Food, Sex and Paranoia by Furniture
Furniture are best known for their single ‘Brilliant Mind’ which spent six weeks in the UK Top 40 during the summer of 1986, peaking at number 21. At the time, the band were poised to build on years of work — they had been playing together in various forms since 1979 with a fascinating collection of independent releases to their credit. Unfortunately, to say the least, national exposure and recognition coincided with their record company, Stiff, going into bankruptcy. ‘Brilliant Mind’ should have been even more successful, but problems with distribution meant sufficient copies simply didn’t reach the shops.
As Stiff slipped into administration, Furniture managed to record a ravishingly wonderful album ‘The Wrong People’ whose initial pressing of 30,000 copies sold out even though the album failed to chart. Despite widespread airplay, an upbeat, sparkly single — ‘Love Your Shoes’ also failed to chart due to further difficulties with record distribution. ‘The Wrong People’ was deleted, meaning it became unavailable in the shops. Stiff’s assets were bought by ZTT, the label behind 1980s phenomenon Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Furniture became trapped in a legal limbo. ZTT declined to develop new material Furniture presented to them, but also refused to release them from their contract. It took three years before the situation was resolved, allowing Furniture to sign to Arista records in 1989. During the summer of that year, they recorded what was to be their final album together — ‘Food, Sex and Paranoia’. A darker and more sombre album than its predecessor, neither it, nor the accompanying singles ‘Slow Motion Kisses’ and ‘One Step Behind You’ made a mark on the charts. Shortly after release in February 1990, it too became unavailable and has remained so to this day, with the band quietly going their separate ways later that year.
It’s a fabulous album — that it was not widely appreciated critically and commercially at the time is saddening — from the point of view of both the band themselves, and their listeners. Its lack of success was not a fatal blow, but it was wounding. Thirty years on, there’s not much to be done about it, but maybe, in writing this I can highlight an overlooked work, and an overlooked group in the hope that latterly, just a little more of the appreciation they should have received can be accrued.
If you came to ‘Food Sex & Paranoia’, if you came at all, you would have travelled via ‘The Wrong People’ and you would very likely have been confused. The 1986 album is very striking visually — the cover has a ‘pop art’ aesthetic in its choice of Calum Colvin’s “Cupid and Psyche ‘86”, with bright colours and mixed casing highlighting the band’s name. Inside, the music too is exuberant, bright and exhilarating with the band confidently flexing their muscles, full to the brim with talent and plans for the future.
‘Food, Sex and Paranoia’ is a different beast. The cover is composed of dark colours, the meaning of the striking cover image is elusive . The sound is denser and more subdued, the lyrics are predominantly downbeat, mostly concerned with failed love affairs and the tempos are reduced. But to conclude ‘not the same band’ is misplaced. Being the ‘same band’ is not something Furniture ever wished to be and the recordings they have left us bear this out. The album takes time to grow on you, but hopefully grow on you it will.
It would be easy to conclude, with the benefit of hindsight, that Furniture were bloodied and beaten by their travails but that is not what this record tells us. During their period of limbo, Furniture took the only option open to them, they toured. Unusually, they didn’t tour the UK, or the US or other countries where British acts might normally seek an audience. Instead they found themselves in Egypt, Jordan and Cyprus courtesy of the British Council. It must have gone well as they were asked to visit Greece, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia the following year.
They came back with their eyes opened, newly inspired and stage skills honed. The sound of this record is the sound of a band playing together. In particular, the four months spent in New York while performing overdubs and mixing at producer Mike Thorne’s Greenwich Village studio are recalled as ‘sheer bliss’. Everything clicks and everyone plays their part. Subtly there is confidence and swagger. The melodic line is effortlessly shifted from one voicing to another, vocals are shared, the songs are a heady brew of invention.
We can, and will, tease apart the different elements the band bring to bear — the vocals, the lyrics, arrangements, structure, the playing, the melody, but at the heart of it all it’s the drama the band create that makes this such a compelling and fascinating listen. Each song is like a short story or a photograph and the music plays it out on a cinematic scale.
My favourite song on the album is ‘Friend of a Friend’ — the penultimate track. On the CD (the way I’m listening to it) you get the ‘extended version’ and I’m glad you do — I wouldn’t want this cut down in any way.
