In ten years time and the children of the Brit-pop generation start taking an interest in their parents music collections, who do you think the really cool bands will be? It won’t be the big hitters whose songs will still be played on the radio, but those nearly men, those who despite having the talent, the material and a whole host of brilliant albums never quite got the respect they deserved at the time.
But who will be the Brit-pop equivalents of The Zombies or Love, bands who never got the respect they were really due, bands who were arguably more slyly creative than those that garnered the radio play? I’d like to think that the constantly underestimated Super Furry Animals would be among them.
Super Furry Animals have an intriguing pre-history, which takes in actor Rhys Ifans, Northern France, and some not particularly straight-faced techno. By 1994 things had firmed up a little though and they were gaining traction as one of the key bands to come out of Wales – hell, some of their songs were even in Welsh. A couple of EPs (including the gloriously titled Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (In Space)) later and they found themselves signing to Creation Records at a time of expansion for the label and heading into the studio to record their debut album, Fuzzy Logic.
It’s easy to forget now in this age of digital radio that back in 1996 when this album was released, outside of John Peel’s show, radio played little else beyond top ten hits. If you weren’t getting top ten singles, you weren’t going to get radio play and as the only band that the vast majority of the record buying public were paying any attention to were Oasis, a lot of good acts got ignored. Having a self-consciously zany name probably didn’t help much either and I have to admit that I, along with so many others, didn’t pay the appropriate attention to them when it really mattered.
Fuzzy Logic is not a perfect album, but it’s tuneful, clever and a hell of a lot of fun. There’s not many albums that could reference such disparate subjects as hamsters, Howard Marks and waterproof clothing, but bless them Gruff Rhys and the rest of SFA managed to pull it off. Like many Brit-pop albums, it’s the singles that grab you the first time you listen to Fuzzy Logic, as songs like “God! Show Me Magic”, “Something For The Weekend”, “Hometown Unicorn” and “If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You” still stand up well today. After a while though you realise that Fuzzy Logic is much more than those four songs that didn’t get played on the radio. “Fuzzy Birds” and “Hangin’ With Howard Marks” are great guitar tunes and slow burning tunes like “Gathering Moss” and “Long Gone” eventually start to take up permanent residency in the back of your mind.
Fuzzy Logic has aged a lot better than most of the debut albums by Brit-pop acts, mainly because it’s obvious that the band members had some musical pedigree previous to forming SFA, but it’s also because they actually had ambitions further than sounding like 60s throwbacks.
Released 18 months after their debut, Radiator was a quantum leap forwards from Fuzzy Logic and gave notice that Super Furry Animals were an underestimated band of rare quality, though one that may never quite break into the music super league, yet were undoubtedly better than those that did. This was no longer just Brit-pop, this was music that transcended the blinkered approach that blighted so many of the bands that rose to fame in the UK during the mid 90s. Songs like “She’s Got Spies”, “Play It Cool” and the glorious “Chupacabras” showed that they were still one of the most fun bands around, but with material like “Down A Different River”, “Download” and “Mountain People” they were equally capable of writing timeless mature tunes as well, best of all though was “Demons”, where Gruff sounds like he’s acquired Ziggy Stardust’s acoustic guitar and the band went out of their way to write SFA’s greatest song.
Radiator offers up a range of moods in a day-glo guitar-pop package and each song plays its part in the overall effect of the album. Yes, in places SFA still sound like a cartoon band, but that’s a lot of the appeal as they allow themselves almost limitless creativity across the broad canvas of the pop-rock tune. Equal parts Techno, jello and ELO, Radiator remains Brit-pop’s finest 47 minutes, by the fact that SFA demonstrated you didn’t have to take yourself too seriously to transcend its limitations.
The problem with Radiator wasn’t that it wasn’t a great album, but that it was always going to be so difficult to follow. Under the circumstances, SFA understandably stalled for time with the B-side and rarities collection, Out Spaced.
