February 27, 2017
Released On April 1, 1991
Released By Columbia Records
High school is a weird time. You’re young, you’re still figuring out what you like and what you think is cool — and you want oh-so-desperately to be cool. At the same time, your teenage exuberance can carry you headlong into a million new and different interests every week, and the relatively isolated world in which you live, populated mainly by other teenagers with no more real idea of what’s actually happening out in the “real world” than you, can make it hard to distinguish what impressions you should really get of the world outside your little teenage bubble.
Actually, I don’t know, it might be different now — after all, there’s the internet. Any 14 year old kid could conceivably be as tapped into the hippest underground happenings as I, a full-grown adult, am. If not more so, in fact. But that’s how it was for me, growing up at the dawn of the ’90s, before the world wide web existed. My pipelines for culture were limited to MTV, the college radio station, and whatever less-mainstream-than-Rolling-Stone magazines I could pick up at the record store.
I think it was MTV that brought me my first exposure to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin — though the college radio station is just as likely a culprit, now that I think of it. Either way, the hyperactive exuberance of the English quintet, and their knack for writing incredibly catchy melodies, grabbed my attention and refused to let go. I was really into the idea of being a punk rocker in those days, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin were pretty much impossible to shoehorn into that relatively well-defined category. Even to my 15 year old ears though, they seemed obviously influenced by punk, and had a clear kinship with other sorta-punkish-but-not-really-punk UK bands I was digging at the time — Jesus Jones, Pop Will Eat Itself, EMF, et cetera.
Really, if I’d been surrounded by other oh-so-punk teenagers when I was in high school, I imagine I’d been shamed out of my love of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin in short order. My high school wasn’t that cool, though; all we had were a few Anglophile drama kids who sorta thought Black Flag were silly but could at least talk to me about My Bloody Valentine. They all thought Ned’s were the bomb. So I spent years listening to, and falling in love with, God Fodder (and the band’s other two early-’90s LPs, both of which are just as highly recommended); by the time I met punk-enough kids to scoff at my Ned’s love, I was too deep to turn back.
I get it, though — part of why I even picked this album for OYR is because I couldn’t help but think of what a tough sell they’d be for some of my fellow contributors. A five-piece band with two bass players and only one guitarist, who repeatedly nod towards the then-ascendant world of hip hop through bouncy syncopated beats and mostly extraneous samples, with teenaged-as-fuck lyrics about fighting with your dad, or having unrequited crushes, or struggling to find self-esteem. It’s so silly!
It’s so great, though — seriously. How could anyone deny the way Alex Griffin rides the high registers of his bass, plucking out melody lines that contrast brilliantly with Gareth “Rat” Pring’s chunky, distorted guitar riffing and other bassist Mat Cheslin’s rumbling low end? How could you hate on Dan Worton’s peppy beats and the way they give each song an extra burst of rolling-downhill energy? Most importantly, how can you not relate to at least some of these lyrics?
It’s true, Jonn Penney’s lyrics are pretty simple in most cases. “Kill Your Television” was apparently not even about television, and gained its title and chorus line from a sticker on Alex’s bass, because, as Alex later stated, “We like slogans. You don’t forget them.” [Personal note: one of the many slogans flashed briefly onscreen during that song’s video is “Nothing is cool,” which I eventually used as the name for a zine I published for over a decade.] Regardless, “sat down for a drink, in her father’s favorite chair” is both memorable and full of unspoken resonance. There’s a whole story behind that line, and if you can’t divine it all from the lyrics of “Kill Your Television”, you can at least make out its shape.
There are many songs on this album that remain close to my heart. “Grey Cell Green,” with its incredibly busy drumming. “Happy,” the incredible lead bass lines of which attain almost symphonic resonance when contrasted with its dirty guitars and double-tracked vocal melodies. “Cut Up,” with its emotional feel once again carried by that amazing lead bass (seriously, how can you hate on it after hearing any of these songs? You can’t!).
My personal favorite, though, is “Less Than Useful.” It’s not an extremely distinctive song in terms of melody — definitely holds its own with the rest of the album, so don’t get me wrong, it’s damn good musically. But what really drew me in were the lyrics. Its carping about feeling alienated and struggling to feel like a good person resonated with me, but what really jumped out was the chorus. “You say I must be in a mess; well let me guess what YOU suggest,” Jonn sings, almost sneeringly. “You want me to smile?” I’d heard that suggestion way too many times myself, and related to the frustration with it. It was when Jonn followed the line with, “Well, I’ll try” that I found myself thrown, challenged by the idea that trying might be worthwhile. I wouldn’t listen to it from parents, teachers, and the well-adjusted preppy types who surrounded me in school. They had no idea what I was going through. But I fully believed Ned’s Atomic Dustbin got me, that they understood what I was going through. If Jonn was willing to try, maybe I could be too.
