The Walsall Pact

Beware the Midlands mafia! The all-powerful Pop Will Eat Itself/Wonder Stuff axis continues to make you an offer you can't refuse. Godfathers Clint Poppies and Miles Hunt will see you now....

This is this. The year is 1987. "Any minute now... Pop Will Eat Itself!" Thus began the debut album, "Box Frenzy", sample appropriated from one over-excited Mark Ellen, then co-host on the Whistle Test, a grown-ups' music show on BBC2. So much subliminal weight in that moment... The record rolled, Pop Will Eat Itself's first peak of notoriety was scaled, one clever sample among many disappeared up its own arse, and a grown-ups' music show aired a resolutely juvenile rock group's latest video.


This is this. The year is 1993. Any minute now... Pop Will Eat Itself will eat themselves. Surely?


"I remember we did a gig supporting the Mighty Lemon Drops in Newcastle, 1986," recalls Richard March, the only married member of PWEI. "And we were rubbishing them in the pub beforehand before spending all their record company advance on guitar stands. Then we got banned from the venue forever for scrawling obscenities on the dressing room wall. Nowadays, we've got more guitar stands than anybody, and if we go into a dressing room that's been written on, we're huffing and puffing and complaining to the management!"


How times change, Pop Will Eat Itself, named after an existential prediction in an NME review of Jamie Wednesday (who went on to become Carter) are seven years, 18 singles, four LP's and two record labels old (if you don't count their own label, Desperate, upon which their brown paper bag debut, "Poppies Say GRRR!!!", appeared in June '86 - or London, who signed them for four days in 1988). Didn't they do..... well, what did they do?


In brief, they started out as a Midlands buzzsaw indie rock group and replaced their drumkit with a drum machine when this wasn't the Thing To Do; they bared their behinds to music paper gossip column photographers on a regular basis; they coined the unwanted term "grebo"; they were chucked off the 1988 Public Enemy/Run DMC tour after four dates; they became firm friends with the weekly music press as Rentaclown plc and were promptly accused of losing their sense of humour when they made a house album in 1990; they gave the Designers Republic a lifetime's worth of T-shirts to draw on; they were dropped by RCA at the height of their popularity; and, in true Poppies style, they replaced their drum machine with a proper drum kit when it wasn't the Thing To Do.


Right, that's Pop Will Eat Itself written off. Who's next?


Ah, Pop Will Eat Itself, nice to see you again. This is a band that wobbles but refuses to fall down. Despite a curvaceous on-off relationship with the press over their seven years as multi-media fusion pioneers next door, Pop Will Eat Itself can never have been expected to become unsung heroes, a bona fide cause celebre, last year. In December, RCA, with whom they had enjoyed a three year roll in the hay, ditched Pop Will Eat Itself four months before their contract actually ran out. Their next single, "Get the Girl, Kill the Baddies", sauntered into the charts at number nine. Their biggest hit ever. Cleaning staff at RCA have been wiping irony off the walls with a flannel ever since.


The Poppies? They laughed all the way to the Midlands, which is where we have convened today for a shareholders meeting. The pop drinks itself.


"Adam Ant doesn't regret anything. And I'm just like Adam Ant, me." This is, aptly enough, Adam Mole, the one whose name John Peel assumed was made up when he read the credits on their very first Peel session.


"Are we gonna come back in the football charts this year or what?" he asks, referring to Select's now-defunct Pools of Panel Pop. No one is.


Graham Crabb, or "Gray" as he is known, keeps quiet throughout, although his jelly-green hair and Clint Mansell's pillar-box red dreadlocks constantly fight to be heard above each other. Gray is the only Poppie to migrate to London, but even he's moving back to Stourbridge soon, due to the imminent patter of tiny trainers.


Drummer Fuzz, newest recruit, opts out of the reminiscing, but remind the rest of them how it's his professionalism that's saved his career.


Richard, ever the short-haired one, becomes adamant that we leave the pub before we've finished our pints when a twat on the next table starts handing out BNP leaflets to his mates.


Longtime manager, Sixth Poppie and big cheese of Chapter 22, Craig `CJ` Jennings sits in too. They are a heck of a family. Half a dozen teenage grandads mulling over the past..


"It wasn't the fact that we couldn't get jobs that put us on the dole for five years - we didn't want a job, " confesses Clint, the only Social Security scrounger in Birmingham dressed by Stussy.


"We went out of our way to make sure we never got a job," confirms Rich.


It wasn't the inner city deprivation of the Black Country that drove Pop Will Eat Itself to form, more a quest for depravation. 1982: From Eden, Clint and Ad's first bash at being a group, were a Psychedelic Furs-inspired proto-goth outfit for whom one Miles Hunt was piss-poor drummer (the Wonder Stuff's Malcom Treece was also a member). They supported The Sisters of Mercy in Selly Oak the week before The Sisters made the cover of Sounds, replaced Miles with graham, and split about a year later after a disagreement about who was best on that night's The tube - King or the Three Johns. Brum Beat magazine marked their demise, calling them "one of the area's most powerful live acts". but from this inauspicious wreckage arose the Wonder Stuff and a prototype for PWEI.


One joined by Stourbridge pal Richard, they became Wild and Wandering, named after a Wasted Youth album. A string of rowdy gigs and a loan from the Enterprise Allowance Scheme ensued (what Gray calls the "chaos days") and the band were told by friends, "You can't change your name from Wild and Wandering - you've had a review and everything!" But they did.


