I’d seen them supporting the Manics, and as part of the Reading Festival line-up, but this gently magical night was, finally, my first chance to see the magnificent Super Furry Animals headlining their own show.
As October 1997 drew to a close, my life was about to transform. I’d had my first wobble about my London life at the beginning of the month, nearly deciding to return to my family home in Perth. But the pull of London gigging life had been too strong, and I made the choice to stay in London for the foreseeable future. But it was going to be a slightly different life going forwards, and that was down to my job. Since January, I’d been working 18 hours a week as an outpatients clinic receptionist at the Royal Brompton Hospital, and living in their nurses’ home. But our department was about to go through a transformation.
Any long term NHS staff member will recognise this kind of transformation: orders coming from on high, from managers who have no idea how hard the work we do is, and think the duties of low-paid staff are laughably easy and can be carried out by anyone. In their wisdom, they decided that the roles of the clinic receptionists and the auxiliary nurses (what we’d now call health care assistants) should be combined. Yes: we admin, computery types had to now train to do nursing duties, and those with a vocation to nurse had to sit behind a computer and book patients in. This being 1997, many of the older nurses had barely looked at a computer screen in their lives. It was a pretty chaotic few months of transition, full of unhappy, unsettled colleagues, and there were many incidences of staff fleeing the department in tears, myself included. One former auxiliary nurse went home one day and never returned.
But that’s all a story for a different kind of blog. The main impact it had on my gigging life was that I had to increase my hours, first to 30 and then 36 hours a week, making me a full time worker. So there was less time to flit about the city on a random musical whim, and going to gigs after work was just that little bit more wearying. This Super Furry Animals gig was the last one I went to on a working day that finished at 2pm instead of 5.30pm or later.
Still, despite this being my last opportunity to turn up at a weekday gig ridiculously early and queue to get down the front, I didn’t set out too early for this gig, not feeling a particular need to be up close and personal with SFA. From my diary:
“As I strode off at five to six I thought I’d have zero chance of getting down the front, and even moreso as I didn’t get to the venue ’til 18 to 7. But I guess that wondrous though they are, the SFAs non-image just doesn’t inspire the kids to get as close as possible no matter how much pain and injury they must suffer. When I got into the venue there were approximately two people hanging out at the barrier. So I wander on down and join the resolutely unexcitable throng in, erm, sitting down and waiting for the first band. I spent most of the time staring up at the point on the balcony where I stood last Dec 16 and reminiscing, as you do.”
This was decidedly the most chilled out gig experience I’d had so far. The waiting throng were so chilled out, in fact, that the first support band couldn’t even tell that we were there. “Eventually a Welsh accent proclaims “Hey! Where are you all??” and we all stand up to watch the first band, the highly non-descript Derrero. Then after a not very long wait Urusei Yatsura are on and they are highly unremarkable apart from the guitarist in front of me being skinny, stripey shirted and very cute. His cheekbones were far more diverting than the non-tunes quite frankly.”
This was definitely a far cry from the screaming, obsessive, adrenaline rush of anticipation that I’d experienced seeing other favourite bands of mine, like the Manics and Mansun. But that’s one of the things I love the Super Furries for: their quietly moving, unassuming brilliance.
“After another rather short and non-atmosphere building wait the lights go down, the band come on and as if to say “try singing along with this ya bastards!” they launch into “Torra Fy Ngwallt Yn Hir”. No one sings, funnily enough. Despite being a stomping tune of the highest order it’s not really an explosive opener. Next however is “Something For The Weekend” which gets everything going despite being a somewhat slow-mo version which prompts a mass of no doubt ironically waved arms in the chorus. Was it possible “Hometown Unicorn” next? Not a clue, but what does it matter, for if it was that song, or “Frisbee”, or some old B-side I’d never heard before, it was undoubtedly having the same effect of blasting my brain sideways with the way they’ve plucked perfect pop songs from the most unlikely corners, slamming together preposterously implausible disparate elements into tunes to die for.”
Despite being down the front, I experienced no massive crush or risk of being KO’d by airborne corwdsurfers that night. “The main source of discomfort came from being constantly pushed farther and farther to the right, so whereas I started very near the centre I was very nearly out the emergency exit by the end.”
SFA were a very different kind of band to my usual faves. I tended to gravitate towards the glam side of indie where more image-conscious bands dwelt, subverting norms of gender and sexuality. The Furries possessed none of this, and I found myself pondering how I could love them so much despite this.