25 years later, I’m still trying. Some days, it’s really hard. Some days I can’t manage at all. But when I listen to God Fodder, I don’t have to try, because these amazing songs and all the memories they bring back to me put a smile on my face the second I hear them.
From left to right: Jonn Penney, Matt Cheslin, Dan Worton, Gareth “Rat” Pring, & Alex Griffin.
Knowing what a movie nerd I was. But the real reason I wanted my own setup? To record MTV’s late night programming: I was super into The State, Liquid Television, and, of course, 120 Minutes. When I’d get ready for school on Monday mornings, I would skip through the tape and see what the cool new videos and bands were — I’d watch each episode dozens of times thereafter. (Note: If you want to waste a few hours/days/months, here’s an extensive 120 Minutes archive.) Ned’s Atomic Dustbin was the quintessential 120 Minutes band: they were from England and had a weird name, possessed a certain look, and had a cult following that teenage me never quite understood. I probably fast forwarded through their videos on my VHS tapes in order to get to “Package Thief” and “Sorry Again.” Listening to God Fodder more than 25 years after its release, I finally understood the band: Ned’s Atomic Dustbin were influenced by American punk and hardcore bands, putting them closer to the Dischord sound than the bands you first think of when you hear the word Britpop. The catchy “Grey Cell Green” was the only song on God Fodder that sounded instantly familiar — would it surprise you if I told you it was also the album’s biggest hit on 120 Minutes? As a non-rock person, it took me multiple listens to appreciate everything The Neds did on this album, but there are a lot of excellent songs and really good guitar melodies. One of my favorite elements is Dan Worton’s drumming — it’s both faster and less heavy than I expected for a band with two bass players. I’d definitely recommend God Fodder to ’80s and ’90s punk fans — surprisingly, it has aged better than many of the other records of the 120 Minutes era.
Nothing like a good English rock band to start the morning on a bright note! A name like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin is definitely one to file under the category of easy-to-remember. What’s not easy, is seeing the year of this record’s release (1991) and finding that God Fodder doesn’t cause instant recoil from an assault of everything at the dead center of ’90s indie rock (it was just the start of the decade after all). Yet the record also doesn’t sound like it belongs in the “classic rock radio” bracket, like its current age might imply. This album, while boasting some dated sound in its veins (that vocal reverb and delay though!), was an easygoing, fun listen. Just like the band’s name, God Fodder is a bit quirky and has a very go-with-the-flow kind of catchy quality. No, we’re not talking catchy like certain pop music of now that is staring down the Top 40 radio charts like life itself depends on it. Instead, the tracks are catchy because none of them tries too hard. The drums are not the most defined, the lyrics are frivolous at times (“We got verbal constipation / Let’s stop throwing things”), and the mix levels across parts don’t always seem logical (Sure, let’s raise the tambourine and turn down the bass!). Yet, none of that matters. There’s just enough restraint applied toward each of these decisions, that can potentially be perceived as record “weaknesses,” not to have listeners coming away adding up technical offenses this record might be committing. Guitar riff-propelled hooks are abound on God Fodder (“Kill Your Television,” “Happy,” “Less Than Useful“); as are major keys and upbeat tempos. (Love the drum intro in “Capital Letters.”) When taken in all together and from just the right angle, one could almost say the band borders on having ribbons of post-punk character running through it. To wrap up, my first impression of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin in non-musical terms: a pair of casual but cool looking kicks that are already broken in and ready for a good day out.
Colorful, yet shrouded. Curious, yet restrained.
One of the reasons I love Killing Joke, besides the brutal beauty of the guitars, the pummeling rhythms, the otherworldly synthesizers, and astonishing vocals, is the sense of being a part of something bigger than me. It may just be a figment of my imagination (and Jaz Coleman’s) that there is nearly a movement behind everything they do, but it’s a damned convincing figment. I bring up Killing Joke because after a couple of listens, I located Ned’s Atomic Dustbin on a continuum that started with those post-punk hooligans, although without their messianic flair. That means that the boys in Ned’s stand or fall on their music alone. I’m happy to report that, on this album anyway, they are standing tall. A song like “Cut Up” from God Fodder stutters, grinds, and gallops like a mid-’80s Killing Joke cut, and if the vocals don’t quite soar like Coleman’s would, it’s still pretty inspiring. While God Fodder is a consistent album, “Grey Cell Green” and “Until You Find Out” also rise above the rest, with an anthemic scope that fans of Blur and Ride will recognize. Forgive me for ignoring these guys in the ’90s — I thought the name was goofy and never had a chance to hear what they sounded like. With the current boom in 90’s nostalgia, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin should be having a moment. Let it start here.
