Look at them fall, flicker and fade

I make no apology – I love Freur. I’ve mentioned them a few times here in passing but I was listening to all their records the other day and thinking I should write about them properly. So I may repeat one or two paragraphs or memories from previous posts. So shoot me. At the time of writing there’s a lot of attention on Underworld as they promote the 20th anniversairy reissue of “Dubnobasswithmyheadman”, there have been a few articles about that album (which is very very good indeed) and how Rick Smith and Karl Hyde got there from Freur. If Freur are mentioned it’s usually in a derogatory way – Look at their awful clothes and hair ha ha! They had a squiggle for a name ho ho! Weren’t they crap hee hee! But Freur weren’t that bad at all, and hopefully I can give a not too biased view of their music.

Of course Freur’s debut single “Doot-doot” was one of the two records I bought on 30th April 1983 as documented in my very first blog post many months ago. I’d discovered the song through Radio Luxembourg’s Futurist Chart on Thursday evenings, which was filled with anything new – New Pop, New Romantic, synth pop, even the Icicle Works got in there with “Birds Fly”. Then Luxembourg picked it as a power play for a week – one of the songs they would play coming out of the news on the hour. It felt like it was going to be a hit, but it didn’t quite happen. I missed their peculiar performance on “The Tube”, so had no idea what they looked like. But there seemed to be a lot of pressure on them to do well – Luxembourg would play a little promo intro where a voice would intone “Welcome to the world of Freur” before the single started (there are promo copies of the single with this). “Doot-doot” was mysterious, a bouncing drum machine and echoing guitars with ominous synth lines and choral backing vocals. It should have been a huge hit but it only reached number 57 or thereabouts in the real world charts before dropping away. But I didn’t forget it, and when I took my first trip to the newly opened HMV in Cardiff it was the first record I hunted for and bought, but on twelve inch not seven inch.

The record was just as mysterious when I got it home. An electric blue sleeve like staring at a clear blue sea, the band name being a squiggle on the left hand side, and on the reverse a band picture of five members wearing two types of matching jackets, but the whole picture was filtered so you couldn’t make out any of their faces. The twelve inch mix of “Doot-doot” was lovely, extrapolating all I loved about the song over six minutes. The b-side “Hold me mother” was faster and relentless, but went on a bit for my liking – a lot of drums banging away, someone intoning “Mother!” over and over. It could easily have been three minutes long. A week or so later I bought the 7 inch version of “Doot doot” and found both songs to be more concise but I did really prefer the twelce inch versions in the end.

June 1983 and I’m head over heels in my first crush. What I really need more than anything is a good soundtrack. Just in time, Freur decide to issue their second single “Matters of the heart”. It receives a glowing review in Adrian’s “Smash Hits” (he had a subscription to it, I just read it every fortnight) – they make it single of the week and state “The best electric love song since ‘Vienna'”. A few days later I hear it on CBC – South Wales’ independent commercial radio station. They’ve supported Freur as the band are from Cardiff and considered to be local boys. The song sounds perfect for that moment in my life and I wax lyrical in my diary about that first hearing.

The next Saturday my family take a trip to Cardiff mainly to go record shopping. We start in Woolworths on Queen Street which has quite a good record selection. It also has that week’s chart ripped out of Music Week with a huge advert for “Matters of the heart” at the top – it’s available on 7 inch, 12 inch “Dun Different” mix and square picture disc. Interesting. We cross over Queen Street to HMV (it was opposite Woolworths) and I buy two OMD singles – “Souvenir” 10 inch and “Maid of Orleans” 12 inch. Lots of interesting b-sides there, I think. Finally we reach Spillers Records and I’ve almost run out of money. I ask if they’ve got “Matters of the heart” – they have 12″ and 7″ but I’ve only got enough for the 7″ so leave with that, still quite happy. We all go home and I hurry off to listen to my new purchases.

The OMD singles were great, though I was slightly disappointed to find that “Experiments in Vertical Take-off” didn’t exist and was really “Of all the things we’ve made”. And “Navigation” was totally epic. Then I got around to “Matters of the heart”. Nice glossy sleeve, the logo and title in the top right hand corner like “Doot doot” – nice touch of consistency. The front cover looked like paint spilt on wallpaper. The back cover had a picture of the band, a live shot. They looked very odd, like outcasts from a Zaphod Beeblebrox convention – big hair, shades, outlandish clothes. But the lead singer / guitarist had a cool Gretsch.