B-sides, especially since the last format-happy decade and a half have become increasingly throwaway affairs, with only a clutch of acts releasing a run of truly wonderful B-sides that stood on equal footing with its more illustrious brethren. Much of Out Spaced betray SFA’s roots, as there’s loads of sodding about with electronic effects and general gooning about. There are moments of greatness though, as the notorious “The Man Don’t Give A Fuck” opens proceedings and the the strangely compelling “Smokin'” makes an appearance.
Out Spaced did its job though and acted as a holding card for the band while they pieced together their next studio album. However, that album was Guerilla, SFA’s untidiest album to date and one that I’ve never really held as close to my heart as I have most of their other albums. The same spirit of creativity obviously went into it, but there’s just something in its genetic code which meant that it isn’t as well developed as it should be. That’s not to say that there aren’t great songs here, as the opening five numbers are as good as anything they’ve done, with “Do Or Die” and “Northern Lites” being among their finest singles. Other than that “Fire In My Heart” and “Keep The Cosmic Trigger Happy” are splendid numbers that any band would be rightly proud of.
But then there’s the rest of the album.
More than any of SFA’s other albums, Guerrilla betrays their previous incarnation as a spoof techno band as it falls prey to concentrating too much on studio trickery and weird sounds to make an impact. Tunes like “Some Things Come From Nothing” and “The Door To This House Remains Open” rely too heavily on techno sounds and are just far too long, with both of these songs potentially being far superior if they had been half as long. “Wherever I Lay My Phone (That’s My Home)’ may be a brilliant tune, but it’s at least three minutes too long.
SFA have always had an electronic element to their sonic armament, but Guerrilla was where it tainted the whole album too much for my tastes, as if the band started to doubt their ability as songwriters (which on the strength of the first few tracks of Guerrilla, was still in rude health). Rather than being an exercise in brilliant technicolour psychedelic pop-rock tunes that it should have been, Guerrilla is a disjointed mess. It’s not a total disaster, but it’s nowhere near as strong as the pair of studio albums that had preceded it. Still, all was not lost, as they were retaining their place as critic’s favoruites at a time when so many of their former peers were imploding. It wasn’t the only thing that was imploding either…
The implosion of Creation Records was a strange thing to behold. Other than Creation’s sacred cash-cow, there were a number of other notable bands without a record label, Primal Scream got snatched up pretty quickly and continued with their aggressive electro rock, Teenage Fanclub signed a one album deal and made a classy album that sounded exactly the same as all of their other classy albums. Creation’s quirkiest act though were Super Furry Animals, who before signing with a major label decided to record an album worth of enjoyable material with Welsh lyrics and put it out on their newly formed Placid Casual label.
Actually placid casual is a good description of Mwng, which just so happens to be one of SFA’s best albums in terms of music. For those of us (including myself) that don’t speak a word of Welsh, the lack of understandable lyrics means we pay more attention to what music is being played. Without a sizeable record label putting preasure on the band, Mwng is actually SFA’s most stripped back and sparsely produced album. These things combine to produce a strangely fulfilling listening experience, regardless of what he is singing Gruff Rhys sounds great and it is by no small accident that Mwng is the highest selling Welsh language album in recent history.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t be put off by the fact that unless you speak Welsh, you won’t understand a word being sung. Mwng is a great album in its own right and a vital part of SFA’s discography
After the demise of Creation and the release of Mwng, Super Furry Animals were snatched up by Sony / Epic as one of the best bands to come out of the UK in the 90s. Finally SFA would get the promotion and budget they deserved and they were ready for that concerted push into the mainstream. There would be heavy-weight music-press interviews, a simultaneous DVD release and no small amount of fanfare when Rings Around The World was first released to an expectant world.
