What's in a name? Well, the "Poppies", as they are affectionately known, took theirs from an article by the NME's David Quantick, which suggested that in 1986 music would regurgitate itself rather than come up with new ideas. The irony is that the Poppies have both plundered the back catalogue of other artists and put in new ideas as well.
The current indie boom has thrown up some unlikely pop heroes, but none more surprising than the Poppies, the champions of "grebo" who've suddenly found themselves in the Top 30. Clint Mansell, Adam Mole and Graham Crabb (vocals/guitar, keyboards and drums respectively in those days) were all members of the Stourbridge band From Eden. When that outfit fell apart in 1984, the trio recruited their fan and friend Richard March to play bass. Wearing their influences proudly on their sleeves, they called themselves Wild and Wondering, the title of the debut album by Wasted Youth.
They gigged for the first time in January 1985, at the sadly now defunct Loft Club in Birmingham. Soon afterwards they recorded a six-track Portastudio demo, delicately titled "Jacked Up and Really Aching", which featured their live set, minus the Wasted Youth Cover "Paris France". This tape was then sold - or sometimes not! - at their gigs in mid-1985.
The Poppies made their next attempt to get the music to the public that August, though the resulting EP didn't properly surface until the next January. "2000 Light Ales From Home" consisted of four tracks, plus a hand drawn insert. One song, the nine minute classic "The Appletree" which took up side two, also featured Miles and Malcolm (now of The Wonder Stuff). They can be heard breaking bottles, shouting "play a fast 'un yer bastard!", and generally having a good time. Both had previously been members of From Eden, and had co-written three of the four tracks on the EP.
Another EP cut, "Real Cool Time", was first issued on Iguana Records' late 1985 compilation LP "Motor City 9", where it was totally out of place alongside the likes of GBH and Ausgang.
By the time the EP was actually released, the Poppies had changed their style. Adam started to play second guitar instead of keyboards, and Graham threw away his drum stand and performed standing up instead. He had also begun to write songs for the band which invariably lasted for only a couple of minutes. Along with the new style came a new name - Pop Will Eat Itself. The first gig under this title was on May 2nd 1986 at the Mere in good old Stourbridge - and the less said about it the better. Suffice to say, Clint insulted the audience, he and Graham walked off-stage, and a stand in drummer had to play on covers of "Orgasm Addict" and "Boys Don't Cry".
Two weeks later, this shambles was rectified by the `release` of their first five-track 7" EP, "The Poppies Say GRRR.....", sold at a gig at Dudley JB's. The EP was recorded for a staggering ?61 (including a ?5 food bill), and sounds like it! 500 copies were pressed, all white labels with the title stamped on one side, and they came in a brown paper bag, also stamped with the track titles, and with a contact address (Richard's parents). The bag was folded over and sealed with a piece of sellotape.
This DIY affair was named Single of the Week in the NME, and gained local and Radio 1 night-time airplay. Janice Long nearly committed an on-air disaster by almost playing "Candyiosis" to the end, with its delightful refrain, "What's so fuckin' good, what's so fuckin' good about candy". You can expect to pay around ?20 for the original EP in the brown bag, or ?6 for the re-pressing in an orange cover.
The band were asked to record a Peel session in June 1986 which was aired later that month. In between gigs with the Mighty Lemon Drops, Primal Scream and the Shop Assistants, they found time to record another EP, this time for the Birmingham-based label Chapter 22, whose supremo Craig Jennings (alias "CJ") eventually became their manager, a job he holds to this day.
Released in October, "Poppiecock" went straight into the NME indie charts at No. 8 and stayed there for several months. The 12" version included the five tracks from their previous release on the flip, and originally sold at the bargain price of ?2.99. The new tracks included a couple of classics - "Monogamy" which would fit perfectly on to the Buzzcocks' "Singles Going Steady", and "Oh Grebo, I Think I Love You".