I have tried to like Britpop, I really have. Other than Oasis, most of the stuff I do like seems to be at best loosely connected to the movement for lack of a better sub-genre. Does Radiohead’s The Bends count? What I’m trying to figure out is why I never cared as much for these bands. I don’t get nostalgic for the grunge years, but if Britpop was the English reaction to bands like Nirvana, I’d prefer to get my flannel out. After spinning Ned’s Atomic Dustbin God Fodder, I put on a Dinosaur Jr record, a band that I love, and noted that they share many of the same sonic elements: loud snare drum with reverb, growling wall-of-sound guitars, affected melodic guitar leads, et cetera, but for some reason, J Mascis’ songs hit me with the right frequency. I sampled a few of their other albums to see if maybe something else would stick and Are You Normal? is already growing on me! The Ned’s Cure-esk bass parts and excellent drumming are matched with catchy songs and production that holds up better.
A name like “Ned’s Atomic Dustbin” is meant to be memorable and so I knew right away that I’d heard of exactly one song by them. In 1992, the song “Not Sleeping Around” from their second album went to number 1 on what would eventually become the Alternative Songs chart. So I had in my mind that this, their first album, was probably going to be like much of the pre-“Smells Like Teen Spirit” Alternative music. Namely, quirky, catchy, but sort of samey. And then I hit play and the whole world shifted. This album is the link between early ’90s Alternative and mid-to-late ’90s pop-punk that I’ve been missing in my musical education. It reminds me of that time I discovered that there was a whole movie in between Star Wars and Return Of The Jedi that explained how we got from Han Solo getting a medal at the end of one to him being frozen and on display in Jabba’s palace at the beginning of the next one. You find this link and suddenly a whole bunch of things fall into place. It was the song “Less Than Useful” that did it. That double-time drum beat and baseline in the verses could be in a song by Green Day or Blink-182 and no one would bat an eye until the British guy started singing. I love this album. I love the interpolation of “You’re So Vain” in “You.” I love the cathartic “Take this Dad!” of “What Gives My Son?” If I’d had this album in high school, it would have been on constant rotation.
With shoegaze, punk, & electronica influences, the quintet crafted quirky, hyper-rock sound that rose above fuzz & feedback.
At one point on Saturday, while I was running around the Fan listening to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, it started to feel like I was reading a diary that was written by someone who knew it would be read by someone else. The lyrics on God Fodder function as hints and codes more than they do as confessions or descriptions, like they’re meant to mean more to the person doing the writing and singing than the person doing the listening. (The first verse of “Selfish” more or less admits as much, when Jonn Penney sings “Be careful, you might say something that you really mean.”) It’s a little ironic, given how clear Penney’s delivery is, but the album’s Wikipedia page quotes bassist Alex Griffin as saying that Penney’s lyrics are “vague and about personal situations not necessarily his own. He doesn’t like to explain.” Take the “soap for sore eyes” line at the end of “Kill Your Television.” It’s a reference to the fact that guitarist Gareth “Rat” Pring watched soap operas, but you could never divine that on your own; it was revealed in an interview. In that sense, the lyrics keep the listener at arm’s length, but the words themselves also feel separated from one another. Lines don’t so much flow into one another as they appear suddenly, one at a time. Apparently the title of “Kill Your Television” came from a sticker on Alex Griffin’s bass, and he’s quoted as saying “We like slogans; you don’t forget them.” People definitely didn’t forget the lyrics to “Kill Your Television;” it was a big hit, as were other songs on God Fodder. I mentioned irony before — the great irony here is that Ned’s Atomic Dustbin was able to use isolation and obfuscation to create critical and popular consensus about the quality of their work. Really interesting, I think.
At a time when record labels were realizing the potential of the newborn genre, bands like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin were already starting to push back on what alternative rock could be, and maybe even should be. Their British origin helped of course, shielding them from the tunnel vision that crippled too many nascent American bands at the same time and allowing them to realize they didn’t have to be one thing or the other. Shoegaze, jangle pop, electronica, post-punk, and even hip-hop; they didn’t have to make the decision to do one or the other, which is clear when you listen to a song aptly called “Selfish.” It wasn’t just their willingness to be more than rock though — the band also had a set-up that just allowed them to approach songs in a way other bands couldn’t even comprehend. The double-bass lineup delivered rhythms that were harder than their rock peers (“Cut Up“) while also developing songs that were more scattered rhythmically than most at the time (“Capital Letters“). The set-up never got gimmicky though — they knew when to embrace the line-up and when to hold back, making sure they could still deliver a straight-up rock song when necessary (“Throwing Things“). It was that restrained mindset that made records like God Fodder so engaging, and gave them an impressive and deserved head start on the litany of bands that emerged from the alternative pool in the early ’90s.
Tempest In A Teacup by Mal Blum
Chosen By Shannon Cleary