Furniture — The Wrong People
Furniture’s ‘The Wrong People’ is so good, it’s hard to know where to start. Its 11 songs are distinctive, brilliantly sung, played and arranged, smart, hooky, quotable and ambitious, veering from undiscovered jazz ballad classic ‘I Miss You’ to instantly memorable pop — ‘Brilliant Mind’ via the ambitious medley/collage of ‘She Gets out the Scrapbook’ to the form breaking ‘Pierre’s Fight’.
It’s also hard to categorise. Furniture were never part of any trend or scene. They just did their own thing. They weren’t trying to copy anyone and had no aspirations towards a particular sound. They just wanted to make great music.
For me if they have any kinship at all it’s in inexact parallels with accidental peers. The hidden smartness of their music makes me think of the likes of Lloyd Cole, Prefab Sprout and maybe even the Smiths, but they weren’t a guitar group, although they used guitars, and they didn’t wear their skill on their sleeves and they were different from song to song.
Music offers many axes of possibility but very few, particularly in the world of popular music take advantage of everything. There’s melody, dynamics, arrangement, lyrics, structure, rhythm and delivery. Furniture used everything. They put twists both small and significant on standard forms and used the resources they had as fully as they could.
Furniture had a solitary chart single, 1986’s ‘Brilliant Mind’, track 3 on TWP. That hit belied a seven year history of live performances and low key independent releases. Stiff Records signed them on the basis of a demo of this song. ‘We needed a hit and we decided this was it’ remembers multi-instrumentalist Tim Whelan in the sleeve notes of their 1991 ‘Best Of’ and what a hit it was. Although it only reached number 21, it punched way above its weight for those that heard it — the video’s comments section let you see just how strongly and fondly it is recalled today.
It’s not typical of Furniture’s work because they didn’t really do typical. Have a close look though and you’ll find the things that made them special. First of all the title, and the chorus line it’s in — “You must be out of your brilliant mind”. Praise and rebuke in the same sentence — interesting. Opening lines — Jim Irvin singing “I’m at the stage / where I everything I thought meant something seems so unappealing” you’re instantly drawn in. Later we have “You’re at the stage / You want your empty words heard and everybody’s ready” and finally “No-one wants to listen ’cause everybody’s yelling…They must be out of their brilliant minds” — shifting viewpoints — sharp lyrics. Check out the intro, winding you in from the start — first the drums played by the wonderful Hamilton Lee take the lead, a subtle pattern maintained all the way through, followed by Sally Still’s pulsing bass, the two of them powering the song . There are just so many things to take in — Tim’s gorgeous added chorused guitar in the second and third verses and his instantly recognisable four note figure in the refrain; the masterful instrumental break to ‘Shame on you’ with the bass figure cleverly doubled by pizzicato violins; the dynamic ‘Shame on you’ section itself featuring Tim’s brother Larry on sax and if you listen carefully an extra two beats in the chorus every time that gives it that special twist on the ordinary. Maya Gilder’s keyboard fills are unobtrusive yet spot on and of course it’s a typically great resonant, baritone vocal from Jim (love the way it’s doubled with Tim in the chorus). They use quiet, structure the song into different sections, with different instrumentation and play with the rhythm. It’s no accident this song gets remembered.
Some say bands have the whole of their lives to prepare for their debut. Although eight of the songs on TWP hadn’t been released before, three of them had. ‘I Miss You’, track 5, is maybe the most important. Written by lead singer Jim Irvin, Tim and Hamilton in 1981/2 ‘this was the moment we thought we might be onto something’. It’s a pitch perfect break up song. Hamilton’s brushwork is a joy from start to end set against Sally’s elegant bass, Tim’s crystalline piano and Jim’s effortless yet aching vocal. It conjures up images of rainy streets filmed in black and white, a band playing to an almost empty club as closing time beckons. It could be a standard. The sax solo by session man Phil Todd is a dream with the echo of Martin Drover’s flugelhorn behind it. Although it needed twelve takes to get it good enough for producer Mick Glossop, it’s worth listening to the initial 1983 version from mini album ‘“When The Boom was on” ‘recorded in a dilapidated studio in Denmark Street’ — hard to choose between them. There’s a rare live version from a performance on ‘The Tube’ in March 1986 — ‘unknown band from west London’ — yeah, definitely something special. Detail fans — check out the way the song shifts from minor to major in the chorus, tempting to hear in it a faint mirror image of Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Every time we say goodbye’.
