Sunday, 24 May 2009

No Sleep 'til Bedtime

Sunday night in Australia and it's the last night of the English Premier League for this season. Kick-offs start across England at 1am Melbourne time. Technically there are four teams fighting to avoid two relegation places, but with Middlesbrough hoping that Manchester United put a few balls in the Hull City goal and needing to win away at West Ham they are all but gone already.

Corus plant in Redcar, east of Middlesbrough (Getty Images / Guardian)

The maths are pretty simple for Sunderland. Assuming we lose (we're playing Chelsea, so let's just keep on with that assumption) then Hull City need to beat newly crowned champions Man Utd and Newcastle need to beat Aston Villa before we go down. It sounds implausible but then we are used to such misery. Newcastle need to better any result that Hull get.

In my gut I have a feeling that we'll all lose; the table will stay the same and Newcastle will go down with Boro and West Bromich Albion. In my battle-scarred and paranoid head I know better than to make any predictions. It's going to be a long long night. FTM.

Ian and Deborah and John and Sid

I was a bit ill with the lurgy last week so took a couple of days off work. I’m not one for sick days so was a bit lost for things to do whilst not doing much. Predictably I ended up watching telly. We’ve finally bought an amplifier and some speakers (more tentative steps into the 21st century) so I thought I’d watch a couple of my favourite music related films to see how good they sounded. We’ve been watching Ashes to Ashes, so seeing as my head was already most of the way there I pulled The Filth and the Fury and Control off the shelf for more late seventies / early eighties gloom.

Despite the undeniable importance, impact and influence of the Sex Pistols and Joy Division (the subjects of Filth and the Fury and Control respectively) I’m not a massive fan of either band. There are songs that I like, some that I love, but overall I prefer the music of the bands they became; Public Image Limited and New Order. However there is something about both movies that grabs me every time I watch them.

On first viewing the two films take markedly different approaches to telling the stories of two of Britain’s most spectacularly short-lived bands. Julian Temple’s Filth and the Fury is a deliberately one-sided documentary. Narrated by the band themselves it stands as a counter point to Temple’s previous recounting of the Pistols’ story; the Malcolm McLaren-orchestrated Great Rock and Roll Swindle. That version depicted McLaren as a Fagin-style ringleader of a bunch of artless dodgers that he manipulated to chart and cultural success. As if by way of an apology, Temple has handed the microphone to the four living members (as well as an occasionally lucid Sid Vicious from old footage) and has put together their side of things.

The era is spectacularly brought to life by inspired archive footage of Britain on its knees in the winter of discontent interspersed with dancing and gurning 1970s comedians, cartoons and a recurring role for Laurence Olivier’s grotesque Richard III who clearly had a big impact on a young John Lydon. Aside from the old clips, the band appear only in silhouette, as if to press home that this isn’t a movie about the here and now, but of the innocence of youth, and an era when cultural foundations could be rocked by art alone.

The movie addresses pretty much all of their infamous moments – swearing on the Bill Grundy TV show, getting dropped from two record labels within a year, being banned by fearful local councils across the land, gatecrashing the Queen’s Silver Jubilee party by releasing one the most brilliantly nasty protest songs ever recorded (God Save the Queen), swapping muso Glen Matlock for talentless pin-up boy Vicious and imploding because their energy couldn’t manage the inertia that overcame them. It also relegates McLaren to a laughable bit player in a story he would have us believe he wrote. One suspects the truth lies somewhere in-between but it’s clear from Lydon’s intelligent reflections that he was never anyone’s puppet to be controlled. But whilst we’re on the topic…

Sam Riley as Ian Curtis in Control. Note bricks looking cool as fuck.

Anton Corbijn portrait of Joy Division

Based on material from widow Deborah Curtis’ book Touching from a Distance, Anton Corbijn’s directorial debut is an exquisite and honestly down to earth retelling of Ian Curtis’ story. When I watched this at the cinema I was overcome by how beautifully the North of England could be represented by someone with the right eye for detail. That’s not to say it is all chimney stacks, factories and ‘eh up lads. ’ More Corbijn brings the same black and white eye he used for U2’s Joshua Tree to smoky pubs, terraced streets, tower blocks, bricks and telephone poles. Having started his career taking black and white shots of Joy Division, it’s like he’s come back to finish the job.

