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The Wonder Stuff: Never Loved Elvis 30th Anniversary – “an unsung masterpiece”

On its 30th birthday, Steven Doherty goes against status quo to claim The Wonder Stuff as one of the greats.

There were some big-hitting albums released in 1991, the likes of Loveless, Blue Lines, Nevermind, Out Of Time and Screamadelica, to name but a handful.

These albums will always be found on all of those “100 Albums to Listen to before you die” lists or “Best Albums Ever” articles written by chin-scratching drug-munching taste makers.

The common theme? Most of them are terrible. (Well, that sentence should have got rid of a few people).

Luckily for those that are left, there were also some actual great albums released in 1991, adored by those of us who don’t take it all soooo seriously, and listen to music with their heart rather than their head (whilst wearing optional baggy shorts).

There’ll be no celebratory 12 page articles in Mojo for any of these, but we had Schubert Dip and God Fodder, 30 Something, Seamonsters, and the biggest of all, the third album from the runaway indie behemoth of the time, The Wonder Stuff.

On a personal note, the first time I heard them was back in 1988, I was in a HMV in London, having travelled down to see, of all things, a Belinda Carlisle gig.

Mooching round the aisles, an unholy racket revealed itself through the in-store speakers, it was like nothing I’d heard before, and I was captivated enough to accost a passing sales assistant to enquire who on earth it was.

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It was their fifth single, It’s Yer Money I’m After Baby (their first to pierce the Top 40) and it was a very different sound to The Wonder Stuff of 1991.

The snotty, thrillingly basic indie-pop had, for want of a sickening phrase, matured, as fiddles were added on 1989’s almost psychedelic in parts sophomore album Hup, and had almost taken over on the single that bridged that and NLE, 1990’s Circlesquare.

Which made the first single we got to hear from the album all the more intriguing.

Despite it being dismissed as somewhat annoying (and later even kinda dismissed by the band themselves), The Size Of A Cow was something of a curve ball.

We were expecting The Waterboys, and what we got was something akin to that other great British pop institution Madness at their peak.

It was all swirling organ, a catchy chorus, a pop cannonball.

This was a huge step forward, they were putting down something of a marker, it felt as though they now meant business and only whetted the appetite for when the album arrived.

It was released on the Bank Holiday Monday at the end of May 1991 and it’s release day saw me back in an HMV in another city away from home, this time Glasgow to see the Pet Shop Boys, excitedly purchasing the CD for the train ride home.

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The batteries on the Sony CD Walkman may have gone just outside of Carlisle, but by then a love affair with the record had already formed.

The first five tracks on it sound, to these ears at least, like their own self-contained suite.

Mission Drive, written after a falling out between The Wonder Stuff‘s enigmatic front-man Miles Hunt and Clint Mansell from Pop Will Eat Itself, sets the tone from the off, building and building before exploding into life, like an cannon of violins going off, quite the opening gambit.

Bursts of life seem to be a common theme on the record, as Play starts with one and never lets up, one of the many short sharp tracks that act as the glue of the whole album.

False Start works as a mid suite palette cleanser, before the knockout 1-2 of the album’s two Top Ten singles in the shape of Welcome To The Cheap Seats and the aforementioned Cow song.

Cheap Seats featured the dulcet tones of the sadly departed Kirsty MacColl and with its bizarre lyrical flourishes (“Imagine his surprise when he opened his eyes/And I’d run the lawnmower over his thighs“), and glorious video, deserved to be even more celebrated than other duet she’s famous for.

The pace drops with the record’s slightly strange choice (due to its non-jauntiness) for the fourth single, Sleep Alone which leads straight into the most brooding track Donation, the vocals on which are given an extra level of anger and fury as they were recorded at the exact moment that the first Gulf War broke out, which Hunt was watching happen in real time whilst recording them.

Inertia and Maybe follow, the equivalent of two steady midfielders, unspectacular perhaps, but still essential to the feel of the album, Maybe especially, a big fan favourite to this day, a better choice for single number four for sure.

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Grotesque for me, sums up the confidence they had at the time, another sublime, seemingly throwaway banger, weighing in under two minutes, not a second wasted, as beautifully raucous as it is, and however many times you hear it, it doesn’t prepare you for what’s next.

If I could go back to any gig in history that I hadn’t attended, then my choice would be the Feile Festival in Ireland in 1991.

There’s a clip of it on YouTube (which is taken from Welcome To The Cheap Seats, an on-the-road movie that was made on the back of the success of Never Loved Elvis) of the Stuffies playing Here Comes Everyone and it is the most breathtaking, goose-bump-inducing footage, that to me sums up the whole era.

Here Comes Everyone is the nearest thing to a perfect song that there is, and when I finally go gently into that good night, that’s the noise I want to accompany me.

Caught In My Shadow suffers ever so slightly in comparison by (a) not being Here Comes Everyone and (b) being impossible to dance to when played live.

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The finale, 38 Line Poem, falls just on the right side of schmaltz, as it is (or appears to be) a love letter from Hunt to his band mates (or so I thought for almost 30 years). However, after reading his excellent series of autobiographical diaries, by the time he wrote it he pretty much disliked them all intensely.

In fact he has this to say about Never Loved Elvis.

“It amazes me how we managed to come up with not only our most commercially successful record, but a record that sounds like a band with energy and purpose when quite the opposite was true.”

You would never know from listening to this record that that’s how he felt, youthful exuberance seeps from every inch of it.

So you can keep your Bandwagonesque, Achtung Baby, Ten and Foxbase Alpha‘s, this is an album for the ages, one that should not be ignored or forgotten, as good as it gets, if only we could lose the snobbery.

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