The latter became a major talking point. "What is a grebo?", the band were asked over and over again. And as journalists were given a different answer nearly every time, they decided to fabricate the birth of a musical movement around the world, lumping together the likes of Gaye Bikers, Crazyhead, Zodiac Mindwarp and the Poppies together. It was all very unlikely, and utterly pathetic.
At this point, the Poppies became the food of hungry gossip-column writers. If one member of the band, for instance, remarked to another about the size of a passing girl's upper-regions, it would be headline news. By printing these stories, and the readers' letters they aroused, the press ensured that the Poppies were always in the news.
The band's next spot of recording surfaced on a Subway compilation called "Take The Subway To Your Suburb". The Poppies recorded the Mighty Lemon Drops' "Like An Angel" and Hawkwind's "Orgone Accumulator", both long-term favourites in their live set.
After taping a rather dodgy five song Janice Long session in December 1986, the band played an Xmas gig at Birmingham's Powerhouse with Balaam & the Angel and the Lemon drops. Someone forgot to give them their trousers, so, yes, they played in their underpants. At one point, Graham pulled out the handkerchief he'd stuffed down the front and threw it into the audience. Many people jumped to catch it, the thought of which still makes me feel sick!
In January 1987, the band issued a three track 7" and 12", "Sweet Sweet Pie". The video was shown on the "Whistle Test" a few weeks later, but the single still peaked just outside the Top 75. Then after a UK and short but eventful European tour, they returned home to coincide with the release of "The Covers" EP in May - the lead track of which was Sigue Sigue Sputnik's "Love Missile F1-11". It was an important transition: the band had already sampled film dialogue on the "2000 Light Ales" EP,and had continued experimenting since then, but only now had it become noticeable on record. The EP also saw Graham and Clint as co-lead vocalists for the first time, something which pointed out the future direction for the band.
Their subsequent UK tour established their course. The Poppies became one of the first UK acts to blend rap and hard guitar, and this style was apparent on their next recordings, when they started to tape tracks for their first LP at a local studio. They then recut "Grebo Guru" at FON studios in Sheffield with Robert Gordon, who ended up as producer of their next releases. The first version of the song, meanwhile, turned up on a "Sounds" Freebie EP - don't bother!
While they were finishing the LP, they issued another single, "Beaver Patrol". In retrospect, this was a dumb move. Though it sold healthily, it did absolutely nothing to dispel the Poppies' sexist image, even though the song was originally written by the Vikings, not the Poppies themselves (who did juggle a few lyrics around, admittedly). The track received several airings on the late, lamented Janice Long show, but John Peel didn't play it, although he denied rumours that he had approached Radio 1 producers and asked them to ban the song. "Beaver Patrol" is nowadays only played as an encore.
After the band had been granted their first NME cover, it was time for them to unleash their debut LP. It was supposedly meant to be called "Ball Deep", but it reached the shops as "Box Frenzy", attracting a mixed bunch of reviews. The album achieved that perfect blend of old and new styles that recent tours had missed, though the undoubted highlights were the new songs, like the outstanding "Hit the Hi-Tech Groove" and "U.B.L.U.D", liberally sprinkled with samples and drum machines. And it's not every album that can boast guest stars as diverse as Johnny Morris, Andy Kershaw and the Speaking Clock!
In concert, however, the Poppies were as erratic as ever - as proved by their Xmas gig at the Irish Centre in Birmingham, where they were thrashed by their support, new Polydor signings, The Wonder Stuff. But 1988 was to see the birth of the new, professional (!) Pop Will Eat Itself.
"No Love", issued in January, once again dented the lower regions of the Gallup chart. Sales were helped by a limited edition 12" which contained a superb `dance mix` - itself coupled with "Hit the Hi-Tech Groove" on a 12" promo for club use.
Events took a bizarre turn thereafter, when the band were asked to play in the Soviet Union. A Russian promoter, keen to get western acts to play behind the Iron Curtain, saw three bands in London: Public Image, public Enemy and PWEI. The Poppies impressed him most, so off they went. They played at an open-air festival with many Russian bands, and Billy Bragg. The Poppies distributed badges and T Shirts which unintentionally provoked a rush for the stage and much clamouring of hands, as if they were giving food to the starving. It was a nice gesture, which rammed home the cultural differences. Less kindly, Richard commented on the general Russian dress sense, which he said seemed to be taken from a 1973 Kays' catalogue.
