having moved to the US aged 10. ‘He's an American, really,’ protested Kaiser Chiefs drummer, Nick Hodgson. Having performed at Patti Smith’s Meltdown in that Mercury Prize winning year, Anohni, still then known as Antony Hegarty, returned to the festival as curator in 2012. Anohni delivered what Guardian reviewer Kitty Empire termed an ‘alternative Olympics for vulnerability and shape-shifting’ saw brought notable performances from Lou reed and Marc Almond.
As Antony and the Johnsons did before them and Speech Debelle and Benjamin Clementine would go on to do, Elbow too notched the double accomplishment of playing Southbank Centre in the same year as they lifted the Mercury Prize. Ahead of the triumph for The Seldom Seen Kid, Elbow appeared with us as part of Massive Attack’s 2008 Meltdown. Eight years later, frontman Guy Garvey was back again, this time as curator, delivering a bill that included one of the acts Elbow had pipped to the 2008 Mercury, Laura Marling.
We’ve kept this list at nine artists, so as not to steal your entire day from you, but such has been Southbank Centre’s contemporary musical output in the past two decades we could’ve crowbarred in a few more had we really wished. The 2013 winner James Blake played the Purcell Room at Southbank Centre two years before his Mercury triumph, whilst both Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley - winners with Portishead in 1995 - have appeared at past editions of Ether at Southbank Centre.
Keep up with contemporary music at Southbank Centre in 2017 and 2018.