In a new series for 2019 Wales Arts Review will be asking what are the greatest albums ever produced by Welsh musical artists? A wide selection of writers will be examining their favourites, and here John Lavin looks at Radiator by the Super Furry Animals.
When an album becomes a mainstay in your life it can be hard to judge it as merely a collection of songs. Thinking about such a record can conjure so many memories, feelings and impressions that it becomes in your mind less a pop album and more a living entity reflecting back fractured impressions of your time on the planet. There are probably only a few records released in a person’s lifetime that have that effect on them and for me, personally, one of them is without question Radiator, the politicised, restless second album by the Super Furry Animals.
When music journalists talk about the imperial phases of British groups in the nineties, they tend to suggest the obvious: Bernard Butler-era Suede, Modern Life and Parklife-era Blur and – dear God! – the Oasis of 1994–1995. They may talk about Pulp, Radiohead and the Manics too, but what they will rarely, if ever, mention is the Super Furry Animals of 1996 -1997. The band who followed the fizzing pop-folk-psychedelia of debut Fuzzy Logic with the widescreen ambition of Radiator, arguably the greatest Welsh indie rock album of the decade and, perhaps, of all time (the other contenders being the Manics’ Holy Bible and SFA’s own, Welsh language masterpiece, Mwng.) In between this, like Suede with ‘Stay Together,’ Blur with ‘Popscene’ and Oasis with ‘Whatever,’ they released one of the great standalone singles of the decade, the expletive-laden, destined to be endlessly amazing at festivals, future alternative Welsh national anthem, ‘The Man Don’t Give a Fuck.’
Named after an expression used to describe the 70s Cardiff City footballer Robin Friday (a kind of proto-Eric Cantona figure, if you will), who also adorned the front cover of the single; ‘The Man…’ contained a sample from Steely Dan’s ‘Show Biz Kids’ – ‘you know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else’ – that was repeated 50 times, or as it said on the front cover, with typical Creation Records marketing aplomb: ‘Warning! This track contains the word ****! 50 times!’ Musically and lyrically, with its embrace of techno and political protest, it pointed the way towards the more storm-laden preoccupations of Radiator. If Fuzzy Logic had seen SFA try to make a Britpop record for the Creation Records market but end up making something gloriously skewed and strange instead, then Radiator was to see more of a return to the band’s roots in the welsh techno scene and the more experimental nature of their Welsh language EPs for Ankst Records, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyndrobwllantysiliogogogochynygofod (in space) and Moog Droog. Above all, though, there was a palpable sense of heightened artistic confidence. ‘Spent some time in stormy weather/ under clouds of my dilemma,’ Gruff sang, as though purposefully changing the bands course from songs about Howard Marks and guitarist Bunf’s pet hamster for more turbulent seas.
And sure enough when the first single off Radiator was released in May the following year there could be little doubt that here was a record vastly different in scope and intent to the pop immediacy that had characterised the Fuzzy Logic singles. A song ostensibly about Einstein’s parents, it also took in Ernesto Guevera and Marie Curie (who was, of course, ‘Polish born but French bred! Ha! French breaaaad!’), the chorus of ‘Why do you do / what they tell you?’ serving to extend the anti-authoritarian message of ‘The Man…’ The sleeve, meanwhile, which depicted a young Einstein with his SFA-loving parents, was the first of the famous sleeves Pete Fowler did for the band, and a harbinger of the increasingly surreal path their artwork and dress sense was to follow.
One of the highlights of the previous year’s music festivals had been the presence of the SFA ‘techno tank’, a bright blue tank inscribed with anti-war phrases written in Welsh with a bunch of flowers sticking out of its gun hole. A tank, which, needless to say, played insanely loud techno at all times; on many occasions proving more of a draw than the bands playing the second stages. When I arrived at Reading Festival the following year the first thing I saw was two giant (40ft!) inflatable hamsters. One was made to look like a normal, kind-hearted type of hamster, the other like a Satanic hamster. How to follow up a bright blue techno tank? A giant, inflatable devil hamster may well be the only way. It was also, of course, the Radiator album cover made (into a kind of) flesh.
What to pick from an album teeming with highlights? Maybe the West Coast harmony saturated post-punk power balladry of ‘She’s Got Spies’ (‘but it’s not quite like the KGB, you see’)? A song which effortlessly manages to be both profoundly moving and profoundly exciting all at the same time. Perhaps the dysfunctional, stoned pop of ‘The International Language of Screaming’ and ‘Play It Cool’? Certainly the swooping, mariachi-flavoured ballad, ‘Demons’ – a mordant cousin of Fuzzy Logic’s ‘If You Don’t Want Me to Destroy You.’ But in all probability you would have to say that it is the closing triptych of ‘Down a Different River’, ‘Download’ and ‘Mountain People,’ that really places Radiator among the greats. It is here that the Americana influences which would suffuse much of their later work blends seamlessly with malfunctioning electronica and the Welsh Pastoralism of the quieter moments of Fuzzy Logic. ‘Stuffed to the eyeballs with God knows what… I think I might have just snorted a blizzard,’ begins Gruff like some sort of politically-engaged Noel Gallagher – before granting us a decidedly more pained perspective on the Great Britpop Cocaine Epidemic to that of the nonsense rhyming offered up on ‘Champagne Supernova’. ‘Download,’ and ‘Mountain People’ meanwhile evoke the sound of the population of the Welsh countryside vainly calling out against the materialism of consumer society. ‘There are people who think and people who don’t / And the people who don’t are the ones who have most,’ sings Gruff in a voice that sounds as old and as plaintive as the landscape he is singing about. ‘They don’t care about you and me, obviously/ No fat chance/ We’re the Mountain People.’
I said before that an album like this can seem to take on the guise of more than its individual parts. It can somehow store memories, feelings and impressions that you only think of when you hear it. Just listening to Radiator for this retrospective I was immediately bombarded with memories. My best friend dancing impromptu to ‘Down a Different River’ on top of a picnic table, bellowing the phrase ‘Meet me at the muster station!’ with a fervour for psychedelic indie music that only the very young, very drunk person can truly manage. Playing hungover board games with another friend one Sunday afternoon, with ‘Demons’ playing in the background and the TV on mute, and dimly noticing that Princess Diana had just died. Being up in my room with my first proper girlfriend and giggling dementedly at the sheer demented craziness of ‘International Language of Screaming’ b-side, ‘Foxy Music.’ Standing spellbound at a gig in London during the melancholic mariachi trumpet section of ‘Demons’, the two trumpeters coming to the front of the stage, dressed inexplicably as a bride and groom.
Great music, like any great art, has the power to trap time within it, which is to say that it has the power to convey a sense of what it was like to be alive at all the different times that you came into contact with it. It is an intangible, mysterious quality that Radiator – without a doubt one of the classic Welsh albums – has in spades.