20 Years of Rings Around the World

‘It was 20 years ago today…’

That was the iconic opening line belted out by Paul McCartney on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 as The Beatles introduced the world to the wonders of psychedelia.

Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and a similarly inventive and constantly evolving group were making waves with their madcap, idiosyncratic ways from driving a techno tank into festivals to hangin’ with Howard Marks.

After a couple of typically bonkers EPs released via Ankst in 1995, the Furries soon caught the eye of Creation Records – home to the likes of Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub – as well as Oasis, who were about to catapult the label to stratospheric heights.

In 1993, Alan McGee had spotted the Burnage band at King Tut’s in Glasgow, and two years later the Scottish svengali was similarly smitten at first sight with the Super Furries at the Camden Monarch club. Swiftly adding the band to his ranks despite not understanding a word they were saying, he famously implored them to sing in English – only to be told they already were!

From 1996 – 99, Super Furry Animals realised a trio of perfectly crafted pop-rock gems in Fuzzy Logic, Radiator and Guerrilla before the demise of Creation Records at the turn of the millennium. The Welsh language masterpiece Mwng was eventually released on the band’s own Placid Casual label in May 2000.

Still signed to Creation’s parent company Sony, the Furries’ fifth album would be released by its subsidiary branch, Epic. Living up to its label namesake, Rings Around the World was a suitably stunning 12-track collection and the band’s most ambitious project yet – becoming the world’s first album to also be released DVD in 5.1 surround sound.

While its songs largely started life on piano and acoustic guitar, Rings evolved at Monnow Valley and New York’s Bearsville Studios into the band’s most eclectic record. With each member within the democratic quintet contributing their own brand of genius, the end result was a kaleidoscope of psych-pop, prog-rock, electro-soul, drum and bass – and whatever style they wished to experiment with next.

Not just musically diverse, the lyrics touched upon themes of communications overload, global warming, religious cults, corrupt political leaders and even the shooting of Doris Day (with film thankfully!)

The new album would even feature none other than Paul McCartney. Unsurprisingly, their collaboration was anything but conventional.

‘It took a long time to get over your incredible ways…’

Unbelievably, it’s been 20 years already since the Furries took us on a journey starting with an Alternative Route to Vulcan Street. The level of studio trickery was immediately apparent with Cian Ciarán designing this opening track to sound as if the listener was in the middle of a carousel with the band rotating around that central point.

Regardless of all the twiddly knobs and gadgets, the songs are wholly accessible throughout. With the exception of Ciarán’s mesmerising instrumentals (A) Touch Sensitive and Miniature, a strong case could’ve been made for any of the album’s remaining 11 tracks to be singles. The three chosen Juxtapozed With U, (Drawing) Rings Around the World and It’s Not the End of the World? made the most sound commercial sense though; a decision vindicated by three chart rankings inside the Top 30.

Yet, it’s Receptacle for the Respectable that remains an undoubted centrepiece of the album. The fact that it’s still talked about in awe two decades later is also thanks to a legendary cameo buried deep within its layers.

It starts as a sunny song full of breezy melodies and Bacharach horns that could’ve been an offshoot of McCartney’s own Abbey Road. Far from Macca pounding out rhythms on his Höfner violin bass though, it’s actually the sound of Macca’s jaws gnashing on celery and carrots that you can hear through your headphones – a role he reprised from an appearance on The Beach Boys’ track Vegetables in 1967.

What other band could enlist the services of a Beatle, only to then request he records himself finishing his dinner?! Plus, there are few other groups that can transition seamlessly from Dafydd Ieuan’s softly sung section to a death metal meltdown while running riot on Pro Tools and making it all seem so natural.

The Furries had met Macca at the NME Awards where a drunk Ciarán had bent his ear into remixing some Beatles material; resulting in the Liverpool Sound Collage album in 2000. McCartney took the bizarre request to return the favour in good humour, while the Furries joked the album would sell shedloads more copies due to Beatles completists.

Speaking to Simon Price in The Independent, Gruff Rhys said: ‘When we phoned him up, he said, “You’re fucking mad, you are! You mad bastards!” But he agreed to do it. It took six months to organise. It was really cloak and dagger.”

ASMR fans will be delighted to hear that Macca’s mastications can be listened to unaccompanied for the first time ever as a bonus track on the forthcoming 20th anniversary edition of Rings Around the World.

