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Remembering the First BRIT Awards – Surprising for all the Right Reasons

Despite its reputation for stuffiness, the new ceremony would (mostly) embrace new wave and post-punk acts.

adam ant
Source: mega

Adam Ant took home the inaugural Brits' Album of the Year award in 1982.

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Tomorrow night (March 2), the great and the good and the legendary and the possibly-soon-to-be-forgotten will come together at London’s O2 Arena for the U.K.'s annual celebration of the best music of the past year. The BRIT Awards these days are a highly slick, well-oiled affair, with a tendency to play it safe – a pattern repeated over much of the four-decade history of the Awards. But at the first of the annual ceremonies, the voters, by and large, were surprisingly tuned in to the country's edgier sounds.

Forty-two years ago, on February 4, 1982, at a civilized, sit-down affair at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel, the first BRIT Awards proper was held. Then known as the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) Awards, the ’82 ceremony was technically the second time the event had been staged, after a one-off event was put on in 1977 to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

Somewhat confusingly, in that ceremony Best British Album was won by the BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released 1967) and Best International Album went to Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water (released 1970). The Best Single award was shared by Queen and Procul Harum, for “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975) and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (1967) respectively.

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In fairness, the 1977 awards were meant to celebrate the best songs, artists and albums of the monarch’s entire reign to date, rather than just the last 12 months… but despite this, Cliff Richard still managed to pip Elton John, Rod Stewart and Tom Jones to be crowned Best British Male Solo Artist. (After releasing a mere 11 albums to that point, including Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane, Station to Station and Low, David Bowie was apparently still considered too early in his career to merit even a nomination.)

Five years later, the BPI reconvened to do it all again as an annual shindig – and this time they wanted not to honor the glories of the past, but to celebrate the vibrancy of the present.

And despite the Industry’s perceived stuffiness and reputation for being largely made up of out-of-touch middle-aged men in suits (the kind of people who overlooked David Bowie five years before, in fact), for the most part they seem to have got it surprisingly right.

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The big winner of 1982 was Adam and the Ants. The art-theater-pop-punk outfit was centered around the twin talents of wildly-handsome vocalist Adam Ant and guitarist Marco Pirroni (who had previously played with Siouxsie and the Banshees) and had found huge mainstream success with their second album Kings of the Wild Frontier the year before. Adam and the Ants’ peculiar and infectious mash-up of Burundi drumming, Native American imagery, reverb-soaked guitars and piratical/highwayman costumes somehow worked beautifully – and after Kings of the Wild Frontier became the best-selling LP of 1981, it duly won the band the British Album of the Year award, as well as seeing them nominated for Best British Group and twice for Best British Single (for “Prince Charming” and “Stand and Deliver”).

That award was won by Soft Cell for their sparse, coldly electronic take on Gloria Jones’ Northern Soul classic “Tainted Love” – and Soft Cell were also among the nominees for British Breakthrough Act, along with Depeche Mode and winners the Human League. While some of the old guard may have been grumbling about the lack of “real” musicianship in synthesizer-centric bands, the voting panel, apparently, was hip to the new rhythms.

the human league
Source: mega

The Human League. Sultry.

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So far, so good, right? It got better. The Human League’s third LP Dare was runner-up to Kings of the Wild Frontier for the Best Album award, and the Best British Group gong was won by The Police, with Madness also nominated. The (surprising) sense of post-punk-ska-electro relevance was rounded off with a British Producer of the Year award for Martin Rushent, best-known for his work with the Stranglers, Buzzcocks, Altered Images and the Human League.

And then… well, the men in suits hadn’t given way completely. David Bowie was still nowhere to be seen on the nominations (despite “Ashes to Ashes” all-but inventing the New Romantic movement 18 months before) – and Cliff Richard, bless him, not only came runner-up to John Lennon in the Outstanding Contribution to Music category (how close a race was that, one wonders?) but, just as in 1977, took home the gong for British Male Solo Artist. The competition he saw off to win that prize? Elvis Costello and, er, Shakin’ Stevens.

The following year, the BPI came back to do it all again – and have every year since. Have they always got it right? Don’t be daft. Do they sometimes get it right? Of course they do… and in the first “proper” Brits, 42 years ago, they came closer than they would for years to come.


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