Jim Irvin, Furniture’s principal vocalist, takes the lead for a song which examines the comic staple of the ‘friend of a friend’ date, but casts aside the mirth and seaside humour. The track is a genuine emotional experience, seen from both sides — the person who is ‘not ready’ and the other luckless enough to be on the other side. A careful listen allows you to isolate the skill with which the drama is set up and navigated, from the simple beginning (quiet congas), with the addition of the the harpsichord melody line and sinuous bass, to a wonderful first euphoric instrumental peak about two minutes in, which then plateaus to ‘Found in the arms/of a friend of a friend’. Along the way Furniture stop and start the song, change direction, introduce unfamiliar instrumentation (including a frequent band favourite, the vibraphone) and feature a loud clattery drum passage from ace in the hole drummer Hamilton Lee, reminiscent of The The’s ‘Giant’ before neatly concluding with the congas at the end. I count 22 separate phases in this six minute song — but the listener doesn’t notice — the song meshes and flows on its journey between the silence bands. It’s the only song credited to the entire band on the album and I like to think of it as a real group effort, everyone sharpening their edge and then removing the scaffolding.
Cut from similar cloth is ‘A Taste of You’. It starts with a simple keyboard figure before Tim Whelan, who takes the lead vocal this time takes us straight into the picture with ‘This town … doesn’t look the same / They’re going to give cleaning up the streets a bad name / The arcades and clubs have been shut down / Now there’s rows of fancy restaurants … and they don’t want me around’. One of many things I like about the song is he then pivots unexpectedly to ‘Come back to me’ and we are suddenly in entirely different territory. From here, Tim vocally ups the ante and doesn’t stop. There’s a middle section which sounds like it’s the top of the song (‘And you know when they love you/They’re going to squeeze you out’) which turns out not to be the final summit- there’s two more steps to him singing his heart out on ‘Come on over sorrow/Stay a week or two/My life is filled with nothing and I/Need a taste of you’ — beautifully returning to ground with ‘Come back to me’. The song doesn’t end there, the outro is every bit as dramatic, building again to a high point, fading as the drama continues to climb. Along the way, glocks, vibraphones and mysterious bell-like chimes enrich the texture beautifully.
So, mostly break up songs — it’s true — seven of them are. But three of them are love songs — ‘Swing Tender’, ‘Slow Motion Kisses’ and ‘Love Me’.
‘Love Me’ again sees Tim take the vocal lead. It’s a beautiful but unblinking love song. He sings ‘Love me / Take what you need … If I offer you all of my life / is that long enough’ but throws in elements of uncertainty ‘are you strong enough … I want you to take control’. There’s a hint of obsession which we hear in the earlier ‘One Step Behind You’ (see below) written from the other side of a love affair. Someone out there on the internet declares this their favourite song in the world and I can see why. You hear the blood pounding when Tim sings ‘If I offer you all of my life’ and the second time he does it, Furniture take it to an exhilarating bridge. Again the band don’t let up, a mighty rush with almost funky bass, fiery guitar gives way to a wonderful outro of ‘closer and closer’ repeated while the instruments are slowly taken out of the frame. More unusual tones here in the bottle-like percussion behind the first verse — actually ‘tongue drums’.
‘Swing Tender’, sung by Jim Irvin, is maybe the most ambitious song on the album — an intoxicating combination of influences — Indian drone, middle eastern scales with the lyrics considering the cosmic and the personal ‘Dream of a universe opening up before you / Swing out to the moon on the wings, on the swings of a love that’s new’. Exotic instrumental colours, such as the Turkish electric saz at the start make the track a rewarding listen. For me it’s the track that ties best to the cover art — resembling a woman’s face emerging from the mountain ridges of the moon. Tempting to think that this song too is a product of the band’s foreign adventures although their interest in music from different cultures pre-dates even this.
Although this is already a long article, I would like to mention the enigmatically titled ‘Song for a Doberman’. A live favourite, this sees bass player, Sally Still taking the lead on a Whelan song that refracts alcohol damage through a woozy Spector like wall of sound. Although nominally the song almost has the simplicity of a country song, it is infiltrated by ghostly sounds you might easily miss, reaching a highpoint of sorts with ‘Squeeze my body till my backbone cracks/Squeeze my heart into a paper cup/Squeeze out every drop I have/And I’ll drink it until I throw up’ followed by the pathos of ‘I was in a foreign land/Trying to make a call to you/And I wanted to say hey Jack why don’t you take me back/But I just couldn’t get through’. I particularly like the russian choir-like sound on the outro with the final ‘One of Us’ ever so slightly echo-ing the refrain of ‘Subway to the Beach’.