Then I played the single. “Matters of the heart” was – and still is – utterly gorgeous. Lots of sound effects, a lovely melody, rich instrumentation – mostly synthetic but sounding oddly natural. And peculiar words – it’s kind of a love song. Nice touches throughout the song – in the first verse it’s four hearts beating as one, in the closing verse there’s a million hearts. Then flip the single over for the b-side “You’re a hoover”. And at this point I notice the single is slightly warped. Damn. It still plays but I’m annoyed. “You’re a hoover” starts with almost 90 seconds of rhythmic noise bursts – some vocal, some synthesised. Then someone shouts and screams, drums thunder and a guitar starts riffing, the song speeds along in a hurry, and the singer is trying to keep up – the lyrics are a strange mix of animalistic threats and sighs, leading to a glorious chorus “It all seems much wiser (the madhouse scream) to live in the dance machine”. Then a guitar solo, then a final verse and the song keeps chugging along before fading. I thought it could go on forever.

I spent the next week playing those three singles and staring at my crush as she played tennis and I helped out with athletics. (There is a little article about me and school sports here, so as not to disturb the flow of this piece). It was all part of that perfect summer feeling. But there was something nagging in the back of my mind – I wonder what the twelve inch version is like. So a week or so later I returned to Spillers and asked for it. “Oh that Freur record’s been recalled and they’ve been dropped by CBS” I was told. A month or so later that square picture disc started appearing in the back pages of “Record Collector” magazine for silly money. But the picture disc of “Doot doot” was still reasonably priced and became the first record (of many) I bought from that magazine. Still looks lovely too, a big squiggle through clear vinyl.

So that was the end of Freur, or so I thought. In October 83 my family popped to Cardiff before taking my brother to a dentist on Cathedral Road to have a brace put in. We did the usual tour of record shops – Spillers, Hippo, Our Price, Virgin. HMV – and in the latter I idly flicked through the ‘F’ section of seven inch singles and stopped dead. The last thing I was expecting to see was a new single by Freur. They were now reverting to a name rather than a squiggle on the sleeve (but the squiggle was still on the reverse along with the words) and the cover looked less vague – blood red background, a posed picture of the band. They still looked weird – two short haired chaps in leather, two long haired chaps in strange clothing and one more slightly balding chap looking menacing. An odd bunch indeed. They clearly weren’t going to be sex symbols like Kajagoogoo. I rushed to the till and bought it, not even thinking of the twelve inch. I was slightly disappointed to see that the b-side was “You’re a hoover” again. Then the long wait until we got home to see what this new single was like.

For a start it was called “Runaway” which was quite normal. The song itself was normal too – a conventional pop song even. A saxophone, a Hammond organ, a chugging guitar rhythm, a “Can’t live with you or without you” lyric. Normal normal normal. But the chorus was a glorious pop moment, full of melody and thumping drums and odd voices. Very good indeed. In fact it was totally unlike any other single at thet time – Freur were somehow making unique music around the New Romantic / New Pop / synth pop templates available to them. And “You’re a hoover” was slightly different – the initial 90 seconds of silly noises was lost and an extra 90 seconds of chugging guitars was added at the end. If only I’d known that the twelve inch version was the whole song from noises to chugging.

Finally CBS decided to issue a Freur LP just before Christmas 1983 cunningly entitled “Doot doot”. Another cool blue sleeve, with an inner sleeve full of lyrics and pictures of each member looking moody. So now I knew who did what – Karl was singing and playing guitar, Rick was playing keyboards etc. There were the three singles on there amongst the ten songs. And I received the LP as a Christmas present and was quite disappointed by it. The three singles had been intriguing, original and quite brilliant in different ways from each other but the other songs on the album didn’t live up to the promise of the singles. “Riders in the night” has all the sequenced propulsion of Ultravox but attached to a song about – well – long haulage truckers by the sound of it. “Theme from the film of the same name” tries to be clever and post-modern in terms of a narrative about filming a scene but meanders tunelessly. “Tender surrender” can’t decide if it’s rock or a ballad and has decidedly bonkers lyrics involving hoovers, animals, leather and lace. There’s more of that kind of thing on “Steam machine” – there’s an odd steam-punk lizard sex cult vibe – “We animals gotta stick together, there’s nothing like steam for polishing leather”. Oh stop it Karl! The whole vibe isn’t helped by the credit on the sleeve that all the band’s clothes are provided by Lizard Life, whoever they were! Maybe they’re trying to be ironic or tongue in cheek but it doesn’t work. “My room” is about seducing someone and is creepy. “It’s all too much” looks at fame and hangers-on but finds it wanting and empty. Worst of all is “Whispering” which tries so hard to be Japan – imagine a mish-mash of “Nightporter” and “Ghosts” only without the imagination or atmosphere of either song. It’s unfortunate that such a poor song gets Karl’s most passionate vocal performance. As an album “Doot doot” is a great place to collect the three singles but little else. However a few months later I bought the cassette which had the “Dun Diff’rent” twelve inch mixes of “Doot Doot”, “Matters of the heart”, “Hold me mother” and “You’re a hoover” as extra tracks – at last the full five minutes of the latter song.

