Posted: April 19, 2011 in Bands
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Furniture- Lost 80s New Wave band

Today Excavating the 80s takes a look at Furniture, the New Wave band best known for their UK chart hit Brilliant Mind in 1986, but who gave us a pretty impressive series of album and single releases throughout the decade. In that very song, vocalist Jim Irvin sang the words: “You’re at the stage, when you want your words heard and everybody’s ready…” It was apt, for everybody was ready to pay attention to a band that had struggled persistently for recognition throughout the early half of the decade. It was unfortunate that the mistakes of certain record labels prevented Furniture from being heard for very long.

Most of us 80s enthusiasts know Brilliant Mind pretty well, and the song still gets played on most decent 80s radio stations and at the better New Wave club nights. But Furniture produced far more great songs than their one-hit wonder status may have many believe, and very much deserved greater success.

Though most of their better-known output comes from the late 80s, Furniture existed throughout the whole decade, forming at the tail end of the 70s and continuing through to the early 90s. The band’s lifetime was a rocky ride, but it was certainly one that left a trail of sparkling gems. Core members Jim Irvin (vocals, percussion, keyboards), Tim Whelan (guitar, keyboards, occasional vocals) and Hamilton ‘Hami’ Lee (drums) formed Furniture in 1979 in Ealing, London. Furniture spent the first half of the 1980s as a struggling Post-Punk band, releasing their first single, the excellent Shaking Story/Take A Walk Down Town in 1981 on their own independent label, named The Guy From Paraguay. The songs, driven by punchy, staccato basslines, intense guitars and shuffling melodies, brought Furniture to the attention of the underground media and they gained a cult following in their hometown of London. Money was tight however, and it was another two years before a further release from the band appeared, in the form of the mini-album When The Boom Was On on Survival Records. The band’s sound was maturing considerably by this point, as melodies became more complex and Jim Irvin’s lead vocal gained its distinctive, introspective tone that would become a key characteristic of the group’s sound. Also at this time Sally Still and Maya Gilder joined the band on bass and keyboards respectively, consolidating the line-up that would remain until the decade’s end.

1984 saw two further single releases, Dancing The Hard Bargain and Love Your Shoes, then 1985 saw the release of the self-produced EP I Can’t Crack. (Survival released an LP called The Lovemongers in 1986 compiling most of the band’s material from this period.) Synths were featuring more heavily in the band’s songs at this stage as the early Punky edginess of their sound was mellowed out, the ‘pop’ singles showcasing one side of the band while experimental tracks such as The Script showcased the other. Furniture were by this stage establishing themselves as a band capable of producing catchy and intelligent alternative pop tunes alongside deep, intricate experimental melodies; highly innovative, but still struggling and largely ignored by the mainstream.

It was 1986 when the band finally received the stroke of luck it had been waiting for. Brilliant Mind, a song which came to Jim Irvin’s mind as he got on a bus in Hounslow after signing on the dole, was to provide their key to the mainstream media. A true thinking person’s pop song, enchanting, melancholy and emotional in tone, it caught the attention of Nick “The Captain” Stewart- the man who discovered U2- who signed the band to Stiff Records after being impressed by the demo. The song was released as a single and reached #21 in the UK charts; a good position, though in a perfect world a song like this would have been number 1. Considered an era-defining song by many (and apparently one of Boy George’s favourite songs of the decade), Brilliant Mind finally brought this long-struggling band to a wider audience.

However, Furniture’s run of good luck sadly proved short-lived, for it was only a short time after the success of Brilliant Mind that the events that would lead to the band’s downfall began to occur. A re-recording of the band’s 1984 single Love Your Shoes was released as the successor. A sparkly, catchy song contrasting an upbeat melody with a pessimistic lyric about a hopeless attempt at a relationship, the song certainly had ‘hit’ written all over it- and with widespread airplay beating even the current Madonna single it was looking set to be just that, when a huge cock-up on the part of Stiff Records (which was in the midst of a financial crisis) snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and marked the end of the band’s chart career. Despite the heavy promotion and demand for the single, Stiff Records could not afford to press enough copies to satisfy demand, and the single sank without trace, failing to even make the top 75.