Their second release of 1988 turned out to be something of a Poppies anthem, "Def Con One". Radio 1 airplay was sparse, as the Beeb took the hookline ("Big Mac, fries to go") as advertising. A version with the "Mac" omitted was available in the shops for a brief period, in a plastic sleeve emblazoned with a yellow Poppies sticker. Despite these hassles, the single was their most successful to date, helped by a limited edition "Doomsday Power Mix" 12".
After playing two major gigs in July, the band seemed poised to sign a major deal with London. That fell through, however, and instead the band signed with RCA. At the same time, they were asked to support the Run DMC/Public Enemy UK tour. As the bottom of the bill, the Poppies prepared a set of seven songs for their allocated half-hour; but they only survived for four of those on their first night at the Brixton Academy. Any available items were thrown at them as soon as they got onstage - coins, bottles etc. - and they suffered the same abuse the next night, though at least they finished their set. Belgium was, rather surprisingly, the same, but even so the band weren't prepared for the next gig in Amsterdam, which was surely the shortest Poppies gig ever: half of "Grebo Guru" before they walked off stage, and off the tour.
The band's publicity machine went into instant overdrive, with the commotion giving them more press than if they'd completed the tour. Clint appeared with Chuck D from Public Enemy in an NME photo, proving there was no ill feeling between the bands.
With this experience behind them, the Poppies began to lay down their first tracks for RCA. David Steele and Andy Cox of Fine Young Cannibals produced two songs. "Can U Dig It" and "Wise Up Sucker", the first of which was issued as a single in January 1989. In spirit, the single was a version of Julie Andrews' "My Favourite Things"; and it reached No. 38 in the Gallup charts, being available in various formats including orange and green vinyl 7"s. And the 12" featured Miles from The Wonder Stuff singing the "she loves me" parts, under the pseudonym of Twig the Wonder Kid!
A re-recording of "Wise Up Sucker" came out as a single in April last year, followed on May 1st by the LP, "This is the Day, This is the Hour, This is This". Most of the set was produced by Flood, who works with Erasure and has also just finished an album with Depeche Mode. It owed much to Public Enemy's "It Takes A Nation of Millions" in its wall of sound style, using short, linking tracks instead of empty spaces to create a non-stop aural barrage; and it was far more accomplished, musically and lyrically, than its predecessor. It certainly showed up the other Poppies album in the shops, the Chapter 22 compilation of their early singles, "Now For a Feast", issued as soon as the band had signed with RCA.
Setting out on a promotional tour, the band came across their first gripe with RCA. In Birmingham, they discovered a box of the LP which had the limited gatefold sleeve, but no inner lyric bag. RCA ended up having to place ads in the music press giving an address where aggrieved customers could get a lyric sheet free of charge.
In June and July, the band wrote and recorded two songs, "PWEIzation" and "92 F", for their next single. RCA objected, wanting the LP version of "Def Con One" to be released (subtitled `1989AD` this time and definitely superior to the Chapter 22 version). Eventually, a compromise was reached: an EP was issued, with `PWEIzation` the lead track on the A side, followed by "92 F" and "Def Con One" leading off the B side, before "Preaching to the Perverted". This set, titled "Very Metal Noise Pollution" was also issued as a gatefold 7" limited edition in a purple sleeve.
After appearing at the Reading Festival, the band performed live on Channel 4's appalling "Club X" sow, doing a rather inebriated version of "Def Con One". They were prevented from using their own sound engineer, the mix was dreadful, the camera men kept focusing on the wrong people and Graham's parting comment ("Ha ha ha, son of a bitch") summed up the event in one!
