An Extended Interview With: Miles Hunt from The Wonder Stuff and Jonn Penney from Ned’s Atomic Dustbin

Posted: Thursday 15 March 2018

It’s been 27 years… that’s how long ago it was that two of Stourbridge’s finest exports, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and The Wonder Stuff last shared a stage. The two bands grew up alongside one another, knocking down doors and racing up the charts when the nation rocked to the so-called Stourbridge Scene, and as they both progressed, they gradually moved in different directions; but now they’re returning for a one-off UK tour. “We can’t wait,” says Ned’s Atomic Dustbin lead singer Jonn Penney. “It’s going to be a great tour for sure. I think there are a lot of people out there that have waited a long time to see the two bands together again” adds The Wonder Stuff’s Miles Hunt.

The bands met through fellow Stourbridge rocker Clint Mansell, front-man with Pop Will Eat Itself. Clint had asked the Ned’s to support the Poppies in Coventry on his band’s This Is The Day tour in 1989. He told Miles to make sure he saw the young upstarts. Miles: “It was admiration from afar on my part. Clint had told me I’d got to see them and The Wonder Stuff had a tour coming up a couple of months later, so we gave them a date.” Jonn: “The first show together was on their Disco King tour. It was at the Hummingbird, in Birmingham. We only did one date but it was the plum date because all of our mates were able to go.”

The two bands had many connections – not least that the Ned’s manager, Tankee Lad, was the brother of The Wonder Stuff’s drummer, Martin Gilks. The gig in Birmingham marked the start of the embryonic Stourbridge Scene – though the gulf between the Stuffies and the Ned’s was all-too-apparent. Jonn: “I made a complete clown of myself. At that point in time I had no idea about monitors on the front of the stage. So I was standing there in the sound-check talking to the out-front sound man, telling him I couldn’t hear myself. He just laughed and pointed to the sound guy on the side of the stage and said: ‘It ain’t my problem, mate. The engineer is to your right. I felt like a complete numpty. But that was early days. It was early learning and we were still earning our spurs.”

Both bands enjoyed huge momentum. As the Ned’s started to become the new darlings of indie weekly NME, The Wonder Stuff were racing up the charts. Their second album, HUP, was released in October that year – six months after the bands had first played together - they hit the road to promote the album and invited the Ned’s along as tour support. Jonn: “We did the lot. We got the lucky punt. The tour was in half and the main supports were split – one half was Eat and one half was The Sandkings. But we got the lot, because we were third on. I think we wore three vans out on that tour and spent a lot of time on the hard shoulder.” Miles: “Vans breaking down was a constant thing back in the early days of our touring. If I think back now to my early gigs, my abiding memory is of sitting on the hard shoulder with oil pouring out onto the road.

Jonn: “The first gig on that tour was in Glasgow and we used something called Radweld to stop the radiator leaking – the van was nicknamed Vantom Of The Opera. We made it all the way from Stourbridge to Glasgow and got to the top of this really steep hill before the van broke down. It leaked Radweld all the way down, heralding our arrival in Scotland.” Miles: “I believe there’s a stain still there Jonn. I heard they’re thinking of putting up a blue plaque.”

The Wonder Stuff’s HUP tour was an education for the Ned’s. It gave them the shock of their lives. At Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom, Miles navigated his way past the crowd to the mixing desk so that he would watch the Ned’s in action. He remembers it to this day. Miles: “The whole of the audience was going wild. The Ned’s were first on and they owned the audience already. And I looked at them and thought ‘This is gonna work’. I liked them a lot.

It took the bands a while to get to know one another off stage. The Wonder Stuff was the established band, who’d enjoyed TV appearances and cover features in NME, Melody Maker and Sounds. The Ned’s were still on their way up, hoping to follow in the footsteps of their illustrious peers. Jonn: “I was terrified of Miles. I was terrified of all of them because they were proper. They’d been in the NME and on the telly.” Not everything went to plan. At Glasgow, the Ned’s took to the stage for their sound-check and nearly blew the place to pieces. Jonn: “During the first sound-check at Barrowland, we were halfway through when our home-made effects board got plugged in and we blew the power. The whole PA went down. We thought we were going to be kicked off the tour before we’d even done the sound-check.”

Many of The Wonder Stuff’s fans followed the band for their entire tour and soon learned the words to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin songs. Won over by Jonn’s energetic performances, they too became firm fans. It took Jonn a while, however, to realise he was liked. At those early gigs, he’d watch fans doing a conga in the audience whenever the band played ‘Cut Up’. Jonn: “The first time they did that I thought they were taking the mickey. I didn’t realise they were having a good time. I thought it was some sort of protest. Then it finally occurred to me they were getting into it. Strangers liked us, it was amazing.”

Miles loved those early shows. And the joie de vivre of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin spurred him on. He’d habitually find himself hung over, with a sore throat, in a smelly dressing room wondering how he was going to make it through the night. Miles: “It was going into the winter and I was constantly ill on those early tours. I couldn‘t get my drinking under control so I was often hung-over. The dressing room facilities weren’t quite as plush as they are in venues now. So we were constantly sitting in rooms that stank, feeling terrible, wondering how we were going to get our game up for that night’s gig. It would start as soon as the Ned’s came on. I’d watch them uninterrupted. Once they were two or three minutes in, my game was up. The Ned’s would always have the energy and the excitement.”