Given Curtis’ posthumous elevation to the role of Patron Saint of Misery by subsequent generations there was every opportunity for this movie to go horribly wrong. Blessedly a combination of respect for the subject matter, involvement of some of the key players (Deborah Curtis and Anthony Wilson both serve as Executive Producers) and some choice casting makes for something far greater than I had even dare hope for.

The two Sams (Riley and Morton as Ian and Deborah) are magnificent. Both fill their respective skins perfectly yet neither ever overacts or is anything less than authentic. Their young love is sweetly believable, their falling apart painfully so. The temptation to fill the movie with shots of Ian staring into space has thankfully been resisted. The mundane tragedy of their story is lightened by a wonderful supporting cast, particularly Toby Kebbell as manager Rob Gretton, Craig Parkinson as Wilson and Alexandra Maria Lara as Ian’s extra-marital love interest, Annik HonorĂ©.

Samantha Morton and Sam Riley

Naturally enough issues of control haunt every frame of the film, principally Ian’s desperate attempts to hold on as everything around him falls apart. Curtis fights for control over his emotions and desires, control over his flailing, failing epileptic body and the medication that he needs, control of his fears of death and in the end his personal time as band mates, fans, girlfriend, wife and daughter all want him to be somewhere he isn’t. Ultimately Corbijn’s view is that Curtis lost control over his own destiny; his only way to get it back being to end his life.

The movie is also clear that Curtis exerted a lot of control over his young wife, often leaving her to clean up his personal mess alone. His thoughtless suicide letter to his wife after a failed overdose (“give my love to Annik”) is almost as heart breaking as his eventual demise. Ultimately though Curtis is portrayed as a victim of both an unfortunate chemical experiment to limit his epilepsy and his inability to consolidate the wildly different world’s he inhabited as a star and a husband from Macclesfield. His death remains a tragic waste.

Outside of the fact that I like them and watched them on the same day, the main these films have in common is their deliberate normalisation of their iconic subjects. Whilst there are shots of gigs and parties in other cities, Curtis’ rock star life is never glamorous. The story starts and ends in Macclesfield, and whilst Ian admits it’s a place he’s been trying to escape his whole life, you feel that his upbringing only adds to his inability to do the decent thing and set Deborah free. Theirs is a story in which being a rock star is in some ways irrelevant and Control can just as easily be seen as a northern kitchen-sink drama about doomed romanticism.

Similarly the Sex Pistols. Vilified, glorified, iconicized, they will always have a place near the top of the 20th Century’s lists of most important artists. And yet the two most powerful moments in the film come not from any sense of a band defining the times or changing musical history, but from when you see them as John, Steve, Glen, Sid and Paul; some blokes from London.

The Sex Pistols and some more bricks

Lydon’s wistfulness when he talks about a Christmas party in Huddersfield given by the band to help the children of striking workers strikes a real chord when shown against interviews of clueless councilors decrying them as evil and banning them from playing. Similarly when Rotten is moved when discussing the loss of Vicious (‘he died for fuck’s sake’) it’s easy forget that this is the most instantly recognisable face of the punk movement talking about his number two. This is a bloke called John mourning the pointless and unnecessary death of his mate.

Movies about musicians are mostly about as necessary as (to paraphrase Laurie Anderson) dancing about architecture, but in Control and the Filth and the Fury the power is not in the music or the fans or the fame but in the way that ordinary people can become extraordinary.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Up, Up and Away

I love Melbourne sometimes. I walked out of my front door on Wednesday and this is what I saw. It was far nicer but the camera on my phone is terrible.

I love the idea that there are people who didn’t go to work today because they decided they’d rather have a ride in a hot air balloon. I'm not even jealous – I feel like I’m sharing in on their experience just by watching them float slowly by.

My friends got engaged in one of these balloons and they said there were about 1000 people in the basket with them so it wasn't very intimate. I think I like the peacefulness of just looking at them. And the knowledge that there is less far to fall...

