Mwng, Super Furry Animals, Domino Records, various formats
The great hall at Cardiff University feels much fuller than its capacity. People are deliriously whistling and chanting ‘Super Furry Animals/ SFA OK’ over and over again (a lyric from 1999’s mantric, ‘Wherever I Lay My Phone (That’s My Home)’), and it feels like a long time since I’ve been to a gig where the atmosphere is this crazily intense. When the five band members finally appear on stage amid a flurry of feedback and radio frequency bursts and begin to play ‘Rings Around the World’, the room quite simply combusts.
In the six years since SFA last played together, lead singer Gruff Rhys has become something of a legendary figure, releasing four albums, two outstanding documentary films and even a highly regarded book. Indeed on the eve of this Bank Holiday weekend of celebratory reunion gigs in Cardiff, Literature Wales announced that Rhys’ book ‘American Interior’ has been shortlisted for non-fiction work of the year. Rhys’ status as a latter day renaissance man has undoubtedly added something to the cachet of the Furries’ reunion because although they have been away for only six years, their reputation – which it could be argued was at something of a low ebb at the time that they went on hiatus – seems to have risen in their absence, perhaps in direct relation to Rhys’ ever growing stature.
Of course the Furries were always a legendary band to those that loved them and tonight is a welcome and mind-meltingly brilliant reminder of the breadth and daring of the music that characterises their nine albums to date (the only quibble of the evening perhaps being that their last two, commercially less successful records, Hey Venus and Dark Days/ Light Years are entirely overlooked). They play fan favourites such as ‘Demons’, ‘Ice Hockey Hair’ (typical sample lyric: ‘now that you’re here tell me you’re a non-believer oh-oh-ho-oh-oh’) and ‘Northern Lights’ early on in the set but frankly almost every song is a crowd favourite, as the closing assault of ‘International Language of Screaming’, ‘Fire in my Heart’, ‘Mountain People’ and ‘The Man Don’t Give a Fuck’ succinctly illustrate. Midway through they play four songs in a row from their Welsh language album Mwng. These superb Welsh language songs are altogether more sombre than the majority of the Furries’ oeuvre and might, for another band, provide the audience with a convenient gap within which they could pop to the bar, but everyone in the room is evidently an enormous fan, and the chance to hear these rarely heard songs played live is greeted not only with the rapt attention it deserves but with whooping and dancing too.
Of course, the main reason for these reunion gigs is the fifteenth anniversary of Mwng (meaning ‘Mane’ in English i.e. ‘an extension of a Super Furry Animal’), the biggest selling Welsh language album of all time (a feat that resulted in the band being lauded in the House of Commons). The long unavailable album has finally been rereleased, complete with a live recording of their famous All Tomorrow’s Parties show from 2000, where the band played the record in its entirety.
I was at that show and listening back to the live recording of it is not only to nostalgically revel in what was a revelatory evening but is also to be forcibly reminded of the extraordinary and subversive achievement that Mwng represents. To headline an internationally respected festival in England with a set list of Welsh language music would have been unthinkable before the Super Furry Animals came to public attention in 1996. That they were able to do this – and that they had the desire to – just four years later, at the very height of their fame, while also releasing an album that is comprised entirely of Welsh language songs, vividly illustrates why they are such an important band. Why? Because they clearly believe that music transcends language and that people essentially buy music because it’s good rather than for other, more prosaic reasons. The Super Furry Animals are internationalists at heart. They are also more punk than the Sex Pistols (they turn down £2 million from Coke for ‘Hello Sunshine’ and lease the song to Coke-criticising charity War on Want instead. John Lydon, meanwhile, is the face of Country Life butter – you decide who has the more integrity).
In the recent – excellent – S4C documentary about the band they recall how they decided to whistle the words to their English language songs when they played the Eisteddfod in 1996 because some of the Welsh language community had been complaining that that the group were betraying Wales by singing in English. Asides from this being a pleasingly – and typically – surrealistic response to a surrealistic viewpoint, something of the fire that underlies SFA’s seemingly beatific countenance is demonstrated by the way that they then go on to say that this negative attitude towards them contributed to their subsequent desire to release Mwng at the height of their fame (‘it was kind of a fuck you, y’know’). But even in 1996, Rhys was talking about using fame to bring Welsh songs to the world, saying that there are a lot of people who are quite happy to be in ‘some kind of Welsh language artistic ghetto’, a position that the Super Furries viewed, quite rightly, as an artistically redundant one.
You only have to look at Rhys’ recent American Interior project to recognise that endangered languages are an abiding preoccupation of his work. In that film he memorably meets the last living speaker of the Mandan language – as well as a young man who is trying to learn it – and draws parallels between its annihilation and the persecution of the Welsh (and other) language(s). Importantly, Rhys, and the Super Furry Animals as a whole, are not concerned solely with the promotion and preservation of the Welsh language, they are concerned with the promotion and preservation of all languages. And in this sense, language is a shorthand term for culture and individuality because what SFA are most against is corporate homogeneity – something which the near universal use of the English language could, in one sense, be seen to parallel.
Back at Cardiff University this is an ethos which is brought home by one more song from Mwng, the spectral ballad/ space rock odyssey, ‘Gwreiddiau Dwfn/ Mawrth Oer Ar Y Blaned Neifion’ (translation: ‘Deep Roots/ A Cold Mars on Neptune’), a mournful song that Rhys has described as being informed ‘by a sad piece of land…’, before going on to say that he had ‘wept it rather than sung it.’ Not long after this the band close with two of their earliest and most beloved songs, ‘Mountain People’ (1997) and ‘The Man Don’t Give a Fuck’ (1996). ‘They seek us in the Valleys/ They seek us in the plains/ They own the milk and runny honey/ But we’re not quite the same/ …In the dark we make sparks/ Sooo you-you-unique’, addresses the plight of the miners, the Welsh language and persecuted cultures everywhere. Indeed as the full-to-bursting audience leapt as one, fists raised, to shout ‘You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else!’ the evening more took on the fervour of a political rally than a gig. It certainly felt as though we were at the start of something rather than at its close, which is only appropriate for a band that have always been defined by their restless creativity. Here’s hoping that these reunion shows also constitute a beginning rather than a summation. The Super Furry Animals are a band we need in these straightened times.
Image by Dean Lewis