The success of the Ned’s, the Stuffies and the Poppies led to a wave of interest in Stourbridge. Journalists from national newspapers descended on the town trying to find the epicentre of the music scene. And fans also drove from around the UK in the hope of seeing Miles, Jonn or the Poppies’ frontman Clint in one of the local pubs. The reports helped the bands to raise their profile – though none of them took it too seriously. Miles: “Well, it just seemed like pure comedy to me. It was probably down to two NME writers, Terry Staunton and James Brown, and they decided it with an air of benevolence about them. If you create a scene, whether it exists or not, it helps the bands. It felt utterly ridiculous but the readers believed in a Stourbridge Scene. It was very helpful and I’m still grateful to those writers.”

Jonn: “By then, we were never there. Because of our success, we were never in Stourbridge. Stourbridge trundled on nicely without us. We’d come back and have the odd bizarre experience. You’d be drinking a pint and a coach would turn up and people would be doing a pilgrimage to Stourbridge. They imagined Clint would be at the bar and one of us would be in a corner.” Miles: “People actually had the idea that we were all in the pubs at the same time. Without wishing to crush the myth, it probably only happened once that me, Jonn, Clint and some of the other band members were in the same pub at the same time.”

The success of the first Ned’s tour with the Stuffies led to further shows. When The Wonder Stuff hit the road to promote their 1990 single, ‘Circlesquare’, they took Jonn and co with them. The Ned’s were starting to break out and were soon to enjoy their first indie Number 1 single with ‘Kill Your Television’. It was the spring of 1990 and both bands were at the top of their game. The shows were bigger, more energetic and the audiences had the best of times. Jonn pinched himself as the band played to venues packed to the rafters, wondering how things had happened so quickly. Jonn: “Needless to say, the punters knew our stuff and it was a different thing. They were big gigs.” Miles: “By then, the Ned’s had the NME’s attention and the t-shirt design was well known. It was a short tour but the audiences were right there for them, right up against the barrier from the beginning of their sets. They’d seen all the press and were excited about the band.” Jonn: “Yeah, the indie kids were at the front, feeling very clever.”

The two bands almost teamed up again in 1991, when The Wonder Stuff headlined Walsall’s Bescot Stadium. They wanted the Ned’s to play, but Ned’s decided against it, keen that they were not too closely associated with their peers. Jonn went anyway – and spent the afternoon wishing he was playing. And then the two bands drifted apart. They both got busy doing their own thing but it has taken a long time to finally agree to play together again. However, it could have happened much sooner. In 2004 Birmingham promoter Dave Travis invited The Wonder Stuff, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Pop Will Eat Itself to do a triple-header at Stourbridge Football Club. Miles was up for it: “I was in, I don’t know what the Poppies said and the Ned’s were against it.”

Jonn: “I didn’t want to do it. The Ned’s and the Stuffies is such a precious thing so we’re only going to do it once. I thought if we’d done this singular one-off show, it would have been the end. There’d have been a finality to it. And also, there were three bands and I couldn't imagine how we'd decide who should go on first. So fast forward to this year and the bottom line for me is that in November it’s 30 years of Ned’s. I was desperate to do something significant and better than we’ve been doing. We really wanted to put a few dates together. We were all on board for that. When we looked into the logistics, we were trying to avoid certain festivals, there was a proposed tour but we realised the Stuffies were doing things at the same time of year. It would have been lunacy to go up against each other so this double-header came together.”

Both bands believe the time is right. Jonn hits 50 next year and wants to get on stage while he’s still rockin’. Jonn: “Something just clicked and made me think, ‘let’s just do it before my leg falls off’. This way we do it properly. We go back to the root of what it was – it was a tour. Our first diehard fans who we won over, who weren’t friends, were Wonder Stuff fans or Poppies fans. Their first experience of us, the beginning of our love affair, was on those tours. So this is what the fans want, so let’s do it.”

Miles: “It’s time, really. Jonn and I were walking up the street the other day and words like ‘blessed’ were used for the love that’s still there for both bands. Randomly, I checked social media this morning and a guy was asking for the two bands to do a double header. I’ve always known the audiences want it. The planets have aligned so why not? I think it’ll be great. I look out at our audience and they’re big lads, they’re around the 50 mark, have they got the stamina for the two bands in one night? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.” Jonn: “We have to ask ourselves, do we need oxygen and defibrillators in the audience – because we need them on stage.”

The shows will feature a greatest hits set from both bands with the Stuffies playing such favourites as ‘Unbearable’, ‘Red Berry Joy Town’ and the Ned’s playing ‘Happy’, ‘Grey Cell Green’ and ‘Kill Your Television’ among others. Jonn: “I’m less inclined to use the words hits because we had none, and I don’t know about best of.... so let’s call it live favourites.” Miles: “I’m looking forward to getting to see the Ned’s because they’ll give me a kick up the backside. They’re such a great live band. I’ve never seen them less than on it.’

Author: Andy Richardson

For tickets to The Wonder Stuff & Ned's Atomic Dustbin - Love From Stourbridge Tour 2018, head here.