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The pop ledger is littered with entries for bands that failed to make it despite huge inventories of creativity and talent, but instead found their legacy in the parts other bands might salvage off them. The Wonder Stuff scored 17 Top 20 singles in the U.K., and even a U.S. college radio hit in 1991 with the music-hall-style single "The Size of a Cow," but appeared destined to be a footnote washed over in the post-Nirvana alt-rock tide. But punk won't die, and neither will Wonder Stuff front man Miles Hunt's rebellious spirit, which still drives him, and -- with personal encouragement from Joe Strummer -- led him to reunite this classic late '80s British rock band.
Since The Wonder Stuff threw in the towel more than a decade ago, the brash Hunt has haunted the periphery of the scene. Like the lecture circuit for former presidents and ex-cabinet members, Hunt put out some solo albums and worked the club scene with pickup bands as well as solo acoustic shows. He tried reuniting the original members in 2000, but after a brief tour, the same band infighting that led (along with declining sales) to the first breakup scotched the band for a second time. Finally, last year, Hunt and original bandmate Malc Treece recruited two new members, dubbed them the new Wonder Stuff, and set about working on their first release in 11 years.
The album, Escape From Rubbish Island, is a triumphant return, featuring Hunt's scathing wit and the band's resplendent hooks and harmonies. Like many of its peers, such as The Wedding Present, Orange Juice, and Talulah Gosh, The Wonder Stuff built upon the moody pop approaches of British New Wave bands like Echo & the Bunnymen, The Cure, The Smiths, and New Order. Though the band was bigger in the U.K. than across the pond, it's the critical link between '80s New Wave and today's sound, having paved the way for later (less accomplished) Britpop acts such as Blur, Oasis, and, er, Coldplay.
"I was just looking in Mojo today; on the front it says, 'Coldplay Album Hell.' I'm thinking, 'I've got to look at it.' I start flipping through it, and Chris Martin is [saying], 'There are incredible pressures upon a band that's sold as many records as us.' Boo fucking hoo," says the always outspoken Hunt. "Overprivileged middle-class pricks. The only thing they ever had to deal with is telling Daddy they were dropping out of the university. If you're finding it hell, throw the towel in. You've made your money. You've got your trophy wife. Do yourself and the rest of humanity a favor and get on with your life."
It's clear Hunt has not lost any of his snottiness (his classic tracks include "Radio Ass Kiss" and "Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More"), part of which he credits to his father, who introduced him very early to great rebel music.
"I had a very wise dad, and in Christmas '77 my dad gave me and my brother a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks for a Christmas present. I'm 11, my brother is 14, and he gives us a copy of this beautiful album, and as we're taking the Christmas wrapping of it, he says, 'I bought this record because this young man who's singing these songs is the Bob Dylan for your generation,'" Hunt recalls. "Punk rock was about getting rid of the millionaire cokehead, model-dating rock stars. I despise that's where we are and that's what Britpop basically is. It's just going back to 1975 again."
Riding chugging indie guitar with a telltale folk jangle that owes a debt to Johnny Marr, the title track of the new album sets the scene, taking shots at Britpop ("led around by fools for a decade under the Beatles' rule") and British policies, lamenting, "It's embarrassing to be led by the rear." Hunt's always been a bit acerbic, but with songs such as "Another Comic Tragedy," "Bile Chant" and "Better Get Ready for a Fist Fight," he's practically belligerent. Hunt admits he was feeling at the end of his rope.
"For four or five years I've wanted a big life change. You sort of get bored with yourself after a while," Hunt says. "I was really sick with London. I had made the mistake of moving back in 2000, and I really can't stand the place. So I started making plans to leave England and move to Dublin. Spend a lot of time with great singers and musicians, and just have some fun again."
The album has a deeply embedded theme of departure and transformation, but little did Hunt know how true it would be.
"It's certainly not a concept album. The theme of arrivals and departure and change -- that was not the intention, but what I found when I sent the lyrics to the printers and had to proofread all of them, I was [thinking], 'Jesus Christ, this is like one long song,'" recalls Hunt. "I had just recorded all the vocals, when I was on a train coming back from Stratford-Upon-Avon, which is where we recorded, and I got an unexpected call from my daughter's mother."
She invited him to visit with his daughter and become a bigger part of her life.
"It wasn't the life change I was planning, but it's been unbelievable, and it's really given me a fresh purpose," says Hunt. "Now I have this tiny audience of a child that I want to do something that makes her proud. I don't want to be the guy I was turning into in my late 30s, with my thumb stuck up my ass, just complaining about shit.
"So I got my life changed and I got out of London, and after I got out I felt a little guilty that I had written this album, with a load of lyrics slagging off the whole of the country," Hunt continues. "I got on the train -- we were going up to Cambridge, it's only about an hour's ride from London by train -- and the train is rolling through this beautiful countryside. That's when it struck me: I don't hate England at all, I just hate the government we've got and London itself."
As for the transition from the top of the pops to a musical elder statesman, with the requisite drop in media interest, Hunt has come to an acceptance.
"We did go away from the business for 11 years, and they just don't write about us, but that's because there aren't any of those writers from the old days -- they've moved on. It'd be like asking me about Pink Floyd when I was 14. 'Aren't they old guys?' I totally understand," Hunt says.
But Hunt suggests that oftentimes, music requires an effort from the listener as well as the artist. He recalls the days of his youth when he would buy the new Echo & the Bunnymen or Joy Division, and -- because you couldn't afford to buy an album you didn't love -- he'd thrust himself into the album until he loved it.
"I would wonder, 'Am I this horrible musical snob and I am just trying to be contrary because I don't want to be the kid in school who doesn't like Genesis?' It used to worry me at one time," Hunt says. "But to appreciate good music, you have to work at it. Nobody walks in to hear a piece of Stravinsky and gets it. You have to work with the artist, and when you do, the payoff is beautiful because that record will stay with you the rest of your life."