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Sign of the Times

I took this picture in a Harvey Norman in Sydney about a year ago. It reminded me of those signs from the 1930s of men hanging around shipyards and construction sites with ‘Will Work for Food’ signs around their necks. I remember thinking that one day we might look at this picture and think it was strange that at one time companies were so desperate for staff people could apply for a job and not even have to have a CV. I guess we’re already there…

Monday, 18 May 2009

Clean Up Crew to Aisle Six

For the first time in a decade I’m genuinely excited about the idea of a new Manic Street Preachers album. I admit I’ve fallen hook line and sinker for the marketing ploy of Journal for Plague Lovers (that the band has finally chosen to use lyrics left to them by former member Richie Edwards just before he went missing in 1995) but I like Manics songs where James Dean Bradfield has to gallop to make the words fit; something sadly lacking since Richie’s disappearance.


All the pre-release talk is that the album revisits territory covered by 1994’s Holy Bible, their notoriously bleak masterpiece - all words designed to lure people like me back into the fold. My copy of the album hasn’t arrived yet so this isn’t a review, but there is one thing that I read at the weekend that made me want to scratch an itch.


As with The Holy Bible, the cover art of Journal for Plague Lovers is a painting by British artist Jenny Saville. As you can see below, it’s a headshot of a young boy, with an implication that it could be Edwards (it’s not). Regardless, it’s a great painting and a striking image for an album cover.

What then to make of the news that at least four British supermarkets have said that they are not prepared to display the album with its current artwork and have requested that it be covered with a plain slipcase? Their tenuous argument is that the picture might upset some people because the boy’s face appears to be flecked with blood. 


Artistic interpretations aside (and the Manics have done the right thing by stepping in to protect Saville from to having to explain her work to a bunch of dickheads) there are two big issues here. Firstly that of the power of supermarkets to determine how we consume our art (and let’s be honest this entire project is art fodder for fans – this is not going to be a commercial album with song titles like She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach and Virginia State Epileptic Colony.) 


Secondly – and this is where I release my inner pensioner – what about the albums on supermarket shelves every year with semi-naked pop stars on the cover. They’re OK are they? I’ve always had a kind of prudish bee in my bonnet about the Pussycat Dolls (really? Pussy cats? Really? You’re so funny) and their playground pole dancing shtick but in the face of this kind of hypocrisy from British retail outlets they just feel even more wrong. 


At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man (too late, I know), what kind of artists should we be encouraging as role models for young people? A group of young dancers dressed like prostitutes who sing ‘I wanna see the world, drive nice cars, I wanna have groupies.’ Or a woman who has made a career in the fine arts through challenging gender norms and body identity issues through her own confronting and powerful canvasses?


Pop music and titillation have been part of youth culture since Elvis and I’m not suggesting that should or even could change. The general public has a taste for it and they’ll be damned if a bunch of pinkie lefties are gonna change that. But honestly, we should cherish and support artists like Jenny Saville because for people who tire of being told that being a Pussycat Doll is something to aspire to (and there are plenty of kids who want more for themselves) we need artists like her – and the Manics themselves over the years – to show that there is another way.


At the end of the day this is not anything as noble as a stand on moral values; it is about money. It’s a commercial decision about not upsetting customers. It’s pathetic and but also sad, because there are some young kids who might never go to a gallery and the idea of such a brilliant work of art standing there on a supermarket shelf for anyone to see is part of what pop culture is about.   


Related stuff:

Jenny Saville Bio by the Saatchi Gallery 

Guardian Interview with Jenny Saville

The Holy Bible glory days: Faster on Top of the Pops. Dance kiddies. 

Monday, 11 May 2009

From the Comfort of My Armchair

May rolls around again and football match reports seem incomplete without references to ‘the business end’ of the season, or ‘squeaky-bum time.’ The way things have gone over this English Premier League season there has been a greater number of loose colons than ever before, with at least 10 teams involved in the relegation saga.

There are two games left to play (not counting tonight’s Tyne-Tees sphincter-rattler) and whilst things are starting to settle, there are still six teams who could go down on the final day. Despite the obvious local rivalries it gives me no real pleasure that four of these six are from the 100 or so miles of North East coast I used to call home.

