Reviews

Super Furry Animals

Doug Wallen
Super Furry Animals

Super Furry Animals

City: Philadelphia
Venue: Theatre of Living Arts
Date: 2002-04-25
The last two times Super Furry Animals played Philadelphia, the band was confined to tiny 21+ venues, despite cult status and chart success overseas. This time around, though, the Welshmen arrived with the blanket buzz of Rings Around the World, the epic new album that Britain's prestigious MOJO Magazine voted the best of 2001. Critics in the States love it too, and that, combined with glowing word-of-mouth among listeners, has finally elevated the band to considerable stardom stateside as well. And so here they were, headlining South Street's prestigious Theatre of Living Arts. There was a single opener, the Baltimore rapper known as Cex, but people mostly tried to ignore him in waiting for the Furries. Since SFA first hit the scene in the mid-'90s with Fuzzy Logic, they've been perceived as Wales' answer to the Beatles, a quirky clan of musical madmen bent on recombining genres with creative lust. On stage, they're just as dizzyingly eccentric, infusing familiar folk/pop/rock paradigms with shards of metal, garage, and techno. Leader Gruff Rhys dishes out a distinct brand of absurd lyrics, toying with language (both English and his native Welsh, sometimes within the same song) and joking about everything from Einstein to ice hockey. To coincide with the release of Rings, the band released a matching DVD containing an animated film, each by a different outside artist, for every song on the album. During the set, these films played on two large screens in the background, offering psychedelic visual thrills to match the bizarre genius of the record. The band opened with "(A) Touch Sensitive", one of the moody instrumental set pieces on Rings Around the World. Minimal and mellow, it was simply there to tickle ears a bit. Now that all the attention was on them, the Furries kicked off the set more properly with "(Drawing) Rings Around the World", a song they had performed two days earlier on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. As on record, it was spacey and slow to build, but its churning heft eventually became infectious before falling into a flurry of cell phone rings and responses. They then launched into a defining gem of their early career, Fuzzy Logic's barely two-minute "God! Show Me Magic". Set against the multifaceted sonic experimentation and social commentary of recent Super Furries fare, the quasi-Britpop anthem seemed merely serviceable, yet still catchy and nostalgic for longtime fans. Next was a brand new song about a Golden Retriever, backed by ridiculous film footage of that fine breed of dog running through a country field, all of which recalled TV's Lassie. Then came "The International Language of Screaming", a bouncing freak-out from Radiator, the band's sophomore album. Again, older fans dug it while newcomers probably found it somewhat rudimentary. "Sidewalk Serfer Girl", an off-kilter entry from Rings, may have confounded the crowd with its brash stabbing of garage riffs into a tiptoed folk-pop ditty. A shining highlight on record, it proved difficult to dance to in concert. But it was fun to behold the animated short film with a peasant lass (serf-er girl, get it?) spinning down through the clouds alongside the chorus, "I'd do anything to catch you falling." Then "It's Not the End of the World?" provided a sublime few minutes of tongue-in-cheek pop optimism, marked by prerecorded strings and Rhys's brief flirtation with falsetto. The film showed countless mushroom clouds blooming, a piece of visual/musical irony seemingly lifted from Stanley Kubrick's famous ending to Dr. Strangelove. It was followed by a quieter folk ballad from Mwng, the band's Welsh language album, the songs of which showcased a more traditional songwriting style. Still downbeat, Rhys picked up a harmonica for "Run! Christian, Run!", Rings 's sleepy song about religious indoctrination. It's a lovely bit of harmonious twang, although the crowd was more enthralled with the film depicting key quotes amidst cartoonish images of hell fire. There was an expectedly smart line credited to W.C. Fields, some statistics on the Church's treatment of witchcraft, and finally, a quiz about which sins were punishable by mortal death. Of the eight or so listed (including "making fun of a bald person"), each was eventually checked off, with the relevant Bible chapter underneath. It was a gutsy move on the band's part, which they countered onscreen with this disclaimer -- "To learn more, go to your local library. We're not here to tell you what to think. Not like them." There was much more hilarious levity to the commentary quotient of the Monica Lewinsky-inspired "Presidential Suite". Its film had missiles and cigars as phallic sight gags (with lyrical mention of "another Cuban cigar crisis"), as well as Monty Python-style paper animation. It is to the Super Furries' credit that they can create such gorgeous music around such absurd subject matter, with Rhys asking in song, "Do we need to know if he really came inside her mouth?" The bluesy "No! Sympathy" was next, couching a tirade against death penalty ("You deserve to die") within a yawning stretch of head-rolling lethargy. At one point, the players left the stage while a female kung fu fighter flew to action in the film. Next was the sultrily silly "Juxtapozed With U", for which Rhys sang into a vocoder and played keyboards from behind some tropical plants. It fit the beachy vibe perfectly, as Rhys played with language as usual -- "Just suppose I'm juxtaposed with you." All this was well and good, but everyone was really waiting for the indisputable standout of Rings, the frighteningly chameleonic "Receptacle for the Respectable". It finally arrived, as on record, in distinct segueing segments -- rollicking rock, lounge pop, and then faux metal. On record, though, Paul McCartney contributes the chomping of celery and carrots, a spoof of his historic help on the Beach Boys' "Vegetables". So, how does the band recreate that in concert? They get a roadie, of course, to come out in a cardboard Paul mask and throw vegetables at the audience. It was a genius touch and people ate it up…literally. The jetting garage steam of "Do or Die", from SFA's landmark Guerilla album, was then a nice touch, but the set was clearly winding down. Rhys soon announced the weariness of the band, only understandable, and ran through just a few more songs. The best was "The Man Don't Give a Fuck", an infamous import single filled with expletives. An exuberant middle finger to The Man, it starts slow but then erupts into the disco-raging chorus, "You know they don't give a fuck about anybody else," getting diehard fans dancing every time. Although the diatribe sounded strange now that the band is signed to a branch of Sony in the U.K., the Furries have proved time and time again that they do whatever they please, artistically or otherwise. After all, Rings Around the World is a big-budget, over-the-top, indulgent, swollen behemoth of an album, juggling genres with more nutty aplomb than can be believed. On stage, the players showed that same impressive mastery of musical forms, recreating the vast majority of Rings with a meticulous, even neurotic, ear for every sound. Still, it would have been nice to hear more songs from their prior four albums, rather than merely one from each and the rest from Rings. Guerilla especially should have been better represented. But these are just minor complaints, common when a venerable band has to whittle a set list out of so much strong material. When the players finally exited the stage, people only wanted to hear more, stomping feet and chanting "SFA." And while that may be common enough at shows, you could tell that everyone knew they weren't going to see something like this again for a long time.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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