Rings Around The World is SFA’s most prog-rock indebted release, with a number of extended tunes, a stunning production job and all sorts of breathtaking musicianship. The record label threw an enormous amount of cash at this album and it shows, but the weight of expectation would not dim SFA’s playfulness or charm. Rings Around The World is packed with great tunes like “Sidewalk Serfer Girl”, “Receptacle For The Respectable” and “Presidential Suite”. The singles were great too, though “(Drawing) Rings Around The World”, “It’s Not The End Of The World?” and the brilliant hymn to tolerance that was “Juxtapozed With U” didn’t make the impression that they deserved to. A personal favourite of mine, and to me, the song that should have closed the album was “Run! Christian, Run!”, with it’s languid guitar lines and walk-into-the-sunset vibe.
There are places that SFA do drop the ball though and it occasionally suffers the same set-backs as Guerilla, like the second half of “No Sympathy”, where they tack an elongated techno number on to the end of one of the album’s best songs, rendering it one of their more unwieldy compositions. While Rings Around The World doesn’t have the indescribable brilliance of Radiator, it’s still a brilliant album and it’s enough to lay to rest any arguments about who was the best act ever signed to Creation Records.
Follow up album Phantom Power was the point where SFA took stock and recorded an album which combined a bit of everything they had done before. It has the bouncy guitar pop numbers of Fuzzy Logic (“Golden Retriever”, “Out Of Control”), the brilliant songwriting of Radiator (“Sex, War & Robots”, the brilliant ode to working for what you’ve got that is “The Undefeated”), the techno seasoning of Guerilla ( “Venus & Serena”, “Slow Life”) which was thankfully kept on a short leash, the musical subtlety of Mwng (“Liberty Belle”) and the pop-prog moments of Rings Around the World (“Hello Sunshine”, “The Piccolo Snare”). While Phantom Power didn’t actually offer anything startlingly new, it consolidated their position and displayed the full breadth of the band’s collective talent in fourteen songs.
Like Rings Around The World there was an enormous amount of effort put into the production of Phantom Power and it shows. Where the band had perhaps over indulged on production on their previous album, here they got it pretty much spot-on, leaving Phantom Power the best sounding SFA release to date. Sadly Phantom Power also shared something else in common with its predecessor in that there are no Welsh songs on the album, despite the fact that they had been a highlight of their early albums.
Phantom Power is unique in SFA’s discography, as it had a sister-album of remixes, Phantom Phorce, an interesting release, but one that acts as a side-dish for the band’s full albums, rather than as a stand-alone release in its own right. However there are some fans who point to it as their favoruite SFA release, so it’s certainly not without merit.
Having established themselves as a band with a modest, but loyal fanbase, at this point in their career Super Furry Animals were in an enviable position. Where most of their former Brit-pop peers had either withered back into obscurity, had their mediocrity exposed, or been Supergrass. SFA, like Radiohead were the two acts that had managed to leave the Brit-pop label way behind them. Unlike Radiohead, SFA only had a modest following and had enjoyed healthy, but not attention-grabbing sales. All things considered, they were in a good place and a record-label pleasing collection of singles, Songbook: The Singles easily demonstrated just how brilliant they were, even when their songs were compiled in a mind-frying non-chronological sequence. It even included “Ice Hockey Hair”, a stand alone single by the band that had been a moderate sized hit, despite it being easily one of their best songs. Simply put, at this point in their career, Super Furry Animals were the very best band doing what their idiosyncratic thing. If you’re a newcomer wanting to know where to start with Super Furry Animals and aren’t allergic to compilations, then this is your best starting point.
So what happened?
Their final album for Sony / Epic, Love Kraft does not lack great lyrics, in fact a quick scan of the accompanying booklet pretty much confirms that these are some of the best lyrics on any SFA album. What it does lack is great tunes. It’s lazy, largely mid-paced and abandons guitars in favour of all manner of unnecessary studio effects. This isn’t the first time this has happened, as SFA dropped the ball once before, by being sidetracked into concentrating on what the studio could do rather than on what they as a band were doing. At least Guerilla had some energy to it, but on Love Kraft SFA sounded positively lethargic.