Track 2, ‘Love Your Shoes’, a new recording of a 1984 independent release, was the second and last single from the album. In a just world it would have been the sound of the 1986 autumn. Sparkling and spry, again, even the title pulls you in. Don’t let its brio deceive you ‘I know it’s going to rain on our party but / We mustn’t let that get us down’ Jim blithely sings ‘we’re going to have the best time / the time of our worthless lives’. Furniture use the space. Hamilton’s cool but light drum patter is set against Sally’s fluent bass. Tim’s guitar, sparingly used is as sunny as the Undertones. Everything was ready to go — the cover (look carefully) boasted Calum Colvin’s modish specially commissioned artwork and the song had more early airplay than Madonna’s ‘True Blue’ but some long forgotten dispute over marketing led to it being disqualified from the charts. They would never again have a hit single.
Still talking about side one? Is this one of the best side ones of all time. It just might be.
The first track ‘Shake Like Judy Says’ draws you in immediately and is almost the entire album in miniature, showcasing as it does the subtle elements of the band’s sound and design.It starts with with just two sustained keyboard notes and Hamilton’s hi-hat then adding Jim’s enigmatic vocal. ‘Shake like Judy says, to a potent melody / Shake off and forget, on her anniversary / Some things don’t return to hurt you any more / Shake like Judy does, till you don’t shake any more’. Sally’s sinuous bass enters and with a flourish Hamilton takes us into the body of the song. There’s more wit and invention here than in the entire careers of some artists. Multiple highlights…
Hamilton Lee’s drums. ‘The Wrong People’ is the only album in the 1000+ that I own where I hear the drums used as a musical instrument rather than just keeping the beat. Different patterns, different textures, different dynamics. Brush work. Great use of toms. Combination of drum machine and ‘real drums’. Drums foregrounded! On TWP Hamilton is an essential part of the sound in a way drummers almost never are. For me, best use of a drum kit on an album ever, flat out, no contest.
Structure. The song is carefully split into sections, the verse, the verse re-emphasised, a middle 16, a beautiful instrumental break featuring a classy trumpet solo from session man Martin Drover, a segue allowing a crescendo to the peak of the song, with the segue then repeated to the songs final climax. The sections are created using not only different melody and harmony but the way they’re arranged. The band uses its resources carefully, noting the sparing use of guitar but splashes out on additional colour with the trumpet solo and a found vibraphone.
The melody. Try picking it out on a piano and you’ll need more than just the white notes. That first chord change you hear is not the one you expect which is what makes the song special from the off. The middle 16 shifts key from minor to major to change feel.
The words. It’s hard to resist lines like ‘it’s hard to keep your balance / when the past is on parole … so organise a bunch of mindless tonics for your soul’. Beautifully sung too. A cut above.
At the heart of the album is track 4, ‘She Gets Out the Scrapbook’. A tour-de-force, it’s composed of fragments of five(?) different songs that somehow miraculously come together. ‘Best thing we ever did’ says Jim.
Although musically it’s fantastic, it’s the words I like best. ‘It all came true, but it’s not how I expected it to be, is it?/ A memory round every corner/ A ghost coming back for a visit’ ; ‘Even when you’re making love to him / My shadow’s on the wall’ ; ‘Entertain me, cause I’m bored with myself when the lights go out’. Jim and Tim share the vocals, sometimes together, the dialogue between their two similar yet different voices giving the song extra depth.
It’s more than a song. It’s a drama, it’s a story, it’s an opus. We don’t really know what it’s about — even Jim says ‘We were slightly mystified by it’, but it has undeniable power. Much is made of the serendipity of the cutting and shunting of ‘We Can Work it Out’ and ‘A Day in the Life’  but, heck, this really is up there.