The DVD album featured hypnotic videos to accompany each track, and the Skull God in the Nintendo-style visuals for Receptacle for the Respectable ended up becoming the central character of Pete Fowler’s main artwork.

Speaking in Ric Rawlins brilliant book Rise of the Super Furry Animals, Fowler said:‘I love the landscapes of Mario – the little hills, and the way that you might see a mountain with eyes on it in the far distance. I love the idea of everything being alive and a bit weird.’

‘I used to get a bus when I first started working at my studio, and every single bus ticket I’d get I’d tear the paper to make a skull shape. I did it every time, and ended up with a box full of these skulls. You had to get the ticket, fold it in half, make the shape, tear the eyes, fold that in half and it would always come out different. It made me think differently about how I drew skulls.’

The album was mixed twice at Chiswick’s Metropolis Studios with the second time being reserved for capturing the 5.1 channel surround to be played on five speakers and a sub-woofer. After initial reservations about being viewed as ‘elitist’ (i.e. not everyone owned or could afford DVD players and sound systems), the band watched the Hollywood blockbuster Apollo 13 in style with everything turned up to 11. It turns out that you can cause structural tremors using sub-bass as they discovered when the rocket blasted off amid the band’s cries of ‘USA! USA!’

As bassist Guto Pryce explained to Ric Rawlins: ‘We found this frequency that made the building (Metropolis) shake, like an earthquake. I think it was 19Hz, which made a small quake in this massive building. The whole thing vibrated. Mariah Carey was recording upstairs. We got a huge bollocking!’

‘Waiting to capture that moment…’

Supported by the huge pockets of Sony and now on a major label for the first time, the Super Furries were expected to deliver big. Co-produced with Chris Shaw, Rings Around the World certainly didn’t disappoint and reached No.3. It was briefly at top spot in the midweek charts before the three-headed monster of Destiny’s Child swept up all in its path with Survivor, and David Gray’s White Ladder then pushed Rings down to third place. With a Champions League position secured, the album would also receive a nomination for the 2001 Mercury Prize (won by PJ Harvey with Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea).

Urban legends are never far from the Furries, and another one revolved around the album’s working title. Wherever I Lay My Phone (That’s My Home) may have provided a perfect pop tune on Guerrilla aided by the latest cutting edge software, but the group were also aware of the dangers surrounding technology. In contrast, the recording of Mwng was relatively straightforward with a focus on songwriting rather than studio improvisation (and consequently it may age the best of any of their back catalogue). Rings was the total opposite.

Mobiles were only just starting to become ubiquitous in 2001 and still a few years away from becoming the extension of our hands they would become following the release of internet-enabled smart phones. When a NME journalist visited the studio, he saw the phrase ‘Text Messaging is Destroying the Pub Quiz as We Know It’ written on an ideas wall. While the phrase was typical of the band’s sense of humour, it was never intended as a title and would’ve dated the album at its birth. It originated from a text Gruff received from a mate at a pub quiz – the brainteaser in question: ‘What was the name of the drummer in The Who?’

‘You’ve got to tolerate some of those people that you hate…’

A fortnight prior to the album’s release, Juxtapozed With U was introduced as its lead single. A radio friendly slice of soul, electro-pop and lush string arrangements, it was originally conceived as a duet with controversial stars Bobby Brown or Brian Harvey (the latter still being more famous at this point as the singer of East 17 than running himself over after a potato binge).

In the end, Gruff produced another magic moment in Furry folklore by duetting with himself by using a vocoder for the verses. Inspired by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s Ebony and Ivory, as well as 70s Philadelphia soul and its approximation on David Bowie’s Young Americans; Gruff said: “It was important that it should sound as plastic as possible. If we’d tried to make it sound authentic, it would have been awful.”

Dig a little deeper under the sheen of its pop exterior, and you’ll find a social commentary about anxiety surrounding the ever-increasing prices of the housing market and cost of living (‘Over-priced, unreal estate, surreal estate / The highest prices they’ve hit to date / Creating new divides and tension’).

Indeed, there’s post-millennial tension bubbling under the surface throughout the album. Mere moments in, we’re twice told to ‘abandon ship’ on Alternative Route to Vulcan Street, while Gruff sings of nightmares stopping him from sleeping on Fragile Happiness. Plus, the second single (Drawing) Rings Around the World references meteoric stones, the cloning of sheep and rings of radioactivity, communication and pollution that we cannot see.

