On 25 August 1997, Super Furry Animals released their second album, Radiator. I can honestly say, 25 years later, my life has not been the same since.
Super Furry Animals had been busy before Radiator. After buying a tank to blast techno at festivals and releasing an expletive riddled ode to forgotten hero football Robin Friday; they must have been asking themselves “What Next?”. The answer would be one of the most loved and enduring releases of their career.
Looking back, Radiator is clearly the start of a journey. The album would be followed by the looser, weirder Guerrilla, before the band released their magnum opus Rings Around The World. By the measure of what was to follow, Radiator is almost conventional in construction and structure. The difference is, conventional for a band like Super Furry Animalsis still pretty out there compared to their mid-90s contemporaries.
Previous album Fuzzy Logic in some ways rode the Britpop wave. All Beach Boys harmonies meets guitar band clatter—with moments of real beauty thrown into the mix. It had plenty of standout moments, including my first introduction to the band, the single “If you Don’t Want Me to Destroy You”. This single also introduced me to another staple of the Super Furry Animals releases, the Welsh-language songs. For a kid from a small town in the North of England, this blew my mind. I don’t want to sound all miserable and middle aged (I am) but The Internet Age has taken away the shock and thrill of discoveries like this. Hang on, I thought, not only does this band I like release brilliantly bonkers singles, they also have b sides that are incomprehensible to me even though I still try and sing along. At the time, how else was an 18 year old armed only with a Library Card, 4 TV channels, and no internet supposed to discover these things?
Radiator as a whole feels like a conscious decision by Super Furry Animals to cast aside the trappings of the cultural touch points of the time, namely the retro attitude of Britpop. At the time, Britpop was well into its stride and only mere months away from fizzling out in a haze of last hurrah’s (think The Verve releasing Urban Hymns) and come down LPs (think Pulp releasing This is Hardcore). Indeed, Radiator—on reflection—is an album that sounds light years away from Fuzzy Logic and Britpop. Not better, exactly, just different.
Radiator is, in many ways, a really personal album for me, as well as an album of firsts. This was the first time I had ever seen Pete Fowler‘s amazing art work (I told you—it was a small town) for example. More importantly, Radiator was the Soundtrack to my move out of the family home to Manchester for the start of University life. Singles “Herman Loves Pauline” and “The International Language of Screaming” preceded both the album and my move. By the time the time LP had been released, I was trying to hide the small town boy and reinvent myself as a worldly-wise city kid (I failed by the way) and Radiator was the soundtrack to it all.
The discordant keyboard of “FurryVison(tm)” marks both the start of the album and the end of the beginning for the band. Here was a band that already sounded more confident. For a minute and half, we are introduced to a new version of Super Furry Animals. The gentle lament of strings and keys rising and falling and each second sounding more ethereal and otherworldly than the last. A far cry from the hedonistic heights of earlier singles such as “Something 4 the Weekend”. “FurryVision(tm)” quickly gives way to the clatter of drums and bass and the Valentine Strasser-referencing “Placid Casual”. There the band go again, confusing the 18-year-old me. Who was Valentine Strasser? Where was Sierra Leone (small town, remember?) and why are these references in a pop song?
Second single “The International Language of Screaming” is Super Furry Animalsmagic. All seemingly nonsense lyrics and “La La La”s. It encapsulates the sense of fun and warmth that threads all the way through the album. In among this frivolity lies some real truth (“Every time I look around me everything seems so stationary, it just sends me the impulse to become reactionary). Perhaps itself a riposte to the backwards looking Britpop movement. Juxtaposed with this (no pun intended) is “Demons”, the albums fourth and final single. A straight up “slow one”, the conventional nature of which is undercut in the middle by a mariachi band and at the end by some simple banjo. All this held together by singer Gruff Rhys admitting “Clarity, just confuses me.” A rallying cry for the weird and wonderful.
“She’s got Spies” is almost a love song. The gentle verses giving way to a KGB and CIA (I had heard of them) referencing Fuzzy Logic-style glam chorus. If “She’s got Spies” is all Cold War paranoia and worries about the Four Minute Warning system, “Play it Cool” is a warning about the rise of the buy-now-pay-later consumerism of modern society; a warning clearly lost on a naive University Student spending his Student Loan in the pubs and clubs of Manchester.
“Herman Loves Pauline” is the album’s center point in every sense. It’s hard, looking back now, to communicate just how much of an impact this song had on me. Whilst all my friends were broadening the Britpop palette with Big Beat or Trip Hop; so far my tastes had remained conservative. “Herman Loves Pauline” split the musical world right open for me. It was like nothing I had heard before or since. Where most bands of the time, upon reaching their second album, were already writing songs about the grind of touring and misery of fame, singer Gruff Rhys turns this treadmill into the hunt for new experiences: “Down at every 24-hour garage, or any service station, I live my life in a quest for information.“ It also contains, to my ears, one of the most hilarious puns in music thanks to a Marie Curie reference.
“Chupacabras” is the sound of a band having loud, noisy fun. It’s also the song that introduced me to mythical giant bats from South America that eat goats. “Torra fy ngwallt yn hir” continued the Super Furry Animals’ determination to have Welsh-language songs incorporated as part of their mainstream success. Incidentally, a determination that would see them top the British charts with Welsh Language album, MWNG, a few years later.
The final suite of songs, intentionally or otherwise, are all shot through with the band’s now trademark melodic melancholy. “Bass tuned to D.E.A.D” and “Down a different River” both seem to deal lyrically with heavy thoughts whilst the music ebbs and floes underneath before both deliver killer choruses. “Download” again returns to the familiar theme of technological advances at the expense of the human soul. Finally, “Mountain People” is the sound of a band let loose on their version of the Epic Album Closer. And they deliver. It’s a melancholy, staggered lament, a sweeping Cowboy Western that threatens to overwhelm your senses.
Radiator still delivers 25 years later. It is still a regular feature of my turntable and I still recommend it as the Super Furry Animals album. It sounds as fresh today as it did all those years ago and, like all the best albums, it unlocks memories and thoughts of a totally different time and place. Most importantly, it taught me a thing or two about myself. Lessons I didn’t even know I needed to learn. But I am glad I did.