Every so often, a song or album comes along that irrevocably alters the music-insider paradigm from that point forward. How to tell? Imitation. For the next three years, every musician and their brother walk into the studio and beg their producer, “We want to sound like this!” Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Summer of Love classic “Incense and Peppermints”; 1970’s The Yes Album; Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”; even Green Day’s 1994 Dookie, itself a Kinks tribute, which inspires hundreds of pop-punk impersonators to this day. Can you imagine being a jaded AOR label executive in 1977 – rock is dead, disco is king – when the Cars’ loopy yet ice-focused “Just What I Needed” lands on your desk, basically inventing new-wave rock on the spot?
The seminal years 1991-1992 spawned several such moments, and not just in Seattle. Across the Atlantic, post-Stone Roses but pre-Britpop, Great Britain was busy figuring out where to go after the late 1980s’ Madchester’ rave scene. The answer arrived in the form of a nuclear Molotov cocktail from Stourbridge, UK, that detonated like a sonic weapon of pulverizing destruction. Its name was “Not Sleeping Around”, the album was Ned’s Atomic Dustbin‘s Are You Normal?, and those in the know immediately abandoned comparatively-stale grunge for this invigorating, pulse-pounding, yet melodically sophisticated assault. Many have tried to equal it in the decades since; a few came close; none succeeded.
As for the wretched man or woman those spiteful, venomous second-person lyrics were referring to? Read on, dear Watson. Read on.
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin were already MTV Buzz Bin darlings by late 1991, thanks to energetic college radio hits like “Grey Cell Green” and “Kill Your Television” from their debut God Fodder. While Fodder certainly had its good moments, even some great ones, the songwriting lacked consistency and had yet to crystallize what would become Ned’s trademark wall-of-guitar-and-bass blitzkrieg.
According to lead singer Jonn Penney, the band’s wicked dual-bass attack resulted from alcohol. “I was drunk and invited two bass players to audition by accident. We kept them both: Alex (Griffin) played high bass, and Matt (Cheslin) played low.” Penney, Griffin, and lead guitarist Rat were all members of different bands that happened to fizzle around the same time. “We weren’t even friends at first. Just went to each other’s shows,” says Penney today. “This really helped the band’s chemistry. No politeness, no pulled creative punches – just pure competition.”
The crew wrote everything together, five in a room, along with drummer Dan Warton. Their influences varied, however. Penney’s included Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, OMD, and goth acts like Sisters of Mercy. Rat’s tastes ran to quirkier pop, such as the Wonder Stuff, with which Ned’s eventually toured. Interestingly, Penney claims the influences Ned’s Atomic Dustbin didn’t share brought more to the party than those they did.
“Normal was definitely our finest moment as an album,” he says. “Fluid, easy songwriting, and lots of fun – everyone and everything seemed to peak around the same time.” In a long-ago interview, the late Neil Peart claimed that 1980’s “The Spirit of Radio” represented everything Rush were trying to accomplish in the studio. Although Penney doesn’t explicitly state as much, one gets that golden impression about Normal and “Not Sleeping Around” in particular.
Needless to say, grunge was also huge in late 1992. Despite the similar energy, passion, and fan bases, Penney minimizes its influence in retrospect, deciding “we weren’t a part of this”. Aside from one incredible story: Apparently Pearl Jam jetted to the UK to join Ned’s and the Cult on tour. Watching them perform was a serious eye-opener for Penney. “Damn, was PJ good live!” he marvels. “In fact, they blew us off the stage, which didn’t happen very often.”
As for the album itself, precisely where on the musical spectrum should Normal be placed? The term ‘grebo’ is much too grating for professional usage, even if it incorporates elements of punk rock, EDM, hip hop, and psychedelia. Descriptors like ‘punk-funk’, ‘sub-hardcore’, and ‘pre-industrial’ were thrown about by the contemporary music press as well. Normal approaches each of these genres but doesn’t quite fall into them, supplying more hooks, melody, and intricate wordplay besides. How about this: Take the dynamic rave-rock of Happy Mondays or the Stone Roses; beef up the songwriting consistency; force-feed it a few cans of Popeye’s spinach, and one might get close. “We were overlooked as ‘Madchester vs grunge’, like there was nothing in between,” says Penney today. “But there was.”
