by Ric Rawlins
216 pages, The Friday Project
Review by Pat Black
In an alternate universe, the Super Furry Animals are the biggest band in the world, and they’ve changed it for the better. I’d like to pay a visit to that universe. I’d probably stretch it to a long weekend. But as it stands, we’re stuck in this existence, and we’ll have to make do.
A lot of great bands emerged from the UK in the 1990s, in what turned out to be the final rich belch of recording acts just before the internet shattered the music business into a million pieces, like those records in the intro to Top of the Pops. This era didn’t begin or end with glowering northern hominids and camp Thames estuary jackanapes; a lot of different acts emerged, playing a range of music. I spent too much money on them, but I regret nothing.
I feel blessed to have been a drunken teenager swaying in front of bass bins in this era. Although I’m sure there are cracking scenes and bands on the go today which my increasingly hairy ears will never unfurl for, and grooves my old bones will never creak to, I do pity today’s international bright young things. It could be my age. But nothing on offer today appeals to me.
My favourite band from the 90s will forever be The Wildhearts (you’ll hear more about them in a Squawk yet to be), but the Super Furries run them a close second. For sheer creativity, they are second to none; there’s no-one like them, and despite the many opportunities the internet provides for multi-platform formats and experimentation, there’s no-one around with as many mental ideas.
Think Kanye’s punched things up a bit with pop-up stores and the like for The Life of Pablo? Try a disco tank, or an album released as a series of films on DVD, or lyrics hidden inside packaging, or secret 7in vinyl records sewn into the inside sleeve of gatefold albums. Has your favourite band ever appeared in a cheat mode in a football video game, as a playable team alongside some of the world’s worst dictators? Only if that band is the Super Furries.
Ric Rawlins’ Rise of the Super Furry Animals charts the band’s career, from its earliest iteration with Ankst records through to signing with Sony. In easily digestible bites, the author reveals the history of five lads from Wales as they go from demo tapes and pub gigs through to shows featuring moon landing sets complete with lunar buggies, 50ft inflatable bears, police-proof battle tanks pumping out techno at festivals and full choirs dressed as psychedelic gods. It’s as strange as it sounds. There are no stories of fights, divorces, overdoses or Rolling Stones-style black magic to be found here, but their tale is so tightly woven with weirdness that it doesn’t need any of that stuff. In fact, it’d be a disappointment if Gruff, Huw, Guto, Cian and Daffyd had done typical rock star things. It’s not them.
If I could turn the Furries story into bullet-points, one of the top ones would be that they have turned down seven-figure offers to attach their songs to global advertising campaigns.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned what sort of stuff the Furries play. There’s no point. Ostensibly a singer, two guitars, bass, drums and keys, they can and do play absolutely everything in any style you like. Punky two-minute numbers can turn into evil techno tracks running to 10 minutes and longer on stage; a song about the Northern Lights can be illuminated with the Caribbean sound of steel drums, like a skoosh of raspberry sauce on your ice cream.
It defies description. I can’t say, “They sound like…” because no-one really sounds like the Super Furry Animals. A pre-breakdown Brian Wilson might have imagined that this was how the Beach Boys would sound in 1984. But this book is a fine evocation of the madness – planned, structured and otherwise - that surrounded the band in its 1996-2009 salad days with Creation and Sony.
A frustrated rock star myself – isn’t everyone? – I once gazed into the woodchip wallpaper of my family home in Glasgow’s wild west and connected the flakes to plan a novel about a band’s rise from their first pub show to stadium concerts. It took me a while to realise that, even if this was the best story in the world, it would be missing something very important.
Any book about music similarly features the omission of that one crucial element: sound. Rawlins understands this, and puts together a cracking Furries playlist at the end. I guess you could listen along as you read.
If you’re a fan of the Furries, you’ll probably have this book already. If you’re not, then it won’t do you any harm; it doesn’t outstay its welcome, in and out in about 200 pages, including full-page illustrations at the chapter heads. If it, or this review, piques your curiosity, then we have done our jobs as Super Furry Apostles.
What you really should do, though, is check out the music. Grab Songbook: The Singles Vol 1, if you must (I can’t decide if this or Primal Scream’s Dirty Hits is the greatest greatest hits album ever released). If you need to start at the beginning – and not all great stories do – then have a pop at Fuzzy Logic. If you want to be a Contrary Mary and impress the impressionable, buy Mwng, their Welsh language album (their most straightforward, stripped-down record). But however you choose to make your first step into a furrier world, please don’t let this lovely band pass you by.
Comparing any act with the Beatles is a glib exercise, but I find it difficult to think of a band who can better recapture the Fab Four’s Ready Brek glow of benevolence than the Furries. Even when singing about horrible exes blighting their lives, the Furries exude an aura of everything being… just right. Everything’s perfectly welcome. Everything understands you, loud and clear.
The Super Furries still play live, and there’s a tour on the way this winter. But they’ve been ominously, disappointingly quiet when it comes to new records; just the one single since Dark Days/Light Years, the sublime silliness of this summer’s best Welsh football anthem, Bing Bong.
This decade is entering its closing stages. Certainly it should be thinking about a substitution. There have been collaborations and solo material, even a book by Gruff - but still no new Super Furry Animals album.
Was Bing Bong a one-off? Or will they swoop back in to save us? And more importantly, will they be wearing the yeti suits for the whole encore? How does one wash those things anyway? Do they wash those things?