Rise of The Super Furry Animals by Ric Rawlins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A quote from the start:
Within weeks, CB was more popular than ET. As soon as night descended on the valleys, entire networks of teenagers began transmitting messages to one another, using codenames to protect their identities from the police. The police, meanwhile, would be stationed on the other end of town, listening in from their vans. As far as they could fathom, an underground criminal network had come to town; it would be some weeks before they realised it was just a bunch of kids. Meanwhile, the codenames grew ever more mysterious: Gruff became known as ‘Goblin’, while the weediest kid in school renamed himself ‘The Black Stallion’. It was communication chaos – a kind of primitive social network – and the more it continued, the more an interesting side effect emerged: since all the coded language had been inspired by truckers in American movies, a weird hybrid language began to develop that was part Hollywood bandit-speak, part Welsh tongue.
This is one excerpt from how the Furries worked, and how they allowed shoots and outbursts of inspiration to guide them, and their creative process.
This story is not really rambunctious, neither in disarray; SFA was – and is – a group of highly clever, funny and well-tuned musicians who go where they may. Feet doused in psychedelia, their inspiration is everything and accidents, and this shows in their music. And how they’re not afraid – unlike most lock-jawed pop stars – to say what they mean, be it about the royal family, corporations or very large animals.
At the Super Furries’ next London gig, at the Monarch in Camden Town, it wasn’t journalists that made up the audience, it was publishers, record labels, fans – and McGee. ‘Nice work, lads,’ he said after the show, patting Gruff warmly on the back, ‘but you might want to try singing in English next time!’ Gruff laughed nervously, keeping it to himself that they had in fact sung in English throughout.
SFA’s final EP for Ankst demonstrated a combination of pop flair and cheeky mischief. The title Moog Droog is a knowingly anglicised subversion of the Welsh slang for marijuana (‘mwg drwg’, meaning ‘bad smoke’), as well as a nod to Moog synthesisers and the dystopian ‘droogs’ in the film A Clockwork Orange.
And they drew inspiration from everywhere:
Another new instrument, the balalaika, would not. It had been decided that the Russian folk instrument would match the desolate atmosphere of ‘Gathering Moss’, so the band dialled up a session player from their Musician’s Union book. A Russian arrived the next day wearing a t-shirt that read ‘I LOVE AIRPLANE RUNWAYS’. Naturally enough, Guto enquired as to what this meant. ‘Well, you know those guys who protest airport expansion?’ said the man. Guto nodded. ‘I’m not one of them. I’m pro-airports.’ Suddenly there was a shout from upstairs that the lights had gone out. Then the ground-floor lights went out. Then the whole studio was plunged into darkness, leaving the Russian airport supporter in a confused panic. Guto ran upstairs to find Gruff looking out the window. There, out in the darkness of night, was a strange shower of sparks. ‘What the fuck is it?’ whispered Gruff. ‘It’s the twenty-third day of the month!’ howled Gorwel from behind a sofa. ‘We’re doomed!’ The next day it all became clear: a swan had flown into a nearby power line, exploding in the process and shutting down Rockfield’s electricity. Naturally the beast had croaked – but it was commemorated for posterity the next day in a song called ‘Fuzzy Birds’. It was the strange duality of the songs they were recording – that were both simple and twisted – that led to the band naming the record Fuzzy Logic. The phrase is traditionally a computing term, used to cover degrees of truth which can register anywhere between completely true and completely false – shades of grey, in other words. In the studio, fuzzy logic of a different kind was manifesting itself as the band began referencing a scrapbook of heroes and pop icons, including everyone from Bunf’s hamster Stavros and Ron Mael of Sparks, to the Welsh weathergirl Sian Lloyd and American stand-up comic Bill Hicks, whose leftist libertarianism appealed to SFA’s taste for outlaw culture.
Thankfully, there’s a lot of Pete Fowler – their main designer of all things graphic – in here:
A month later, Pete was driving through the car park of a Bethesda music festival where SFA were due to headline. It was a sunny afternoon, and he smiled as he drove. Then he hit the brakes. The car skidded. He blinked a few times and got out of the vehicle – walking carefully sideways with his head tilted towards the sky. Up there, from behind some tall trees, a fifty-foot monster was slowly moving into view: a huge red bear with demonic eyes strapped behind a Zorro mask, its polyester belly gently but powerfully breathing in the sun. The monster’s creator took a few moments to take this in – then paused for a quiet laugh. His painting had travelled further than just the album cover; it had morphed into reality. It had all started at one of John Andrews’ notorious pub meetings. ‘OK, chaps, we’ve two grand in the bank – those Oasis albums have been selling very nicely indeed – and it’s time to whip up a marketing campaign for Radiator. Let’s have a look at the cover then!’ Gruff handed John the artwork, which depicted a cartoon bear strolling through a city with a drink in his hand. The bear was looking at his reflection in a shop window, which depicted an evil version of himself, with pointed ears, lizard eyes and a skull logo on his cola cup. ‘Nice artwork … very nice!’ said John. ‘So what did you want to do with the bears again?’ ‘Well,’ said Bunf, slurping on a margarita, ‘the idea is that we have life-sized versions of the good and evil bears on stage with us, during the tour. What do you think?’ ‘I don’t see why not,’ said John, stroking his chin. ‘Perhaps they could even be inflatable balloons. Tell you what,’ he said getting up, ‘give me twenty-four hours and I’ll let you know. Now I’ve got to get out of here. Anyone else for another margarita before I go?’ * The next day, John called Furry HQ in Cardiff. ‘Good news, guys: we can afford the bears!’ Gruff held the phone away and relayed the news to the band, who let out a small cheer. John continued. ‘And in fact it was curious, because as I was talking to the inflatables company, they mentioned that it would cost exactly the same price for an eight-foot balloon as it would be for a fifty-foot balloon! Can you believe it? Naturally I told her that … er …’ John noticed that the line had gone quiet. ‘Gruff?’ There was mumbling in the background. Mumbling, followed by another small cheer. Gruff returned to the call. ‘John?’ said the singer. ‘I think we’ll take the large bears.’