Speaking of industrial, Normal revs up like a factory lathe, opening with the sound of machinery on “Suave and Suffocated”. Then, seconds later, comes that absolutely killer sound: a dense yet inexplicably melodic curtain of guitar, bracketed by parallel basses both high and low. Once it kicks into gear, we don’t want it to stop, which it doesn’t for 46 precise minutes. Follow-ups “Walking Through Syrup” and “Legoland” nail down the surprisingly intellectual nature of this record, the latter single a minor college alterna-hit in the States. Whereas much early grunge sprang from suppressed adolescent angst, Normal taps into something more cerebral and cultivated. Sure, each unquestionably represents a fountainhead of excellent rock and roll. But listening to the tight guitar chords and intricate eight-time beat of “Tantrum”, one cannot be blamed for hearing a slender progressive influence, or perhaps John Paul Jones’ complex arrangement wizardry from latter-day Zeppelin.
Now comes the pounding heart of the Are You Normal? experience. It’s difficult to describe the backbreaking, adrenal-gland rush “Not Sleeping Around” still provides, even 30 years later – like a WWII fighter plane strafing helpless civilians below. Kaleidoscopic layers; blinding riffs; otherworldly machine-gun drumming as the antithesis of four-time rock: This song weaned so many of us off “Teen Spirit” and similar grunge prototypes. “You keep thinking I’m tired of you / But I’m just tired!” To this day, “Not Sleeping Around” still feels like an exhilarating shot across rock’s bow that hasn’t quite landed yet.
Amusingly, Penney denigrates his own nose for a hit record. “I’ve never been a great judge of singles. I’d never have picked ‘Not Sleeping Around’ or ‘Happy’ for release,” he says today. “Actually, ‘Spring’ was my favorite song on that record. It took me somewhere I’d never been before.”
That segues into the most pressing question of all for this hardcore fan. Most rock and pop songs are sung either in the first person (“I did this”) or in the third, as though telling a story to friends around a campfire. Penney’s lyrics stand out not just for their second-person motif but for unadulterated romantic viciousness – like savage, vindictive diaries of emotional hell. From “Tantrum”: “If I believed you give a shit / Maybe we could drop this.” From “Intact”: “You’ll fry the contents of my head / Pretend and bend the words I said / And kill me someday, stone dead.” From “A Leg End in His Own Boots”: “I know that you can hear me / Any reason for your breathing just eludes me.” Break out the crayons and emotional support animals! What remorseless she-devil were these hateful missives directed at?
Answer: Nobody. Unlike most of us, Penney has been with the same partner since 1990. “People think these songs are about women or my love life. They’re gravely mistaken,” he says. “I’ve always run from conflict. I lose an argument, walk away, and then write a song about it. I do enjoy being vicious, but only in a melodic way.” The French call this L’esprit de l’escalier, or ‘the wit of the staircase’: a brilliant riposte, but alas, too late to matter.
Penney also claims to be an astute observer of people, meaning that many of these missives were written about others’ relationships rather than his own. “‘Spring’ came from two good friends splitting up, then seeing each other again after two years. I had to wonder, what’s that like?” he says. “But none of it was about me.” For accuracy’s sake, “Not Sleeping Around” wasn’t about him either. Another misanthropic hero dethroned! Almost a shame, really.
Rather than merely filling out the runtime, Normal closes as strongly as it began. “Two and Two Made Five”, a Penney favorite, “Spring”, and the finale, “Intact”, are clinics of furious lyrics, wailing guitars, and firework drumming. Then, after one more LP salvo — 1995’s worthy follow-up Brainbloodvolume — Ned’s was gone.
Looking back, Penney always considered himself a lyricist rather than a musician. Covid lockdowns altered this trajectory, however, prompting him to pick up a guitar for the first time. Today finds him working with drummer Warton on a gentler two-person act called Spairs, playing all instruments themselves. (Despair = removal of hope, so Spairs = hope.) All five original Ned’s Atomic Dustbin members remain on good terms, with Penney going so far as to call himself a family man now that those wild days are over. Fear not, Mr. Rock Star: you ain’t the only one.
Exit question for Jonn. Regrets, if any? Things he might do differently, with thirty years of wisdom tacked on?
“We were so determined, so different,” he says. “We had an inexperienced manager, and made lots of mistakes.” Penney also lauds the concept of moving on musically once a group has called it quits. “Groundswell UK (his post-Ned’s Atomic Dustbin band) was too little, too late. It fell on deaf ears, trying too hard to sound like Ned’s.” Perhaps. But Groundswell’s breathless stadium-worthy single “You Think” was still fantastic, and deserved a slot on ESPN’s Jock Jams in a saner world.
From a nostalgic perspective, the fraternal concept of writing together five-in-a-room may be what Penney misses most. “We could never get together that way today,” he laments. “Life, technology, and the music industry are just too different.”
Yep – five talented young guys in a room together. If there’s a perfect explanation for why Are You Normal? still thrills and resonates so well, one could do a lot worse.