In June 2017, former PM hopeful Ed Miliband hosted Barney Greenway on his afternoon radio show. To the delight of everyone except Greenway, Miliband requested that he teach him to sing “You Suffer“. Greenway, to his credit, gave it a go.
This went predictably. Within an hour, savvy metalheads had overlaid Miliband’s attempt onto the original audio whilst the rest of us sat weeping with laughter into our patch jackets. But less than a week later, reports surfaced that Napalm Death’s streams had risen by 228%, buoyed no doubt by their rapturous (and overdue) appearance at Glastonbury.
Napalm Death endure, and now their debut full (ish) length is thirty years old. It propelled them from their humble roots to releasing mortifying, chaotic records like 2015′s Apex Predator some three decades into their career. Napalm Death’s appeal is a mix of their wry embrace of the absurdity inherent in extreme punk/metal, their sense for balancing caustic fury with technical songwriting chops, and their tireless sonic assault that flits between formless cacophony and actual performance art for serious artists. Case in point: in 2013 they were booked to play as part of an art installation in the Victoria and Albert Museum which was cancelled by nerds for fear that the building wouldn’t survive.
Scum is an ugly, unpolished record. Re-release attempts to add some post-production shine are a little disingenuous; when talking about the record it’s important to be honest about its limitations. Musical ability, production, having a full line-up for a whole record – Scum misses the mark. For the most part it’s a charmingly incoherent mess.
The noise is twofold: both the rough takes of enthusiastic but, erm, unpolished musicians, and the anti-music sentiment that the album fosters. Longer tracks like “Scum” and “Siege of Power” do have a sort of fuzzy architecture, but more common are the barely-formed howls of 30-ish second punk noise blasts, presented as some kind of aggressively-abridged anti-political manifesto.
So yeah. Scum is unformed and scruffy, and it’s easy to credit it too much as some kind of academic deconstruction of punk/metal or some kind of unwashed performance poetry, forcing “A Very Short Guide To Nihilism” into a 30-second anti-music murder-scream. But an honest appraisal of the record’s limitations outlines exactly why the record is so enduring; a band really committing to playing as fast as humanly possible, battering against the already flimsy constraints of hardcore punk/ burgeoning death metal.
I should probably make it clear at this point that I love this record very much. It is five years my senior and took quite a while to really get on board with. In the end, the vitriol and the humour won out – as I type this, I just got to “You Suffer” and it caught me by surprise again, the fucker.
Scum’s tongue-in-cheek humour never, thankfully, commits it to being a full comedy record. Sam Dunn’s Extreme Metal documentary (part of the Metal Evolution series) features a talking head segment by Earache’s Digby Pearson: “people didn’t quite get what Napalm Death were… they were actually a laughing stock to a lot of people.” There is quite obviously some humour at play – eyewitness accounts, notably super-fan John Peel, painted a view of early grind concerts as hilarious affairs. But the album isn’t primarily comical; the self-awareness clashes with the dour lyrical content, giving it an edge of gallows humour rather than letting the goofiness ruin it.
In any case the overarching sense of the record isn’t so much humour but brevity. Despite 28 tracks the record is only just over half an hour, and of course the lineup was fairly short-lived; by the second half of the record the band had re-formed with Lee Dorian taking over Nik Napalm’s vocal duties. Aside from reading as a who’s who of Earache alumni, the only member from side one was Mick Harris, one of the earliest blastbeat pioneers. This brevity is part of the joke, another absurdist tidbit of a ridiculous record; not just hastily-gathered guest musicians but a whole second coming of Napalm Death emerging like a horrible crust punk phoenix.
There’s little point in retroactively re-appraise the content of this record, but it doesn’t reduce its impact or its capacity to cause sonic distress. Honestly, my main reason for loving Scum as much as I do is it’s naive passion – it embraces speed and noise for the sake of speed and noise, and goddamnit we can celebrate that. It’s also a perfect snapshot of a tipping point for extreme music – there may have been records that were technically first, and certainly the style was expanded upon and improved later, but if grindcore has a mythology then Scum is surely Odin-tier.
Thirty years of this ugly, miserable record. In many ways it’s a shame that so much of it endures – the anti-capitalist, anti-inequality diatribes may be unpoetic but we’re stuck in the Year of Our Lord 2017 and, really, the problems so plainly outlined are still problems. In any case, Scum is a masterclass in songwriting economy and sonic belligerence. Is there a grind record that’s had the same impact as Scum – at least not one that sounds like a direct response to it?