We don’t have satellite TV anymore, so I have seen very few games this season. This means that I wake up most Sunday mornings and spend twenty sleepy minutes feeling sick to my stomach with anticipation and fear that we’ll lose again. Then I read the match reports and confirm that we have lost again before getting mad for a while, seeing how badly everyone else is doing and then doing the maths to see if we will still be relegated. Almost every week (unless we win) I question my sanity in letting my personal happiness be so guided by whether a bunch of overpaid, under-committed blokes have managed to win a game of football 14,000 kilometres away.

Following a football team on television or via the internet from the other side of the world is quite bizarre in truth. It has its roots in loyalty, love, ritual and identity far more than the pleasure of actually watching a good game and being entertained.

Leaving aside the casual football follower, broadly speaking there are four types of long distance fan. First there is the traveller; freshly arrived from the soccer-saturated UK to a country that ranks football after cricket, two codes of rugby, AFL and horse racing in importance. Their once-in-a lifetime leave-it-all-behind world trip does not include leaving their team behind. Besides, meeting in a pub in an exotic locale to share the joys and woes with a few replica shirted comrades can be a beautiful thing. As long as you’re not the other people in the pub watching English people get wankered…

Secondly there is the Expat. Closely related to the traveller, they too cannot forget the team they have followed over the years. However, they are unlikely to have seen their team in action for years and are more prone to becoming emotional about non-existent ‘glory days’ (i.e. when they were in a pub in England rather than Australia). Expat culture in general is a very boring grass-is-greener affair and the grass of a football pitch is always the greenest. It’s about old habits being hard to break, rose-tinted visions of the past and hanging on to those parts of our identities that are inextricably linked to where we were born. And of all three I am an offender.

Our third fan is the Australian lumbered with an emotional bond to a random team because of some personal connection they cannot sever. These might be the unfortunate sons and daughters of expats forever doomed to a life of 2am games beamed direct from a place they’ve never been but which their parents insist is God’s own land. Alternatively they may have picked up their allegiances like a dose of the clap whilst travelling around the UK and falling in with the wrong (football) crowd.

Finally there are the randoms; people who like football, yet, starved of quality at home have looked further afield. Whilst there was a trend for following teams featuring Aussie starlets (I was amazed at the amount of Leeds supporters I met when I first arrived in Sydney, whither they now?) the Randoms will invariably support Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea depending upon who won the Premiership when they started watching. They have almost certainly never seen their team play in the flesh, limited again to internet reports and late night Fox Sports.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with watching televised games, I don’t think you can truly know a team unless you’ve been to the odd game. I say this as a self-confessed former Random from a football deprived town brought up on a diet of rugby league and following Liverpool on the telly.

I went to my first game with my best friend principally for the drink-related mayhem that she reported back on every other Saturday. The first thing that struck me in the stadium was that your eyes could take in every inch of the pitch without even trying. I was so used to the idea that you only ever see a third of the pitch at any one time it never occurred to me that this was just a limitation of television technology. Suddenly even the dullest of games came alive. I could see tactics, movement off the ball, people making runs – some futile others inspired. I immediately knew who was working hard and who was just bloody lazy. Shirts and numbers off the telly became real people with sweat and effort and genuine foibles. I loved it and I loved them.

Because what you see on television is someone else’s version of events you’re limited to the players that they want to focus on; usually the so-called stars. It’s easy to believe that maybe they are the only players doing anything worthwhile on the pitch; a bit like on Top of the Pops when the cameraman only shows the singer. Watching football on TV is like watching a DVD of a music concert. You get an idea of what is going on, you can still be entertained and hey, at least you didn’t totally miss out but really you’re watching someone else’s second-hand version of events.

I’m not suggesting that anyone would prefer it this way. I’m sure most of us long distance fans would rather go to at least the odd game if we could. I’m just acknowledging that as armchair or internet fans we are missing out on elements of the game that no amount of technology can replace. It is our lot and we accept it as a poor imitation of actually being there, but when the television is switched off and we are thrust back to our Australian lives it only reinforces the insanity of the emotional investment we make every week.

