Artist Spotlight: The Psychedelic Furs

The 80’s get a lot of guff: for the fashions; for the hair; for not being the 60’s, or the late 70’s, or the 90’s, or whatever.

But lemme tell ya sonny, the 80’s were a pretty great time for music. Disco and electronic music kept on mutating and innovating and would explode again in the 90’s in new forms; hip-hop kept gathering steam on its rise to worldwide cultural juggernaut.

And the continuing aftershocks of postpunk’s “we don’t know what we’re doing, so let’s try this” novelty-seeking meant that even some less-known rock bands were often making more interesting music than the best-known bands of many other times and scenes.

If you only vaguely remember The Psychedelic Furs, chances are you know them from the version of “Pretty in Pink” that was re-recorded for the film of the same name. Supposedly the (perfect) original recording has (perfectly) out-of-tune guitars, but John Hughes wanted to use the song for a movie idea he had, so the 1986 edition cleans them up.

Strangely, it doesn’t clean up the wildly-inappropriate-for-the-film lyrics, which appear to relate the story of a sexually-promiscuous girl who is likely dead – a suicide? – being mocked en masse by her former lovers, rather than a cute/funny story of a beautiful redhead, her pet nerd, and a handmade prom dress. (A moment’s consideration of the song title should make it obvious that “pink” refers not to apparel, but to apparel’s absence.)

The original version, up top, is from the Furs’ 1981 sophomore recordTalk Talk Talk, of which Glenn McDonald of the sadly-mostly-defunct music blog The War Against Silence wrote:

No album works more feverishly, and unsuccessfully, to deny its own soul-tearing capacity for empathy. “Pretty in Pink” before they defiled it.

Yeah. It’s really, really good. Both it and the self-titled debut might be as close as the early 80’s got to the Velvets (their bandname even recalls “Venus in Furs”), alternating blasphemous drones with bruised tenderness.

Like this more atmospheric song – I sometimes think these are the saddest guitar chords I have ever heard – they sound completely enervated and lost:

The Psychedelic Furs – Imitation of Christ

Richard Butler sang in a hoarse London drawl that walked a highwire between Bowie’s elegant ennui and Rotten’s venomous sneer; like a cigarette rolled with sandpaper. One of my absolute-favorite rock vocalists, he’s a disillusioned romantic presiding over the din, which on the first two records was often composed of thick sheets of corrugated guitar pitted against rusted junkyard saxophone.

The Psychedelic Furs – India

As the album title Talk Talk Talk might indicate, Butler’s abstractly ugly/beautiful lyrics – if they were not quite poetry, they were certainly closer to it, and far sharper*, than pop lyrics usually get – were frequently concerned with the difficulty of true understanding or meaningful connection; with communication signals rendered nonsensical and incomprehensible against the white-noise background of constant media bombardment.

My set it plays
Love songs all day
It sells toothpaste
Razors band-aids
It sells love
And it sells hairspray
Ha ha all day

The Psychedelic Furs, “So Run Down”

Words are all just useless sound
Just like cards they fall around

The Psychedelic Furs, “Sister Europe”

On the surface those words may seem sardonically nihilistic, but there’s a real wounded idealism beneath their corroded façade; a sorrowful protest against the commodification of all human experience. Not for nothing did the punk-influenced Psychedelic Furs include a term in their name that was associated with flower children.

Our dreams have all gone up on sale
On tomorrow’s pages
And we paid for the cross and the nails
On tomorrow’s pages
And we put on our prettiest face,
And we wait for the news that we’ve made

The Psychedelic Furs, “Highwire Days”

In early single “We Love You”, the band lays down a lackadaisical, half-assed chugging groove that’s as stupid as it is catchy, even as it seems to mock the very idea of “trying” or “caring”. Butler acidly spits a litany of all the things that he “loves” (I’m partial to the deadpanned “Frank Sinatra / Fly me to the moon” line), never quite resolving the song’s fundamental ambiguity – I mean, he can’t be totally sarcastic, since he also lists “The Supremes”, “Sophia Loren” and “Brigitte Bardot”, can he?:

The Psychedelic Furs – We Love You

“Mr. Jones” is maybe my favorite number off Talk Talk Talk; I can hear its jittery insistence in postpunk revivalists like Interpol.