Did “Doot-doot” the album sell well? I don’t remember it doing well at all and it could be found in many a bargain bin by the summer of ’84. CBS reissued “Doot doot” as a single but it still didn’t get anywhere near the charts, neither did “Riders in the night” issued that Spring. Again there was a twelve inch single, a longer mix of the song (yawn) but two b-sides showing a way forward. “This is the way I’d like to live my life” was barely two minutes long but was more interesting than half the songs on their album. The lyric felt more truthful for a start, but the song was only a sketch of a synth sequence and strings. “Innocence” was six minutes of pounding drums, doomy church organ, strange noises and a vocal torn between sex and chastity, it seems.

Finally at the end of 1984 Freur issued some new material. CBC were the first to play the new single “The Devil and Darkness” and it sounded light years away from their previous material. It received quite a lot of radio play but didn’t trouble the charts. I finally bought it a few days after Christmas ’84 (also buying “Life’s a scream” by A Certain Ratio and a Casio VL-tone) and this time plumped for the twelve inch and I’m glad I did. Interesting sleeve image for a start – the crazy clothes and hair have gone, replaced by a sort of rustic farmworker look – white shirts, black trousers, short hair, hats. The a-side’s extended mix (by Kevin Whyte – feeds name into discogs, goes ‘oh right fair enough’) extrapolated all the good things from the version I’d heard on the radio and made it even better. But the b-side was wonderful. “Jazz is king (?)” drifts along for seven or eight minutes, building up layer and layer slowly. And finally it sounds like a real band – they’re lightly taking the mickey out of an idea of cool jazz, lots of cymbals counting time, synths being unobtrusive, a piano slowly getting more angular, snippets of speech fragments fed through echo boxes and Karl Hyde singing about an imaginary jazz club scenario where beards look neat and the drummer’s swinging and so on, his voice smeared in echo. It’s quietly hilarious. Towards the end he sings lines from “The In Crowd” in his normal voice, before singing the lines again in a high nasal voice before shouting into the echo chamber “THANK YOU LAMB CHOP!”, then sampled vocal tones join in, the piano gets crazier and the band collapse, you hear members shouting across the studio “Finished”, then a high pitched noise takes over. Very odd but very great. And I honestly can’t imagine a seven inch mix of it working at all.

Early in 1985 Freur recorded a BBC Radio One “In concert” show which I recorded off the radio. It featured six songs – “Doot doot” and “Riders in the night” from their debut, current single “The devil and darkness” and three new songs. This new material sounded wonderful and it’s interesting to note that Karl introduces “AOKO” by saying “By the time you hear this, this will be our new single” because it wasn’t a single at all. Instead in the Spring of ’85 a small advert appeared in Melody Maker promoting a new Freur single “Look in the back for answers”. I never saw this record in any record shops at the time but did buy the seven inch from a second hand record stall in Jacobs Market in Cardiff about a month after that advert – also bought the first Neu! LP that day too, but that’s another story. Never saw a twelve inch of “Look in the back for answers” ever. Were CBS losing interest in Freur? It looked that way – if records aren’t distributed how can they be bought? Another interesting sleeve focusing on Karl’s stomach as he rips his white shirt open as the sun sets. The a-side was perfect pop but the b-side “Hey ho away we go” again was wonderful.

The 84 / 85 material saw a retreat from flamboyant clothes and music into something more streamlined, more natural in a way – it was as if they’d heard “Love on a farm boy’s wages” and thought it was a great idea to base their image and music on that song. “Hey ho away we go” is a paean to hating being unemployed, sung and played in their new rustic style. It’s very minimal – a drum machine, occasional clipped synth chords, not a lot of actual music but this forces you to listen to the words. Karl wants a job, seeing it as a way out for himself and others. He’d shared his gains too – “If I was a working boy I would buy us all a curry so we could all enjoy living on a workman’s wages”. Meanwhile he’s up the dole and down the labour and awaiting his cheque. He’s seen the jobs on offer – the hangman – but would rather a more pleasant job. He’s jealous of other people making money from music too – “I’ve seen the Factory boys, they make money, they make noise…” – surely a dig at New Order? There’s desperation in the dark humour and it’s a fascinating song. At the end the rabble singing along to the chorus all clap and cheer as someone calls time on the revelry.