Many people supplement their foreign affairs with a fix of the A-League. I’ve been to a couple of games and must admit they do make for a good substitute of sorts. Those snorting in derision should forget about the quality of the football being played – it’s really not important. Football is never just a game. At its best it’s about atmosphere, emotion, tradition, family, rivalry and a sense of your own identity. For some it’s about drinking, for some it’s about mates. For me it’s about pasties and singing. Most of all – regardless of our preferred code - it’s always about community. A bad game at the stadium can still be a good night out, a chance to see friends and a shared experience. A bad game on television is mostly just a waste of time.

So why do we bleary-eyed long distance football fans keep going with our late night television addiction? Well, mostly we have no choice. The ties that bind are too strong. Perhaps we are creatures of habit. Perhaps the Premier League really is like a Hollywood blockbuster; a brilliantly marketed product that everyone feels compelled to watch regardless of quality. Perhaps we just haven’t found anything else that matches the excitement. Maybe it’s all of the above. Or perhaps, as is my case, we get all aflutter from that instant teleportation to the other side of the world once a week to a place that is all too familiar and makes us feel not so far away from home.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Cute Robots of Death

Following my warning last month about an invasion of (possibly harmless yet probably) deadly robots on these shores, I can confirm another sighting.

Study the photographs below very closely. What appears to be a harmless and overgrown ivy-strewn verge is revealed to be the hiding place of a well-camouflaged mechanical killing machine. To make matters worse this technological terror is located outside of a school. Yes, they are now targeting our young.

Should you need further proof of this new wave of kiddie-focussed electronic horror, take a visit to the world of the Tweenbots. Incredibly cute. Dangerously manipulative. Next stop, Terminator-style Armageddon.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Super Furry Week Day 5: Music

What better way to mark the final day of Super Furry week than to talk about the thing that really matters: the songs.

Super Furry Animals share a shelf in my heart with Pulp as one of the few bands who deserve to be called pop stars. For me they are proper pop stars: intelligent, eclectic, informed, quotable and opinionated. They seem to enjoy the responsibility of putting on a show and reciprocate with films, yeti costumes, space helmets, quadraphonic sound systems, handwritten cue-cards, light shows, mid-set rave sessions, inflatable animals, decorated guitars and tanks. They think like fans and make sure that their releases offer something more for fan’s money than just another way to listen to the music. Most of all, like all the best groups, they are a gang; self reliant and seemingly untainted by success.

I can’t deny I’m a sucker for a noble cause. My record collection is littered with the outputs of artists whose music never quite reached (or in some cases sustained) the level I hoped it would because of everything else associated with the band. I am easily lured in with a great single or two in nice packaging and then sucker-punched by a good quote. Before I know it I’m barracking for chart success for complete strangers.

Take the Manic Street Preachers for example. Most of their pre-Holy Bible output is pretty average. It didn’t matter though because they were so thrilling to behold and theirs was a battle for the hearts and minds of the nation. Similarly I like to spend time eating sandwiches and thinking how marvellous life could have been if Kenickie had released more music that matched their look and
genius in front of an interviewer. Liam and Noel gave good quote in their heyday but they were nothing compared to Marie, Emmy-Kate and Lauren. And they had nicer hairclips.

It’s affirming then that the Super Furries’ music reflects everything else that goes on around the band. They’ve also stayed remarkably consistent over their 15 or so years and Dark Days / Light Years contains songs that rank up there with their best. So, with that in mind and by way of presenting yet another list in the guise of a Beginner’s Guide… let me offer my own tuppence-worth on how to buy, borrow or download your way to Furry Heaven.

* * * * * * * *
First Base
Most ‘Best of’ compilations are pretty rum affairs, but the truth is that Super Furry Animals have always released great singles. 2004’s Songbook: The Singles Volume 1 is a not only a great introduction for the uninitiated but for everyone else it’s just a damn good listen. It contains all 21 of their singles since from 1996 – 2004 as well as Blerwytirhwng? from their first EP, the snappily titled Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (In Space). Every track is wonderful, and well worth having. You should also pick up Show Your Hand from Hey Venus! which came out after Songbook.