So good so far
Slow down ha ha
Movie stars and ads and radio define romance
Don’t turn it on
I don’t want to dance

The Psychedelic Furs, “Mr. Jones”

He may not want to dance, but I can’t help it when I hear this one.

Speaking of “talk talk”, I like the way the dual guitar riffs seem to be answering one another, as the bass and drums barrel forward:

The Psychedelic Furs – Mr. Jones

In the mid-80’s, the Furs lost their way a bit; as did many musicians at the time, they made some questionable sonic and fashion choices that sometimes diminished their previous locomotive power.

The Psychedelic Furs – Into You Like A Train

But before they went off the rails with 1987’s hollow Midnight to Midnight, not even glossy keyboards nor ginormous shoulderpads could wreck well-crafted songs that were often melodically-stronger and more instrumentally-varied than ever, even perversely (for the Furs) embracing near-unalloyed beauty.

“The Ghost In You”, from 1984’s Mirror Moves, is outright ROMANTIC; it’s easily as pretty as any pop song from that decade or most others, with terrific guardedly-optimistic lyrics (love is all of heaven away” in the first verse, but by the last is theoretically attainable at only heaven away”), and a delicately-interlocking melody and counter-melody on the chorus:

The Psychedelic Furs – The Ghost In You

The chorus of “Like A Stranger” has a triumphant trumpet figure that makes me think of the Beatles for some reason – or maybe just 60’s psychedelia – as it brightly contrasts with the melancholic gently-descending line of the vocal. But no matter how sweet the melodies get, that coarse-textured voice is usually enough to keep the songs just on the right side of saccharine.

The second verse also combines what may be my favorite six syllables of enunciated phonemes and imagery in any song lyric ever, as Butler trips down the phrase “snowblind and / sleepwalking” (seriously, roll those words around your mouth a few times, hitting the vowels hard, and you’ll see what I mean):

The Psychedelic Furs – Like A Stranger

But the faux-orchestral (the riff in the verses sounds a little like sawing violins) “Here Come Cowboys” showed the Furs hadn’t completely lost their gift for caustic cynicism – the titular wranglers are casually dismissed as “…no fun at all” – and atonal noise, at least in the discordant scribbly guitar solos:

The Psychedelic Furs – Here Come Cowboys

At the end, the Furs tried to return somewhat to their roots; Book Of Days intermittently recalls the dense rock of the first two records sonically, but lacks hooks.

Final album World Outside, however, has sturdily-melodic tunes that soar nearly as high as anything the band ever did. On the droning, hypnotic “Until She Comes”, the song’s structure actually seems to move, dreamlike, in the same unhurried cyclical sweep described by the words:

The Psychedelic Furs – Until She Comes

The driving “In My Head” has coolly-cinematic lyrics, including one that I love (Butler must have liked it too, since he uses it twice) that perfectly evokes a certain flavor of alienation and loss you’ve no doubt experienced, but can’t quite name – there’s probably a German word for it:

Time is what it’s made –
Made by others, I regret
“Remember me”, I hear it said
Out of faces I forget…

The Psychedelic Furs, “In My Head”

The Psychedelic Furs – In My Head

*Five Butlerian Bon Mots:

I’ve been waiting all night for someone like you, but…you’ll have to do. (“Run and Run”)

He isn’t very honest, but he’s obvious at least. (“Forever Now”)

Get smart; get scared. (“Highwire Days”)

It’s sick, the price of medicine. (“President Gas”)

I don’t believe that I believed in you. (“All That Money Wants”)

Whose voice reliably gets to you, and over what misunderstood, unfairly-dismissed or unjustly-forgotten music do you get indignantly and righteously overprotective?