After that, everything went quiet. No more releases, no new album. An enormous discography book from late ’85 named a second Freur LP as “Get us out of here!” but I never saw a copy either in a shop or listed in Record Collector. At the end of 1985 Freur appeared on a BBC Wales TV music programme performing two new songs live which were rather fabulous and were never recorded (it’s on a Betamax tape in my attic somewhere). Then Freur were no more. Clearly dropped by CBS they renamed themselves Underworld and became an industrial funk outfit signed to Sire Records and they were more successful in Australia and America than the UK, issuing two LPs “Underneath the radar” and “Change the weather” in the late 80s. Then Underworld faded away too never to be heard from again. I picked up the missing twelve inch singles over the years and hoped that one day I’d find that elusive second album.

It’s just after Christmas 1988, a day or so before New Year, and my family are looking around a second hand record shop in Albany Road in Roath, Cardiff. I flick through the vinyl not expecting to find anything interesting and am surprised to find the “Extended Player” twelve inch EP by Godot – a short lived offshoot of OMD and Dalek I Love You. I’ll have that. Keep flicking keep flicking keep flicking WHAT THE HOLY FUCK! Heart racing I pick the LP out of the rack just to make sure I’m not dreaming. It’s a copy of “Get us out of here!” by Freur! I check the inner sleeve and the label, yes it’s on CBS from the Netherlands and it looks immaculate. And it’s three quid. And it’s mine mine MINE! The LP cover continues the dark theme from the singles – Karl is in a desert praying for deliverance at sunset, on the inner sleeve he’s got his shirt open again. The band look mysterious again in their pictures, and there’s a full set of lyrics again.

“Look in the back for answers” is a song of hope for someone who’s luck is failing, breezy and melodic – minimal verses and glorious choruses. But what the hell is the chorus about? “Dressed for preaching fire at the market”? This rustic thing again. Lots of phasing in the middle eight – nice. A good start. “Emeralds and pearls” is a conventional pop rock song with intimations of betrayal and pain – “I am a victim in the laughter in your eyes”. These songs are more personal than on “Doot doot” and more heartfelt too. “Kiss me” hints at more pain too over a bed of sustained vocal samples and tribal drums- love going awry, love and hate together. “AOKO” could well have been a single, it’s as pop as Freur get and perfectly acceptable. “The devil and darkness”… Why wasn’t this a hit? Maybe because the lyric sheet on the sleeve had to explain the words “mummer” and “snickersnee”. (Mummer – hmm… XTC again…). Songs about regrets after a drunken night don’t get vaguer than this – “Praise to the hop and sing to the vine and everybody here was a friend of mine yesterday”.

Side two heads into darker territory. “The piano song” sounds bright and cheery but Karl Hyde is discussing how he wants to be remembered when he dies. “Happiness” is far from happy – more love going wrong, “Happiness is over now you’re leaving” – and it all gets a little bitter during the second verse. Musically it takes the sequenced propulsion of “Riders in the night” into more personal areas. “Endless Groove” is the closest in style to the first album, lots of strange words (and yes Billy The Fish gets a mention) over a nice rhythm and melody – but the chorus music is ominous and dark, especially in its instrumental coda. “This is the way I’d like to live my life” returns from its b-side status and is a better recording – shakers, string synths, deep bass, a bucolic atmosphere of a childhood half remembered – and more verses and ideas jammed into the song. “Bella Donna” closes the LP as it quietly builds up on dread, Hyde sings like he’s about to die, then the whole band burst into a chorus sung in Italian (or mock Italian probably). It rises and falls beautifully. An excellent closer.

