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Basslines and Protest Signs

Basslines and Protest Signs Part 36: Three Decades of Scum

It’s almost impossible to convey the controversy and sheer confusion caused by the Birmingham blastbeat/grindcore band Napalm Death when they unleashed their Scum debut in 1987. In many respects, Napalm were considered a bit of a joke on the British music landscape. Too punk to be metal, too metal to be punk — they played so damned fast that people weren’t sure if they could actually play at all. Spoiler alert: They could.

The band formed in 1981 and, from the off, people didn’t know what to make of them. The lineup shifted on what felt like a monthly rotation as they made it their mission to create music as uncompromisingly brutal as possible. The death metal genre was barely a thing back then but bands were starting to push the boundaries of extremity and these guys were taking notice. Meanwhile, Napalm also took elements of the anarcho crust-punk scene which had a large underground following in Birmingham. Followers would bounce from squat to squat, looking to avoid the by-numbers existence they felt the government was attempting to thrust upon them.

Scum was recorded between August 1986 and July ’87 and it is effectively split into two very distinct halves. Only then-drummer Mick Harris appears on both sides and, it’s worth noting, there isn’t one single musician on either side of the album who is still in Napalm Death today. 

Side A features Harris, Nicholas Bullen (aka Nik Napalm), and Justin Broadrick (who would go on to found industrial metal band Godflesh). The album starts in blinding fashion with “Multinational Corporations”. A song which sees Bullen repeating the phrase “Multinational corporations, genocide of the starving nations” over and over. That song was clearly the inspiration for the shockingly brilliant sleeve art, which is just as relevant today. We have a demonic figure and a bunch of sleazy businessmen, lording over some starving people, atop a mountain of skulls and logos for companies such as McDonalds, Ford, and IBM. It was quite a statement to plaster on the front of a debut album but it left nobody in any doubt about where Napalm was coming from politically.

Back in the eighties, they were already pointing out the dangers of living your life
in front of a screen (dear God, they had no idea what was to come) with the title
track “Scum”.

“A vision of life

On television screens

An existence created

From empty dreams

Hide behind T.V

Hide behind life

You should be living

But you only survive.”

Napalm Death – “Scum”

Justin Broadrick (photo credit: Adam W)

For “Polluted Minds” Broadrick took the lead vocals. Again, this was a song that saw the band taking a stand against capitalist leeches.

“They not only pollute the air

They pollute our minds

They’re destroying the earth

And destroying mankind…

They don’t give a shit

Long as profits are high

They don’t give a shit

If people die.”

Napalm Death – “Polluted Minds”

It’s fair to say that fans of Napalm Death could be learning some important lessons, if they could only understand a damn word that was being uttered. Whoever has sung for the band, the one thing they have in common is that the lyrics have been incomprehensible. That’s part of what makes them so terrifying, though it’s a bit of a shame that many of their sharp, incisive lyrics pass people by. 

Take “Human Garbage”, a song about the culture of conformity:

“Paid to obey
Forced to be silent
Human garbage
To be destroyed
Submit to darkness
Forced to conform
Human garbage
To be destroyed.”

Napalm Death – “Human Garbage”

We can’t talk about Scum without talking about “You Suffer” which appears towards the end of Side A. The song is in the Guiness Book of Records, holding the record for the shortest song ever recorded — it clocks in at 1.316 seconds. The lyrics, blasted
out are: “You suffer, but why?” Broadrick, speaking to Decibel Magazine, said of
the song:

“‘You Suffer’ was largely a comedy thing, one-second song. Utterly retarded. It’s ridiculous, but it was hilarious. We played that song in front of 30 local kids, like, every weekend. We played that song 30 times. It was a laugh.”

Lee Dorrian (photo credit: HeavyMezza89)

For the second half of the album, Mick Harris was joined by bassist Jim Whitely, future Carcass guitarist Bill Steer, and future Cathedral man Lee Dorrian. Incidentally, the fact that former Napalm Death men would go on to form Godflesh, Cathedral, and Carcass speaks to the abundance of talent that has passed through the ranks. It’s also worth noting that the Side A lineup of Broadrick, Bullen, and Harris would later record as industrial project Scorn on their Vae Solis debut. 

Anyway, the Scum Side B lineup didn’t let the intensity drop one iota. The very first song is again about the dangers of the citizens becoming zombies.

“Existing for a purpose you’ll never find
Inducements, distortions contorting your mind
External sources maintain control
Programmed existence, fulfill your role.”

Napalm Death – “Prison Without Walls”

And the band’s desire to inspire the people to rise up against the rich continued
with “Parasites”.

“Permissive slaves
To their methods of greed
From our needs
The leeches feed
When will you see?
We’ll never be free
While we sanction
This plutocracy.”

Napalm Death – “Parasites”

Scum would later inspire countless punk and metal bands, and it’s regularly included in “best album” lists in publications such as Kerrang! and Terrorizer. Meanwhile, Napalm Death is still going strong today. While the Scum lineup is all gone, the current band featuring Barney Greenway, Shane Embury, and Danny Herrera has been together since 1991. They still play Scum material live, including “You Suffer”. After all, it doesn’t take up much of the set.

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