Book Review: Rise of the Super Furry Animals
Somethingyousaid.com has many Super Furry Animals enthusiasts. The biggest of all is Gary Page, who reviews the new book about them:
I have to make a confession that I am an extremely sporadic and lazy reader. I do however find biographies of rock bands to be a source of delight and wonder and will usually devour them in days. As a result I can tell you all 55 names that a young college band from Athens, Georgia chose before they plumped for R.E.M. I can also dazzle with my fact that David Byrne of Talking Heads used to wear long-sleeve shirts because he was conscious of his hairy forearms. So to be asked by SYS editor-in-chief Bobby if I wanted to review a new book about the Super Furry Animals, well I couldn’t reply quickly enough. Bobby knew he’d get such a reaction because the Welsh collective have been a soundtrack to both of our young adult lives and continue to this day. Along with 25ThC who recently interviewed the author of this book, Ric Rawlins, we spent many magical nights in the company of Gruff, Bunf, Daf, Guto and Cian and their crazy, pulsating live shows.
When the book landed on my doormat, after feverishly freeing it from its drab, brown envelope I was confronted with the familiar, almost comforting psychedelic jacket cover which is recognisably the work of the Super Furry Animal’s genius sleeve designer Pete Fowler. Before even reading the biography, the artwork gives that comforting feeling that with Fowler on board, you know this has the band’s full support and co operation.
Having personally followed the rise of the ‘Furries’ since 1997 I had heard so many magical, weird and wonderful stories so to have my hands on a document that would hopefully unlock these mysteries was very exciting indeed. Was there a secret techno album that the band made under a pseudonym lying undiscovered in a nearby record shop? What about the tribute song to Princess Diana called Minefields in the Sky? A song that is allegedly one of the greatest pop songs ever written, but remains unreleased as it would be too offensive for the vast majority of the world. I don’t want to give any spoilers away from the book, however I can say that one of those legends is very close to the truth. The 60ft inflatable stage monsters, the eye opening visit to Colombia to make a video, the blue tank used as a mobile disco and constant confrontations with champions of the traditional Welsh language folk scene are all here in the book. These are the stories that have made the band stand apart from their contemporaries and why it is they continue to excite and inspire the next generation of indie kids.
The band’s seemingly organic formation through the Welsh music scene is well researched and covered with humour. Rawlins’ light and breezy writing style gives an irreverent tone throughout and while never taking the story too seriously, seems to have a genuine love of the band. The book thankfully reinforces the perceived wisdom that Super Furry Animals do not possess the bloated rock star ego that can be found within much more notable bands of the post Britpop era. For a band with the collective talent of Super Furry Animals, I would have liked a bit more background on the five musicians than we gleam from the book. Rather than opting for an in depth character study, each Super Furry is assigned a brief fact file, although not extensive, it’s actually quite cute.
The rise of the Super Furry Animals in the late 90s saw them at the crossroads of the new technology boom that included mobile phones and the impending explosion of the internet. The book shines a light on how the band and Pete Fowler incorporated the ways we as human beings used technology to interact in strange new ways and channeled it into the music and artwork. In this sense, the first half of the biography gives the reader a real sense of time and place and reading it made me long to live in those days again, even if just for one day. The book is also rightly as much a celebration and study of the visual input of Pete Fowler and how he was allowed by the band and Creation Records to let his imagination run wild to create some of the greatest album covers of that time.
Although the music is rightly celebrated throughout, I was slightly disappointed the songwriting process and contributions of each band member wasn’t explored more fully over the 200 or so pages. When it is revealed for instance how drummer Dafydd Ieuan was the creative catalyst of The Man Don’t Give a Fuck or how Cian Ciaran developed as the band’s chief sonic pioneer, it is a fascinating insight into the inner mechanics of this much loved outfit. I concede that I’m a sucker for this geeky detail so more of these gems and less about Creation staff going slightly bonkers on the coat tails of Oasis’s global success would have been preferable for me personally.
When Rawlins focuses on these crazed rock ‘n’ roll stories of excess, and there’s quite a few, it’s mainly the band’s ex members (actor Rhys Ifans) and record company bods (Alan McGhee, Brian Cannon) who come across as the most debauched and willing to risk life and limb in the quest for mischief and mayhem. Strangely for a band synonymous for their ‘fuzzy logic’, the five members seem the most focused and driven of all the characters in the book, especially main songwriter and frontman Gruff Rhys. That’s not to say the book doesn’t cover some wild inter band antics. I assume in some ways it parallels The Beatles during their often cited period of druggy experimentalism in the late 1960s. Paul McCartney is often quoted as saying the band wouldn’t have been so prolific if under the constant influence of mind altering substances. Super Furry Animals are testament to this with a prolific run of albums and tours between 1996 and 2009. For a band who’s cartoon persona is maybe seen with a constant haze above its heads, it was revealed by one band member in the book that Gruff Rhys doesn’t even smoke! I guess those angelic pipes are worth looking after.
As Rawlins rightly says, the book is called The Rise of the Super Furry Animals not The Rise and Perch. The ‘perching years’ from Rings Around the World in 2001 to the last album Dark Days/Light Years in 2009, are sped up considerably to cover the last 20% of the book. You still get the feeling from the author that the band were pushing themselves creatively and it’s to their credit that they established themselves with a constant stream of well received and often brilliant albums and tours that pushed the boundaries of indie rock convention. The book is an enjoyable blast through the history of the band and for a lazy reader, I managed to blitz through the story in an evening. Maybe when SFA are rightly held up as the UK’s greatest band of the last 20 years, Ric Rawlins will be asked to write the expansive biography the group truly deserves. Until then, The Rise of the Super Furry Animals is a golden reminder of what an important and influential group of musicians they were and continue to be.
Rise Of The Super Furry Animals by Ric Rawlins is released 19 February by The Friday Project to mark the 20th anniversary of SFA’s first recordings. Grab a copy at www.amazon.co.uk and all major book retailers.
Words by Gary Page.