The underlying feeling of uncertainty is continued on the next track and another single in It’s Not the End of the World? Superficially, it’s a sweet song about growing old. Yet, there’s angst laced through its opening line (‘When you fall asleep before the end of the day you start to worry’). Also, the addition of a question mark at the end of the song’s title turns a well-worn phrase into something more ambiguous and perhaps everything is far from ok. In fact, the song is about humanity’s self-destructiveness and the extinction of mankind. As Gruff said: ‘When people talk about saving the world they’re really talking about saving humans. The reality is that humans are the problem.’

Crank up the volume on the trippy, Stooges-sampling psychedelia of (A) Touch Sensitive and far from providing a breather between songs, its crescendo ratchets up the tension to fever-pitch. Just over a year away from the horrors of 9/11, it feels like we’re on the brink of a cataclysm.

On Phantom Power, the Furries would share their hatred of US President, George W. Bush – counting the cost of human life due to his foreign policy, and recoiling at his constant gaffes (the lyric ‘Subtle as a nail bomb in the head’ from Receptacle for the Respectable springs to mind). Yet, there’s no love lost for his predecessor either.

‘I have no sympathy for you…’

Despite its cinematic sweep mixing Burt Bacharach and John Barry with piano provided by John Cale, Presidential Suite delves into the ‘decadent 90s’ when Russian and US Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton were in office. The former’s tenure was dogged by allegations of alcoholism, while the latter’s time in the White House was most memorable for his affair with intern, Monica Lewinsky.

Lapped up and dragged out by the media, Clinton lied under oath, but still survived his second term. As horrific as Yeltsin’s policy in Chechnya and Clinton’s bombing of Syria may have been, Presidential Suite demonstrates that slights on their personal reputations are remembered more than the long-term damage of their disastrous decision-making (‘Holy wars out of lusty minutes / Another Cuban cigar crisis / Honestly! Do we need to know if he really came inside her mouth? / How will all this affect me now and later?’)

The lyric to No Sympathy is even more hard-hitting, and is quite shocking when first heard for such a band of pacifists (‘I have no sympathy for you…You deserve to die’). As the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-style harmonies cascade into a techno wig-out across seven minutes, Gruff Rhys’ lyric actually reveals itself to be about three unsympathetic characters in a film.

‘It’s an album of extremes,” Gruff said to Simon Price. “I originally wrote that song for a film called Plop about a group of people who live as if they were living their last days, and when I was watching the film, I couldn’t feel sympathy with any of the characters. I wanted them all to die. Out of context, it sounds quite aggressive.”

Equally unsettling lyrically is Run! Christian, Run! An epic, sun-kissed country-rock song performed by what sounds like a gospel-tinged Pink Floyd, it’s arguably the Furries’ finest ever album track ever next to Receptacle for the Respectable. Influenced by Gruff’s recollections of American evangelist preachers on TV combined with guitarist Huw Bunford’s interest in doomsday cult websites, it’s impossible to hear out of context now without summoning images of Jonestown and the Heaven’s Gate suicides. Wherever the victims believed their utopia would be, this context certainly puts a different slant on ‘dreaming of that perfect home by the sun.’

Understandably if all that feels a bit heavy, you can always depend on the Furries to provide some comic relief though. This couplet from Shoot Doris Day is up there with the some of the very best killer lines of their career: ‘I’ve some feelings that I can’t get through / I’ll just binge on crack and tiramisu.’

‘Wish you could see us when we’re at our best now…’

Ask any fan to select their favourite of the Super Furry Animals’ nine albums, and you’re unlikely to get a definitive response – quite simply, it’s impossible to answer when it can change daily depending on mood or a whim. If not the favourite, Rings Around the World usually ranks in the Top 3.

Likewise, it holds a special place in the band’s hearts as Gruff Rhys outlined to US music magazine, Magnet: ‘It was an extremely interesting process for us to do, a very enjoyable record. There was very little tension in the band, it was a good time.

‘The pace was slower than our previous records, and I don’t know if it was the strongest set of songs. Maybe a record like Guerrilla was more immediate, whereas Rings is more serious.

‘But it represents a time for the band. I think we were just working instinctively and trying to take full advantage of a highly unusual situation we were in because we thought maybe we’d get dropped within a year! It was pretty magical and flawed and fun.”

Neil Collins.

  • The 20th anniversary deluxe edition of Rings Around the World is out on Friday 3 September 2021.

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