Second Helpings
If you’ve listened to the singles and decided that you want more, the idea of checking out nine studio albums can be a daunting prospect. However, if you do want to tread the album route there are a couple of points that work in your favour.

Firstly, there are no genuine duds amongst the Furry albums proper (although I’d posit that Hey Venus! is the least satisfying – Show Your Hand or not). Secondly, the band still believe in the idea of an album proper, to be listened to from start to finish, so you’ll get your money’s worth investing in a long player. You’ll also get beautiful instrumentals like Phantom Power’s Father Father #1 and #2 or (A) Touch Sensitive from Rings Around the World which is like the Get Carter theme redone by the
BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

If you don’t want to think about it too much, there is a general consensus that Radiator, Guerrilla and Rings Around the World are the ‘best’ albums. I’d add Love Kraft and Dark Days / Light Years to that list too, but lots of people were quite down on Love Kraft when it came out. I think this is might be because it’s not as eclectic or experimental as others, but if you want blissed-out loved-up harmony-strewn lurve tunes then there’s few better.

However, assuming you’ve got the singles and you can’t afford to buy all the albums here are some choice non-single cuts to consider:

Chupacabras (Radiator): 1 minute 26 seconds of intense homage to fabled South American goat killing vampire monster with immensely singable pigeon-Spanish chorus

Gathering Moss (Fuzzy Logic): Languid Spanish guitars underpin anthem to relationship inertia where we find ‘you and I, united by itemised bills.’

Ohio Heat (Love Kraft): CSNY style-harmonies, pedal steel and more talk of foxes. Gorgeous.

Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home) (Guerilla) Fog horns, chopped up vocals, bicycle bells, rhythms built from ringtones, chipmunk voices and lyrics that boast about City and Guild certificates and mobile phone ownership – one of the key insane pop moments from their everything and the kitchen sink album.

Guacamole (B-side of If You Don’t Want Me to Destroy You) Superbly raucous insomnia-themed mashed avocado madness featuring Gruff’s rockabilly Elvis voice, sadly now retired.

Run Christian Run (Rings Around the World) A fine example of the Furries' ability to apply repetition to any genre to devastating effect. A beautiful melody with lyrics condemning Jimmy Swaggart-types builds to an immense soaring crescendo that could take the roof off a church.

Valet Parking (Phantom Power): disposable but lovely travelling song replete with ba-ba-bah lounge chorus, sound effects and the first instance of Gruff’s off-microphone talking (‘coming up to Berlin I have a minor accident…’)

Download (Radiator) – one of my favourite SFA tracks. Lyrics offering a meditation on life are delivered by two Furries – one in each speaker – against a gentle piano-riff which throbs its way to a teary end. Sublime.

Zoom! (Love Kraft) More slow-building dreaminess, this time with horns and heavenly choirs imploring ‘I can’t get enough of this, kiss me with apoca-lips.’

No Sympathy (Rings Around the World) gentle country guitars and some surprisingly nasty lyrics (‘you deserve to die’) meld into ba-ba-bahs before handing over to Cian for some snapshot drum and bass during which Bunf’s steel guitar and Gruff’s voice are fed to a rampaging robot who shits them out the other side and into a black hole. All the sweeter because it is followed by Juxtaposed With U on the album...

Calimero (B-side of Herman loves Pauline) Possibly a tribute to a Japanese anime chicken, this was a guitar thrashing sing-along live favourite for years.

Receptacle for the Respectable (Rings Around the World) Infamously featuring Paul McCartney on carrot chomping duties this is another song of two halves, this one 50% Coffee and TV chug and 50% ‘pantomime death metal’ according to Gruff.

Arnofio / Glo in the Dark (B-Side of Something for the Weekend) and another… sensing a pattern here? Although recorded much earlier than Receptacle, A/GITD was the song(s) that raised the bar on recording songs that change direction half way through. Half Welsh, lilting, pulsing, gentle and then without any warning the band switch to English (‘hey swimmers, watch for sharks, they’re gonna get you cos you glow in the dark’) and glam rock.