You’ll have to stick with me because I haven’t covered the opening song — ‘One Step Behind You’. Right out of the gate it’s a declaration of intent. A pulsing epic of obsession it dates back to 1987 and was often used to close shows on the foreign tours and after. It starts with a throbbing synth before a deep piano note introduces Hamilton’s rock solid drumming and Sally’s muscular bass playing. The flourishes of the newly found Yangqin (chinese piano), and Tim’s deep tremolo guitar take us into almost chanted vocals — I’m moving, I’m not going to rest till I find you / I’m travelling one step behind you. It’s not until nearly a minute in that we get the verse, with Tim as the singer. The song is a masterclass in structure, reaching a climax more than once, and with a beautiful solo section with guitar/yangqin giving way to drums/bass and then vibraphone (a favoured Furniture instrument)/guitar — you can imagine them trading lines on stage. The outro isn’t a fade it continues the tension and ratchets it up.
More up-tempo we have ‘Subway to the Beach’ and ‘A Plot to Kill What Was’. I can imagine ‘Subway’ tearing up a storm when played live, particularly enjoying the way Hamilton cuts loose on the drums not once but twice, again with the outro being a build not a fade, going out with a bang not a whimper. ‘A Plot to Kill’ is a clever lyric from Jim — the remembered affair is free of the negative ‘Separate the sunsets/Banish all the clouds … The times they didn’t like your gifts/The rows that weren’t just lovers tiffs’.
They’re all great songs — ‘Slow Motion Kisses’ with its long languid intro, limpid bass line, great vocal, liquid guitar solo and ‘On a Slow Fuse’ is a move into 6/8 territory with Jim singing some of the album’s most aching lyrics ‘I took it for granted, we wouldn’t get what we wanted … I wasn’t complaining, but then I wasn’t doing anything’. It features a great hammond solo, steel pans and some lovely brush work from Hamilton.
I’ve saved the final track for last. Positioned as an epilogue after ‘Friend of a Friend’, ‘Hard to Say’ is a precision miniature. It starts with a haunting piano phrase repeated throughout the song, shortly after joined by Jim’s vocal and some exquisite rolling toms from Hamilton. It’s a knockout vocal from Jim and one of his most affecting lyrics — ‘So I’m/Just a footnote in your history book/So I’m just a second in your day/But in that moment does your heart leap into your mouth/Or is that Hard To Say’ with the shades of meaning of the title cleverly explored. Find it and listen to it. The song almost falls apart in the middle with cleverly resolved dissonances and a wandering organ solo before ultimately resolving to an uplifting final chord.
That’s right. Every song is great. You can’t buy this new any more, or find it on Spotify, but you can seek it out on EBay or similar. Spend what you can afford. Hopefully you won’t regret it. You can listen to most of it on YouTube but you won’t get the benefit — it wasn’t recorded for YouTube — it was recorded at a time when music meant something.
Furniture went their separate ways a long time ago, but you can still catch up with them in various ways. Tim Whelan and Hamilton Lee formed the pioneering Transglobal Underground, still active, taking their sonic adventures further than you could imagine. Jim Irvin did some production work, recorded a fabulous album ‘Mad, Scared, Dumb and Gorgeous’ under the name ‘Because’ with Chris Ingham as well as forging a successful career in music journalism and professional song-writing. Sally Still also entered music journalism and Maya Gilder lives in Australia and works for Australian National Radio. 2018 also saw the re-release of ‘When the Boom Was On’ and ‘I Can’t Crack’ — two early independent EPs via ‘Emotional Rescue’ — a label dedicated to re-issuing great unavailable records. The high quality digital downloads are recommended — pay what you can. ‘The Wrong People’ was re-issued in 2010 by Cherry Red Records, making CD for the first time, and is worth its price many times over. I hope to write about Furniture again — please clap if you enjoyed.
 The circular plate featured on the album cover is a likeness of Lina Cavalieri, by Italian artist Piero Fornasetti. She was an opera singer and occasional film star, most active 1900–1920. She was frequently described as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ at the time. Fornasetti was so enraptured by her beauty he drew her over 400 times — the images comprising his famous series ‘Tema e Variazioni’. The plate is held aloft by a woman with her back to us.