Feeder's Polythene at 25: How 'The British Smashing Pumpkins' made Metal Hammer's album of 1997

Feeder 2000
(Image credit: Tim Roney/Getty Images)

In 1996 British guitar music was in its pomp; Oasis owned Knebworth, Ash, Kula Shaker and Suede all scored UK number one albums and the likes of Skunk Anansie, Terrorvision, Reef and the Manic Street Preachers were bothering the singles chart and Top of the Pops studios with pleasing regularity. Even the Sex Pistols wanted to get in on the act, reforming for the smartly-titled Filthy Lucre world tour. 

One of that year’s more unassuming releases was Feeder’s debut EP Swim. The Newport-then-London based trio - vocalist/guitarist Grant Nicholas, Japanese bassist Taka Hirose and drumer Jon Lee - had been slogging around the UK underground circuit since 1994, and, in the era of 'Cool Britannia', their take on the fuzzy guitars and sugary melodies of prime Smashing Pumpkins was removed from the current zeitgeist.

Swim was enthusiastically reviewed by the rock press due to the sheer excellence of tunes like W.I.T. and the band’s debut single Stereo World, and beloved by a handful of grunge stragglers for it’s obvious adoration of Pixies, Pumpkins, Nirvana and all the other alt-rock heavy hitters, but it never threatened to turn Feeder into major players. 

So, it was a fairly low-key event when the band released their full-length debut album, Polythene, on May 19, 1997. Once again, the initial reviews were good, scoring 4/5 write ups in both Q and Kerrang! and a very enthusiastic 10/10 in Metal Hammer. Nonetheless the album didn’t bother the upper echelons of the UK album chart, peaking at number 65. 

At the time, you could easily have been forgiven for believing that Feeder were going to join long-forgotten peers such as China Drum, Midget and Silver Sun as yet another Britrock band who were enthusiastically reviewed but couldn’t translate that positivity into record sales. But, as the trio went out to tour the album, a word-of-mouth buzz began to verify that there was something special here. Polythene was not just another post-grunge, British rock album, it was a record laced with real heart, depth and rare songwriting nous. 

Listening now, 25 years on, it remains baffling that Polythene didn’t go on to sell millions. Everything about it screams blockbuster, pop-rock perfection and marks Grant Nicholas out as one of his generation's finest songwriters, showcased by a massive-sounding production job from Therapy?/The Almighty producer Chris Sheldon. Opening track Polythene Girl balances the quiet/loud dynamic of alternative rock with the summery, British melodicism of The Kinks, the chorus for My Perfect Day is so euphoric it’s got ‘England World Cup win highlights montage music’ written all over it and while Billy Corgan was dicking about with keyboards and whining about rock being dead, Nicholas was writing the lilting, dreamy, marshmallow rock of Radiation, a song so good that you could drop it into the middle of Siamese Dream and no one would bat an eyelid.

And that’s just a few of the highlights; Tangerine, Crash, Descend, Cement, a reworked version of Stereo World, for those who discovered Feeder in those early days, the track listing for Polythene reads like a greatest hits set... from a band who would go on to have an actual greatest hits set that features exactly zero of those particular songs! Weird.

As their gradual momentum kept building, Feeder were added to the main stage bill for the 1997 Reading festival, on a day headlined by Metallica. As they warmed up for what promised to be one of the biggest shows of their career with club shows and record store acoustic sets, the band started to perform a song from the Polythene sessions that didn’t appear on the album. It would prove to be something of a masterstroke.

High was initially just a leftover, but it went on to become the definitive and best-known song of the early part of the band’s career. Musically, it saw them lean into the arena-indie territory that would come to characterise them for their most successful years, and, whilst a few grumblers who wanted Feeder to play the role of mini-Pumpkins forever might have dug their heels in, it’s hard not to be seduced by just how huge it sounds.

Some songs are just too universal to fail, and High’s wistful reminiscing of long, carefree summer evenings spent indulging whilst surrounded by your best pals featured a chorus that soars skyward at the speed of light. So evocative of British summer was it that you can almost smell the freshly cut grass, crisp, ice cold cans of cider and the perfume of that girl you had a secret crush on. It was a clear and obvious, platinum-plated anthem from the very first listen. 

By this point Polythene had yielded four singles which failed to crack the top 40 of the UK singles charts, so the band decided to release High as a standalone single on the 6th of October 6, 1997. Finally, the record-buying public bit, pushing the song to number 24, a result which secured the band substantial radio airplay, on both sides of the Atlantic, for the first time. 

The album was re-released, a mere five months after it first came out, October 20, ‘97, with High added to the track listing. It gave Feeder another significant bump in profile, and its performance in various publications end of year lists reflected the growth and appreciation for the record. The most curious one being the fact that Metal Hammer writers voted it their number one album of the year. You read that right. Sat atop a list of heavy metal majesty, ahead of Entombed, Paradise Lost, Strapping Young Lad and... er... The Verve were this polite, unassuming alt-rock band, a fact worth remembering the next time you see some grumpy online commentator moaning that Metal Hammer used to be way more METAL. It’s hard to argue Polythene didn’t deserve the accolade, for what it lacked in bowel-loosening riffs and brutal, guttural vocals it made up for in the undeniably consistent quality of the songs throughout. 

It meant that, when Feeder did return with their next studio album, this time there was excitement, expectation and anticipation. 1999’s Yesterday Went Too Soon entered the UK album chart at number 8, and included 3 UK top 40 chart hits. It wouldn’t be too long before we got Buck Rogers, the tragedy of drummer Jon Lee’s passing in 2002, and Feeder’s ascension to an arena and festival headlining band thanks to a stream of memorable singles, making them one of British rock music's biggest success stories of the 2000’s. 

In fact, Polythene remains the lowest charting album of their entire career. To call it their finest moment seems a little odd, but there is no doubt to these ears that it remains the finest album that Feeder ever released. The perfect mix of the grungy alt-rock that inspired their formation and the signpost to the broader, more anthemic, crowd-pleasing material that would come later, it’s a record that isn’t trying to change the world, just to make it that little bit more enjoyable. Awe inspiring in its beauty, yet modest in its delivery, Polythene is a genuine lost classic from an under-rated band. They may have got bigger, but Feeder never got better than how they sound here. 

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.