Back in 2001, Gorillaz made the brave decision to pull out of the Mercury prize just hours after they were declared favourites to win the coveted award. Created in 1992, the prize has been won by the likes of Pulp, Arctic Monkeys and, this year, by Arlo Parks. Today, the Mercury prize is regarded as one of the most prestigious awards in UK music, so why did Gorillaz decide to flagrantly give it the middle finger.
Dreamt up by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett in 1998, Gorillaz exploded all notions of what a music act could be. Consisting of four animated band members (2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle, and Russel Hobbs), the group blend hip-hop, electronica, and world music in an eccentric and distinctly postmodern way, as exemplified in tracks like ‘Feel Good Inc’ and ‘Clint Eastwood’.
In 2001, they already had two hit singles under their belts and a platinum album. As a result, the judges of that year’s Mercury prize set them alongside PJ Harvey and Radiohead, who had just released Kid A. For many at the time, the Gorillaz nomination seemed like a leftover from the heady days of Britpop, for which Damon Albarn had been the poster boy. However, during the lead up to the awards, Gorrilaz decided to shock everyone with a stunning rejection of the nomination. Murdoc, the Gorillaz bassist, announced: “Mercury award? Sounds a bit heavy, man! Y’know sorta like carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity. No thanks, man! Why don’t you nominate some other poor muppet!”
Still reeling, the Mercury prize organisers quickly claimed that, regardless of what Murdoc had said, Gorillaz were still in the running for the prize. The virtual band’s label, Parlaphone, was quick to agree. Because Parlaphone were the one’s who had put forward Gorillaz for the prize, only they had the power to withdraw the nomination, but it was clear that they weren’t keen on doing so.
As a result, Gorillaz went from being nominated for the award to withdrawing to being forcibly reinstated. Eventually, however, the organisers of the 2001 Mercury prize accepted Gorillaz withdrawal. To many commentators at the time, the whole thing seemed like an elaborate publicity stunt. It certainly caused a media storm, and Gorillaz did seem to do well off the back of it. Albarn, however, has never shared the motivations behind the decision, leaving fans to assume that it was simply a rejection of the commercialism the Mercury prize represented. The prize, for some artists, has indeed come to resemble something like a “dead albatross” around their necks.
Beyond the hefty cash prize, many critics still argue that the award does very little for the acts that win it, with some actively suffering an ego-trip that has, in the past, led to their downfall. It subsequently came as something of a surprise when, in 2014, Albarn won the same prize he had snubbed with Gorillaz for his album Everyday Robots. At the time, a spokesperson for Albarn addressed the elephant in the room, saying: “Damon is very happy to be nominated. That was Murdoc. This is Damon.”