Things aren’t helped with the heavy handed production job either as the tunes struggle to break through the thick layers of lacquered sound. There are moments where it does break through though, like “The Horn”, the love it / hate it instrumental “Oi Frango” and “Lazer Beam”, the band’s weakest single to date, but one of the better songs on Love Kraft. The songs are there, they just needed to write decent tunes and strip-back the production.
In fairness, Love Kraft divided the fans. I know some SFA fans who maintain it is one of the best things that the band ever released, for others (like myself), it just lacked one of the elements that I see as vital to SFA’s overall appeal. Personally, at this point, I really did think that SFA may have shot their bolt. Sony / Epic dropped them / chose not to re-sign them (not sure what the story was there). After being one of the few acts to be able to transcend the stylistic straitjacket of brit-pop and plow a truly unique furrow, this seemed to be an unbelievably frustrating way for one of the UK’s finest acts to be cast into the void before they slowly floated away into undeserved obscurity. Luckily SFA’s reputation was stronger than their last album and they signed to Rough Trade to release their crucial next album. Would it be another exercise in drowsiness, or would it find SFA rediscovering exactly what it was that made them such an eclectically brilliant band in the first place?
After my initial misgivings (the cover artwork is unarguably the worst of SFA’s career), Hey Venus! found SFA if not back to their best, then at least relocating their muse. “Gateway Song” ensures that things start in style and “Run-Away” consolidates the fine start, though after that the solid “Show Your Hand” and “The Gift That Keeps On Giving” start to show hints of the vibe that made Love Kraft such a opinion-dividing listen. Things are soon back on track though with the rocking “Neo Consumer” and from there the album doesn’t really look back.
The undoubted highlight of Hey Venus! is the gloriously silly “Baby Ate My Eightball”, which is as weird as it’s title suggests and easily one of the best things the band had recorded since the heady days of Radiator. Though the following tracks struggle to match this high-point, the album ends with the fine pairing of “Battersea Odyssey” and the haunting “Let The Wolves Howl At The Moon”.
Hey Venus! was many things. It’s a reaffirmation of SFA’s core values as a band, it’s the sound of them finding their way again, a roar of defiance after escaping from the yoke of a big-money major label. Rumours at the time suggested that it was the first half of a two part concept album, though if it was, it’s not got a particularly linear narrative and part two hasn’t made an appearance yet. Whatever the case, it was good to hear Super Furry Animals back on form, if not yet back to full strength.
Super Furry Animals followed up Hey Venus! with Dark Days / Light Years, which though lacking a genuinely killer single like “Demons”, or “Golden Retriever”, was packed with sweet psychedelic goodness. Indeed I defy anybody to not shake their arse around their kitchen to the Kraftwerk-goes-pop of the insanely brilliantly titled “Inaugural Trams”. The fun doesn’t end there, as the glorious wig-out of “White Socks / Flip Flops” injects aural joy every time you here it, “Mt” is straight from the Radiator book of world-class guitar tunes and “Lliwiau Llachar” is a long-overdue return to their tradition of Welsh-language tracks on SFA albums.
Granted, Dark Days / Light Years was not the brilliant cohesive whole that was Radiator, but it’s still pretty good. While the closer “Pric” may represent the worst excesses of this most beloved band, how can you not love an album that contains a track called “The Very Best of Neil Diamond?”
As previously mentioned, Super Furry Animals are one of the very few acts to truly transcend the restrictions of Brit-pop and carve their own unique path through the musical landscape. There are albums that were less satisfying than others, but you’d expect that over a twenty years career. Where Super Furry Animals albums were good, they were absolutely outstanding and they’ve released more great albums than most people give them credit for. Gruff Rhys was one of the few stand-out vocalists to come out of UK guitar-music in the 90s (as a result you’d be hard-pressed to mistake a Super Furry Animals tune for anything by any of their contemporaries), all three of his solo albums are worthy of investigation and over the last decade he has become a serial collaborator.
Sadly it appears that Super Furry Animals are on something of a hiatus at the moment, but I’m not alone in hoping they make a speedy return. Once these animals bite, you’re never the same.