The band went on to record their first studio LP, The Wrong People, a splendid collection of top quality tunes continuing the band’s style of moody pop with intrepid experimentation. Stiff pressed 30,000 copies of the album, which quickly sold out, a sure indication that this was a band the public wanted to hear more of. But these 30,000 were to be the only produced copies of what was to become an extremely rare and much-sought-after album. Stiff succumbed to its financial problems, and went into liquidation, being sold to ZTT Records. Although the demand for further copies of The Wrong People was obvious, ZTT ignored this and deleted the album, trapping the band in a hopeless record contract with no chance to build upon its momentum. This set in motion a bitter series of legal battles as the band spent three years facing ZTT in the courts trying desperately to extricate themselves from the contract. The album could not have been more aptly named- Furniture, to put it simply, had been signed up with the wrong people, through no fault of their own.

It took the band until 1989 to free themselves from ZTT. By this time, they had toured Eastern Europe with the help of the British Council and built a solid fanbase there, but back at home, in their three-year absence from the charts the band had been completely forgotten. A deal was secured with Arista Records, and the band recorded a second studio album, Food, Sex and Paranoia. If anything, this album was even better than The Wrong People, moving far beyond the conventions of British pop and New Wave at the time to incorporate many Eastern influences into their work, with the use of numerous exotic instruments such as tongue drums and the yangqin zither. The singles, such as the intrepid and powerful One Step Behind You and Slow Motion Kisses still easily possessed high chart potential- even the B-sides were of a high standard, for instance the amazing International People, an Eastern-flavoured vocal duet between Jim and Sally driven along by intense exotic percussion which could easily have been an A-side in its own right. The band still clearly meant business, and creatively were at their peak- but the British media had long since lost interest by this point, and as the contrived tosh of Stock, Aitken & Waterman took over the charts while the alternative media moved onto the newly-emerged Madchester trend, the album was undeservedly ignored and vanished without trace.

Early in 1990, Maya Gilder left the band, and the other members chose to handle the keyboard parts themselves rather than replace her. The band began sessions for a third album, intended to be released on the Survival label, but another stroke of bad luck came their way and the label’s recording studio was shut down. The band nevertheless played a series of gigs throughout the summer of 1990, a notable one being a headline slot at the Reading Festival, which Jim Irvin remembers as one of the best shows of their career:

“I remember that show as being rather euphoric and we were told by the organisers that it was one of the best crowds in the tent that year – it certainly felt like a lot of people.

After the live shows, exhausted from their run of bad luck, the band decided to take a break, its members looking to pursue separate projects of their own. Their ‘break’ was to be an everlasting one- Furniture never reconvened, and the band silently dissolved as its members moved on to new- and successful- projects. Tim Whelan- who had been a member of The Transmitters alongside Furniture throughout the 80s- together with Hamilton Lee, moved on to great success with Transglobal Underground, the groundbreaking ethno-techno project that achieved massive recognition throughout the 90s and 00s and still records to this day. Transglobal Underground continued much of the experimentation with World Music that Furniture had begun towards the end of its career. Jim Irvin, meanwhile, after a brief spell with a synth-based music project, went on to become a successful journalist, together with Sally Still. He became the senior editor of Mojo magazine and continues songwriting to the present day, having written numerous songs for successful artists. Sally Still has continued her partnership with Jim, while managing various underground all-female bands inspired by the Riot Grrl movement and providing guest vocals for dance records. Maya Gilder became a producer for the BBC and now lives in New Zealand.

In 2010, after years of being a cause of much frustration for record collectors, The Wrong People was finally re-issued on CD, with numerous additional tracks. Let’s hope for a re-issue of Food, Sex and Paranoia along with the band’s earlier material.

Furniture could never be held responsible for their lack of commercial success- quite simply, they were the victims of bad luck, and major cock-ups on their record companies’ parts. They were experimental yet radio-friendly, introspective yet energetic, a true thinking person’s pop band, who like their contemporaries The Cure and The Smiths could have achieved success while retaining their own individuality, avoiding the temptation to conform to the passing trends of the mainstream. Deservedly, Brilliant Mind is well-remembered to this day and still appears on many 80s compilations as well as having been on several movie soundtracks. But it would be criminal for music history to treat Furniture as a one-song band- through just over a decade of existence, they left us a great collection of innovative and top quality material that still sounds fresh and inspirational to this day. For any die-hard music enthusiast to ignore one of the 80s’ best-kept secrets, to paraphrase Furniture themselves, they’d have to be out of their Brilliant Mind.



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