From three potential new names - Pop Tarts, Grrr!!! and Pop Will Eat Itself - the latter was chosen by John Robb, the first to respond to their mailed-out Portastudio demo. At this point enter fellow Midlanders The Mighty Lemon Drops (on the very lip of fame, thanks to inclusion on NME's "C86" tape) with whom the poppies struck up a profitable friendship, leading to gigs, and eventually, their first Peel session.


Janice Long played "Psychopath In My Soup" from their self-released debut EP, "Poppies Say Grrr!!!" and, crucially, read out the Stourbridge contact address. ("We were sending out 20 a day for a week after!" recalls Richard). The divine Ms Long passed on a copy to Peel, and - BINGO! - on June 17 1986, the Lemon Drops had to pull out of a session slot, and their manager Cerne Canning suggested the Poppies fill in.


"The night it was broadcast we played the Clarendon in Hammersmith with Yeah God, took a coach down with about 30 people down from Stourbridge, and they were the only people there, apart from Jeff Barrett (now boss of Heavenly) and Josh out of Loop. That was it!" laughs Clint, "Our session was on that night and Miles (who Clint was living with) taped it for us."


By the end of the year they'd signed to CJ's Chapter 22 label, debuted at number five on the Sounds' Indie charts with "Poppiecock" ("Delighted? I've never been so delighted since!" says Ad) and entertained their very first NME journalist (local Express & Star reporter Terry Staunton) who kipped at Richard's mum's after what would be their first national live review, threw up in bed and sneaked off without owning up.


This, again, was not a moment without its own Pop Will Itself poignancy.


Five Chapter 22 singles later, the Poppies' grinning faces (and arses) now a ubiquitous sight, they were signed to RCA by A&R visionary Korda Marshall (the same man who nabbed The Primitives and The Wedding Present during the great Indie Harvest of the late 80's) for somewhere in the region of ?60,000.


"We were paying ourselves about ?80 a week out of an RCA publishing deal at the time, which went up to about ?150 after the deal", reveals Clint.


Richard tries to put this into perspective: "The bloke who's doing some work on my house gets about twice as much as me..."


Are you troubled by guilt?


"Why? What have we done?"


It would be naive to claim that Pop Will Eat Itself's lives didn't change overnight. The kind of people they are has prevented any one of them turning into a git since they became stars (Clint says he lives to his means and will always be skint) but the scenery's very different now. A health disregard for their industry and a satirical outlook have been their cure for insanity.


"It's all levels," explains Ad. "You hear people in the music business say, Yeah, they're at that level now where they can really... go to the next level!"


Having reached the Astoria Level (ie selling out that signpost London level) the now hip hopped-up PWEI were added to the 40 date European Public Enemy tour, and were famously canned/bottled/coined off at Brixton Academy (twice) by an elitist and inverted racist mob. In Amsterdam, they lasted "27 seconds" and were kicked off the tour, four gigs in. ("We'd only been signed to RCA for about a week, we thought, Aaaah, this is the life! How dejected were we?") Clint remembers sitting in the pub in Stourbridge before the tour and saying, "What harm can it do us? Ha ha ha Ha!"


Even in Amsterdam, though, they sold 20 shirts. Things started to go bump in the night at RCA around 1992. Head of press Dave Harper (an ex-independent PR who's worked with the Poppies since their second single and who actually went to RCA before them) left to set up on his own again as Substance PR. ("Annie Lennox didn't like his image - alledgedly") The Poppies became his first out of house clients. Then, when the band had completed recording their "Looks or the Lifestyle" album, Korda left too. Richard contemplates: "RCA probably said, Take the fucking Poppies with you, for Christ's sake!"


It wasn't that simple, of course, but, as any major record company shuffles its staff around once-rosy relationships with bands inevitably alter, and the Poppies were soon stranded within an RCA infrastructure which didn't understand them. They were dropped before Christmas '92.


So why are the Poppies so bleedin' happy? Well, to all intents and purposes they have walked away from RCA - debt free - and found themselves surrounded by all the good bits from said company. Korda has set up his own indie label, Infectious, distributed by RTM, and guess who's signed to it? Plus their PR relationship with Harper continues to blossom. Meanwhile over in the States, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (a long time Poppies fan) has been instrumental in signing them to newly-minted label Nothing, an offshoot of Warners-backed Interscope (who "broke" NIN, Primus and Helmet in the US). CJ, Clint and Graham went to LA with Korda and spent a few days at the house of legendary Manson murderee Sharon Tate, where Trent's recording his next album.


Cooool, you might say. Signed up, sorted, single out this month (the, hey, infectious "RSVP/Familus Horribilus") and RCA now want to license it, in order to slap it onto the imminent cash-in Greatest Hits album, "16 Different Flavours of Hell". The question arising then, as we sup up, is: Why aren't Pop Will Eat Itself the world's smuggest men?


"Smug? Who to? Each other? Copping an attitude with your Nan? There's nothing to be smug about," protests Clint.


"I'd say spewed out really. Because they didn't find us palatable. If they'd passed us through them they'd have taken all the goodness out of us."


"We could be the sweetcorn," suggests Fuzz triumphantly.


So in seven years, what have you learnt?


"Don't try and smoke speed."


Last word to Adam: "We played on Top of the Pops at the same time as Duran Duran this year, and Simon Le Bon said to John Taylor, Who's that? He said Pop Will Eat Itself. Le Bon said, Oh, I remember them..."