Driving to lunch last week, the in-car entertainment was provided by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, the fabulously named Welsh band (b: 1991, d: 2006) recently featured by Mr 1537. It was the first album; a collection of EP material that – whilst not having the polish of later releases – shows their quirky creativity and fine ear for melody in a more lo-fi setting.
Strolling towards the meeting place I found myself humming the theme of Ivor the Engine. More ‘bom bom bom’-ing really, somewhere between an oboe and a bassoon, both in need of fresh reeds.
If you do not know Ivor and enjoy a peek through the time-telescope at simpler days, check it out on YouTube. To give you a flavour, the steam engine sound is a man going “Shhh-te-koof, Shhh-te-koof”. There are farms, mines and a dragon who sings in a pure alto voice. It’s easy to enjoy Ivor’s quiet charm and drowsy gentleness.
Great Uncle Les, who died in mid-2001 at the age of 96, worked in the Welsh mines before migrating to Australia. He sang, as did his brothers. At gatherings in my grandparents home they would stand around the pianola and sing “Larboard Watch” in harmony.
The last time I saw Les was after a serious health problem some three years earlier. He recovered but could not sing. When he told me I saw moisture in his eyes that was not just age and frailty. It was the only time I saw emotion in any male in my family. Then he grinned a faint, lop-sided grin. “I could have done without the stroke, Bruce”. He was a man of few words and parchment-dry humour.
His father, my great grandfather Allan, once ran for office in a local constituency in Wales. I thought I had a handbill from his campaign but alas, was unable to locate it. Family history does not record the outcome so I expect that he was not successful, but I like that he acted on his values.
In Spring 2001 (that’s Autumn to you, Northern Hemisphere friends) I was reading a sea-mail copy of Mojo. (In this context, sea-mail means three months after UK publication, by the way.)
My interest was piqued by a glowing review of the new album by Super Furry Animals, released in July that year. New or old made no difference as I’d never heard of them, but it was Album of the Month and in addition was awarded the Mojo ‘Gold’ seal of approval. Has to be good, I thought.
Andrew Male’s splendid review of Rings Around The World opens with an old psychotherapy yarn that bears repeating.
“A convicted serial killer goes to see his prison shrink. ‘Why??’ asks the shrink. ‘Because my father never loved me,’ says the serial killer, ‘he used to beat me every night.’ Troubled by his meeting, the shrink goes for a walk. In the street he meets a benevolent travelling magician making balloon animals for small children. ‘Why?’ asks the shrink. ‘Because my father never loved me,’ says the magician, ‘he used to beat me every night.’”
The themes weaving in and out of the album deal with love, loss, politics and the essential entropy of life. What will we make of this hand we’re dealt? There is always a choice.
With melancholy diffidence the voice of Gruff Rhys traverses topics that range from the challenges of millennial love (‘Juxtaposed With U’) through to Bush-era US policy (‘No Sympathy’) via pollution by mobile phones (the title track). Yet we are never hectored or lectured and for all the elegant disintegration there is a quiet hope that pervades many of these songs.
History quickly challenged this, of course, with the already unsettling cinematic dream-pop of ‘Run Christian Run’ taking on a chilling resonance after 11 September. Somehow Rings Around the World belongs to that year: post-millennium hangover, jittery uncertainty everywhere, the insistent tug of despair.
Sonically the album is lush, strange, hauntingly familiar and joltingly modern. But don’t get the idea that it’s all keening whimsy. Super Furry Animals love to thrash and startle too. They know their music history and want you to ride the soundwaves with them.
My partner’s father had been fading for a long time. His wife, dedicated to sitting by him on this last journey, was tired. Heeding the encouragement of family to take a long-planned trip to Australia, she arrived with us in November 2001.
It was while she was on a day-trip to Phillip Island to see the penguin parade that we received the call that her husband had died.
When I went to visit my father in hospital to tell him that we were going to the UK for the funeral, I joked, ‘No copy-cat dying while I’m away’.
He died three days after we returned, a few hours after his 83rd birthday.
I remember playing Rings Around The World.
‘It’s not the end of the world?’ reached out.
‘Shoot Doris Day’ was my favourite.
Not that I was burdened with grief. Yes, it was sad but he had been cleaning leaves out of the guttering six months earlier and my relationship with this difficult man was better in the last couple of years of his life than at any other time. Somehow Rings Around The World belongs to that year; shared loss, companionship, change.
I met my friend for lunch. We both chose the chicken and leek pie. There have been ups and downs over thirty years of friendship yet I was struck by how easy it seemed to ease past old differences, loosen old rigidities.
“What have you been listening to?” he asked just before we parted. Mistake. Standing on the curb of busy Nicholson Street I spurted my enthusiasm for Rings Around the World for longer than your average 7”single spins.
“Exciting, moving, lyrical, inventive,” I concluded, “It’s an album for any year.”
If you are interested in Super Furry Animals and more attuned to Ziggy Stardust than Radiohead, I suggest starting with the album after Rings Around the World. It is called Phantom Power and is a stomping, glam-infused ripper of an album. If it captures you, working backwards or forwards from there will deliver further delights.
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci “Introducing” [Mercury, 1996]
Super Furry Animals “Rings Around The World” [Epic, 2001]
Super Furry Animals “Phantom Power” [Epic, 2003]
Comments and responses always welcome