Frequency (Love Kraft): More harmonies that seem to lift you up to the clouds and leave you there. Lyrics seems to suggest incitement to riot. Gently.

Nightvision (Guerilla) The Batman theme re-imagined with a sub-sonic bass at three in the morning whilst under the influence of any number of possible hallucinogens with Gorky’s Peanut Dispenser as a guide.

The Piccolo Snare (Phantom Power) The true work of genius on Phantom Power is Slow Life but the Piccolo Snare is another standout track from an album that is best listened to as a whole. Reflecting the anti-Iraq War sentiments of the time it includes singing in the round, several sets of complex harmonies and a reflective slow funk outro with backwards guitars and chimes.

Mountain People (Radiator): possibly coincidence but this came out at a time when it seemed all bands were trying to come up with epic seven-plus minute I Am the Resurrection-type album (and live show) closers to leave listeners emotionally drained (see also The Private Psychedelic Reel, Champagne Supernova, Come On, Essex Dogs). The ace in the Furries’ hole was Cian who comes across here like a kid who has necked the band’s entire stash of pills and then been let loose on this slow building strum with a 303. The lyrics – ‘they don’t care about you and me, obviously…’ would be thematically revisited a number of times, whilst the idea that the band probably did live in mountain caves sometimes does occasionally still seem plausible.

Outside Interests
The band have always had fingers in other pies, some of their own making and others as guests. Perhaps unsurprisingly Gruff has proved the most recognisable member outside of the band but he has also been the most prolific and had the most success in terms of sales.

Gruff’s dulcet tones have graced a few other artists’ works. He was one of the first voices to appear on a Mogwai LP (2001’s Rock Action) taking the lead on
Dial: Revenge and providing backing on 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong. He also featured to notably similar effect on FC Kahuna’s Fear of Guitars (from Machine Says Yes) and Do's and Don'ts on Boom Bip’s Blue Eyed in the Red Room. Boom Bip and Gruff famously got back together in 2008 for Stainless Style, released under the Neon Neon moniker. Click here for my opinion on Stainless Style, safe in the knowledge it hasn’t changed a jot.

As well as his two solo albums (2005’s Welsh language Yr Atal Genhedlaeth and 2007’s predominantly English
Candylion), Gruff had a full pre-Furry career with the band Ffa Coffi Pawb (literally ‘everybody’s coffee beans’ but depending on how you say it becomes ‘fuck off everyone.’ A best of (Ffa Coffi Pawb Am Byth) was released in 2004 on the Furries’ Placid Casual label and is well worth checking out, especially Valium which sounds like early SFA.

Ffa Coffi Pawb also featured Daf on drums, which is where you’ll find him for his current extra curricular activities as a member of
The Peth. The band notably features actor Rhys Ifans on vocals, but don’t let that put you off. Ifans’ links to Super Furry world include a stint as singer in their pre-fame days and the rambling stoned answer phone message featured on Long Gone from Fuzzy Logic.

The Peth (meaning the Thing) is mostly driven by Daf who wrote many of the songs for their debut album,
the Golden Mile and it’s actually pretty great. The vocals and harmonies are not a million miles away from SFA, whilst the music is pitched like a cross between Radiator-era Super Furries and Oasis or (and I mean this as a compliment) the Rutles. You can hear what I mean via their My Space page which also has a couple of clips. (NB: don’t bother typing 'Peth' into Wikipedia. It redirects you to Astrid Peth, Kylie Minogue’s character in Dr Who, which coincidentally is filmed in Cardiff).

Not to be outdone, everyone’s favourite techno-monkey Cian has also released his own music as part of the lo-fi bleepy collective
Acid Casuals, working alongside former Big Leaves member Kev Tame. They released their debut album Omni in 2006 and it’s contents would be familiar to anyone who has seen SFA live over the years and heard Cian’s mid-set techno genius. The music is as warm and bleepy as you’d expect, and has a similar aesthetic to the work of Australian lady electronic futurists, Artificial whilst recalling late eighties / early nineties acts like Tricky Disco and LFO. Acid Casuals are due to release more music in 2009 and you can get a taster at

Yes, Yes, Yes, but you’ve told me nothing I didn’t know already
Oh well, sorry. I tried. I was going to tell you about Zabrinski, a now defunct Welsh band who recorded throughout this decade and who offer an SFA influenced
back catalogue which is still fantastic in its own right. 2005's Ill Gotten Game is a great place to start, with Hit the Rez clearly under the influence of Slow Life, but in a very good way. But you probably know that too. Sorry.