It also has one of the best evocations of domesticity I’ve ever heard. ‘She’s been working late / Comes home gets on the phone / Calls up a few close friends / Gets a bottle of wine or something’. This is the way our lives mostly are — rarely brought to life in a song. ‘As the evening draws on, they sit and reminisce / She gets out the scrapbook and they say “Did we really live like this”’. Perfect. Do yourself a favour and listen to it.
I don’t want this to be a track by track exegesis — no-one ever reads them. There’s plenty of great songs to be found on side two, but it’s probably side one that sticks out for me. Having said that I would pick out ‘Let me feel your pulse’ which has a great bop style jazz / rockabilly feel, fine stick work from Hamilton, great piano from Tim and ‘Escape into my Arms’, dark and mysterious, with its stabs of hammond organ, drum brushes and beaten up piano. ‘When you hit the bottle / When you’re in a jam / The world is full of good friends / Who couldn’t give a damn’ Jim tells us and just for a second, you believe him completely.
At the end of it all we have ‘Pierre’s Fight’. I think this is an extraordinary piece of work. Just Jim’s voice and Tim’s piano for ⅔ of the track it tells us of Pierre, sitting, brooding alone at home with his ‘so called love’ ‘out all hours’. He fixes himself a drink, ‘scrambles an egg’ then listens on the radio to a fight ‘he’s looked forward to’. The fight becomes a metaphor for his life ‘the rhythm of the blows hits home’, he ‘uses his fists on himself’, and the way the piano echoes this has to be heard to be believed. Like all great stories however, it resolves upwards ‘don’t count me out, I’m not down yet, I’m coming out swinging’ and finally ‘this time, things will be different’ — one of the best closing lines ever. The song was inspired, says Jim, by a scene from the film ‘Carmen Jones’, where the hero, Corporal Joe, a fugitive from the law, is confined to a hotel room while his lover, Carmen, goes out on the town.
Jim Irvin, Tim Whelan, Hamilton Lee, Sally Still and Maya Gilder made an incredible album sometime between June and November 1986. Remarkably they made it as their record company, Stiff, was sliding into receivership. It didn’t get promoted or adequately distributed, never made the charts and didn’t show up in a single end of year ‘best of’ list. God knows what it felt like — ‘sodding terrible’ said Tim in a recent interview but somehow, against all the odds here it is — triumphant, brilliant. Maybe because unlike many bands, they really were a group, a gang. They’re still friends 30 years later.
Stiff’s collapse lost the band the momentum they might have had — there would only be one more album — 1989’s ‘Food, Sex and Paranoia’. Tim and Hamilton went on to great success with Transglobal Underground, a trailblazing act fusing world music with contemporary beats. There’s a track by track analysis of their excellent latest, ‘Walls Have Ears’ here. Jim 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 songwriting. His insightful podcast ‘Here’s one I prepared earlier’ in which he interviews songwriters is recommended and his first music in over 20 years can be found at jimirvin.bandcamp.com. Sally Still also entered music journalism and Maya Gilder lives in Australia and works for Australian National Radio. 2018 saw the re-release of ‘When the Boom Was On’ and ‘I Can’t Crack’ — two of the early independent EPs — the high quality digital downloads are recommended. After a wait of 24 years ‘The Wrong People’ was released in 2010 for the first time on CD by Cherry Red Records with some great extras. As one Amazon reviewer commented ‘buy two, and put one copy in a bank vault, it’s that good’.
 Main bodies of WCWIO & ADITL written by McCartney & Lennon respectively. With both, the middle ‘8’ was just something the other writer fortuitously had to hand at the time.
 For similar feel, if not style, see ABBA’s late career, wonderful but overlooked ‘Day Before You Came’.
 You might enjoy reading about it here
The cover of ‘The Wrong People’ was taken from an existing piece by Scottish artist Calum Colvin. It’s entitled ‘Cupid and Psyche ‘86’. Have a good look at this too.