The following week, the bears were hand delivered in their crates to Creation, from where the band and John Andrews excitedly took them down to Primrose Hill. Once there, a pair of jet-powered steel burners were hooked up to the first bear – the evil one with the Zorro mask – and Gruff grinned as he prepared to pull the chain that would inject life into the creature. But then, suddenly, a cry came from over the hill. ‘Wait!’ John Andrews looked up to see a junior A&R scout, apparently in some kind of panic. ‘Stop!’ he shouted, staggering towards them. ‘We just got a call from the council. They’re aware of what we’re up to and phoned to see if we’ve got a bouncy castle licence …’ John Andrews raised an eyebrow. ‘What the fuck is a bouncy castle licence?’ ‘That’s beside the point – we’ll almost certainly be arrested if we inflate without one.’ Daf, sensing a publicity blitz, clapped his hands together. ‘Even better! Pull the chain, Gruff!’ ‘Wait!’ shouted John, moving between Gruff and the chain. ‘We have to take this seriously: if you inflate that bouncy castle it could spell the end of Creation.’ The band looked at one another, suddenly aware of the gravity of the situation. After a second’s pause, Bunf quietly spoke. ‘It’s not a bouncy castle, John. It’s a bear.’ ‘I know it’s a fucking bear!’
…and on how Fowler and SFA influenced each other:
With mobile phones and Shinto deities now informing aspects of Guerrilla, it was clear that Pete Fowler was inspiring the band just as they were inspiring his artwork. The two artistic entities were close to looping into one other, especially on themes such as technology and communications. ‘Almost every picture of Pete’s at the time contained a reference to mobile phones,’ confirms Gruff, ‘so I think it was Pete’s influence that led to us picking up on those themes in Guerrilla.’
I think it’s lovely to read excerpts from a point in time when a) there were some great, mid-level record companies that endowed bands with cash and b) allowed weird things to happen, cue Mr. Alan McGee:
‘Hello, the British ambassador speaking,’ he piped up in a precise, BBC accent. ‘It’s reception, señor. There is a creative director on the phone from England. He says he wants to speak with you about the political situation.’ ‘Well, I suppose you’d better put him on.’ There was a click. ‘Hello, the British ambassador speaking.’ Brian immediately went into speech mode, explaining how he worked for a Sony-backed record label who wanted to shoot in Colombia. The video would be a celebration of their culture, promoting tourism and casting the country in a positive light. ‘But,’ he added, ‘I’ve been told there’s a civil war breaking out?’ There was a pause. ‘Just a minute, Brian,’ said the ambassador, putting down the receiver and leaning out the window. He paused, listened for a few seconds, then returned to the phone. ‘Everything looks jolly fine to me!’
Speaking of the Furries’ wonderful outlook on monarchy:
Inside, the Furries were already getting reacquainted with Colombiana, a local drink consisting of lager, rum and soda. Behind closed doors, however, a small crisis was developing in the kitchen. Several of the club staff were gathered around a TV, which appeared to be announcing news of a fatal car crash. The junior waiter suddenly yelped. The words on the screen read: ‘THE PRINCESS OF WALES HAS DIED’. Minutes later he was explaining the situation to his boss. ‘No!’ exclaimed his superior, mopping his forehead with a tissue. ‘Our guests will be inconsolable. You must announce this terrible news to them! But … make sure you do it while offering them the best cocktails known to man.’ ‘Si, señor!’ nodded the waiter. Out on the club floor, the messenger nervously approached SFA’s table. He laid down his tray of cocktails, coughed, and respectfully made the announcement. ‘Your princess is dead!’ Bunf raised an eyebrow. ‘What?’ ‘Your princess is dead!’ Daf laughed. ‘I don’t have a fucking princess, mate!’ ‘You know Diana? She die in a tunnel! Is terrible car crash.’ ‘Ah,’ said Gruff. The band patted the waiter on his back and thanked him for delivering this tragic news. Bunf then promptly bought a round of drinks for all the locals. A huge toast was proposed: ‘Death to the monarchy!’ ‘The band wouldn’t wish death on anybody,’ remembers Brian Cannon, ‘but clearly they were not only not English but also republicans, and simply didn’t give a flying fuck.’ It was decided there and then: everyone was to have a big night out in Bogotá.
All in all, the Furries did a lot of things, a lot of more things, in fact, than what the above let on, and developed far beyond a noisy psych-band. It’s the Beach Boys of the modern ages, people. Get in it.
This book is written kind of the way Jon Ronson writes, especially where “Frank” is concerned; it’s a simple read, extremely entertaining and loads of fun. And it contains a long list of translations from Welsh to English, which was a boon for me! SFA OK.
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