“It could be said that the band lack charisma and sparkle. And if it were said, you would have to reply “yes they surely do”. But that’s just the band members themselves. The songs, on the other hand, and the peerless unaffected glory of Gruff’s voice, contain all the charisma and sparkle the galaxy can hold. By the sheer beauty of his voice Gruff is not by any means an inconsequential frontperson, and I was rather disappointed when it turned out he was standing to the left and I was sliding ever rightwards. In fact with a few hairstyle therapy sessions both Gruff and the diminutive yet dazzling guitarist I was standing in front of could be transformed into something resembling Pop Stars. As they were however I was sometimes mildly amazed that I could be rapidly morphing into a rabid fan of such a visually unintriguing band. Until they launched into the next song and I’m grinning like, well, a happy person and thinking “stuff image!” “
And as for the songs, the classics came in droves.
“A random glance at their set: “Gathering Moss” the most gorgeously sad, heart-tearingly resigned hymn to hibernation. The lazy, loping anthem that is “Down A Different River”. “She’s Got Spies” swinging from an annoyingly silly album track to the best chorus’ed tune ever. “If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You” is painfully short and yet seems to contain the breadth and beauty of the universe within its three minutes. “Play It Cool” is just simply a startlingly great Pop Tune with excellently silly “bah bah bah bah!”s and an even more excellently silly attempt by Gruff to play two guitars at once (and he succeeds!)”
But my absolute favourite was “Demons”: “A couple of thousand people singing “clarity just confuses me, the lines drawn on a map a strange assembly” was a resoundingly life-affirming moment. A pair of extravagantly Mexican trumpeters do the brass break and the crowd erupts at the first parp. “By the year four million our skins will be vermilion”: this must be the only band that could have me contemplating the particular divinity of our dimly lit primitivity whilst crushed between the barrier and the by now highly excitable throng.”
The main set reached its end in a vibrant crescendo of melody and mayhem. “For “Download” Gruff abandoned the guitars altogether and sat down for a bit before dejectedly wandering the stage singing of the endless inevitable prevalence of evil and injustice, the piano spiked and piercing as its plaintive refrain rings around the room. Then everything is rallied back into righteous resolution with “Mountain People”. Indeed it is a mountainous tune, all jagged peaks of icy indignation, alienated, alienating, but most of all moving: “They don’t care about you and me obviously hand me down culture waiting for the vulture… one last chance at ignorance no fat chance”. It dissolves into a blast of tribal techno with the drummer throttling kettle drums with just the keyboard player and bassist accompanying.”
And then, after Gruff and co had exited the stage briefly to change their t-shirts, it was time for “a blistering rockout of an encore. Rapid rolling drums bring on the demented and indeed batty “Chupacubras” followed by the equally rockin’ “Bad Behaviour” with green lights a-riot. Next was one called I think “Sleep Deprivation” which I recognised from Reading, followed by “God! Show Me Magic” which lived up to its evangelical title by evolving into something of a call and response, as we all hollered “GOD!” while the band replied with “show me maaagic”. “
And all that was left was a final, turbulent rendition of “The Man Don’t Give A Fuck”, though being as I was relatively new to SFA fandom, it seems I didn’t know the title of the tune at the time. “Finally Gruff sits down for a subdued strum of a pretty little tune which quite explosively Jekylls itself into a full-on throttle of “you know he don’t give a fuck about any one else!!” and even the too-cool-to-breathe teenage boys next to me are leaping about and singing gleefully. It is the inevitable glorious closer and for several minutes after the band have left that profane refrain rockets about the room as the lights go beyond seizure-inducing and commence having seizures themselves. When it all veers suddenly into silence the thrilled throng throttle their throats in celebration of the genius on display.”
It may not have been a gig to inspire me to obsession levels in the way some of my previous gigs had, like Mansun at the Kilburn National the previous April, but I left the Forum that night feeling certain that the Super Furry Animals were a band I would love for many years to come. And I was right. I may not have followed every single album or tour, but I saw them for the 9th time in 2016, performing “Fuzzy Logic” and “Radiator” for their 20th anniversary in December 2016. And that was a gig that filled me with warmth and wonder at their unaffected brilliance. Just as it had been in October 1997.
“Another gig, another triumph for pop music as the ultimate meaning of life. I’ll commit myself to be in and out of every tree (which I think I am already anyway) and look forward immensely to the 13th of December…”
…which was when I was due to them supporting Blur at the Brixton Academy. But that was my gig no. 30, and a story to be told in another blog post, coming soon.