And in the end…
So there you go. Super Furry week is over. And it was longer than a regular week, which is nice too. If you still need more, you will find a far larger plethora of Super Furry data updated regularly and lovingly at fan site BBC Wales has also dedicated many pages of the interweb to their favourite band here. You can also find out all things official through

For those who can recall last week, I had hoped to be able to contribute in some small way to Dark Days / Light Years avoiding the fate of its predecessors and plummeting from the charts despite being one of the best albums of the year. The result? A resounding flatline... this week’s UK Album Chart shows no change at all from last week’s number 53 position. But hey, at least I had some fun and didn’t hurt anyone. Thanks to everyone who stayed for the week. Hope you had fun too.

Super Furry Animals am Byth!

Friday, 1 May 2009

The Art of Super Furry world: Monsterism and Beyond

Super Furry Week - Day 4

Part of the appeal of the Super Furry Animals is that listening to their music is like going through a doorway to a parallel world; like an audio equivalent of Time Bandits or Where the Wild Things Are. Their world is our world with our problems, but it’s also a place of hamsters and tennis players and demons and technology gone mad and Frisbees and dogs and modern transport systems and apocalypse and guacamole and people shooting boys with red hair because they think they are foxes. It’s fitting then that this familiar but intangible world has been given life and depth through the artwork of Pete Fowler and his Monsterism universe.

Pete Fowler is the Welsh artist responsible for all the band’s album and single covers from Radiator up to Phantom Power. His vision and art forms a link between all their releases which makes all Furry work - however diverse and experimental - seem connected to some bigger and deliberate picture. In the same way as The League of Gentlemen’s macabre misfits are linked by their residence in the streets of Royston Vasey, so the people of Super Furry world are joined by Monsterism.

His work for the Super Furries has two distinct styles; the bright pop-art style characters, monsters and vampires of the Radiator era and the 3D clay models first used for Guerrilla and revisited for Love Kraft. Songbook and Phantom Power saw a return to drawings, but these were shaded and darker takes on the clay model work, with wood carving themes thrown in to Phantom and singles for good measure. You can hear Gruff and Pete shedding some light on their working relationship in this article from last month’s Independent.

Monsterism has a vibrant life outside of the Super Furries universe. As well as art prints and collectable vinyl figurines, Fowler has produced a number of cartoon strips for Vice magazine in the UK. Most of them are available to download for free on the Monsterism website. These have now been developed into a flash animation which is reportedly set to be turned into a children’s television series. I say reportedly because I couldn’t get the links to work on the website to find out where this is up to.

In anticipation of the TV series Fowler has come full circle and has just released the second in a series of Monsterism compilations. A Psychedelic Guide to Monsterism Island is a collection of mostly instrumental and songs by lesser known artists that, in the words of Garry Mulholland ‘feels like an underground, lo-fi British version of an old Walt Disney soundtrack.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly it features Gruff Rhys on a tracked called Wild Robots Power Up, although he rivalled in the fame stakes by an appearance from Jerry Dammers of the Specials.

The album follows 2005’s well received The Sound of Monsterism Island Vol 1 which is a compilation in the vein of The Trip, featuring lots of unearthed treasures from the sixties. Copies are hard to come by, so you’ll have to look hard, but I’m sure there must be some out there still.

Pete Fowler is still very much involved with the Super Furries – the artwork for Dark Days / Light Years is a collaboration he did with Japanese artist Keiichi Tanaami who also did the cover art for Hey Venus! and its singles. The relationship between a band and their artwork is often underplayed, but for fans it can be part of the experience and create and maintain a sense of community. The bonus with Fowler and SFA is that in their community we are all welcome because everyone and no-one is too weird.