Following a cracking gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire last Friday, and with some time off this week, I’ve been rediscovering The Wonder Stuff via Miles Hunt’s engaging ‘Diaries 86-89’, accompanied by the sounds of a band who dominated my record deck thirty years ago.
For those not familiar with their oeuvre, you couldn’t go into a British student club in the late 1980s and early 1990s without hearing The Wonder Stuff. Hailing from Stourbridge, the band, like their hometown, were never exactly fashionable but still managed to become briefly ubiquitous on the back of their “sparkling, hard-edged indie-pop”, to quote the doyen of rock music history, Martin C. Strong.
Although tagged as one of a crop of grebo groups from the Black Country, along with Pop Will Eat Itself and Neds Atomic Dustbin, and nominally part of the indie scene despite signing for a major label pretty early on, The Wonder Stuff were like the underdog team who somehow managed to win the FA Cup. Having followed them from student union gigs to minor Midlands venues, it was amazing in June 1991 to be part of the pulsating, two hour long mosh as the Stuffies put on their own ‘Big Day Out’ at Bescott Stadium. When Hunt shouted “Hup!”, 20,000 people pogoed maniacally in their baggy clothes and bad hair.
Then, in 1994, just as they achieved a Number One single, a top five album and festival headliner status, the Eight Legged Groove Machine packed it all in.
The first volume of Hunt’s ‘diaries’ focus on the early years. I put diaries in inverted commas because we’re not talking Samuel Pepys here – Hunt was diligent in scribbling something each day, but often it was as little as “good gig” or “signed on”. These jottings have jogged the author’s memory, but the book is really a rock ‘n’ roll memoir.
Like half the rest of the British indie scene, it was the Sex Pistols that made Hunt want to be in a band. But unlike his slightly older peers, he can’t claim to have been at that infamous Manchester Free Trade Hall gig because he was only eleven at the time. John Peel and then a purchase by his older brother made the introduction that would shape the rest of his life: “When I first heard God Save The Queen by the Sex Pistols it was the beginning of time, it was year zero.” Unlike many kids whose parents banned the band’s records from their houses, Hunt’s Dad encouraged him, advising “You should listen to what that young man says on that record. He may well be your Bob Dylan.”
But it was a band of an entirely different ilk that showed the young Miles Hunt what live performance was all about. Attending a Slade gig in the same year Hunt recalls “The electricity, the volume, the collection of smells that come together at a rock’n’roll show, sweat, adrenaline, beer and..dry ice”. Ten years later reviewers noted the influence of both the Sex Pistols and Slade in the Wonder Stuff’s early output.
Like most rock memoirs, ‘The Diaries’ record the difficult early years of trying at get a band together, living on the dole and surrounded almost exclusively by other kids trying to do the same thing (Hunt’s flatmate for much of this period was Clint Mansell, future lead singer of Pop Will Eat Itself). We also get a sense of the joy of early breakthroughs, like opening the box of the very first record with the Wonder Stuff’s name on it: “I held the EP in my hands for an eternity, unwilling to let it go, in fear that by doing so the record would dissolve into the fantasies of my past.”
But the Wonder Stuff didn’t have long to wait to for real success, not least because their first songs, which still made up the mainstay of the reformed Wonder Stuff’s live show last week, were just so good. Indeed, from the moment their first album, ‘The Eight Legged Groove Machine’, debuted in 1988 the band became fixtures in the indie music press and a star in the ascendant.
‘Eight Legged Groove Machine’, with its arresting pink cover, is a fast and furious set of fourteen tracks, blasting off with ‘Red Berry Joy Town’, followed by aggressive and spikes tracks like ‘It’s Yer Money I’m After, Baby’ and ‘Give, Give Give Me More, More More’.
As the titles suggest, the Wonder Stuff were up for an argument and Hunt’s stage persona, in his own estimation, was that of a “gob-shite”. Verbal abuse flew freely and not only in the direction of the music press and bands considered to be less worthy – Wonder Stuff gigs generally only got going when the lead singer had fired some invective at his own ticket-buying crowd (we lapped it up and were disappointed on the rare occasions Hunt was in a laid-back mood).
Hunt explains that this aggression was largely a device to mask his painful shyness, but it also worked to give the band an edgy brand. An early review by Mat Smith in the NME got it about right: “The Wonder Stuff are idiosyncratic to the point of eccentricity. Every song is a story and every story has only one side – theirs. The opposing theory is duped for the sake of a snappy storyline. Besides, at three minutes a go, there’s barely time to look at your watch let alone enter into the debate.”
Eight Legged Groove Machine seemed to evolve naturally, but we learn more about the song-writing process in relation to the Stuffies’ second album, ‘Hup’, released a year later. ‘Cartoon Boyfriend’ describes Hunt’s guilt about cheating on his long-term girlfriend while on tour in the USA. ‘Can’t Shape Up’ is the singer summoning up the courage to end the same relationship. ‘Piece of Sky’ was inspired by obsessive listening to Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Jane Says’ (great song), and ‘Golden Green’ reflects both the influence of the country music that got played as a lowest-common denominator compromise in the tour van and the record company’s demand for a catchy hit single.
During this period the band seem never to have stopped working and it resulted in much of their best work. Listening to Paul McCartney on ‘Mastertapes‘ recently, he explained that the reason most song-writers produce their best stuff in their twenties is that this is usually when musicians are suddenly exposed to a huge array of new experiences and the young brain is malleable enough to take them in and make creative use out of them. Experience helps in other ways, but great pop songs are usually written by young bands. Oh well.
The relentless touring, recording and promoting that is involved in being the lead singer of a band on whom a major record company has made a significant bet, also took its toll. Being constantly drunk and constantly hungover was one consequence, but then real fatigue began to set in, culminating in Hunt suffering what sounds like mild depression and ultimately sulking off stage mid-way through a gig.
The rest of the band were furious and Hunt ashamed, but like most song-writers he was also able to create something from the experience, with the final track on ‘Hup’, ‘Room 410’, describing hiding in his hotel room while their manager calmed things down.
Other band members coped less well. Rob ‘The Bass Thing’ Jones quit after the ‘Hup’ tour and died three years later from a heart attack, apparently connected to drug abuse. The Bass Thing was key in the formation of the Wonder Stuff and an important part of the band’s early image: “resplendent in his battered motorcycle leather jacket, skin-tight ripped jeans, a faded Sid Vicious t-shirt and his legendary Doc Marten boots. Legendary because the leather upper had separated itself from the Air Ware sole on both feet and in the space in between an unhealthy mound of moss was seeping outward.”
Hunt both clearly loved Jones dearly and had been in awe of his slightly more worldly bandmate in the early years. It is with palpable remorse that he notes that he and the rest of the group were so absorbed in pushing the Wonder Stuff forward that they didn’t even recognise that their friend needed help, let alone think to offer it before it was too late.
The band’s melancholy after Jone’s departure was used to pen a great tune – the stadium ready ‘Here Comes Everyone’. But that’s a story for the next volume. Having once again being absorbed in the world of the Eight Legged Groove Machine I need to get my head back into the space of someone who has to go back to work in an office tomorrow. But maybe one more shout of ‘Hup’ first..