Of course I was bound to be kind to this LP – I’d hunted for it for so long, but it really is a lot better than their debut. The songwriting is much improved and more personal, there’s no mention of lizards or hoovers or steam or sex, Freur had finally arrived at their own style of music and it was great. The fact that it was totally out of touch with chart music doesn’t matter, except to whoever signed them to CBS back in ’83 who was probably sacked around the same time Freur were dropped. Of course Freur disappeared and so did Underworld after two LPs. Only they didn’t – Karl Hyde and Rick Smith developed the band into something new and different in the early Nineties and they are now well known purveyors of dance music. Freur get mentioned occasionally, but not in a positive light. There are fans out there and the internet has helped – I bought a CD-r of all their twelve inch mixes and b-sides a few years ago, there’s a complete concert from the Marquee in late ’83 on Youtube (where it turns out “Bella Donna” was performed with cod Italian lyrics – and what the bloody hell are they wearing?) I even found Freur demo tapes and rarities online while researching this piece – the cassette of “Get us out of here” had five bonus songs mostly from the singles but one song which never appeared anywhere else. Cherry Red reissued “Get us out of here” with “Doot doot” on CD back in 2009 but faded out half the songs to fit them onto one disc. And even Karl Hyde himself performed “Doot doot” at a concert in London’s Union Chapel last year. Some people don’t understand Freur – the review for “Get us out of here” on Allmusic is horrendous – but I loved them and still do.

Next time – who knows?

5 thoughts on “Look at them fall, flicker and fade

  1. I knew Freur! I first saw them at Loughborough Uni on tour with DJ Annie Nightingale. It was Annie I’d gone to see but the band, Freur, got my attention. Poor Annie fell off her little stage and cracked a rib that night and had to be taken to hospital!

    My friend met the band’s manager, Simon and he encouraged us to see the band in London. Which we did. I went several times to see them live at The Marquee on Wardour Street and was privileged to be on their guest list. Audience members included Lemmy from Motorhead, Fish from Marillion, the chaps from Tears For Fears and even Bonnie Tyler. I was at the Radio 1 In Concert recording, can still remember it. I still have my Freur 12 ” singles and their debut album. I was on speaking terms with Karl and Rick and still have a Christmas card from the band. I was on their mailing list and never took much notice when they became Underworld until I went to see Trainspotting and fell in love with Born Slippy. Still love it. Took me a while to make the connection but I was delighted they’d continued and had success! I was so proud when I watched the Olympics Opening Ceremony too.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your piece. Thank you! 🙂

  2. Very nice – I only came to Freur backwards from Underworld, and unlike most fans I dug them a lot. Both those albums are gems.

    I don’t think it will ever happen, but Get Us Out of Here seriously needs a remaster job. Wonderful record with some amazing(ly catchy) songs but man alive does it sound like garbage, full of hiss and weirdly trebly, a far way off from the deeper values of the first LP. They recently put both albums on a 2-fer-1 CD and I held out hope that it would sound better, but sadly it’s basically the same (and a few songs were edited so the entire thing would fit the 80 minute length!)

    Anyway…glad to see someone remember these dudes fondly. I never liked those mk1 records much (though “I Need a Doctor” is still a jam) and I think mk2 UW is one of the greatest groups ever, but Freur have been sadly neglected even though I firmly believe they were one of the better groups of their time. Cheers!!

  3. Ah, Freur. I remember reading my friend’s Melody Maker year end issue and many artists whom I admired [Martyn Ware springs to mind 31 years later] picked “Doot Doot” as one of their singles of 1983. I heard most new UK music via videos on MTV, which certainly beat US commercial radio, but they took a while to get MTV airplay. I never heard them on college radio, which tended to be very trendy where I was, Ze Records one semester, Cali Hardcore another.

    I used to pop in a blank video and tape in the middle of the night to see what I could trawl for and usually saw one or two interesting things when I reviewed the tape later. “Doot Doot” was eventually one of those interesting things! I bought and loved the album, and a year or two later, once saw the “Devil In Darkness” 12″ in the import bins, but a rival beat me to it. Two years after that I heard Underworld MkI and it seemed to be a far tamer prospect than Freur were, so after a friend gave me the promo CD of “Underneath The Radar” I ignored them for a decade.

    A decade in which they rebooted into Underworld MKII and became huge… but I still have not heard Underworld MKII. Some time around 1998 things got so dire [coupled with nostalgia for the berserk brilliance of Freur] that I began to wonder what all of the Underworld MKI records were like and eventually got them, as well as the bits of Freur that clearly had evaded my grasp. I thought that in the diminished present I might like them more than I would have in 1988/89. This certainly was the case.

    I really need to hear the MKII incarnation, since I now feel like I’m missing a vital chapter in the saga. I absolutely loved the first Eno•Hyde album this year and still need the blindingly fast follow up. That must have set some sort of record.

  4. If you ever saw Freur or Underworld at the Marquee in London you would have seen my band supporting. Originally known as GoTo we then changed our name to Y and eventually Yen. Happy days

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