The next day the set off for the USA. After having originally had their visa application rejected, they were now embarking on a 34 date tour, starting in Florida and ending up in Tijuana, Mexico. They enjoyed mixed fortunes along the way: in West Palm Beach, Clint reckoned there were 31 people present ("great gig, though"), while at the First Avenue club in Minneapolis, where Prince filmed the live parts of "Purple Rain", there were around 250 in a 1500 capacity venue. But in San Francisco, Chicago and LA, for instance, the Poppies sold out their gigs.
To tie in with the American visit, RCA prepared a promo CD of "Can U Dig It?" featuring eight versions in a pink/black/green cover. Among the tracks were "Justin Strauss House Mixes", not released in the UK, though you can find them on an import 1" from the States.
Back in Britain, the "Very Metal" EP once again peaked just outside the Top 40, hindered by the band being outside the country, and by the continued lack of airplay for "Def Con One". All the RCA singles had similar problems: one of the lines in "Can U Dig It" originally ran "Coca Cola not Pepsi", which had to be changed to "Spinderella and Bruce Lee"; "Wise Up Sucker" included the line "'Cos my head's up my ass", a location which was changed to "in the past" on the radio edit promos; and second time around, "Def Con One" also has its lyrics changed to avoid the "Big Mac" reference. And still they didn't play it! Copies of this radio version weren't issued commercially, so expect to pay around a fiver for the promo.
Another rarity from this period is a four track remix of the "Very Metal" EP, which wasn't issued because the single started falling down the charts too quickly. Test Pressings do exist, however, and the track listing includes "PWEIzation extended", "92 F extended", "Def Con One (Doomsday Power Mix)" and a `weird` version of "Preaching to the Perverted" mixed by Youth, ex of Killing Joke.
The pressure of the US tour, and an upcoming visit to Australia and New Zealand, left the Poppies pottering around on their Portastudios in a bid to come up with some new material in a hurry. They'd been asked to record a track for the recent NME compilation "The Last Temptation of Elvis" - "Viva Las Vegas" was the original suggestion, though they were beaten to that song by one Bruce Springsteen. They were then left with a choice of "Girls Girls Girls" or "Rock-A-Hula Baby", and wisely chose the latter, remembering the fuss over their cover of "Beaver Patrol". The track was recorded over two days in November, leaving just two hours for them to pack and leave for New Zealand.
The Poppies entered the 90s by temporarily moving to London to start work on their third album. They finished a couple of tracks before deciding to return to the Midlands and work on Portastudios. Graham had already played the band an instrumental backing track, and now suggested doing a song about Il Cicciolina, the Italian porn star turned MP. The Poppies are big football fans, and never being a band to miss a publicity stunt, they decided to link the track in with this year's World Cup, coincidentally happening in Italy this summer.
So while New Order had the official England World Cup anthem, PWEI titles their single "Touched By The Hand of Cicciolina", and decided to present the woman herself with one of the first copies.
Off they went to Italy, and after CJ managed to knock down her manager's demand for ?10,000 for a photo (!!) they eventually met her. Clint went as far as to say, "She's a real lady, she'd made me re-evaluate my opinion of the human race."
The single itself was sent out to clubs, and was greeted with open arms. The public responded by buying it in sufficient quantities to put it straight in the charts at No. 28, giving the group a Top of The Pops performance, and all this without daytime radio play.
They expanded their line up for the TOTP appearance by including ex-Gun Club and Sisters of Mercy member Patricia Morrison, Dan the drummer from Ned's Atomic Dustbin and Rich's mate Ed on trumpet. But despite this and the boost of a remix 12" release, the single stuck at No. 28 the next week before its eventual fall.
The band are currently holed up in a studio in Birmingham working on more ideas for their LP, which is due for release around late October/November when they'll also head out on tour.
Meanwhile, the band's past is rapidly becoming a collector's item, with large wads of money changing hands for the choicest items. Yet there are still some people who have not succumbed to the Poppies' imagination, power, wit and live energy. To them, I can only repeat the Poppies' own words: "Wise Up!"